In 1999, an Indian academic made a fascinating discovery by knocking a hole in the back wall of his office.
Sugata Mitra was a professor of educational technology. His research centre in New Delhi happened to be located right next to one of the city’s biggest slums.
At the time, very few children in India had access to computers. Those that did tended to live in the privileged suburbs – and certainly not in the shanty-towns beside Dr Mitra’s office.
He became used to hearing well-to-do friends boasting about how quickly their children were becoming tech-literate. And, since he knew natural intelligence could not reasonably be the sole preserve of the rich, Dr Mitra decided to try something a little unusual.
He cut a hole in the wall of the research centre and placed a freely accessible working computer there for the local children to use. No training, no instructions: just a wired-up PC with an internet connection.
What happened next was very interesting. Once they realized the computer was there – and they weren’t going to get into trouble for using it – the children quickly began playing with it.
Now, keep in mind that this was 1999 and a very poor area of Delhi. Most of these kids had never seen a computer before, let alone used one. They had little formal education and very limited English, but what they did have was an instinctive curiosity and a willingness to try new things.
With no outside help or interference, they quickly taught themselves how to use the computer, surf the internet and find information. They even taught themselves enough English to use email, chatrooms and search engines. The result? Their school scores shot up, especially in maths and science, and they were soon able to answer exam questions several years ahead of their age group.
The social consequences were even more intriguing. As well as their significant academic advances, the children became more confident about forming and expressing their own opinions and more adept at detecting bogus claims or propaganda. All the benefits, in other words, that you would hope to see in a better-educated population. And they’d done it all themselves.
Dr Mitra’s experiment won the 2013 TED prize and has spawned a new approach to learning in many parts of the developing world.
The idea is to create an environment where children teach themselves by working together at computer terminals, while the teacher’s role becomes more about supervision and facilitation.
In other words: ask the right questions, provide the right tools, then get out of the way and let them get on with it.
Doesn’t that sound like an approach a lot of businesses could learn from?