Beyond The Hole In The Wall: A Book That May Change Everything You Believe About Education

This story begins at the turn of the millennium with the well-known Indian educator Sugata Mitra literally used a pickaxe and shovel to create a hole in a wall separating his office from an area of neighboring slums in New Delhi, installing a networked PC in the gap thus created, facing the computer screen and keyboard toward the exterior alley, and then covering it all up with protective plastic material so that it could function rain or shine.

Then he left it there for the local children to discover and freely explore on their own, unsupervised. Using various technologies along with simple observation from his office, Mitra kept detailed chronicles of the interaction of the children with the computer and the Internet. Where did he get such an idea? I still do not know. But it was a brilliant experiment.

What these children learned from Mitra’s “hole in the wall” experiment was that kids from one of the most desperately poor areas of the world could, without instruction or supervision, quickly learn how a PC works — and much, much more. The children also freely collaborated with each other, exploring the world of high-tech online connectivity with ease. It was the dawning of Mitra’s introduction to self-organized learning, and it would shape the next decade of his research.

Sugata Mitra has written an inspiring though brief non-fiction book with Amazon’s Kindle Single program called Beyond the Hole in the Wall: Discover the Power of Self-Organized Learning with an introduction by Nicholas Negroponte, the chairman emeritus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab and the founder of the One Laptop Per Child association.

It is an important update on Mitra’s groundbreaking work (which many will not realize provided the inspiration for the Oscar-winning film Slumdog Millionaire). What I took away from my one-night’s reading of this work (it reads like a wonderfully written Atlantic Monthly or Harper’s piece of several decades ago) was that self-directed learning, meaning learning that occurs without a teacher present, can make kids smarter and more creative in environments that would seem, at first sight, to be utterly not conducive to any kind of learning at all. The fact is that human beings often learn under very difficult conditions. We must, or we don’t survive.

Sugata Mitra is a physicist, cognitive researcher, a gifted teacher and certainly one of the most intelligent and original thinkers the education establishment has produced in the last half century. He is now teaching at the University of Newcastle. At the time of the “hole in the wall” experiment, he was head of NIIT, one of the five biggest e-training institutes in the world.

The expropriate and internalization of the PC and the Internet by thousands of illiterate children, all without any direction or supervision from adults, delivered a body blow to long-held beliefs about what children can and cannot do on their own, along with unanticipated evidence about the high intelligence and capacity of illiterate children to acquire substantial computer skills and other knowledge without the help of teachers.

The experiment became a sensation. The World Bank president and other dignitaries personally made pilgrimages to Delhi to see it. Media hype started to build up. Soon the experiment was replicated in scores of other urban public spaces and villages around India and in a number of other countries like South Africa. They all delivered the same message: children have an uncanny ability and drive to learn to use the computer for learning, with or without the help of teachers.

This kind of learning has since been dubbed by Mitra as Minimally Invasive Education. The immense disparities existing in India’s school system and the magnitude of the challenge of educating the millions of India’s children takes on a less intimidating aspect in light of these new researches.

I highly recommend this long article (I don’t think it’s really a book) to anyone who has the slightest interest in how human beings learn. It was thrilling to see how much cooperation, sharing, discussion, and indeed courage arises spontaneously in places where we least expect it. This could well be one of the most significant books about education to appear in the last two or three generations. It is also a delightfully fun story to spend a night with.