Why we should be afraid of the big bad wolf: Sugata Mitra and the neoliberal takeover in sheep’s clothing

The proliferation of blog posts that have followed in the wake of Sugata Mitra’s keynote speech at IATEFL Harrogate last Saturday morning is almost as remarkable as the fact that such a controversial figure was given the opportunity to deliver his barely concealed sales pitch to such a large and captive audience without having to submit to the usual plenary speaker protocol of then facing a more rigorous Q&A session. Even more astounding, though, was the ecstatic outpouring that greeted the end of Mitra’s talk: the mobbing, the autograph hunting, the eulogies. Which part of his message were people not getting, I fretted to myself? The answer, it seems on reflection, was pretty much all of it.

I had the dubious pleasure of following Mitra into the stage for my own talk, and as the room emptied out while I waited to begin, I decided I had to start with some kind of immediate response. This moment of raw anger can be witnessed here. What I now hope to achieve in my own de rigueur response is a clarification of my main concerns – and to persuade you that Mitra is the neoliberal agenda of a reduced state role usurped by big business incarnated in cuddly and charismatic sheep’s clothes.

First things first, though. It’d be churlish to deny that Mitra is a brilliant speaker. He wove a highly seductive narrative in such an unassuming manner that the very people he was so consistently denigrating felt compelled to applaud him. He was, lest any of you need reminding, the winner of the 2013 TED prize of $1 million and this celebrity alone seems guaranteed to ensure that many in attendance last weekend were primed to experience him in accordance with the hype that has surrounded him. The lexis almost comes pre-fabricated: inspiring, visionary, game-changing and so on.

Three days before, David Graddol in his plenary suggested we should always follow the money, and doing so would, I’m absolutely convinced, lead us to who really stands to benefit from Mitra’s vision: hi-tech companies, Neo-Cons, Silicon Valley tech heads with an inbuilt disdain for teachers and governments keen to justify cuts and pulling out of the tricky business of trying to actively care for the neediest in their societies. Mitra has risen to fame not because he challenges the status quo, but because he chimes with the agenda of both state and private sectors in the current post-crisis climate.

Before any of you reach for lazy kneejerk accusations of my assumed anti-tech bias, I should clarify that I attended almost every Ed-Tech related event at the Yorkshire conference, returned home with three tech-related projects penciled in to my next year’s schedules and generally found the audience reaction to most sessions positive and engaged. Not so with Mitra.

And here are four key reasons why.

(1)        He’s a snake-oil seller.

If anyone else tried to persuade those of us who spend our lives trying to help students learn a language that it really is possible to set kids a simple task that involves using a computer and that through doing this, they’ll somehow manage to teach themselves English, we’d would snort in derision and give them a wide birth. The fact that Mitra sees fit to make such anecdotal claims – without specifying what level of English they supposedly reached, how this was tested, what a control group of similar kids studying a similar period with an actual teacher might have achieved and so on – clearly places him into the realm of magic bullet fantasists and undermines trust in much of the rest of his pseudo-research-based claims.

(2)        He believes that knowledge is obsolete.

Whilst this may have some resonance with anyone who’s ever relied on Google to find out what the best fish and chip shop in Lincoln is or what the function of eyelashes are, when it comes to linguistic competence, it’s patently nonsense. Speaking a foreign language well involves the acquisition over time of incredible amounts of interwoven knowledge, it involves being primed to a phenomenal degree and it cannot happen simply by using search engines, no matter how targeted your questions.

(3)        He holds teachers in contempt

There were throwaway jokes made during his talk about finding schools without teachers and realizing this may be an advantage that some took too seriously. However, the notion of the Granny Cloud – also known as free labour by unqualified amateurs – offering encouragement and native-speaker pronunciation models as a suitable replacement even for what Mitra might deem bad teaching is so profoundly insulting that it beggars belief teachers weren’t walking out in disgust. Before we even factor in the social development, the human bonds, the extra-curricular learning that happens in the social arena of the classroom, there’s the language-focused work we all do: the grading of input, the explaining, the interacting, the listening, the correction, the encouraging of noticing, the revising and recycling, the intervention.

(4)        He’s pushing for the state to pull out so he and his kind can move in

And ultimately this is the bottom line. Mitra’s whole ideology is predicated on the idea that the state has failed and is absent and that this is a problem best solved by abnegating responsibilities to the poorest among us, thus allowing private enterprises to supposedly do better. As anyone who’s watching the slow deconstruction of the NHS will be aware, it’s easy to take complex things apart. Who will be able to put them back together again when it turns out that the sales pitch made claims that failed to live up the hype, when rather than organizing SOLEs teenage kids simply play games and watch porn as soon as the assessor / guide has vanished off and when the under-paid, under-funded and under-supported teachers demoralized even further by the widespread acceptance of such rhetoric as Mitra’s quit and seek employment that society holds in higher esteem?

Resistance begins with each and every one of us.

117 thoughts on “Why we should be afraid of the big bad wolf: Sugata Mitra and the neoliberal takeover in sheep’s clothing”

  1. Hugh, thanks for this. I wasn’t at IATEFL but I know where Mitra is trying to corral us and it’s good to read a well-structured voice of dissent.
    Let’s hope that star-struck teachers, having recovered their ‘normality’, are then able to see the snake-oil for what it is.

    • Hi Steve –
      Thanks for the feedback.
      The obvious downside of penning a relatively heat-of-the-moment piece on such a hot potato is I’m clearly going to be spending much of the next couple of weeks dealing with the responses to it! So it goes.
      Anyway, glad it struck chords with you – and I do hope you’re right that it may at least diminish the degree to whcih the odd teacher is starstruck by such celebrity visitations, irrespective – or in fact DESPITE – content.

      • Hi Hugh,
        I wasn’t at IATEFL so I can’t comment with regard to his talk. However I do welcome what seems to me to be the key point in his approach – that for too long language has been taught in terms of what is easy to teach, not what is easy to learn.

        The emotional factor of feeling threatened is clear – and if Mitra has no respect for teachers, then I have none for him. But it would be churlish to ignore language teaching’s greatest failure – the high % of students who decide as beginners that it is ‘not for them’, and drop out.

        We believe that a new emphasis on motivation and creativity is the key to driving the elephant out of the room.

        Language is the most creative thing that human beings do. Why then, should the framework for acquiring it in school be the same as that for learning history or geography, a succession of facts and tests? If stats show that ‘purple’ is the 5000th most common word in English, what is it doing in a beginner’s book alongside red and blue?

        I would welcome the chance to talk more about some of these ideas with you and any colleagues. We all want the same thing – happier students learning faster.

  2. The trend has nothing to do with Sugata Mitra.
    And Sugata Mitra’s talk had nothing to do with technology 🙂
    It’s not for the technology but for the availability of resources for independent learning and problem solving.
    The humans are entering that new level of acquiring knowledge.
    With or without Mitra. With or without teachers.

    You – the teachers – have done a great job. Now, it’s the next stage.

    • “The availability of resources for independent problem solving” have always been with us, Aleksandar. They used to be called books. The existence of libraries did not suddenly make schools redundant. Nor did the set of Encyclopedia Britannica that my parents invested in obviate the need for me to go to school.

      Great post, btw, Hugh. Your characteristically bombastic soap-box style has at last found a worthy target.

      • Hi Scott –
        Well, I’m glad you enjoy my writing more than you seemed to when it was directed at Dogme (:-)), but perhaps less keen to be labelled as bombastic. Can’t have everything, I suppose.

        Pleased to see this is an area we can meet on, though, as of course it should be,
        Luke texted me after the plenary saying that whilst we can argue about approaches to teaching, materials and learning till the cows t=come home, every single one of us on the field beleives in learning being located in culture and community. Mitra, it would seem to be, does not. Or if he does, it’s a very peculiar vision of what these ntoions might involve.

      • This is wrong on so many levels Aleksandar, it’s hard to know where to begin.
        The existence and availability of books has obviously NOT always provoked the autonomous acquisition of learning, Many people have had to be dragged kickiong and screaming through books in pursuit of learning; many others have chosen to stay within limited comfort zones and learn little beyond what they’ve learned already, whilst others still have avoided books altogether.
        The same will be true of computer-based learning.
        You’re delusional if you really beleive that the fact that knowledge IS avilable on the Web means the problems of learning are solved. Left to our own devices, the vst majority of us learn little outside of what we have to.
        Finally, as I hinted at earlier, learning a language is NOT about simply absorbing a ‘profusion of facts’!
        Oh that it were.
        Life would be so much easier for so many.
        It’s about meeting language you have a chance of understaning, understanding it in the context its met in, noticing certain features of it, having the chnce to practise using what you’be noticed, then revising / recycling / being tested on all of this – before repeating ad infinitum.
        This is way beyonf ‘facts’ – and still remains best facilitated by an experienced classroom practitioner.
        Which isn’t to say there can’t be all manner of ways in which technology can be retooled to start doing more of this work. Just that none of these ways are things Mitra seems remotely interested in.

      • Indeed.

        The cynic in me feels compelled to ask why it is, if self-directed learning really is the way forward and trumps guidance from a parent or teacher, privately-educated kids around the world are still being sent – at vast expense – to expert tutors who attempt such out-of-date and irrelvant activities in a presumably failed bid to boost their exam results, future employability and so on.

    • Hi Aleksandar –
      I know a few other people have picked up on your comments below, but I thought I’d tackle them myself a little bit as well.

      Firstly, I’m not sure what you’re actually referring to when you talk about ‘the trend’ or why it is you claim that whatever trend you mean has nothing to do wth Mitra. Or indeed why you think Mitra has nothing to do with technology. Given that, it’s quite hard to really frame much of a response, though the latter statement is clearly nonsensical, given that most of Mitra’s oush these days is towards cloud-based and computer-based solutionisim.

      I’m all for the availability of resources for independent learning and problem solving, and as others have noted, these have been around a long long time. In fact, in terms of learning English as a foreign language, most of the best ones still exist primarily in the physical paper-based world. I mean, I’ve yet to see any online vocab material that cmes close to something like ENGLISH VOCABULARY ORGANISER, for example. All of this, though, is off the point, as Mitra is uninterested in such matters. He seems to have no interest in language learning materials – and no knowledge of them. Instead, he simply seems to be claiming that doing his own cunningly crafted web quests, kids just lern English anyway, a claim which is so ridiculous as to discredit, in my eyes at least, much of the rest of what he says.

      Next, while humans obviousl are entering all manner of new areans of information access, there’s still a whole ton of stuff computers cannot tell us, but good teachers, who’ve spent their lives at the chalkface talking to learners, can. There are countless examples I could give, but to give just one, a teacher can lisen to what a stuent is trying to say and rephrase it into better English. Google can’t – and Mitra has no concern in doing so.

