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Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Sugata Mitra, Self-Organized Learning, Ctd

I wanted to follow up on a previous post about Sugata Mitra's experiments in facilitating student-driven, "self-organized" learning.

Last night in class I borrowed one of the techniques featured in his TED video. I randomly arranged the students into groups of four and assigned each group to one computer. (That is, four students gathered around one computer. There were five groups. Since the class totaled 19 students, one group only had three students.)

I gave each group a note card with a phrase or issue. The phrases were relevant and/or in the news, but I selected terms that I felt confident no one would be familiar with. The five cards contained the following: 1. Eurozone Crisis, 2. Net Neutrality, 3. The Singularity, 4. M-Theory, 5. Emotional Intelligence. One student knew what the Eurozone Crisis was and a little about the Singularity. Otherwise, no one else in the room had any familiarity with the terms.

The point was not to completely baffle them (although M-Theory is baffling no matter how much you know about it) but to present them with a concept currently beyond their knowledge, yet potentially within their intellectual grasp.

After assigning each group a note card, I gave them the following task:

a. Find ten credible research sources related to their topic and corresponding to previously defined categories and restrictions. I had just presented them with ten different types of sources, including data, punditry, history, poetry, philosophy, science, and so on. Additionally, in previous classes we discussed how to use the Internet and library databases to "filter" content and find credible sources.

b. Use these 10 sources to create an outline for a problem-solution essay on their assigned topic, including an introductory paragraph, a thesis, body paragraphs, and a conclusion.

They were given a bit over 2 hours to complete the entire task. I helped them manage their time by giving them 1 hour per task and giving them a break in between.

I am happy to report that the students were engaged. They worked together to understand new information and left class able to talk about a new topic they knew nothing about only two hours ago. Each group formulated an argument in response to the topic. For example, the Singularity group decided that certain aspects of Ray Kurzweil's predictions are inevitable, but others are exaggerated and undesirable. One member of the M-Theory group described the notion of "strings" to me with a frightening command of the facts, and then informed me that the basic theory will never be substantiated because doing so would require means beyond our capabilities. The Eurozone group left extremely frustrated that raising taxes to close Greek debt is a losing cause in a country that doesn't know how to collect taxes in the first place. Another student in that group told me the pattern of stimulus and recession in Greece closely parallels our own country's history. This was, of course, a group that had no idea what the Eurozone was just two hours earlier.

As Mitra describes in the video, learning can emerge in a self-organized fashion, given the right conditions, which seem to include student-led collaboration, access to technology, and basic curiosity. It was amazing to watch their group dynamics, how a leader emerges, how this leader interacts with the others, who take turns offering suggestions for search terms and pointing at the screen to get everyone's attention. It was a lot of the same behavior exhibited by the school children in Mitra's video. And of course, I was there to offer occasional tips, feedback, and support. Mostly though, I got out of the way and let them teach each other.

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