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Sugata Mitra and Minimally Invasive Education – Confirmation for HomeSchool and UnSchooling Proponents

Roughly nine years ago, Professor Sugata Mitra and a few of his colleagues designed one of the most creative and innovative studies of technology education the civilized world has ever seen. The researchers created a hole in a wall in a New Delhi slum, filled the hole with an Internet-connected PC, then set up a camera to record what villagers would do once they became aware of the PC.

The camera recorded children from the slum first examining, then exploring and playing with the computer. To the astonishment of many, including Mitra, the children, without so much as any adult instruction, began learning how to use the computer to get online. Later, those children in turn began teaching others what they had learned.

Hole in the

Many Competencies Were Obtained

According to Mitra, without any instruction, these underprivileged children were able to achieve a fundamental level of computer literacy. In his follow up work, Mitra determined that the children, ages 5-16, had little if any prior formal schooling and could not speak English.

The youngsters were able to glean a great deal of the information by instructing themselves and by seeking help from peers when needed. They learned the basic fundamentals for online browsing and for using the computer to draw within the first few days of the machine’s availability.

Mitra determined that MS Paint was the drawing program most used and Internet Explorer served as the most-used browser. Later, by the end of the first month, some children were able to cut and paste, move and resize windows, and use MS Word to create short messages. Amazingly, they were able to do so without access to a keyboard.

Mitra recorded children forming impromptu groups that would teach one another. As they did so, the children invented their very own vocabulary to define words for using the computer (“sui,” the word for needle, was chosen for the cursor, and “kaam kar raha hai,” the phrase meaning its working was used whenever the hourglass symbol appeared).

Mitra also determined the younger children were the ones most often able to teach themselves new steps. But as opposed to the oft-termed phrase, learning by doing, Mitra found that many of the children learned simply by observing the actions of their peers.

Hole in the Wall.comWhile children were intrigued and drawn to the kiosk, no adults, men or women, made any attempt to learn or use the learning station. However, Mitra came away with the understanding that the parents of the children thought the kiosk was very good for the youngsters, even as they, the parents, remained convinced they could not learn how to use the station nor was it necessary for them to do so.

Fresh Insight as to How Children Learn
Over the next several years, Mitra and his colleagues repeated the experiment in other parts of India. In what has to be seen as a contradiction to the assumption that all children need formal schooling, Mitra replicated his experiment in both urban and rural settings, each time obtaining similar results.

Mitra’s “Hole in the Wall” experiment revealed that even without the direct input of a teacher, if there is an environment that stimulates curiosity, then it is possible for children to self-instruct and share pertinent knowledge. Because of its fundamental structure, Mitra dubbed the entire process “minimally invasive education.”

Nicholas Negroponte of MIT referred to the learning station created under the Hole-in-the-Wall concept as a form of ‘Shared Blackboard.’ The unique learning station provided children in underprivileged communities collective ownership and access, along with an opportunity for children “to express themselves, to learn, to explore together, and at some stage to even brainstorm and come up with exciting ideas.”

On the Hole-in-the-Wall web site itself is yet another apt comparison for the learning station. There the kiosk is referred to as a village “Well” where children “assemble to draw knowledge and, in the process, engage in meaningful conversation and immersive learning activities that broaden their horizons.”

Ultimately, Mitra’s “Hole in the Wall” experiments demonstrated that children could teach themselves and each other provided they were motivated by curiosity and peer interest. Perhaps the greatest surprise to many was that such learning could take place without direct adult supervision or formal teaching.

Hole in the

HomeSchooling and Unschooling Proponents
The work of Mitra reinforces why both homeschooling and unschooling have been gaining support in recent years here in America. In its simplest sense, both of these forms of schooling mimic the fundamental tenets of Mitra’s minimally invasive education.

For the children involved in the Hole-in-the-Wall project, the learning station is simply “an extension of their playground where they can play together, teach each other new things, and more importantly, just be themselves.” Homeschooling parents and proponents of unschooling understand the power of an open setting for learning. They also understand the critical components that are fundamental to Mitra’s minimally invasive education.

However, no matter what term is used, homeschooling, unschooling or minimally invasive education, it is clear that a formal school structure is not necessary for one to tap into a child’s natural curiosity and use that innate inquisitiveness to stimulate learning.

The open-ended exploration of the learning station actually taught children how to learn, problem solve and think critically, doing so in an ongoing manner. Educators of all types, in both formal and informal learning environments, should take careful note of the lessons within the Hole-in-the-Wall project.

Incorporating Minimally Invasive Learning
When it comes to incorporating the concept of minimally invasive education, educators need to realize that no one is advocating a free-for-all. To best get a sense of how one might incorporate the findings of Mitra to any educational setting, we turn to the summary words of Rodd Lucier at The Clever Sheep.

In sharing the wisdom of minimally invasive educational theory, Lucier writes:

“Far be it for me to suggest that we abandon teaching and leave students to their own devices. Rather, let’s be minimally invasive in allowing the learning to happen, but maximally invasive in ensuring that the problems we present to learners are relevant, compelling and appetizing.”

Sugata Mitra at

1 comment

1 Blank Xavier { 09.11.08 at 4:03 pm }

Which leads one to the question – in adult supervised teaching environments, how much of the teaching is occurring and would occur anyway without the adult teacher being present?

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