La Pasión Turca – Guest post by Fiona Mauchline

I don’t think I’ll ever cease to be blown away by twitter and what all the connections we can make there. Even though I can’t put my finger on the exact moment I met Fiona Mauchline on twitter, I certainly remember the moment her thoughts called my attention. If I’m not mistaken, after one or two innocent tweets with another tweep, the discussion got momentum and, as it usually happens on twitter, a whole bunch of tweeps came onboard to join the discussion, and Fiona was one of these. At that very moment, I knew it would be a great chance for me to have a guest post here, as she was certainly making me do some thinking. She’s also the author of two blogs, macappella and blood, sweat, and gazpacho. I thoroughly enjoyed reading her post, and I do hope you all enjoy it too – oh, and Fiona, I’ll definitely have you back for part 2!! It was definitely worth the while! Now, without further ado, here it comes!!

La Pasión Turca


Holes in the Wall and Postman knocked twice.

At the recent ISTEK conference, Scott Thornbury gave a plenary session listing the six most significant influences on or sources of inspiration for his own professional development and direction. As is becoming the norm for these events, Twitter was a-flutter with tweets during the plenary, and while many merely passed on the birdsong, some chirped in less dulcit, more sceptical tones.

Of course, a good plenary will always provoke anti as well as pro opinions – the worst thing that can happen to you in a talk is to provoke no opinions whatsoever – but as I read the tweets, I couldn’t help but feel that some people were either simplifying to the extreme or slightly missing the point, in relation to two of the ‘influences’. Since then, I have found myself pondering those tweets and what it was that made me feel uneasy, sense that those tweeting weren’t looking closely enough. I have found myself pulling over into lay-bys to take notes and chewing my pen in coffee bars. This post is the result of those ponderings and, as such, is totally non-empirical, but if you don’t mind that and a couple of spoilers, read on.

Part I: Holes in the Wall (of dissent)

First there was The Wall; then the Hole-in-the-Wall... / Photo by TofflerAnn on flickr

In 1999, Professor Sugata Mitra, now of Newcastle University in the UK, carried out the first of a series of experiments he called the Hole in the Wall (HIW) experiments whereby he literally made a hole in a wall in a rundown urban district in New Delhi, India, and installed a kiosk containing a computer. He also installed hidden cameras nearby and waited and watched what happened. Local children crowded round to teach themselves to use the computer and the internet, with no external ‘bothering’ by teachers. Mitra called this Minimally Invasive Education (MIE). With the success of this initial experiment, other hole-in-the-wall computers were installed in India and, latterly, in Cambodia, and the results were similar. As a by-note, these experiments were also the original inspiration for the scriptwriter of Slumdog Millionaire… However… What Scott said he had drawn from these experiments was the fact that children – or learners – do actually have an innate desire to learn and will both absorb information and be motivated to learn if the circumstances are right. These experiments also favour learner-centred learning and put a huge question mark over the role of Teacher as generally perceived by The Establishment. In fact, they show that a teacher – or at least an adult Teacher is not always necessary.

But the tweets went out ‘Ah but they worked because it was all about technology’ ‘It was using computers that made the experiments work’ ‘How curious that S Thornbury should be inspired by experiments showing that computers help education’. And this is where I beg to differ.

Professor Sugata Mitra works in Educational Technology, yes. That is his current field and he was using those experiments to find out if using computers and the internet is something that kids can learn for themselves. Rather like Chomsky might try to find out of we have grammar hard-wired into our brains. That was his ‘agenda’, if we can overlook the negative connotations of that phrase.

However, Sugata Mitra is not a Mr, he’s not a research students or a Microsoft employee, he’s a Professor, and a polymath at that. He has also worked in other scientific fields, and what brought about his interest in computer networks was his work on neural networks and cognitive science. By the time he carried out his HIW experiment, he had also being studying learning styles as well as learning devices for years. So it’s fair to say that he probably based his experiments on rather more than a desire to find out/show how cool computers are in their ability to teach children to, um, use computers (NB not to teach them languages). And personally I think the  conclusions that can be drawn from the experiments are multiple. The following are my own.

In terms of showing the virtues of technology per se, the bottom line is that the HIW experiments proved that use of computers and the internet is easily self-taught (backed up by the fact that even I’ve managed it) or semi-peer taught (peer-teaching was also highly influential in the children’s success), which, in turn, suggests that overt teacher-led teaching of internet/computer use in schools is a waste of time as, given the right environment, kids will teach it to themselves. This should ideally result in an effect on school time-tabling… It also means that we can get on with our jobs as language teachers and have little responsibility, moral or otherwise, for teaching IT, which in turn means that doing IT (pun intended) or not doesn’t much matter, as you aren’t intrinsically smarter, more professional etc. either way. It simply indicates different teaching styles, different choices, different preferences, underlying characteristics of being human.

It also means that, despite what many of us ‘older’ (ie more aged) language teaching types may think, technology will only add a WOW factor to our teaching in areas where access to computer/internet use is rare; in other areas, children will be self-taught from an early age and furthermore will simply ‘do IT’ without much thought. Technology will not make a class memorable just because. We should only use technology in class where it’s fully justified (and sometimes it is), not because we think it’s ‘gonna be cool’. T’ain’t what you use, it’s the way that you use it, to paraphrase an old jazz number. Common sense to many, unfathomable to a few.

However, on the other hand and nevertheless…

to my mind, Sugata Mitra’s experiments showed a lot more than a couple of characteristics of technology. What the children were actually doing rather than what they were using is more significant in terms of implications to language learning. Without any reference to Mitra’s conclusions, here are mine (largely drawn up while sitting in the car) with some implications as I see them.

You too can smell the Kingdom of the Gnomes!

The HIW experiments were about kinaesthetic-visual learning. Much teacher-fronted teaching is aimed at ears, which is pointless in a society where children find listening harder and harder. In many cases we actually need to sharpen students’ listening skills before we can start. The HIW experiments were based on, essentially, hitting keys in a trial & error way, reading instructions on the screen and then clicking on the appropriate thing, watching other children using the computers, and working together. Children learn to use video consoles in the same way, so perhaps it’s not news in the area of children-using-technology, but the kinaesthetic-visual combination is also behind the huge success of the scratch & sniff Geronimo Stilton books which have seen many 8-10 year-olds start reading for pleasure, expanding vocabulary and improving literacy. Not just black words on a white page, these books incorporate words written in a way that makes their meaning clear, and include scratch & sniff pages to appeal to/revolt the senses. The books are fun, and they work. So perhaps language teaching should pay even more attention to this combination, using more mechanical, visual, and sensory stimuli to enhance learning, and making the teacher’s voice/presence less intrusive, more of another resource or back-up system on hand for support. Personally, I have worked a lot with this idea, particularly with under 8s and over 13s, with wonderful results, and others I know who have also worked with it say the same.

We also succumbed...

Secondly, what children in the HIW experiments were doing was a type of puzzle-solving, an activity which is intrinsically motivating (think of the popularity of Sudokus, crosswords, illusionists etc) and forms the basis of much of our learning in life. I noticed last December at our town’s Christmas Market that the stall you could hardly get near was one selling wooden puzzles. In particular, boys and men would stand mesmerised trying to rebuild a town, release a bottle or fit all the pieces back together. At this ‘hands on’ stall, the concentration was total, the sense of satisfaction great and, I suspect, the sales figures impressive. So if problem-solving has such a pull, whether in middle-class Spain or less salubrious areas of New Delhi, why not incorporate more into language teaching? Yes, many ELT materials nowadays do (although the grammar box still refuses to relinquish its grip) and some teachers do, but there is still too little of it and too much spoon-feeding. Yes, educational software is good for problem-solving, but it is not unique.

Thirdly, as well as learning from the screen and from trial and error, the children learnt from each other. Peers replaced adult teachers. This has always been the case, for example when kids get together to kick a ball around or to build a kite/tree-house/den/go-cart. The implications here are clear – group/team work, peer-teaching/correction. Again, the teacher’s role in the language classroom should be reviewed and this idea of group constructed knowledge embedded in teacher training not only for us CELTA/DELTA types but across the board.

Finally, the HIW experiments strike me as being somewhat rooted in behaviourism – as much of human learning is – in a ‘get it wrong, it doesn’t work; get it right, yippee’ sort of way. So my final implication is that children should be allowed to get it wrong and not be penalised during the learning process, simply encouraged to try again until they get it right (‘right’ meaning ‘get their message across, achieve communication’ at early stages – polishing can come as they develop and become used to reworking, to trying again, rather than to being demotivated by red pen and numbers). Rewards should be as significant if not more so than penalties. A sense of ‘you’ve won the key to the next stage’ would replicate the computer experiment observations and what keeps kids on those pesky video games for hours 😉 This, of course, means reviewing how we deal with errors and feedback.

Now I’ve far outstayed my welcome, but there was another ‘big idea’ that got a volley of tweets and, indeed, is still causing ripples and waves, so I shall leave Part II of La Pasión Turca (dangerously called Postman (always) knocked twice) for another day…. if Henrick will have me back!

The author of this post!

I live in Cáceres in Spain, a beautiful and inspiring sort of place to live, and I’m a teacher, trainer, writer. mother and life-enjoyer. Although I originally trained as a translator and interpreter, I’ve been in ELT since the late 80s and, as a person who trained when Headway was just out, I now tend to teach dogme and am co-moderator of the Dogme web group. I’m big into visualisation, sensory stimuli for the imagination, motivating even the ‘grottiest’ of teens, learner-generated materials and a heap of other things, many of which are not related to teaching, but I give workshops on the ones that are ELT related. I’ve also written coursebooks and other ELT materials.

19 thoughts on “La Pasión Turca – Guest post by Fiona Mauchline

  1. Hear hear.

    and I repeat “hear hear”!

    I’ve joined in in this “T is for Technology” and “Mass Debates” episode and have been following the “two sides” for sometime. They’re both right at times, but it seems that the whole question and opinion part of it is muddied by ‘who is right’. Who cares ‘who is right’, when ‘what is valid and beneficial for learning is what’s most important’.

    I loved the study you mentioned here. I was a sociology, languages and a bit of psychology major at uni and tons of questions popped up in my mind while reading.

    Lastly, I, like you, was a bit taken aback at tweet reactions and comments vis à vis this discussion during IATEFL and ISTEK. Some had more heat than reason, and that’s just too bad. In light of this, I want to commend the tone you’ve assumed in this post. It’s the first time I’ve read someone write as intelligently, and with a curious and soft-non-judgmental approach to the subject. Thanks Fiona, and thanks Henrick for putting Fiona’s article in the spotlight 🙂

    Cheers, Brad

    1. Hi, Brad!
      I agree with you about the two sides of the argument; on the whole, we need shades of grey more than black and white – but of course debates don’t work in grey 😉
      Rather than decry one option or another or take sides in academic debate, of course, the bottom-line-important thing as far as your learners are concerned is to know our their needs, learning styles etc, and really think through our activities to assess whether technology, book, pairwork etc is really the best way. Taking into account what we, the teacher, are like too, as our character, style, beliefs etc mould a class too. It’s too easy to go into the staffroom, get ‘teacher’s block’, ask colleagues for ideas, then use their ideas lock, stock and barrel without considering that we have different students, whose responses/needs/learning styles etc may not be the same, and that we are different people too. What’s good for the goose, ain’t always good for the gander, and it’s also too easy to do something simply because we think it’s fun and funky…

      Thank you for your compliments too – they make me blush or at least experience one of those little smiles that creep up towards my cheek-bones 🙂 .. and I’ll get on with the second part of the post (only notes at the moment) as soon as I finish responding to these comments. I promise 🙂


  2. Greetings from another ELT teacher in Spain. I agree that it’s difficult to get people to listen but I figured I’d just stick with it. They’re never going to learn English if they don’t listen eventually… Interesting post.

    1. Hi Daniel,

      I agree with you about listening – in fact, I think it’s one probably THE most important of the four skills for a learner right from very early on – but I think rather than assume they listen efficiently so that if we explain everything orally in a teacher-fronted ‘bla bla bla’ sort of way it’ll somehow go in, we should separate the two things more often (‘using ears’ and presenting language). I think we need to find more ways to help students access and process the language – and as a dogme teacher, that means first finding out what they want to say, then helping them say it (then helping them write it down, say it again, recognise it in a slightly different context etc), rather than first spoon-feeding a heap of language into their ear-drums and off a page then telling them that that’s what they want to say… – AND we need to put a greater focus on actually supporting learners’ ability to listen or to pick up language ‘through their ears’ from the models they hear. Listening is a skill we can help them learn or refine, and it’s a vital skill in the learning of a language but in my opinion it is not enough to make listening the prime means of showing/explaining how the language works. If you think of babies and small children, they use their ears to pick up a model of the language, but it’s most frequently alongside using their eyes and or hands to see how it works… I could go on, but that’s really another post! Must make a note to write one on my own blog 🙂 So, extra thanks for your comment as it may well just bloom into something bigger.


  3. All I’m going to say is, a guest post by one of my favourite bloggers, on one of my favourite blogs, wasn’t gonna disappoint. But this is a great post. Rick, you gotta host Part 2! Thanks both.

  4. For someone who wasn’t at my plenary, Fiona, you certainly managed to get the gist of it! Is there more to twitter than I’m prepared to admit?
    Well done.

    1. Hi Scott,

      Elementary, my dear Watson……. more than Twitter, let’s call it a combination of intuition and 10 years of reading your posts on the dogme list 🙂 applied in ‘information gapfill’ fashion to around three tweets. 😉

  5. Fiona,

    Bless you. A marvellous blog (and what about blogs, incidentally, and wikis and how they have (not?) changed parts of the world of ELT.)

    Tweets first. As you will all know there are at least two kinds of tweeters. (1)There are those who must tweet before the presenter has finished their sentence. “In Spain in fab surrounds. Fiona is just about 2 say sthing bout kine what’s it….” And (2) there are those who use them to ask questions, give references and announce meetings: “Beginning in 5 minutes online.” Friends who are category (1) tell me it helps them to focus – shared, public notetaking. I know it puts off some presenters.

    I’m excited by the Hole-in-the-wall experiments, Fiona, but quite agree it needs a lot of pondering to see what is revealed. (In passing, ELT readers,Mitra comments somewhere that the kids picked up quite a bit of English but with a very Indian pronunciation. So?) I think that experiment, and the gist of you write is that we need to continue to move the focus well away from teaching and spotlight learning. I believe there is a lot evidence around to be pulled together and presented demonstrating that teachers and teaching can get in the way of learning. As they say in the trade, teachers worth their salt are there to provide affordances for learning, not to give lessons that someone else has decided the learners need to learn without asking them of they want to.

    1. Morning, Dennis!
      Starting with your final paragraph, I agree….. of course! And in teacher training (or teacher preparation, depending on the country) there is still too much emphasis on teaching and not enough on learning. Teaching and, sometimes, language analysis. Obviously these are important (tho in some cases, I think they go way overboard re language analysis eg teachers preparing ‘oposiciones’, the state exams, in Spain) but should be alongside a focus on learning and learners, not instead of. Here in Spain, for example, the oposiciones for secondary school include James Joyce and Walt Whitman but not Vygotsky, Piaget, Freire etc. They don’t even include Thornbury! 😉
      As well as that, I also feel we are encouraged to think about how we present and teach far more than think about how we learn – we, us, ourselves. Assessing our own learning both as children and as adults AND assessing our learners, or a sort of generic Learner and His/Her learning style. … Oooh, I feel yet ANOTHER blog post coming on.
      … which just goes to show how wikis, blogs et al have changed the world of ELT! Enrichment is the word that comes to mind – even tho it’s 10am and I still haven’t had a coffee. It has also done miracles for ‘shrinking’ this planet and allowing us to share a staffroom with folks on all continents. Blogs in particular. And as a woman, I’d also say that internet has changed the gender ‘weighting’ of the profession, which was largely dominated by women in the classroom, men on the book covers, in the senior common rooms of universities and giving the plenaries before the www came along. Nowadays, thanks to Le Web, publishing is certainly more democratic, women read women, and invite them to give plenaries, having been released from the grip of publishers using charismatic chaps as ‘bait’ and perpetuating the myth that men command more respect on this planet 😉 (my father sits across the room from me as I write, teehee).
      Thanks for commenting and best best wishes to you.

      1. Thank you, gents! And I hope it wasn’t just the packaging that you enjoyed, David 😉
        I shall now have that well-earned coffee, and get on with polishing part 2….


  6. Measured in digital days, I’m a latecomer to this post, but there’s no penalty other than ignorance, right?

    You’ve given alluring ideas about technology a gentle down-dressing, Fiona. No mean feat!

    Look forward to your next contribution.


  7. Hi Fiona, and thanks for your very reflective post – lots of food for thought here, and I think you’re right on a lot of things.

    One of the major problems with our educational system is that, over the years, the fun has been taken out of learning. anyone who knows anything about videogames and has either played a few or critically observed people playing them can see that what actually goes on in most of of them is a lot of learning – gamers are encouraged to play better because of the reward system and modern games are very good at pitching the level of play to be just challenging enough to make it ‘pleasantly frustrating’ but not too difficult. And when a player fails, it’s no big deal – they are encouraged to pick themselves up and try again, and in the words of Beckett – “No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” This, I think is something mainstream education doesn’t do well. We make too much of a big deal about passing and failing (probably the exam system’s fault).

    Now, where I do question you here, is when you say the Hole in the Wall experiment has got nothing to do with technology. I think you’re wrong here. Without the technology, it wouldn’t have happened. I agree with you that the computers here are not the most important or interesting thing – it is what is happening between the people, especially the young people. However, it’s difficult for me (at least) to imagine the same thing happening in the environments where the experiments have been held without the computers. Or, maybe, you can tell me otherwise?

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