Stoffa: Are teachers as we know it necessary?

Gabriel Stoffa

Odds are that in your years of education, you had a series of teachers informing you of this rule of grammar or that formula’s importance and other such things.

The rhyme and reason for what was taught has been a stand-by of the scholastic experience for years upon years with slight alterations occurring as technology updates and society becomes more equal.

But what about the people teaching you? What if the challenges some students face wasn’t so much an inability to understand the material but those presenting it?

That isn’t to say your teachers were bad but that the measures many had to follow and the tests and standards by which the classes were run were not as efficient as leaving you to yourself and your peers.

Sugata Mitra, professor of educational technology at Newcastle University, has been pondering those possibilities for two decades, and on Tuesday at the TED2013 Conference, he was rewarded for his curiosity.

Mitra performed an experiment in 1999 called “Hole in the Wall,” where students bereft of actual teaching instructors and supervisors taught themselves and those around them due to their own innate motivation and curiosity to learn and experience knowledge with their peers.

The test itself involved a slum in New Delhi and the digging of a hole in a wall. In the hole, they put a computer with Internet connectivity and a hidden camera to monitor the comings and goings of the hidden computer.

The children, who lacked understanding of computers and even the language, began to learn how to go online and teach each other.

If children can succeed so greatly with nary an instructor in sight, how far could students go if granted the freedom to explore without the oftentimes unnecessary structure and format much of the world’s teaching curriculum subscribes to?

Imagine had you been given the freedom to learn about the world without having to memorize details you found little interest in for exams that hardly tested your skills of comprehension and application.

None of this is to say some form should not be involved. There are a great many subjects and topics that should be brought to the attention of all students so as to have the “best” access to knowledge to benefit them in the future.

Not all students, or even many, will naturally find interest in all the basic knowledge that tends to be necessary for further learning. That in mind, some oversight, though at almost a minimum, is necessary to assist the learning process.

And none of this is to say fine instructors with their wealth of knowledge should be cast aside to allow absolute freedom from discipline. When a positive resource is available, such as the access to knowledge from instructors of merit in the United States, it is a shame to not utilize them.

For years, people have bemoaned the U.S. educational system, be they teachers or parents or politicians. Each has their own reason for disliking particular elements of the methods for instruction and with each difference comes arguments as to how to fix one or the other.

The problem being, with everyone blaming one thing or the other when all complaints are laid out in a line, it looks like everything could be wrong, and hence, little change is actually undertaken.

The information gained so far from Mitra’s work does give some reasonable ground for experimentation. Maybe some testing into altering classrooms for children could prove to be worthwhile for students in America.

And if those tests prove to have merit, maybe testing could be continued with older students and so on up the chain.

Colleges would be unlikely to be able to use the methods, given the specialized training colleges are to provide and the already fairly high degree of freedom to learn that is a fundamental of college.

But, having students better prepared for college-level learning in years to come, be that through the actual knowledge or the comfort of working more by oneself, could be a monumental boon.

For those currently learning or old enough to be set in their ways, none of Mitra’s findings are likely to be directly helpful. With time, though, you might have children and want to give them the best experience possible.

Why not put a little thought into those things now so as to begin giving your potential progeny a wider array of options to craft a life better than yours?


Gabriel Stoffa is a graduate student in political science from Ottumwa, Iowa.