The Great Learning Gap

Sugata Mitra’s controversial new study summarised in the TES here suggests that self study on the internet can boost a child’s performance by seven years. Basically, 8 and 9 year olds studied GCSE content online before being examined three months later in examination conditions. They were successful. It sounds astounding, but it’s true, at least for the small number of children involved. And actually I don’t think it’s that surprising. To me, this is not a study about the power of the internet. It’s a study about the power of children.

Despite what the traditionalists may tell you, kids teach themselves stuff all the time. And they retain it too. The problem for us as teachers is that too often we don’t find out what it is they know because we have already decided we’ll tell them when we’re ready. And the other is that often the stuff they’ve learned is not what’s on our syllabus. It may be that the child has mastered the complexities of a computer game we know nothing about. Or it could simply be that the content doesn’t match our curriculum structure. Take Sam for example.

Since he was five, Sam has been obsessed with natural geography. Largely driven by a fear of natural disasters, he’s spent hours over the past three years teaching himself about volcanoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, tornadoes, fault lines and the like. He’s pretty much mapped the world into safe and unsafe zones. He can name and point to places on a map that I didn’t even know existed.

More recently, as I’ve written before, he has decided he wants to be a Buddhist. He’s not just said it, he’s researched all the different kinds of Buddhism and rejected many because he feels that they are more religious than philosophical and he wants one that is a way of life. This has brought him to Zen Buddhism. All this research has been done on the internet or in books written largely for adults. He’s found a branch of Zen Buddhism in Japan. And now he has a problem. Japan is one of the countries he has designated as “unsafe”. But he want to live there to study this form of Buddhism. So he does more research. He’s identified the places in Japan he thinks are more secure and able to withstand an earthquake or tsunami. And he’s read up on building safety and what to do in the event of an earthquake. He’s decided it’s a risk worth taking and so when he’s 28 he’s moving to Japan.

“That’s a bit specific” I say, trying not to giggle.

“You’ve got to have goals” he says, putting me right in my place. WP_20150627_012

But now he’s realised that to live in Japan, he’ll need to learn Japanese. He finds an app on his i-pod and the kindly folk of twitter point me in the direction of Memrise. All summer he’s spent a couple of hours a day learning Japanese and testing himself online. I have no idea how he’s doing but I keep getting emails from Memrise saying I’m doing well on the tests!

My point is not about Sam really – there are children all over the country, indeed all over the world, who find a passion and who find that the passion leads them to others, connecting and shaping their dreams, their ideals, their hopes for the future. And how often do we squash them? He got a C for effort in RE this year because he talks too much. “I was trying to talk about Buddhism” he said miserably. But Buddhism isn’t on the syllabus until Year 4. No-one at school knows what he understands about Geography. It’s not been “done” yet. And no-one has a clue he’s learning Japanese. And when they find out, they’ll say “that’s lovely” then teach him French. I sometimes feel that his education, and that of many, many children in our country, largely happens at home. If they’re lucky. At school they plod along politely learning stuff they already know. And at home they enter a world of their dreams. What a missed opportunity.

Of course for many children, that potential doesn’t find an outlet at home either. Too few facilities, no quiet spaces, no adults to nurture an interest, no access to computers. Too hungry, too stressed, too tired. For those children, it is vital, absolutely vital, that school allows spaces for those passions and interests to be seeded, grown and harvested. It is vital that teachers look for any spark and seize upon it. For children like Sam, a school’s lack of interest in his interests is irritating. But for a child with little or no support at home, it is a catastrophe.

What Mitra’s research reminds us of is the amazing capacity of children to learn, retain and perform when they find something they are interested in or when it is presented to them in a way that allows for autonomy to grow. When we listen to those who say we should have a core curriculum, controlled and delivered by teachers through direct instruction, we ignore this potential. We reduce a child to recipient rather than investigator. That’s not to say we should just have a system in which kids sit at computers without teachers. A teacher’s role is vital in identifying the gaps and fixing them; in directing children towards necessary areas of learning that they might not be interested in, or aware of. It is vital in building and securing articulacy, communication, relationships and trust. But if we do this in a controlled way, with little attention paid to the needs and existing interests of the children in front of us, we are in danger of reducing their education, not enhancing it.

