When TED first started awarding an annual cash prize back in 2005, the winner was the world-famous singer turned activist Bono. His award was $300,000 which went to benefit his nascent ONE organization in its fight to eradicate poverty. (TED was also instrumental in helping him get the url ONE.org, which had already been taken by someone else.)
$300,000 was probably a drop in Bono’s bucket. But this year, the winner of the TED prize will be getting $1 million. And he will likely be able to do quite a lot with it. He is a professor and educator named Sugata Mitra, famous for having put a computer in a hole in a wall in a slum in India and discovering that, left alone, children can teach themselves an amazing amount, starting with technical literacy. “In nine months a child left alone with a computer would reach the same standard as an office professional in the West,” he said in his TED talk last night after accepting the prize.
Mitra, now a professor at Newcastle University, became a proponent of what he coined Self-Organized Learning Environments (SOLEs) which capitalize on children’s innate curiosity and ability to learn a variety of subjects in a group setting from a computer. He doesn’t dispense with adults altogether though. He has experimented with many types of SOLEs and plans to use the TED prize to build a so-called School in the Cloud overseen by a global network of retired teachers who Skype into “classrooms” all over the world but especially in the most remote and underserved areas. “The role of the mediator is to ask the right questions and listen to the children bragging about what they did,” Mitra says. (He calls this the “Granny” method of teaching, as opposed to the more authoritarian model of direct instruction and testing. His approach is similar in philosophy to other “child-driven” methods such as the one espoused by Maria Montessori.)
Mitra has also created a toolkit for bringing self-organized learning environments into your own community, downloadable here. “The model is you have eight children and one computer. Not one computer per child,” he says. And although he seems to advocate a very hands-off approach to teaching, he did say that his method would be supplemental to traditional schooling, not a replacement. “There are going to be 10 different ways to teach the next generation. I have touched the tip of the iceberg of one.”