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Inspirational Keynote from Sugata Mitra at ATD2015

Keynote speakers have a rare opportunity to shift thinking on a large scale. 10,000 registered for ATD2015, it looked like well over half attended Sugata’s session. He well and truly took his chance; this blogpost is no doubt a tiny part of the ripple that will spread out from the session. It doesn’t cover his session in detail, and apologies to Sugata for any distortions due to my jetlagged interpretation. Some random pieces from his keynote…

For thousands of years, traditional education has been about training soldiers, clerks, factory workers and school children. Compliance, repetition and consistency were the goals, and rows of desks did the job. Creativity was to be avoided, so instruction was the mode. This method still drives the traditional learning model today however learners are now required to cope with fast paced changeable environments, where creativity and motivation are key.

Modern learning technologies take the power from the facilitator and give it to the learner. The passenger has become the driver, and our challenge is to let them drive. Sugata’s ‘hole in the wall’ research is well known for demonstrating that children, left entirely to their own devices, can engage in very meaningful learning even without the English language.

Sugata has been asked whether the research he is doing with children can be applied to the adult learning space, and he referenced research that suggested it can. He made the point though, that the longer young adults spend in the old world model, the harder it is for them to adapt.

So what might that mean for us? My first observation is that it is increasing common for us to hear the employer’s lament; that they despair of new hires who lack motivation, drive and creativity. They are now hiring based on attitude and then teaching the necessary skills, because the correct attitude is harder to find and teach. Blame it on GenY if you want, but there’s no doubt employers want what Sugata delivers.

The challenge I see is that many of the ‘old world’ school practices are replicated in employment. Competency frameworks are a great way to provide a clear understanding of what a role involves, and how to progress in a career but when they become the curriculum of instruction and staff are required to slavishly achieve them through pre-determined content, we find ourselves back in the old didactic model, disguised with some flexibility around when learning happens and the absence of the instructor.

Sugata doesn’t abandon structure however he instead proposes that the answers to “Big Questions” need to be the focus of our attention He also sees a necessary role for facilitation –  the ‘Granny Cloud’ is a wonderful example of this where retired teachers are interacting with children in countries like India and Cambodia via Skype.

So where are the opportunities? We see several:

  • Informal learning is one. Starting to shift the emphasis from structured learning packages, and allow learners to find their own way to the competency (which is a “Big Question” in Sugata’s world). Experience API (TinCan) is becoming a credible tool in managing visibility of informal learning;
  • Badges let you break curricula down to granular pieces,  providing flexibility for learners to follow their own paths;
  • Collaborative learning is another. Fostering work groups and peer study options.

In many ways, the tools are there already. For me, Sugata provides a very compelling narrative in why we should be braver in using them.

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