There was a piece on last night's 60 minutes about a guy named Nicholas Negroponte who 'invented' a $100 laptop that he's taken to third world countries like Cambodia and Brazil. The computers look like little toys, have great wi-fi reception, are waterproof, and can be charged with manual cranks if needed in places without reliable power. The kids pick up the basics of the computer pretty fast. Negroponte says it takes a child who has never seen a computer about 3 minutes to figure out how to use basic functions when taught by another child. Lesley Stahl oohed and aahed over Negroponte's claim that the kids don't need a teacher to learn how to use a computer; they can figure it out themselves. They showed clips of munchkins teaching each other how to do things.

I'd go much further than Negroponte:

  • Not only do kids not need teachers to figure out computers, kids don't need teachers for much at all.
  • Kids are voracious learners; it's in their nature. Schools stifle this natural instinct by turning them into passive receptacles instead of active searchers.

Hypothetical (you'll know my answer because I'm asking it):

I spent 8 hours a day for 12 years in a building sitting at a desk with most of that time spent as someone talked at me. Periodically, I would write stuff down, take a test, walk in a line to big room to eat something, or run around kicking a ball.

Would I have been better off or worse off today had I spent 8 hours a day for 12 years in the following conditions?

  • Access to a computer/internet
  • Told to "learn whatever you want"
  • Ability to associate with other kids of various ages at my choosing
  • Minimal other rules

Edit:  Sam Bhagwat responds

Share this

Laptops per child

Hopefully they're a generally useful machine rather than just a pedagogical machine. There is no point in the kids learning to use a computer if they don't have computers in their lives to use regularly. Since the OLPC is intended to remedy the general unavailability of computers (since if they were generally available, then many of those would be available to learn on), then where they are introduced there must be few available computers. If their purpose is to teach kids computers so that they can then go on to use other computers, then there's still the problem of general unavailability of computers other than the OLPC. This problem is remedied if the OLPC can be itself the very computer that the kids will go on to actually use.

In which case the OLPC could more properly be called the OLPP (one laptop per person).

Otherwise, the whole idea seems half baked. Negroponte could be creating a situation where people have skills which are useless in their situation. It would be like teaching the general population the proper etiquette for dining with the Queen - a skill which few will have the opportunity to use because of the small number of dining-with-the-Queen slots. It would be less wasteful to target tutoring in that skill to the individuals who are about to dine with the Queen. (if you don't like this example pick another where a skill is taught that few people will go on to use).

One thing about the 60 minutes piece that rings some alarm bells is that what you're describing is what Negroponte was envisioning years ago. Now it might be that Negroponte was exactly right in his predictions, but when the reportage too closely matches a company's early press releases then I get suspicious that the reporters have let themselves be used as mouthpieces (which they often do - which is one of the reasons that companies release press releases in the first place). There should ideally be a significant element to reportage that is surprising and new, so that it seems to be more than just an illustrated company promotional video. It does not increase my confidence to know that this is just the kind of do-gooding that the media and the press love to lap up.


Oh, those Nigerian kids...

A few weeks ago, there was a story on yahoo describing how teachers were finding pornographic material on the laptops.
You certainly do not need teachers for everything....

Dead link?

Value of school

I don't doubt that kids teach themselves a lot. However I think formal schooling has some value. In particular, there seem to be certain skills where parents willingly pay through the nose to have their children learn the skill from an instructor who knows what he's doing. To give two typical examples, musical instruments and martial arts are often learned either with the help of one-on-one classes with a tutor (e.g. piano) or in a school that is privately paid for by the students or their parents (e.g. karate).

So I think that certain things are best learned with the help of an instructor.

Furthermore, there are likely to be certain important subjects which children simply will not take the trouble to learn unless they are pushed to do so (and when I say "pushed" I do not necessarily mean "dragged into kicking and screaming" though that may be necessary in some cases - what I mean can also include gentle guidance that children do not much object to but which they need so that they don't miss learning some key topics). Keep in mind that even when you identify certain subjects that some smart kids will pick up by themselves, many kids may not. So if you notice that you learned to read and write properly mainly on your own, that does not by itself mean that formal schooling in reading and writing is a waste of time for everyone. Kids do teach themselves computers, but some clearly do it much better than others. "Computer geeks" are so-called because they know a lot more about computers than the average person. So when you look for empirical evidence about kids' tendency to learn on their own, you should be careful not to bias your sample towards the "geek" crowd for the subject.

I do not think that formal schooling genuinely stops people from learning on their own. Without a doubt it reduces the number of hours available for self-teaching and so it must necessarily, therefore, reduce the amount that kids are able to teach themselves. However, many hours are left in the day. I find less persuasive the argument that formal schooling deadens the general desire to learn. While I have pretty much hated every single book that I was forced to read at school (including the genuinely good books), that did not kill my love of reading - I read plenty on the side. As for others who claim that reading in school killed their desire to read, I have to ask, if they were reading on the side then why would the relatively small amount of school reading deaden the pleasure of reading, and if they weren't reading on the side, then I'd like to suggest that maybe school reading is being scapegoated for a general lack of a desire to read.

kiddie instruction

I also probably would've been better off left to my own devices or in a less structured environment. However, I don't think this generalizes as lots of people need lots of structure.

The current system may well be the best "one-size-fits-all" solution. However, it's inferior to numerous mixes of self-selected educational solutions; hence the value of an educational market.

Our colleges come much closer to effecting an educational market than the K-12 system. Curiously, the college/univesrity system is typically what's rated as the best in the world while our K-12 system is normally mid-teens or worse.

Discussion on OLPC News about educational models

Now that the 60 Minutes segment is in re-runs, you might want to check out the debate on OLPC News that grew from the original broadcast. We had a great in-depth discussion, including a whole series of posts about my piano/violin comments.

School prepares you for the

School prepares you for the real world, which is also bureaucratic and dull.

Jonathan, you are assuming

Jonathan, you are assuming that a kid could not have a combination of:

  • being in a school
  • having an instructor

and still

  • learn whatever you want
  • have the ability to associate with other kids of various ages at his or her choosing
  • have minimal other rules

For the last two years I have been a teacher of a group of teenagers at an alternative school. The school is a parent run organization, currently consisting of about 50 parents. The classes are small, no more than 12 students per class, and the parents are all part of committees that manage and run the school.

I was guiding a class that had students with ages varying from eleven to seventeen that were studying 6th Grade material all the way to 12th Grade. When I say guiding, I mean specifically not lecturing, but rather supervising or guiding them in the choices they made for their development in life. All subjects learned were done under my guidance, except Art, Gym, Spanish and Music, which were courses they could take with other teachers.

Please read my teaching philosophy: LINK


  • being in a school

Where I was teaching, was definitely a school type environment with me hired as a “teacher”. They even called me a teacher at times. They thought of each other as fellow students and our class was a class.

  • having an instructor

I was the person you could identify as an instructor. My knowledge of each subject in detail was most probably not as much as that from an instructor that has studied a particular subject for an extensive amount of time for the purpose of teaching. I also did not lecture the way you would expect an instructor to do. My goal was to guide. With the information available in encyclopedia, library books, people and businesses from our local community and the nowadays internet access, there was plenty information available for these students to learn things if they wanted. I did not need to be a person with all the answers. I even made a point of not giving the students all the answers, but encouraged them to find out for themselves.
And still:

  • learn whatever you want

The students were able to choose topics or subjects they were interested in or that made sense to them for whatever was going on in their lives at the time. According to my philosophy, I did encourage them to pick the two main subjects Math and English. If a student was not interested in either of these subjects, we would discuss why it could be beneficial for them to do it anyway. I did not come across a student that did not agree with me that in the long run Math and English would benefit them. They understood and agreed that they should sweat through it and try to make it as much fun as possible, despite the fact that some of them were very strong minded.

  • have the ability to associate with other kids of various ages at his or her choosing

As the class consisted of students of all different ages and they were allowed to interact a lot (as long as they did not stop another student, against their will, from studying), they spent a good time socializing with each other. The group was small, so they did not have a lot of choice about with whom. Luckily and perhaps also because of hard work to learn to be pleasant with each other, they grew very close and ended up sharing a lot of personal stuff. They also socialized with children much younger than themselves, as young as toddlers.

  • have minimal other rules

We had minimal rules. There were general school rules, mostly for the safety of the younger kids. Otherwise the school rules and class rules were mostly based on the idea of not hurting each other. My students were older, so those rules were pretty clear already, written or not. Other rules were created by the students and me to be used as guidelines on how to create the most pleasant environment around us.
To respond to your comments:

  • Not only do kids not need teachers to figure out computers, kids don't need teachers for much at all.
  • Kids are voracious learners; it's in their nature. Schools stifle this natural instinct by turning them into passive receptacles instead of active searchers.

I think that kids need supervision. You don’t want to encourage a “Lord of the Flies” kind of situation. Adolescents don’t have the experiences of life the way most adults do and they should not be left to drift into an unrealistic world or in a world where they use aggression to get power. In a group environment that is even more so. Some kids have been told unrealistic things by their parents, friends or media, or they get a misconception and they can let their imagination run away with themselves. They might also not have the answers to how to behave in different situations. An instructor could ask the right questions that make them think about it or point out certain things they had not thought about.

I have to mention that the way the students are learning in class has to be in agreement to all three parties involved, which are the students, the parents and the teacher. As long as they all agree on the principles used and have the same goals, any arising conflicts should be able to be worked out.

Most public schools create passive receptacles. Not every method used in a school has to do that by definition.