Sugata Mitra on IATEFL

Sugata Mitra Talks to Nik Peachey at IATEFL Harrogate 2014

Education & Technology

This may be one of the last looks at the Sugata Mitra debate before his forthcoming Q & A organised by IATEFL for Saturday, April 19th.

The actual plenary had a standing ovation on one hand, and a vociferous backlash, to say the least, on the other hand. A paradoxical reaction to a master in the art of ambiguity. His charm was like voodoo to some, and those who could understand his message were seen as impressionable minions desperate for some charismatic influence.

There was so much controversy surrounding his plenary and so many angry blogs, under-the-belt blogs, insightful blogs, inciteful blogs, sensitive blogs, objective blogs, multiple hat blogs and Twitter-stream madness that IATEFL had to schedule the upcoming Q & A session so that Sugata Mitra could be questioned by  what Paul Read calls  “the Gods, demi-Gods”and mere mortals of ELT.

To watch his full plenary and my personal review , check out The Power Of The Unsaid With Sugata Mitra.

To get a taste of the controversy, follow this Pinterest board created by Marisa Constantinides.

Yet, this interview with Nik Peachey which took place immediately after Mitra’s talk, when derogatory comments were already flying manically through the Twitter-stream, actually reveals a lot, or at least, adds some colour and dimension to the thoughts and trending perspectives of Sugata Mitra.

I read a very interesting article recently by Paul Read on hierarchies and Olympian mythology in ELT. It was shared by Leo Selivan during a blog sharing discussion on his insightful article called confer or concur via facebook. I found the Olympian analogy to be kind of profound and very witty at the same time. Profound in the sense that we are a profession with mindsets stuck in the quicksand of a netherworld that’s shifting beneath our feet. Although our mindsets are stuck, our fancies are flying sky-high in Olympus with our invincibly self-righteous monopoly on ..‘the way it is‘…



The problem is , of course, that there is no IS anymore……

Even if the establishment proves Sugata Mitra to be wrong, or even if he proves himself to be wrong in his experiments….there will still be no ‘is’ – no status quo left… ELT.

The business world has long known that employment trends are changing and that there is no such thing as ‘static’ training anymore. The educational world addresses the same concept through life-long learning initiatives, professional development online, and embracing the ‘intangibles’ of the digital age.

The question is how much change are we talking about?

Sugata clarifies what he means by teachers not being required any more when Nik asks him how schools and classes will be structured without a teacher around and Sugata says….

“When I talk about teachers not being required I’m not talking of the presence or absence of a human being.”

It’s quite clear to me that as he goes on, he’s really saying that teachers will facilitate rather than teach directly. This is really nothing new in intelligent teaching practices. It’s just being reframed in ambiguous terms by Sugata Mitra and it seems that we are all fair game for the bait.

Our profession will not be dumbed down or made ridiculous. It will be more focused, Socratic, and socially/emotionally perceptive. The psychology of learning will be given more importance and emphasis. Cold intellectualism will not survive in the dynamic world of query-based learning where the internet acts as an ‘extension of a student’s inquiring mind’ to paraphrase Nik Peachey..

Sugata goes on to say that he has a lot of unpublished data regarding his experiments in Britain as opposed to India, and that through his ongoing experiments English students have shown that they can collaborate, engage and produce deep learning insights when responding to his approaches.


The Granny Cloud.

granny cloud


The Granny cloud is in danger of becoming the latest scapegoat in the ‘true cause’ of cultivating life-long technophic inertia in ELT. Basically, the idea is to enlist voluntary online facilitators to help students in their language learning quests. This idea has always been with us – the only difference is that this one is in the cloud. In Ireland and Britain primary schools have always had classroom assistants who are not qualified teachers but who give social/emotional support to the students and organisational support to the teachers. Despite this, some of the best minds and writers in ELT have been dramatising this out of all proportion, saying that Sugata Mitra wants to get rid of teachers and replace them with grannies.

Nik Peachey then summarises a fascinating concept shared by a previous plenary speaker….

Our future may lie in becoming “efficiently inefficient rather than inefficiently efficient”.

That will be easy for  the intuitive ones amongst us who lean towards social and emotional approaches to learning and Vygotskian experiences of life-long learning for students, teachers, and…even Grannies;)

Last but not least:

Sugata Mitra says that both teachers and ‘grannies’ are important in their different roles.

To learn more you can attend the Q & A session on Saturday.

Sylvia Guinan

is an online English teacher, writer and blogger who facilitates professional development online. She uses brain-friendly techniques to help students and teachers around the world. She designs educational materials, develops courses, writes resource papers and publishes ebooks. Her work is the result of much research into the psychology of learning, as well as hands-on experience with multi-media technology.

3 thoughts on “Sugata Mitra Talks to Nik Peachey at IATEFL Harrogate 2014

  1. Thank you for this rich and detailed critique:)

    Well, I was just writing about this interview within ELT contexts, but thank you for challenging us to think about the wider implications in education.

    I will need to break down your commentary into smaller chunks in an attempt to fully understand your deeper insights and to figure out where we can develop your suggestions…

    From what I see now, you are pushing for socio-political radicalism and you are bringing in the bigger picture of industry and economics.

    Let’s start with this point:

    “Some of us (I suspect) who are interested in pedagogies of the not-yet free are looking not so much to challenge the status quo in the narrow relatively insignificant field of ELT but in the wider world…”

    Who are ‘the free’ and who are the ‘not yet free’ in your perspective and in the context of your comment?

    Are you referring to the political status quo?

    I think you mean the socio-economically and politically unfree. If you want to refer to the Greek educational system – there is none. Good teaching in Greece comes from passionate educators who work despite the system – which is not really a system…..

    Maybe technocracy and ‘learning through technology’ are two different things.

    For now I’ll just meditate on the significance of my five dots..;)

  2. “no status quo left… ELT” – those five dots separate the radical-sounding build-up from the anti-climax. Some of us (I suspect) who are interested in pedagogies of the not-yet free are looking not so much to challenge the status quo in the narrow relatively insignificant field of ELT but in the wider world. Some refer to the way Sugata rocks the boat, but we would argue that that is exactly what he does not do as far as the wider world is concerned. We live in a world where one dominant feature is technocracy (and those of us in Greece have seen at first hand how mild mannered technocrats can annul democratic principles at will). Mitra’s approach to education arguably poses no challenge whatsoever to that technocracy, but rather fits in perfectly with the current practices of deskilling and the forcibly imposed flexibility of the atomised, de-unionised workers. His framing of his work as a new method to enable people simply to learn whatever they might feel inclined to learn (and within the present social context the dominant motive will simply be one of economic survival, not a new idealism) also means that despite the radical-sounding words re. industry in education the global industrial regime outside the thin school walls goes unchallenged. This is just a tool, and in practice that means it will be used to fit people into the current regime.

    The core idea of the freedom of the child could have been pushed in a tremendously radical direction, but Mitra shies away from doing this. The political ignorance of young adults is fine, as is their inability to organise themselves effectively to challenge the powers that be. As long as they can teach themselves to code online and they have someone supportive to encourage them in the process, all with a view to getting a job on a short-term contract as a software sweatshop, then that’s fine. Industrial schools must stop imposing their own ideas so that the bigger industry outside can impose its own unimpeded, setting its own agenda for what will count as a 21st century skill. And by the looks of it, those 21st century skills will have nothing to do with democracy.

    We would suggest that an important 21st century skill would be: whistle blowing. Perhaps Newcastle University could do some research into whether holes in the wall coupled with granny clouds tend to cultivate the kind of character who is prepared to blow whistles when the occasion for that arises.

    The status quo remains unshaken.

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