Give them a laptop and a group of pupils will teach themselves

Leave a comment

I’ve been prompted to post this comment on the inspirational talk I heard at the Scottish Learning Festival in September by the news that Sugata Mitra’s ‘Granny Cloud’ will feature on The Culture Show this coming Thursday on BBC2 at 7p.m. Mitra -professor of educational technology at Newcastle University – has recruited hundreds of grannies in Newcastle to go online to help children in India with their education. And he has reversed the process for children in Gateshead.

The academic who inspired ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ believes all pupils should be given time in groups with a computer to teach themselves. One of the most powerful things Mitra says – again and again – is ‘…and then I went away’. That’s the key!

Teachers simply need to design questions that evoke curiosity and interest, then ‘sit back and admire as learning happens’.

Mitra’s work over the past decade has shown what exciting things happen when we let these children take learning into their own hands.

Since 2006, Mitra and colleagues have been asking the question: How will learners in remote areas get an equal opportunity? These areas are not necessarily geographically remote. They may be remote in other ways, for instance, areas in big cities that are socio-economically remote, areas that are religiously or ethnically remote.

This is where computers come in. Laptops were sold to the richest schools in the world. But the richest schools already had good teachers and, mostly, good students.

Mitra decided to modify and develop technology and take it to some of the remotest locations he could find (including Gateshead). He wanted to examine whether it would survive, and if it did, what would it do for education.

He started to install computers into brick walls in public places in hundreds of villages and slums in India, Cambodia and Africa. The media called this the “hole-in-the-wall” project.

The computers were designed to be used by 6- to 15-year-old children, free of charge and free of any supervision. In the first five years of the experiment, they showed that groups of children could teach themselves to use a computer and the internet, irrespective of who or where they are; irrespective of what language they spoke and of whether they went to school or not.

Ten years later, a girl in rural Maharashtra is studying aeronautical engineering following her encounter with the computer in the wall. A village boy who became a genetic engineer in one of India’s premier laboratories found the subject by reading the New Scientist at his hole in the wall.

What else could children learn on their own, apart from the use of computers? In Hyderabad, groups of children showed significant improvements in English pronunciation, with just few hours of practice on their own. They used a computer and a speech-to-text program that had been trained in a native English accent.

In the tsunami-hit village of Kalikuppam in southern India, children with access to a hole-in-the-wall computer taught themselves basic biotechnology, reaching a test score of 30% in just two months. They had started with a score of zero. If Tamil-speaking children could teach themselves biotechnology in English, on their own, how far could they go? A 30% score may be impressive, but it’s still not a pass. The researchers decided to use a local woman, working for an NGO, to help them go further. She had no background in biotechnology, but she took on the role of an untrained friendly mediator to encourage the children, using their desire to impress each other and their adult friend. Two months on, the scores in Kalikuppam rose to over 50%, close to what is achieved by trained subject teachers in the posh private schools of Delhi.

Mitra brought these results back to Britain. By chance, Vikas Swarup, whose book became the film Slumdog Millionaire, revealed that he had been inspired to write his story by the hole-in-the-wall experiments. Following that, he made an appeal to British grandparents to give an hour of their time to talk, using Skype, to children in the slums and villages of India. Within days, 200 volunteers, of all ages, many of them retired teachers, had come forward.

In the following months, 40 of these “eMediators” had over 200 hours of contact with children in India. They read them stories, played games with them, and chatted about their two countries. A child development expert, Suneeta Kulkarni, is measuring the effects of this on the children’s English communication skills.

Two years ago, they decided to try the same approach in the UK and have been working with three schools in the north-east. In Gateshead, 10-year-olds working in groups were able to answer GCSE questions they would normally encounter six years later. Mitra asked if they could have done this more quickly if they had not shared a computer but worked on their own. They said they could not have done it at all that way

Mitra now believes that groups of children, given the appropriate digital infrastructure, a safe and free environment, and a friendly but not necessarily knowledgeable mediator, can pass school-leaving exams on their own.

