Science Boy
Science Boy

“If a teacher can be replaced by a machine, they should be.” – Arthur C. Clark

In 1999, Professor Sugata Mitra embedded a computer in a wall in a slum in New Dehli, connected it to high speed internet and left it there. Kids in the area, mesmerized by this technology, learn to use computers by themselves.

Over time his work has become famously referred to as the “Hole in the Wall Experiment.” He repeated this experiment in other parts of India and discovered how kids learn what they want to do.

His online videos of kids interacting with these computers have become the source of considerable discussion with one showing children recording music and playing it back for others only four hours after seeing the computer for the first time.

One experiment he did in Hyderabad, India involved asking kids who spoke English with a strong Telugu accent to use a voice recognition system on a computer. Since it didn’t recognize many of their words initially, he told them to speak so the computer could understand them. And then he left. When he returned two months later, their accents had changed and were closer to the neutral British accent required by the speech synthesizer.

In a conversation that Mitra had with the late Arthur C. Clarke, Clarke commented that, “If a teacher can be replaced with a machine, they should be.” And Clarke told him that a student’s interest is the most important thing in education.

Clarke instinctively knew that a student driven by their own curiosity will learn more, learn faster, and retain far more than when they are confronted with subjects of low interest.

Understanding the Word Stream

In 2008, Roger Bohn and James Short, two researchers at the University of California in San Diego decided to do a study to determine the amount of information people have entering their brains on a daily basis.

They added a rather interesting twist to the study. Because of the varying forms of information, and the difficulty in comparing video to magazines and newspapers, they decided to convert all information into one standard form of measurement – words.

Based on their final 2009 report, the average person in the U.S. has 100,500 words flowing into their heads on a daily basis. And this number is increasing by 2.6% per year.

So where are all these words coming from?  In rough terms, 41% come from watching television, 27% – computers, 18% – radio, 9% – print media, 6% – telephone conversations, 4% – recorded music, and smaller amounts from movies, games, and other information sources.

As it turns out, the average American spends 11.8 hours every day consuming information. Many other countries are posting similar numbers. People today are being exposed to far more information than ever in the past.

Buried deep within the “other category,” constituting far less than 1% is formalized education. Even for students attending college, their classroom studies constitute a relatively small percentage of the information they are exposed to on a daily basis.

In the midst of this vast river of information we have flowing into our minds is a certain pedigree of information coming from scholarly people, constituting our formal education.

So why is this information considered far more valuable than all of the other information we are exposed to on a daily basis?

The Cost of Words

For colleges and universities that operate on a regular semester system, one credit requires 16 hours of class contact time. Thus, a three credit course would be 48 hours of class contact time for the semester. This is typically broken down into three hours of class contact time per week.

However, each one-hour class is actually only 50 minutes, so that 16 hours of contact time is really only 13.33 hours of real time. Most Bachelor’s degrees require 124-128 credits to graduate. That’s typically 31-32 per academic year.

128 credits times 13.33 hours equals 1,706 hours of actual classroom time.

On the extreme high end of society, if someone spends $10 per day ($300/month) to be connected to media – cable TV, radio, newspaper and more – they are spending, a total of $99.50 per million words.

Most people speak at a rate of 125 words per minute. So 125 words per minute, times 60 minutes per hour, times 1,706 hours of classroom time equals 12,795,000. For people who spend $200,000 attending an Ivy League University, this works out to $15,600 per million words.

At this rate, the word-cost for a person attending an Ivy League School is 157 times as expensive as the words being consumed by an extremely well-connected person.

While this may be considered by many to be pretty fuzzy math, the value of a university education is now totally out of sync with the rest of the information world.

Are Colleges Pricing Themselves Out of Existence?

Students and their families are finding it increasingly difficult to afford college, forcing them to be more pragmatic in their decisions:

  • Nationally, tuition and fees have risen 439% since 1982 in inflation-adjusted dollars, while median family income has risen only 147%. (National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education)
  • 69.2% of private colleges reported that loan availability for their students and parents has been negatively affected by the economic downturn. (National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities)
  • In October 2008, nearly 60% of surveyed high school seniors were considering a less prestigious college for affordability reasons; 14% changed their focus to a two-year college; 16% put their college searches on hold. (

Yes, early school training is oriented around necessary skills such as literacy and math. But as students progress it becomes less about learning necessary skills and more about learning desirable skills, some of which hold questionable value in today’s rapidly evolving world.

Yes, it comes from a trusted source, a college or school, with some very bright people staking their reputation on its accuracy. But there are many other trusted sources of information backed by the people who produce it such as newspapers, books, magazines, statistical journals, and video documentaries.

Yes, college classes are packaged in a comprehensible form making them easier to digest. Even though many college students would argue with the easily-digestible part, we will give them points for better course design. However, many non-school organizations are presenting information in similarly comprehensible formats for far less money. Think webinars, workshops, and non-accredited training centers.

More importantly, other organizations are doing a far better job of matching the curiosity of the learner with the subjects and experts they are interested in.

When Inertia Ends

Over the years colleges have become a magnet for intensely bright people. Faculty and staff are bestowed with enviable status and given high rankings in nearly all social circles.

Elitism has its privileges, and smart people have influence.

Colleges around the world have done a masterful job of fortifying their position in society by creating countless forms of governmental subsidies and devising elaborate schemes for student loans to buttress the financial underpinnings of this enlightened house of cards.

However, even well-fortified positions can collapse quickly. The newspaper world was filled with some of the brightest people in the world, fully-integrated into all aspects of society. Yet even with their low-cost word stream, the industry has shown itself to be unsustainable in this ultra-competitive new world.

Newspapers did a poor job of meeting the demands of the emerging hyper-individualized curiosity-driven consumer. Our education systems are doing an equally poor job.

Curiosity-Driven Education

In 2009, a study done by SRI International for the U.S. Department of Education concluded that students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.

The study found that students working online performed at the 59th percentile level, while traditional classroom students performed at the 50th percentile. This 9% differential is statistically very significant.

In much the same way that iTunes and YouTube have created curiosity-driven systems for consuming music and video content, a new system will arise on the Internet that will enable curiosity-driven students to consume courses.

iTunesU is already making major inroads into this space.

Communication technology today is designed around the two-way flow of information. People are no longer satisfied, or trusting, of one-way information systems like that employed by colleges and traditional education systems. They want to participate, contribute, and take ownership of content.

They are most interested in letting their curiosity be their guide.

More on the “Hole in the Wall” Experiment

Prof. Sugata Mitra, currently a Professor at Newcastle University in the UK continues to probe the capabilities of the self-learners.

At one point Mitra started asking the question, “How difficult a task can students take on?” So he decided to find out.

In the small village of Kalikuppam, Mitra decided to see if Tamil-speaking children could learn about biotech in English on their own. After two months, the students sheepishly told him they’d learned nothing. He asked whether they’d learned nothing at all, and a twelve year old girl told him, “Apart from the fact that improper copying of genetic molecules could cause disease, we’ve learned nothing.”

Students took biotechnology exams and scored a 30, where they’d scored a 0 before… “an educational impossibility.”

He asked one of the best students to teach the others and improve their schools. She asked how she could possibly teach them, and Mitra suggested “the grandmother method” – stand behind, admire, act fascinated and praise. After two months, the class score was up to 50.

Mitra is now conducting experiments in the UK, with students at Gateshead school. Students work in groups of four, using one computer, and can switch between groups.

One group started solving GSCE (General Certificate of Secondary Education) questions within 20 minutes. The least successful group took 45 minutes. They were using online tools like Google, Ask Jeeves and others.

Traditional teachers, however, are still skeptical. “Is this truly deep learning?”

But Mitra has seen evidence that test scores will rise over time with groups like these, and believes that students have near-photographic recall because they are learning together at a time when their curiosity has been peaked.

Final Thoughts

Wilhelm Konrad von Roentgen became famous for “accidentally” discovering x-rays. Roentgen found something in nature that seemed useless, but fascinated him. He devoted countless hours to studying how electrons move from one point to another within a gas. He did this because he had an amazing sense of curiosity that was driven by a need to understand nature.

X-rays weren’t discovered by chance. Chance is when something comes from nothing. Yes, his discovery was serendipitous, but it was followed by a lot of hard work. Today, a scientist in a similar situation would be confronted with the challenges of finding the funding to proceed with this type of research.

Roentgen’s story is a classic example of a scientist who didn’t begin with a well-defined question. So, how do we remove the constraints and incentivize people to build on a hunch, with the remote possibility that their hunch may lead to an enormous breakthrough in society?

We do it by creating systems that empower our curiosity.

By Futurist Thomas Frey

Author of “Communicating with the Future” – the book that changes everything


9 Responses to “Curiosity-Driven Education”

Comments List

  1. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Ellen Naylor</a>

    Tom, I love this article since I am intensely curious and have not lost that trait since my profession of competitive intelligence just reinforces it. It's interesting that children learn so well when left on their own. Part of my wonders if in those same experiments if they would have learned more with a little guidance from a human being since curiosity is trial and error, which is valuable, but some guidance saves time and can take a person down the road of learning more quickly. Yes, I often wonder if colleges are pricing themselves out of the market for most students. The rich and those who find loans are the "lucky" ones. While on-line education can be rich and fosters that entrepreneurial spirit and higher scores, I wonder about the score after the student leaves their form of learning? You know the game of life and profession. Those Ivy League schools have incredible networks and this can be so helpful in finding work and so much more, including some creative people. But yet it's interesting that a lot of the master minds of our times have not been the "school" types at all. Does our educational system perhaps not foster enough creativity or encourage visionary skills?
    • admin

      Ellen, Thanks for your comments. You ask some very good questions. My sense is that kids that learn what they are told to learn will eventually build up boundaries around their creative impulses. In most cases, they are continually rewarded for "coloring inside the lines." While there have been some notable experiments in this area, such as Summerhill - - our tech advancements are opening the doors to many new options that were never possible in the past. Mitra’s work has opened the door just a tiny bit. The truly exciting parts are still to come. Tom
  2. Charles Tappan

    Facinating a parent who homeschools our children through high school we judiciously use the specific interest or curiousity of each unique child as a background theme to support learning unrelated course content. In addition, in order to teach five at once it was necessary to 1)encourage independent study, 2)have the most capable teach those less capable (regardless of grade hierarchy) or 3)combine classes - the 'one room schoolhouse' approach. As most homeschooling is performed by a parent not necessarily familiar with, let's say high school chemistry, I would have to say that Mitra's work and Ellen's comments regarding some minimal guidance have proved very successful in the world of homeschooling. Makes me think we should have been even more radical in our departure from traditional education!
  3. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Michael Cushman</a>

    Hi Tom, Nice article. I mentioned "Summerhill" last night at the DaVinci Vault. Ellen and I made the same connection. Summerhill had that guiding influence approach, and I think computers with search engines, just by the structure of links, have a built in guide. If I'm looking for something, I can narrow down quickly, and I can also find related information that I didn't know existed...fueling more curiosity. Your math is a bit fuzzy, BTW. Don't forget for each hour in the classroom, a student spends 3 to 4 more hours reading textbooks and studying. Still, colleges are on the verge of collapsing, as you say. As we have talked about in the past, the great equalizer in education is competency-based exams. Who cares where I learned something, or how many hours I spent doing it. All that matters is that I know what I need to know, and I can do what I need to do. Let there be an open market on the sources of learning, just like there's a market for the application of knowledge and skills. (If I know more and do better than other people in my field, then I'm paid more.)
    • admin

      Thanks Michael, some great insights. You're absolutely right. Why should it matter if we learn something from the New York Times or from Mashable, or from attending a class at the Kahn Academy or Yale. Regarding the fuzzy math, I considered the study hours doing homework but dismissed them because the word stream doing homework actually prevents people from consuming their own self-directed streams of information. It's debatable which is more valuable. But I would indeed be hard pressed to defend the numbers. Tom
  4. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Nysgjerrighet – den beste forutsetning for læring « Line Vaarums blogg</a>

    [...] Have you heard of the man who assembled a PC with Internet access in the wall of his house in India, so that kids in the street could use it? After a short time they had figured out how it works and learned amazing things, completely on their own. Curiosity is a great driver to learn something new - and remember it. Thomas Frey has written the article Curiosity-driven Education, where he applies this type of learning to traditional education systems. Take a look if you're curious about the PC project in India or learning in general! [...]
  5. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>JP</a>

    Agreed curiosity is a key driver and....We should be asking why we currently DO NOT have an acceptable level of education for the early years - as it is these years that are key to success for the future - not just for each child but for our societies as a is not difficult, see how it can be done Google: JP
  6. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Feride Hekimgil</a>

    I was fascinated by your article. What captured my attention was the title. This is something that I feel very strongly about. In fact I've been fighting an uphill battle on the issue at the university I teach at for years. I do believe that getting the students curious, enthusiastic and intrigued is at the very core of teaching. But I think part of the problem is the fact that a lot of people who consider teaching as a job rather than a vocation are currently in the profession. This is certainly the case in our country (Turkey) I do agree that technology is one of the asnwers and I use a lot of technology in class. But I think teacher training may be the best solution.
  7. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Finding Our Balance through “Curiosity-Driven” Homeschooling | Red, White & Grew™ | Pamela Price</a>

    [...] Futurist Thomas Frey has a great post from earlier this year on how curiosity-driven approaches might change mainstream education. I [...]

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