In New Delhi, a wall separates a patch of wasteland, which is used as a garbage dump and latrine, from the premises of a software company. One of the software experts became very concerned about the future of the slum children he saw playing in the wasteland, and he decided to carry out a little experiment. He made a hole in the wall and put into it a touchscreen PC with a high-speed connection to the Internet. Then he hid a video camera in a tree — and waited.
What was recorded on the film, over a period of just six minutes, was staggering.
Minute one. An adolescent boy comes walking past the wall and spots the strange new object—a shiny screen in the wall! His body language communicates his astonishment.
Minute two. From a safe distance, he gingerly touches it. He starts, as it jumps to life.
Cut to minute four. He is still standing at an awkward distance to the screen but now he is touching it frequently and intently.
Cut to minute six. Before our eyes, he relaxes. He leans his face in one hand as he works confidently on the screen with the other. You would have thought he had been using computers for months.
To witness this moment of empowerment is a very moving experience. I saw the video some months ago and I am reporting from memory (I hope I have not misremembered the details).
Within a short time, several of the slum children were not only using the computer but had figured out how to interact with sophisticated applications that could be found deep in the computer’s bowels — including one that the software expert himself hadn’t known about.
And all this with no school, no teacher, no literacy programme, no English language course, no computer course, not even an explanation — just a screen that had inexplicably appeared in a wall. In fact, when the software expert added a Hindi programme, the children switched it off. They hadn’t felt inhibited by the English navigation text because they had — creatively — regarded each word they saw onscreen as an icon indicating a function. They soon mastered this functional English, though they knew no spoken English.
It has been calculated that it would cost US $4 billion to educate 500 million Indian children conventionally to basic level — but only half that via the Net.
No wonder that, in July 2000, Prime Minister Vajpayee of India announced to his most senior state officials that he wanted the whole of India wired. Every village, however remote, was to have Internet access. A couple of years ago this would have been considered absurdly impractical or elitist. But now, glimpses of the true potential of the Net are emerging, and more people are concluding that universal online access might be the cheapest and fastest means of empowering a nation—by empowering its children.
But had the Indian experiment been a fluke? It seems not. The bemused software expert continued his experiment in a conventional school. He asked the Physics teacher what his pupils would be learning about in twelve months’ time. It would be viscosity. Could the teacher prepare five exam questions on this subject? He could — though his pupils said they had no idea what they meant. Nevertheless, the software expert sat the pupils down in front of online terminals and asked them to find out the answers — within two hours.
And they did. Not in a year, but in two hours! The teacher admitted, after quizzing them, that they did really understand the answers properly.
So does the world not need schools or teachers anymore? Before we jump to polarising the Net vs schools, we should pause to recognise that the children in the wasteland did have several teachers.
One teacher was the software expert. He may not have had a teaching certificate but he was, in my view, the best kind of teacher there is. He believed that conventional schools in India often teach children helplessness and passivity, by dominating and spoon-feeding them. So instead, with a positively Zen-like detachment, he gave the children just two things: the technical resources to which they had no access, and a willingness in himself to be open to surprises.
And who were the other teachers? The children themselves.
It is a liberal commonplace to say that education is only superficially about imbibing content and that it is really more about “teaching children how to learn.” But children already know how to learn! You have only to look at babies to see how avidly they educate themselves — they suck learning out of their surroundings as hungrily as they suck at the breast for milk.
Still, nowadays we complicate even infants’ lives by removing them from the breast. With great perversity, we go out of our way to give them expensive and inferior bottled substitutes instead. Are we doing something similar by expensively over-managing — micro-managing — children at school, in ways that inhibit, rather than promote, their astonishing innate ability to teach themselves?
Remember that famous comment by Henry Ford: “Whether you think you can, or whether you think you can’t — you are probably right.” If a school taught a child only one thing, in my view, it should be self-esteem. When children are in environments where they can retain this kind of positive identity, learning becomes a relatively easy process. The more tense, fearful or lacking in confidence children are, the harder it is to learn. Haven’t we all experienced ourselves as becoming suddenly much cleverer, perversely, just after an exam?