38 thoughts on “The Great Learning Gap

  1. Hi Debra – really great post. It is often very humbling as a teacher when you happen upon a kid’s secret store of knowledge; that quiet child who doesn’t seem to be doing much turns out to secretly be an expert on something quirky and obscure that we don’t particularly value or teach within our curriculum. My guiltiest moment this year was telling a parent that they don’t do enough at home, because they hadn’t been doing my shoddy handwriting exercises, and then being shown quite how much the kid does do. Stories, poems, plays, lots of research about climate change…
    Perhaps as teachers we all too easily fall into the trap of viewing our (to some degree) arbitrary curriculum as the only knowledge worth knowing.
    Your son sounds incredible by the way and I would love to teach him. I also was obsessed with natural disasters (and alien abduction, incidentally) as a consequence of fear. Sounds like he is reading himself out of his fears, which I can recognise too.

    1. Thank you Jonny – he’s a bit quirky, but it’s really interesting seeing all this emerge. Middle child learned all about survival techniques and found remote places in the British Isles to flee to in the event of a zombie apocalypse 🙂

      1. Love seeing this. This comment from Jonny is what I never knew as a student; if I’d only given myself validation for my interests, followed them and shared them with adults… people will offer to teach you! That’s what I’m learning now and why I’m creating a video guide for teens, to help them find mentors in the field they care about.

        Young people are the most naturally curious and idealistic people we have; that’s a gift for the rest of us. We all have a right to learn but no one has any god/state-given right to teach without the permission of the student. Part of gaining the student’s permission is in educating them. Modern marketers are catching onto this and leading the way. They know how to meet their people at their level, show them what they are looking for then educate them towards the understanding that what they really need is something more meaningful; like how a person who won’t begin martial arts to develop ‘confidence’ and ‘self-control’ but to become stronger, and the instructor educates on the real benefits through training for ‘becoming stronger’ until the student understands enough to dedicate themselves to the real challenge. Here’s a video I made on what happens when a student chooses to dedicates herself to our current schooling system for an education:

  2. Hi Debra, I think what we are hitting here is the asking of the fundamental question – what is education for? We have recently had the role of primary SCHOOLING (not education) defined as “making children secondary ready” and so I assume that the objective of secondary SCHOOLING (excuse the capitals) will be to make children university ready (in the ‘correct subjects of course’) or work ready so the purpose of SCHOOLING (there I go again with the shouting) is to ensure that children fit into the world that we as adults define for this.

    We exacerbate this with the defined curriculum and the ways of measuring this defined curriculum with our prescribed ways of testing and assessing and making sure people will, “fit it”. We have moved away, I think, from the idea that EDUCATION might be about the individual and allowing them to gain in the areas in which they find passion and exciting. I would argue that this is linked to the idea of the marketisation and the moniterisation of education, we have to be able to define how we will able to earn and so enter into the consumer society and be able to buy and afford those things which are markers of success.

    So, with Sam should you be fuelling these passions unless you can be sure that there is a good job out there for a Japanese speaking Buddhist seismologist or should you be supporting this because you see Sam blossom as an individual.

    One of the ways that I think education has lost its way is in the balance between the ways in which the individual contributes and is a member of the society and the ways in which it allows the individual to flourish as an individual. You talk about this in your recent book, Claxton and Lucas do the same but the national rhetoric is around “mastery” and “suitable qualifications” lots of sameness with very little difference.

