I’m one of the millions of people who have learned from and been inspired by watching one or both of Sugata Mitra’s TED talks (Build a School in the Cloud, 2013; The Child-Driven Education, 2010 ). A trained physicist, Mitra is an innovative educational researcher currently located at Newcastle University in the UK. His Hole in the Wall project, for which he received the 2013 TED prize of one million dollars, began in 1999 when (as he tells the story) he put a computer in a hole in a wall of a New Delhi slum and watched with a hidden camera what happened. Children gathered around it. Their curiosity got the best of them; they played with the computer and taught themselves how to use it, to learn from the Internet and from each other.
Since then, Mitra’s project has expanded greatly in sophistication and across the globe. In its use of technology to create non-formal, non-didactic educational environments premised on learning as a creative, emergent, social-cultural activity, Mitra’s work is an exciting frontier.
Mitra calls the kind of environments he creates SOLEs or Self-Organizing Learning Environments. “Self-organizing” refers to the children figuring out how to organize the learning environment, including how to use the computer, the Internet and the varied skills and personalities of each other without adults teaching or supervising them.
Last week I visited a SOLE set up in a Harlem elementary school and spent about an hour with a 4th grade class who came up with the topic, “What is a black hole?” It was thrilling to be among happy children—children encouraged to be curious, explore, make discoveries, talk freely, explore, create their own groups, walk around, peer over each other’s shoulders, explore, explore, explore. They were creating their learning environment and their learning at the same time, which is my understanding of what Lev Vygotsky called ZPDs or Zones of Proximal Development. With both SOLEs and ZPDs, people are related to not just as who they are now, but also as who they’re becoming, as “a head taller” than they are, so they do together all kinds of things they don’t yet know how to do. (For a new edition of my book Vygotsky at Work and Play due out this fall, I’ve added a chapter in which I play around with SOLEs and ZPDs).
The day after the visit to the Harlem SOLE, I introduced Mitra to the All Stars Project’s national headquarters and its co-founder, Lenora Fulani. He and I and Gabrielle Kurlander, All Stars’ president and CEO, toured the All Stars and spoke about learning environments, what schools are and aren’t, development, play, performance, poverty, knowledge, assessment, resistance and support (and funding) for these kinds of innovations. It was a delightful conversation, and one I hope is just the first of many.