What Kids can Learn

Posted on October 2, 2006  Comments (17)

This is a fascinating interview discussing what children can learn if given a computer and little, if any, instruction. Very Cool. Links on the progress since this interview are at the end of the post.

Q: This is your concept of minimally invasive education?

A: Yes. It started out as a joke but I’ve kept using the term … This is a system of education where you assume that children know how to put two and two together on their own. So you stand aside and intervene only if you see them going in a direction that might lead into a blind alley.

The interview explores what happened when:

Mitra simply left the computer on, connected to the Internet, and allowed any passerby to play with it. He monitored activity on the PC using a remote computer and a video camera mounted in a nearby tree.

What he discovered was that the most avid users of the machine were ghetto kids aged 6 to 12, most of whom have only the most rudimentary education and little knowledge of English. Yet within days, the kids had taught themselves to draw on the computer and to browse the Net. Some of the other things they learned, Mitra says, astonished him.

Q: What else have you learned?

A: Well, I tried another experiment. I went to a middle-class school and chose some ninth graders, two girls and two boys. I called their physics teacher in and asked him, “What are you going to teach these children next year at this time?” He mentioned viscosity. I asked him to write down five possible exam questions on the subject. I then took the four children and said, “Look here guys. I have a little problem for you.” They read the questions and said they didn’t understand them, it was Greek to them. So I said, “Here’s a terminal. I’ll give you two hours to find the answers.”

Then I did my usual thing: I closed the door and went off somewhere else.

They answered all five questions in two hours. The physics teacher checked the answers, and they were correct. That, of itself, doesn’t mean much. But I said to him, “Talk to the children and find out if they really learned something about this subject.” So he spent half an hour talking to them. He came out and said, “They don’t know everything about this subject or everything I would teach them. But they do know one hell of a lot about it. And they know a couple of things about it I didn’t know.”

I would think some might object to the fact that such conditions exist. But they do for millions of kids today.

I’m not even going to suggest that we use this [technique] for adults. The only reaction we got from adults was, “What on earth is this for? Why is there no one here to teach us something? How are we ever going to use this?” I contend that by the time we are 16, we are taught to want teachers, taught that we cannot learn anything without teachers.

And I think we can all learn some ideas from this experiment that could be useful.

My favorite charity is Trickle Up. If you want to do something to change the conditions for many who don’t have access to this blog I recommend it.

Related: PBS Frontline storyHole in the Wall FoundationA ‘hole in the wall’ helps educate IndiaThe Hole-In-The-Wall 2003 studyAppropriate TechnologyWater and Electricity for all

17 Responses to “What Kids can Learn”

  1. $100 Laptop Update
    January 10th, 2007 @ 12:43 pm

    [...] “It has built-in wireless networking and video conferencing so that groups of children can work together. The project is also working to ensure that children using the laptop around the world can be in contact.” [...]

  2. CuriousCat: One Laptop Per Child - Give One Get One
    November 13th, 2007 @ 4:16 pm

    We mentioned the Give One Get One program last month – you can buy one for yourself with the purchase of one for a child in the developing world. The cost is $400, $200 qualifies as a charitable deduction (the gift for the child).

  3. Shaping Youth » One Laptop Per Child: Give One, Get One Goin’ Fast!
    November 15th, 2007 @ 6:41 pm

    “between ‘what kids can learn’ on this gizmo and the ‘Trickle up.org’ factor of taking the first steps out of poverty by using media for positive change, regardless of who ends up with the green machine, I’m in…”

  4. CuriousCat: A Child's View of the OLPC Laptop
    December 12th, 2007 @ 7:54 pm

    “Rufus does not have an opinion about that controversy, but he does have a verdict on the laptop. “It’s great,” he says…”

  5. Curious Cat: Make the World Better
    February 23rd, 2008 @ 9:16 pm

    donate using the widget displayed in this post: to William Kamkwamba who built his own windmill in Malawi to get electricity for his home…

  6. Curious Cat » Sarah, aged 3, Learns About Soap
    February 25th, 2008 @ 11:06 am

    I remember such discussions with Dad (Chemical Engineering professor). The only danger I saw was him getting tied of -why? (when I was older)…

  7. Fergus Mayhew
    July 10th, 2008 @ 2:59 am

    I’m amazed at what my ten year old is capable of doing, and finding, on the Internet. Quite independent of me or his siblings, he has created several blogs, taught himself to capture and edit screenshots of a MPRG he plays (Club Penguin) and started posting tips and tricks for other Club Penguin participants. We’ve done nothing to foster this, simply made a computer available in the family room for limited amounts of time each day.

  8. Drew
    July 29th, 2008 @ 1:23 pm

    I totally agree with you Fergus. My nephews and nieces are even younger as your ten years old. I am amazed every time when I see hem browse through my own free games website I once put together for them. They learn so quickly! If I think what I did at that age, it was probably nothing but playing outdoors with a ball when the weather was fine and reading comics and books inside when it was raining or cold. On the other end I don’t know if kids are happier these days knowing so much already. Sometimes I have the feeling that kids can’t be true kids anymore.

  9. Anonymous
    August 7th, 2008 @ 5:42 pm

    Growing up with a computer in the home has made a huge difference for young people today. They see the internet as a natural extention of themselves. Their blog is a psuedo diary which lets their friends know what happened to them or what is going on after school. My youngest even has a blog – she turned the picture book we posted online after she was born into her own page and she is only 10 years old!

  10. Monica
    August 14th, 2008 @ 9:38 am

    I remember seeing a program about this on the tv and found it facinating.

    It was amazing how these children managed without guidance to figure it all out. Its almost as if they are preprogrammed to adapt to this computer age.

    I wonder if children nowadays will ever experience the simple “toys” of our yesterdays.

    I believe that there has probably been more of a leap in the knowledge that they have gleaned over the last decade than at any time before.
    Are we going to have a future generation of whizkids, I think we are.

  11. Eva White
    August 26th, 2008 @ 4:06 am

    I think the experiment you carried out was marvelous. I think the concept of this self learning should be implemented in schools. Actually if I go to see we really become dependent on the tutors to teach us. And like machines we learn what the tutor has taught us. I think it’s great to inculcate this habit of self learning among children. to find solutions to your own problems, if faced with any difficulty we are there to help.

  12. Curious Cat Science and Engineering Blog » Providing Computer to Remote Students in Nepal
    January 7th, 2009 @ 10:34 am

    [...] I believe strongly in the ability of kids to learn if they are just provided some tools that help them do so. See a great post on Hole in the Wall computers. [...]

  13. Curious Cat Science and Engineering Blog » Why Desktop Linux Will Not Take off
    January 11th, 2009 @ 8:15 pm

    [...] Give Children a Computer and Stand Back – $100 Laptops for the World by curiouscat   Tags: Technology   Permalink to: Why [...]

  14. Anonymous
    April 16th, 2009 @ 8:44 pm

    I’m a huge fan of the idea of Nature vs Nurture (siding with Nurture). The idea of Tabula Rasa means that everyone starts off pretty close to the same (give or take some IQ, etc.), and has the ability to learn to be anything. If we give people computers when they’re young, they’ll go to Wikipedia and learn things really fast, especially if they computers are pre-loaded with things that will encourage learning, etc.

  15. Curious Cat Science and Engineering Blog » Letting Children Learn – Hole in the Wall Computers
    July 19th, 2010 @ 9:02 am

    [...] The hole in the wall experiments are exactly the kind of thing I love to lean about. I wrote about them in 2006, what kids can learn. [...]

  16. Aakash Android Tablet from India: $35 for Indian Student, $60 Retail | Curious Cat Gadgets
    October 27th, 2011 @ 1:28 am

    The Indian government financed the development of a cheap tablet to provide computer access to tens of millions of Indian students.

  17. Given Tablets but No Teachers, Kids Teach Themselves – Having Never Seen Advanced Technology Before » Curious Cat Science Blog
    May 3rd, 2013 @ 6:31 am

    Earlier this year, OLPC workers dropped off closed boxes containing the tablets, taped shut, with no instructions…

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