ELTjam meets Sugata Mitra

sugatamitra-01

Friday, 25th April 2014

The Grade II-listed building that houses Sugata Mitra’s office at the University of Newcastle once served as a medical school, and a hospital-like atmosphere still lingers, all squeaky floors and long corridors. As I knock on his office door, I realise that I have a sense of trepidation not unlike a visit to the doctor, a feeling that I attribute to the fact that a lot seems to rest on this interview. In reality, though, it doesn’t. If anything, the furore following his IATEFL plenary has calmed down, partly due to the catharsis brought about by the wave of passionate blog posts and heated comments, partly due to the follow-up webinar in which he was given the chance to respond to some of the criticisms levelled at him.

So as I enter the office, I’m preoccupied with the idea that there’s not much point to an interview at this stage; that we’ve left it about a week too late. But, as we speak, it’s clear that there is a point to this after all. It’s partly that he speaks extremely candidly – sometimes shockingly so – about some of the things that have most enraged EFL teachers since IATEFL (you can find most of those in 4. The Neoliberal Question below). But it’s mostly because our conversation clarifies for me some of the big questions that have come up since his talk. I’m left with a sense that this gives us a chance to move forward by discussing those questions in their own right, not as part of the fallout from one explosive plenary.

What follows is the interview in its entirety broken down into broadly thematic sections, interspersed with what I think those big questions are. Some of you may want to discuss them in the comments; others may form blog posts in themselves, either here or in other corners of the Web. But whatever happens, we should remember that these are important questions, questions that we owe ourselves as a community to try and answer.

1. The Road To Newcastle

The first things that hit you about Sugata Mitra are that he’s disarmingly charming and at times very funny. He’s also smart. Really smart. This all comes across in his talks, too, but it’s even more apparent face-to-face. It’s part of his success, of course, part of the reason why he’s been able to spread his message so widely. It’s also something to which some people have reacted badly. Hugh Dellar has labelled him a snake oil salesman and a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Those are harsh criticisms, but the fact is that he is a salesman, and he’s effective because he absolutely believes in what he’s doing. His style is straight out of the Simon Sinek playbook, and it goes a long way to explaining why he’s had the success he has in spreading his ideas.

I was keen to find out more about how he’d ended up where he is now; I also wanted us both to have a chance to warm up before moving onto the bigger topics of discussion. But he said one thing right at the start which will be like a red flag to the anti-Mitra bulls. When describing how he ended up becoming a teacher, he describes his motivations as

How to make money. … How to make money doing the least amount of work as possible.

There it is in black and white: the root of the whole problem. From those early days would come a quest for economic efficiency straight out of the neoliberal manual for the automation of labour, and the root of the eventual demise of teaching as a profession. But it’s a little facile to read too much into it, isn’t it? What’s more, I agreed with him, as you can hear in the video. And I think many other people would agree, too. Who wants to work inefficiently? Who wants to work more than they have to? Do teachers? Do we feel that it’s the teacher’s lot to work too hard? Do we have some kind of martyr complex? Is that why some people can’t even start to entertain the thought that our role might end up different (or diminished)?

2. East vs. West

Would I find any clues as to why Sugata Mitra feels the way he does about education in his own educational history? Not really. This isn’t the story of one man’s struggle to right the wrongs brought about him by an imperfect system. He seems perfectly happy with the education he received. He goes so far as to say that it was ‘as close to a perfect model’. Yet he’s intensely focused on replacing that model with something else.

What I’d hoped to get here was some sense of just how bad the conditions in a place needed to be in order for the possibility of ever getting a teacher there to be ruled out. This seemed to be a state of affairs that some detractors just couldn’t accept (or, rather, couldn’t accept that we should accept). He didn’t really paint that picture, and his answers here feel a little like talking points, because this is his main talking point: he feels that the way many children are taught is fundamentally flawed, regardless of whether it’s happening in New Delhi or Newcastle. At ELTjam, we’ve talked in the past about the evangelism that characterises much of the debate about the role of technology in education, and you can see that here: the system is broken; tear it down and start again. But the question that we haven’t really discussed since his plenary is obvious: What if the system is actually broken? What then?

For fans of foreshadowing, notice how the significance of Eastern and Western contexts and perspectives feature in his answers here. This comes up again later in an interesting way (see 4. The Neoliberal Question and 5. A Theory About English Language Teachers below).

