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Lessons from Sugata Mitra: Global education and democracy

6 min read


The challenge of translating small forums and local relevance into small global networks can be both empowering and frustrating.

During the summer of 2013, I attended the annual International Democratic Education Conference (IDEC) in Boulder, Colo. The group was diverse and, there at altitude, the agendas were thick. Here are the job titles on some of the business cards I received: Partnership for Change, Feminist Teacher, Humane Educator, Simply Vera!, Coming out of Silence and Changing the World and Global Village School. One of the sessions I attended opened up with the moderator asking us each to introduce ourselves by stating the pronoun we wished others to use in referring to each of us. I offered up “he,” but other answers included “she,” “we,” “they” and “I and I.”

On the last day, Sugata Mitra, the celebrated global educator and advocate for youth and their innate sense of wonder and wisdom, was seated in a tight circle of chairs with four other educators and community organizers, all of whom intended to tell their stories. This was striking because, Mitra, who’s TED Talk was approaching two million views, would clearly have keynoted almost any educational conference in the world. Just that past February, he had won a $1 million prize from TED to advance his work, and here at IDEC his name appeared in small print on a small chart of over 60 names listed on page 15 of the 18-page program.

One chair was left empty in this inner circle, so that anyone in attendance could move in and have their say if so compelled. Surrounding, maybe a hundred, less than a fifth of the conference’s 500 attendees, convened, all in three concentric circles around the center chairs. This is an educational methodology known as “the evolving fishbowl.” I was really there just to see Mitra, and I figured most everyone else was, too. The moderator, a Massachusetts college professor of education, also at the center, welcomed all and passed the mic to his left. Mitra was on his right. As the mic circulated around, here is what I heard:

An organizer from Tennessee described the total “annihilation” of the public schools in Tennessee. We needed a collective liberation movement. The Tea Party had routed the teachers unions.

The next woman on the inner circle introduced herself as “white, straight, middle class.” She detailed, however, that she was married to a Hispanic and makes sure every day to share in the advantages of her white privilege.

The mic was passed to the next person, who said, “I feel like where we are, we need equity and dignity for the underprivileged who are disenfranchised,” then providing detail.

Sugata Mitra at last got the mic. People could get the basic skills of school that the workforce needs by the age of 10, he said. After that, the best schools could do would be to leave the students alone, respecting their innate curiosity — our standard curricular programming of academic skills and content was largely meaningless and of little value to 90% of them.

A new woman moved into the center and took the empty chair. She introduced herself as a black woman of privilege and she felt schools should be more like after school programs where kids are more free.

Someone said the government is only concerned with pleasing industry and large corporations and added, by contrast, that we are all indigenous in our ways.

A person outside the circle somehow got the microphone and, remaining in the back row, said she did not feel it was enough for her to be peaceful, but that in her life she was peace. She must live peace and truly be peace.

A Chinese educational researcher got into the inner circle and detailed how the government tries to control the people including censoring some of her writing, but if we create new sources of media we can create a new society.

These were spiraling into the most diverse and provocative proceedings I had ever observed, as well as a study in the complexities and frustrations manifest in participatory democracy.

After a couple more statements from the inner circle, a woman in the back row somehow got the mic and said she was sorry if this was a change of subject, but that many of us were there to hear Mr. Mitra and could he please be given the mic. [Yeah!]

Sugata Mitra said there are four billion parents in the world and what they want was for their children to be able to get or create jobs.

Someone from Detroit said their schools had 75 in a class, students were suspended for 4 days if they didn’t have their ID, and they go to jail for minor school infractions (“the school to jail pipeline”). And why must only poor schools get young Teach for America privileged kids who displace real teachers and then leave in two years?

Another person said the people who are doing the real work in American really only want the privileges of the people who oppress them, so that they’ll only end up as oppressors.

Presently, the moderator took the mic and said there was only one minute left in the session and, aware of the elephant in the room, handed the mic to Sugata Mitra. Some of us wondered: Is it too late? How could Mitra possibly conclude this session strangely labeled “Media, Arts and Democratic Education”? Could he, in one-minute, turn this venting session into a legitimate conversation? In fact, what he said transmogrified the room. I seized the frozen moment and snuck forward, thanking him for blowing my mind. He took my hand, and said, “Yes, I couldn’t resist.” I got to experience his mischievous smile. Here is what he had said to the circle:

“I have heard about all these problems before. You are talking about 300 million people in the United States. And there are 6.8 billion people in the rest of the world who don’t give a sh*t about any of this.”

 Stuart Grauer is a teacher, founding head of The Grauer School in Encinitas, Calif., and founder of the Small Schools Coalition. He accredits and consults for schools worldwide. He is the author of “Real Teachers.”