Is knowing obsolete?

TED Prize winner Sugata Mitra is reframing the way we think about learning

Sugata-Mitra-and-questioningA couple of months ago, I stumbled across the work of Dr. Sugata Mitra, who has, for years, been conducting very interesting learning experiments in India. Perhaps you’ve heard his story of the “hole-in-the-wall computer,” which got some attention about a decade ago. Dr. Mitra wanted to see what would happen if he installed an Internet-connected computer at kid’s-eye level in a wall that faced out onto the street of a New Delhi slum. He encouraged young, uneducated children in the neighborhood to play with the computer, but didn’t teach them how to use it. Before long they’d taught themselves (and their friends) how to surf the Web, play games, and even, eventually, solve complex problems that Dr. Mitra served up to them.

Children at the hole-in-the-wall

Children gathered around a hole-in-the-wall

I tracked down Dr. Mitra at a university in England, and wrote to him to see if he wanted to be in my book—I’m very interested in research that shows kids learn best when they are asking their own questions (How does this work? What does this mean?) instead of answering someone else’s questions. I didn’t hear anything for a while. Then recently, Dr. Mitra wrote back and referred me to a colleague of his, apologetically explaining that he was simply too busy to do an interview. I soon learned why: Last month Dr. Mitra was awarded the TED Prize, a $1 million prize given annually to an exceptional individual and his “one bold wish for the world.” The short version of Dr. Mitra’s wish: “Help me build a school in the cloud, where children can explore and learn from one another.”

This means that with the backing of the TED community’s resources and volunteer participation by those who want to get involved in his newest experiment, Dr. Mitra is now attempting to build places where children can explore and learn on their own—and teach one another—using resources from the worldwide cloud.

To find out more, check out Dr. Mitra’s funny and inspiring 2013 TED speech here:

His speech, which declares “we need a curriculum of big questions,” is full of beautiful questions, including:

Is knowing obsolete?”

Dr. Mitra says that particular question was framed for him by Nicolas Negroponte, former head of MIT Media Lab. It’s an idea that is central to my Beautiful Question book: That in a world where everything is in flux, static knowledge begins lose value. We must constantly update, change, replace, or adapt whatever knowledge we have. That means we must keep learning—and keep questioning everything.

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