The new model is straightforward. It’s called a Self-organised learning environment. It’s ‘just’ a “cybercafe” environment for children – light, comfortable, safe and inexpensive. Children work in self-organised groups of four or five. They have the freedom to work as they please, or not to work, if they so please. Order is maintained by the children themselves. Sessions should be timetabled, just as playtime is. Each session is driven by a question designed by teachers.

Now Mitra is calling for such learning environments to be built in every primary school. He says that teachers

need to be trained to design simple questions that will evoke curiosity and interest while gently nudging a group towards the curriculum. Then, they can sit back and admire as learning happens.

The teachers have to learn to let go.

In the language of physics: “Education is a process of self-organisation and learning is its emergent property.”

Fascinating stuff. I’ll be watching on Thursday.

CPD Question Time

Leave a comment

I attended an event at LT Scotland’s Glasgow office last week (yes, in my holidays) which proved to be a stimulating event.

I can’t better the summary posted by Nick Hood.

 My question to the panel quoted from Fullan and Hargreaves’ ‘What’s Worth Fighting for in your School?’. I was about to ask it when I realised I was doing exactly what I was complaining about: using language that excludes those ‘not in the know’. Luckily I realised this in time and reframed the question. Here it is:

How do we mitigate against a ‘Balkanised culture’ in which separate factions reflect and reinforce very different group outlooks on learning and teaching, the curriculum, and 21st century education?

I had in mind not just those who sit at training or staff meetings with arms crossed and ‘lips pursed like a dog’s bottom’ but also those whose passion for the next new gadget or idea imbue them with a sense of virtue and superiority.

I’m afraid I fall into both categories at times.

Nick has a more complete summary of the thoughts of the panel. I was so worried about what I would say if the chair asked for my opinion that I fear I didn’t pay the fullest attention.

My feeling is that it is essential for a common understanding to be thrashed out prior to real change occurring. Shared meanings must not be assumed. Some consensus about definitions of such terms as self-directed learning, readiness and interest grouping, locus of control, multi-modal resources, authentic assessment, divergent thinking, is essential. Most importantly the notion that societal transformation is happening now and that the current way of doing things is untenable in the 21st century needs to be grasped by all concerned in education. Such radical reframing takes time and support.

 It is impossible to mitigate entirely against diverse clusters forming – that’s how people are – but open discussion about the philosophy of change and the impact this has on us all is one way to promote an ethos that is moving towards re-conceiving the culture, structure and processes in which we all learn.

Memory Performance Boosted while Walking

1 Comment

Interesting article here  (thanks to Charles Fernyhough on Twitter for the link) on memory perfomance and activity.

This research that shows  that memory performance can be boosted by walking compared with sitting down.

The headline finding was that the working memory performance of both age groups improved when walking at their chosen speed compared with when sitting or walking at a fixed speed set by the researchers. This was especially the case for more difficult versions of the working memory task, and was more pronounced among the children than the adults. So, this would appear to be clear case of mental performance actually being superior in a dual-task situation.

 Why should the secondary task of walking aid, rather impair, mental performance? The researchers aren’t sure of the mechanism, but they think the attentional pool tapped by a sensori-motor task like walking is likely separate from the attentional pool tapped by working memory. Moreover, physical activity increases arousal and activation, ‘which then can be invested into the cognitive task,’ they said.

It is often argued that children with specific learning difficulties ‘have more problems than healthy controls when they have to divide their attention between two concurrent tasks.’ However, this research indicates that the opposite is in fact the case. So get those kids moving – at a brisk but self determined pace – and you might find that their working memory (and hence learning in general) improves.

Worth a try!

Twitter: a continuing conversation

Leave a comment


An article by John Naughton  coincided with a conversation with a colleague to induce me to try Twitter.

Naughton wrote about Retweeting:

One of the most intriguing and useful features in Twitter is the “retweet” facility. If you see something in your tweetstream that you think might interest others, then you can click a button to make it visible to the people who are following you.

 As it happened Nigel  had tweeted about a post I had written. He showed me how someone else had picked this up, retweeted and spread my message, not quite like wildfire but a brisker flame than otherwise.

Reader, I was intrigued.

I took the plunge last week. It was a leap into the unknown but several people have urged me to join this networking phenomenon assuring me that I would find it worthwhile. I am not a very sociable being so was uninterested in linking to superficial chit-chat that many of us associate with these sites (Facebook being another – I belong to keep an eye on what my daughter’s up to!).

At the same time I am questioning the effectiveness of traditional teacher professional development as I sit at work on an in-service training day with little of relevance to me going on in the school where I am based.

Could the formation of groups of educators on Twitter be thought of as communities of practice, and can the learning constructed by these groups be thought of as professional development?

I am not looking for a one-off day where, despite research into learning, I am subjected to transmission based teaching methods from a speaker or presenter who ‘delivers’ a presentation. The knowledge accrued is then expected to transform my practice in the classroom. This traditional teacher professional development, despite being ineffective, is also costly in time and money.

This has as many implications for the quality and nature of the CPD I offer to my colleagues as for my own professional development.

Education concerns exploring new ways of being. A major topic of interaction among the microblogging educators is how we are to redefine education and schools for the 21st century. I want to be a part of the conversation. I am grateful to  Jo McLeay for her scholarly exposition of the subject.

She shows it is well established that communities of practice play a huge part in knowledge construction and sharing – and of course it’s not any more just about newcomers to a community learning from old timers. Membership of communities of practice allows learners to collaborate, to develop new knowledge and to develop and learn about new resources. Learning is an outcome of participation.

The three attributes, ‘mutual engagement, joint enterprise and shared repertoire’, are key ways to differentiate communities of practice from teams or groups.

Communities of practice are not – and should not be – static but subject to evolution. My own evolution – at least 5 years behind the techies – reflects this premise.

I have been skeptical about the nature of social networking: I don’t really want to know the minutiae of what my own family is up to let alone complete strangers!  However, I am beginning to understand that strong informal relationships necessary for true sharing – not just of resources and tips but of philosophy and fundamental beliefs – can occur once trust and confidence are established.

The community of educators that is forming on Twitter “fulfils the human desire for interaction” (McInnerney, p. 73), overcomes isolation, engenders a sense of belonging in a joint enterprise. Thus it is a source of influence, learning and identity.

Finally back to John Naughton who quotes a study clarifying that Twitter is a radically different form of social networking.

Researchers at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology assembled a cluster of 20 PCs, collected the entire contents of Twitter for the month of July 2009 and then set their algorithms to analysing the resulting mountain of data.

One of the researchers’ conjectures concerned the number of “degrees of separation” one would expect between Twitter users. Ever since Stanley Milgram’s famous “six degrees of separation” experiments of the 1960s in which he showed that any two people on earth were separated by at most six hops from one acquaintance to the next, studies of social networks – both offline and online – have generally confirmed that figure. Given that only about a fifth of Twitter relationships are reciprocal, the Korean researchers conjectured that the degree of separation among Twitter users would be greater than six. But what their data showed is exactly the opposite: the average path-length in Twitter is just over four.

If you’re not into network theory, then the difference between six and four may not seem very significant. But if you’re interested in how news spreads around a network then it’s dynamite. Next to traditional, few-to-many broadcasting, Twitter is the fastest way to spread news and information. In fact, it’s the nearest thing the web has to wildfire. And the key mechanism that enables that is retweeting. The Korean researchers have found that this single facility generally enables any given message to reach a much bigger audience than those who are followers of the original tweet.

 We’ll see how it goes.



Whether you think you can or think you can’t – you are probably right. Henry Ford

Leave a comment

 At this time of session, many young people and their parents are becoming increasingly worried about the transition to high school. Many parents recall their own secondary school experiences less than enthusiastically and older siblings frequently delight in exaggerating or creating stories about the horrors that await the unwary new kids.

Professor Tim Miles wrote that

education is in the hands of those who possess all the traditional skills; and since, not surprisingly, they assume that others are like themselves, the needs of some very gifted thinkers whose brains and organisation is different are not being adequately met.

There are still areas of the secondary curriculum that bear more relation to 19th century training for work in a factory than to the world in which these young people operate. This is particularly true of the upper years when the Great God Examination continues to dominate learning and teaching, despite the best intentions of most teachers.

However, there is a great deal of practice that is as exciting, engaging and innovative as in the best primary classrooms. The fears of those pupils in P7 are often not realised once the new session begins. But for some learners with dyslexia the reality of the greater demands on their literacy skills in what can be a more hostile environment reflects the dread.

In contrast to the expectations of many children with dyslexia and their parents and teachers, I have found that the single most significant indicator of success at high school is not the ability to read and write fluently. It’s belief in oneself; as simple (and as complex) as that.

To succeed with abilities which have not traditionally been recognised at school, as many learners with dyslexia do, they need to have deep reservoirs of confidence and fortitude to carry on in spite of the judgements of others – and, crucially, themselves – that they are slow and lazy and stupid. To maintain the required drive, determination, and sense of mission in the face of almost constant early failure and humiliation is often nothing short of miraculous.

The shame on the educational system is that only some survive these early days with enough confidence and drive to press on, against all odds, to individual success in some area of specialist knowledge, deep understanding, and passionate interest.

Conventional ‘remediation of learning difficulties’ is only part of the job – and not the most interesting or important part. We need to seek ways to help dyslexics find and develop their own forte, large or small, so that they do not end up hiding their aptitudes along with their very real difficulties. The talents that many dyslexics have can be powerful and valuable assets in a rapidly changing environment. Many dyslexics are strong visualisers who think creatively and laterally. They have much to contribute in a world in which information can be accessed and understanding demonstrated through diverse media.

The Curriculum for Excellence strives to enable such learners to develop in the ways that they find most congruent with their own styles of learning and cognition. 

I am confident that those P7’s with whom I’m working this term encounter such engaging experiences as those illustrated here.

Formative Assessment works!


I happened upon Robert Jones’ blog post  about Assessment recently. He used Curriculum for Excellence  assessment principles to learn how his students had synthesised work on a money topic which included wages, VAT and exchange rates.  He concluded:

I was reminded today of the benefits of giving youngsters a say in how they are assessed, and of the benefits of sharing the purpose of an activity with them.

By chance I carried out a similar exercise at a primary school yesterday.

Last term I had been working with a group of 10 children whose poor working memory hinders them from learning as well as they might.

I returned after the 3 week break to ask them to capture their learning. Like Robert, I asked them to create a poster (they chose to use Comic Life) as an assessment exercise. I was very explicit, telling them this was for me to learn to do my job better as well as to gather evidence of their own learning. To make it more relevant, we agreed we would show the posters to others in their classes so that they could benefit from learning new studying strategies.

The challenge for Robert and I was ‘to figure out a way to capture the evidence … heard in class today’. These conversations I found to be even more enlightening than the finished products. The children built upon each others’ knowledge and understanding and reflected on questions put by me and others in the group to produce thoughtful responses. They were not inhibited by the  notion of this activity being An Assessment as they understood that deep learning is ongoing and does not have one ‘final answer’. They were confident enough to say when and what they didn’t remember, and to take steps to find out information from each other  in order to complete the poster as effectively as they could.

I now feel better equipped to teach this another time. I think the children themselves were surprised at how much they were able to recall in a collaborative atmosphere.

And this was the meta-point: they had an enhanced awareness of the skills many people use to remember information. The fact that they remembered the work we had done prior to the spring holiday showed them that they could, and had, improve their memories. Two for the price of one!

(The right sort of) Brain Training Can Improve Grades

1 Comment


The BBC trial of brain training mentioned in my last post  demonstrated that Brain Training is ‘only as good as spending six weeks using the internet. There is no meaningful difference’, as is shown in the clip above.

