Want Students to Learn? Stop Teaching Them!

Sugata Mitra did a simple experiment years ago. He puttied a touch screen computer screen into the exterior wall of his office and connected it to the internet. Local kids, who did not speak English, started using the computer when he was gone. They taught themselves English and navigated the web. They were doing homework assignments by using information on the internet. No instruction required.

Professor Mitra has continued his experiments that demonstrate curiosity is the incentive to learning. It’s the allure of personal discovery, not the pressure to learn that makes the educational experience successful.

I train teachers around the world to teach less to improve learning outcomes. I create opportunities for students to work in teams to solve engaging problems with little or no teacher supervision. The teachers love the activities and use them immediately with their own children at home and in their classrooms.

As successful as we have been, we find teachers feel the need to teach the lesson before letting students start the activities. This “content before discovery” process erodes curiosity in the hope of getting all students to arrive at a successful outcome. The teachers’ insatiable need to teach dampens curiosity, creativity, and inhibits learning.

A common refrain we hear is that teachers don’t have time to do hands-on activities. Teachers have to cover all the content in limited time. While they try to do that kids misbehave as their attention spans are exceeded. Kids who come to school balanced on a skateboard, listening to their favorite music, while playing a video game or texting their friends are overcome with boredom in the glacially-paced instruction-overloaded classroom. Kids who live at 90 miles an hour outside the classroom don’t function well in a 25 mile an hour school zone.

As Sir Ken Robinson has often noted, schools are squeezing the creativity and curiosity out of kids. Schools are the industrial age approach to pushing more kids through the pipeline. In they come, out they go. Can they think better? Can they solve problems better? Are they more creative or curious? These 21st Century Skills don’t get attention in the industrial-school complex. Ah but, the students passed the exams!

Talk to almost any teacher and he or she will say their number one problem is that every year the students coming into the next grade aren’t prepared. They will also tell them that when they leave that teacher’s class they will be prepared for the next year. How can every kid leave prepared for the next level but arrive unprepared two months later? It’s because they were really only prepared to pass the exam, not to understand what was presented.

How many times have I asked a teacher if her or his students know how to graph? The teacher assures me they do know, but when I suggest students graph a set of data they give me blank stares. They tell me they’ve never done it before. The teacher looks on sheepishly and the students looked perplexed.

Memorization to pass the exam is what’s happening in too many schools. Teach to the test! Memorization without understanding and practical application is a waste of time. Many schools haven’t yet figured out that there is this thing we call the internet to provide answers, if we can think well enough to form the questions.

In today’s world it doesn’t matter what you know. It only matters what you do. It’s the doing that leads to understanding. That’s why maker spaces are taking off. Students love them and learn. The entire school should be a maker space – not only with wood cutting tools and laser printers, but with musical instruments and computers and all the tools people use to do things. Kids learn when they challenge problems and create things.

We provide teacher training and curriculum to help schools move from the 19th century into the 21st century. The challenges we present vary from managing a toy store to planning a visit to national parks. Kids work in teams, talk to each other, make discoveries and mistakes, and create a product that they are proud of. They learn skills they can use throughout life. Best of all they learn at the speed of ideas and they learn that they love learning.