      Given this, I think you might be slightly premature in thanking us all for our good work and signing off on our redundancy notices. As I said, Mitra’s schpiel is a sales pitch. You seem to have swallowed the bait and beleive that computer-bsed learning has all the answers already. It doesn’t – and it’s important we realise this before it’s too late and evangelists, big business sharks and right-wing governments have conspired to deprive of us any safety nets for this little experiment.

      • Hugh I would make sure that you are typing your responses in a word processor and doing a spell check before posting them. It always gets me when people are talking education but not typing correctly. Although perhaps there is a certain sense of irony in posting about the potentially dark future of education where everyone learns language and spelling via computer/the internet that is full of “k thx bai.”

        • I´m with you David. Daily curation, personalized, connected to real people, social, with a blog, twitter account etc Low cost, interactive, with new technology integrated into the lesson plan – like Skype, Watsapp, etc Archived voice, data, collated daily, transparent for both teachers, students and parents. Encrypted phone, email, etc for privacy is required too.

          And largely I find the argument pretty void. Progress will happen and change will come. It’s how the world works. It’s a part of the creative economy.

          My post today here – http://goo.gl/Muaibl

  3. Thank-you for taking the time to write this. Teachers are easy targets for point 3 as the responsibilities for many social ills get deposited on the steps of schools. But point 1 is more worrying as teachers should have the intelligence to recognize when they are being pedaled snake-oil. If not immediately then certainly in retrospect.

    • Hi Michael –
      I was at an ELTONs dinner a few years back and one of the nominees suggested his immersion course, which involved studens going out and doing activities round London in the afternoon in order to activate the Engish they’d learned in the morning, would take students from Elementary to Advanced.

      An almighty row kicked off following this nonsense, as we all knew it was ridiculous.

      Looking back on it, at least this guy had the decency to suggest some input, some study and some practice were needed. I didn’t notice Mitra suggesting any such thing. Learning English just happens by magic as a side-effect of his remarkable web quests.

      Why aren’t more of us screaming?!

  4. Whether you’re right or wrong, I feel that the tone of this article is too divisive to encourage emotionally intelligent responses.

    Firstly, you refer to ‘his kind’. That terminology is usually heard in prejudiced contexts. What I mean to say is that we need less abrasive connotations in order to channel our cognitive dissonance in useful directions.

    That means moving beyond who’s right and who’s wrong – and really learning what’s behind it all – while being willing – one & all – to admit if/when we are wrong in some areas – beyond ego and who writes the most damning article.

    Labelling and name calling:

    How about – Snake oil seller, big bad wolf.

    Quite sensationalist, aggressive tone?

    Making bold statements about his beliefs…?

    I think we should be questioning instead of making judgements. This topic is emotive – you said that yourself in your article.

    Have you wondered how such an articulate speaker failed to give more details? Maybe he knew he’d arouse such controversy by being vague – a litmus test – maybe this vacuum in facts is there to be filled in by our own critical thinking and by envisioning how today’s education can be transformed into a better way – not necessarily ‘his’ way – as far as I can see – his way hasn’t been fully defined yet – maybe it’s not really about Sugata Mitra – maybe it’s about the question of what we’re doing collectively to shape a common vision??

    It seems then that there are no hard, cold statistics – or are there?. Who knows how to measure it and study his findings? Hasn’t he submitted research etc.?

    • Hi Sylvia –
      Thanks for such a considered and thoughtful response.
      You may well be right about my tone and choice of lexis. In truth, as Scott suggests above, I’ve sadly never been renowned for my subtlety.
      However, in my defence, it’s an emotive subject that was written in the heat of the moment, and Mitra himself certainly didn’t put forward a cold, studied academic presentation. I mean, at one point in his talk he even seemed to be suggesting that his hole-in-the-wall-facilitated SOLEs are akin to the beginning of life!! So apologies for the tone and the sarcasm, but it’s a blog not an academic article, and it’s a human response to a very clever rhetoritician peddling some very sinister ideas. Emotive language justified in this context, to me at least.

      Oh, and the big bad wolf image sprang to mind because he’s such a seductive speaker: so cuddly, so witty, so non-threatening, so chamring. Everything I’d want in a Trojan Horse were I to send someone out to bring such a deeply subversive and antagonistic message to folk who’d not be receptive to it if it came from George Bush or one of his mates, despite he fact its politics are more or less identitcal. If that isn’t the textbook defintion of wolf in sheep’s clothing I don’t know what is.

      The reference to ‘his kind’ was obviously meant to mean ‘and other people selling us technological magic bullets whilst belittling the remarkabl;e achievements of teachers, often against the odds’ rather than ‘other Indians’!! I’d hope that much at least is fairly clear.

      In terms of what’s behind it all, as I said, my bet would be hulking great vested interests. This necessitates NOT trying to move beyond right and wriong, but choosing which side you feel posseses which quality and fighting against that you feel is wrong, for Mitra’s speech was nothing short of a shot across the bows in a culture war that could get very very ugly indeed.

      As for why such an articulate speaker failed to give moe details, well we all know that’s where the devil resides.

  5. I haven’t seen the original talk but just read all the blog posts you linked to – including Graham Stanley’s two pieces.
    Three things occur to me immediately:
    1 Every defence of the role of teachers that I have ever read assumes that all teachers are good, or adequate teachers. The defenders are (or were) usually very good teachers themselves once, and extrapolate from themselves and their motivated colleagues in well-known language school chains. But we all know that there are lots of bad, unmotivated teachers out there. No-one says this because a) ‘badness’ in this sense is very difficult to measure, b) no-one wants to hear that there are bad teachers – it cuts you out of the international plenary invites that are meant to be motivational and inspiring, and c) it leaves a bad taste in the mouth as it casts fingers at unknown and unknowable people. But, even so, they exist. How many? No-one knows. Certainly don’t make an estimate based on who you meet at conferences and teacher training – these people are the good guys, they turned up.
    2 And this brings us to the second thing. Ed Tech, just like teachers, can ALSO be good or bad. Again, just as for teachers, this is never mentioned or considered. In a recent post on this blog Scott Thornbury referenced an academic piece of research showing that platforms such as Rosetta Stone didn’t work and had high drop-out rates. But what if Rosetta Stone is bad, and there is something better? The authors of that research piece never considered this.
    In fact, academics CAN NEVER consider goodness/badness as a variable in either teaching ability or ed tech because these qualities are just too hard to measure and too subjective. But they exist, and everybody knows it.
    So, the real situation is probably a grid with good to bad teaching ability across the top and good to bad ed tech down the side. In one corner of the grid, a good teacher will never be replaced by bad ed tech. In the opposite corner of the grid, good ed tech can make a real difference in the face of bad teaching. Then there is all the middle area where there is just ‘some’ effect.
    Mitra, from my understanding, was talking about the bad teacher/good Ed Tech corner of the grid. The fact that he even introduced the idea that there may be bad teachers is noteworthy and unusual.
    3 Aren’t we forgetting the critical period here? Before puberty we learn languages like a sponge with little cognitive work. We absorb. The third generation immigrant has no accent. After puberty we need cognitive effort. No matter how hard they try, most first generation immigrants never get much beyond Upper Intermediate, and always keep their accent. So any parallels between children learning English and adults learning English are virtually non existent. Did no-one in the IATEFL audience mention this?

    • There wasn’t a Q & A session Paul following the plenary. Had there been, I’m sure the question would have been asked.

      Sugata is quite open about his belief that teaching as a profession will become redundant. In his interview on IATEFL online following his plenary he compares teachers to other professions such as doctors or bus drivers, claiming that we will also be unnecessary in the future, acting instead as guides or facilitators. Hmmm…here’s the thing about that – Sugata’s theory ignores the whole basis of human behaviour and our trust systems. It’s the reason we still have doctors. It’s the reason we still have bus drivers. While computers and the internet may well refine what we do (though in many cases they add to our workload), they are unable to replace the craft of teaching. They cannot replace the role of the teacher as a manager, mentor, counsellor, coach etc.

      Online learning does of course have a role to play in education, but surely not without structure and valid pedagogy. After all, nobody remembers a good computer.

      • Yes, I agree entirely.
        I think that the problem here is just one instance of how intellectual life works in every field.
        In academia people are prone to overstate their case in order to become noticed in their field. Their hedges and qualifications are confined to their replies when people attack them: no, no, that’s not at all what I meant, I just wanted to point out that … . But it was the simplistic, headline argument that got them invited to the conference and won the attention of their peers.
        So, teachers will become unnecessary in the future along with bus drivers and doctors. Yes, that’s surely too simple. But it got your attention and sparked a debate.
        Michael Swan in his article ‘Two Out Of Three Ain’t Enough’ shows how we do exactly the same in ELT. Task-based learning with the teacher working with emergent language is better than atomized language focus on individual forms. Yes, that’s surely too simple. But it got your attention and sparked a debate.
        That’s how the world goes round.
        The problem is it’s just not very sexy to say: well, we need a bit of everything, there’s no magic bullet, lots of things work, it all depends how it’s done, variety is the spice of life, etc.

      • Hi Andy –
        I think the issue of why there was no Q&A is a fairly important one, personally
        I spoke to a few people who’d seen Sugata Mitra at other events and at none of them did he do a Q&A, so I wonder whether this was something he stipulated or simply the way things panned out on the day. Maybe someone from IATEFL could enlightne us on this?
        The bus driver / doctor / teaching metaphor would be convincing if only it were possible to really beleive Mitra wouldn’t be using any of these for himself and his kids / gradnchildren n future. Are we to beleive he’ll be ensuirng his own kids or grandhcildren skip school, in all its failed misery, and simply form SOLEs? I suspect not. Will he be avoidikng doctors and turning instead to the Internet in his hour of medical need? Unlikely, I’d posit.
        Your comment about nobody remmebering a good comuter is, by the way, spot on – and a line I may well nick for future use!

        • Thanks Hugh. Looks like you’ve created quite the debate here, and I imagine it’s taking a fair amount of your time responding to everyone!

          You’re more than welcome to steal my line, though I was thinking of using it as a title for my next, largely pro Ed-Tech, talk. Has a nice ring to it don’t you think?

    • Yes, Paul, we all know that there are some not very good teachers and your points about why it is difficult to talk about this topic are well-made. But there is another reason why I, personally, am reluctant to talk about bad teachers. This is because teacher-bashing is a central plank in the neo-liberal discourse in the US (which is, of course, promoting EdTech, along with privatization and so on). If teachers are ‘bad’, the most likely reason is that there is insufficient training, and funding of training (as well as steady erosion of pay and conditions, making it hard to attract people to the profession). Criticizing, and firing, bad teachers is a way of deflecting attention away from the political issues surrounding the funding of education. Mitra’s position in all of this is problematic because of his close connections to the neo-liberal lobby, which (quite openly) has a reduction of the influence of teachers’ trade unions as one of its objectives.
      One other point worth making in reply to your comments … the critical period hypothesis remains very hypothetical.