    This “revolution” has happened before if we read of the ways in which adult workers were excited and liberated by the workers education associations and the libraries – one of the unsung heroes of out age was Andrew Carnegie with his sponsorship of libraries (though his past was a little shady!) and the internet is a new iteration of the freedom that this brought – mind you some would also link this access to education to other workers’ movements which helped them to unionise and organise – perhaps we won’t go into the current legislations views on both libraries, freedom of information and unionisation …

    It is early days yet, and Mitra is an evangelist (or possibly a prophet) in these areas, and as you point out Sam has the benefits of a wider support structure in both human and other resources that not all children will have. I am sure we will also hear from those who set up the straw men argument of “you can’t just look it up on Google” which is not (I think) what either Mitra or you are saying.

    For me there are two questions that I have been working with for a while as a teacher educator (yes I am an enemy of promise) that the national debate is not yet tackling:

    1. What is the difference between SCHOOLING and EDUCATION – and where do they overlap?

    2. Given that the internet is here to stay how does it challenge the existing structures of SCHOOLING?

    I think that taken seriously these questions have the potential to very seriously change the way we think about learning but they also challenge some very vested, vested interests.

    1. Thank you so much for this articulate and helpful response – yes, I think you’re absolutely right that we need to open up this conversation about the purpose of education. It’s critical if we want to create a properly meaningful education for children.

  3. Totally agree with this, thanks for writing it Debra. We brought a suitcase full of books with us on holiday and unfortunately (or fortunately depending how you look at it!) 3 days in the kid has nearly finished reading them all. She said to me this morning ‘I love reading’. 🙂 Given the space, time and support to follow their interests, children can do amazing things.

  4. Thank you for this Debra. It’s really important to be aware of, and to value, what our children already bring to the classroom, and it’s frustrating when the curriculum narrows things down for children and doesn’t open things up. It also brings up lots of questions about who decides what kinds of things children should know, and for what purpose. Think I might set my children their own research projects for homework this year and celebrate what they want to learn about themselves!

  5. I like this. I’ve long thought we underestimate what children can do and this has been further confirmed by watching, and listening to, my grandchildren. But when you think about it, isn’t what you describe with your son just exactly what we as adults do when something fires us, or annoys us, or interests us?????

  6. Hi

    I found myself nodding along with your blog – agreeing at all your points, smiling at Sam, recognising how children can find interests of their own, frowning at the way schools often miss these opportunities – and then you spoil it all by mentioning Mitra.

    I consider Mitra as a bit of a charlatan. He’s not an educationalist and his views undermine the positive role adults *can* play in children’s educational experiences.

    Sticking a computer in front of a person does not do the job of educating them. And to pretend (as Mitra does) otherwise is a unwelcome distraction from the direction we should be going in.

    Education is not about children sans adults, it’s about children plus adults. I don’t mean adults making all the decisions, I mean adults listening, adapting, and working with children. Mitra would have us undermining our role.

    Not helpful.

    (I have a bit of a bee in my bonnet about Mitra. You may have noticed).

    1. I started with Mitra – did you read it backwards 😉 I just read an interview with him where he said all the things you just said. That he’s not an educationalist, just someone who was curious to see what would happen and that projects designed for street children in India probably don’t translate to a British context. I’ve not really got an opinion one way or another – except to passionately believe in the need for a teacher who is tuned into the children they teach – something a computer can’t do of course. But then, for children who can’t attend school, or who don’t have teachers, or who are crowded into class sized of over 200 like in Kakuma, access to self study through a computer must seem like a miracle.

      1. I know you mentioned Mitra at the start, but I had a good idea for an opening sentence and wasn’t going to spoil it with an inconvenient fact. 🙂

        We of course agree entirely on teachers being tuned into children and their interests. And, having access to a computer is clearly better than not – especially if you don’t have access to a teacher.

        My problem with Mitra is he doesn’t understand how learning works and hasn’t bothered (apparently) to find out. Ironically, he has a machine on his desk with all the information he could ever need.

        Not impressed. Still grumpy.

    2. Hi Tim, I agree that Mitra’s work is a little shaky and that the claims of the “hole in the wall” work which shot him to “fame” have been challenged. The work he is doing with SOLO (self-organised learning environments) is interesting and worth reading if you have not.

