Prof. Sugata Mitra speaks about education and violent extremism, in an exclusive interview
Communications Officer, UNESCO MGIEP
How can education contribute to promoting extremist and violent ideologies?
One of the key contributing factors is the worldwide practice of dividing schools along the lines of religious ideology. Different sects make their own schools, irrespective of how good these schools may be.
Even in secular democracies, these institutions are running successfully, which bring unconscious biases into our children’s minds. This will not change until there is legislation against identifying a school with a faith.
Secondly, under the guise of other subjects such as “ethics”, we bring in faith-based religious values. This too contributes to the creation of prejudice at a deep level.
How can education become a tool for promoting global dialogue and understanding?
I don’t have an answer. When I don’t have answers, I go back to questions.
Very recently I heard an 8-year-old ask her mother: “Why do different people believe in different gods?” which I thought was one of those typically profound questions children ask. According to my theory, nobody knows the real answer.
However, as a society, we need to ask more questions rather than say which faith is good and which is bad. We need to ask: Is there one God or many? Is there a God at all? What does faith mean? We need to address these fundamental philosophical questions without attaching them to some religion or the other. These are not religious questions.
If you were to describe an ideal school for the future, what would it look like?
It is very hard to describe. If someone gave me a lot of money, I might actually build one. Then I will think on the spot. We live in very turbulent times. It may not look like anything that I can imagine. Will there be classrooms? Yes, probably there will be spaces but I am not so sure about classes. I don’t know if the word “class” will even exist. It is not a nice word, maybe it won’t exist.
As I mentioned in the lecture, the Internet will enter the classroom, whether we want it to or not. It will enter. Schools in the future will be steeped in the Internet. And as things connected to the Internet grow, not only computers but everything in the school will be steeped in the Internet. It is entirely possible that how to kick a football will be taught by the football itself.
I’m happy with happy, healthy, and productive children and with whatever dimensions they take in the future. Whatever ‘happy’ means in the future, whatever ‘healthy’ means in the future and whatever ‘productive’ means in the future: whatever they mean, schooling should cater to these.
In the classroom of the future, as you envision it, is there the possibility for such questioning?
‘Possibility’ is the right word to use in this context. Unfortunately, people often say that there is so much rubbish on the Internet and they question its educational worth.
I agree that there is a lot of nonsense [on the Internet], but it primarily belongs to three categories – pornography, religion and politics. It is very hard to find nonsense in something like science. There may be a website that says that the Earth doesn’t go around the sun, but there will be three hundred comments below saying that [this statement] is completely rubbish.
It is an unfortunate situation where religion and politics fall into the same subset as pornography.
When we don’t know what the future holds, what are the key skills that learners need to master?
As a parent I’m happy with happy, healthy, and productive children and with whatever dimensions they take in the future. Whatever ‘happy’ means in the future, whatever ‘healthy’ means in the future and whatever ‘productive’ means in the future: whatever they mean, schooling should cater to these.
Next are top line skills like comprehension, communication and computing. I would be happy if we just kept our eyes on those. But it could leave out a whole lot of other things like belief and the role this will play in the future, whether it will exist at all and what form it will take. One can’t predict these things.
In the context of so much unpredictability, what are the policy-level changes that we need to introduce in order to equip ourselves and future generations to deal with this metamorphosis?
Unfortunately, what is happening at the policy level across the globe is that government after government is arguing for more method, order and discipline. To deal with this problem of change, governments are using the reverse gear and saying that technology is harmful for children and that the Internet should be banned in schools because this is easier and more implementable.
But there are also reports and data saying that so much technology is harmful for children, that the use of gadgets is diminishing their attention spans and so on. How do you counter these arguments?
I have looked at many such studies and I think that the underlying assumptions are the problems themselves. For example, there is a study stating that attention spans are reducing because of access to devices. What it doesn’t say and what you are not even allowed to ask is: “What if a low attention span is better for the child than a high attention span in the world in which they are going to live?” Nobody is going to dare ask a question like that because it is assumed that what is good for us is good for our children.
In a world so steeped in technology, what happens to the human connect? Don’t you think technology can also create fertile ground for breeding violent extremism?
I am not so sure because there are some counter examples. Religious ethics bring a certain amount of safety to society. It was a way in the past of keeping some amount of control over what people did and didn’t do. But there are strange exceptions. Look at New York City – it’s a highly ordered city, the crime rates have fallen, it’s a safe city. And, it probably has the highest number of atheists in the world.
There are people with no religious views at all, who don’t believe in God. So what I’m asking is that is religion even necessary now or are there alternatives? Are people now intelligent enough to understand that law and order are important for society to survive and therefore they don’t need a crutch or a threat to behave and coexist?
There is an assumption that people will not develop critical thinking if lots of information is available. In fact, it is the other way round. People don’t develop critical thinking when prescriptive information is handed over by a teacher.
During the lecture, you mentioned a question raised by a little girl: “If the Internet has so many interconnections, can it think?” What are your views on artificial intelligence (AI)?
I don’t understand what the fuss is around AI and why people are so scared of it. AI is a crutch for the brain. If we can have crutches for eyes, which are eyeglasses, or artificial limbs, then why can’t we have a crutch for the brain which does your thinking for you? Why be scared that it will take over the world?
But there are a number of scientists warning against AI. And what about Microsoft’s recent experiment with the BOT, which went so wrong?
Those warning are primarily science fiction writers! I had conducted a similar experiment a few years ago where I placed a BOT at the NIIT cafeteria. Within a day or two, it became completely abusive. It has nothing to do with the BOT, but rather how we managed it.
In anonymous group situations, humans are sexually deviant (as the Internet amply proves), we are extremely ill-mannered and we behave like animals. This is how we are hard-wired.
But would it be recommended to give this kind of technology and power to this group of people you have just described?
The answer cannot be in just avoiding technology. We need to understand what the underlying problems are and why humans behave the way they do. Why do we revert so quickly back to the primordial? I think we need a new Freud rather than a new engineer.
Prof. Mitra is an award-winning social entrepreneur and founder of the School in the Cloud and the Hole in the Wall projects. Sugata is a Professor of Educational Technology at Newcastle University, UK. He recently spoke at a UNESCO MGIEP Distinguished Lecture event at IIT Delhi.