What can the American and British education systems learn from classrooms in the developing world?

Adam Braun went to school in the US and now runs a nonprofit that builds schools in Ghana, Laos, Nicaragua and Guatemala. In contrast, Sugata Mitra—the winner of the 2013 TED Prize—went to school in India and now is a professor in the UK, where his research on self-directed learning routinely brings him into elementary schools. Both of these education activists have seen how typical classrooms function in the Western world, and both have seen how typical classrooms function in the developing world. And both say, the West isn’t always better.

Braun and Mitra have teamed up through Microsoft’s Work Wonders Project to bring Mitra’s School in the Cloud learning platform into Braun’s Pencils of Promise schools. As the two pilot their partnership in a school in rural Ghana, we got them together via Skype to talk through a bold question: what can the West learn from the developing world when it comes to education? Their conversation is packed with insights.

To start us off, can each of you share three lessons that the developing world can teach the developed world when it comes to education?

Adam Braun: I think that, in the developed world, we tend to assume that we have all the answers and that those will trickle down to the people at the base of the pyramid. But there’s a lot to be learned from unexpected places too. Three things that that our staff and team has observed:

  1. In the American education system, the teacher is usually assumed to be the expert. We have this traditional model where one teacher stands in front of 30 kids. But the act of teaching is actually one of the most valuable ways to learn. It’s nice to see environments where children can be teachers. That’s something that Sugata has really expanded on with his Self-Organized Learning Environments (SOLEs), which a lot of times remove the teacher altogether and allow children to learn from one another and teach one another simultaneously.
  1. In the United States, there is the expectation that students are supposed to sit still. You’re told not to fidget and to focus. But scientific research shows that brain activity is significantly heightened after 20 minutes of physical activity. There’s significant value in what you see in the developing world—in between classes, kids run in a field, play in a river, climb a mountain. And because they don’t always have proper desks, they’re often learning while sitting on the floor or moving about in the classroom. That can actually lead to better retention and synthesis of information.
  1. The third thing is about the way we learn to read. As much as we think of reading as the act of simply turning letters into sounds in our head, literacy is actually the act of conversion of symbol into sound, and that symbol can take several different forms. When we expect kids to learn, we usually activate two different components—the auditory and visual, so they hear things aloud and observe through their eyes. But kids can learn better when you also activate a third plane—the spatial—through things like sign language. We’ve been piloting programs where we have kids create symbols with their hands and it’s leading to phenomenal literacy gains.

Sugata Mitra: Those are such valuable observations. I do hesitate to say, “What can developing countries teach the developed countries about education?” but I would like to frame it as, “What can children teach us about learning?” Because it’s kind of stupid to think that for thousands of years we never asked them. Here are three counterintuitive things that I’ve learned:

  1. My first observation, I learned quite accidentally: a reduction in resources brings increased cooperation. It sounds obvious that if there’s one computer and five children, they can fight, in which case nobody gets to do much, or they can come to an agreement about what they want to do. I think it’s very healthy for children to find agreement. That’s a lesson that I brought from India and hesitantly tried in England—and to my absolute delight, it worked exactly the same way, like magic. At first, the kids asked, “Why are you turning computers off?” I said, “You guys are not going to talk if everybody has a computer.” As soon as I did that, the good old hole in the wall from the slums of Delhi suddenly appeared in the U.S. and U.K. with exactly the same results.
  2. The act of cooperating around the Internet amplifies reading comprehension. Reading has always been taught as a one-to-one thing. With reading on paper, it isn’t easy to read together, whereas on a nice, big computer screen, you can. When children do that, they learn to read adult-level text as a result. People sometimes don’t believe me. They say, “How could they possibly read the Harvard Business Review and understand anything?” To which my answer is, “I don’t know, but they seem to understand it.” Now, I’m measuring this, and have a couple of students who are studying it too. It’s a very exciting finding, and one that could be very relevant in the United States, where reading comprehension is a problem. If this works, it could be a simple solution. I mean, what can be simpler than saying, “Shut down a few computers and read together.”
  3. The third thing is just what Adam said: children in classrooms in the developing world move around a lot because they’re not being supervised. They run about, they disturb each other, they do all the things you’re not supposed to do inside a classroom—but the results are good. I was in a school in London, doing a SOLE with 9-year olds, and they were making a tremendous amount of noise. At the end of it, I asked, “Weren’t you disturbed by all the noise?” One little girl said, “When I hear the voices of my friends, I feel relaxed.” That was a revelation—I had never thought of that. She was concentrating better because she heard voices around her. It was actually aiding the learning process.

