IATEFL Harrogate 2014: Mitra having a jelly good time

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:

Sugata Mitra: “Knowing is obsolete.” Is it?

Sugata Mitra on edtech and empire

[updatedSugata Mitra and the new educational Romanticism – a parody]

For Harrogate 2014 David Graddol posts:

On Listening to David Graddol on English and Economic Development, IATEFL2014

Harrogate: David Graddol – Economics of English Education

After Day#1 at the 48th IATEFL Conference, Harrogate

David Graddol, trends analyst

English and economic development – my learners in Korea

For Harrogate 2014 Sugata Mitra posts:

IATEFL 2014 Final Day Plenary: Sugatra Mitra

Sugata Mitra, ed-tech evangelist

IATEFL Harrogate Online: Sugata Mitra (part 1)

IATEFL Harrogate Online: Sugata Mitra (part 2)

Baloney Detection and the Grandmas of SOLE

Angel or devil? The strange case of Sugata Mitra

The hornet’s nest plenary

Sugata Mitra at IATEFL 2014 – my reaction

#IATEFL 2014: The Sugata Mitra Debate

Sugata Mitra: The Ignorant School Teacher?

Why we should be afraid of the big bad wolf: Sugata Mitra and the neoliberal takeover in sheep’s clothing

Mitra (2014) future learning

The obsolescence of teachers – the Sugata Mitra controversy

Collected thoughts on Sugata Mitra at IATEFL

The SM debate

‘The Power Of The Unsaid’ With Sugata Mitra @ Harrogate Online

#ELTchat summary on Sugata Mitra and 25 Questions He Needs To Answer

IATEFL 2014: Q and A with Sugata Mitra – Saturday 17.00 BST: a summary

The Death of a Teacher and the Birth of a Facilitator, a Manager and an admirer

Blended learning as a Social Process, Sugata Mitra at Iatefl and the Aftermath

Who’s the Wolf in ELT?

ELTjam meets Sugata Mitra

It’s not beautiful and it’s not noble

Classrooms in the cloud or castles in the air?

Holes in SOLES: Re-examining the role of Ed-tech and ‘minimally invasive education’ in language learning

David Graddol plenary video:

Sugata Mitra plenary video:

David Graddol interview video:

Sugata Mitra interview video:


13 thoughts on “IATEFL Harrogate 2014: Mitra having a jelly good time

  1. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bigger fake than this guy… I didn’t see the entertainment though… stuttering and awkward most of the time. Great speakers play in different league.

    1. hi simona

      thanks for commenting, i don’t see him as a “fake” for sure, but his reasoning is certainly lacking e.g. all the other factors in the government schools in Delhi were constant expect for teachers! wow what a statement to make, did he do a study looking at all the factors, no he just asserts it. and ignores the work on dominance of out of school factors in educational achievement.

      there are similar tactics he uses when for example not mentioning that experts were used to select the bio-tech texts in his Tamil kids study, or downplays the fact that the person he used to assist with the children was well known and liked by the kids (he mentions this in his talk at a Dutch University).

      and claiming that the internet is intangible and the implication that it cannot hence be treated as any other artifact?! nevermind it was designed by humans. and don’t get me started on chaos/dynamic systems theory!


      1. Yes, Mura, his reasoning flaws are exactly what made me call him a fake – claiming to possess scientific evidence, but failing to produce it or jumping to conclusions that are not sustained by his claims. And I kept thinking, is education for this guy “information”? I mean, getting to KNOW things (whether DNA or why women don’t grow a moustache) makes one an educated person? This is just preposterous. I’d be interested to see the long-term outcomes of his nice generous projects – will those rural communities in India become better off, as a result of this access to “education”? Will those children possess critical thinking skills and take their lives to a higher level of quality overall?

        And he said very little about the motivation behind children learning those things, although he did clearly touch on this. So learning in the case of those kids was mainly because they’d never seen a computer before and were very curious to find out how it works. Good. But motivating kids to learn anything else is not necessarily a matter of having a granny saying “there you go”, it can simply mean making teachers more aware of motivation, and steering the whole system more in that direction. Positing that “kids learn if they are curious” hence “replace teachers with computers and grannies” is logically a farce. And of course, the myth of the native speaker… has this guy not heard of English as LIngua Franca yet?

      2. Having watched the video of Mitra, my reaction was much like Simona’s: he comes across to me not just as a fake but as a dangerous, manipulative money-grabber. Stand well back and hurl tomatoes.

      3. hi geoff

        haha your comment reminded me of that intelligence guys comment when tony blair was making a case against Iraq I think the phrase went “I could almost hear the collective raspberry going around Whitehall”


  2. Mura, you set this up beautifully. Right from the beginning, when Mitra was staring out at the slum from his NIIT office window, the problem has been one of deprivation. A problem of injustice, one might say. An essentially political problem insofar as it has to do with the way power is currently being exercised. But Mitra then frames the problem in a way that conceals the question of power and that avoids asking whether the regime needs changing. Look, there is a purely technical solution. If we make enough holes in enough walls and connect them to the right kind of cloud, the poor will be able to educate themselves and climb out of the slum. (And, of course, from the beginning this was intended to be a solution for the poor. There was no suggestion that NIIT should close down and have its wealthy students make do without expert tuition.)

    As we said in the post you kindly linked to, the slum is not a sign of the regime’s failure, but of its success. The regime needs slums. It needs pools of disadvantaged people desperate for work. (And if it stops needing them, things get worse, not better.) No amount of holes in walls is going to challenge that. The problem at root is political. The only meaningful solution has to be equally political.

    1. Hi TH
      Thx for commenting, indeed I keep wondering how supporters of the technological quick fix can keep downplaying the economic, social and political impacts on education . your last post marvelously provides some explanation , an ironic maoist year zero mentality amongst the silicon valley set that results in thetragicomedy of Romantic parody u illustrate with yr usual deadpan style.

      More power to yr keyboard!

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