The Mitra Debate: Research vs. Teaching Practice

I read ELTJam meets Sugata Mitra today and found some interesting comments that I thought I might tease out.  My comments today are based mainly on Robinson's text as many of the YouTube videos I was not able to open at the time of this writing.

I commend Robinson for taking the time to conduct this interview with Mitra in revisiting some of the issues around his research and how many EFL educators perceive his research.  Then taking the time to post the interview with some journalistic tones that emerge throughout his text.  Overall, I get what he's after: to bring forward some of the controversial issues that have been floating around the web, along with sufficient dousing of editorial comments throughout.

But there are moments in this text that left me scratching my head, followed by a comment from Nicola that prompted me to ask myself, What is journalistic writing as it pertains to this blog post? I realized that this question and the reasons for me scratching my head were related, so I wish to explore this relationship...and yes, I might sprinkle in a few editorial comments of my own as well. :)

Nicola really loves Robinson's piece...

I love this piece! I am choosing to comment on the article as a piece of journalism rather than the questions raised because there are so many and worth a longer time to consider.
But I wanted to say, on first reading, as a piece of journalism this blew me away. I really care about writing – maybe more than I care about ELT in some ways and this seems to me like pretty groundbreaking journalism. It’s not just an interview/blog post…it’s creative non fiction with video. Stand back a minute and look at the skill that went into presenting this in this way. It’s awe inspiring – really.

She may be able to divorce language with content, but it's not as easy a task for me. But I appreciate her comment as it made me take another look at this post from a slightly different perspective: fact vs. opinion.

The Road to Newcastle

Since I was unable to ever view the recording, my commentary is strictly related to Robinson's text.  His use of 1st, 2nd, and 3rd person is distracting and presumptuous at times.  This section is mainly based on opinion...after two paragraphs he introduces his first report by quoting Mitra which was his describing how he ended up becoming a teacher and his motivations...

How to make money. … How to make money doing the least amount of work as possible.

Then Robinson's response throws me off...

There it is in black and white: the root of the whole problem. From those early days would come a quest for economic efficiency straight out of the neoliberal manual for the automation of labour, and the root of the eventual demise of teaching as a profession.

I think if you ask any teacher, most would agree that summer vacations, holidays, etc. (time off) is one of the perks of being a teacher.  Isn't that what Mitra's saying?  And I think in most countries, few teachers would say that they got into the teaching profession because of the money.  How does this statement get construed to Mitra being the "devil in disguise" (aka a neoliberal)? Can anyone argue his investment into educational research as not being work?  And do we need to compare this with the amount of work found by a "traditional" teacher?  Finally, even if he did have horrible intentions when getting into the profession...who cares?  Isn't what he's doing now more relevant?

Then, Robinson shifts from a strict personal opinion to being diplomatic.

But it’s a little facile to read too much into it, isn’t it? What’s more, I agreed with him, as you can hear in the video. And I think many other people would agree, too. Who wants to work inefficiently? Who wants to work more than they have to? Do teachers? Do we feel that it’s the teacher’s lot to work too hard? Do we have some kind of martyr complex? Is that why some people can’t even start to entertain the thought that our role might end up different (or diminished)?

This sudden shift threw me.  I'm used to reading either an opinion piece from start to finish (e.g., persuasive/argumentative piece); reporting that is more diplomatic throughout (e.g., an objective balance between various sides of the argument); or presenting facts, like something Mitra said, followed by a comment (an opinion).

East vs. West

The first paragraph is more reporting, but then in the second paragraph...

What I’d hoped to get here was some sense of just how bad the conditions in a place needed to be in order for the possibility of ever getting a teacher there to be ruled out.

This says a lot.  I'd argue that having this discussion was not at all about how bad conditions would need to be to take any kind of action to improve teaching and learning.  The presumption here is that the result leads to a teacher being ruled out (Robinson does this later as well), which I do not subscribe to.  Robinson continues on which leads to the following questions...

What if the system is actually broken? What then?

I'll just say that every classroom has something that is broken, and that this premise goes a lot further in getting to better solutions that simply asking a overarching, dichotomous question that requires a complex answer.

Better than Nothing

I worked hard to follow Robinson's logic here, but ends by posing two questions:

Are those who agree with him [Mitra] simply giving up too easily?

Or are those who don’t simply too idealistic (or, maybe, naive)?

I commend Robinson for trying to simplify the matter, but I just don't follow.  I think we (the TESOL community) are better off having been exposed to Mitra's research. I think it brings up important questions like how can EFL educators create learning environments where students can learn more on their own, and then assist them more efficiently and effectively in matters they are unable to learn on their own.  Robinson's questions seems to again attempt to simplify a complex scenario.  And whether or not a teacher agrees with the outcomes of Mitra's research specifically (or him personally) does not mean that the research itself is irrelevant.   

The Neoliberal Question

Robinson states, "I’ve taken the liberty of pulling out some of the choicest quotes from this section and displaying them without context, as that’s what’s likely to happen in blog comments and on Twitter anyway..."  In other words, he might as well post isolated comments that are easily misconstrued since everyone else is doing it. Robinson goes on to list six "choice quotes" (again, going by text only since the YouTube video does not open):

  1. How Mitra feels about the profession of a postman is irrelevant.

  2. If Mitra is saying that teachers cannot be replaced, and that schools can never disappear, then what's the problem?  What side of the argument is this statement on?

  3. I have no idea as to the relevance of this "choice quote".

  4. In other words, are educators putting their time to good use when students can learn the same content without the help of the teacher? Students should learn what they can on their own (using the objects available to them), so that educators can take students to the next level.  Wouldn't Mitra support this idea?  I think so. How would one support an argument against this idea?

  5. Any educator who is teaching a student something that they could just as easily learn themselves (with no teacher intervention), and this behavior represents a singular teaching method, should be replaced (by either man or machine - using gender-specific language for effect).  Am I being unkind?  To the educator who is not adding value to the educative experience, yes.  To the learner, no. 

  6. See comment five above.

A Theory about English Language Teachers

Robinson concludes, "non-native teachers of English from around the world; in the anti camp: native speakers from Britain. Is this another battle line in the debate – East vs. West?"  Comparing native/non-native speakers and East vs. West is like comparing apples with oranges.  The logic is all over the place.  Stick to one point and unpack it.  If it's a native/non-native thing, stick to that.  If it's an East/West thing, stick to that.  To answer one of Robinson's questions, yes, I think our community can be divided at times in terms of expectations individuals have between the perceived notion of native and non-native speaker teacher.  But the way to remove this division is to stick to the nuances of issues and avoid generalizing (stereotyping) groups of people.  We should be beyond the native vs. non-native speaker teacher debate by now to one that is more about what is and is not working in the English language learning classroom.

On Evidence

I completely agree with Robinson here.

The Edge of Chaos

Robinson started his conclusion well...

From our conversation, I, at least, did get something of a clearer sense of what makes Sugata Mitra tick: a belief that we’ve let control go too far; that if we can loosen that control, learning will happen, and it will happen in a better way; and that, in some cases, the way to relinquish that control might be to...

I was with him all of the way, until he finished with...

...get rid of the teacher altogether.

What?  Why must the end be "get rid of the teacher altogether"?  Why can't the answer be somewhere in the middle?  Why can't the answer be something like teachers taking a closer look at their teaching practice and adopt and adapt as necessary as they recognize that students can learn a lot more on their own than we sometimes give them credit for. 

I know why...Educators, at times, misunderstand research design for teaching method.  Yes, research should be rooted in pedagogy.  Yes, there should be a link between research and teaching and learning.  But to Robinson's point about evidence, educators should take research (evidence) and compare and contrast how the findings relate to their own teaching and learning (local) context. This should be done without feeling that a particular research design, under a particular research setting, is synonymous in application across an infinite set of local learning environments that may exist.

The Mitra debate is as much about the role of research and teaching practice as it is about Mitra and his research.  It's a worthy debate and one that is likely to continue.

Photo Attribution (Steve Jurvetson)