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Sunday / August 25

Read an Excerpt from The School in the Cloud

The following is an excerpt from Sugata Mitra’s upcoming book, The School in the Cloud. Mitra is most well-known for his “Hole in the Wall” experiment that inspired his three TED Talks on the issue, and granted him the first million-dollar TED prize for research. The School in the Cloud documents Mitra’s experiences conducting research on self-organized learning environments (SOLEs), or minimally invasive education with access to the Internet. 


Area 5: Killingworth, North Tyneside, England

Killingworth is a town north of Newcastle upon Tyne in England. It is perhaps most famous for its nineteenth-century collieries. It is here that, in 1814, George Stephenson built his first steam engine, called the Blücher. The Blücher did not last very long, but it was the prototype from which George and his son Robert went on to build the famous Rocket steam engine at the Robert Stephenson and Company’s Forth Street Works, close to today’s Newcastle Central railway station.

From the quiet and, at the time, somewhat impoverished neighborhoods of Killingworth the literal engine of the Industrial Revolution began.

Amy-Leigh (then Dickinson) is a teacher and head of design technology and art at the George Stephenson High School (GSHS) in Killingworth. On 18 April 2012, Amy met Emma Crawley, a teacher and colleague of mine, and observed her in a SOLE session at St. Aidan’s Primary School in Gateshead. Amy invited me to her school to see if her students, too, could use SOLEs. I used the opportunity to conduct an experiment on myself. I asked Amy not to tell me anything about the students I would be meeting—their ages, gender, what subjects they were doing—nothing. I also told her not to say anything to the students or their teacher about what I might be doing in their school.

As it turns out, I met with students in Year 7; they were about 12 years old. The topic was art. I met the art teacher and asked him what his plan would have been if I had not come. He said he was going to discuss the effect of light and shade on the still-life watercolors of Cézanne. I gulped. I had no clue what the teacher was talking about.

“Good morning,” I said to the curious class. “Does anybody here have any idea what ‘the effect of light and shade on the still-life watercolors of Cézanne’ means?”

The children looked blankly at me and shook their heads. The teacher was sitting in the back of the classroom as I had requested him to do. Amy was hanging around, biting her nails.

“Well, we have to do something about this. Why don’t you use the computers at the back and see if you can figure something out in 30 minutes?”

“Shall we work in groups?” asked a child.

“Just do what you want,” I said.

A SOLE followed. The art teacher came up to me and whispered, “Should we not help a bit? They don’t even know how to spell Cézanne; they are typing Susan instead.”

I shook my head. Google took the lead and figured out that if they were after still-life watercolors, they must mean Cézanne and not Susan.

Half an hour later, we heard the children describe the life of Cézanne, and how he started a new style with light and shade that is still followed today. They also discovered that his technique made still-life paintings look as though they were three-dimensional.

They had done all of what he would have done, the art teacher said, proudly. I had just “taught” an art class!

Amy continued with SOLEs in GSHS, and a few teachers started experimenting with it. They were encouraged by Ian Wilkinson, the principal. Ian had read of my work and found it interesting. Without his support, SOLEs in GSHS would never have succeeded. Newcastle University wrote to Amy asking her to send them a written description of her experience with SOLEs.

Amy’s endorsement of SOLEs is one of the best I have ever received.

My name is Amy-Leigh Dickinson, and I am currently Curriculum Leader for Design and Art at George Stephenson High School. I have been asked to write a short letter on the impact Sugata Mitra and his work has had on me and on my school as a whole. I would first like to give some background to how I came across Sugata’s work.

My head teacher, Ian Wilkinson, presented a whole-school assembly on Sugata Mitra and his work on the Hole in the Wall project. I was so interested in his work that I contacted the University of Newcastle and Sugata Mitra. I wanted to know if Sugata’s work had been extended into teaching in secondary schools here in England. I was put in touch with Emma Crawley from St. Aidans School in Gateshead. I visited her school and watched a SOLE lesson in action. From there I was hooked!!! I was amazed by the results and was dying to get back to school to try it out. I was fortunate that Sugata came out to visit us at school and teach a Year 7 art class. [His] question was, “How can you paint a teardrop so it looks real?”

