Remember Slumdog Millionaire?

By Dian Cohen

The 2008 movie about a boy from the slums who won the Indian version of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire”, captured the imagination of the world and won eight Academy Awards in 2009 including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay.
That adapted screenplay is relevant today as children go back to school. The book, by Vikas Swarup also won several awards, and was a fictionalized true story of the experiments of Sugata Mitra, a computer scientist who had some ideas about education. In 1999, Sugata Mitra and his colleagues dug a hole in a wall bordering an urban slum in New Delhi, installed an Internet-connected PC and left it there, with a hidden camera filming the area. What they saw: kids from the slum playing with the computer and, in the process, learning how to use it — then teaching each other.
These famed “Hole in the Wall” experiments demonstrated that, in the absence of supervision and formal teaching, children can teach themselves and each other — if they’re motivated by curiosity. In 2013, Mitra won the million-dollar TED prize for what he described as “minimally invasive education.”
Mitra, now a professor of Educational Technology at Newcastle University, is convinced that our primary education, focussed on the 3 R’s (so named by Sir William Curtis in 1825), is teaching our children skills for a time and place that are no longer ours. As the Industrial Revolution ramped up, reading, writing and arithmetic were the skills that workers needed to contribute to the most advanced economy of the time. Says Mitra, “The Victorians were great engineers. They engineered a system so robust that it’s still with us today, continuously producing identical people for a machine that no longer exists…”
These observations are not meant to be a criticism of teachers – Canadians are highly literate and Canadian 15-year-olds continue to rank above average in international tests of reading comprehension. Of course, there’s a caveat: the C. D. Howe Institute reports that although Canada’s performance is above the relevant global averages in reading, math and science, marginalized groups are shown to have weaker performances. “To reduce gaps in outcomes”, the author of the Report, John Richards says, “ the provinces must target low-income and disadvantaged communities through pre-school education and programs that provide intense tutoring and mentoring right through post-secondary education.”
The “privilege” bias lives everywhere in Canadian society. That’s the first big issue to overcome. The second is to ensure that our children and young people are developing the skills they need to be valuable workers in a world in which science-fiction technology is becoming reality every day.
What are those skills?
The most important seems to be developing the skills to solve critical problems, of which our world has plenty. The next, learning to be collaborative, not competitive, so as to develop better group dynamics and share knowledge. Clearly, allowing children to learn on their own with no teacher intervention, based solely on what they’re interested in, will be anathema to many parents, teachers and regulators. But perhaps an easy change to traditional school learning, focussed as it is on the teacher’s ability to pass on information in a classroom, would be to ensure that even the youngest students have access to computers and are given free time in the classroom setting to explore.
2020 has been a nightmare year so far. But as historians have noted time and time again, innovations that propel growth in the economy and level the playing field happen when people are scared and worried that bigger disasters are on the way. The last Great Depression was a time like that. The American New Deal in 1933 used government money to get millions of people back to work and technical progress vastly boosted productivity in farming, transportation, mining, and communications in the States. It took World War 2 to loosen Canadian government purse-strings, but some of Canada’s most productive and wealth-creating years followed WW2. What innovations will the next few years bring?
Dian Cohen is an economist and a founding organizer of the Massawippi Valley Health Centre.

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