Jump to main content
Picture of Thomas de Maizière

Will we even need teachers in the future?

Thomas de Maizière on his discussion with Indian education researcher Sugata Mitra

Ever heard the term “just in time”? No, I’m not talking about showing up for your dentist appointment at the last minute. Just-in-time, or JIT, is an inventory system in which raw materials or other inputs for a product are not supplied until customers actually place an order for the product. It eliminates storage costs for the manufacturer and keeps the entire value chain lean. JIT was invented in the Japanese auto industry – that much I knew. But here’s something I didn’t know: Just-in-time works for learning, too. I recently found out how from Indian education researcher Sugata Mitra, whom I met at one of our events. Having spent the past half-year knee-deep in education projects and issues as the Chairman of the Deutsche Telekom Stiftung, I found his idea fascinating.

In essence, Mitra wants to change how schools teach. He says our world is so unpredictable that no one can foresee what a young person will need to know in ten years, or even five. However, schools still rigidly stick to the same old curricula year in, year out. Mitra labels this the “just in case” method: teachers show students how to solve a quadratic equation just in case they encounter one someday. He thinks that’s a waste of time.

Instead, he demands that we change from “just in case” to “just in time”. Instead of haphazardly cramming knowledge down students’ throats, teachers would be better served teaching them how to quickly acquire this knowledge when and as they need it. In other words, he proposes teaching students good “Google-fu”. His message: “Never fear when life presents you with something new! You can handle it – all you need is the internet.”

This warrants an explanation: Professor Mitra has made waves worldwide by suggesting that children and adolescents could theoretically teach themselves just about anything as long as they can sit down in small groups in front of internet-connected computers with large monitors at school. He has tested these settings, which he calls “self-organized learning environments”, all over the world. The results are admittedly impressive. Students everywhere learned complex subjects and solved problems – some quite knotty – without prior knowledge. (To learn more about Mitra’s experiment, listen to the talk that won him the 2013 TED Prize.) However, I still have two quibbles with Mitra’s basic idea:

  1. Researching knowledge on the internet is not what education is about, let alone schooling. Who’s to say that the students actually understood and internalized the material? Google or Wikipedia alone may have made some people better-informed, but they’ve never produced anyone truly intelligent.
  2. What about the teachers? They’re at most prompters in Mitra’s experiment. He even writes that they impair students’ learning progress if they get too involved. However, countless studies – most notably John Hattie’s meta study – have proven that teachers are vital to the learning process, not least because of their social role.

I was all the more relieved when Professor Mitra conceded my second point. Yes, he agreed that there would obviously have to be teachers in the future, too. However, he expects them to have to fundamentally change how they teach. Instead of merely passing on existing knowledge, they need to focus on things we don’t know: the big questions and challenges of our time. That, he believes, will get students far more excited and motivated.

I must admit that I wasn’t completely convinced by Professor Mitra’s idea. However, some aspects are really worth considering. For example, take his argument that self-organized learning makes teaching a more exciting profession again. Instead of constantly having to prepare lessons, worksheets and tests, teachers simply ask their students a clever research question to get them started – and the students do the rest. This leaves teachers with more time to think about what they really want the kids to learn. There’s something to it, wouldn’t you agree?

Picture: Jens Schicke / Deutsche Telekom Stiftung