The ‘Brain Test Britain’ experiment was inspired by a study, published in 2009, suggesting the scientific evidence for brain training was lacking.   Tracy Packiam Alloway was instrumental in conducting research on this issue. She states that:

Working memory abilities are closely associated with a wide range of measures of academic ability, including literacy and mathematics. The majority of those with recognised learning difficulties in these areas have working memory impairments. Poor working memory skills in the early years of education are also effective predictors of poor scholastic attainments over the subsequent school years.

The point about brain training programs is that there is no transfer effect. You might improve your ability to recall numbers in a backward sequence over a short period (or spell ‘psychiatrist’ backwards as in Neurolinguistic programming) but not develop your critical or creative thinking and reasoning, your ability to evaluate and synthesise new information or relate prior learning to novel situations. You are no better equipped to know what to do when you don’t know what to do!

Alloway conducted a clinical trial with two groups of students:

The Training group participated in a working memory training program  and the Control group received targeted educational support (IEP). The two groups did not differ in their IQ, working memory, or academic scores pre-training.

In contrast, the Training group demonstrated a clear improvement not only in IQ and working memory tests, but crucially in learning outcomes as well. Students on the working memory training program went from a C to a B, or a B to an A after just 8 weeks of training! This is an exciting step in demonstrating that the right brain training can significantly boost academic attainment.

Both the Training and the Control groups underwent 8-weeks of their respective training programs and then were retested on the IQ, working memory, and academic tests.

The results were dramatic. The Control group did not perform much better without intervention, and in some instances they performed even worse in math and working memory.

Now, Alloway has a product to sell; but at least Jungle Memory appears to be founded on evidence based, scientific and peer reviewed research.

John Connell flagged up a fascinating TED talk about ‘Science Denialism’ and irrational thinking which describes the importance of challenging the ‘belief in magic that replaces evidence-based research’. The speaker, Michael Specter, focuses largely on food production and vaccines, but he could equally well be talking about the ‘leap into the arms of the placebo’ that many take about education. The clip is well worth watching if you have 15 minutes to spare.

Working Memory: the New Intelligence

1 Comment

Working memory is the new intelligence: the ability to hold information in your head and manipulate it mentally. We use this mental workspace not just when doing ‘mental maths’, but also when following instructions and directions, recalling sequences in words, sentences and oral presentations, and retaining information long enough to evaluate and synthesise. Children who do poorly at school may have poor working memory rather than an immutable lack of intelligence.

Working memory is not linked to differences in income, environment, social class or any of the other factors that make traditional IQ tests so unhelpful. Poor working memory is often not routinely identified at school and teachers often describe children with this problem as inattentive, day dreamers or being less able.

Working memory determines how effectively someone can learn and is, according to Tracy Packiam Alloway, ‘the best predictor of academic success’. I had thought this was receptive vocabulary but of course knowledge of a wide variety of words is dependent on the ability to retrieve these words at will. An effective working memory is fundamental to learning.

Dr Alloway is the director of the Centre for Memory and Learning in the Lifespan at Stirling University. I heard her at the Edinburgh Science festival last week and was most impressed with her energy and wide ranging research profile.

People use working memory to stay focused, creatively solve complex problems, respond to questions thoughtfully and recall instructions and crucial information. Those who are better at remembering and working with new information do better in all aspects of learning.

Working memory impacts on every aspect of how our brain works and, as a consequence, every aspect of our lives: from securing our survival, to making savvy business decisions and controlling our emotions. Understanding what we can do to train our working memory can have a tremendous impact on preventing memory loss and delay the signs of dementia.

Alloway states that specific ‘Brain Training’ programmes have no benefit other than enabling people to do brain training exercises more effectively. She has also debunked ‘Brain Gym’ in her extensive research. The BBC programme this week, ‘Bang goes the Theory’ , confirmed these findings in an amusing way. A chimp demonstrated that practise in such games improves performance measurably, with no concomitant surge in overall cognitive function. The chimp didn’t become more intelligent in the generally accepted sense of the word.

Brain Test Britain found that people who play brain training games do get better at those specific brain training games. But this really only proves the old adage of ‘practice makes perfect’. There is no evidence that this transfers to the brain skills measured by our benchmarking tests.

However, all is not lost. Alloway’s research demonstrates that playing video games involving planning and strategy, such as war games, may also train working memory. Games that demand keeping track of past actions and mapping the actions you are about to take (Scrabble, chess, crosswords, Sudoku being prime examples) are likely to have the same effect as their video equivalents in challenging the brain.

Dr Alloway’s team has developed a program, Jungle Memory , that claims to increase the performance of 11 – 14 year olds. After 8 weeks, children in a trial saw ten-point improvements in literacy, numeracy and ‘IQ’ scores. (I wonder why Alloway continues to use this outdated mode of assessment. It is clear that she regards intelligence quotients only as effective indicators of the ability to pass intelligence tests).

Doodling is also highly recommended for recording those ‘mental scribbles’ about information we need to remember and reflect on.

Adopting approaches that encourage note making using symbols, metacognitive strategies for recall, strategic thinking, time for reflection and – crucially – collaborative learning and playing games in the classroom is likely to help those children (estimated at 10% across all age ranges) whose poor working memory affects their progress.

Interesting stuff that should impact upon learning and teaching for all children, but especially those with learning difficulties.

Shameless Self-Promotion


Here is my contribution to the celebration of Scottish Education as suggested by Don Ledingham. (I have uploaded it to Youtube but don’t think I’ve tagged it very well. First attempt!)

The script for my video is, more or less, the winning entry in a competition run by iansyst and They have not yet posted the news there but here is the email I received a couple of weeks ago:


I am delighted to inform you that you have submitted the winning entry into our Dyslexia Friendly Best Practice Award, and that you are the lucky winner of the Dell Laptop along with ClaroRead, Mind Genius, Nessy and Audio Notetaker software.

The competition drew a lot of interest, but we felt that the commitment demonstrated in promoting dyslexia strengths via the use of technology was exemplar. The methods utilised in encouraging pupils independence, not only showed imagination, but a high level of understanding of the difficulties faced by dyslexic students.

It is vital that children with dyslexia have their challenges addressed at a young age, without being isolated from other pupils. The methods suggested within your submission show an insightful means of tackling these challenges, whilst maintaining an open learning environment for all pupils – Congratulations.

I am expecting the laptop to be delivered this week.

The brain is an organ of re-presentation

Leave a comment

I was working with a P7 class today. I will be working with them  for 4 60 minutes sessions on higher order reading skills.

For the first 2 weeks we’re focusing on working memory and then we’ll move on to how we  read actively:  skimming and scanning for main ideas.

I started today’s session with this video clip illustrating how easy it is to miss important information unless we are mindful. We construct our own memories which are not always reflections of reality.

We decided what aids we used to remember instructions  and then the children made a memory time line. Crucially they discussed with their partners what made events in their lives memorable. They agreed that we tend to recall things that are novel, exciting, and which touch our emotions.

I told them about McLean’s theory of the Triune Brain. I used a toy snake (Reptilian Brain), a Valentine’s card declaring ‘I will love you with all my Limbic System’ and a Brownie cap (Neo-cortex) to illustrate the 3 parts to the brain. I assured them that this was a very simplistic concept that helped me to understand how important ‘fight or flight’ reflexes, emotions and logical anaylytical thinking are in learning.

Finally, we reviewed the learning and I asked them to practice the memory strategies we had identified as useful. I would test them next week!

It will be interesting to see whether the class teacher over the next term or so finds that the children in her class are focusing more mindfully and utilising different strategies to recall information.

Coincidentally, I went to hear Sergio Della Sala speak about ‘Neuroscience and Education’ ths evening and he showed the same video. Spooky. He was debunking myths that are pervasive in education that have no foundation in reality. He stressed the centrality of evidence based research in a most entertaining lecture.

I’m a bit worried now about my deployment of possibly spurious data to make a point about learning. After all, what do I know about neuroscience? However, I shall be more circumspect in future and check and check once more before I make certain assertions.

Older Entries


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.