Two years ago, Sugata Mitra shared an amazing story at the TED conference. Back in 1999, wanting to see how kids who had never been exposed to computers would respond to them, Mitra put one in a hole in the wall in Delhi, turned it on, and left it there. The results were extraordinary. Eight-year-olds started teaching six-year-olds how to browse the Internet. Four hours after seeing a computer for the first time, another group of kids figured out how to record their own music and play it back to each other.
The outcomes were similar when Mitra upped the ante. In 2002, he left a computer equipped with speech-to-text functionality with some children; within two months they were speaking English with a British accent so that the computer could understand them.
Mitra’s method has worked in cities and rural countrysides. It works with kids who speak no English at all, even when the information on the computer is exclusively in English. And it has revealed to Mitra the incredible power of self-directed learning, of creating an environment where kids are given the tools to explore and the space to do so.
Yesterday, Mitra was announced as the recipient of this year’s TED Prize: a million dollars to continue his work and take it further. In his acceptance speech, he made the point that the education system isn’t broken; it’s just not current anymore. When it was created, it responded perfectly to the needs of the central rulers of a far-flung empire, one that required students to emerge identically from an educational conveyor belt. But it isn’t so effective in a world that is changing every day, a world in which textbooks are out of date as soon as they are printed and the amount of data being churned out increases exponentially every day. It has always been impossible to know everything there is to know, but it has never been easier to find things out. In yesterday’s talk, Mitra said, “Knowledge is obsolete.”
Following Mitra’s talk, I sat down with a friend, a wonderful thinker. He was unimpressed by the provocation. It’s glib, he suggested, and inaccurate. All that info you can “just look up” online? Someone has to know it and publish it. Perhaps you don’t need to memorize basic data, but if you have no knowledge how can you possibly assess, interpret, and analyze the things you read online?
Fair enough, but even my friend’s point demonstrates the shift: anyone can acquire knowledge, but work that lives on the edge of possibility requires the ability to synthesize it. Another friend describes it as the shift from data to knowledge to wisdom. In a world where data is everywhere and knowledge is frequently only a few clicks away, wisdom becomes the true value-add.
A few weeks ago, I attended an unconference, an event with no pre-set agenda, with sessions offered and organized on arrival by the attendees themselves. The only rule at one of these conferences is the Rule of Two Feet: if you’re not enjoying a session, leave. If you’re the one running it and you’re not digging it, change it, hand it over, or end it: you are entirely accountable for your own experience.
This idea, that you have the power to attend what you want to attend, to leave when you want to leave, and to learn what you want to learn, removes our ability to make others responsible for the quality of our experience. And as soon as others stop being responsible for the quality of our experience, something amazing happens to our own behavior: we stop waiting. We stop waiting for the conference organizers to impress us. We stop waiting for teachers to impart their data to us. We become hunters of experience, of knowledge, of wisdom.
The beauty of self-directed learning is that it makes learners accountable for their own experience; it demands that they make their own choices every step of the way. Mitra’s kids don’t just have to figure out the answer, they have to figure out how to figure it out. And that skill is not only transferable but also transformational.
When we expect others to give us the answers, it is easy to get stuck waiting. But when we spend all our time hunting experience, knowledge, and wisdom, all doors are open to us. How do you spend your time?