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TED Prize Winner Offers Audacious Vision for Re-inventing Education

03/05/2013 12:06 pm ET | Updated May 05, 2013

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

This week, Sugata Mitra won the 2013 Ted Prize. Mitra dreams of schools in the cloud and Self Organizing Learning Environments as ways to nurture learning for every child on the planet.

Mitra's audacious vision started as simple experiments plunking a computer inside a slum and a remote village and walking away to see what children with no access to education would do. He discovered that children taught themselves and helped each other, despite encountering website content that was in English, a language foreign to the children.

What's bold about his vision? From that hole in the wall experiment, Mitra developed a revolutionary solution to a monumental challenge facing the developing world: lack of teachers and school facilities. His solution is to build schools in the cloud (no more buildings) and to launch Self Organizing Learning Environments (SOLE).

As he explains in his TedTalk, the current educational system is a 300-year-old relic of the British Empire; it was designed to produce identical people to run the bureaucratic machine that ran the world. Schools produced people who had three skills: (1) good handwriting, (2) the ability to read, and (3) who could do math in their heads. While the empire is long gone the factory method of education remains.

I love, love, love Mitra's idea of blowing up the old model of education. Teachers in a new world would not be obsolete, however, the school structure as we know it would disappear. Like Sir Ken Robinson's powerful TEDTalk on creativity, Mitra goes right to the heart of the matter: access to education is the defining issue of our time. Global citizens need access to education and these days that means access to the web. Devices don't matter -- anytime access to the Internet is indeed the gateway to opportunity everywhere in the world. Lack of Internet access is creating an even bigger "digital" divide for students.

I enthusiastically applaud Mitra's approach as credible for the developing world. I wonder though about how these concepts (school in the cloud and SOLE) best fit in the U.S.? My experience working with school districts across the country is that superintendents and board members readily agree on the need to innovate but are challenged to agree on how to change and how to find ways to fund the investment.

Mitra's foundational thinking, that we need to create educational experiences that center on a culture of learning, is spot on. Most schools have established a culture of "teaching" rather than "learning." I've seen New Tech schools in urban cities and remote counties across the country establish school cultures that assume all children are capable of learning, inventing, creating and thinking critically, regardless of demographics or socioeconomics. This is exactly what Mitra's Hole in the Wall experiments proved. It can be done. Anywhere.

In addition to establishing a culture of high expectation for students, we need to think of the attitude of the adults involved; do teachers view themselves as learners? Do they experience their school as a vibrant learning organization? Frankly, this is another test many schools and school leaders fail. The role of teacher becomes that of someone who encourages students by creating relevant, engaging projects and then steps back to facilitate students taking charge of their own learning through collaboration.

Learning to learn must be the mantra for policy makers, local governing boards, superintendents, principals, teachers and most importantly students. We don't have to obliterate schools and replace them with SOLEs as the primary way to educate. SOLEs can be a powerful option for students to further their learning in addition to vibrant learning inside a new kind of school.

Mitra asked, "How does present-day schooling prepare people for jobs of the future?" The answer is "not at all." His vision offers two ways to radically level the playing field among those who "have access" and those who have "no access" to learning. And this would will indeed revolutionize education.

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.

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