    • Further to Philip’s point above, you state ‘Before puberty we learn languages like a sponge with little cognitive work’ Certainly, but only when the child is immersed in the TL’, possibly the case of the 3rd generation immigrants you reference, or my own children growing up speaking English at home and another language at school and in society. But they are not the majority. There is now plentiful evidence that ‘the earlier the better’ for EFL contexts is a myth. The children in Mitra’s experiments are not surrounded by English 24/7, so I’m afraid that argument is flawed.

      • I’m sure you’re right – I haven’t kept up with research into the critical period since my MA in Applied Linguistics some time ago. But try posting along the same lines on an IATEFL Young Learners SIG website: ‘the earlier the better is a myth’ . Okay, then teachers of young learners are out of a job. Try separating out the intellectual arguments from the political ones in the resulting flak.
        The same is happening in the discussion about edtech – it puts people’s jobs at risk. But what do we want? For everyone all over the world to be empowered at work, rest and play by speaking the international language of English? Or to defend people’s jobs?
        If a Pearson salesperson tries to sell a load of adaptive learning bore-and-score rubbish to a company or university department and it means Business English trainers or university language teachers losing their jobs, then I’ll argue strongly and publicly against that.
        But if an ed tech website can help people who have no access to a teacher, then I’ll look with an open mind. And if it’s engaging and has good language focus then I’ll say it’s a good thing. If it’s also used by teachers and forces them to raise their game in a blended/flipped way, then I’ll say that’s a good thing as well.
        And if a small percent of teachers lose some hours because of GOOD ed tech, then I’ll have to choose. Do I want to help ordinary people in their lives by improving their English, or do I want to help teachers by complaining about their loss of hours (and even jobs, right at the margin)? I chose the former. Good ed tech, should it emerge, will help non-teachers find jobs.
        I can’t morally support the idea that a teacher’s lost job carries more weight than a language student’s found job.

    • Actually Paul I wish people did honestly talk more about “bad” language teaching (not bad teachers) and what could be done to make changes. In the end I believe that technology will make it possible to augment teaching so that bad teaching improves and good teaching gets even better.

      Unfortunately many Edtech providers don’t talk about augmenting teaching but only talk about eliminating teachers (or contact hours). Which is unfortunate because this model of eliminating teachers (or teaching hours) doesn’t entertain the notion of excellent teachers getting even better.

      The ed-tech thinking that only envisions getting rid of bad teachers is limited, often self-serving, and unappealing to good teachers. Their model should also consider how to make good teaching better. This is where they can engage us!

      • Paul, I don’t think the argument here is about online vs face-to-face. I think it’s about the quality of mediation in the former. If Mitra were suggesting that unqualified volunteers might just as well replace experienced, qualified and paid teachers in a face-to-face setting, no one would give him the time of day. Why should online learners be any less deserving?

        Underlying all this Mitra-mania seems to be an implicit faith in the almost totemic power of the Internet – just by virtue of its being there, it somehow magically triggers learning – whether mediated or not. Show me the evidence.

        • I agree. Well put, the internet does seem to have almost totemic power and to appear to trigger learning just by being there. In the dotcom bubble and crash, 15 years ago, the same totemic power caused (in non ELT fields) massive over-hype initially and then massive lost fortunes. Out of the rubble emerged a few winners.
          It happens with every new technology, in every field, has always done so, and will always do so. It is called the ‘Technology Adoption Lifecycle’. There are diagrams all over the internet, such as this one I just quickly googled:
          To take a non-ELT example that most people will be familiar with, solar power has gone through this cycle in the last 20 years. The hype peaked, interest crashed and people lost money, the trough has just passed with the glut of natural gas arising from fracking in the US, and now with better technology and economies of scale there is going to be a slow build from a low base to a ‘plateau of productivity’. Here is a very well-argued piece that shows how solar will largely replace oil, gas and nuclear within 20 or thirty years:
          With eLearning we are in the ‘Peak of Inflated Expectation’ stage. In certain areas, such as MOOCs, this has already started going down to the ‘Trough of Disillusionment’. The wave will crash as people see the limitations, it will trough (not as comfortable lexically as a verb as ‘peak’), and then something good, that will have the evidence you require, will emerge.
          The big guys, the Pearsons, and some small guys, like me, are trying to position ourselves for the long term.
          Who’s on board?

    • Hi Paul –
      Apologies for not getting round to responding to you yesterday. I’m struggling to keep up with the slew of comments this seems to have provoked!

      With regards to your comments on bad teachers, I think Philip has basically said all there is to say on this: that whilst it’s obviously true that some teaching may be better, more focused or more effective than other teaching, this rhetoric about bad TEACHERS is used so frequently by neoliberals out to take over sections of the education sector that it’s perhaps wise to tread very carefully around such arguments. It’s also, again as pointed out, fundamentally an issue of systems, training, funding, focus and so on. The solutions to these issues should be social, and should be expectations of what governments provide for the most vulnerable in society and not something we gladly give up to tech-rooted experimenters profiting from the state’s absence.
      In addition, I absolutely don’t buy the conclusions Mitra draws: he claims that the poor results in poorer communities are indicative of teaching failures. There are so many other factors at play – family support, economic realities, availability of al manner of extra-curricular activities, etc – and as I said, my mum worked in under-funded schools in Gateshead for years, and I now her and her teachers helped kids get on in life who otherwise would’ve been left to fail. The fact these kids failed to achieve the exam results kids in richest areas achieved may, seen from a different angle, be seen as a sign of success. They achieved something, and should be judged against what they might have achieved – or failed to – under other less supported circumstances.
      Your second point brings me to something I’ve noted a lot with responses to Mitra – and which I’ll come back to later when I address Chia’s post – and that’s the way in which it’s all too easy to see things through the prism of our own concerns and beliefs (ironically, a point Mitra made himself – his mention of the view containing the viewer). The issue of good Ed-Tech products is obviously a massively important one, and I don’t think anyone who reads this blog would dispute this (though of course we may disagree on what good’ means in this context!). However, my real concern is that this is a super-imposition of different concerns onto what Mitra was on about. In reality, he didn’t seem concerned at all with Ed-Tech. In his talk on Saturday, he made no real mention of anything available that might help students learn languages better. He’s having a separate debate. His world isn’t one in which materials writers are encouraged to develop better products for EFL students. It’s one in which we are redundant as students allegedly learn languages as a side-effect of his guidance on their so-called SOLE projects! Let’s not lost sight of this fact and let’s keep the (much needed) Ed-Tech product debate for elsewhere.
      Your comments on the critical theory has been dealt with by others already. My tuppence worth is as follows: if this is what Mira beleives is at play, hen why didn’t he make this explicit. Indeed, why did he not make any theory of how such remarkable learning might be possib;e other than to claim it was all facilitated by his SOLEs projects? Also, the critical period does allow kids to learn languages in a non-traditional classroom manner, but they’re in environments where massive amounts of scaffolded communication occurs, where reformulation in the norm and where graded input and recycling is the norm. This is what parents – and of course teachers – na provide, and this is what allows linguistic development in kids – over a period of several years, lest we forget. Mitra, it seemed to me on Saturday, has no interest in any of this and wasn’t putting this forward as important. Instead, as I said above, his claims are far bolder – and more ridiculous: kids learn language by default when engaged in meaningful web search work.

  6. books have never been available and accessible in such extent to inspire autonomy in everyone.
    where they have, they provoked the autonomous acquisition of knowledge.

    the web provides the necessary profusion of “facts” that is far more accessible in many ways.

    • “where they have, they provoked the autonomous acquisition of knowledge”

      Aleksandar, that is simply not true. Autonomous learning rarely occurs simply because information is at hand. Most people require expert models, whether teachers or parents, to guide and motivate them. Even where it may occur, there is no evidence that autonomous learning is in any way better than guided learning–which in my opinion is Hugh’s most important point here.

  7. Saying that students can pick-up stuff outside of formal language teaching and learning with computers is nothing new and doesn’t necessarily make you an agent of the neoliberal agenda! Krashen (and others) has long since held that explicit instruction is less valuable than many teachers think and he is at the vanguard in the US of challenging the neoliberalism, the de-professionalization of teachers and the common core! He also argues very convincingly that poverty is the ultimate problem. I wasn’t at IATEFL, but I have watched Mitra’s talk. People can pick up language through technology – yes, obviously see Jarvis and Krashen (2014) http://www.tesl-ej.org/wordpress/issues/volume17/ej68/ej68a1/ In many contexts students live out part of their lives through technology and this has implications for TESOL – yes, obviously see Jarvis (2014) http://www.tesolacademic.org/msworddownloads/AsianEFL%20(March14).pdf This does not mean the end of teaching or teachers, but it does challenge us to reflect on how to be more effective in our practice.

  8. Saying that students can pick-up stuff outside of formal language teaching and learning with computers is nothing new and doesn’t necessarily make you an agent of the neoliberal agenda! Krashen (and others) has long since held that explicit instruction is less valuable than many teachers think and he is at the vanguard in the US of challenging the neoliberalism, the de-professionalization of teachers and the common core! He also argues very convincingly that poverty is the ultimate problem. I wasn’t at IATEFL, but I have watched Mitra’s talk. People can pick up language through technology – yes, obviously see Jarvis and Krashen (2014) http://www.tesl-ej.org/wordpress/issues/volume17/ej68/ej68a1/ In many contexts students live out part of their lives through technology and this has implications for TESOL – yes, obviously see Jarvis (2014) http://www.tesolacademic.org/msworddownloads/AsianEFL%20(March14).pdf This does not mean the end of teaching or teachers, but it does challenge us to reflect on how to be more effective in our practice.

  9. Further to Philip’s point above, you state ‘Before puberty we learn languages like a sponge with little cognitive work’ Certainly, but only when the child is immersed in the TL’, possibly the case of the 3rd generation immigrants you reference, or my own children growing up speaking English at home and another language at school and in society. But they are not the majority. There is now plentiful evidence that ‘the earlier the better’ for EFL contexts is a myth. The children in Mitra’s experiments are not surrounded by English 24/7, so I’m afraid that argument is flawed.

  10. Hey Hugh,

    It sounds like you’ve been scarred by the atheist porn star walking up the church aisle on Sunday. And with the gathering crowd you scream ‘stone the heathen of no faith’.

    The curious mind seeks the truth – by questioning everything. Mr Mitra follows this mantra and I see little harm in that.


    • Hi Rob –
      I’m actually a huge fan of atheist porn stars and don’t recall ever having scarred by one. I’m also not calling for anyone to be stoned – at least not with rocks of any kind. I would question the tenets of Mitra’s faith, though, if that’s any consolation (albeit only in a metaphorical sense, lest anyone get the nark on about that comment).

      If all you beleive that Mitra is doing is ‘seeking truth’ then I’d venture that you might be a litle naieve. I may be wrong of course, but the talk I saw was very light on ‘truth’ and very full of rhetoric and anecdotes presented as ‘truth’. This immediately makes me very cautious indeed. It wasn’t a narrative that explored a truth-seeking pilgrimage. It was a narrative that sought to show how he – and possinly he alone – has the solutions to the state’s supposed failure to educate.

