03/03/2013 07:54 pm ET Updated May 03, 2013

Pedagogical Progress Isn't an Either/Or Proposition

I am pretty sure Sugata Mitra isn't hanging out out with the same eight-year-olds I am. In the world Mitra describes, eight-year-olds are self-motivated and self-realized. They gather together in a space without grown-ups, managed effectively by a cluster of "cloud grannies" -- a heart-warming bunch of hired telecommuters who Skype in to pose what he calls "The Big Questions": Did dinosaurs really exist? What is irony? Can you kill a goat by staring at it?

The eight-year-olds I know, on the other hand, are downright goofy. Even the most focused and ambitious of them have pretty sketchy attention spans. They're new to the world of the written word, and they're fascinated by the land of Pokemon. In their schools, group projects are tugs-of-war between the teacher-pleaser rule-followers, and the less extrinsically motivated kids who march unwittingly to a different drummer -- an off-beat rhythm of self-deprecation and potty humor.

Mitra, the winner of the $1 million 2013 TED Prize, is building a cloud classroom for his eight-year-olds, which he described in the New York Times as follows:

"It will be totally automatic, completely controlled from the cloud. There will be a supervisor, but that person is not going to be a computer expert or a teacher in anything. She -- and it will probably be a she -- will be there only for health and safety requirements.

"The rest of the school, if we call it a school, is a facility that I can hand over to a mediator from the cloud. She logs in from her home, wherever her home is, and she's able to control everything inside, the lights, the air-conditioning, you name it. Then there are four mediators who Skype in and use the pedagogical method. That's going to take a lot of work."

To say the least.

Working with third-graders -- not to mention sixth- and seventh-graders -- is a lot like herding cats: they have a desperate need to end up in the right place, but it takes a lot of incentivizing, cajoling and prodding to get them there. And that, my friend, is what I call a lot of work.

And that's the fatal flaw in Mitra's $1 million idea: its calculus fails to figure in the hugely human connections that attend and characterize some of the very best kinds of active learning.

At the TED awards on Tuesday night, Mitra talked compellingly of his experiments with his 'hole in the wall' computers project, which provides computer access to kids and then stands back to watch what happens. It isn't all that astonishing to hear that kids with Internet access and a question to answer will do just that: use the Internet to answer the question.

And yes, their response is helpful confirmation of what many of us who study digital natives have known for a decade: knowledge production in the 21st century is grounded not in acquisition but in access. The industrial model of education -- in which the teacher owns the knowledge and gives it to the students -- has in the digital age been replaced by an assumption that knowing is defined by what you can find online -- and how quickly. You don't have to carry it in your brain if you can find it on your phone, or your calculator, or your laptop. And that leaves your brain to do much more of the fun stuff, using -- instead of storing -- the information.

Mitra gets that part. It's not new, but it's important.

He also understands the value of peer-supported, student-centered learning, of big questions and collaborative problem solving, and the ideal of leveraging children's natural curiosity to spark their independent learning. But Mitra is standing on the shoulders of giants in that enterprise: John Dewey, Maria Montessori, Jean Piaget and the "problem-based learning" (PBL) movement would recognize themselves readily in his "Self Organized Learning Environment" (SOLE) mantra.

That's the iterative value of Mitra's big idea: it's a digital-age version of a longstanding progressive pedagogy. And it makes great fodder for hit movies (Slumdog Millionaire was loosely based on his work) and trendy TED talks.

But on the ground, where kids live and learn, it smacks of the same rhetorical extremism that plagued public discourse in the early days of the Internet: Schools are outdated. Teachers are obsolete. Knowing is irrelevant. And in their place? Broadband, computers, and cloud-granny telecommuters who deliver digital encouragement on cue.

I don't doubt for a moment that kids working in teams who have access to all of the information on the planet (including the synopsis of The Men Who Stare at Goats) can figure out the answers to some pretty big questions. Throwing the Dewey-Montessori-Piaget-PBL premise into the cloud has the potential to deliver an impact around the globe. That's value added, in every community, on every continent. And maybe that's a $1 million idea, in and of itself.

But pedagogical progress isn't an either/or proposition. We don't have to throw out the teachers, the schools, and our collective commitment to knowledge in order to create a learning environment that sparks students' curiosity and supports exploration -- online or off. And we do need to remember -- as we embrace radical reformation of our children's education -- that much of what they learn from a good teacher can't be delivered by a peer mentor or a Skyping cloud granny. Work ethic, responsibility, focus, goal setting, socialization and self-discipline are produced through human interaction and active role-modeling- and when it comes to eight-year-olds, it takes lots and lots of both.

It seems to me that independence, self-realization AND finding the answers to life's big questions is a lot to ask of an eight-year-old kid with a bad sense of humor and a pocket full of Pokemon cards. But if we're going to do that to him, at least let's ask him the biggest question of all: Can a SOLE teach him everything he needs to know?

The irony is, we don't need the Internet to answer that one.