3. Better Than Nothing

If you had to draw battle lines within the intra-ELT debate since the IATEFL plenary, one would be between those who think that his solutions are sometimes better than nothing, and those who just can’t accept that possibility; that to do so would be some kind of betrayal or an acceptance of an injust, two-tier system. This was especially apparent during the post-IATEFL webinar, where there was at times a sense of incredulity that we could have given up so easily. Did Sugata Mitra address that criticism here? Not really. There’s an acknowledgement that the idea of trying to put teachers into places where they currently aren’t is ‘very logical’, but he’s clear in his belief that in some instances it is simply not possible. Which poses two questions: are those who agree with him simply giving up too easily? Or are those who don’t simply too idealistic (or, maybe, naive)?

4. The Neoliberal Question

For the benefit of those who think that Sugata Mitra is part of the neoliberal conspiracy to corporatise and globalise education, I’ve taken the liberty of pulling out some of the choicest quotes from this section and displaying them without context, as that’s what’s likely to happen in blog comments and on Twitter anyway:

[Of the profession of a postman] It’s still there, but what for? It’s a job that can be done by a drone. It’s a job that needn’t be done at all.

Why would education be considered that one special subject where this [challenging how things are done because the times are changing] doesn’t apply? The teacher can never be replaced by a machine. The school can never disappear.

As long as they [the private sector] are providing you the goods and services that you think you’re paying the right amount for, why should I make any value judgement about whether it’s private or government?

I don’t see why replacement of human beings with machines should be considered as negative.

[Of hand-pulled rickshaw drivers] Would it be unkind to replace them with a machine?

[About teachers] Are they making this underlying, unspoken assumption: we’re really good for nothing else other than what we do, and how dare anybody try to replace that with a machine?

But here’s the one question that I doubt many people will quote, and it’s potentially the most interesting one when it comes to the whole idea of if/when/how teachers will / might / should never be allowed to be replaced:

Are we not allowed to ask?

(If you’re following the earlier foreshadowing, you’ll notice here a mention of ‘Western shortsightedness’. This is about to come up again …)

5. A Theory About English Language Teachers

What many people will take from this section are some rather blunt  – and, some will argue outrageous, others justifiable – pronouncements about the world of ELT. Is ELT ‘a racket’? It certainly is in some places. Are many ELT teachers insecure? I certainly know a few. But, for me, what’s really interesting here are his reflections on how the room was split after his plenary. In the pro camp: non-native teachers of English from around the world; in the anti camp: native speakers from Britain. Is this another battle line in the debate – East vs. West? Have Western, native-speaker teachers broadly reacted one way and teachers from other parts of the world another? If so, what does that say about our community? Are we divided? And what does that say about how the profession is likely to develop in the future?

(One mea culpa here: I do wish I’d challenged Sugata Mitra more during this section, but time was running out, and there were other areas to cover …)

6. On Evidence

[NB: The edit that occurs partway through this clip was due to the lights going off; no part of the interview dialogue was cut.]

The role of evidence was certainly a theme during IATEFL. One thing that I found fascinating was how well Russ Mayne’s talk on pseudo-science was received, precisely because it was about the importance of evidence. Yet when an academic like Sugata Mitra gives a talk based on years of research studies, he’s accused of presenting only anecdotal evidence. So do we have an evidence problem in ELT? And, if so, what do we do about it?

7. The Edge of Chaos

And that’s where we left it. From our conversation, I, at least, did get something of a clearer sense of what makes Sugata Mitra tick: a belief that we’ve let control go too far; that if we can loosen that control, learning will happen, and it will happen in a better way; and that, in some cases, the way to relinquish that control might be to get rid of the teacher altogether. He talks about things that make some teachers profoundly uncomfortable and often angry, but from that discomfort and anger comes one final question: If what he proposes isn’t the future, then what is? And, more importantly, which of you is going to make it happen?

48 Comments

  1. Superlative insight! Thanks!

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  2. Superb interview Nick – really enoyed it and good to see it chunked out like this. You didn’t shy away from asking some hard questions. And he of course batted them back very well!

    Teachers replaced by the internet? Well my kids both study maths with the khan Academy. It hasn’t replaced their teachers, but it has supported them considerbly. (Sal Khan is a great teacher!). In Italy, kids study at school for so few hours anyway at variable levels of quality that the state has vitually outsouced 50% of the responsibility of formal education on to families. Families are now bringing in virtual teachers to help out as we can’t afford the private tutoring!

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  3. I agree with Michael Butler. Thanks very much. Really good to get the chance to review all this.

    I was particularly interested to read about how Mitra says the room was split after his plenary. “In the pro camp: non-native teachers of English from around the world; in the anti camp: native speakers from Britain.” Is this true? If so, I find it disconcerting.

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    • “But here’s the one question that I doubt many people will quote, and it’s potentially the most interesting one when it comes to the whole idea of if/when/how teachers will / might / should never be allowed to be replaced:

      Are we not allowed to ask?”

      Goes to the heart of all the brouhaha that’s gone before for me. I’ll be quoting it whenever I get the chance. Freedom of enquiry? Yes please!

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    • Well, again, where’s the evidence for this? There are just as many generalisations flying about in the discourse following Mitra at IATEFL as there were in the plenary itself.

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  4. I love this piece! I am choosing to comment on the article as a piece of journalism rather than the questions raised because there are so many and worth a longer time to consider.
    But I wanted to say, on first reading, as a piece of journalism this blew me away. I really care about writing – maybe more than I care about ELT in some ways and this seems to me like pretty groundbreaking journalism. It’s not just an interview/blog post…it’s creative non fiction with video. Stand back a minute and look at the skill that went into presenting this in this way. It’s awe inspiring – really.

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  5. Agreed Nicola! Hats off Nick. A great article.

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  6. Cracking, Nick. I too am blown away that this sort of quality journalism is lurking in ELT! I am probably most interested in the perceived split in the audience between the pro non-native speakers and the con native speakers. There’s a lot to be drilled into here. I have some thoughts and ideas, but blog post might be a better place.
    Once again, bravo indeed.

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  7. I really hope that this is read and watched by those people who think they have the most to lose. How do they feel to defend a “racket” that refuses to update its methods and, in 2014, is so obviously split by the ethnic origins of its exponents?

    Nick, can you let us know what he said (after calling ELT a racket) when you explained that some of his biggest critics were some of the most celebrated individuals in ELT (the audio fades)? Above you write that you wish you’d challenged him more on that theory and it sounds like you started to but that’s all we got.

    Personally I think it is fascinating, if not also highly illuminating, that the most celebrated ELT critics of Mitra’s work seem to be of the native speaker/British variety referred to in the interview.

    Mitra’s openness, honesty and integrity shine through. Thanks for doing this. You’re letting some light in.

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    • Hi Jason,

      It’s a fascinating idea that the walkers were all Brits and those that empathised were non-native speakers, but there’s just no real data to prove this. How could Mitra possibly gauge the nationality of those that walked out and that he didn’t meet? Also, just how many people did come up to him after the session as a percentage of the audience? I wouldn’t dwell on that fact too long.

      The one safe bet I’d venture is that none of those hanging around to express their appreciation were postmen.

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      • Hi Brendan and Michael, well, I think Prof. Mitra, as an Indian living and working in the UK, and as clever as he undoubtedly is, would probably not have said it if he hadn’t felt it was true. I wasn’t there so I don’t know. However, I have read some of the online comments and, without having crunched the numbers, my impression of the divide matches his. My own experience of trying to do things differently in ELT utilising technological tools is, sadly, similar to Prof. Mitra’s. All the best, Jason

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        • “I have read some of the online comments” – can you be any more specific here Jason?

          “…if he hadn’t felt it was true” – I agree with Brendan. If you take Mitra’s comments on this point at face value, it’s still one highly subjective perspective and should be challenged.

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      • You are absolutely right. I have no data to back this up and I apologise. It’s just that the people around me ‘appeared’ to be Indians, Africans, Middle Easterns, Bangladeshis, Europeans and even Chinese. But then, the British are no good at pushing and jostling :)

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    • Hi Nick, yes it’s a bit of a shame you didn’t explore that a bit more. I thought it really interesting that you appeared to point out that many of his detractors were considered to be amongst the most respected members of the global ELT community, an elite even. All the best, Jason

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  8. Of course, if this statistic were true it could be that the non-native speakers as a whole just didn’t understand what they were hearing as well as the native speakers and needed more time to process things. Or perhaps being guests in another country, found walking out simply too rude for their tastes. There are simple answers to these questions. One need not look too deeply for the simple solution.

    I agree with Brendan about this comment.

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  9. I agree with the comments above. Superb work Nick!
    I like your final question. It makes us reflect much deeper into what each and every one of us is doing right now to shape the future of education, and not just ELT.

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    • Hey, Hugo!

      Good to see you’re still alive and kicking, and looking very well, judging by your photo – trusting, of course, that it’s not an old one. :)

      I agree that the interview is work par excellence from Mr Robinson.

      Regarding Nick’s last question and your point, there are two things I’m going to do: firstly, I’m going to re-read John Hattie’s excellent Visible Teaching; and then I’m going to get right behind my son’s local school. My son, by the way, has always struggled with learning in general, and literacy in particular – he’s one of those kids who has benefited enormously from the time, effort and extra support of teachers. He would have been hopelessly lost if left on his own with a computer and a few pals.

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  10. My fascination with both eltjam and Sugata Mitra grows as a result of watching this interview. Many thanks for this, Nick.

    I am in the camp that believes that technology can help teachers better use limited time they have with students — that the technology can help provide access to the right teacher, at the right time, in the right place.

    But that means teachers have to change their view and understanding of what it is they’re doing. That’s scary for many. And in the end, maybe the word “teacher” won’t be the right name for the profession these folks ply. Maybe “coach” or “tutor” would be more apt — and are those perceived as somehow more lowly roles?

    There are a lot of things teachers don’t like doing but which they have to do as part of their job, like scoring homework, taking attendance, posting grades, etc. But they do them because they believe that those things are part of the job. Surely they wouldn’t mind giving those up if they could do more of the “fun stuff”?

    What is the “fun stuff”? Is it lecturing? Tackling a thorny problem with a student? Helping a student get through an idiosyncratic misunderstanding of a concept or issue? Or is going “off-script” that way just too threatening a concept for some teachers?

    Thanks for the opportunity to do some thinking.

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    • Nick Robinson

      Thanks for taking the time to comment, Lisa. I, for one, would love to hear some more thoughts from people on what the ‘fun stuff’ is.

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  11. Nick Robinson

    Cheers, Geoff! See below for more discussion on just the topic you’ve raised …

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  12. Nick Robinson

    Thanks, Candy! Look forward to reading your follow-up piece!

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  13. Nick Robinson

    Hi Jason,

    There was nothing cut a that point. I moved straight onto the topic of evidence, which is the start of video 6. That’s why I wished I’d challenged more!

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  14. I played the 2nd clip “East vs West” a few times around 4:40, where Mr Mitra mentions Croatia. He describes the West as not homogeneous and I seem to hear him say “Croatia is not the West”. Could someone confirm that or say what his exact words are? Automatic captioning is of no help.
    As a native of Croatia, I’m well aware of the country’s geographical location, but feel distinctly uncomfortable at having our educational system singled out and described as inferior to those of other European countries. Perhaps this wasn’t Mr Mitra’s intention, but it certainly seemed to come across that way.
    I’m hoping I’ve either misheard or misinterpreted his words.

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    • I meant Croatia and Alaska are both ‘west’, so ‘west’ is a loose term in a geographical sense.

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  15. Well, again, where’s the evidence for this? There are just as many generalisations flying about in the discourse following Mitra at IATEFL as there were in the plenary itself.

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  16. Nick Robinson

    Hi Vedrana,

    It’s quite hard to hear, but he’s saying that Croatia *is* west.

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  17. Excellent post, Nick – thank you.
    I’m not so sure that the logical consequences of Mitra’s conception of learning in the future are as devastating for the teaching profession as some are saying. His model involves a motivating prompt or question, independent computer-based research, learner collaboration and what he calls a ‘granny’ figure giving encouragement. In many ways this is guided discovery by another name: a tried, tested and proved technique in teaching. The supplier of the motivating prompt and the encourager or facilitator, if you like, is the teacher. (Guided discovery is a technique which, interestingly, should be more familiar to those of the native-speaker teacher audience who have reacted badly to his views than to many of the non-native teachers who have welcomed them.)
    Mitra implies that he would like to see a relaxing of the teacher’s control in this process – if he’s saying that it’s better to allow the learner or discoverer to wander more freely in the search for knowledge, I think many of us would go along with that. Interestingly, he also cites Socrates and his dialectic method as a kind of impossible-to-emulate model – a teacher who steered his pupils towards knowledge and self-knowledge by asking intelligent, stimulating and probing questions.
    I don’t ascribe to the view of a neo-liberal or profit-seeking agenda here. I’d hope that all Mitra is trying to do is to probe into the question of how we should learn in the 21st century. That”s a question we should feel stimulated, not threatened by.

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    • I have to say I prefer your 2007 approach of guiding and playfully cajoling students into collaborative research. Just leaving them alone with the internet seems far less compelling. I have been at the computer myself the last hour trying to work and I’ve done a bit of photo research for a book, looked at what’s on at the cinema, bought a camera case, and then looked at this blog. I don’t know either how we’ll learn in the future (perhaps it will be chaos), but certainly in the broadband present, it’s in a pretty distracted way.

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  18. sorry meant to write ‘subscribe’ not ‘ascribe’

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  19. Hi Nick,
    I’d like to add my thanks to those that have commented above, and I agree that the way you present this interview is great. The combination of media and the written word with quotations really underlines the salient points. Great stuff, almost, dare I say it, on the edge of chaos.

    Whenever there is a crisis or a problem it may lead to a rennaissance and I think it is clear that there are problems both in educational systems and in some teaching practices. There are instances everywhere of teachers that block learning, whether by applying techniques blindly or mechanically or because of a lack of understanding, or because of a belief that their way is the right way, as Mitra said here. This is precisely the type of crisis situation that gives us the opportunity for change. Whether or not we are able to grasp that opportunity is another matter.

    Of course the Internet is a wonderful resource and provides access to information the like of which has never been seen before. I feel, very often these days, that my job consists in scaffolding learners and helping them towards the type of information that will be most useful for them and then providing them with a framework to use it. The question of context is also important though. I am working with generally motivated university students who will access the Internet to engage with the tasks I set up for them. I have no problem with my learners using their devices in class, in fact I actively encourage them to do so, and this has led to all kinds of things such as discussions about languages, sources, digital literacy and even the Scottish referendum. I am also aware though that not everyone is working in the same conditions. I remember , for instance, reading with horror about the decision in some UK schools to ban the use of mobile devices, but it’s easy for me to react when I work in a completely different context, and I don’t have to deal with the problems that the teachers in those schools do.

    My thoughts on this are that the schools are probably suffering from the instituational constraints, and that governemnts and ministries really need to take a hard look at what is actually hapening in schools, and what young people need, but that us also an oversimplification.

    What I really like from this interview is the idea of learning theories coming from their historical contexts, and the edge of chaos. I find this very invigorating and am looking forward to some structured chaos in my future classrooms. :-)

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  20. Thank you. I would like to add that unguided (chaotic) discovery is completely and totally different from guided discovery.

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    • ‘Chaotic’ is a strong word – the very act of posing a question at one end and listening to (discussing?) the answer at the other implies some structure. (I note also that in the example you gave where you asked children to find out about the biology of DNA replcation, you guided them by downloading certain pages on the subject from the internet for them). What’s interesting to me is that in terms of Kolb’s 4-stage cycle of learning (Gathering info – refecring on it – creating an idea – testing/implementing it) your model critically gives the learner much more time and freedom in the ‘reflection’ stage of learning – a stage that teachers using guided discovery methods habitually rush and almost pay lip service to.

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      • You are absolutely right. The DNA experiment was not a true SOLE. I did not know that at the time (2007).

        Chaotic should be read as ‘edge of chaos’ , with order on one side and random chaos at the other.

        You start a SOLE with a topic, like a seed is used to start crystal growth in solutions. The rest is left to the edge of chaos. You don’t discuss at the end, just listen and report.

        That’s as far as I know now.

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  21. Nick Robinson

    Hi Sharon,

    Many thanks for taking the time to leave such a thoughtful comment.

    Reply
  22. Nick Robinson

    I really need to get that book, Brendan. I remember you recommending it to me in the pub one night.

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  23. Hi Nick

    Thanks for such a thought-provoking interview, and also to Sugata for his openness to all the interrogation he’s been getting since his plenary in Harrogate. I do think he has dealt with the criticism very elegantly, given that some of it has been quite aggressive, even ad hominem.

    I want to make a few brief comments on my thinking so far about the ideas that Sugata is putting forward.

    First of all, I must fess up that I’m a British ELT person, that I didn’t walk out of the plenary that Saturday , and ,importantly I guess, that I’ve had quite a lot of access to the kind of environments ‘in the east’ that Sugata talks about where there are either no teachers , or not enough teachers, or indeed where the teaching is of extremely poor quality. And yes, I’ve been on many a person-drawn rickshaw.

    Secondly, I’ve spent most of my working life supporting teachers and teaching, so I am very much ‘pro-teachers,’ However, I am even more pro-learning, and I have to say that my experience consulting in over 30 countries has taught me that though there is some very good teaching, even some excellent teaching, there is also some very bad teaching going on. Even teaching where you think ‘This is causing more harm than good.’ Sugata mentioned this in his webinar- and I do agree with him. Of course, there is then the question of what we do about it- but still, I think as a profession, we do need to be open enough to look at that truth squarely in the face. If we start from admitting that, then at least we have some hope of making progress. There’s no point in being pro-teacher to the point of blindness; that doesn’t serve education at all. Incidentally, it also seems to me that a lot of the discussion has been focused on teaching rather than on learning.

    Thirdly, I personally find the questions that Sugata poses about the role of teachers and about how learning takes place very exciting and not at all threatening. As a professional focused on learning, why wouldn’t I?

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  24. Dear Nick,
    many thanks for going to the trouble of fixing up this interview and reporting it so calmly and clearly. And I think we should all appreciate Sugata Mitra’s willingness to engage with our community (after the IATEFL plenary) in both the webinar and in this interview. I really admire him for that.
    In my blog post about the plenary (which I watched online and was thus neither a standing ovationist or a walker out – they didn’t walk out of your talk Sugata, they left at the end of a talk as people do) I did my best to say why I am so impressed and challenged by what Sugata Mitra has to say – and for the record he’s a great presenter with wit and charm to match. My questions about his claims are, for me, genuine uncertainties about pedagogy and delivery and I won’t refer to them again here. But, just to be clear, my fascination with what he has to say even survived the unfairly dismissive way he dealt with three of my questions in the webinar he took part in!!
    But the one thing I never ever ever thought I would accuse Sugata Mitra of is racism. But I do so now. Unequivocally. In the interview he was pressed to explain why he thought some people reacted badly to what he said. This was in the context of his comment, during the webinar, that EFL teachers are insecure. When asked to account for this in the interview he says “I have a theory…..if you teach EFL in India and if you are white British then you are relying only on your ethnic background to prove your efficacy.” Now remember that this whole discussion is in the context of why some people reacted badly to his plenary. Remember too, that it is Sugata Mitra who is eliding whiteness and Britishness and ethnicity in this way. But here’s the thing: there are a lot of white British people in EFL, but there are, increasingly, many other ethnicities too who are British and who work in our field. Secondly, many of the white people who did not give him a standing ovation were from countries like Poland and Hungary and Argentina and Brazil and, and….. but (and this is extremely important) even the white British people who were there do not rely on their ethnicity to prove their efficacy. On the contrary they are constantly engaged in professional training and development, in searching for answers to the problems of education, in doing their very very best to be good and professional teachers and facilitators. Coming to an IATEFL conference is a huge professional (and financial) commitment and I take extreme exception as a white British man – and on behalf of others like me – to the implication of his remarks. It is extremely careless to categorise EFL teachers in the prejudiced and totally unsubstantiated way that happens in this interview.
    In case you think I am overstating: of course there are some white British people who try and trade on their Britishness to get jobs – in India and in other countries. But we as a profession – and specifically the people who were in Sugata Mitra’s audience – were not those people. They are committed professionals who care passionately about what they do whether British or white or anything else and judge their efficacy on pedagogic principled and learning results.
    My problem now is that my admiration and engagement with Sugata Mitra’s ideas has been seriously compromised by the throwaway prejudice he used to dismiss his critics.
    At the very least I think he owes his British critics (or like me, people who’re engaging with his ideas) an apology for this casual and unnecessary racism.
    Jeremy

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    • You have my apology, Jeremy. It was not my intention to offend. What good would that do?

      It was not race I was referring to at all. It was ethnic identity and native language. What we would call ‘mother tongue’ in India.

      If you wanted to learn to speak Hindi, your safest bet would be a brown, native Hindi speaker from India.

      If you wanted to learn to speak Mandarin, your safest bet would be a native Chinese teacher.

      In India, where I grew up, the same is believed about learning to speak in English.

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  25. Hi Jeremy- I’m white British (English) , but I didn’t feel that Sugata was being racist. Firstly he was describing a situation in India, which he probably knows better than any- and which we can imagine or even know is true from our own experience. He then went to talk about what he himself called a ‘dubious theory’ about why people reacted the way they did in the plenary. Since he doesn’t know for sure, I think that’s fair enough. Nick did ask him, after all. In that section he was really saying that those from developing countries seemed to react differently from ‘English’ people. Defining that group is difficult, I admit, but it does seem to me from my reading that most (not all ) of the most virulent criticism via blogs etc. has come from the native-speaker element in ELT. Is it because that group is most discerning, or is something else going on? I don’t know, but I think it’s at least an interesting question.

    I also have to admit that neither did I think Sugata was dismissive of your questions in the webinar. He wanted to focus on what he’d actually said, and what the focus of his research was. His point where he contradicted your premise that all teachers help learners think was very well said, in my opinion, for reasons that I mention in my post above. But hey, they were your questions , so I have to respect your right to be offended:)

    Reply
    • Hello Sue,
      I thought very hard before I posted my comment. And of course I understood the reference to India. But his theory (and yes he said it was dubious, I herd that) was directly in response to – and as a follow-up to – his contention that native speakers were the ones who disagreed with him. He then added ‘white’ to that and made the suggestion (massively by implication in the context of the discussion) that these white people relied on their ethnicity (aka skin colour it seems) to prove their efficacy. I see that as an absurd theory, especially in light of white people like me and you who did not leap to condemn him but instead have done our best professionally, and with integrity, to engage with his ideas, and tease out some of the issues they raise. Why would he mention ‘white British EFL teachers’ using their ethnicity? I cannot imagine any situation I would ever comment on in the field of EFL which mentioned teachers skin colour and ethnicity in that way.
      Jeremy

      Reply
  26. I’m Indian too; I grew up in Malaysia and India in local schools with local teachers. The first time I had a white teacher was at university.

    It is a significant generalisation to say that we Indians believe that the best bet for us to learn English is with someone from the UK or the US or wherever. This wasn’t my experience at all.

    I think Indians have a much greater ownership of English than other nationalities do of Hindi or Mandarin. The comparison doesn’t work. There’s a huge amount of literature on Global English and English as a Lingua Franca and the Non-Native Speaker Model that should be drawn on at this juncture.

    Reply
  27. Thank you, Sugata, for answering the concern I made – and I think your answer demonstrates a little bit of a gulf here – because the world of EFL is much much bigger than tits teaching in India. And also because that attitude of linguistic/national/ethnic identity has shifted dramatically in the last 50 years. Braj Kachru’s 1983 description of who speaks English (of Inner circle = UK etc and outer circle = India etc) countries has been superseded by the rapid growth of English speakers. Native speakers (a term that is increasingly inappropriate and irrelevant in the case of English, especially) are only a tiny minority in the global community of English users and that has a profound effect on who can teach it. One of the implications of this is that teachers of English as a foreign language around the world are overwhelmingly people who did not have it as a mother tongue. Even in private language schools in the UK and the USA for example, many teachers of EFL have English as a second or additional language to the one they grew up in. In Brazil (where I have just returned from) there are remarkably few ‘native speakers’ working in a thriving industry.

    It is true that when I started in this field at the age of 24 (many many years ago, unfortunately) there was a belief among us that our Britishness made us ideal teachers, and when he was prime minister Gordon brown talked of English as ‘out language’ and wondered how to export it. But people of my generation were wrong then and so was Gordon brown, more recently. English is a language of no country and increasingly has no native speakers (unless we talk historically).

    That’s why I was worried about your theory – which was an attempt to understand your critics in Harrogate. You were addressing a multinational, multiethnic group of committed professionals who know their craft.

    For the record, the only person I would want to teach me Hindi is someone who (a) speaks the language well, and (b) knows a lot of about language teaching pedagogy.

    Does that make any sense?

    Jeremy

    Reply
  28. ELTJam readers, please excuse stupid typos in my last comments….:-(

    Reply

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