      I agree with your comment about plus not sans (I am a keen supporter of constructavism and Vygotsky and Bruner), but I think what Mitra is doing is asking an important question (see my longer comment above) which is about how the internet challenges the structures and models of learning we have – though his work does not always always provide the empirical data to back this up (though the TES report does sensationalise the report a bit). – and to be fair to Mitra he does also talk about the support of adults in his work.

      I would argue we are still pretty much at the beginning of the internet age – most of the ‘net is still “stuff in pixels” rather that “stuff in books” but the development of social networking, or more intelligent algorithms using data more intelligently (the way, for example, the Khan academy is developing this) and the development of AI systems should make us pause and think about existing structures, assessment systems and curricula – even if the conclusion we come to is, “Yep. it’s all fine”.

      Interested in your further thoughts


      1. Hi Paul,

        Ironically I’m a technophile, I believe in giving students regular and prolonged (guided and supported) access to the internet. And sincerely believe computers will revolutionise education, eventually.

        However, we are still a long way from the revolution and when it comes we have to be careful about the direction it takes us in. There is a great danger in undermining the role teachers play in education and in suggesting (as Mitra does) that they can be replaced by computers.

        Sticking a computer in front of a child and giving them unguided access will not educate them. Education is about more than accumulating information from the internet and human beings do (and will continue to) have a vital role to play in that process.

        My love of computers knows boundaries. And there are times, regular and prolonged, when we need to switch off the machines and work together, adults and students, without the help of technology.


    1. I share your concerns Tim and I’d hate to see a world where kids sat in front of computers all day following programmes of study. And I certainly know that Sam has found some fairly dodgy stuff on the internet that we’ve had to explain. An adult guide is essential I think. But then the opposite view – the “children can’t learn anything on their own” view which has so much traction in our system at the moment is equally, if not more, misguided. We’re in danger of producing a generation of compliant drones who really have no idea of what they want to do, or be or who they are if we carry on along that path. There must be a middle way – as Buddha might say 🙂

      1. Hmm … I do not think that Mitra would want children in front of computers either – and I still think he sees a role for adults in the learning process – my reading of his work is that he is a constructavist – what he does not see (if I have any right to talk for him) is adults in the role of setting challenges for children interlinked with their own ideas. In some ways he reminds me of John Holt’s work (how children learn / how children fail). Holt saw schooling as the problem not education. If you have not come across them I would recommend the work of Dan Meyer and Jo Boaler both maths bods who also talk about the ideas of setting children problems and then letting them find solutions (or solution pathways) to them. This is not the same as a “project” where there is often a “correct” answer but much messier that this (in the way real life is).

        Much of Mitra’s work has children working in groups with access to the internet and much of the work is done through social discourse (hence the constructavist meme) the computer is then a tool. The adult becomes something else – they are the delivered of certain knowledge and information, they are also the person who asks the key and stimulating question.

        So, I do not think that Mitra want computers to replace teachers (and I think I have heard him say this but cannot source it) though personally I am with Arthur C. Clarke who said, “any teacher who can be replaced by a robot should be”. As to (Tim’s) last sentence – is there a danger here that we think of technology only in the sense of computers? We rarely work without any technology – we (perhaps) just need to use the technology carefully.


        Again, welcome thoughts.

  7. Thanks for this. It made me think. I must confess I rather jumped on the “ridiculous idea” bandwagon without reading the original too deeply (I only read the TES on-line summary. I was basing my scepticism on my experience of getting students (16+) to research using the Internet and make presentations in the past. In many cases I found the tendency was to pick the first page that came up in the search and copy & paste chunks of this onto PowerPoint slides, sometimes without even checking that what they found was relevant. To get this to work well, they needed to be taught how to search effectively and how to evaluate what they found. Maybe the problem was the age of the students, they had already picked up bad habits, or the subject matter was uninteresting. Previous educational achievement (I hesitate to say ability) was a factor here. A Level students produced better reports than the level 1 & 2 students.
    What I hadn’t been considering was the wider issue you pointed out. My own youngest developed an encyclopaedic knowledge of the taxonomy, evolution and general information on animals (especially fish?) at quite an early age and kept adding to this store of knowledge despite only taking double science GCSE & arts subjects after that so I have seen the effect first hand.
    We do need to think about what education is for, and we maybe need to look beyond our own experiences in our own classrooms and see widen our focus. Otherwise we are short-changing the children.