My first class was Year 8, and the question was, “Did you know rubies, diamonds, and emeralds are all made out of the same thing?” I explained to the class what a SOLE lesson was after showing them a clip of Sugata’s TED talk. I will never forget this moment in my teaching career: I went from thinking “This will never work” to total amazement! The children learned so much from the lesson (as I myself did). This showed me that teaching could once more be exciting, unpredictable, and inspire children to think, take charge, be self-managers—and that most of them learn from each other, without me blocking and stopping the flow of lessons. I became so interested, I read Sugata Mitra’s book Beyond the Hole in the Wall and started to try it out with other classes (all different ages/stages). There were some fantastic results, and some not, but then that in itself proved interesting. I believe that by the time children are of the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) and A Level age (15–17), we have harmed their learning, as the curriculum/exam culture does not strive to create independent learners.

I shared my research with Sugata and others, and within my school, SOLE became infectious; a number of teachers also started to try SOLE out. Due to my involvement with Sugata, I have been fortunate to meet a variety of wonderful dedicated people who are also supporters of Sugata and his work. This has had an impact on me and my own personal pedagogy.

Sugata’s work fits perfectly into a number of our whole-school priorities, including collaboration and the development of independent thinkers. We are due to deliver [professional development] around SOLE after a further visit from Sugata when he spoke to the whole school and partner schools about his work. This provided a platform to showcase what SOLE is.

SOLE has had the following impact…

  • It has inspired me as a teacher and a lifelong learner to continue to investigate the future of learning for our students.
  • The impact has been huge at George Stephenson High School. Whole-school continuing professional development (CPD) is being developed on SOLE and interwoven into our school priorities.
  • I have been able to meet and network with likeminded teachers through SOLE to set up a network group to share practice across schools.
  • I have started to develop SOLE planning groups with students; in these, they develop the follow-up lessons and indeed the big questions they have about the topics on offer.
  • Some staff members have now tried SOLE out in their own classrooms, and data from these experiences are being collated.
  • Sugata has proposed to continue to work with George Stephenson High School and develop a SOLE area within the school, a bookable resource usable by children at the school, by primary partner schools, and during the weekend. This will not only provide a SOLE platform but also rich data and experience that can be collated.
  • I feel the biggest impact has been on the children that take part in SOLE lessons: the learning that is achieved is outstanding, and the levels of attainment are much higher than those seen in groups that are taught traditionally. I took two parallel groups in Year 8; one was the control group, the other the SOLE group. The measures were attainment, behaviour, and enjoyment. The SOLE group students were, in some cases, three levels higher than those in the control group.
  • I have delivered a number of presentations on SOLE to groups of teachers, and this, in turn, has inspired others to try SOLE out. We regularly share our SOLE experiences through Twitter.
  • After Sugata was awarded the TED Prize, I was fortunate enough to be contacted by TED to write about his work, and this led to hosting a Twitter conference. I now have contacts across the world who network when trying SOLEs out.
  • I feel so privileged to have had the opportunity to work with Sugata and look forward to future projects. His work is so inspiring, and he has had a massive impact on me as a teacher and a person. It has given me the opportunity to meet teachers across the world, share practice, and bring this to my own school and staff.

Amy-Leigh Dickinson

2013

The School in the Cloud at George Stephenson High School, Killingworth, was inaugurated on November 22, 2013. To hear Amy-Leigh Dickinson brainstorm ideas for the Killingworth School in the Cloud before it was built, watch Video 8.1 (Rothwell, 2018).

School In The Cloud: Clip 8.1 – George Stephenson High School from Met Film Production on Vimeo.


Mitra’s book, The School in the Cloud, will be publishing in September of 2019.

Written by

Professor Sugata Mitra’s current work is on the internet and children’s learning. He retired in 2019 and is currently an emeritus professor of Newcastle University, UK. He is the recipient of many awards and honorary doctorates from India, the United Kingdom, the United States, and many other countries in the world. His interests include children’s education, remote presence, self-organizing systems, cognitive systems, complex dynamical systems, physics, and consciousness.

The Hole-in-the-Wall experiment has left a mark on popular culture. Indian diplomat Vikas Swarup read about Mitra’s experiment and was inspired to write his debut novel that went on to become the Oscar-winning movie of 2009—Slumdog Millionaire. Mitra holds a PhD in physics and is credited with more that 25 inventions in the area of cognitive science and educational technology. He was conferred the prestigious Dewang Mehta Award for Innovation in Information Technology from the Government of India in the year 2003. Amongst many other awards, he received the first ever million-dollar TED Prize in 2013. Mitra’s TED Talk, “Build a School in the Cloud,” has more than 3 million views, and his book about the experience, The School in the Cloud: The Emerging Future of Learning, is publishing with Corwin this September.

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