      I guess we’re all free to see that how we want, but harmless hunter of eternal varacity isn’t the way I felt about his message after an hour in a room with him.

      • Hey Hugh,

        No – I think you perceive a threat – right? Whereas I see him as a seeker and problem solver – in many ways the Physicist.

        Governments are giving up on education all over the world Hugh. Throwing their arms up and saying we don’t know how to do this anymore. And they don’t. Look at student loan debt.

        The pace of change is becoming too rapid for any traditional outlook on education. And all that Mitra is doing is questioning the status quo like any physicist is trained to do. But the market will decide if he is successful or not – we can’t. It’s too early to say.


        • Not sure I see him as a threat. I mean, he’s certainly not a threat to me directly, but as a threat to the profession, then yes in a sense. Most of all though I see him as little more than a charlatan: a clever salesman with just enough surface validity to be able to sucker folk into buying into his ideas. It’s this that most worries me.

          If he really were just the diligent physicist (and I’d hazard a guess, by the way, that he learned Hard Sciences with the help of a lot of expensive tuition, at schools and universities, not on his own or with his mates in an Internet cafe!), he’d never dare to suggest to a room full of language teachers that languages can just be picked up incidentally whilst focusing on other things. Where’s the research paradigm there, then? Where’s the hard science? if anything, he went out of his way to find excuses for why he couldn’t prove anything, but rather had instead to simly trust his own experiences – leaving us in turn to believe his version of reality. That wouldn’t cut much ice in Physics journals, I’m sure.

          You may be right in saying that government are giving up on education. This doesn’t mean it’s right of them to do so or that we have to accept it as an inevitable fact of life. I’m not a fan of fatalistic discourses as they tend to end up becoming self-fulfilling! Lest we forget, plenty of governments ARE very concerned about education and ensure they fund and develop systems that provide top-class environments for students to learn in. This should be what we aspire to: not the notional paradise offered by salesmen!

          And make no mistake about it, that’s what Mitra is. If he were simply challenging the status quo, he wouldn’t need powerful backers and he wouldn’t try to pitch such glib conclusions.

          • Hey Hugh,

            Good to chat.

            Who isn’t a charlatan?

            And really – that’s the entire point. No-one knows anything and as soon as we think we do – we are shot down in flames. Arrogance has no place in education but we encounter it everywhere – everywhere. You care and so do I – but don’t tell me the government does. Huh – seriously. I´m not sure the Millennials will believe any of that tripe – and they will drive change. Mitra is inconsequential.

            Change will happen anyway.

            All the best,

  11. Actually Paul I wish people did honestly talk more about “bad” language teaching (not bad teachers) and what could be done to make changes. In the end I believe that technology will make it possible to augment teaching so that bad teaching improves and good teaching gets even better.

    Unfortunately many Edtech providers don’t talk about augmenting teaching but only talk about eliminating teachers (or contact hours). Which is unfortunate because this model of eliminating teachers (or teaching hours) doesn’t entertain the notion of excellent teachers getting even better.

    The ed-tech thinking that only envisions getting rid of bad teachers is limited, often self-serving, and unappealing to good teachers. Their model should also consider how to make good teaching better. This is where they can engage us!

    • Yes, I agree.
      Here is a specific, real life story. It’s the kind of thing I was thinking about. About 10 years ago I was doing some teacher training at a large language school on a small Mediterranean island. It was for a week and led to a certificate. I had around 8 of their teachers in my group, all great, but there were many others who weren’t on the course and were just teaching normally. Every morning I was at the photocopier, preparing my handouts. In front of me and behind me were random teachers doing the same for their students. About half of those teachers were photocopying Murphy, unit by unit, day by day. The teachers were lively, bubbly people, and my strong guess is that in class when there was no Murphy going on there would be lots of chat and jokes. Many of the students were German engineers, who had chosen this destination for its sun, swimming pool, and chance to get away for a fortnight paid by the company. They weren’t complaining, and probably gave good feedback at the end of the course on their teachers who had become like friends. Their alternative might have been a UK language school where earnest teachers with DELTAs like me would have had them trawling through authentic texts looking for soon-to-be-forgotten collocations, or setting up task-based role plays that allowed them to repeat their fossilised errors ever more fluently. But they also would have given good feedback, if they liked me and had been to somewhere interesting on the social program.
      Who are the winners and losers here? The students enjoyed themselves. The teachers felt they were doing their job and they were getting paid for it. It looks like a win-win. But the loser was the English language and its (lack of) improvement at the levels of accuracy and complexity. Fluency and confidence will always improve if you live in an English speaking environment speaking English for two weeks, regardless of what happens in class.
      I believe that from the language point of view these students would have been well-served by a GOOD online platform available to them back home. Language focus, vocabulary development and work on receptive skills. In class a GOOD teacher could work on speaking practice, clarifying language points, and giving personalised feedback. Would this mean less contact hours? Perhaps.
      The genie is out of the bottle here. I am on the Voxy email list. They frequently send me marketing emails with short videos taken by real students talking to smartphone cameras about how the vocabulary they learned from Voxy helped them in their recent trip to the States, or whatever. These are genuine I’m sure. Take 10,000 Voxy students in any one country and local language schools will begin to notice a dip in numbers, with less work for teachers. Pearson recently bought a stake in Voxy.
      The challenge here is to engage online learning, insist on quality, and look for new roles for classroom teachers.
      Has there ever been an example in history in any field of life where a new technology has been stopped in its progress in order to protect jobs?
      And remember, if a technology doesn’t work, it simply doesn’t get adopted. If you aren’t learning online, it’s back to the pool on the Mediterranean island and chatting with your lively, bubbly teacher. At least that way your fluency gets better, as I said above.

    • Hi Jason –
      I’ve read Chia’s post, along with all the other posts that have poured forth since the plenary last week, and I have to say the one thing it didn’t really cause me to do was to reflect any more deeply on Mitra’s work. Instead, what it made me reflect on was the way in which we all tend to see these issues through the filter of our enthusiasms. What then happens is we blog or comment about these enthusiasims, debate emerges around them – which has nothing really to do with the original post / Mitra’s work (in this instance) – and focus on the originak topic is dissipated, leaving folk like Mitra freer to continue on with their own agendas!

      Chia has written a very Chia description of what she beleives shuld be happening in classrooms, which is all well and good, but seems to me to have almost nothing to do with the vision of the world Mitra was propounding last weekend. She’s also happy to accept at face value his own wild claims such as “When Mitra came back three months later, the children were speaking to each other using English words and asking him for a computer with ‘a faster processor and a better mouse’. This – to my mind – should be hedged with a massive great ALLEGEDLY as we only have his word for all of this and it is, of curse, in his own interest to persuade us this is all true! Chia also claims that “Mitra’s message is a heartwarming one and highlights the potential of humankind, especially when we work together”. I personally feel his message – or at least its sub-text and implicit poilitical agenda is anything but heartwarming. To me, it’s chilling and it disturbs me that it’s accepted like this at face value.

      From then one, Mitra somehow gets roped in to bolster the old Dogme lite / Vygotskyian message Chia is fond of. That’s fine, but again if Mitra beleives that what’s happening is somehow tied in to Vygotsky and ZPDs, I’d like to hear him say this – ideally at a time like last week when he was in the company of educationalists who understand this kind of thing!

      There was abrief chuckle as I got to the bit where Chia makes disparing remarks about the rigid Singaporean system that limits and reduces teaching to mug-jug dynamics as presumably that’d be the same system that has forged her, and she doesn’t seem to have been too damaged by it. Indeed, I’d wager that given the choice of that or a hole in the wall SOLE for her own kid’s education, she may well suddenly start recalling its advanatges. So it goes.

      Anyway, my real point here is that whatever Chia thinks would be good for teachers to do in light on Mitra’s comments is basically ultimately beside he point. BECAUSE MITRA HOLDS TEACHING IN CONTEMPT AND THINKS WE’RE ALL REPLACEABLE BY GRANNIES.

      That enough deep reflection for you?

  12. Well, I find it kind of amusing how you refer to Sugata’s so-called ‘cuddly’ demeanour. If Sugata were an attractive woman would we be even more suspicious because of her power to beguile the audience with her charm? Perhaps she’d not be seen as dangerous at all – just a harmless, quirky, misguided do-gooder with no head for the real world of education…..

    Seriously though – I see all of this as a natural transformation – in the sense that we’ve long recognised the need for learner autonomy and confidence-building.

    I think that Sugata was being deliberately vague because rather than spell out the role of teachers in future, he wants to see where our mindsets are at right now – and this blog discussion is giving lots of information on that.

    When I say natural progression I mean that we’ll be even more important to students in future that we are now because we’ll be approaching our work through social/emotional perspectives – giving them the support, understanding and guidance they need to achieve their own potential.

    Teachers will be experts in the ‘whole person’, in social dynamics, groups dynamics, we’ll reach students through their own creativity and help them blossom and this could have massive repercussions on society, violence, crime levels etc. We will no longer teach the ‘subject’ – we’ll know our students and speak to their hearts.


    Because our job will be to provide the frameworks for their self-discovery – thing Vykotsky and the zone of proximal development etc. By giving students freedom and pychological support we’ll be helping them to grow as people and not just intellectually.

    That’s how I see our new role – Sugata means that the model of the intellectual expert teacher will be replaced by the humanising teacher.

  13. Hi Hugh
    You and I have crossed swords in the past in the content of our talks, but I think that this time I’m seeing things more from your point of view. I posted the following on another blog and wanted to reiterate this point here in support of some of what you were saying.
    Mitra’s first premise was: “We know it’s difficult to get good teachers in remote places”. I think we can assume here we mean rural places, and poor places. I think we can also assume that in these remote places he is suggesting the problem can be solved without teachers. This strikes me as a very provocative statement. I found myself immediately on the following train of thought: “Does this mean that the good teachers get to go back and teach the more affluent urban citizens and the poor get the computers? But if the poor remote people are getting a better deal because schools and teachers are obsolete and children learn better on their own then why isn’t this approach also being taken up big time by the wealthy?” Second, the idea that unpaid volunteers could be beamed in (the grannies) with what seemed to be very little training… well I can totally understand why people at an IATEFL conference would feel awkward at that and why you tweeted the way you did. We as a profession have been struggling against the native-speaker backpackers for more than forty years. Now do we need to deal with grannies too?
    To return to the “remote places” first premise. What if this thinking were extended to other professions? e.g. We know it’s difficult to get good doctors in remote places. We know it’s difficult to get good cops in remote places. We know it’s difficult to get good services in remote places. If we look to replacing these human services with tech fixes that enable us to keep the good teachers, doctors, cops etc in the wealthier cities then what are we doing to our citizens in remote places?

  14. In an attempt to separate fact from fiction maybe we should determine two things scientifically.

    The FACTs about vested interests and the RESULTS of his experiments.

    Who can shed light on those two areas? It would save a lot of friction to have some facts and then we could continue discussing how the teaching role will evolve ( with or without Sugata as a central figure)

    ….because we are on our way towards creative self-organising, and independent learning one way or another – Sugata has just dramatised it – I say that we are the ones to shape the environment for the students in their self-organising and that makes us indispensible in our brave new world.

  15. Hi again Paul –
    Well, we can clearly agree on the fact that overstating cases and going for the headline jugulars seems to work when it comes to attracting attention and funding and so on.
    The issue here is, though, that his headlines resonate with folk out there desperate to cut back on education and also with those desperate to profit from the vacuum subsequently created. This is why the fight against such tabloidisation of research needs to be resisted, critiqued, negtaed, and so on.
    If you needed any more persuading, consier the fact that none of your calm and considered conclusions – we need a bit of everything, there’s no magic bullet, lots of things work, it all depends how it’s done, variety is the spice of life – are things Mitra seems to be interested in mentioning.
    They’re too subtle and don’t fit the magic bullet narrative. Which is precisely why they need to be heard!

  16. As someone in a heavily unionised section of a university in the UK that’s targetting redundancies against on this groiunds that we’re not sufficiently effective, this obviously resonates massively with me, Philip. This is the kind of discourse that Kathleen Graves argued so pasionately against in her EFFICIENCY OF INEFFICIECY plenary last week.
    Like you and I’d hope like anyone involved in training and teacher development, I much prefer to talk about poor teaching rather than poor teachers, and beleive that the vast majority of teachers, given support and development, can better their performance and become better enablers of student learning. This should surely be what all of us are aiming for and pushing for, rather than validating or encouraging a discourse that wants nothing short of the dismantling of state support and the use of private firms to fill the gaps!

  17. “….because we are on our way towards creative self-organising, and independent learning one way or another “

    Is this really true, though? Has something fundamentally changed in human nature that some of us are not aware of?

    Why wasn’t there more creative self-organizing and independent learning when all we had were books? Books have been ubiquitous, cheap, and easy to access across much of the world for centuries. And yes, a certain (small) fraction of the population have always self-organized into book clubs, study groups, debating societies, etc.

    But why would the proportion of these people to the rest of the population suddenly increase now? The answer I keep hearing just seems to amount to: because the internet.

  18. No, Ironically, because of the teachers – we are not becoming obsolete but maybe because we want to be more aware of their learners……and make our learners more aware of themselves – technology makes it easier but, for me, this is about how we define teaching and not how we define environments.

  19. @Lindsay Have you ever lived in an impoverished society? Just wondering.

    @Marcos There are a myriad of reasons why people are moving online. Cost, time, flexibility being the main ones but in my field, BE students seek personalized tuition and coaching. And, for BE online learning just makes more sense, especially for multinationals. Look – even with bad online learning the market is growing. Wait til it gets really good.

    @Paul MOOCS are dead because they weren’t engaging and all they proved was that teachers are required online just as much as they are in a traditional class format. Online engagement is a difficult beast and very challenging. It’s not a matter of throwing a curriculum up with a few videos, and quizzes. It also requires relationships, people and community just like a traditional school does. Not easy. Teacher training for example – requires a significant commitment. So schools and teachers remain circumspect which is understandable. On the other hand, independent teachers have embraced the internet largely because we can. One Professor described us as the’ defunct educator’ – a growing market free of the restraints of faculty, yet loosely connected.

    I think online learning is still in it’s infancy and the real growth is yet to come.

    @Sylvia One of the things you learn quite quickly teaching online is to empower the learner. I´m with you. It is happening anyway. And that’s the part I don’t understand – why the big fuss?

    My last point. Cross-cultural learning is much easier to deliver online and in a global world it is becoming an increasingly important part of ELT . I am teaching a Russian banker about the Brazilian business market at the moment – now, that’s something I would never had imagined 2 years ago. And in the process I have become the learner.

    I see advantages for both online and traditional teaching. Ultimately the learner will choose which one they prefer.


    • @Rob. You asked if I had ever lived in an impoverished society. I’m not sure if there was a subtext to that question, but it is not the first time I’ve heard something like this so sorry if my answer sounds sharp. I have never lived in the slums or remote areas of India (have you?), but I have lived in remote communities in Guatemala and southern Mexico during the 90s (including in Chiapas southern Mexico shortly after the uprising of 1994). I also did volunteer work with refugees in Croatia during the war in 90s. But I don’t see why this makes a difference to any opinion I may have about issues on policy or social issues. I’ve never been a soldier working in a prison camp but I have views about war crimes. I’m not a woman but I have opinions about a woman’s right to decide what happens to her body. Maybe you weren’t insinuating it, but the argument that one shouldn’t say something about an issue unless you’ve experienced it in real life makes me very uncomfortable and annoys me greatly.

      On a conciliatory note, I found myself very much agreeing with you about MOOCs, about online learning being in its infancy, and about cross-cultural communication and its importance. Maybe I totally misinterpreted your question, but as I said it is not the first time I’ve heard arguments that begin in a similar way (e.g. unless you’ve actually lived in a slum in India then you have nothing to say about what Mitra did) and I had to respond.
      Best wishes, Lindsay.

  20. Hi Sylvia
    The facts about vested interests are easy to access, including in a post on my blog http://adaptivelearninginelt.wordpress.com/2014/04/06/edtech-and-neo-liberalism-fragment-of-a-network/ Otherwise, check out the work of Neil Selwyn, Joel Spring, Stephen Ball among others. As far as the results of his experiments are concerned, this is not so easy. Claims such as Mitra’s need to be independently verified (i.e. not by institutions which have a vested interest) and I would be very interested to learn more about such research but I’m having a hard time tracking it down. Can anyone help?

  21. Amazing post! The ideas you put forward here are certainly ones that an Argentinian EFL teacher like me , who supports public education above everything and completely rejects the intervention of the private sector in state schools, could have expressed. However, I can’t help feeling that many British scholars and ELT experts have reacted to Mitra’s plenary because he referred to a similar project that is being carried out in the North of England. He suggested replacing British teachers. And that was the end of the love affair.

    Are you aware of the fact that , last year many of the same scholars were delighted to hear about “Ceibal en Ingles” in Uruguay and enthusiastically compared it to the SOLE project? They pointed out how “wonderful” it was that regular classroom teachers (non-experts, volunteers, rings a bell?) in state primary schools would be in charge of “supporting” 40-minute EFL classes delivered by remote free-lance EFL teachers hired by the British Council based in Montevideo (Uruguay), Argentina, Colombia, Mexico and The Philipines (most of them working for private language schools) on the excuse that there aren’t enough EFL teachers in the country and that there is no time to train them(?????). What we see here is a case of double standards at its best.

    I support British teachers and the right of British students to have teachers, and the right of Indian students in rural areas to have schools staffed with professional teachers, and the right of Uruguayan students to have professional EFL teachers in their classrooms. That is equality. That’s what we should fight for. The rest is business.

    • Hi Graham,

      Thanks for your reply. The comparisons with SOLE have been made by most of the supporters of this project, not by me. As I mentioned in the post on Harmer’s blog what I find worrying about this scheme, that is presented as an innovative “model” to the world, is that it is not the Uruguayan state, its Ministry of Education, the one in charge of hiring the EFL teachers for primary state schools but that this function is being outsourced to an external organization, the British Council.

      When I refer to training teachers, I mean providing full EFL training through recognized teacher training colleges. Mr. Woods has said the classroom teachers are taking an online English language course delivered by the BC, and we know that EFL teaching takes more than just knowing how to speak the language. Teaching a foreign language in the school system implies being deeply aware of the sociocultural context and having enough linguistic and methodological skills to cater for students specific needs in line with national curricular guidelines. I believe at school we are educating citizens not just training language learners. What kind of autonomy can classroom teachers – with such limited linguistic and methodological knowledge – exercise in their classes in terms of adapting the materials provided by the BC? In the last videoconference you presented, Mercedes or you (I don’t remember now) mentioned having scripted classes. Who’s taking the decisions? Can remote teachers adapt the materials provided as well? If this shortage of teachers is only taking place in primary schools why was it mentioned in December’s videoconference that there will be pilot courses taking place in secondary schools as well?

      As I also mentioned in my comment on Harmer’s blog, in Argentina and Uruguay, the presence of English as a school subject has always been problematic. EFL teachers in our countries have been traditionally trained with other contexts in mind. EFL teachers have historically been reluctant to work at schools because it was considered “less important” or “glamourous” than working for private language institutes. Until very recently EFL classes at high schools in Argentina were frequently taught by translators without a teaching degree or simply regular teachers who had taken the FCE and it was not due to a shortage, it was a social problem. Now teachers are choosing schools more because the working conditions have improved and, hopefully, because we’ve started to understand teachers “belong” in schools. You’ve also mentioned professionals who have stepped out of the profession in Uruguay. Where are they? Invite them back! Maybe instead of all this high-tech paraphernalia, teachers need some motivation, better salaries and to feel that their work at schools is important.

      I see how much you work and care about this project and, believe me, that I feel you are convinced this is the best way to improve the situation. But I can’t help thinking about all the organizations outside the state system that are benefitting from this initiative (i.e. the neoliberal agenda). Not just the BC, which seeks to “enhance its reputation as a world authority in ELT” (quoted form the project’s application form), but all the private language institutes that are now connected to the project. I really hope it’s like you say and this is just a temporary arrangement until national EFL teachers and the state education system can be in full charge of the classes, in the meantime, I’ll keep on the alert.

  22. For a philosopher’s take on ‘minimally invasive education’, this is a good read: http://philosophyfoundation.wordpress.com/2013/10/14/

    A sample: “While I share Dr Mitra’s passion for the benefits of small-group enquiry-based learning, I think the idea of minimally invasive education fails for the following reason: it’s not plausible to suppose that children in SOLEs can self-organise their way to an expanded repertoire of thinking skills. Certainly Dr Mitra offers no systematic empirical evidence that they can.”

  23. With his hole in the wall experiment Mitra asked a very important question. How do people learn when there aren’t teachers around? If we want to understand how we can be effective as teachers, this is a very good question as it helps us understand better the types of intervention we do need to make as teachers, what our learners really need us for most , what they can’t do or struggle with on their own. Opportunities afforded for exposure to English have expanded with the internet, so it seems like a good idea to think about how we can best support learners in taking advantage of this and what they may or may not achieve with or without teachers. How Mitra himself interprets his experiments and their implications is of course interesting, but not defining. Krashen has had some pretty provocative thoughts on language teaching and learning, but he hasn’t sold many lesson plans and Mitra’s webquests I suspect are similarly unlikely to have onestopenglish banging on his door.

    Personally, I don’t think this endeavour will threaten teachers jobs. The opposite in fact. By refining our understanding of our impact on learners in classrooms and beyond them, we will become more effective and increase our value.

