Sugata Mitra: Self-organising systems and the future of learning

Day 2 at the Digital Education Show kicked off with Sugata Mitra. The following is a brief reflection on the thoughts shared by Mitra. The italics are my reflections. The roman is Sugata Mitra’s comments approximately paraphrased.

Self organising systems in future schools

The hole in the wall project was 16 years ago. It was an experiment designed out of curiosity with far reaching and unanticipated impacts. Under the right circumstances, children are capable of learning maths and computer science, the pronunciation of English words, and even biotechnology. All of the results of these experiments are well documented online. Mitra went on to discuss his work with the Uruguayan government who interestingly, a long time ago now, gave every pupil attending a state school a laptop

The Hole in the Wall and Gateshead experiments began to tell us about a new kind of learning process.

There is nothing [Sugata] has found to prove this wrong.

The Granny Cloud Sugata found that in the process of children finding out ‘stuff’ for themselves, you could, as an adult, improve the process. If you have a friendly, non-threatening adult who encourages the process of self organised learning, the process seems to produce better results. Here, the future role of ‘teacher’ is important to consider and to question. The adults on the Granny Cloud can be connected to classrooms where adults can’t or won’t normally go. Teacher migration is an issue for the Indian government. How are they going to address the problem? With teacher training. The aim is to improve the quality of the teaching in remote towns and villages where the migration issue is most problematic. However, improving teachers will just enable more to move away.

Density of council housing plotted against GCSE scores in England relate to the same downward curve Sugata found in India. In India it was a geographical problem. In England it was social. The same problem appeared in a different guise. Looking in other countries, the same problem exists. There are some places in the world where good teachers cannot or will not go. These places remain there for a number of years and then you get trouble. The solution was to find a way to not use teachers in these places.

Self organised learning Self organising systems is a term from maths and physics which talks about ‘chaotic’ systems. They are ‘spontaneously’ ordered. These systems are not organised! Sugata explored an example that helps him explain this to other people. The synchronous clapping experiment is an activity where you ask a group to clap at the same time and then question them in order to help them see the random organisation. Who synchronised the claps? Who decided on the frequency of the claps?  Nature uses these systems all the time. So why not learning?

SOLE Self Organised Learning Environments

How do you get collaboration automatically? If you restrict resources the collaboration happens. Don’t ask children to make groups as you bring in bias. Ask children a big question and allow them to group themselves. In one example of this in the classroom, one child, within 25 minutes, was presenting to the rest of the class at an undergraduate level. However, while she had prepared a script and was reading the information clearly, I would question whether or not she truly ‘understood’ the concepts in the sense that she could explain them in her own words and apply them in a range of contexts. Obviously, this would take more learning time. 

Mitra took us through the results of testing 8 and 9 year olds on GCSE questions. After a couple of months, the children were retested and the percentage scores increased. This is evidence that I aim to investigate further. 

The challenge of assessment The preindustrial, pre-machine way of running the world required people to fill it. In order to find these people, schools were created. If you were an assembly worker, what would I teach you? I would teach you to do the same thing over and over again; I would teach you not to ask questions; and I would teach you to never be creative. Children are being prepared for a world that doesn’t exist anymore. In order to prepare children for a role in this world, shouldn’t exams look different? The existing school system pretends that the internet doesn’t exist. Although I am sure that there are many schools still putting up walls with regards to access to the internet, I think this is a big claim. I think that actually there are a number of schools who have, for a number of years, been thinking more progressively that this. However, I do agree with Sugata that this should be spread widely.


Taking us through a range of GCSE questions, Mitra posed that the internet should be allowed in examinations if they are to better reflect the world that we live in. Each question could be answered within seconds, if the internet was made available and it could be ‘Googled’. Inevitably, there are deeper philosophical issues here related to Google’s ownership and control of data. And there are issues of trust and accuracy related to websites and information. However, this is an important point that needs considering on a wider scale in education systems. 

School in the cloud The idea was to bring SOLE and the Granny Cloud together into different kinds of cultural and socioeconomic settings. To build seven schools in the cloud in a range of social backgrounds.

Mitra took us through the current schools that he has created as part of his Schools in the Cloud project. 

The School In The Cloud: Trailer from Docs & Pieces on Vimeo.

Teachers have implemented SOLEs all around the world and have been blogging about the impact. Their results are extraordinarily positive. SOLEs are out there. But they are struggling against an outdated education system. The need for change is now. 

Current results


 The reaction of students who have been through a SOLE project as part of undergraduate studies was interesting. When completing an evaluation they said things like ‘we need more regimentation’, ‘it was awful, we had to do all the work ourselves’. The long lasting impact of our system is destructive. 

At the end of the talk there was a question from the audience related to filtering. If children are given access to a device with a big screen, they are less likely to purposely access inappropriate information. Sugata explained that there are a number of social ‘natural’ controls that can help to filter. If there is a firewall, a child will want to know what is behind it.

This was a fantastic, pragmatic talk and a great way to start the second day at #DigitalEducationUK. Real evidence of real outcomes of a real definition of the potential future of schools. 

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