Book Review: Beyond the Hole in the Wall

Ever since I watched his first TED talk, I've been a fan of Sugata Mitra, the education professor from Newcastle, U.K., who has proven one of the most mind-blowing theses in all of education: that, given a computer and access to the Internet, kids can teach themselves anything.

After a record-breaking year of reading in 2015, I'm looking for more challenges this year, and I want to read more professional books. Barnes & Noble had this (short) book available for download at $2.99. I took the plunge, and I really enjoyed it.

Mitra's idea is summed up by the acronym, SOLE: self-organized learning environment, and his life's work is setting up independent stations (as seen above) in poor areas in India, where children do not have have access to good teachers and strong schools.

In his book, Mitra goes into depth on the research, backing up the remarkable results summarized in his talk with charts and specific details. The "hole in the wall" stations were designed with groups of kids in mind, not just 1:1 access, being stationed low on the wall, with a "bench" at kid level that favored child users. (One thing that was part of the audit of each computer's use was a search for porn, which was accessed far less prevalently than might be expected for such public computers.) I gained a new respect for the design of this experiment after reading the book.

Mitra sees the role of the teacher changing due to the technology of the Internet. It's amazing to think, but the year, 2016, will mark the 21st year since I first experience the Internet during a summer session at Arizona State University's computer commons. He feels that teachers should focus more on developing Big Questions like "Where would you find an electron?" or "How does someone contract ebola?"

After the big questions, we are coaches, providing more feedback & encouragement than guidance.

It's a captivating thought, one that I have been developing on my own (as in my current unit that turned my students into petty German princes and princesses). I'm not sure that walking western kids back from the multiple distractions that technology provides would be as easy as introducing the "hole in the wall" to village kids in India. But I do like the idea of education as a means to solve problems with guidance from a teacher.

Mitra introduces each of the chapters with a story from 2062, describing a girl who uses a personal 3D printer to solve a problem that would identify the volume of her fish tank--a process which leads to a surprising, remarkable conclusion. These stories keep the reader's imagination on the future and challenge the status quo in a way that only fiction can.