All of these observations are so interesting. Let’s start with one Sugata mentioned: that a reduction in resources can lead to more cooperation. Adam, is that something that you’ve seen?

Adam Braun: I definitely agree with that idea. As an entrepreneur, I think a lot from a business standpoint and time and time again, the most effective exercises in the manifestation of ideas happens when you limit resources. It’s common practice in off-site exercises for people to be given limited resources and be told, “Okay, go solve this problem.” You see unexpected, innovation solutions emerge. I think that applies to the learning process as well.

Sugata Mitra: You got me thinking about an activity that’s very popular with children in India: airplanes. In the cities, children can buy perfect scale models of airplanes to play with. But in the villages and the slums, the children make an airplane out of two ice cream sticks. Isn’t that far more creative and imaginative?

In School in the Cloud classrooms, are there other resources in the room besides computer stations, or do you keep it scaled down to those to get that cooperation effect?

Sugata Mitra: The most prominent equipment in the room are the computers—there are usually six or seven of them with good, high-definition, large screens. In two of the schools, I also installed Xboxes. The teachers thought I was out of my mind. They said, “The kids are not going to do anything besides play with the Xbox.” But I think there’s another way to look at it: If they’re playing all the time, that means that whatever we’ve asked them to do is not as interesting as the Xbox. In which case, we’d better rethink the tasks that we’re asking them to do. We tried an experiment—I gave the students a really nice SOLE question and they got to working, and I purposely said, “Oh, by the way, there’s an Xbox.” As the teacher predicted, everybody started playing. But there were three little boys who were busily working on the question. I went up to them and said, “I’ve got a serious problem. If everyone keeps playing with the Xbox, my SOLE isn’t going to happen properly. Can you help me?” One of these kids got up, went straight to the Xbox, stood in front of the screen, and said, “We are in the middle of an important educational experiment. Do you guys mind getting back to work?” And you know what—the other kids listened.

That’s interesting—they started playing teacher. Adam, you’d mentioned earlier the importance of kids getting the chance to teach. Is that something you see happening frequently in classrooms in the developing world?

Adam Braun: You see it a tremendous amount. Even outside the classroom, it’s just in the way of life. Increasingly in Western culture, parents feel protective of their kids, so there’s constantly this need for an adult to be around and, with the competition for colleges and whatnot, kids have multiple layers of teachers—once they leave the school, they have the tutor, then once they’re done with the tutor, they work with the parent. It’s rare for one child to teach another child. And yet in the developing world, what you see is that the parents go out, spend the day in the field, and the kids are kind of left to their own devices. Oftentimes, it’s expected that the older children will look after the younger children. It’s part of the norm of the culture. I think that the learner is able to relate better, because they’re closer to a peer and they see the world with the same lens. And the child who is teaching develops an advanced sense of responsibility and a mastery of whatever content they’re teaching because, as I think we all know, you can’t teach something unless you know it intimately. I’ve seen this in dozens of countries.

Sugata Mitra: I see it all the time in India as well, the children having to mind each other. I want to add one thing, Adam, which might interest you. There’s one situation where a child becoming the teacher doesn’t work: in the classroom itself. If you take a classroom and say, “Okay, Adam is the teacher,” what many children do is they get a stick and they hold it up and they say, “Everybody sit quietly. I don’t want a single word to be spoken.” The child’s idea of what a teacher is comes from that military, colonial background. But when they’re in the field or the house and the parents are not there, then they help each other. If you ask them, they’ll say, “I’m helping him tie his shoelaces.” They won’t say, “I’m teaching him to tie his shoelaces.” I think there’s a huge difference between the two. What both Adam and I are talking about as an alternative to what’s currently going on in schools—the whole idea of converting “teaching” into “helping you learn.” If that were the ethos, I think children would learn a lot better.

Is there a difference in attitude about going to school? I feel like in the United States, there was always a sense of, “School is something we have to do.” Not of it being something exciting or a real opportunity. Is that different in India, Ghana, and other countries you’ve seen?

Sugata Mitra: In India, it’s exactly the same. The children are reluctant—they have gloomy faces in the morning. If you really probe, they say they don’t quite understand why they’re going to school except to see their friends—that’s the big delight. It’s not that they don’t want to learn things, it’s just that they are not given an option to learn it their way. They’re told to learn in a particular way, and I think that’s the reason why all of us in the morning used to feel a little glum. We knew we would be told to sit quietly, take notes, memorize things, and we also knew that these are not fun things to do.

Adam Braun: I’ve seen all sides of the spectrum. I’ve seen communities where education is just not a high priority; part of that might be that the parents themselves weren’t educated. They have never really seen the benefits that can be accrued, and they have more pressing daily concerns. More often than not, the kids’ attitudes stem from the attitude of the surrounding community. It takes a catalyst to ignite some type of commitment—that can come from a parent, an engaged teacher in the town, a grandparent, a village chief, an older sibling. Once that child feels like they’re supported in this endeavor, things just take off. When you see a catalyst in the community, you tend to see far greater commitment to education and the opportunities that it provides. I think that applies to kids in the Western world too.

Sugata Mitra: There are self-motivated children. By about 11, 12, 13 years of age, you find—in India and the U.K., certainly—children who say, “I must do well in school so that I can become an engineer.” But for the 6-year-olds and 7-year-olds, that goal is too far away. They think of school as a place where they teach things; and, most of the time, they don’t like the way in which it is taught. So I think parents and other adults telling the child, “You have to go to school,” may not be the right approach. If school could be exciting—if the school had an Xbox, for example—I think it wouldn’t be that difficult to get children to want to go. In the hole-in-the-wall experiment, parents used to complain to me that their children weren’t coming home. I was thinking to myself, “These are the same children who hate going to school, but they’re not coming back from their roadside computer. What’s the difference?” The difference was the freedom to learn their way.

Are there any skills, habits or abilities that you’ve seen in students in India and Ghana that would be useful for students in the Western world to learn?

Sugata Mitra: We just did an experiment together, which you can see in the video above, where we had children of similar ages in Ghana and the United States answer the same question—“Why is the blue whale so big?”—in a Self-Organized Learning Environment. We got nearly identical results. Which I think that is a lesson in itself: when it comes to motivated, self-directed learning, children really are not different from country to country. That is terrific news. We don’t have to think of different solutions for different socio-economic strata. If we do it right, then children will engage in the same way, whether it’s in the United States or in Ghana.

Adam Braun: There’s one basic thing I’ve seen that’s different in students in the developing world: resilience. It’s not to say you don’t see it in Western culture, but students in the developing world face significantly more potential obstacles than most kids in the Western world. There are so many hurdles to becoming a university student when you start out living in a bamboo hut without running water, when nobody in your family has even completed secondary school before. It requires a tremendous amount of resilience to get to the point where you graduate. In the developing world, I think there is an appreciation for the difficulties of the journey. Because of that, there’s an expectation that, once someone succeeds, that they give back to their community in some capacity. I hope that continues—and it’s something that would be very beneficial to Western culture as well. Right now, we have this romanticizing of the person who goes off and leaves behind where they came from, but it’s really beautiful and powerful to see that in the developing world, even if a person doesn’t move back to the community, they find a way to help lift others out of impoverished situations. I don’t want to say it doesn’t happen in Western culture, but it’s something that I see happen consistently in the developing world.

Sugata Mitra: I’ve spent most of my life in India; it’s only the last eight or nine years that I’ve been outside. The sentiment that Adam’s describing—that’s the first thing that I saw missing in Western society. I wondered why, but there is a very simple answer: because there isn’t a shortage. If you take a young man or woman who is earning good money, they think, “My parents are okay—I don’t really need to send them money.” And they are correct. But in a way, it’s very ironic. Young people eventually stop aspiring. What Adam is saying, very politely, is that poverty drives a certain value system—a good value system—but poverty is not a nice thing, so we have to invent a new way to have that value system without the actual poverty.

Students at the Pencils of Promise Omega School in Ghana talk to Adam Braun and Sugata Mitra remotely. Photo: Microsoft Work Wonders Project

Students at the Omega School in Ghana talk to Adam Braun and Sugata Mitra remotely. Through Microsoft’s Work Wonders Project, Pencils of Promise and the School in the Cloud are teaming up to develop a new model of education.

