IdeaFestival

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."

Wayne

 

The Neighborhood: Discarded, Tattoos, A New Start

Art is not about communication. It's about communion. - Raphael Lozano-Hemmer, IdeaFestival 2013

In this IdeaFestival story, Transylvania University professors and artists Kremena Todorova and Kurt Gohde talk about their work on "Discarded," say the Lexington Tattoo Project is a "love letter to the city," and share a quick story from their lives about what inspires them to make public art.

While not quite as dramatic as the encounter they describe in the first half of the video - really, just listen! - I've always been amazed at the fortuitous meetings and interesting ideas that people describe as having occurred at the IdeaFestival. Anne Shadle, for example, got rid of cable. One long time fan and supporter, Jan Winter, started a thriving non-profit focused on child health that reaches every elementary school student in the commonwealth.

In the workaday world where it's all too easy to fall into ruts and routines, and the media, sadly, affirms rather than informs, the IdeaFestival succeeds by going a different way. It emphasizes the new connections. It gently challenges. And as Kremena says near the end of the video, the first step toward any new idea or person takes an act of will. The goal of the IdeaFestival in particular and worthwhile art in general is to expand our sympathetic imagination. It's not to win any of us to a particular idea, but to ask, rather, if we can still be won.

Two-thirds of the way through the video, a loud crash, which Kurt and Kremena described as a telescope falling over, changed the space time continuum the lighting in the room they were in. I edited out the noise, but you may see what I mean when you watch.

I hope to see you at IdeaFestival 2014!

Wayne

Forgetting Important to Creative Flourishing

Though Europe's new "right to be forgotten" rules have created an uproar, it's easy to forget just how new the idea of total recall is. Writing at TechCrunch, Natasha Lomas contributes a couple of important points to a discussion largely moored to what is still a new phenomenon, a phenomenon that would see documentation and data live on in perpetuity.

I like how she connects the issue to creative enterprise:

Total recall shuts us down. It encourages conformity and a lack of risk taking. If trying to do something results in a failure that follows you around forever then the risk of trying is magnified — so maybe you don’t bother trying in the first place. It’s anti-creative, anti-experimental, even anti-entrepreneur. To cite a Steve Jobs-ism, it’s anti-foolish.

Name the human society where total recall is considered the norm. It’s far more human to forget. Forgetting allows for new beginnings. As a creative medium, a little forgetting goes a long way. While too much recall smacks of dystopia, or prison, or the dragnet digital surveillance programs set up in secret by our own governments. It’s hardly an accident that corporate power and state machinery are aligning along the same digital fault lines here.

An ability to forget, whether it's simply to move beyond a business failure or avoid information overload, is important to human flourishing, as Lomas writes. And the notion that total recall, rather than liberating us, would "shut us down" rings true to me. There are of course real public policy and legal questions being sorted out in Europe as Google tries to comply with the new continental rules. But the temptation to believe that the next piece of information or data point will make the argument or prove beyond any doubt the veracity of any particular belief is a particularly human weakness, and one that is exploited, for example, by social media. It's why long hours scanning Facebook updates leaves so many people so anxious. The picture is never complete. Even science, which many mistakenly believe seeks certainty, depends, rather, on an accumulation of evidence, not on finality.

The dogged entrepreneur and artist alike must be fools. They must believe in their specific cases that the past doesn't matter. True, depending on that past it may or may not prove beneficial in the long run. But in general, the habits that have always characterized humanity at its best - a grace under hardship or a willingness to extend mercy where none may be merited - have always required on a willingness to forget. It's effective precisely because it is extralegal.

The alternative, I think, would enslave us to reasons.

Wayne

Festival Passes are on sale now, but please don't wait too long! We're expecting to sell out again this year, and the price for a pass will go up on Sept. 2. The complete agenda and speaker line-up is available on the IdeaFestival web site.

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?

Wayne

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.

Wayne

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