The IATEFL Harrogate 2014 plenaries were bookended by two very chalk and cheese speakers. The opening plenary by David Graddol presented a well-argued thesis on English and economic development, with touches of humility e.g. when referring to his 1997 prediction that corporate decision making would move from economic rationalism to more social justice -
I think I got that wrong. Economic rationalism is alive and well.
David Graddol IATEFL Harrogate 2014 plenary
He goes on to remind us of some elementary critical thinking. Referring to an Education First graph showing a relationship between GDP per capita and English proficiency he asks what is cause and what is effect? We could add is there another variable mediating the other two?
Some very apt questions to bear in mind when assessing Sugata Mitra’s two graphs on distance from Delhi/English, Maths & Science primary school performance in India and number of council houses/GCSE performance in North East England.
What is more curious (apart from the fact that council housing density is a statistic not used by government in this field, it uses something called the Income deprivation affecting children index) is having identified, through his two graphs, some social and economic factors tied to education he jumps to locate solutions at the level of teaching.
There certainly are benefits to be had by looking at how we teach, but as even Mitra shows socio-economic factors dominate (geography and housing). For example, here is a plot of Percentage of GCSE A*-C inc English and Maths against Income deprivation affecting children index (IDACI) in 2009/2010 in the North East of England. IDACI is children aged 0-15 receiving certain state benefits as a proportion of all children aged 0-15 (datasets can be found here).
We see on the left of the graph children high in income deprivation get less GCSEs than children on the right of the graph with low income deprivation, i.e. the more income deprived the child the less GCSEs they get. [update: see this paper for an account of the dominance of out of school factors affecting school achievement Effects of Inequality and Poverty vs. Teachers and Schooling on America’s Youth by David C. Berliner]
Like the history of the seat of the soul moving from the heart to the brain according to Mitra it is not computers but the Internet which is the seat of education. An intangible entity mere humans cannot treat as a tangible thing (see his interview with Nik Peachy below). And if children can be entertained with jelly by retired teachers in the cloud then so much the better.
Supporters say he is doing stuff, asking important questions, well, as others have pointed out, he is not asking any more important questions, has not built any more than previous generations of people interested in education have done (e.g. Summerhill school and A.S. Neill).
Coming back to David Graddol, the contrast in presentation styles could not be greater. Graddol treats the audience as adults, really makes them think, he situates his discourse in the power structures of today’s society.
By contrast Sugata Mitra is selling his brand of the “education is broken” mantra coming out of Silicon Valley specifically and the neo-liberal doctrine in general. He treats his audience as people predominately to be entertained and entranced.
In the midst of one of the most repressive attacks on ordinary people’s lives, otherwise known as austerity UK, the message of Mitra should be challenged vigorously.
For more comprehensive commentary on Mitra I recommend:
For Harrogate 2014 David Graddol posts:
For Harrogate 2014 Sugata Mitra posts:
David Graddol plenary video:
Sugata Mitra plenary video:
David Graddol interview video:
Sugata Mitra interview video: