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.
- Why don’t we give kids more credit for their natural capacity to learn?
- What if we’re the ones getting in the way?
- Can we finally put to rest the silly digital immigrant/digital native nonsense?
- 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.