Save the Children chief executive Jasmine Whitbread and TED-prizewinning educational researcher Sugata Mitra explore social responsibility, global development, and the future of learning.
More and more of the world’s children are gaining access to a primary education. But what good is it if our school systems are broken and obsolete? Jasmine Whitbread, chief executive of Save the Children International, and Sugata Mitra, a TED-prizewinning visionary in the field of education and technology, have each spent more than a decade pondering this question. They both see a transformation taking place in international development, one that has the potential to reshape education and address intractable social problems around the world. Whitbread and Mitra met in London in the summer of 2013. Though it was their first meeting, you would not have guessed it from the easy rapport and almost electric exchange of ideas between them. Fixing education and ensuring that every child learns the skills and knowledge they need to thrive in the new global economy is just one part of the equation, they agreed. The other is embracing a new paradigm for global development, one that puts a premium on sharing knowledge, building partnerships, and collaborating across sectors to create a better world.
Sugata Mitra: It strikes me that the phrase “save the children” has a wider meaning today than it did a century ago. It is not simply a matter of helping children who are hungry and impoverished anymore. In some parts of the world, the problem now is how to save the children from too much fast food.
Jasmine Whitbread: You are right. When Save the Children was started nearly 100 years ago, children’s rights were a revolutionary idea. But today we take it for granted that children should not be going to bed hungry or missing out on a basic education. International development has changed enormously, and right now we are in a period of significant disruption. I think the sector is going to change potentially beyond recognition in the coming years.
Mitra: Have we reached the point where change is happening too quickly for organisations to respond?
Whitbread: There have been huge advances over the last decade or so. But more innovative responses are required now. I think that organisations have to make strategic choices and place a few bets in areas where they can help to catalyse positive change. I remember attending a conference of aid organisations in Dakar, Senegal, in 2000. At the time, there were nearly 120 million children out of school worldwide. Since then, we have been part of a broad coalition working to bring that number down. Today it stands at 57 million. It shows what is possible with a concerted effort. The trajectory is good, but the second half is going to be harder. To continue making progress, we are going to need much more cross-sector engagement.
Mitra: Unfortunately, many of those children are getting into schools where teachers are absent and facilities are poor. There is an assumption that a year in school is equal to a year of learning. That may be true in many places, but not everywhere. So we must also look at the schools they are going to.
Whitbread: Yes. Some people imagine that Save the Children is out in the world building schools and providing teachers. We do a little bit of that in places like South Sudan. But most countries already have schools and teachers. So our work is focused more on improving the quality of education and supporting effective learning. We work on curriculum development, teacher training and working with governments and local communities to make sure students have the information and resources they need.
Mitra: I find that having poor quality schools is a problem not only in the developing world. If you look at the United States, the world’s number one economy, there are areas where the education is just as poor as it is in rural Africa.
Whitbread: Quality is definitely an issue everywhere. I lived in Uganda for a couple of years in the early 1990s. The Ugandan government had just become one of the first nations in Africa to declare primary education free. It was a very exciting time because the schools were suddenly full. But the government did not give much thought to the quality of the curriculum. They were teaching the same things that I was taught as a child in Britain. The children were learning about the Saint Lawrence Seaway. Completely useless information. [Laughs]
Mitra: The Ugandan curriculum dates back to 1895.
Whitbread: Exactly. I remember going into derelict classrooms with dirt floors and no windows. In many cases, the teachers themselves had only the most basic education and little or no instruction in how to help children learn.
Mitra: But having poor quality schools is only one part of the problem. the other part is the nature of the education system itself. if you look at good schools in the richer parts of the world, you see that the model of education invariably dates back to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. that system of schooling was created during the Victorian era, the age of the colonial empire. it was a time before automation, when the purpose of schools was to produce clerks who were proficient at reading, writing, and arithmetic. clerks are unnecessary to- day because machines handle most of the work they used to do. Yet the schools live on.
Whitbread: and students are being taught skills they do not need. My daughter
has just graduated and is going on to university. she has always been very good at taking tests and did fantastically well in her final exams. We were laughing about this because taking exams is a useless skill. What a shame that she has be- come really good at something she is very unlikely to need in life.
Mitra: Yes, many of the skills being taught in schools are less important today. Hand- writing is a good example. children spend years learning how to write beauti- fully by hand. But this skill is not important anymore. it should be considered a hobby, like knitting. spelling is another example. We teach children how to spell words correctly. Most parents would say that it is extremely important that their children know how to do that. But because they are not writing by hand anymore, the machine is constantly correcting their spelling.
Whitbread: Are you saying that children should not learn how to spell?
Mitra: No, I am saying that assistive technology teaches. If you misspell a word once, the spell-checker will catch you. If you misspell it again, it will catch you again. By the third time, you have learned how to spell the word. So the learning is effortless. That is very different from taking a test and, if you do badly, being told that you are a poor speller. I have watched this happen to children all across the world, and their reaction is always the same.
Whitbread: They lose their confidence.
Mitra: Yes. Not only that, a natural response forms in their mind: “So what, you idiot?” That is the unspoken comment that drives children out of school by the time they are adolescents. They say to themselves, “I don’t want this; I’m going to drop out.”
Whitbread: What you are saying is true. In many cases, the traditional school is not functioning well and is not delivering for these young people. We need to look at how things can be done differently.
Mitra: Yes. A school should be turning out an individual capable of earning a living. That is not the same thing as knowing your multiplication tables. It involves other skills and behavioural norms. Children need to be able to search properly for information, for example. They are constantly staring at their phones and their tablets and constantly finding their way through information. But we have not taught them how to look properly. We have left them to fend for themselves in an ocean of information created by us, using devices created by us.
“In our current system of education, the assumption is that teaching leads to learning. But there is a different way. If you allow groups of children to self-organise, then the learning emerges naturally on its own.”
- Sugata Mitra
“A decade ago, some people believed that the problems of education could be solved by giving every child a laptop. Clearly, that is a little simplistic.”
- Jasmine Whitbread
Whitbread: Is this a skill that can be taught?
Mitra: Well, my work is focused not so much on teaching children – that is a model I think has to change – but rather on helping them learn on their own. The more work I do along these lines, the more I find that groups of children left alone in an information-rich environment start to behave like a self-organising system. When they start stumbling around information and ideas, things happen. The technical term for this is emergence. Learning emerges on its own. This has powerful implications for children without access to a lot of resources, because it provides an inexpensive way to produce better-quality learning than they would get in a traditional structured environment. If you use self-organising systems as the primary method for learning, then the curriculum has to self-organise as well. A good curriculum is one that is changing every single day – not once every five years, as it does now in much of the developed world.
Whitbread: I think the research you are doing and the challenges you are putting out there are very exciting. Throughout the Middle East and across large swathes of Africa, companies are complaining that they cannot find trained, work-ready young people. In countries that do not have Victorian school systems in place, these ideas have the potential to leapfrog the old model and contribute to a different kind of education.
Mitra: There are a few key factors needed to make a self-organising system work. First you need a driving question or motive. The children often decide this for themselves. But you can suggest something interesting for them to engage with, such as a big, open-ended question. Let me give you an example: Why is it that human beings are the only creatures in the natural world that wear clothes? Ten-year-olds will engage with this question for hours. You can develop similar questions on any subject. Instead of teaching children what we already know, what if the curriculum were organised around the things that we do not know? That would engage children more deeply and help them learn more.
Whitbread: This correlates with business as well. Too often companies fall back on the tried and tested instead of asking the big questions and exploring the unknown.
Mitra: Exactly. The second key to creating self-organising learning environments is access to information. If children have free bandwidth available to them on demand, then the whole system starts to work. The third and perhaps most important condition is minimal intervention by adults.
Whitbread: Which is probably harder than it seems.
Mitra: Yes, the idea of self-organisation is a hard concept for some teachers to accept – or even to understand. In our current system of education, the assumption is that teaching leads to learning. If we want children to learn, we assume that they must be taught. But there is a different way. If you allow groups of children to self-organise, then the learning emerges naturally on its own.
Whitbread: It is interesting how the conversation about technology’s role in education has shifted in recent years. A decade ago, some people believed that the problems of education could be solved by giving every child a laptop. Clearly, that is a little simplistic.
Mitra: Yes, my research has consistently shown that groups of four or five children with a single computer consistently outperform individual children with their own computers. Just thrusting laptops on young people does not help them. Of course, no computer company wants to hear that. My work has also shown that groups of children can learn more quickly working in teams without a teacher, than in a classroom with a teacher. But again, no school wants to hear that.
Whitbread: There is too much vested interest.
Mitra: I don’t want to get into a blame game. All I am trying to say is that we are saddled with an education model that is two or three hundred years old. It’s like a mindless machine producing a product that we no longer need.
Whitbread: I see reasons to be optimistic. Education is one of the areas where huge change is possible in the next few years. The international development sector is going through a period of creative disruption right now. In our lifetimes, it could be changed beyond recognition. Just look at the burgeoning social venture scene. Thousands of social entrepreneurs now descend on Oxford every year for the Skoll World Forum. A third of all the entrepreneurs at the Massachusetts incubator, MassChallenge, are focusing on social issues. More and more businesses are setting up new ventures like Goldman Sachs’s 10,000 Women entrepreneurship programme or Nike’s The Girl Effect. Here in the UK, the Founders Forum under the leadership of Martha Lane Fox is looking to harness the power of tech entrepreneurs to focus on social issues. At the same time as all of these new entrants are coming in, some of the traditional players are leaving the stage. DFID, the UK international development arm, recently pulled out of India, for example. This is happening because many of the “underdeveloped” or “developing” countries of our youth are now middle-income countries taking charge of their own destinies. We don’t know how things will play out, but with luck these trends could catalyse a huge change in the world’s development.
Mitra: I agree that it is impossible to know what is to come. Things are too uncertain and change is happening too quickly. But I do think organisations have to find ways to merge corporate social responsibility with their main line of business. The companies that have done that are at the top right now. The focus on social change is becoming increasingly important. It answers a need that young people are feeling today, especially here in the West. When I ask students what they want to do, more and more of them are saying, “I want to do something good with my life.” It is interesting that I get a different answer when I ask this question in India. They say, “I want to be a doctor,” or “I want to be a lawyer,” or “I want to be an engineer.” They are still very traditional in their career orientation.
Whitbread: That will probably come later.
Mitra: Possibly. If it is part of a natural process of development then, yes, it will come later. But what if it is like the manufacturing sector, which is now based almost entirely in Asia? What if all the doctors, lawyers and engineers of the future come from that part of the world? If that happens, we will find ourselves in a strange world where all of the expertise comes from the East, along with its impoverished population. The goods and services will arrive here in the West, while people here rush back to the East to help the underprivileged! [Laughs]
Whitbread: Young people in India may not be saying, “I want to go out and change the world.” But India does have a vibrant civil society. And as the economy continues to grow pressure will increase to address inequality. For example, India can’t afford to ignore the high levels of malnutrition that are stunting the next generation. And it is only a matter of time before India itself becomes a donor. So I am optimistic that the old development model – which I don’t think was a very healthy model in the first place – is coming to an end.
Mitra: I hope you’re right. Ever since I moved to England eight years ago, I have been watching the influx of wealth in India. It seems to be creating a generation of very confused, aggressive, and materialistic children. They do not want to be told what to do and they reject social and religious beliefs. A word that I hear a lot in Indian cities is WIIFM. It stands for What’s In It For Me? The young people use it all the time now. It is a frightening word. If there is no WIIFM, then they do not want to get involved.
Whitbread: I think this is a great example of how development sometimes fails to help those who need it most. There is a lot of emphasis on accountability today. But it typically refers to accountability to donors, not to the affected populations.
Mitra: Yes, I see this in education as well. Many of the solutions being presented are designed by research and development teams, but without any input from children. Nobody is talking to the children.
“If we do not look for opportunities to share our knowledge, there is a risk that we will be last century’s answer to international development.”
- Jasmine Whitbread
Whitbread: We are a child’s rights organisation, so we have children participate in the design of all our programmes. But our mission at Save the Children is to have as much impact as we can. For us that means giving up part of the value chain so that others can replicate and benefit from our work. That is very different from the business sector, where your goal is to create share-holder value and protect your intellectual property. As a child’s rights organisation, we actually want our ideas to be copied. That means putting our knowledge about what works into the public domain. We have not done a good enough job of that. Let me give you an example. I remember working for Oxfam in West Africa and wanting to scale up our education programme there. I went to talk to our in-house experts. I went to the World Bank in Washington D.C. I went to funders who specialise in education. But no matter where I turned, I found it surprisingly difficult to get hold of information about the pitfalls to avoid and the standards of excellence to strive for. Try typing into a search engine “quality education projects” – it’s hopeless! Organisations have not done a good enough job of working together across sectors and sharing knowledge about what works.
Mitra: I understand that we cannot change these systems overnight. But I worry that they will start to break down before we get around to fixing them.
Whitbread: Yes, I think we have to learn to work together. If we do not look for opportunities to share our knowledge and build new kinds of partnership, there is a risk that we will be last century’s answer to international development.
“A good curriculum is one that is changing every single day – not every five years, as it does now in much of the developed world.”
- Sugata Mitra
is chief executive of Save the Children International, the world’s leading independent children’s rights organisation. With a budget of USD 1.6 billion, a global staff of 14,000 and operations in some 120 countries, the charity works to improve the lives of children through better education, healthcare, and economic opportunities, as well as to provide relief from natural disasters, war, and other conflicts. Whitbread became the first international CEO of Save the Children in 2010 after five years as Chief Executive of Save the Children UK. Prior to that, she spent six years with Oxfam, first as a regional director in West Africa and then as International Director responsible for Oxfam’s programmes worldwide. Whitbread was born and raised in London, England. She attended her local comprehensive school, before going on to study English at Bristol University. She spent two years working in Uganda with Voluntary Service Overseas in the early 1990s. She later spent almost a decade in the business sector, working as managing director with Thomson Financial from 1994 to 1999. She holds dual British/Swiss nationality and is married with two children.
is Professor of Educational Technology at Newcastle University in England. Born in Kolkata, India, in 1952, he began his academic career in computer and molecular science. He went on to study biological science, medicine, and psychology before earning his Ph. D. in physics from the Indian Institute of Technology in 1978. Mitra is perhaps best known for his “Hole in the Wall” experiments in the slums of New Delhi and elsewhere. The experiments consisted of placing a computer in a wall, connecting it to the Internet, and waiting to see what would happen. There were no teachers and no instructions, just free access to a world of information online. The most eager users, he found, were children aged 6 – 12 who had no prior experience with computers. They quickly figured out how to use the machine, overcoming both language barriers and educational gaps in the process. They went on to teach each other motivated by nothing other than curiosity and the interest of their peers. These experiments, which have generated widespread attention in the field of education, earned Mitra the prestigious USD 1 million TED Prize in 2013.
PHOTOGRAPHY: MATTHIAS ZIEGLER