I was once intrigued to see a confident pre-schooler (who had taught herself to read, write and do basic arithmetic) composing a long list which began: “I love daddy, I love mummy, I love grandad” etc. and ended with a frank and cheerful, “I love me.” Two years later, she displayed so much self-deprecation that I reminded her ruefully of her old list. She confided: “I do still love me, but I mustn’t say so.” She had adult society taped. Luckily, she had kept her self-esteem intact, if hidden from everyone but herself.
Not every child manages this feat. Some children censor themselves so thoroughly, they forget who they really are. I came across a startling example of this many years ago when I got to know a little girl of about nine or ten, who was severely undermined both at home and school because of her academic failure.
Unconvinced about the judgements of stupidity and laziness heaped on her, I asked permission from her parents and school to explore what might be wrong. Very quickly it became clear that, when asked to spell a word, she anxiously wrote down a string of any letters whose shape she could remember. She wasn’t just being a careless speller, or too lazy to do her essays: she was almost totally illiterate.
On Saturday afternoons, she rewarded my earnest efforts to teach her to read and write better by being a sparkling and conscientious pupil. I should have felt pleased at her rapid progress — but somehow I always felt oddly sad after each lesson. Something was still amiss.
At our fifth meeting, the mystery was solved. She brought along her favourite storybook and, as it had a simple and familiar text, I decided use it as a gentle test of her literacy so far. I read out the first sentence, and asked her to write it down. She did, with some errors. Hoping she might notice the errors and correct them herself, I apologised that I couldn’t to make out some of the letters clearly and asked her to re-write the words more slowly. But my ruse didn’t work. The slow re-write contained exactly the same mistakes.
Stymied, I was about to give up and point the misspellings out — when a sudden frisson ran down me and an unexpected alternative flashed into my mind. I said to her: “Could you ask the teacher in your head to write it again?” To which she responded by re-writing the sentence immediately and immaculately.
I could hardly believe my eyes. I dictated the next sentence to her as casually as I could. Again, she wrote it out with mistakes. Again, I asked her to let her inner “teacher” write it. Again, she re-wrote it perfectly.
When I read out the third sentence, I asked her to let her inner teacher write it first time round — and she wrote it faultlessly straightaway.
After that, we sat quietly together at the kitchen table for a long time, as the afternoon sunshine dimmed down to twilight. I was trying to take in what had happened. How could a child switch from being painfully illiterate to comfortably literate at a second’s notice, and back again, and again, and again? It was as if she had been living under a spell — a disempowered Cinderella by the hearth — until she accepted her true power, which belonged to her real identity.
But could the spell stay broken, or would it fade at midnight? Was there something I could say to help her stay in touch with her more potent self, even when she found herself in environments that were more threatening?
Finally I said something like: “I think that you have a little girl in your head who finds some of your schoolwork a bit hard. But you also have a teacher in your head who finds it very easy. So whenever you need some help in class, why don’t you ask her to do the work for you?”
She smiled and nodded, jumped up and ran off to play. On that note we parted. At the end of that term, her mother told me that her daughter had had an excellent school report. “I always knew she had it in her,” she said. Of course.
Why does all this bother me so much — isn’t OneWorld more concerned with outer human rights, like economic equity, ecological balance, social justice? This list strikes me as incomplete without an interior right: the chance to develop a positive human identity. Imagine a society composed of adults who had been allowed to be their whole, true selves when they were children! I wonder if such adults might even, in time, help replace the aggressive ethos of geopolitics with a new ethos of humane global governance.
So, in my view, to choose between investing in online education or investing in schools is a false polarisation. I think we should invest in providing all children with a three-way team, of Net, school and child. The Net could provide a wealth of low-cost and non-judgmental teaching materials. The school could provide a more open leadership that inspires and challenges the children to be all they could be — all they were! — as the software expert did. And the children? Well, the children could provide the teachers.
Anuradha Vittachi is the Director of the OneWorld International Foundation and co-founder of www.oneworld.net, the world’s favourite portal on human rights and sustainable development. She has also been a teacher, an award-winning television documentary producer, a journalist, a poet, and is the author of several books, including Stolen Childhood: In Search of the Rights of the Child.
Artwork by Tiery Le…