    1. Yes, completely agree with this. I think when we ‘set’ research projects, most kids find the shortest route to get them out of the way, but when they develop an interest and want to learn about something, they’ll quickly organise and collect information. The underlying motivation is key and that’s something quite unpredictable. Sam wouldn’t be learning Japanese if he hadn’t first developed the interest in Buddhism. And no-one saw that coming – we’re a pretty agnostic family. He sat down one rainy playtime in the school library, picked up a book on world religions and BOOM. For me, with any study or research, the interesting thing is “what can I take from this?” – it was the idea of children using strategies like flocking and collaborating and extending that interested me. But they wouldn’t do this if they weren’t motivated. Where did that come from? The subject matter? The challenge? A love of their teacher? Who knows? But without that spark, they wouldn’t bother. I guess what I wanted to say was “teachers – find that spark, and capitalise on it”.

  8. This is a wonderful post and is refreshing to read having followed some of the other less thoughtful and negative bandwagon comments about Sugata’s research on twitter. I’m a key stage 3 Humanites teacher/leader and when we design our curriculum much of what you have said resonates. We should be designing curriculums that ‘harvest’ students prior knowledge and build upon that and their natural curiosity. We are also able to design opportunities for students to tap into their own areas of interest. I think it is in Nuthall’s book where upto 50% of what is taught is already known to different extents by different students. We do a nice unit called ‘curiosity’ towards the end of a term (like a large scale SOLE) where students research and present on an area of interest. I would say that internet does enhance learning however, beyond that of a SOLE, we do model and teach students how to use to research and record effectively. For example, research question design, reliability and usefulness of sources, triangulation, referencing etc. I’ve seen the wonderful engagement (not always a proxy for learning) and outcomes of this form of pedagogy and believe me, students excel. When collaborative group learning is done well and planned and designed carefully, this range of prior knowledge amongst different students can really be embraced. The sum of the parts is greater than the whole.

  9. A great article and one that I am pleased to read since it supports my ideas, and beliefs, about learning. I am convinced that those who can manage their learning environment to meet their learning needs are the true and life long learners. I have studied this in some depth and have come to the conclusion that there are a set of skills, attributes, attitudes and behaviours that these learners possess that makes them successful – in almost any learning environment. I call this ability Learning Intelligence and I am reaching out to anyone who wants to find out more about how to support and develop it in their learners (or themselves). I have written over 30 articles about LQ from the perspective of the school, the learners and the teacher and you can find them on my blog.

    Best if you start here though if you are interested.

    The first blog article about LQ is here to:


  10. There’s no doubt access to the internet has the potential to revolutionise education. But learners still need guidance and support. If not, their ‘learning’ could comprise little more than googling and printing. Mitra’s initial opinion was that children could teach themselves but, apart from the fact that someone was needed to teach them to read, without adult guidance and questioning the learning can be little more than game playing (although admittedly many games aid learning) or painting. This is what happened to the Hole in the Wall computers which weren’t vandalised or used without adult supervision.

    Another of Mitra’s ideas was that “a well-meaning adult who doesn’t have to know anything, whose job is to ensure health and safety” beamed into self-organised learning environments (Soles) via Skype, could supervise children learning on computers.

    But “a well-meaning adult” beamed in through the ether is not enough. A properly-trained teacher will guide and question but also know when to stand back and when to intervene.

