Dr. Sugata Mitra: Learning as emergent phenomenon

Thrivals is using Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist as the basis of Thrivals 4.0, using everything from evolutionary biology to economics to study the principle of exchange, and in particular, asking and answering the question, how do ideas develop?

They have sex of course.

And they are emergent.

Dr.Sugata Mitra, whose Hole in the Wall project inspired Slumdog Millionaire asks "can children, left to themselves, teach themselves?"

As it happens, he has some experience with that question. Feeling unhappy with the vast slums surrounding him in India while he was teaching privileged children, many years ago began experimenting. He first put a DIY ATM (since banks had experience with outdoor computers) in a building wall.

Then he left the country.

Coming back in few months, Dr. Sugata Mitra, chuckling at the thought, said that the children immediately told him "they wanted a faster processor, a better mouse." But because they had been given a computer that only spoke English, they had also, to his surprise, learned English. He shows the Thrival attendees at IdeaFestival 2011 pictures of a 10 year old boy and his seven year old pupil clustered around the terminal, learning.

At the end of five years, from 1999 - 2004, the children's literacy shot up in every location where Hole in the Wall operated - "to the level of an average office secretary."

He next challenged school children to speak well enough so that speech-to-text software on a computer would output understandable English. In his absence, the students had, again, made use of the Internet downloading software with English speakers, and taught themselves the speak the language with an English - not Indian - accent.

He recounts how Tamil-speaking children in southern India taught themselves advanced genetic concepts, and heard from one misguided child such student that "apart from the knowledge that the improper replication of the DNA causes disease, we have understood nothing else."

Dr. Mitra clearly believes in the value of the "grandmother effect," and uses it to great effect, asking children to act as grandmothers - to simply nod affirmatively behind students and say, "isn't that it wonderful. How did you arrive at that?"

C.C. Chapman tweeted a video of the Granny Cloud linked above.

Children will self organize around the big questions, not what is the Eiffel Tower? But who built the Eiffel Tower and why? Why do we dream? "You know," they've said, "there's this Freud and he...."

Self-organizing systems that discuss big questions and important ideas? Sounds a lot like the IdeaFestival.

Over time, Dr. Mitra has come to believe based on his work that "education is a self-organizing system with learning as an emergent phenomena," and that 1) reading comprehension, 2) information searching and 3) systems of belief are the three parts critical to the success of an education. But if "children can learn to read by themselves, then the educational system can be turned upside down."



Plato at the Googleplex

From a book review of Rebecca Goldstein's "Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won't Go Away" in The Atlantic:

Goldstein’s Plato, like Socrates before him, is less interested in teaching those with whom he converses than he is in helping them see that they don’t know what they think they know. In sending Plato to Google, Goldstein deftly exposes the conceptual presumption at the heart of what looks like the latest high-tech methodology. On his visit with the new masters of gathering human knowledge, Plato considers a (fictional) algorithm they have developed called the Ethical Answers Search Engine, or EASE, which does just what its name suggests: it crowdsources answers to ethical problems, the same way businesses now employ crowdsourcing to predict political outcomes and stock-market fluctuations, or to select marketing strategies. But ethical solutions are not as, well, easy as the search engine might have its users believe....

Plato certainly did not think the crowd was a reliable source of ethical insight. It was the crowd, after all, who put Socrates to death.

Goldstein's purpose in having Plato pay a visit to the Googleplex is, among other things, to demonstrate that knowledge is much more than information, a "conceptual presumption" about connection that today has inspired a new generation of makers and tinkerers to prosecute an analog rebellion, and phrases like "digital detox," which has become nearly synonymous with burnout. On the relative privilege we accord the sciences and its objective findings, the reviewer elsewhere approvingly quotes Søren Kierkegaard, who writes that "no generation has learned from another to love." Goldstein's Plato still sees shadows.

So to that still-here category of philosophy, I might add the arts, the humanities, the world's historic faiths, an exquisite meal and that charged, out-of-body electricity you felt one everlasting moment before your first kiss.

Your arms, you learned quickly, held tight.

Stay curious.


Image: AttributionShare Alike Some rights reserved by Tilemahos Efthimiadis

Admiring Chalkboards

If you could attend a quantum physics lecture and view the scribbled equations on the chalkboard, what would you see?

This Is Colossal:

Artist Alejandro Guijarro... spent three years traveling to the quantum mechanics departments of Cambridge, Stanford, Berkeley, Oxford and elsewhere to shoot large format photographs of blackboards just after lectures. Completely removed from the context of a classroom or laboratory and displayed in a gallery, the cryptic equations from one of the most formidable branches of physics become abstract patterns of line and color.

I don't know what it's like to launder dimension and manifold from the abstractions that Guijarro captures on film. But I do have an amateur's appreciation for what poetry can achieve, and hear in the physicality and phrasing of favorite works the sound of an echoing. It's amazing to me that any one person can do this, and, like my respect for poets, I deeply admire the mathematicians who can skillfully arrange and rearrange their symbolic material until its full and ineluctable sense materializes. And it would appear that mathematicians find the aesthetics pleasing too. A recent study showed that the brain area associated with emotional reactions to beauty activates when mathematicians view elegantly stated formulas.

This takes time. Artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer said in his IdeaFestival 2013 talk that the job of an artist was to "slow down" and "to intercept" communication, by which I think he meant that in an age when so many answers are available to our fingertips, the human preoccupations with place and meaning are largely the same. We long to understand. As a non-mathematician, I am reminded that the line and color represented in Guijarro's images do not just present a pleasing appearance, but for those who have managed to describe the very nature of these vanishingly small realities, the culmination of a life's work. Of course there were dead ends, blind alleys and the faintest of intimations along the way. Few of us will ever write something as penetrating as Schrodinger's equation or prose with Auden's thrilling brevity. We will come no closer, alas, than pictures of scribbles. We will wonder.

What goes there?

Stay curious.


Reading the post at Colossal reminded me of autistic savant Daniel Tammet talking about his love of numbers at the IdeaFestival nearly four years ago, a moment captured in this 12 minute video. Enjoy.

Galaxy "littered with planets"

Paul Gilster reflects on the latest information from the space-based observatory Kepler, which in a period of months has trebled the number of planets outside of our own solar system. Its haul of 1,200+ candidate bodies includes five that are believed to be near-Earth sized planets in the "habitable zone" of their parent suns, or orbits where liquid water is likely to be present. Follow up observations on the ground will further characterize these finds.

Above left is the field of view for Kepler. And at right, candidate planets are identified by their approximate location in the field of view. To put this in perspective, fifteen years ago we knew of no other worlds besides the nine described textbooks. Isn't it amazing that as soon we are able to detect planets elsewhere in the Milky Way, there they are?


Images: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech (l) and NASA/Wendy Stenzel (r)

Join us for IF @ Lunch

Seats are going fast for the January 27 Kentucky Center IF @ Lunch event! Join William Taylor, cofounder of Fast Company magazine, to discuss his new book "Practically Radical: Not-So-Crazy Ways To Transform Your Company, Shake Up Your Industry, and Challenge Yourself."

The $12 registration covers lunch.


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