Some obvious notes on Mitra and Crawley (2014)

Sugata Mitra and Emma Crawley have published a paper on the SOLE experiments based in Newcastle, UK titled Effectiveness of Self-Organised Learning by Children: Gateshead Experiments.

The paper seems to have omitted a basic design in such studies for three of the experiments reported whilst the fourth one introduces an unnecessary complication.

If  participants in an experiment are given all conditions of an experiment (called a repeated measures design) one needs to avoid order of treatment effects. We can do this by counterbalancing the treatments.

For their experiment 1 Mitra and Crawley (M&C) could have divided their 23 pupils into 2 groups, randomly assign the first group to SOLE  (self-organised learning environment) treatment then individual treatment and randomly assign the second group to individual treatment then SOLE treatment. This would have avoided puzzlement of M&C about “the strange result of a test result improving over time with no formal inputs in the interim”.

Similarly the three tests in M&C’s experiment 2 could have been counterbalanced along with individual vs SOLE treatment. Hence there would have been less of a need for M&C to have invoked an “anomalous expansion of understanding” concept to explain why individual testing produced better performance than SOLE testing. The same criticism goes for experiment 3.

Experiment 4 seems the equivalent of a design variable car crash. Individual and group work are counterbalanced but the difficulty level of the reading text are not examined fully. That is a grade 3 text is used in one trial and a grade 5 in another trial. A better design would have included both grades in both trials. Group work has been shown to be more effective if the task is more complex so the best one can say is that M&C’s experiment 4 maybe shows that this is quite strong even with a weak experimental design!

M&C acknowledge their confusing results via this statement in the discussion section:

“Children seem to enjoy working on a ‘hard’ question, when there is no competition and when they are in groups, using the Internet. There is some indication that the opposite is also true, namely, that children do better individually at easy things than they do in groups.”

Finally the journal that Mitra and Crawley went with has a publisher with a less than stellar reputation.

Thanks for reading.

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: