Teaching: Jacques Ranciere and Sugata Mitra

A few months ago I was blown away by Sugata Mitra’s TED talk on child-driven education. Mitra’s thesis is that children can teach themselves. What they need is not teachers who know how to do what they are trying to learn, but materials, problems, one another (groups), and perhaps encouragement. Mitra put computers out and watched what children did with them. Groups of children would gather around the computer and teach themselves how to use them. Their “performance” teaching themselves ended up to be as good or better than those with teachers. What Mitra introduced in this talk that wasn’t in the previous TED Talk by him (also very good) is the “granny cloud”. These “grannies” just expressed enthusiasm and interest in what the students were doing, no evaluation, and it improved student learning immensely.

The other day I was at a friend’s house and saw a book by Jacques Ranciere called “The Ignorant Schoolmaster”. Ranciere tells the story of the 19th century version of Sugata Mitra, someone named Joseph Jacotot. Jacotot managed to teach a group of Flemish students to write a series of things in French, although he knew no Flemish and they knew no French (similar to Mitra at the end of the talk writing english questions on a blackboard with Italian students, who answered his questions reasonably quickly). Jacotot showed that you don’t need to know, to teach. What you need to do to teach is set a problem for a student so that the student must use their own intelligence to solve. There was no need for additional explanation of texts – the text was the explanation, there’s no need for a teacher to explain it. But current methods of teaching don’t serve learning or students, is Ranciere’s point – they serve the system, and the teachers. “Universal teaching”, in which students teach themselves, isn’t useful to the system, and won’t ever be adopted by it, because it has totally different objectives than the current system.

Another friend passed me a book by Carol Dweck called “Self Theories”, which contrasts an “incremental” theory of intelligence (that you can get smarter by working) versus an “entity” theory of intelligence (that you have a certain amount of a thing called intelligence and it won’t change). If you believe in the entity theory, your self-image will be fragile and you will avoid problems that might make you look or feel unintelligent – difficulty will elicit a “helpless response” from you. If you hold to the incremental theory, you will be persistent in the face of difficulty and show a “mastery-oriented” response to problems. Teachers and parents can generate “mastery-oriented”, “incremental” theories and responses by ensuring to never praise or punish “intelligence”, but always offer feedback on strategies. If a student is unsuccessful at a problem, offer another strategy. If a student is successful, praise the strategy and offer another challenge. If a student solves something easily, apologize for not offering a sufficient challenge and offer the next challenge. This is how to create mastery.

A long time ago someone (a writer), commenting on my lack of perfectionism in my writing, told me I wasn’t a writer, but a teacher who used writing. I’ve been thinking recently about what teaching (or, indeed, writing) is for. I have recently tried to introduce some of these ideas (problem-based, groups-based, open-ended problems, strategy-based feedback) in class, and I am finding that the pressure from the system – student anxiety about grades, the fact that the structural relationship is one where they are paying to be evaluated – works against these potentials. I might be tempted to conclude that real learning has to take place outside of class. The trouble is that what’s outside of class is more pressure – to work outside of school to pay for school and the student debt and the rent, to try to make arrangements and plans for a future that is so uncertain. It makes me think that the real problems of the world aren’t a lack of good answers, but the impossibility of implementing them. As in: we know how people learn, but we can’t create a situation where they can. We know how to solve the energy (or economic or climate or environmental or food or health) crisis, but we can’t do what it takes to make it happen.

Author: Justin Podur

Author of Siegebreakers. Ecology. Environmental Science. Political Science. Anti-imperialism. Political fiction. Teach at York U's FES. Author. Writer at ZNet, TeleSUR, AlterNet, Ricochet, and the Independent Media Institute.