The new wave of high-tech, low-impact teaching

Approach raises the question: Is computing part of our nature?

Give children in the poorest areas access to computers without any instruction and see what happens. One teacher tried it. Credit: Fuse

Give children in the poorest areas access to computers without any instruction and see what happens. One teacher tried it. Credit: Fuse

Last year, one middle school teacher in Matamoros, Mexico made a breakthrough in how kids learn — and he didn’t have to teach them anything.

Matamoros is a dusty border city where tests scores ranked low nationally, and teacher Sergio Juárez Correa got tired of repeating the government mandated curriculum, which didn’t engage even the brightest students. Wired tells the incredible story of Correa’s offbeat experiment and its amazing success.

He tried out a new teaching method he had read about coming out of India: give children in the poorest areas access to computers without any instruction and see what happens.

Children can teach themselves

This emerging educational philosophy applies the logic of the digital age to the classroom. Adding the Internet, a source of infinite information, to our world has changed how we communicate, process information and think, as it has for children. Innovation, creativity and independent thinking — highly valued commodities in today’s global economy — can be applied to the Internet and come from it. That is, if you want children to grow into adults with the most to offer our current system of cyber connectedness, let them learn from that system from the start.

Sugata Mitra, a professor of educational technology at Newcastle University in the U.K., designed “Hole in the Wall” experiments in India, which have shown that, in the absence of supervision or formal teaching, children can teach themselves and one another.

Mitra and his colleagues in 1999 opened a hole in a wall bordering an urban slum in New Delhi, installed an Internet-connected PC and left it there. Kids from the slum side started to play around with the computer, taught themselves how to use it and how to go online.

What’s most intriguing about this is not that access to the whole body of human knowledge helps kids learn — that seems pretty obvious. But the fact that kids who have never seen a computer before and were given no instruction on how to use it are able to somehow intuitively navigate it. It raises the question: Is computing a part of our nature?

Lessons learned without a teacher

Correa in 2011 started applying this method in his middle school classroom in Matamoros, but he took it one step further. They had few computers and intermittent Internet access, so he just set a question before his students, gave them no direction or hints and let them think about it. Then he left the room.

The question was a simple math concept: fractions. Even without a computer, they were able to grasp the idea, and when he returned, the brightest of his students had discerned that ½ = .50 and 1/4 = .25.

So perhaps computing and the spirit of the Internet itself are innate.

Currently, this free-form teaching philosophy, backed by access to technology, is taking hold in Finland and at a few locations in the U.S. Those include the Brooklyn Free School in New York, the New Technology High School in Napa, Calif. and the 12-school network High Tech High in San Diego.

Nick Clunn
Nick Clunn is a journalist covering the tech beat and an adjunct professor at Montclair State University. He lives in New Jersey, where he had worked as a staff writer for several leading daily newspapers and websites.
Nick Clunn
Nick Clunn
Tags: Education,Industries
  • Bill Ferguson

    While this type of learning works outside the classroom, my work has proven that it also works inside the classroom. My Grade 5 students have improved 2 or more reading levels during this year alone. All of my students are reading at Mid Grade 5 to well above Grade 5 reading level.