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Self-taught: Children in Ethiopia are learning to use tablets distributed by OLPC.

Photos courtesy of Matt Keller

Seymour Papert, a computer scientist and pioneer in artificial intelligence, once said: “You cannot think about thinking unless you think about thinking about something.” Does this apply to learning? Maybe not.

Here is what I mean.

As we industrialized learning and created schools, we needed to measure the system’s efficacy and each child’s progress. What you really want to measure is curiosity, imagination, passion, creativity, and the ability to see things from multiple points of view. But these are hard to measure other than one on one, and even then, the assessment will be subjective. So instead, we measure what a child knows, and from that we infer that the child has learned how to learn. This is the real aspiration we have for our children: learning learning.

I believe that we get into trouble when knowing becomes a surrogate for learning. We know that a vast recall of facts about something is in no way a measure of understanding them. At best, it is necessary but not sufficient. And yet we subject our kids to memorizing. We seem to believe that rote learning is akin to physical exercise, good for their minds. And, quite conveniently, we can test whether the facts stuck, like spaghetti to a wall. In some cases knowledge is so drilled in that you know and hate a subject at the same time.

The closest I have ever come to thinking about thinking is writing computer programs. This involves teasing apart a process into constituent parts, step-by-step functions, and conditional statements. What is so important about computer programs is that they (almost) never work the first time. Since they do something (versus nothing), just not what you wanted, you can look at the (mis)behavior to debug and change your code. This iterative process, so common in computer programming, is similar to learning.

The gods must be crazy

Have you watched a two-year-old use an iPad?

The meteoric rise of modern instructionism, including the misguided belief that there is a perfect way to teach something, is alarming because of the unlimited support it is getting from Bill Gates, Google, and my own institution, MIT. While Khan Academy is charming and brilliantly nonprofit, Salman Khan cannot seriously believe that he and a small number of colleagues can produce all the material, even if we did limit our learning to being instructed.

One Laptop per Child (OLPC), a nonprofit association that I founded, launched the so-called XO Laptop in 2005 with built-in programming languages. There are 2.5 million XOs in the hand of kids today in 40 countries, with 25 languages in use. In Uruguay, where all 400,000 kids have an XO laptop, knowing how to program is required in schools. The same is now true in Estonia. In Ethiopia, 5,000 kids are writing computer programs in the language Squeak.

OLPC represents about $1 billion in sales and deployment worldwide since 2005—it’s bigger than most people think. What have we learned? We learned that kids learn a great deal by themselves. The question is, how much?

To answer that question, we have now turned our attention to the 100 million kids worldwide who do not go to first grade. Most of them do not go because there is no school, there are no literate adults in their village, and there is little promise of that changing soon. My colleagues and I have started an experiment in two such villages, asking a simple question: can children learn how to read on their own?

To answer this question, we have delivered fully loaded tablets to two villages in Ethiopia, one per child, with no instruction or instructional material whatsoever. The tablets come with a solar panel, because there is no electricity in these villages. They contain modestly curated games, books, cartoons, movies—just to see what the kids will play with and whether they can figure out how to use them. We then monitor each tablet remotely, in this case by swapping SIM cards weekly (through a process affectionately known as sneakernet).

Within minutes of arrival, the tablets were unboxed and turned on by the kids themselves. After the first week, on average, 47 apps were used per day. After week two, the kids were playing games to race each other in saying the ABCs.

Will this lead to deep reading? The votes are still out. But if a child can learn to read, he or she can read to learn. If these kids are reading at, say, a third-grade level in 18 months, that would be transformational.

Whether this can happen has yet to be proved. But not only will the results tell us how to reach the rest of the 100 million kids much faster than we can by building schools and training teachers, they should also tell us a great deal about learning in the developed world. If kids in Ethiopia learn to read without school, what does that say about kids in New York City who do not learn even with school?

The message will be very simple: children can learn a great deal by themselves. More than we give them credit for. Curiosity is natural, and all kids have it unless it is whipped out of them, often by school. Making things, discovering things, and sharing things are keys. Having massive libraries of explicative material like modern-day encyclopedias or textbooks is fine. But such access may be much less significant than building a world in which ideas are shaped, discovered, and reinvented in the name of learning by doing and discovery.

At Technology Review’s annual EmTech MIT conference this October, Nicholas Negroponte will discuss what his work in Ethiopia has taught him about learning.

Register today for EmTech 2012, October 24–25, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Nicholas Negroponte, founder and chairman emeritus of MIT’s Media Lab, is the chairman of the One Laptop Per Child foundation.

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Tagged: Computing, MIT, EmTech, education, MIT Media Lab, EmTech 2012 Preview

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