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Are You Afraid to Say 'I Don't Know'?

02/27/2013 03:48 pm ET | Updated Apr 29, 2013

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

Many years ago I remember watching a child, maybe eight years old, completely engrossed in a clown fish exhibit in a dark corner of the New England Aquarium. After watching intently for at least ten minutes, he looked up at his father and asked him a tough question. It wasn't something an average person would know, but because I was an avid diver, I happened to know the answer. The boy's father, on the other hand, didn't.

But instead of saying "I don't know," the father launched into a completely made-up answer. I was crestfallen. Not because the boy ended up with the wrong answer. Even worse, the father missed the opportunity to explore the question -- the starting point for discovery.

Why do adults fear those three words so much: "I don't know"? As parents and teachers, we tend to feel we must know everything. But how do we expect our children to learn how to learn, when we aren't willing to be role models for how it happens?

Teachers and parents fear losing control. We feel compelled to be "the sage on the stage." But as announced tonight, this year's $1 million TED Prize winner Professor Sugata Mitra turns that vision on its head. And in the process, he might actually achieve the holy grail of providing access to quality education for children around the world.

Professor Mitra's TED Prize is built on his stunning discovery from a 1999 experiment; he made a computer available to rural Indian children through the now famous "Hole in the Wall." In a few hours the children were browsing, and in a couple of months the children taught themselves how to use the computers without any teachers, formal training, or even knowledge of English. Their natural curiosity kept them engaged, and their collaboration kept them learning.

Mitra's TED wish is to redesign the future of learning by creating a Self-Organized Learning Environment (SOLE) online, and to encourage others to do the same and share the results. It is an exciting and bold choice for the TED Prize. And it's one that is so perfectly aligned with TED's values of radical openness that have manifested through their programs like the open translation project and TEDx.

But I'll admit, it's hard to embrace such a disruptive idea for education. Haven't studies shown that the most important factor in a child's learning, above all else, is the quality and engagement of the teacher? Can we risk such a radical approach on our next generation?

One of the primary goals, of course, is to reach children that wouldn't otherwise have access to good teachers at all. But there is evidence that tapping into children's collaborative nature and natural curiosity rather than their fear of failing is much more effective in motivating and empowering them to learn.

Professor Mitra's work is still early, and I am sure there will be challenges. I recall 15 years ago when I worked on a documentary project about math education reform. At the time there was a great deal of pushback and fear about having students work in groups and expecting them to figure out math on their own. Many parents feared that their children would miss out on the basics. The teachers feared they were becoming obsolete.

But teachers aren't becoming obsolete, they are changing roles. Professor Mitra uses the metaphor of "grannies." Unlike the father at the aquarium, grandmothers aren't afraid to act dumb and ask questions; they are fantastic at encouraging and expressing wonder at the children's accomplishments. Where possible, teachers should play the critical role of creating the environment where imagination will flourish.

I've seen with my own eyes a group of tenth graders -- with the encouragement of their teachers but without didactic direction -- explore data and discover the first derivative on their own. These students learned a fundamental concept of calculus often not taught until college, and they will never forget it because they figured it out by themselves.

I've even seen the self-organized approach work at the university level. My former colleague, Susan Metros, Professor and Associate Vice Provost and Associate CIO of Technology Enhanced Learning at the University of Southern California, taught a course last spring where the students created their own rubrics and assessed each other. They turned out to be their own biggest critics.

Of course, we need to look at existing models and make sure we don't throw out what already works in the quest for disruption.

The trick for Mitra's SOLEs will be to find the right balance of pedagogies and apply them at great scale and in different contexts. Is it possible to deliver excellent education at low cost -- challenging the common belief that quality and access are mutually exclusive?

It's a bold concept. We don't know for sure, but the point of the prize is to find out. And with a rapidly changing and highly interconnected world, and with little idea what tomorrow's jobs will look like, we can't afford not to try.

I'm optimistic. After the talk, the TED audience was buzzing with enthusiasm. Professor Mitra himself admits that he doesn't really know the answer. But in the process, his humility demonstrates the exact quality we should adopt when we teach. When we ask the right question, and embrace the fact that we don't know all the answers, that's when the learning truly can begin.

Ideas are not set in stone. When exposed to thoughtful people, they morph and adapt into their most potent form. TEDWeekends will highlight some of today's most intriguing ideas and allow them to develop in real time through your voice! Tweet #TEDWeekends to share your perspective or email tedweekends@huffingtonpost.com to learn about future weekend's ideas to contribute as a writer.

TED and The Huffington Post invite you to take the SOLE Challenge, a unique contest in which we're asking teachers and parents to create child-centered learning labs in their homes and schools. Write an 800 to 1,000 word blog post on your experiences and send it to tedweekends@huffingtonpost.com. Three winning submissions will get to attend TED Youth 2013.