We need to think very, very seriously about this

This story is incredible, and admittedly, unfinished. There’s much more we need to learn that hasn’t been told yet, but what we do know c(sh)ould change things. Maybe even a whole lot of things.

Recently, the OLPC organization took boxes of tablets, carefully and tightly taped up, and dropped them in two remote villages of Ethiopia. There were no instructions. No teachers. Nothing but a group of first grade-aged students for whom the tablets were intended. Students who couldn’t read, couldn’t identify the single form of a letter, had never before seen any kind of technology.

What happened is simply astounding.

Six and seven year old kids who had never before encountered any form of written language were demonstrating obvious emerging literacy skills within weeks. Without the interference help of adults.

“I thought the kids would play with the boxes. Within four minutes, one kid not only opened the box, found the on-off switch … powered it up. Within five days, they were using 47 apps per child, per day. Within two weeks, they were singing ABC songs in the village, and within five months, they had hacked Android,” Negroponte said. “Some idiot in our organization or in the Media Lab had disabled the camera, and they figured out the camera, and had hacked Android.”

As stated, there’s a lot more we need to learn about this story. But there’s also a lot we need to learn from it.

Because it raises some serious questions. Questions I think we need to take some time to answer.

  1. Why don’t we give kids more credit for their natural capacity to learn?
  2. What if we’re the ones getting in the way?
  3. Can we finally put to rest the silly digital immigrant/digital native nonsense?
  4. Why does there remain such a fascination with teaching kids very specific technology skills in our schools today?

It’s intriguing to compare the new approach OLPC is taking with the tablets to the approach they took in Peru. Reading through the reflections on the failure* in Peru brings to the surface two immediate observations. The hardware/software wasn’t ready for the task. And the adults continued getting in the way. The second point, to me, is the most salient. Read through each section of Patzer’s observations, and you see how often the breakdown happens in the way the adults try to move the students through a pre-determined way to learn with the device.

I believe the second experiment is working because nobody is there trying hard to figure out how the new technology should fit into the old model of teaching and learning.

And nobody is trying to frame the learning experience through superficial content that the kids just don’t care about.

Because learning isn’t putting content in little boxes to be handed to kids one after another only to have the boxes thrown away quickly after the handling. To be forgotten in an effort to remember the next in the long line to which they can’t see the end.

It’s letting the kids discover what’s in the boxes. And how to get it out of the boxes. And why the boxes even matter in the first place.

It’s setting a goal, establishing an environment to realize the goal, and trusting in the capacity of human potential. Student potential.

And sometimes, it’s just getting out of their way.


*I encourage you to read Gary Stager’s comment below providing more details and his perspective on the Peru “failing.” I think it’s an excellent perspective and merits further thought before we accept that program actually failed.

39 Responses to We need to think very, very seriously about this
  1. Gail Lovely Reply


    I also wrote about this article on my blog http://GailWarnings.com

    I also think there are some big wake up calls and “thought prompts” in this article and the work of Sugata Mitra.

    I hope you will take a look at my thoughts on this too.


    • Gary Stager Reply

      I first met Mitra in 2004 and was quite impressed. I am distressed when others generalize his experiences to those in the developing world. For example, I have heard affluent American school leaders use The Hole in the Wall as evidence AGAINST 1:1 computing since the kids learn socially.

      Kids learn socially when they have their own computer too.

      Rather than argue for or against Mitra’s experiments or whether OLPC succeeded or failed in X country, we SHOULD be having the much more difficult conversation about why educational computing in the United States is such a gigantic embarrassment with almost nothing to show for billions of dollars in investment.

      This is due to the bankruptcy of our imaginations, our continuously decreasing standards and a hostility towards empowering learners.

      The prophylactic impact of tech directors/coordinators cannot be overestimated.

    • Ben Grey Reply


      Thank you for sharing your excellent post. I’ve heard quite a few recommendations for Mitra’s work, but I’ve not yet had a chance to get to it. I look forward to digging in a bit deeper on it.

      Thank you very much for sharing and for the comment.


      • Gail Lovely Reply

        I think Dr. Mitra would be a good keynote for ISTE 2013… I have put his name forward for it before and will continue to do so. People who make us think, question, and ponder are important, and can be good keynoters.

        Thank you for being one of those thought-provoking people too.


        • Gary Stager Reply

          Mitra IS fantastic, but I don’t know what an ISTE attendee would DO as a result of hearing him.

  2. Ben Stern Reply

    Great piece! I agree. I wrote just today about the need to get out of the way, a lesson my students taught me: http://www.edumusings.com/the-best-unit-ive-ever-taught-by-accident/

    Thanks for writing.

    • Ben Grey Reply

      Thanks for sharing your post, Ben. You hit on such an important part of this. Our students, and many adults, have been conditioned to follow the directions. To know what steps they need to complete to get an A.

      Messy learning is hard. And it’s very different from what we’ve done for so long, that it’s challenging for many across many levels.

      I’m hoping that won’t stop us from moving it forward. Because we have to.

  3. Martin Dougiamas Reply

    It is very cool, yes, and I’m sure anyone who has kids anywhere has seen the same sort of learning happen in their own children.

    What we don’t know is how “even” the learning was across the group. It’s easy to point to the best examples and forget about the kids who are way behind.

    Also these are limited to basic digital literacy. How far does this sort of self-learning take you? Would you trust a bridge designed by a self-taught engineer, or have a heart operation from a self-taught surgeon?

    Finally, with seven billion people in the world who need something to do, why are some of us trying to eliminate teachers?

    Food for thought.

    • Tom Currie Reply

      I agree with you so long as we assume we want to create a blanket approach within a “one education is good for all” paradigm. –Behind in some areas, ahead in others… #Whos2Judge?

    • Ben Grey Reply


      I absolutely agree that more research needs to be conducted in this project, and it’s good to see the authors agree to that point as well.

      But, I don’t think that keeps us from acknowledging the importance of what this could be.

      Self-taught and self-directed are slightly different concepts. The kids were able to access necessary resources to begin demonstrating signs of literacy. This is something these villages have not been able to do before.

      If a self-taught engineer or a self-taught surgeon is given the necessary resources and self-directs himself/herself to become necessarily skilled and credentialed, I don’t see a concern with their active participation in the field.

      I also don’t find anywhere here where I’ve advocated for eliminating teachers. I’m advocating that we rethink our approach to artificial overlays of curriculum that aren’t providing our students with the learning opportunities they deserve.

      That’s very different than advocating the elimination of teachers.

  4. Rolin Moe Reply

    I appreciate your enthusiasm in this field…such energy is needed in the edu world. This article came across my computer today as well, and my reaction was slightly different.

    I saw the Ethiopian children’s unintended use of the devices in the same light as you, but I don’t see anything new here. People in your comment stream have already talked about “more them, less us” in the student/teacher dynamic, and any constructivist worth their salt would look at these results and say Duh. Kids want to learn, want to explore, and want to create, and they want to take ownership. Jailbreaking the camera and the desktop design is part of a learning process, something folks like Piaget and Papert would have expected in any supportive environment.

    Perhaps your questions relate to the methodology of our educational hierarchy imposing force-fed curriculum and standardized metrics on students rather than encouraging critical approaches, divergent thinking and creativity. I agree wholeheartedly, but that is a policy debate and a cultural debate, and on both sides the constructivist side is losing. The MIT article is about improving literacy rates through the use of these tablets, packed up with software for the kids to use. The results on literacy proved that the Ethiopian children understood pattern recognition and some basic cognitive thought…which to you and I is not nearly as groundbreaking as the other stuff with the computers, but the literacy side was the intended one.

    And if your focus missed the lit side of things, what do you think the pro-capital/anti-teacher side of things is going to miss when reading this? They are going to see a title where literacy improves with no teachers around, and start working on models that build up more software for kids to use to learn to read so they can cut staff (read: teachers). It’s awesome that Negraponte’s group saw benefit in the jailbreaking of the tablets, but it’s important to note that even his team’s IT cabal disabled the camera and removed the “superfluous” aspects of computing to focus on literacy software. The ed tech startups are not going to be as interested in such unintended benefits, because their look at Big Data and Learning Analytics does not have time for unintended happenstance.

    Also, it was interesting that OLPC got bad press regarding Peru. It was great that Peru went to the remote areas first to organize, and I was sad that OLPC kind of blamed low assessment based on that. The Omar Dengo Foundation in Costa Rica is doing the same thing as was done in Peru, and they aren’t having those sorts of issues, at least so it seems.

    So…I don’t want to be a wet blanket here, but the excitement here is not about remembering that kids have a great capacity to learn and we should let them do their thing. We need to channel the energy into policy action reminding people that children need space and time to learn and explore, and when it comes to those three R’s, a software program is just a tool, and a teacher is a resource rather than a drill sergeant.

    • Ben Stern Reply

      Yours is an alarmingly pessimistic argument. Why assume those with influence will read the article in the way you describe? There is serious energy behind reform that you and I would support, and we can’t dismiss every step in that direction as another instance of the man keeping us down. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

      • Rolin Moe Reply

        I’m trying to be less pessimistic and more pragmatic about things. I posted about the article toward the bottom of this blog – http://allmoocs.wordpress.com/2012/10/30/moocs-and-teaching-profession/ – so you can see I am excited about the potential in Dr. Negraponte’s words as well.

        When I saw the fervor of folks realizing learning can happen without the very structured reality of our formal K-12 education…well, that’s not a new realization, and there are a lot of great people who have been working for a very long time to share that. Their battles need to be considered as well, we need to see why despite the large number of education folk who ascribe to constructivism our political and cultural forces are pushing us back to behaviorism. If this is a push agains that (and it could be), trailblazing is not the answer; we’ll end up in the same place as before. Dr. Negraponte has a great deal of clout, so this work could be important in our societal practice of learning. But it’s naive to think that the Pearson’s of the world don’t see this as a way to get more software out there. And regarding the jailbreaking, which is what is so exciting for the bloggers and commentators I have read on this topic, IT departments started disabling and removing cameras and desktop access well after constructivism and OLPC were underway; such a move was in response to (for whatever reason) students having laptops. We knew kids did best when given the tech and allowed to create and construct, and yet we imposed restrictions on their usage and creative freedom, rendering a lot of these machines as software repositories.

        So, before we jump headfirst into a new fervor, we ought to see why contemporary theoretical and pedagogical beliefs run counter to societal and political beliefs on how to educate.

        • Ben Stern Reply

          Thank you for thoughtful response. I would argue that difference between the current moment and that faced by constructivists historically is that the education community has shifted from seeing technology as an option to considering it a necessity. At the same time, there has been more failure than success in tech integration, and, in my view, those failures are largely consequences of integrating it into a behaviorist environment. The consequent challenge to the fundamental model of education has become more mainstream, opening the door for progress in pursuit of constructivism in a way that has never before been possible. Hence, my optimism.

    • Ben Grey Reply


      I don’t think yours is a stance of a wet blanket at all. I think you raise some significant points.

      First, however, I will rebut that you are mistaken on one important point. I did not state the excitement was about a student’s potential to learn. I said it was about the capacity of their human potential. That becomes much more inclusive of a broader sense of who we are and what we are capable of.

      As Gary mentions below, I was not making a case that this is the first time we’ve seen students do amazing things when given charge of their learning. This is, however, the first time that I am aware someone has had the courage to conduct an experiment like this under these conditions. With such little oversight on the part of a contrived curriculum.

      Because it wouldn’t happen in the current landscape of education in the developed world. There would be too much fear of what would happen if it failed, perhaps much like the very unfortunate way they misassessed the Peru case.

      My excitement in this is more a sense of questioning and wondering. About why we are doing the things we are doing.

      And if this might be, finally, a way to show that it could be different. More along the lines of what you’ve noted has been good for a very long time.

      Every reform that actually brings about change starts with a push, amongst a long history of attempted pushes, that finally gets progress moving.

      Perhaps, this could be that.

  5. [...] OLPC initiative in Ethiopia is getting some traction in ed tech circles, and I came across a blog respon... allmoocs.wordpress.com/2012/10/31/ethiopian-tablet-hoopla-take-a-deep-breath
  6. Kyle Reply

    I would love to see if the same outcome would happen in a classroom of 6 and 7 year old kids in North America. If the teacher just got out of the way and let them play would they learn more than they learn now? If you have the tools, I have the classroom for this experiment.

    • Ben Grey Reply


      I would love to see this experiment repeated. I’m afraid our culture of learning in America would preclude us from doing so in almost all circumstances, however. There’s too much at stake for too many stakeholders for the risk to be taken. Sadly.

  7. pattifurlano Reply

    While I do understand the point of what happens to the less able kids. My thoughts are…if this is what kids can do with no teachers, what can we imagine would happen with a “guide on the side” facilitative teacher. Just imagine how far they can go…..

    • Ben Grey Reply

      The more important piece would be what they’re guiding them to. In too many cases, it’s a predetermined outcome of isolated skills that does not allow students to experience the real value of learning how to learn.

  8. Gary Stager Reply


  9. Gary Stager Reply


    It’s impossible for me to provide a link proving that Peru didn’t fail because the whole issue is fabricated in the first place.

    Peru got personal computers into hundreds of thousands, perhaps a million, poor kids’ hands. The pinheads in the US began writing stories about how they needed more electricity or my favorite – PD. When that didn’t convince enough people that OLPC was an unmitigated failure they announced that standardized test scores did not rise. (or rise fast enough or come in the correct color)

    For some reason, our stupid reptilian brains cannot comprehend that OLPC has ZERO, Nothing, Nada to do with school. Should we send standardized tests to poor countries BEFORE they get computers?

    Courageous Peruvians managed to get THEIR children the smallest taste of what we give our own kids and we start demanding evidence of test score increases and declaring failure.

    Nobody asks for justification for American kids to have a personal computer. Why would we have the cold-hearted audacity to take one away from a kid in a developing country.

    IMHO: The real issue we should be discussing is why our nation employs tech coordinators, writes tech standards and employs computer teachers in order to create a standard of technological fluency challenged by dropping computers out of airplanes in Africa?

    • Ben Grey Reply


      And, I added an asterisk with a footnote to the post after your comment. I think it very important for people to read this before being willing to accept that Peru did, in fact, fail.

      Because I think your perspective on that is an excellent one. And, I think, the right one.

      • Gary Stager Reply


        It makes me sad because such attacks seem so mean-sprited. I’ve worked in Peru. There are people moving mountains to get computers in the hands of kids.

        The level of passion and wisdom across Latin America moves me deeply.

        Oh yeah, unlike the dopey critics, I’ve been to Peru and have colleagues there.

        • Sue King (@sking58) Reply

          I find your thoughts and perspectives here, as well as on your blog, on Twitter, etc. insightful and thought-provoking. I often agree with the gist of your message. What continues to ‘get in the way’ for me, however, is your apparent need to name call and show complete disregard for others’ perspectives. I get that you have been in the field for a long time; I imagine you are very frustrated when you feel your experiences have proven you have the answers and that you are right while others are wrong, misguided, ignorant, or evil. Personally, I feel the benefit of your knowledge and experience is lost on many because of your frequently caustic manner of sharing. As a student, I would have loved to have you as a teacher; I have seen your videos from when you work with children. As an adult (and an older one at that), I am not so sure I could survive you as a ‘teacher.’ You remind me of my high school basketball coach who felt an appropriate motivational strategy was to scream insults in public forums; some responded to that; I learned to ignore her and probably did a great deal of eye-rolling.

          • Gary Stager

            Ms. King,

            I’m a bit confused.

            I used intentionally strong language to respond to the condescending and misinformed arguments advanced by critics of OLPC in Latin America.

            It seems impossible to help some people understand that OLPC is not a SCHOOL initiative and therefore school-based measures of efficacy are invalid.

            There is also no nice way to point out the real damage being done to the efforts of my colleagues in the developing world by smarty-pants rich Americans who appear emotionally invested in the failure of 3rd world efforts. THIS is a lot meaner and more destructive than my tweets.

            Not every issue has two equally valid sides. The forces I am battling here are factually wrong. I’m sorry if you wish that the truth were otherwise.

            You don’t seem to disagree with my arguments yet you determined it appropriate to discipline me online.

            I named no names in my response to Ben’s blog post, yet you seem to think it is appropriate to mock and shame me.

          • Sue King (@sking58)

            Dr. Stager,

            My apologies if my words came across as disciplining you or being harsh. As I said, I do not disagree with a good bit of what you say – here or your blog, tweets, or other responses; I simply think the way you say things can get in the way for me. I think I have a pretty good idea of what you think about the state of education in general and perhaps my reaction was a defensive reaction from someone who works in schools – in public education, but not always doing what is best for kids due to the constraints of the system in which I work. I do believe I work to do the best I can for kids given those constraints. That is the consideration I try to extend to others – though I do know there are not always two equally valid positions. I admire your convictions to your beliefs and the fact that you work only in ways that uphold those convictions. Again, my apologies if my comment appeared to be a public attack on you. It was not at all. I was actually interested in what was done in Ethiopia and enjoyed reading the various reactions to it – it is one way I gather information and learn in order to form my own opinions. I simply got side-tracked.

  10. Ernest Koe Reply

    Anyone who has seen their infants and toddlers learn how to use an iPad or iPhone without coaching will say, “well, no duh!”

    These sorts of debates always come down to constructivism vs. traditional learning/teaching, no?

    The real question, it seems, is whether constructivism is sufficient, not whether it is necessary. I have my own doubts there.

    • Ben Grey Reply

      I’ve still much to learn about the complete nuances of the constructivist theory of learning.

      Curious, what are your doubts there?

      • Gary Stager Reply

        I have no idea what it means either.

        Could it just be insecurity?

        It is not uncommon for folks to think that any demonstrated student competence must be hiding a deficit.

  11. [...] I find it interesting and encouraging that OLPC is moving forward in trying to address global disparity ... blog.genyes.org/index.php/2012/11/02/given-tablets-but-no-teachers-ethiopian-children-teach-themselves
  12. [...] We need to think very, very seriously about this – by Ben Grey, The Edge of [...]... bryanout.wordpress.com/2012/11/04/from-out-there-somewhere-nov-4
  13. Caryl Bigenho Reply

    The actual situation isn’t exactly as you have described it. A lot of ground work went into this, building a shelter for the solar charging station and making sure the village elders knew how to charge the tablets. The camera was disabled for a good reason… to save memory space and power. This may be reconsidered. To hear the real/whole story from some of the folks involved, you can watch Parts 1 and 2 from their presentation at the OLPC SF Summit last weekend,

  14. [...] a blog post about this story, US educator Ben Grey called this story “simply astounding” and... netfamilynews.org/6-year-old-self-taught-pre-readers-tablet-users-in-ethiopia
  15. [...] in this blog post teacher Ben Grey asks, “Why does there remain such a fascination with teaching k... netfamilynews.org/teachers-views-on-how-techs-changing-students-studies
  16. […] the meantime, I found this post and the related comment stream pretty […]... davidnunez.com/2012/11/16/week-notes-1831-1835-major-projects-lego-silos

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