Category Archives: Papers

Published articles and chapters

Of slumdogs and schoolmasters – new article on Jacques Rancière and Sugata Mitra

This is an article on Jacques Rancière and Sugata Mitra that I’ve just finished for the forthcoming ‘Popular Cultural Pedagogy, in Theory’ issue of Educational Philosophy and Theory, edited by Paul Bowman. Alternatively, it’s also available as a PDF on and Scribd

Of slumdogs and schoolmasters: Jacotot, Rancière and Mitra on self-organised learning

Richard Stamp

‘What the hell can a slumdog possibly know?’

Released with impeccable timing for the 2009 Academy Awards nominations, Slumdog Millionaire (dir. Danny Boyle & Loveleen Tandan, UK, 2008) was heralded by a flurry of media attention that seemed to make its eventual Oscar-winning success a foregone conclusion. Part of the success of the story of Jamal Malik (Dev Patel), an uneducated call centre chai wallah whose often horrific ‘adventures’ furnish him with the knowledge to answer almost every one of the questions on the TV quiz show, Who Wants to be a Millionaire, might have to do with the film’s ‘timeliness’: it’s confirmation of the global success of the Millionaire TV brand (owned by the same company, Celador, who co-financed the film) and a chance to revisit the scandal caused by the conviction of one participant, a retired British army officer, for cheating on the British version of the show; it’s testimony to the dramatic growth of the Indian economy, particularly in technology and communications sectors, contrasted both with India’s own deepening social-economic inequalities and with more ‘domestic’ British concerns over increasing ‘outsourcing’ of certain tertiary industries; it’s exemplification of a growing cross-fertilisation between Western and Asian film industries and cultures; and the more particular ‘human interest’ stories of the young actors, picked from the Dharavi slum to play the main characters in childhood, and whose earnings from the film, it was said, offered a chance of escape and the risk of exploitation.[1]

More unusually, perhaps, the film also drew attention to an otherwise invisible (in mainstream media coverage, at least) piece of academic research begun in the slums of New Delhi in 1999. The ‘Hole-in-the-Wall’ experiment, carried out by a team from NIIT led by Sugata Mitra, had originally consisted in placing an internet-connected computer in the wall of the Kalkaji slum that adjoined their office in New Delhi. The team remotely monitored the slum children’s uninstructed interactions with the computer and recorded the speed with which individuals not only acquired computer literacy skills – from the most basic operations such as clicking icons and creating folders to navigating web pages, sending email and operating different applications – but most importantly shared this new knowledge with each other (see Mitra & Rana 2001). These supposedly illiterate children had taught themselves and each other how to use a computer that operated in a language (English) they did not know.[2] They demonstrated that they were ‘able to self-instruct and to obtain help from the environment when required’, without explanation of what to do: in the words of one researcher’s diary, “NO INSTRUCTION” was the key instruction to us’ (Mitra & Rana 2001: 230, 226). In other words, these illiterate children appeared to learn without being taught.

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‘Education is a self-organising system’ (Sugata Mitra)

I’ve been writing an article on the usefulness (or otherwise) of Rancière’s critique of ‘progressive’ pedagogy and the rhetoric of ‘stupidity’ in cultural theory – and keep coming back to Sugata Mitra’s deceptively simple yet quietly revolutionary ‘Hole-in-the-Wall’ experiments. (It received a lot of publicity in the wake of Slumdog Millionaire, Danny Boyle’s 2009 film adaptation of Vikas Swarup’s novel, Q & A (2005), which was partly inspired by Mitra’s experiments. I have problems with both book and film, but that’s because Mitra was right to say it should have been called ‘Slumdog Physicist’ – or something…!)

This video is one of his most recent talks (courtesy of TED, of course), which focuses on a co-authored research paper, ‘Limits to self-organising systems of learning’, published last year in British Journal of Educational Technology. The parallels between Mitra’s IT-based experiments in ‘self-organised learning environments’ and Rancière’s re-writing of Joseph Jacotot’s ‘universal teaching’ are striking – which means they threaten to lead my short, focused article a little astray! (Must stop reading now…)

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