Friday, 25th April 2014

The Grade II-listed building that houses Sugata Mitra’s office at the University of Newcastle once served as a medical school, and a hospital-like atmosphere still lingers, all squeaky floors and long corridors. As I knock on his office door, I realise that I have a sense of trepidation not unlike a visit to the doctor, a feeling that I attribute to the fact that a lot seems to rest on this interview. In reality, though, it doesn’t. If anything, the furore following his IATEFL plenary has calmed down, partly due to the catharsis brought about by the wave of passionate blog posts and heated comments, partly due to the follow-up webinar in which he was given the chance to respond to some of the criticisms levelled at him.

So as I enter the office, I’m preoccupied with the idea that there’s not much point to an interview at this stage; that we’ve left it about a week too late. But, as we speak, it’s clear that there is a point to this after all. It’s partly that he speaks extremely candidly – sometimes shockingly so – about some of the things that have most enraged EFL teachers since IATEFL (you can find most of those in 4. The Neoliberal Question below). But it’s mostly because our conversation clarifies for me some of the big questions that have come up since his talk. I’m left with a sense that this gives us a chance to move forward by discussing those questions in their own right, not as part of the fallout from one explosive plenary.

What follows is the interview in its entirety broken down into broadly thematic sections, interspersed with what I think those big questions are. Some of you may want to discuss them in the comments; others may form blog posts in themselves, either here or in other corners of the Web. But whatever happens, we should remember that these are important questions, questions that we owe ourselves as a community to try and answer.

1. The Road To Newcastle

The first things that hit you about Sugata Mitra are that he’s disarmingly charming and at times very funny. He’s also smart. Really smart. This all comes across in his talks, too, but it’s even more apparent face-to-face. It’s part of his success, of course, part of the reason why he’s been able to spread his message so widely. It’s also something to which some people have reacted badly. Hugh Dellar has labelled him a snake oil salesman and a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Those are harsh criticisms, but the fact is that he is a salesman, and he’s effective because he absolutely believes in what he’s doing. His style is straight out of the Simon Sinek playbook, and it goes a long way to explaining why he’s had the success he has in spreading his ideas.

I was keen to find out more about how he’d ended up where he is now; I also wanted us both to have a chance to warm up before moving onto the bigger topics of discussion. But he said one thing right at the start which will be like a red flag to the anti-Mitra bulls. When describing how he ended up becoming a teacher, he describes his motivations as

How to make money. … How to make money doing the least amount of work as possible.

There it is in black and white: the root of the whole problem. From those early days would come a quest for economic efficiency straight out of the neoliberal manual for the automation of labour, and the root of the eventual demise of teaching as a profession. But it’s a little facile to read too much into it, isn’t it? What’s more, I agreed with him, as you can hear in the video. And I think many other people would agree, too. Who wants to work inefficiently? Who wants to work more than they have to? Do teachers? Do we feel that it’s the teacher’s lot to work too hard? Do we have some kind of martyr complex? Is that why some people can’t even start to entertain the thought that our role might end up different (or diminished)?

2. East vs. West

Would I find any clues as to why Sugata Mitra feels the way he does about education in his own educational history? Not really. This isn’t the story of one man’s struggle to right the wrongs brought about him by an imperfect system. He seems perfectly happy with the education he received. He goes so far as to say that it was ‘as close to a perfect model’. Yet he’s intensely focused on replacing that model with something else.

What I’d hoped to get here was some sense of just how bad the conditions in a place needed to be in order for the possibility of ever getting a teacher there to be ruled out. This seemed to be a state of affairs that some detractors just couldn’t accept (or, rather, couldn’t accept that we should accept). He didn’t really paint that picture, and his answers here feel a little like talking points, because this is his main talking point: he feels that the way many children are taught is fundamentally flawed, regardless of whether it’s happening in New Delhi or Newcastle. At ELTjam, we’ve talked in the past about the evangelism that characterises much of the debate about the role of technology in education, and you can see that here: the system is broken; tear it down and start again. But the question that we haven’t really discussed since his plenary is obvious: What if the system is actually broken? What then?

For fans of foreshadowing, notice how the significance of Eastern and Western contexts and perspectives feature in his answers here. This comes up again later in an interesting way (see 4. The Neoliberal Question and 5. A Theory About English Language Teachers below).

3. Better Than Nothing

If you had to draw battle lines within the intra-ELT debate since the IATEFL plenary, one would be between those who think that his solutions are sometimes better than nothing, and those who just can’t accept that possibility; that to do so would be some kind of betrayal or an acceptance of an injust, two-tier system. This was especially apparent during the post-IATEFL webinar, where there was at times a sense of incredulity that we could have given up so easily. Did Sugata Mitra address that criticism here? Not really. There’s an acknowledgement that the idea of trying to put teachers into places where they currently aren’t is ‘very logical’, but he’s clear in his belief that in some instances it is simply not possible. Which poses two questions: are those who agree with him simply giving up too easily? Or are those who don’t simply too idealistic (or, maybe, naive)?

