Few people disagree that our current education model has problems. Trying to get a handle on fixing these problems is difficult—especially when we can’t even agree on what the problems are. Teachers, parents and school administrators all have different perspectives. But the perspective often missing completely from the education conversation is from students themselves. Finding solutions that are student based could be a good beginning and identifying what works may produce more results than trying to figure out what doesn’t.

The Big Problem

A serious issue that underlies many problems with underperforming schools is one that nobody seems to be talking about. It’s not just an issue facing western industrialized societies either. It’s a global truism. Sugata Mitra identifies the big problem about poorly performing schools everywhere with his typical understated elegance: “These are places where good teachers won’t go. On top of that, those are the places from where trouble comes. So we have an ironic problem. Good teachers don’t want to go to just those places where they’re needed the most.” Understanding this as an underlying and unaddressed global issue gave Professor Mitra the inspiration to try some innovative experiments that have universal application for public schools, homeschoolers and online education environments alike.

What Can Technology Do?

The experiments that Professor Mitra conducted had one thing in common. Regardless of whether the children involved had any experience with computers, a technology component was a part of all the experiments. It was a simple straightforward process initially. Professor Mitra placed computers in poverty-stricken public places in India at a child’s eye level and watched as children began to learn to operate the computers. A pattern began to emerge. Three or four children would form informal groups and worked collaboratively to find solutions.

Typically, one child emerged as a teacher figure and helped facilitate the process. But every child was involved. In all cases the computer and the educational information contained inside was strictly English language material. Some of these kids in certain groups didn’t speak English but still managed to extract the information they needed to find solutions. In at least one case, these children reported to Professor Mitra that they hadn’t really learned anything…except some difficult DNA gene sequencing material that was probably graduate level coursework.

The Collaborative Element

If technology formed a core component of these experiments in “self-learning,” the process that really supercharged the learning was simple collaboration. It’s counterintuitive to think that allowing students collaborative autonomy would make such a difference. When Professor Mitra decided to replicate the Indian experiments in a classroom in Great Britain, he grouped students in the same way he had observed it happen naturally in India—three or four kids who were free to form groups of their own choosing.

Each of these groups was given a computer and assigned tasks. They were able to use search engines and use any Internet resource they wanted. The final scores they received were impressive for the large tasks they were assigned at 76% per group. The classroom teacher expressed some skepticism about whether this was really “deep learning.” So Professor Mitra arranged to come back in a few months and proctor individual paper exams with no computers. The results from these tests? 76%.

So what children learn through collaboration is valuable. Collaboration works. Right now in our classrooms, this kind of collaboration might be considered cheating. But it works, and it allows the student to become an active participant in the education process rather than a passive recipient. Moving to an educational model that rewards effective learning may be a better idea than trying to identify problems. Maybe we should put more effort into finding what works well and just implementing it.