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Seeing Fire in the Clouds: On the 2013 TED Wish Prize Winner

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Tom Healy Headshot

Seeing Fire in the Clouds: On the 2013 TED Wish Prize Winner

Posted: Updated:

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

Last night, as I listened to Dr. Sugata Mitra, TED's 2013 Wish Prize winner, discuss his experiments in education that lead to the invention of the SOLE, his self-organizing learning environment, I thought about the impossible.

Dr. Mitra has talked in the past about how difficult it is to get good teachers to go, paradoxically, where they are needed the most: low-income and/or rural areas where, simply, people are too poor and the areas are too dangerous, too out of the way to attract the necessary educators. It's not only difficult, it's usually impossible. Dr. Mitra is fond of quoting the science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke: "if children have interest, then education happens." There's no fiction in that. Just truth and common sense --

that Dr. Mitra has backed with serious science.

Something Arthur Clarke also said that I love to quote: "the only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible."

To venture into the impossible. That's what Dr. Mitra's experiments did, and out of the impossible, he came back with the incredible: an approach to education in which children learn to teach themselves, in small groups, everything from English to brain science. A little speculation, a little science fiction, a lot of dedication -- and suddenly we can discover the possible.

In a world of often cynical education, reduced budgets and restricted approaches to learning, where innovation in education is kept at arm's length by lotteries and districting, Dr. Mitra's SOLE idea emerged out of his famous hole-in-the wall experiments. It is an innovation that emerged out of playfulness, constant curiosity and quiet observation of kids and computers.

Some of our most interesting accomplishments today meet, like Dr. Mitra's learning environments, at the intersection of technology and education: the MOOCs of Harvard and Penn, where 30,000 students, including a U.S. Senator, are studying modern poetry with professor Al Filreis; MIT, Harvard, and Berkeley's collaborative, web-based learning initiative, EdX, is another. These online strategies are new, but have already accomplished much. However, with Dr. Mitra's approach, we can finally begin to see a web-based learning system for children that is limited only by our questions and curiosity. The more children ask, the more they seek to learn, the more the school in the clouds will grow.

For all the newness of this approach, what interests me most is the history of Dr. Mitra's experiments, the debt they owe to the thinking of one of the 19th century's greatest educators: Maria Montessori.

While studying in Rome, Montessori isolated, at a young age, the biggest problem in education: the lack of focus on the student. As she said later, "no social problem is as universal as the oppression of the child." Montessori also said, "our care of the child should be governed, not by the desire to make him learn things, but by the endeavor always to keep burning within him that light which is called intelligence." More than one-hundred years later, there are strong echoes of Montessori in the passionate philosophy Dr. Mitra espoused in his TED wish.

And it's happening all over the United States and the world. In the U.S., educators like Geoffrey Canada in Harlem have renewed the 19th century's spirit of innovative, self-directed education, creating classrooms that draw their energy on the freeflow of community, rather than the intense, rote question-and-answer classroom. It's about lighting a fire, as Montessori said.

Keeping the flame burning. It's a powerful metaphor. We heard it at TED yesterday when Stuart Firestein quoted the poet W.B. Yeats: "education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire." And if that seems eloquent but intangible, we should remember the old proverb about how it is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.

TED's million-dollar prize will certainly light quite a few candles. Imagine how bright the sky will be if we each light our own and hand that light to a child.

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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