4. The Neoliberal Question

For the benefit of those who think that Sugata Mitra is part of the neoliberal conspiracy to corporatise and globalise education, I’ve taken the liberty of pulling out some of the choicest quotes from this section and displaying them without context, as that’s what’s likely to happen in blog comments and on Twitter anyway:

[Of the profession of a postman] It’s still there, but what for? It’s a job that can be done by a drone. It’s a job that needn’t be done at all.

Why would education be considered that one special subject where this [challenging how things are done because the times are changing] doesn’t apply? The teacher can never be replaced by a machine. The school can never disappear.

As long as they [the private sector] are providing you the goods and services that you think you’re paying the right amount for, why should I make any value judgement about whether it’s private or government?

I don’t see why replacement of human beings with machines should be considered as negative.

[Of hand-pulled rickshaw drivers] Would it be unkind to replace them with a machine?

[About teachers] Are they making this underlying, unspoken assumption: we’re really good for nothing else other than what we do, and how dare anybody try to replace that with a machine?

But here’s the one question that I doubt many people will quote, and it’s potentially the most interesting one when it comes to the whole idea of if/when/how teachers will / might / should never be allowed to be replaced:

Are we not allowed to ask?

(If you’re following the earlier foreshadowing, you’ll notice here a mention of ‘Western shortsightedness’. This is about to come up again …)

5. A Theory About English Language Teachers

What many people will take from this section are some rather blunt  – and, some will argue outrageous, others justifiable – pronouncements about the world of ELT. Is ELT ‘a racket’? It certainly is in some places. Are many ELT teachers insecure? I certainly know a few. But, for me, what’s really interesting here are his reflections on how the room was split after his plenary. In the pro camp: non-native teachers of English from around the world; in the anti camp: native speakers from Britain. Is this another battle line in the debate – East vs. West? Have Western, native-speaker teachers broadly reacted one way and teachers from other parts of the world another? If so, what does that say about our community? Are we divided? And what does that say about how the profession is likely to develop in the future?

(One mea culpa here: I do wish I’d challenged Sugata Mitra more during this section, but time was running out, and there were other areas to cover …)

6. On Evidence

[NB: The edit that occurs partway through this clip was due to the lights going off; no part of the interview dialogue was cut.]

The role of evidence was certainly a theme during IATEFL. One thing that I found fascinating was how well Russ Mayne’s talk on pseudo-science was received, precisely because it was about the importance of evidence. Yet when an academic like Sugata Mitra gives a talk based on years of research studies, he’s accused of presenting only anecdotal evidence. So do we have an evidence problem in ELT? And, if so, what do we do about it?

7. The Edge of Chaos

And that’s where we left it. From our conversation, I, at least, did get something of a clearer sense of what makes Sugata Mitra tick: a belief that we’ve let control go too far; that if we can loosen that control, learning will happen, and it will happen in a better way; and that, in some cases, the way to relinquish that control might be to get rid of the teacher altogether. He talks about things that make some teachers profoundly uncomfortable and often angry, but from that discomfort and anger comes one final question: If what he proposes isn’t the future, then what is? And, more importantly, which of you is going to make it happen?


  1. Thank you, Sugata, for answering the concern I made – and I think your answer demonstrates a little bit of a gulf here – because the world of EFL is much much bigger than tits teaching in India. And also because that attitude of linguistic/national/ethnic identity has shifted dramatically in the last 50 years. Braj Kachru’s 1983 description of who speaks English (of Inner circle = UK etc and outer circle = India etc) countries has been superseded by the rapid growth of English speakers. Native speakers (a term that is increasingly inappropriate and irrelevant in the case of English, especially) are only a tiny minority in the global community of English users and that has a profound effect on who can teach it. One of the implications of this is that teachers of English as a foreign language around the world are overwhelmingly people who did not have it as a mother tongue. Even in private language schools in the UK and the USA for example, many teachers of EFL have English as a second or additional language to the one they grew up in. In Brazil (where I have just returned from) there are remarkably few ‘native speakers’ working in a thriving industry.

    It is true that when I started in this field at the age of 24 (many many years ago, unfortunately) there was a belief among us that our Britishness made us ideal teachers, and when he was prime minister Gordon brown talked of English as ‘out language’ and wondered how to export it. But people of my generation were wrong then and so was Gordon brown, more recently. English is a language of no country and increasingly has no native speakers (unless we talk historically).

    That’s why I was worried about your theory – which was an attempt to understand your critics in Harrogate. You were addressing a multinational, multiethnic group of committed professionals who know their craft.

    For the record, the only person I would want to teach me Hindi is someone who (a) speaks the language well, and (b) knows a lot of about language teaching pedagogy.

    Does that make any sense?


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