    But the point, as Paul and others have noted is understanding learning and teaching English effectively, not preserving or creating more work for teachers, a “prism of concern” which seems to be defining much of the anger about him in some of the comments here.

  24. Hi Carla –
    Thanks so much for your contributions. It’s great to have non-natives here and good to have folk closer to the contexts in which Mitra’s work has been having its most serious impacts.
    You may be right about some British academic rejecting Mitra the closer to home he gets. I don’t know. For me, I was already screaming when I saw the claims being made about the slums in India, let alone the UK stuff.
    I’m 110% with you on what equality means and what we should be arguing for and agitating for. As I’ve said many times before above, if SOLEs are so great, why aren’t rich parents in the cities crying out for them and taking their kids out of schools instead?!
    Thanks again for the passion and the anger.
    You’re not alone.

  25. Hi Carla,

    The Ceibal English project in Uruguay is very different from the SOLE project in that it uses qualified and experienced language teachers to teach in Uruguayan state primary schools where there are no English teachers (we haven’t resorted to unqualified grannies!). It is true that after the remote class conducted by the English teacher via video-conferencing, the classroom teacher, who generally doesn’t speak much English is charged with conducting 2 follow-up practice classes based on the content of class A. Where there are English teachers available (there are a number of schools with their own English teachers), this does not happen. As for the question why this is being done instead of training teachers to speak enough English in order to be able to teach English themselves, this is happening in parallel. The teachers who volunteer for the programme (i.e. they are not forced to join it because it involves lot of extra effort on behalf of the teacher in return for a nominal fee) are learning English themselves as part of the deal, so what you say is simply not true. I commented on Jeremy’s blog post, which you refer to here, that persuading the teachers to learn English is actually the hardest part of the project – teaching the teachers English sounds like the simple solution to an outsider, and indeed I wondered before I started working on the project (as project manager) why this was not being done. The reality is more complex, unfortunately. However, it is clear to all of us here that in the long term, the best thing for the children is for them to have an English teacher physically present with them in the classroom. In fact, this is one of the things most of the children say when I ask them (on my school visits around the country) what we can do to improve the programme. Please do not confuse what we are doing with the SOLE and the latest declarations of Sugata Mitra that he wants to ‘remove the teacher from the equation’. Although the initial impulse for the Ceibal English project in Uruguay was inspired by the ‘beaming in of a teacher’ when no teacher could be found, the project is very much behind teachers and we are spending a lot of time and effort training teachers to help them.

    • Hi Carla,

      You cover a lot of different topics in one comment, so I’ll break them up and offer a response to what you write.

      1) It is an innovative model. Where else in the world is a country trying to reach every primary state school child and teach them English whether or not the area/school has English teachers physically present? We are also developing a model of team teaching via video-conferencing that is unique.

      2) The Government of Uruguay through the organisation Plan Ceibal put out a tender, which the British Council won to manage the project, so we are working with all the relevant bodies in Uruguay to solve a national problem.

      3) You seem to think that “providing full EFL training” for the existing primary teachers is an easy solution to the shortage of teachers in Uruguay. It sounds so simple, but the reality is more complicated. As you go on to say, teaching English requires more than just being able to speak English, and this is why there is a shortage of English teachers in most parts of the country, and also why it will take a long time to be able to find English teachers to teach in the schools where we are teaching remotely. In fact, Ceibal use a system of ‘mentors’, one per department in Uruguay, who are all trained and experienced English teachers and it is proving difficult for them to find a mentor for some of the departments!

      4) The lesson plans are’scripted’ and provided to the Classroom teachers in Spanish because most of them can’t understand English. Although they are ‘scripted’ they are (as the name suggests) ‘plans’ and the teachers are encouraged to adapt them to each individual class and learning/teaching situation. We are learning a lot from observing teachers in action and collecting feedback from classroom teachers and remote teachers about the plans and materials, adapting them based on this.

      5) The secondary pilot is something that Ceibal is currently discussing with the Ministry of Education. It is likely that the form it will take will be very different to the Ceibal English project because the situation and circumstances in secondary education in Uruguay are different.

      6) The British Council in Uruguay is committed to working with existing teachers (both the remote ones and classroom ones) and has as one of its aims to help improve the quality of teaching going on in the country. As to inviting the classroom teachers back to teach, this is also a simplistic notion. It’s also something for the Ministy of Education to do, not the British Council or Plan Ceibal, whose remit is limited to the project we have been contracted to do. What we are doing is approaching the teachers who were in the programme last year and who are no longer there now and asking them why they are not continuing.

      7) As for paying teachers more and society valuing them more than they currently do, here is one of the underlying problems why there is a shortage of English teachers in the country. Our approach is to do our best to raise the status of the teachers in the eyes of society through our work in the country, helping them and the rest of society value the work that they do – as for raising their salaries and status, unfortunately, we do not have a direct influence on this.

      8) You are right about organisations benefiting from being part of the project. This is true. If there were no benefit to them, then they would not take part in the programme. Isn’t that human nature? What’s important is that the country as a whole is benefiting too. And most importantly, and something which you choose not to mention in your comments, this project benefits the children enormously. For the first time ever, many children are able to learn English. The reaction of the kids themselves to the project is what matters most.

  26. I think it worth mentioning how terribly inefficient learning a language (or a subject) is within the traditional school system (where a teacher plans and instructs). This fact is unassailable. Millions of students the world over, hour upon hour upon month, upon year over year – all to sputter at the end, “My name is …” and “voulez vous couchez avec moi”. This is the pink elephant in the room. In any other sector of the economy, those in charge would be shown the door. The teacher trainers nailed to it.

    But I don’t blame teachers, most are great teachers. I blame “teaching”. I blame the current power structure whereby learning is hacked up and delivered piecemeal by gatekeepers. This is Mr. Mitra’s point, he’s suggesting an alternative framework and way students can learn within school. Not the end of school but the beginning of a different kind of school. Not the glorification of technology over all else but the harnessing of its affordances to benefit students so they will acquire a language or master a subject much quicker. I welcome a future that has a new kind of school that is less about control, less about the neck up, less about warehousing. Students should be driving the bus and not as so often the case now, thrown under it. (and think of Nunan’s “learner centered curriculum” – has this ever been truly put in place, has learner autonomy really been promoted other than just given lip service?)

    PS. as to the point about an “EdTech” conspiracy. Sure there are major piles of money going after big slices of the educational pie. This is true for many other sectors also, not just education. There is no conspiracy, that’s poppycock and disappointing that academics would “rationally” promote this view. Let’s not forget, we live in a culture with an extreme capitalist ideology so not surprising that businesses are supplying alternatives given the large demand.

    • @David,

      Sorry for the lag…and thanks for the great reply! I really learned a lot. But still I wonder……. you seem to assume that Mitra’s approach to teaching languages is better than the average of what we presently have. Is this because his approach is somehow in agreement with your best practices or is it because he has offered some kind of proof that you accept?

      • Hi Michael,

        Sorry for the delayed reply. I’ll need to reply in short today but let me take a shot at each question. They are insightful and deserve addressing (so often these “right” questions are the key to us opening up the doors to our own perceptions and beliefs and allowing a little light and wind to rustle things up).

        1. Just to be clear. I don’t think Sugata Mitra’s approach is better than that of others. Mainly because it really is suited for content based learning and only suitable indirectly for higher level students. For knowledge based subjects, I do think it an approach that works but for language learning, it needs a number of modifications and more teacher intervention. But as a philosophy of ed, I do think the idea of giving students more control, letting them have a go first, of being thoroughly inductive with such an organic thing as language – is good.
        I’ll also state from the get go – we shouldn’t think it is either his way or another way. So many factors determine how and why a student learns or a class/school “works”. So many ways to kill the cat we call learning. So I think we shouldn’t paint with such thick brush strokes. Both sides of this argument. You can learn language alone in a room listening to tapes or in the pub pint after pint or with a teacher 3 hours a day.

        2. Best practices. A comment needed. For the classroom, there is indeed a list of best practices that I advocate. Best practices are situational and depend on the environment where one teaches (to continue from the first comment). I also have to caution though, those who purely and religiously follow the ideas of RDI (Research Driven Instruction), as if teaching were a simple recipe and about throwing the correct ingredients together). Like cooking, you need the ingredients but it is also “how” you do it that leads to results and the proof in the pudding. So teachers must also question what research says we should do, draw on their own belief system, their own time and place and decide what will work best for them. Let’s also mention further that in ELT especially, 99% of research findings are truly speculative and based on such small samples and narrow design as to be not much better than thought experiments. Pet peeve of mine, how so many come to conclusions based on so little ….. So to end, I don’t think Mitra needs “proof” to convince me. My own experiences, readings, thinking, work suggest to me that what he is onto, is correct. But again, the “how” you do it is important. What I don’t advocate is thinking SOLEs are a cure all. They aren’t . Education will continue to experiment and find what’s best. What I’m looking for isn’t a new type of device or product. What I’m looking for is a new type of energy to drive that device, those many kinds of devices. I think that new kind of energy is us decreasing the distance between students and learning. This can be done many ways, but vital we do it.

        For me – there is a simple approach that works and my modification of Mitra’s Minimally Invasive Teaching

        1. Install. Students do the “heavy lifting” on their own with devices, in groups or self directed. Learning vocab./phrases. Gaining input. Inductively learning grammar. This was the old teacher directed part that can now be called “redundant” as per Mitra.

        2. Activate. Teachers organize student learning / activities and provide them a forum to practice and use language and learn it socially. Cultural and pragmatic features of language are learned and language is used in a “real” fashion. With an audience, learning in propelled by the power of an audience (and this is the true value of Mitra’s grannies).

        3. Assessment. Teachers monitor and counsel students. Formatively assess their learning 1 on 1 if possible. Direct students to content, experiences that will help their learning. Adjust the learning path. Start back at 1 and keep repeating.

        4. Application/Experimentation. The real world, “game day”. Students need a time/place to use English outside the classroom setting. Students need to be provided that or the language won’t grow and turn into a living thing. Schools must provide this opportunity to students when and if possible.

  27. Hi,

    I won’t be one to cheer you on. To bash the character of Dr. Sugata goes against portraying teachers as passionate and caring. It also adds little to fostering intelligent and respectful debate. Point out the issues without the name calling. Who are you to judge anyone’s character? Those who cheer you on should realize the danger in this. It hurts our cause and gets others to stop listening. I won’t be responding to what I’m sure will be more bashing, probably of my character, too. It’s okay I won’t be bullied by you or anyone to backing down from asking for intelligent, respectful debate.

    • Hi Shelly –
      Thanks for this. I sincerely hope there won’t be any need for anyone to resort to
      bullying you or anyone else here. As I’ve said elsewhere, I’m a very small voice of dissent in a great big adoring ocean of enthusiasm for Mitra’s ideas and I really don’t imagine my critique of his plenary last weekend will have much of an impact on him, his popularity or his work from hereon in. I also don’t see critique of ideas as ‘bashing’.