    1. Completely agree Janet. And for me, the Mitra stuff just opens up some interesting questions about the extent to which we should give children autonomy over their learning – not simply through access to computers. I’m not suggesting we leave kids to learn by themselves, but that we accept that they can become wholly obsessed by subject material and learn an awful lot and that it’s a terrible waste if this is not captured and celebrated in school.

      1. I also know a young person who’s interested in Japan and is teaching herself Japanese via the internet.

    2. Janet, yes guidance is important and that is why the constructavist model should still underpin. The ‘granny in the cloud” was mostly (my interpretation from Mitra’s work) about encouragement and support – which perhaps again raises questions about a determined curriculum and the definitions of failure that this might engender. I do not read Mitra as someone who is trying to write the teacher out of the schooling equation just redefine their place.

      I wonder if part of the issues is still around purpose? I am concerned about the messages that are currently going out about the purpose of education – we seem to be moving to a more and more utilitarian model what Skemp called an instrumental approach where we have a centrally defined and determined curriculum – often caricatured by Arnold’s, “the best that has been thought and said” and that education becomes an almost Huxlian model of determinism.

      An example of this is that primary schools are now being required to make sure students are “secondary ready” and this is couched mostly in terms of their En and Ma abilities as required by the secondary school (though we know that secondary schools do not ‘believe’ this data) and secondary schools are now being judged on their ability to get children the ‘correct bag’ of qualifications that will make them ‘university ready’ or ‘work ready’. whilst these are useful measures they are narrow.

      One of the possibilities for me that the internet does start to open out is the deformalisation of education (in terms of time, place and curriculum content) – and the reawakening of the idea of life-long education. MOOCs, Khan Academy and TedEd are part of the foothills of this new vista – and I think what Mishra offers us is some vision and challenge. There is more serious exploration and research needed (Mishra’s work does not currently provide this) but I think he is needed.

      1. If you haven’t read it already, you’d be interested in David Price’s book ‘Open: How we’ll work, live and learn in the future’. It’s an optimistic vision of how the internet will transform not just education but how humans live – encouraging collegiality and cooperation.

        However, there’s a dark side to the internet as I explain in my review of ‘Open’ here

  11. Such a lovely response to Sugata Mitra’s study. The point for me is that we need to let young people flourish in different ways through their schooling. Different types of education may all be appropriate and balance is key; self taught (as in your example), being taught and experiential learning all play their own role. The internet also has its own part to play. For me making learning real is the important factor. For some making it real is linked to a career or future goal (again as your example details) or maybe even just something that engages them because they are interested. As teachers we should be facilitating learning, not teaching learning. Thank you again for sharing this blog. I will be re-blogging on

  12. We have been trialling SOLE across our primary school. It hasn’t been successful. Our children are predominantly children of university staff, most are well above average in reading, writing and maths and confident communicators. We thought they would enthusiastically and cooperatively find solutions and reasoned answers to solve the open ended questions that Sugata had modelled. They majority of the children struggled initially, and there has been little improvement in subsequent sessions, with staying on task, focussing on recording their findings( chosen by themselves) and working together. They have not been able to navigate the internet to find ‘answers’ and negotiate with each about what the information means. If adults haven’t intervened to try to guide and motivate the less interested or unconfident then it really hasn’t been cooperative learning. It was modelled to us a 100% child directed learning session but the internet has been too unwieldy as a research tool for any but the most single minded and able readers.

    It seems that successful SOLE learning though needs some underlying teaching of key skills and understanding first eg: having L4+ decoding and comprehension skills; knowing where to find key information on the internet and then to sift it; recording information by extrapolating relevant ‘facts’ and summarising; exploring of possible roles for individuals within a group; I could go on.

    The context of a British child’s learning environment is not the same as Sugata’s children in India. In reality, even though we seat children next to each other they rarely work together to learn. Furthermore our time scales to show achievement by the end of a session curtails depth, revisiting and redrafting.

    Most children are curious, but maybe that is incidental to learning.

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