How Curiosity And Self-Direction Can Revolutionize Learning

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 But it isn’t so effective in a world that is changing every day, a world in which textbooks are out of date as soon as they are printed and the amount of data being churned out increases exponentially every day.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 In yesterday’s talk, Mitra said, “Knowledge is obsolete.”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?

3 comments about "How Curiosity And Self-Direction Can Revolutionize Learning".
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  1. Rick Monihan from None, March 1, 2013 at 3:19 p.m.

    I believe the truth lies somewhere in between Mitra's findings, and your friend's musings.
    If we were to leave children to find their own way, the likelihood is that gaps in the system (already quite large with the current education model) would possibly become larger than they already are. Any parent is aware of the amount of direction a child needs in order to learn. Focus and discipline are not things that are picked up easily at a young age. These require a degree of leadership and knowledge. At some point, it is quite possible to 'release them to the wild' and let them acquire knowledge based on their interests or needs. What you're really referring to is a return to what drove the U.S. to the top of the economic ladder - individual initiative. I would argue that the current public school system has done much to socialize learning, but it has created a tremendous amount of sclerosis and even stasis in the world of education. We spend more time worrying about our educators and how they are paid than our children and how they learn. Yet, for most of the U.S.'s existence, we had no public school systems and our greatest industrial leaders (and some political leaders) were self-taught. Today, it's hard to see us going back to that model, and I would argue we most likely shouldn't, at least not completely. I don't see what twelve years of state funded education does for the kid who is more interested in car engines and will ultimately start his own garage. I had several of these people in my (private) high school. Where my college education has worked for me, and I have continued on past that, they look back at 4 years of high school as lost time when they could have been working in a garage. Today, with technology, this is more true than when I was younger. I believe it is useful to have structured education for children up to a certain age - let's say about 12 to 14 - and then it would be possible 'open the doors' and allow them to learn based on what interests them. The need to keep some schools which follow a standard curriculum would remain - many people would like to still have this. The world needs all kinds of people, and all kinds of people have different ways of learning what they need or want to learn.

  2. Casey Fitzsimmons from iProspect, March 1, 2013 at 3:57 p.m.

    I love this concept- but it requires a total mind shift for most adults. It's something we try to teach/train with mixed success. Thanks for the article!

  3. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, March 1, 2013 at 4:01 p.m.

    Wait, wait, wait, wait.......boom ! Wait, did someone get bored between the second and third wait and miss the boom. Was the boom worth the wait ? Is there an absolute ? The skill we learned to memorize...poems...helps to give us a skill to retain other information. Reference points: All of those stories, history with dates of importance and influences of that importance, the language skills that teach how to think, required reading one uses later, stupid venn diagrams and no doubt everyone can add to this list. Kaila, you do this justice.

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