Children learning by themselves and progressive inquiry

A couple of weeks ago — actually it was the May Day — I gave a talk in a conference in Ankara Turkey. Here are the slides from my talk:

One reason to accept the invitation (in Finland the May Day is an important festival of academia) was, that among the invited speakers there was Professor Sugata Mitra.

I consider Sugata Mitra to be one of the most important researcher in my field. To get an idea of his work you may check the lecture he gave in Google, just two weeks after the Ankara conference:

Sugata Mitra’s main argument — as I see it — is, that children learn many things when involved in to study things in small groups in front of a computer with an Internet connection. Children learn without a teacher, or at least without a teacher-led instruction.

Mitra has made a considerable amount of empirical research to prove his argument. I am convinced, although I think that if we’ll take a closer look of his experiments the argument is oversimplified. In the experiments there is a teacher — an extraordinary teacher. That is professor Mitra himself.

When doing the experiments Mitra is giving students an assignment. Often it is something relatively complex and open-ended, something like “find out how DNA works. You may use the computers. I am coming back in a couple of months to find out what did you learn”. What happens then is that children get excited about the computer, study the topic and then show Mitra what did they learn when he comes back. This is not learning without a teacher. There is a clear and clever teacher’s intervention: A professor asking students to study, giving them a new tools (computers) empowering them, giving them self-confidence and motivation. There is also a promise and actual implementation of assessment. All these are important didactical actions.

Another Mitra’s interesting insight is that children learn even better if they have a “granny figure” supporting them. The granny’s job is to stand behind the children, ask them what they are doing and admire them. Exactly what loving grannies do.

Again we can see that a good teachers is a bit like a granny: supports students, is interesting in their work and praise them. I think, however, even better teachers than a random granny is an expert of a domain acting the granny way. An excellent expert-teachers (can be a granny, too) is able to guide pupils in their inquiry by challenging their thinking and by providing new perspectives to the students inquiry. The point is to guide, not to instruct.

The progressive inquiry learning, a pedagogical model that has been widely studied, experimented and partly took in use in Finland, is close to Mitra’s way of teaching (I call it teaching, although there is very little teaching in a traditional sense). In my talk in Ankra I explained how progressive inquiry learning works and how pupils and students in all levels of education — from kindergartens to universities — can be guided to do research.

In the last weeks of the spring semester I have seen several learning cases that are one kind of implementations of progressive inquiry learning.

The TIVI-O-AALTO is an unconference organized by the Aalto University in a collaboration with the University of Helsinki. The topic of the event is use of ICT in teaching and learning in higher education. An unconference? What is an unconference? In traditional conferences, the most interesting ideas are often discussed outside the conference sessions, in corridors and coffee breaks. With the unconference format we aim to bring those discussion to be the main content of the event. The unconferences are open for all. Those people who come, are the right people. Anyone can sign to have a talk on any theme of the event. Sessions are informal and interactive. All participants are expected to take part in the discussion. This, however, does not mean that it is all just chit-chat. The sessions chairs are expected to facilitate the discussion and to make conclusions. If there are parallel sessions they may take place in one large space where people are free to move from one group to another. In the end of the day the chairs of the sessions will summarize discussions back to the whole group.

Another example with some elements of progressive inquiry learning, I recently heard about, is a card game designed for data structures and algorithms course of the Computer Science department. The card game was designed to study some of the main concepts of the course. The cards come with concepts and their definitions. These are all also available in the course materials. The game itself does not teach the players. The cards do not come with the answers. The idea is that one can play the game only when holding necessary information about the algorithms. When playing the cards students will face problems. That then drives them to discuss about it or collaboratively check the learning materials or search answer from other sources. The card playing put people to talk about the topics of the course. This will help students to know each other better and builds trust between them. This will help students in their studies in a future.

A third example of one kind of implementation of inquiry learning is from my own department. We call it “Open Workshop”. In the Media Lab most teaching is organized as a week or two long intensive workshops. The topics of the workshops are such as: Rendering/3D Advanced Techniques, Introduction to Visualization, Information Design, Composing with Pure Data, Interface Prototyping, Rapid Mobile Application Prototyping, etc. When done well, the workshops are progressive inquiry: students set problems, create and develop a variety of solutions, and end up in some that are then presented for others. A couple of years ago, students asked could there be one “Open Workshop” without any pre-defined themes, only a room for the entire week for students and faculty to meet and work together. What a great idea. Now the Open Workshop is officially in out curriculum. All students are welcome to join the workshop with their own New Media project to put it forward with others. A real opportunity for progressive inquiry learning.

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One Response to “Children learning by themselves and progressive inquiry”

  1. I am commenting my own post, because Stephen Downes wrote a critical note about the post and his site do not allow comments without registration.

    Stephen Downes wrote:
    “It is, in other words, a bit like progressive inquiry learning, a method widely studied and used in Finland. Perhaps. But the inference is that since “A does x” and “B does x”, then “A is B”. This is a fallacious inference. Mitra may do some things in common with teachers, but it does not follow that he is a teacher, certainly not in the sense that most people would think of one.”

    In my post I wrote:

    “The progressive inquiry learning, a pedagogical model that has been widely studied, experimented and partly took in use in Finland, is close to Mitra’s way of teaching (I call it teaching, although there is very little teaching in a traditional sense).”

    I am not claiming that A is B. My inference is fuzzy-logic. I am simply presenting some *similarities* between the A and B when we take a close look of the A. I also acknowledge that in A and B there is “very little teaching in a traditional sense”.

    I also think similar way as Professor Mitra, that a teachers that can be replaced with a computer should be, but I also see “that higher mental functions originate as actual relations between human individuals” (Vygotsky). Actually, I am interpreting that the is also behind the Mitra’s idea of always having four children in a front of a single screen, presenting the “granny way” etc. I see here a connection to the sociocultural theory. My conclusion is that a good teacher can do much more than children on their own.

    With Professor Mitra we actually discussed in Ankara also about supervising Master and PhD students — a job we both do. In his own University, at least, Professor Mitra is a teacher, too.

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