App Update July 2014

Below are seven apps that I have recently downloaded and think have potential, either for English language teachers in the classroom, or for teachers writing lesson plans and bloggers. I hope you find them useful too.

Tiny Games

Tiny Games “is a smartphone app that enables you to play fun, social games in the real world. You tell the app where you are, who you’re with and what’s to hand, and it supplies a game to fit.” It can definitely be modified for use in the classroom and could provide some interesting and language rich contexts for your students to practice in.

The free version of the game includes one setting, ‘home’, in which you’ll find the following options:

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As an example, I chose ‘Lounge’. You then select the number of players, from 1 to 5+, so there’s lots of flexibility depending on your teaching context.

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It will then ask you a question to find out your mood. It’s up to you how seriously you take it and if you decide to share this vocabulary with your students!

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It will then start to set up the game by seeing if you meet the conditions it requires, for example:

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And then the game begins. It’s very helpful with classroom instructions!

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What I particular like about this app is that the games are very simple and easy to adapt to your classroom and students. And if the app is in the hands of your students, not only are they responsible for choosing the game, they also have to run it effectively too, freeing the teacher up to sit back and pay attention the language they produce in order to give them feedback after they have finished.

The Tiny Games app is free on iOS with paid upgrades for added environments, including ‘walk’, ‘road’, ‘queue’ and ‘pub’! At the time of writing it is only available on iOS. There is also a kids version developed for Sesame Street called Family Play:

Decide Now!

This app is designed to help you make decisions by taking it out of your hands and leaving it to the spin of a wheel. With the wheel below the students could complete the question “Should I…?” with their own language before spinning the wheel and getting their answer.

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Not only do they have to fill in the gap in the question, they will also want to respond to the answer they get, and they’ll learn some interesting vocabulary along the way (“why bother?”, “no way!”, “forget it!”, for example).

There are plenty more wheels to choose from, some more useful than others:

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Perhaps the best feature is that you can make your own wheels. Here’s a one I made for my students to practice the present continuous. They have to tell me what they are doing by using the verb that the wheel selects for them.

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Decide Now is 69p / $1 for the full version. There is also a free version, but you can’t make your own wheels. At the time of writing it is only available on iOS.

Was That You

This app is an old fashioned parlour game, 21st century style. There are instructions to follow and the game seems quite fun, but I prefer the idea of using at a way of asking unusual, interesting and possibly funny warmer questions at the beginning of a class. For example:

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Although some of them you might want to avoid…

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Was That You is available for free on iOS. As far as I can see, at the time of writing it is only available on iOS.


This creative writing app, designed to help you get over writer’s block, can give your students help with story writing. It starts by giving you the opening fragment of the first sentence of your story:

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You continue to write until inspiration dries up. You can then ask the app to help you by pressing the thunderbolt icon at the top of the screen. It will then give you a random question or statement to encourage you to think in a different way, hopefully giving you the kickstart you need to continue.

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It would be interesting to try this as a group writing activity in class. You could give all the students the same beginning sentence, and after one minute you could give them their first piece of inspiration, followed by another a couple of minutes later and so on. It would be interesting to compare how their stories develop in different ways.

Prompts is available for £1.49 on iOS. At the time of writing it is only available on iOS.

The following apps are for bloggers or teachers seeking a creative spark.


Oflow describes itself as “the only app of its kind to offer hundreds of proven creativity techniques”. It does this by giving you a variety of techniques and ideas to look at what you are creating, whether it’s a piece of writing or a lesson plan in a new way.

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Oflow is available on iOS for £1.49. At the time of writing it is only available on iOS.

Obliques Strategies

Originally created by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt and first published in 1975 as a set of cards, they “are intended to help artists (particularly musicians) break creative blocks by encouraging lateral thinking.” Although at times, they are a little, well, oblique, they can also provide you with a new perspective and a moment of inspiration when you need it.

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Oblique Strategies is available for free on iOS and on Android (finally!). It’s also available online.

A special mention…

Dragon Dictation

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This app transforms your spoken words into written texts, which you can export to use however you wish. I had used it in the past, and I wasn’t particularly impressed with it, as it seemed to have great difficulty in translating my clear English teachers voice into accurate text. I was recently tempted to try it again, and it seems to have improved considerably.

I wouldn’t, however, recommend it for students. You still need to use a slightly unnatural rhythm to make it understand you, and it will still struggle if you attempt to speak naturally with words blending together and the errms and errrs that we should automatically produce. So the model of speech that the app encourages is not one that I would recommend for learners, but for writers I think it can be very useful and time-saving.

Dragon Dictation is available for free on iOS and Android.

“i’m going to italy” and other intermediate errors (Updated)

What follows is a public service announcement on behalf of all teachers who have students at intermediate and above…

Below are examples of common mistakes some of my Spanish speaking students continue to make in speaking and writing at intermediate level and above, even though these are things they should have dealt with at a lower level. They…

1) …swap the pronunciation of e and i

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2) …incorrectly pronounce -ed words

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3) …write sentences like “i’m going to italy”, forgetting that capitalisation of some words is not an option

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4) …and neither is spacing and the placement of punctuation

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5) … get more complex numbers wrong, or they need time to think about it

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6) …confuse he and she

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7) …make basic verb errors

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I understand why these happen. If we’re teaching lower levels, you have to prioritise and decide what’s important. We can’t and shouldn’t correct all their errors, it’s just not feasible and it would drive them mad if we did. My intermediates also have a lot of trouble with prepositions and phrasal verbs, which is definitely understandable. There’s no teacher in the world who can teach students to master that anarchic and messy bit of the language. So it’s okay to let them get those wrong for a bit.

However, the ones I listed above are not the kinds of mistakes that we should be letting go of, they are fundamental aspects of the ability to communicate at a higher level. If we don’t teach them now, then another teacher will have to do it later when they really shouldn’t have to. If I’m trying to work with them on the passive voice, or conditionals, or the language of polite disagreement and so on, we don’t have time to deal with these.

Of course the students also have a responsibility here. It may well be that we’ve done your bit and taught them appropriately, and they just haven’t done the work. But these are the kinds of errors that will show up repeatedly after we’ve moved on to another language point, and I think this is one of those occasions where we really need to be a bit strict, talk to them about it and make sure they correct themselves. In other words, a bit less of a ‘collaborator’ and a bit more of a ‘teacher’.

So prioritise by all means, but think carefully about what you are selecting, because they’ll have to learn it at some point and it might be you who’s having to fit it into your already busy schedule. Now I’m going to teach my beginner class, and I promise you, I’ll won’t let these mistakes slide, for your sake.

TEFL Equity – A Reaction

#ds618 Equals

On May 20th a post that I wrote for the TEFL Equity Advocates blog run by Marek Kiczkowiak and Katalin Hári was published. In the article, I looked at the ways that non-native English speaker teachers (NNEST) have advantages over their native English speaking teacher (NEST) counterparts and argued against the continuing prejudice against the employment of NNEST’s by certain employers in certain countries.

The idea behind the post was not to suggest that NNEST’s are better than NEST’s, merely that there are some areas of language teaching where they have an advantage. I wanted to remind NNEST’s of these strengths and encourage them to assert themselves and feel more confident in both their teaching and when applying for jobs.

I also wasn’t trying to suggest that NEST’s can’t do anything about these issues as I think they can. There are lots of things that NEST’s can do, like learning the language of the country where they live or learning any other language, but that wasn’t the point of the post. NEST’s don’t need that article as much as NNEST’s needed one about their strengths, I felt. NEST’s are the ones who can go to virtually any country in the world and be guaranteed some kind of job. This article was not for them.

The original post

The original post

The response to the post was pretty overwhelming, as for many native and non-native teachers alike it provoked strong reactions, predominantly in support I’m pleased to say. Thanks to Marek for asking me to write it, and thanks to everyone who commented on the blog, Twitter and Facebook, and who shared it with their networks. I was delighted that it caused such a reaction, as this is an issue that we should feel outraged about, and as with any form of prejudice, it will take many people getting organised, getting together and doing something about it. I hope this is an early step in encouraging this process.

This situation won’t change overnight, but every small push by every one of us will eventually make a huge difference. If you want to find out what you can do next, head over to the TEFL Advocates blog for a list of possible next actions that I’ve written. I hope it will encourage you to do what you can to contribute.

Get Involved by James Taylor


Conversations This Week

ELT ELF ESL conversations

A couple of weeks ago Sandy Millin posted a list of all the topics of conversation she had discussed with her students that week. It included subjects as diverse as BlackadderThe Norman Conquest and Crimea, Russia and Ukraine, the last one not unsurprising considering where she lives. It reminded me of one of my favourite things about being a language teacher, which is that we can talk about anything we like. The only limitation is the language we discuss it in.

So here’s my list from last week – how would it compare with yours?

  • Football
  • The different nationalities of my students
  • Trolls (on the Internet)
  • Trolls (that live under bridges)
  • The bat that flew into my living room
  • The kind of holidays we like
  • Mexico City
  • People who live on lakes
  • Viral videos
  • The London Olympics 2012
  • The World Cup
  • Basketball
  • What it feels like when you play a sport anymore
  • Tulipmania
  • The English and how they compare with Costa Ricans
  • Video games
  • Different types of teacher
  • Painting and DIY
  • Arreglados
  • Football
  • … and many, many more things.

 Audio Version (not the same as the text!):

Seven Word Biographies

A couple of weeks ago, I started some new classes, so I decided to create a new getting to know you activity based on seven word biographies. I think it’s an enjoyable way to kick off the new term and should provide some interesting language opportunities for my intermediates and up. It also makes a good accompaniment to the My Life in Twenty Lines activity I shared here earlier, which could be done later in the course as an expansion activity.

1) Write your own seven word biography and put it on the board. Here’s mine:


2) Ask the students to discuss in pairs what they think I mean by this.

3) Give out one seven word biography per student or in pairs. Ask them to read it and think about what it could mean. If in pairs, get them to discuss it, and if not, ask them to share with a partner (all of these biographies were taken from here, where you can also find descriptions of the writers).

Jim Holt - Failed mathematician who happily declined into journalism.
David Byrne – unfinished, unprocessed, uncertain, unknown, unadorned, unsettled, unfussy
Daniel Kahneman – Endlessly amused by people’s minds
Brian Eno – I like making and thinking about culture.
Malcolm Gladwell – Father said: “Anything but journalism.” I rebelled.
Rufus Wainwright – According to Elton John world’s greatest singer-songwriter
Don DeLillo – Bronx boy wondering why he is here.
Anish Kapoor – As if to celebrate I discovered a mountain
Joan Didion – Seven words do not yet define me.

4) From the biography, try and guess what the person does for a job (some of them are fairly easy, but you could ask them to try and be more specific i.e. what kind of journalist is Malcolm Gladwell? What do you think he writes about?)

5) Ask them to check online and find out more about the person. Ask them to write down four key facts about the person so they can describe them to the rest of the class.

6) They can now read their biographies to the rest of the class, and they can guess what job the person does. The students can then answer by using the facts they wrote down.

7) Talk about the different styles of biography (Eno and Wainwright’s are very straight descriptions, Didion, Holt, DeLillo, Gladwell and Kahneman’s are clever or funny, and Kapoor and Byrne’s are abstract and poetic.) Point out how some of them skip parts of the language (pronouns, articles, to be etc), some of them are lists and some are complete sentences.

8) Ask students to write their own seven word biographies. As they work on them, make yourself available to help, and check to make sure they are correct.

9) Ask them to write the seven word biography in big letters on a piece of A4 paper so they are clear to read (if you have the facilities, you could use a website like to make them into attractive images, like I did above). Stick them up around the class so everyone can read them. Give the other students an opportunity to ask questions to the writers so they can expand on what they’ve written.

#ELTchat summary on Sugata Mitra and 25 Questions He Needs To Answer

On Saturday 5th of April at the IATEFL conference in Harrogate, Sugata Mitra delivered a plenary session that proved to be acclaimed and vilified at the same time. I was in the room at the time, and witnessed a large proportion of the room rise to their feet at the climax of his talk. After the hubbub had died down, discussion immediately began and dissenting voices began to appear. The debate hasn’t stopped yet and it continues on Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and on Wednesday 9th of April, on #ELTchat.

In this look at what has become one of the most contentious issues in our field for a long time, I will first summarise what was discussed in the #ELTchat, before looking at some of the other issues have been brought up by bloggers in the aftermath his talk.
According to Wikipedia “His work demonstrated that groups of children, irrespectively of who or where they are, can learn to use computers and the Internet on their own with public computers in open spaces such as roads and playgrounds, even without knowing English.” Many people have their doubts about his claims, including me, I feel I should point out before you read on!

If you haven’t seen it already, I recommend you watch Mitra’s plenary, and watch his follow up interview before you go on. You could also read Graham Stanley’s excellent summary of his talk and Lizzie Pinard’s too, written during the talk.

A sense of the size of the backlash can be detected in this tweet by @LeaSobocan:

No, I’m just feeling a bit Sugata Mitra’d out. Actually I think some of his ideas are not too bad. Don’t kill me ;)  #ELTchat

There was a sense that a lot of what was being said by Mitra was not that revolutionary:

@marisa_c @wiktor_k it really struck a chord with me! I enjoy TBL in the classroom so this seemed like extension of that #eltchat
@theteacherjames @LeaSobocan yeah me too, i think the idea of asking questions, setting projects soto speak is not really that new #ELTchat
#ELTchat  Montessori has been doing this for years #sole

Some people questioned whether it was feasible to expect students to learn without a teacher present:


@natibrandi But not without a teacher, otherwise they just off and play videogames. #ELTchat


Do you think the children would be able to put their learning into practice? (eg molecular biology) #ELTchat

@LouiseRobertson …or, unfortunately, watch all the cat videos there are. A computer does not a learning make, imho. #ELTChat

But some suggested that he was onto something:

What struck me was the implication that T’s presence can actually hinder learning. I can’t say I disagree totally #eltchat
My view is that SM suggests learning environment where the teacher only facilitates learning and becomes a supportive coach #eltchat

The role of the teacher now as presented by Mitra…

At school, teachers are much more than vehicles of knowledge. Socialization is a key element. That can’t be learnt online. #eltchat
@natibrandi @NinaEnglishBrno but how are we redefining? A good teacher has always assumed many roles in the classroom #ELTchat
@Shaunwilden @EdLaur The role of the teacher needs to be updated, sure, but not to “granny” #eltchat
And it seems to me that Grannies are just mediocre teachers. I can encourage, but I can do other things too. #eltchat
Task-based, individualized, self-organized, connected, goal-oriented ed. I see my role in here: guide, facilitator, mentor, friend. #eltchat

And in the future…

Another thought is that what SM visualises is so far into the future that lots of other jobs will be obsolete- even doctors #eltchat
@HanaTicha @Marisa_C scary what we’re doing to ourselves. Sometimes think making ourselves obsolete thru tech. advances. #eltchat
@Ven_VVE  its not about obsolescence its adapting & making use of whatever enhances learning, good teachers have always done that #ELTchat
There’s a difference between saying we don’t need Ts and we live in places where we need to cope in the absence of Ts #eltchat
My own feeling is that he is expressing a prediction – when or how this will happen not clear or certain – could be 1000 yrs #ELTchat

There were questions regarding the lack of research and evidence for his claims

His scientific method seems to lack a control group (children who didn’t learn well on their own with a computer). #eltchat
Any research on how parents/guardians see this? Would they send children to school in cloud? #eltchat
@natibrandi @theteacherjames @Shaunwilden @LeaSobocan it’s very anecdotal research though, isn’t it? #eltchat

And the kind of learning that took place

@muranava @Shaunwilden @ChristineMulla So how deep was the learning then I wonder. #eltchat
@theteacherjames #eltchat SM’s eg of kids learning molecular biology seemed just like memorisation, didn’t seem like learning
@theteacherjames or are they just reciting Wikipedia? #eltchat
And who will then produce the experts, the doctors, the scientists – will they qualify themselves? #eltchat or pass some tests?
And a word of warning…
Do you all remember the “Lord of the flies” book? The kids didn’t do so well on their own as I recall. #eltchat

Perhaps what was most surprising about this chat was how it didn’t reflect the polarised opinions that his talk created in theonline ELT community. While there were disagreements, thankfully it stayed very polite and collaborative, which is to #ELTchat’s credit I think! But as someone who is, as I mentioned, very sceptical about what Mitra is claiming and fearful of the result of its possible implementation, I was surprised at the lack of support his ideas had during the chat. I expected stronger advocates to be present, arguing his case, but it felt like nearly everyone had doubts about what he was claiming.

Of course, it’s entirely possible that that is just a reflection of the people who were present on the day and I’m sure there are people who would have argued more vociferously in his favour at a different time. But I think part of this is a result of the discussion that sprung up after the original plenary, and the numerous blog posts may just have placed some doubts in the minds of those who were originally persuaded by Mitra’s ideas. As many people have commented, he’s a brilliant and charismatic speaker, and it’s easy to be wowed the first time you hear him. I know I was. We mustn’t, however, let this get in the way of a deeper, critical analysis of his thesis and the bloggers listed at the bottom of this page managed to do exactly that.

Okay, signing off, thanks for a thought-provoking #eltchat I feel we only scratched the surface on this one.

And just like Lea Sobocan, at the end of the #ELTchat I felt there were more questions to answer, so I’ve been reading through as many articles and blog posts as I can in order to compile this list of questions either posed or inspired by bloggers and commenters which I think Mitra needs to address.

Let’s start with the questions posed by Jeremy Harmer on his blog (I have summarised them here for brevity, I recommend you go to Jeremy’s post to read them in more detail)

1. Not every student has the same level of motivation and autonomy – how do we deal with students who are not engaged in the learning process without the presence of a teacher?

2. Teacher intervention has long been considered a key part of the learning process – how are the ‘Granny’ substitutes precisely going to play a role in this?

3. Learning has long been considered a fundamental part of the continual development of societies and the socialisation of young people – how do grannies in the clouds and SOLEs (Self Organised Learning Environments) fit into this?And if we head into the comments on this post…

4. Maha Bali points out that all the information that the children are accessing on the web came from somewhere. Some of the sources are reliable, others less so. How does a child without access to a teacher learn the skills such as critical thinking and digital literacy which are required in order to use the Internet an effective resource of learning?

5. As Jeremy says in a reply to Bruno Leys’ comment, the Grannies job is to praise the learners, but what kind of praise will they be dishing out? After a while, doesn’t all this praising become hollow and meaningless? As he states, “as experienced teachers know, this is a highly nuanced area depending on the kinds of kids we are working with”.

6. An argument made in defence of Mitra’s work is that it can help people in the poorest areas. However, as Jeremy says in reply to Shelly Terrell’s impassioned comment, approximately 60% of the world still do not have access to the Internet. So are the SOLE’s as helpful in the developing world as he suggests?

7. The students are given open ended questions to answer. Where do these questions come from? Each question that is posed contains a value judgement, giving it a value above other areas of knowledge. Who makes this judgement call?

8. A comment by Datafiend led to this question: Do children who already have access to the Internet, and have an autonomous desire to learn, create their own SOLE’s with like minded peers? Or does it require some kind of intervention, such as a school or a teacher to facilitate the learning?

9. And also inspired by Datafiend, most people are by definition fairly conservative in their interests. How do you get them to look at the world outside their own in an autonomous environment?

10. Heike Philp does the work for me here in this comment “He mentions that the biology experiment with English information about genealogy ‘only’ produced 30% and adding a granny meant that they got up to 50% – isn’t this the proof in the pudding? Does this not mean that by adding an ‘adult’ to the equation that kids learn more? Wouldn’t this support the added value of a teacher?”

11. She also makes a point about the long term effects. These studies started in the late 90’s – where are the results? What happened to those children who used the first SOLE’s back then? Did they gain a significant advantage compared to their peers who did not have access to the computers?Hugh Dellar’s fiery article, also on eltjam, has inspired a massive amount of feedback and comment. Let’s start with the post itself.

12. Hugh accuses Mitra of being a snake oil salesman, claiming that children using a SOLE were able to teach themselves English without mentioning to what level they reached, how this was tested and without a control group for comparison. Is this rigorous enough to back up Mitra’s claims?

13. Language acquisition is a complicated business. How is fluency in a language possible by googling it?

14. What are the implications of having an education system that uses unpaid and under-qualified volunteers at its core? Is there not a danger that this will give governments a licence to stop investing in teachers, and start investing in SOLE’s? Anyone reading this who is British or lives in the UK can imagine how the ‘Granny Cloud’ would fit right into David Cameron’s idea of ‘the Big Society’.

15. Following on from question 8, and inspired by comments by Scott Thornbury, Marcos Benevides and Hugh himself, the Internet is not the first massive bank of human knowledge we have seen. They are called libraries. Is there any evidence to suggest that having access to that repository of wisdom was sufficient to encourage autonomous learning on a large scale?

16. From Scott Thornbury “Underlying all this Mitra-mania seems to be an implicit faith in the almost totemic power of the Internet – just by virtue of its being there, it somehow magically triggers learning – whether mediated or not. Show me the evidence.” Does this evidence exist?

17. Lindsay Clandfield comments that if it’s difficult to get teachers in remote places, then isn’t the consequence of installing SOLE’s in these areas that the good teachers will be more likely to be pushed towards the more affluent areas? And isn’t there a contradiction at the heart of this, as if we follow Mitra’s logic, the remote areas will be the one’s receiving the superior form of education?And from some other blogs…

18. A question from Gavin Dudeney on the eltjam blog “But really, is any of this (the introduction of SOLE’s) more scalable than getting in and training teachers, and – more importantly – is it actually better than getting in and training teachers?”

19. Philip Kerr has pieced together the vested interests behind Mitra’s company. How involved are these corporate entities in the Hole In The Wall project, and how much do they stand to gain from its success?

20. David Petrie bumped into Mitra at the train station after the plenary (so did I but I didn’t ask him any questions. I didn’t have this list then!) and had a chat with him. David’s impression is that he doesn’t place any particular importance on explicit language instruction, and I’m curious as to why this is. What is it about language as opposed to science or history that means it can be casually picked up as a result of studying other disciplines?

21. In Chia Suan Chong’s article for the English Teaching Professional blog, she posits that Mitra is not looking to abandon the teacher, but redefine it. But isn’t his idea of a top down, transmissive teacher out of date with contemporary language teaching?

22. Inspired by the Secret DOS, who observes that when you get ‘good teachers’ in remote places, they inevitably leave for the big city and this creates a social divide where the richer areas get the best teachers and the poorer areas are now supposed to teach themselves. Would we not be better off investing in the social problems that cause this situation, as opposed to trying to find an adequate but temporary solution?

23. The Secret DOS also points out the amount of distraction, and the sheer volume of information available online, and the difficulty the vast majority of people have in focussing on finding out exactly what they want to know (in her case, how to look after a goldfish!). Are the children using SOLEs somehow impervious to this temptation? Do they have the skills required to focus on the task at hand, or is it something they need to be taught?

24. A quote taken from Mark Hancock’s post: “His final words, as we looked at a photo of some joyful Indian kids learning at a computer, were something like, ‘and does it work? I think you can see the answer in their faces’.” As a physicist, does Mitra think this is a relevant piece of evidence for his ideas?

And a question I’d like to add:

25. The effectiveness of SOLE’s centres around the premise of an egalitarian relationship between the kids crowded around the same computer. But do all the children learn equally? Some children, probably male, will dominate the control of the device and subsequently the path that the learning takes to suit their own means. And if this is what they are doing, then aren’t they essentially taking the role of the teacher, albeit a less qualified and less conciliatory one, in their own micro-class? (For more on the ineffectiveness of self organised groups, watch this short clip by filmmaker Adam Curtis.)

I also have some questions for you to consider, based on my experience in the last week or so of reading, talking and observing how this debate has rolled out. I don’t expect you to answer them now, they are just things to think about.

1. There are many places in the world where teachers are not to be found. Surely the granny cloud is better than nothing?

2. So far this reaction has been led by predominantly white European men (and that includes me), so where are the voices from the developing world, especially India?

3. Does Mitra’s stance make you reflect on your role as a teacher? Has he achieved anything in this regard at least?

4. Were you swayed by his charisma the first time you saw him? What have you learnt about your own critical faculties from this debate? I know I’ve learnt something…

5. The talk has been praised for creating debate, which is always welcome, but is this substantial enough for us to spend this much time on it?

6. What in your view is the appropriate style of discourse for discussing these types of issues?

If I have one, non-Sugata Mitra based conclusion from this whole debate, it’s that it may have the most interesting week online that we’ve ever had in our profession. The quality of writing, reflection and discussion has been fascinating to observe, and has proved to me that our community is full of intelligent, critical and analytical voices, a prerequisite for any developing profession.

And I’ll leave you with the always wise words of Kurt Vonnegut to ponder…