Sugata Mitra’s Inhuman Belief in Machines


Today, according to the TES : “Professor Sugata Mitra, of Newcastle University, suggested that the conventional skills taught to children today were mainly “obsolete” and could be carried out by machines.” He went on to say: “Reading, writing and arithmetic should be deemphasised and replaced with comprehending, communicating and computing. That’s the world we live in today.” He continued:

“Is it not conceivable to think of an app where you can point it to a piece of Japanese text and it reads it back to you in English. If that app exists, would it be important to be able to read that Japanese? No, it is important to understand what that text is saying. Comprehension is more important than the process of reading.”

An app that reads Japanese and automatically translates into English as though that is an easy task? As though one language can easily be translated into another, and we can trust a machine to do this for us? Translation is an art.

Does Mitra also envisage an app that reads English and translates it into Machine English so that we no longer need to read and we merely have to comprehend? The process of reading itself is about comprehensionWhen one reads, one is not undertaking just a mechanical task that is easily outsourced, yes it is nice to be read to, yes to Jackanory and yes to viewing a play, but this is very different to reading and very different to outsourcing reading to ‘Siri’ or the computerised checkouts at Tesco.

Next Mitra will be saying making love is obsolete because we have the wonderful resource of online pornography and some ‘little devices’ we can attach to our hard drives.

Here are a few words from the poet Bernard Kops taken from his poem ‘Whitechapel Library, Aldgate East’ known as the University of the Ghetto…

…A loner in love with words, but so lost
and wandering the streets, not counting the cost.
I emerged out of childhood with nowhere to hide
when a door called my name
and pulled me inside.

And being so hungry I fell on the feast.
Whitechapel Library, Aldgate East…

And Rosenberg also came to get out of the cold
To write poems of fire, but he never grew old.
And here I met Chekhov, Tolstoy, Meyerhold.
I read all their worlds, their dark visions of gold.

The reference library, where my thoughts were to rage.
I ate book after book, page after page.
I scoffed poetry for breakfast and novels for tea.
And plays for my supper. No more poverty.
Welcome young poet, in here you are free
to follow your star to where you should be.

That door of the library was the door into me

And Lorca and Shelley said “Come to the feast.”
Whitechapel Library, Aldgate East.

This library is now closed.

Now I know Mitra is a provocateur, who believes in machines, but he is not a librarian or a teacher. Most teachers I know value reading highly as a habit they would want for their own children and the children in their classes. This tradition is centred around books. Even when reading to children, one holds the book with respect. A good teacher venerates books far more than the machines of the modern age.

Communication, whether a dance, towering rhetoric or a tweet, involves a love of language, written, spoken and felt; it is crafted. Just as a pot turned by Bernard Leach is a thing of beauty aided and abetted by a wheel but not made by the machine; we can deploy an inhuman PR machine to communicate for us, but we’d lose so much if we did. Communication is that most human of acts and we learn it first, close to home and its authenticity is always diminished when it is outsourced and many times removed from its first utterance.

Teach the art of rhetoric.

These arts of reading and human communication are sacrosanct to our understanding of ourselves as bequeathed to us through the years. It is central to the job of parents and teachers to ensure that these arts continue, unsullied by those who believe electronic media can render these arts obsolete and believe they should be one step removed from the child.

Don’t do away with the voice; don’t do away with the quill, don’t do away with the pen, don’t do away with the pamphlet, don’t do away with the newspaper, don’t do away with the book, don’t do away with the library, don’t do away with the bookshop.

Do away with Mitra’s inhuman belief in machines.


9 thoughts on “Sugata Mitra’s Inhuman Belief in Machines

  1. What a fascinating issue, I wish I knew more about it. One day soon I may study this one.

    When I was a boy, the main route to autodidaxy was the textbook. Now at 57 although I still use books occasionally, most of my indpendent study is based around the internet. I still need to read but my preference is to relax and hear someone else read to me. I might refer to my preferred learning style but I do not want to attract too much abuse.

    I have a reader now which I use very often to read books, articles and websites to me any time, day or night. With oculus rift I may be able to actually experience, many of the things I read about in real time. I may be able to go inside the human brain and actually observe neurons firing. I will be able to go to the tropical rainforest rather than reading about it. I am able to ask questions of AI based systems as I would a teacher. I can talk to my PC, Tablet or phone and my words are recored and translated into text (in any language).

    Don’t get me wrong, I am not suggesting books and written communication should be abolished but to ignore technology and the benefits to people of adopting it cannot be ignored. It is a shame perhaps that the tools and technology of the past is userped in by better ways of doing things.but it is the case.

    To suggest that the importance of the 3 R’s is not diminishing seems to me just a little daft.


    1. I completely disagree with you on the importance of the 3R’s and this is as someone who was the Computing Lead in my last schools and works to support teachers to use technology in my current one. To not be able to read, write and do maths is to be illiterate and innumerate – end of. Who else other than Mitra considers this to be a good idea? Having grown up with an illiterate father I would say that most people’s understanding of illiteracy is minscule – it is not just about the skills themselves it is about being able to be independent, navigate the world around you, take part in the culture. What Mitra is suggesting will not happen to the children of the rich, they will be the last to abandon the 3 R’s if they ever do, it is the poor that will suffer as they have to rely on machines not to support them in making life simpler as I do now but for basic tasks. They will depend on them the way that my father has depended on other people except for the fact that we as his children care for him, which a machine does not. This dystopian nonsense is favoured by middle class teachers and people. Fine – let your children be the first. But of course you won’t let that happen – you will experiment with these ideas on the poorest and if they are not wonderful will not include them in the education of your own children. The sheer hypocrisy of this added to the way that it will dispossess the poorest is enough to make me side with Martin.


  2. Teachwell

    “To suggest that the importance of the 3 R’s is not diminishing”

    Noone is suggesting people should be illiterate or innumerate as far as I know. The suggestion is that the importance of the 3R’s is diminishing. Noone is suggesting the abandonment of the 3R’s as you seem to suggest.

    Why would you try to persuade people that this is a rich/poor issue?

    Sure a long while ago, it was the favoured few who were able to read and write (plus maybe those pushing religion). Sure the poor have benefitted from being able to read and write, and the rich have also benefitted from the poor being able to read and write. This for me has little to do with the issue at hand.

    The successful in 2016 are those who can leverage the use of IT with the ability to read and write. There is a real risk that the poor will be left reading books while the rich can afford the technology.

    I feel that yours is an old fashioned view which endangers the poor, even though I don’t feel this is a rich/poor issue.

    I disagree with much of what Mitra says, but to raise the strawmen that someone is suggesting the poor be illiterate and to suggest that as you are ‘computing lead’ you just know these things does your cause some considerable harm in my view.

    My children and grandchildren can all read and write, and my grandchildren can probably use technology as well as you or I.

    I know, without a shodow of a doubt that if your father had been able to use technology to read for him, his life would have been transformed for the better. If your father had been able to use dictation technology to write for him, his life would have been transformed for the better. If your father had been able to read and write his life would have been transformed for the better. These are not mutually exclusive and in my view complement each other. The technologies I refer to here are just a couple of examples of how technology can be leveraged to improve learning.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. So many things he says rubs me the wrong way (then again, few Ted Talks don’t). Translation & cultural interpretive differences summariliy dismissed! One cannot just rely on a machine (yet anyway) translation to capture the complexity of textual context. Texts are more than just things to comprehend. They are experiences with pauses & pondering. Just like Khan Academy, this oversimplification of knowledge building is likely to be damaging to comprehension.


  4. “The successful in 2016 are those who can leverage the use of IT with the ability to read and write. There is a real risk that the poor will be left reading books while the rich can afford the technology.” Yes. This.

    Machines are to books as fountain pens are to pencils – different tools, that is all. The quality of written content is no different whether on a screen or on parchment. The difference is that many more could have access to much more.


  5. This guy is a charlatan and the mere mention of this name makes me want to pound my desk with my fists. Why does he command such a huge audience? Possibly because, in saying that children don’t need to learn the difficult things, he is potentially selling teachers a future whereby they can merely facilitate vague and immeasurable skills rather than teach really tricky, complex knowledge and skills that can be measured and tested.’A future where we can all sit about drinking frappucinos, googling and discussing? Yes, I’ll have some of that!’ thinks the teacher.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. The worst thing is that Mitra’s 180° wrong. We need to emphasize reading, writing and numeracy more than ever. It’s all the other stuff that can be learned later, as an adult, but the basics have to be solid right from the start.

    The concept that “jobs as we know them” will disappear is just so much rot. The jobs most of us do today are jobs that were around 100 years ago. Apart from the odd TV producer and computer coder, most of us are teachers, drivers, doctors, warehouse staff, shops salespeople, nurses etc.

    What has changed is the balance in those jobs and the basic skills required to do them — now most people need to read and write as part of their jobs. More and more people are in jobs where decent numeracy is important.

    And it’s rot to say information is at our fingertips so we don’t need to memorise it. Most of us are expected to be able to do our jobs more or less instantly, without having to dive off and learn from the internet every day. I don’t actually know anyone who needs to use the internet regularly to do their job. We have to learn the manual, whether it is on-line or paper.

    And, as Martin reminds us, it’s not just about jobs. People need to be able to read and write to live full lives quite apart from work. The machines don’t think for them. You don’t communicate better if you can’t organise complicated thoughts because you’ve never been taught to write an essay. Does Mitra think complex ideas will be better expressed verbally than in writing? He’s daft.

    We need to stress basic skills more in the information age.

    Liked by 1 person

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