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Giving Rural Kids Computers and Seeing What Happens

Sugata Mitra's TED Talk starts with these words: "There are places on Earth, in every country, where, for various reasons, good schools cannot be built and good teachers cannot or do not want to go...." From this jumping-off point, Indian education scientist Mitra shows us a variety of experiments in which he placed computers with internet access in contexts where kids could experiment with them on their own -- without teachers. "At the end of [the early experiments], we concluded that groups of children can learn to use computers sand the internet on their own, irrespective of who or where they were. At that point I became a little more ambitious, and decided to see -- what else could children do with a computer?"

This talk is frequently surprising and delightful, partly because Mitra's experimental design is delightful on its own (he tends to give kids a simple starting point and then, without much explanation, simply leaves for a few weeks). While it is not about replacing teachers with machines (despite what Arthur C. Clarke suggests during the talk), it's all about how kids can and do teach themselves about topics that interest them. It isn't always positive (there's an amusing bit around the six-minute mark about kids using the web to cheat on homework assignments), but it's certainly an impressive story and a worthy set of experiments. Particularly interesting is when Mitra attempts to figure out which topics must be taught with the aid of a teacher.

What Have You Taught Yourself?

After watching this talk, I'm reminded that in many cases, the computer skills I use daily are mostly self-taught. In many ways, I was like the kids in this experiment -- as a young kid, a computer showed up in my house (and to some extent in school and the library, though access was limited) and I was encouraged to play with it. From there came skills like touch typing (which I only truly learned when I got a job as typist), software development, graphic design, computer repair, and, I'll admit it, a fair number of games. How about you?

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school
This Russian Kindergarten Looks Just Like a Castle
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YouTube

A group of lucky kindergarteners in Russia don’t have to wear poufy dresses or plastic crowns to pretend they’re royalty. As Atlas Obscura reports, all they have to do is go to school.

In a rural area of Russia's Leninsky District sits a massive, pastel-colored schoolhouse that was built to resemble Germany's famed Neuschwanstein Castle. It has turrets and gingerbread-like moldings—and instead of a moat, the school offers its 150 students multiple playgrounds, a soccer field, a garden, and playhouses.

Tuition is 21,800 rubles (about $360) a month, but the Russian government subsidizes it to make it less expensive for parents. As for the curriculum: it’s designed to promote social optimism, and each month’s lesson plan is themed. (September, for example, will be career-focused.)

Take a video tour of the school below, or learn more on the school’s website.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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History
A Brief History of the First French Encyclopedia
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In the mid-1700s, a pair of French writers set out to organize all human knowledge. They called their project the Encyclopédie, and it was a translation and massive expansion of the English Cyclopædia, or an Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences. