The (brilliant) pedagogy of Grandmothers

Having just returned from presenting at the European Council of Independent Schools in Nice France, I want to share with you some thoughts from the conference keynote speaker, Professor Sugata Mitra. Professor Mitra’s work is in the field of Cognitive Science, Information Science, and Educational Technology.

Early in the morning as I sat alongside bleary eyed, jet lagged educators in a warm, packed-to-the-gills auditorium, I wondered what my “take away” would be.

I am keenly interested in Professor Mitra’s general topic, technology, specifically how it affects the way we learn, think, express ourselves, and of course how technology affects what we read and how we read. There is not a day that goes by that does not touch on how technology is changing the way children learn, as well as the impact of technology on their social and personal lives.

Professor Mitra’s seminal work “hole in the wall” experiments were the inspiration behind ‘Slumgdog Millionaire’- the Oscar winning film of 2009. I do not want to simplify his findings, but for the purposes of brevity, he found that children, the Internet and computers are literally made for each other. By looking at how children best learn, his goal is to find ways to close the digital divide.  He emphasized how curiosity and interest drive learning.  He also found that the best teachers were ones that did not teach as a “sage on the stage”, but rather they were the ones who stayed at a distance, which allowed and forced the children to learn on their own, using collaboration and ingenuity.

I was fascinated by his experiences with kids who are the “have nots” in the world, but my “take away” was when he talked about discovering the importance of grandmothers—what I am calling the grandmother pedagogy. In keeping with his findings that kids learn best when left to their own resources, he found that a crucial component was for there to be grandmothers present—praising and encouraging the kids to be persistent and striving to learn. In short, grandmothers cheering kids on was an important element to their success.

If I had to make a simple equation of Professor Mitra’s talk it would look something like this: Relevance + aspiration + resources + high expectations from the grandmothers + teachers in the background + collaboration and ingenuity = learning is unstoppable.

His conclusion was that the learning every child needs, to close the resource divide that exists in the world, is a child’s ability to search and find information and be able to comprehend.  Without comprehension, learning is meaningless.

Thank you Professor Mirta—your combination of common sense, humility, sound and thorough research and humor made for a memorable morning.


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