In 1999, Sugata Mitra placed a computer in a hole in a wall to confirm a hunch. Mitra felt that the young children of the village could learn to use the computer without any direct supervision or prior experience. Following the success of that experiment, Mitra put other computers in other villages and schools and pushed children to learn more difficult content, and each time the students learned what was asked of them at a rate similar to those who had more experiences and resources.
On the website describing Mitra’s work, this approach is called minimally invasive pedagogy, which is defined as “a pedagogic method that uses the learning environment to generate an adequate level of motivation to induce learning in groups of children, with minimal, or no, intervention by a teacher.” As an illustration of what minimally invasive intervention might look like, Mitra offers the “granny cloud,” a group of English grandmothers who Skype with children in India. The grandmothers dote on the children, asking the children to show them what they know how to do and then marveling at their demonstration.
The TED talk where Mitra reports on these experiments has garnered more than 1.4 million views since 2010 and has turned him into a bit of an internet superstar, at least among those folks who watch TED talks on education. I’m one of those fans; I’ve shared this talk with a bunch of people. However, I am a bit skeptical about a broader application of this work. Learning to use a computer without prior experience is a difficult task, but billions of computer industry dollars have been invested into creating operating systems that are as accessible as possible. Computers provide plenty of feedback of whether you are doing something right or wrong, and that feedback is simple enough that even someone who is not literate can follow it. I have a tough time imagining an environment rich enough in feedback and encouragement that a college student can learn how to write without the support of a teacher, but Mitra’s work has caused me to reassess my own approach to how I provide that support.
Upon reflection, I have come to the conclusion that the job of a writing teacher is to artfully do as little as possible, but it is developing that art that makes teaching a challenge. My job is to provide gentle nudges in the right direction, and those nudges should be forceful enough to help the writer correct when they wander off course, but restrained enough that most of the effort comes from the writer. A good analogy for this is spotting someone on the bench press at the gym. The spotter needs to provide just enough pressure to the bar so that the lifter is doing the bulk of the work lifting but is never in danger of dropping the weight on their face. Finding that butter zone of how much to lead a student is something that only seems to come with experience.
In terms of the hard labor of teaching, younger teachers seem to always be doing much more than the older teachers. The first set of papers I ever graded took me two weeks to get through. I spent about two and a half hours on each essay, and by the end of the process, they looked like copy I was marking up for a magazine. That was not an efficient use of my time, especially because most of the feedback was coming to students in a way that made learning difficult. I was doing all of the heavy lifting after the fact, and while they might have found some of the comments useful in understanding their grade, I never saw a real improvement in correcting mistakes from one paper to the next.
Under the influence of minimally invasive pedagogy, I have changed many of my strategies. In terms of grading, I don’t mark any grammatical mistakes unless I’m marking a pattern of mistakes that is troubling. For example, if I see three run-on sentences in the essay, I comment on this as an area where they want to pay attention and learn the rules. If I go through a five page paper and see only two run-on sentences, that’s genuinely not concerning enough that I want to bring up, unless of course it’s a part of a pattern of many small mistakes that show me a need for a discussion of how to proofread more effectively. In class lessons or tutoring, I try to leave as much space as possible between what I am teaching for students to have time to do work on their own.
That’s how I come to summing up the second word in my reflection series with the word nudge. Many incorrectly imagine that teaching is a process of talking at a group of people and expecting their lives to be changed. (I’m certain it is this misunderstanding that drives most politicians’educational policy proposals since talking at people is what they do best.) Teaching is much more of a process of motivating appropriate action, appropriate action in this case being an effortful engagement with challenging material. For students, that type of engagement is not always a comfortable or fun process, which is why I question the applicability of some of Mitra’s insights to an environment that is not driven by software designed to minimize the bumps along the road. Over the past five years in my job, I’ve learned that most of what my job is as a teacher is learning to shut up and listen to what my students are really telling me so that I can see when they are going off track. I’ve also learned that letting them wander off track is sometimes the shortest path towards genuine learning, so I have to be careful to only provide gentle nudges back in the right direction when a student seems to be losing motivation to struggle.
To the extent that motivation is an aspect of learning that I pay particular attention to, I try to make most of my nudges come from a positive place. In service of this approach, I’ve completely embraced the idea of the granny cloud. The more I can get someone working enthusiastically to show me what they know, the more I can see where they have strengths that will let them overcome their weakness. Instead of simply pointing out that a writer’s logic is not working, I try to understand what is behind the attempt, praise the instincts and effort, and talk about how to make that effort more efficient. That sounds like a superficial change in approach, but I’ve found it can make a big difference, especially with a writer who is already overly critical with themselves.
The path towards a rewarding and inspiring college experience is never easy, and indeed, if it were, we’d be overcharging. It inspires me to see my challenge as one of listening rather than one of talking. It makes every class and tutoring session unique, and it allows me to connect with my students in a more substantial way than I did in the past. If I’m honest, I could probably do a lot better job of shutting up, but I’m glad I have lots of other inspiring teachers out there like Sugata Mitra to nudge me back towards the right path.