What is a lesson that each of you has personally learned from a student you’ve met in India, Ghana, or another country?

Adam Braun: I remember very distinctly being in a multiple-acre dump in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. It’s a horrific, hellish place that’s pretty devastating to see—communities live on the edge of it and they send the kids out to collect sacks of hard plastic from the garbage, for which they can get something like 10 or 15 cents. When I was 21 years old, I got involved with an organization called the Cambodian Children’s Fund, which took kids out of that situation and put them into a facility that provided quality food, healthcare, and a full education. I went back at one point and I was walking around the outskirts of this dump and I found this kid who was living there. I asked him and his friend what they wanted to be when they grew up. They couldn’t have been more than 10 years old; they’re garbage pickers. And one of them looked at me and said he wanted to be a lawyer, and the other one said he wanted to be the Prime Minister. I remember being so awestruck by the size of these kids’ dreams. As adults, particularly adults from the Western world, we have this expectation that kids understand the limits of their situation and that, because of that, they’ll be inhibited in how big they dream. But these kids were very serious. They weren’t willing to limit themselves to the confines of the situation they were in at that moment. That was an immense lesson that always stuck with me. When you hear a child in a situation like that say they want to be the head of their country, it’s extraordinarily humbling and motivating and inspiring at the same time.

Sugata Mitra: The lesson I want to share is of a completely different kind. I learned it from a child who was about 5 years old in the United States. He was being taught how to multiply—to write down two digit numbers, one below the other, and then you do this and that. I was chatting with him and I asked, “Why are you struggling with multiplying?” Without batting an eyelid, he said, “Because I could use a phone. Why do I have to multiply numbers like that on a piece of paper?” He was really annoyed. And at that moment, I realized something important: that the answer to his question was, “They are wasting your time.” I gave a lecture a couple of days later, and I brought this up. I said, “Maybe it’s time we stopped teaching paper arithmetic.” And boy, that community of teachers erupted—they could have killed me. “How can you not have arithmetic? It’s a pillar of primary education.” But who is primary education for? Five-year olds and six-year olds. And there’s my 5-year old friend, who was so extraordinarily annoyed by it. I learned a lot from that conversation with him.

It is still early days for your collaboration, but could you give an update on where things are with bringing SOLEs into Pencils of Promise schools? 

Sugata Mitra: We’re moving this project forward. This is where our meeting ground is: the SOLE as a method is effective and inexpensive, because it works best with just a few computers. So if we take the SOLE idea into Adam’s school and restructure a little bit, then we would get a new kind of model for a school, which others may want to look at. Where Adam’s work is invaluable to me is that his schools—and he has made a lot of them—are currently up and running whereas my holes in the wall are not. I have not been able to solve the problem of sustainability, and I want to find some of the right techniques to get it. It will be exciting to see where we can go together. It should be a few months before the first one or two start to function.

Adam Braun: Leslie Engle is our Director of Impact and she’s been working with a gentleman on Sugata’s side to formalize what this program can look like. We’re excited to find a middle ground in which our commitment and experience with building sustainable schools can mesh with Sugata’s brilliance around SOLEs, and to bring it to life on the ground. Obviously it takes time and it takes iteration and it takes willingness to put forward new ideas. But we’re both committed to it and I’m excited to see where it develops through the rest of the year.

Sugata Mitra: It’s interesting—with the Schools in the Cloud program that I’m doing, my biggest problem, surprisingly, is not pedagogy, or student engagement. My biggest problem is getting quality Internet connections and quality electricity—not having to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on solar energy, only to have it not function properly. We need equipment that is designed for the tropics. If you design a pair of shoes to work in New York City and then take it to the paddy fields of Vietnam, in an hour, there will be no shoe left. But if you’ve designed a shoe that works in the paddy fields of Vietnam, that will work forever in New York City. I think that if Adam takes his model, builds it and then brings it out of Africa, we’ll get a model of education that works everywhere.

Adam Braun: I would like to echo that. The most sustainable projects and products are those that are built in challenging environments. That’s an exciting place for us to be, knowing that we have the ability and the staff and the relationships to actually do something on the ground. The hope is that if it works out there, then we can expand it and it can propagate across various other parts of the world.