      Indeed, I have to say, I don’t see what I wrote above as bullying either, so maybe we simply have different understandings of what that involves? To me, bullying involves the strong and powerful ganging up and bashing the weak and vulnerable, and to my mind, in this discourse it’s the under-funded sections of state systems and the kids failed by them that are the most vulnerable – and teachers who seem to be getting blamed for this.

      As for judging Mr. Mitra’s character, well I hadn’t realised that was what I’d been doing. I don’t know the bloke and so cannot comment on that front. I can only work with what’s been presented to us as the public front. And I found that wanting. That’s all I was trying to say. Sorry if you took that personally.

    • Having had time to reflect on this over the last 24 hours, Shelly, I have to say I think it’s a bit off to play the bullying card. It actually closes down debate and tries to invalidate the points I’ve made in my initial post by – ironically – reducing them down via negative labelling, thus essentially disarming them. I think that if there are things you feel strongly about or feel have been wrongly attacked, it’s actually probably better to simply state what they are, why you feel strongly about these specifics and why you feel the accusations or criticisms are wrong. That way, we can have the kind of debate you claim to want to have. Otherwise, your statement actually becomes the first and the last word on the subject from your perspective.

  28. For the critics – you are doing exactly what Sugata Mitra said would happen when we ‘ask the big questions’. Clustering, sharing, researching and debating. It works. We are learning – right?

  29. @David,

    You seem to assume that, with respect to language learning Dr. Mitra’s approach is faster or better than the average of what we presently have. Why is that so?

    • Michael,

      Glad you asked that question and there are some obvious and very logical and quantifiable reasons. There are also some others that are definitely debatable. The obvious ones are;

      1. Time inefficiencies. In the traditional classroom everyone moves at the same pace. Covers the same material. Doesn’t matter if they already know it, don’t need it, don’t like it etc…. A classroom spends so much of its time just on organization, getting started or stopped, instructions etc…. The actual time a student spends really, really studying over a 40 min class is extremely low. I remember a study of mathematics and that students could easily learn up to grade level 11 math in 70 hours whereas they are in school thousands of hours to get the same result.

      2. Motivational deficiencies. Students have no choice over their teacher or the style of lesson delivery. We learn best through people we love and respect and who create a learning environment strongly tied to our own beliefs about learning.

      3. Methodological ills. Little skill development Language is a skill not a knowledge set. It is something we should practice and not be instructed in. Something we learn and aren’t taught. We learn best when we learn to understand it for ourselves and then practice it. Install, Apply, Experience. Classrooms no matter how much they try to focus on large amounts of practice time and input, are by design led by someone and about control and command. They end up being deductive, instruction and explanation where practice is always left to the end and mostly cut off when the bell rings.

      4. Little focus on developing reflectiveness, self correcting and study skills/strategies. Students that are fed information and told what to do, don’t develop strong learner autonomy and the skills needed through personalized goal management that is needed for quickly learning language.

      5. Lack of reality. Language needs motivation through actual use and real in depth experimentation with ambiguity tolerance. Classrooms are designed with 4 walls, as test tubes and with little interaction with the outside world. They foster dependence. Good for beginners but not much after that level.

      6. Peers. It is always assumed that peers lead to only positive interactions and results. I’m very negative on this. Peers are great socially but in a classroom lead to more time off task, negative interactions and disruptions whether obvious or not. One of the reasons home schooled children excel later in life is that they don’t experience so many distractions through peer interactions in the normal school room and learn on task, efficiently and prepared from a young age for interactions with adults.

      I could go on but I do hope you get the point. The teacher becomes by way of present classroom methods and instruction, a barrier between the student and learning. Teachers need to focus on organizing the learning environment and then getting out of the way. If students come to the classroom and don’t know what to do without the teacher being there – this is a sign of wrong learning design.

  30. @ Great Scott,

    I don’t think you’re in danger of being usurped by a granny, but if it happens, it’s sure to be a Super Gran on a motorbike;)

    @ Philip – thank you – I will study it and I have also linked it to an article I’ve just written on the subject!!

  31. If I had children and was choosing an education for them, and was told by a school owner that ‘Here we are into invention and creativity. We have no evidence that it works, nor do we require any’, I would take them somewhere else.

    • Hey Scott,

      No self discovery then – a Catholic school perhaps? With the powers that be managing all curriculum – and don’t you dare question authority.

      I see a need for both.


  32. Hugh, I’m curious…how do you differentiate between anecdotal evidence and empirical evidence? If Mitra had implemented a pre/post standardized English proficiency test, would that have made it more empirical for you? If Mitra had implemented a control group and an experimental group, would that have made it more empirical for you?

    I get the impression you discredit all forms of anecdotal evidence, say from focus groups, interviews, etc. So, I assume you discredit qualitative inquiry overall…correct me if I’m wrong.

    I have not seen Mitra’s specific protocol for collecting data, but it seems likely that his conclusion that his participants increased their computer literacies was not solely (if at all) based on interviews or focus groups. Surely he would have observed them opening a website, download a file, etc. If you agree that Mitra likely made these observations (e.g., data that does not come from focus groups or interviews), would you consider this anecdotal or empirical?

    It seems that the bulk of your entire argument stems from Mitra’s method for collecting data for his research. Again, I haven’t seen the details of how he collected his data, but perhaps you know more than what is being revealed in his talk. If you are just arguing for a quantitative research design over a qualitative research design (an age-old debate that serves little purpose), that’s one thing; if you are arguing about the specifics of this specific research method design, then you fail to provide enough evidence to prove your point.

    You say, “the fact that Mitra sees fit to make such anecdotal claims…clearly places him into the realm of magic bullet fantasists and undermines trust in much of the rest of his pseudo-research-based claims.”

    You are asking me (the reader) to take quite a leap here without providing any hard evidence (primary research) to back it up.

  33. @ Hugh,

    To show you what Shelly means….and with all due respect…..

    Imagine that someone is ranting on another blog about you. They are very irate about you, your work, your ideas, personality, what you stand for, you and your ‘kind’…

    They even call you derogatory, tabloidish, sensationalist names and it feels like an attack on your person…everyone can read it because it’s public – but that’s okay because it’s just a blog not an article..?

    Is that a matter of interpretation?

    How would you feel?

    • This HAS happened to me, Sylvia, and I expect it’s happened to almost anyone who’s ever stood up in public and voiced opinions that some have strong reactions against. I just see it as part of the process and think you’re fair game once you’re out there airing ideas.

      As I flippantly posted on one blog that had engaged in a fairly entertaining hatchet job of me following a talk I’d done knocking the construct of creativity as it exists in western ELT, it’s always better to be talked about than not!

  34. Ps – I think you’ve taken our comments with very good grace and I respect that. I think it’s just that when we express ourselves we’ve got to think of take on the perspective of others at the same time – do you see what I mean?

    Discussing his theories instead of his selfhood would be more productive, I think.

    • I do see what you mean, and I appreciate your perspectives on these things, Sylvia, and the time you’ve taken to explain them. I guess it’s just that I don’t agree that my posts ARE about Sugata Mitra’s ‘selfhood’, whatever that might, rather than his theories and ideas. I understand that you disagree with this, and feel we may just accept we have different takes on this – or different tolerance levels for what’s acceptable to say (or not) in debates about such heated and politically sensitive topics.

  35. I see. So this whole post and the comments its generated is somehow evidence of his grand master plan. His plenary talk was simply his cunning way of encouraging us to go away and do this, right?

    I’m reminded of a talk I saw once where the presenter responded to an antagonistic question by claiming “If it works, it’s NLP”.

    And that’s not a good thing.
    It’s really not.

  36. Hugh, your original post appears to be fired by your anger/frustration at the applause Mitra received from delegates after his speech. Your thesis, as I understand it, is that they were all deluded by a “snake oil salesman” supported by a conspiracy of neo cons, ed tech companies etc. That you should hold your fellow teachers in such low esteem I find tremendously patronizing. You claim to back teachers, but your post basically rubbishes them, or at least those at the conference. How will this divisive approach benefit teachers or learners?
    My second question is why are you so angry about Mitra (and his kind, whoever they are) ? His speech was about language learning without teachers, something which has been going on since the dawn of time and of course continues. Most students and governments around the world can maybe afford a class with a teacher for about two or three hours a week if they are lucky, so of course they will want to seek to investigate and develop less costly solutions.

    • Hi Duncan –
      I’m not sue if I should thank you for being outraged and patronised on behalf of teachers, but I guess it’s kind of you to feel so violated on their behalf.

      You’re quite right that my initial post was written following Mitra’s talk and was fired by a mixture of outrage at some of what he seemed to be suggesting and bemusement at the reaction he received at the end. I stand by the snake-oil quotes and the background supports: the latter is not a theory, but a fact. As has well documented elsewhere, Mitra is in bed with some powerful vested interests (for anyone reading out there that struggles with rhetoric by the way, can I make it clear that this figure of speech is intended figuratively rather than as an accusation of his sexual preferences!). He’s also a masterful public speaker and sells a very enticing vision of the future that I can see made a massive immediate impact on people.

      Being sceptical and questioning about his motive and, as a conference speaker myself, all too aware of the rhetorical devices he uses to sell this to teachers does NOT mean I hold teachers in low esteem. It means I understand entirely why the seduction occurred, which makes it all the more important that voices of dissent are heard, as they may allow teachers calmer reflection on the matter after the heat of the moment has passed.

      As for ‘claiming to back teachers’, I can only say that I’ve received countless messages over the last week or so thanking me for saying what I did at the start of my talk and for challenging the behemoth that preceded me. Here’s just one example:

      “I was happy to have stayed in my seat after Sugato Mitra’s plenary session (Hole in the wall) at the IATEFL conference in Harrogate. Though amusing I felt a bit worried after his session. There were more worrying sessions at the conference this year, giving me the feeling that teaching qualities are no longer important and that maybe it’s time to admit that teachers are useless and can be replaced by technology. Your talk brought back the balance I needed. Yes, if you love teaching and find your way to reach the students (and that doesn’t automatically mean following the old guys who came up with their approaches in the sixties and are still taking the main stages everywhere), being a teacher is and will always be an important (and wonderful) profession. Thank you for the balance. I really enjoyed your talk!”

      There are, whether you like it or not, plenty of teachers out there who didn’t feel represented by the love-in that followed the plenary and who seem grateful for representation. The other teachers I hope may come to change their minds or at least to be slightly more skeptical about Mitra’s claims and intentions. Hoping for this in no way “rubbishes” anyone and I don’t find such accusations particularly helpful. There you go.

      In terms of why I am so worried about Mitra, well I was rather hoping that this was what I’d made clear in my initial post! But to pick up on one or two specific points you made . . . his speech really WASN’T about ” language learning without teachers” – it was about the supposedly transformative powers of SOLEs to learn anything, and language learning was only mentioned in a cursory manner and in passing. It was these claims about language learning that particularly rang bells with me, as I’ve spent my working life in classrooms trying to help people learn languages and know how hard the road is. This makes me skeptical in the extreme of people claiming there are short cuts and easy, faster routes to what any serious teacher knows takes ages = and plenty of hard graft!

      I understand the need and desire for governments and companies to seek out cheaper ‘solutions’ to their charges language ‘problems’ – to use the jargon of the era – but would simply warn against investing too strongly in those who promise too much. This seems to me to be but common sense. As I said in the first ost, once we’ve dismantled the state system and allowed it to be taken over by private companies who promise way more than they’re later able to deliver, it’s far harder to put things back together than it is to keep it together now and avoid quick fixes.

      This is why the debate is heated 9on both sides) and why the stakes are so high.

  37. @Hugh, is there any where I can access your idea on “construct of creativity as it exists in western ELT “..?

    Ps – by selfhood I meant individuality/personality

    As for ‘acceptibility’ – from teaching and parenting perspectives – we criticise the action or mistake but not the child….

    You might say that was the wrong thing to do – but we don’t say you’re a bad child because you did the wrong thing – just as we don’t say you’re a stupid child because you made a mistake –

    This is true in adult relationships too and diplomatic discourse.

  38. Wow Hugh – I just read the link you left about creativity. And it doesn’t gel with me at all.

    Einstein said “it is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge”

    Teachers are not given the opportunity to be creative in 99.5% of schools – so, it doesn’t happen. They have to follow the curriculum – because the target is a CELTA, DELTA or IELTS or ETS. A test in other words. There’s absolutely zero creativity in that. Yet, all the teachers are forced to follow along – or get out, I chose to get out, because I don’t believe in it. I found it extremely limiting, No experimentation, little divergence, no personalized learning – this idea that Cambridge and others haven’t geared ‘the system’ to work on their favour holds no water with me.

    I believe in creativity. Full stop.


    • Hi Rob –
      Unsurprisingly, I’m not astounded to hear you didn’t agree with that little treatise. Tempted though I am to get into a discussion on the rights and wrongs of various ways of framing what we mean by creativity, I realise that were I to do so, I’d be falling into the trap I accused others of earlier – and getting sidetracked from what I came here for in the first place.

      Feel free to post any thoughts you might have on the creativity post over on that site and I’ll respond there, though.

      or don’t, of course.
      Asa the mood takes you.

      • Hugh
        I didn’t say I was outraged, nor did I say I was patronised on anyone’s behalf. I said that I found your attitude patronising. Still do, only more so now. You talk of teachers “grateful for (your) representation”. Have they elected you or something? Why not just say what you want to say, it’s interesting enough, and many have agreed with it, but that doesn’t make those of us who don’t deluded .

        • Hi again Duncan –
          We don’t seem to going anywhere with this other than to get locked into a circle of mutual annoyance at the tone of each other’s correspondence, I fear. You’re finding me patronising. I’m finding your responses rather high-handed and over-the-top. This is one of those situations where we’d probably benefit from being face to face and able to read each other’s body language and tone better, I suspect.

          Just so we’re clear, though: I am obviously claiming to have been talking as some of elected representative of anyone. Because that would be silly, wouldn’t it? All I was trying to point out was the fact that plenty of teachers contacted me AFTER m,y outburst to say thanks and to say that I was saying something that echoed their own feelings. This is all.

          Also, I DID initially just say what I wanted to say – that was my post at the top that started all this.

          As for those who still disagree, I certainly wouldn’t claim you’re deluded.
          I just think you’re wrong.
          In the same way as those who disagree think I’m wrong.

          Not sure nay of this adds anything further to our understanding of Sugata Mitra and his points and intentions, though, to be honest.

  39. @Hugh, ..aha!!

    I have a therapeutic remedy for your ‘curse’ bubbling in my magic cauldron.

    In this instance the curse may well be an illusion created by the self-fulfilling prophecy of rigid methodology.

    I shall reveal my recipe in my response article to be named:

    ” The Curse Of Disintegration in ELT”

    ( …..where it still exists in the half-light betwixt the cave and reality..)

  40. True in a sense, but for a human invention to be sustained beyond the inventor it should pass either the test of being practical (it solves a problem) or valuable (it enriches someone). Both of these are observable conditions and so are fit subjects for an empirical test.

  41. Sylvia, you seem to have pretty much nailed what I wanted to say. I think Mitra’s “findings” and the popular interpretation of his conclusions raise serious questions. However, to demolish him completely in such a polarizing manner (and Hugh Dellar is in good company) does a disservice to the need for continuing the conversation.

    Is there nothing more teachers can learn about encouraging natural inquisitiveness and peer-learning? We are in as much trouble as learners are when we become convinced we have all the right answers.

    It would certainly be a mistake to undiscerning and blindly copy Mitra’s “method” and transplant it into an unrelated context. I do feel that there is room for exploring what we can learn from his experiences – examining the facts behind the hype – and being open to ways we can adapt or leverage them for our own context.

  42. Hugh, Just a brief gesture of support from a fellow critic of Mitra.

    Re. anger: There are times when an anger is called for.

    What is still a bit of a mystery to me is the ovation. Why do people applaud? Essentially Mitra is taking us to the worst slums in the world and saying: “Look at all this poverty and deprivation. You know what these people need? Computers plastered into public walls and free broadband.” And people leap to their feet in enthusiastic support.


  43. Dear Hugh,

    My thoughts have largely been covered by Sylvia earlier in the comments section. The tone and choice of words hinder the article to be conducive to an intellectual response.

    To test this end, I showed it to a friend who works neither in ELT nor education. This was his response, with some paraphrasing to remove any inappropriate language: this Hugh guy sounds well annoyed that this Mitra fellow did a better job presenting than him and beat him to the punch about technology in the classroom. He’s probably like one of my old school teachers, never happy with us, behind the times.

    Mitra presents what very much looks like sound logical arguments with empirical evidence to back them up (http://www.ascilite.org.au/ajet/ajet21/mitra.html). In order to unbalance his arguments, he has to be met by a challenger who also has sound logical arguments with empirical evidence. Mitra is very much accused of anecdotal evidence in his plenary, yet in this article he is met only with anecdotal ideas which are far less convincing:

    “If anyone else tried to persuade those of us who spend our lives trying to help students learn a language that it really is possible to set kids a simple task that involves using a computer and that through doing this, they’ll somehow manage to teach themselves English, we’d would snort in derision and give them a wide birth.”

    A wealth of learners who have learnt a foreign language without a teacher at all and only computers and software could very quickly say this statement is wrong and they would be held in higher regard because they are hard evidence of this. What about all those people who have learnt a language with a friend, who isn’t a teacher but just a source of knowledge?

    Of course, there is always the argument that research which supports your approach to teaching is far more widespread and conclusive than Mitra’s; however, that is surely only due to the fact Mitra’s ideas have yet had the chance to be widely tested, researched and experimented with, while most teaching approaches have had years of testing in teachers’ classrooms.






    • Hello there Miguel –
      Thanks for your comments. Not quite sure they needed to be in screaming great big block capital, mind, but anyway . . . firstly, I guess I just have to say that rather than seeing it is as sad that there’s been plenty of experts, authors, teachers, and so on critiquing Sugata Mitra after his IATEFL plenary, I see it as a healthy thing. If you’re going to go around making such bold claims as he was doing about learning and how it might occur, it would be a sorry state of affairs if these claims were simply accepted without question.

      Obviously, I’d also disagree that such commentary and questioning of Mitra’s claims are a result of a failure of engage with the current learning demand situation. I can only speak for myself, but I’m currently involved in several projects looking at how best to help students learn online – and I maintain a keen interest in how technology and education are interacting. However, as I’m also a teacher with some twenty years experience, I know how arduous learning a foreign language is – and thus react negatively when I hear people claiming it can be anything other than this. I have a natural reaction against – and suspicion of – miracle cures and exaggerated claims, and personally that’s what I felt I was hearing in the IATEFL plenary.

      As for not offering positive solutions, that’s perhaps a fairer criticism to level, but in a sense it’s outside of the current discussion. One may well have all sorts of positive ideas about how learning can best be facilitated through technology, but the place for exploring those is not, to my mind, in a post analysing Mitra’s own claims.

      You are of course right that education is a business and that people make their livings from the field. I think, however, you’re naive to imagine that what Mitra is proposing is somehow profit-free and value-neutral or even somehow done out of kindness and non-self-interested motives. Instead, I’d suggest it’s simply relocating the profits from the field away from the experts in language and learning and towards the big tech firms. I have an issue with that, and in particular with the encroachment of these firms and their rhetoric into the state sector, which is what prompted this whole post in the first place. If you don’t, that’s fine, and of course your prerogative.

      In terms of proving my results, I can show you students I actually teach, show you what I do with them in class and explain why I believe those things are important to do; explain how I encourage them to study outside of class, and so on, I can tell you the exam results – of internationally recognised tests they’ve passed – and tell you how long it took them to reach those levels. I think in this particular case, given the wild claims made, the burden of proof must surely fall on Sugata Mitra, who is great at sowing uplifting videos of children and making bold claims, but less great at explaining exactly what students really learned, how he knows they learned this, and how they came to know it.


  45. I am a bit surprised that no one has referred to any of the peer reviewed international publications. It takes only 5 minutes to find them on the Internet. Keynotes are not meant for reporting data in a ‘cold and academic’ manner, for heaven’s sake!

    • Hi Sugata –
      Thanks for taking the time to write.
      I obviously did have a look at the peer reviewed literature that was available, but I have to say i couldn’t find anything that backed up or explained sufficiently any of the very bold claims you were making about SOLEs, for instance, allowing students to uncover the whole of the Chemistry syllabus simply by Googling to find out why women don’t grow moustaches. Or what you meant when you said that you returned after two months and found kids had taught themselves English.

      As a teacher, I am genuinely curious to hear more about how you came to such conclusions and the degree to which they are really academically supported, so if you could point me in the direction of research that expands upon that kind of thing, it’d be great.

      • Dr. Mitra,

        I too would be grateful for any evidence that showed how students using your “method” and starting at level X moved to level Y (however you yourself define these levels). At first, I don’t care how it happened (an explanation) I only want to see evidence that progress was made and that yours was the only input they had during this time period.

  46. I’ve been reading John Hattie’s masterful VISIBLE LEARNING over the last few weeks, a comprehensive overview of the research into how hundreds of different factors impact upon achievement across subjects. Hattie is particularly scathing of claims that certain approaches make a positive difference, as somewhere around 96% of all things that might happen with kids have some kind of positive impact. What’s fascinating, though (albeit hardly surprising to any seasoned classroom practitioner) is how relatively small a positive impact tech-based interruptions have on achievement – and the degree to which ultimately it’s what teachers do, say and believe that most impacts learning.

    Wonder if Sugata Mitra is aware of the book and what his take on it would be?


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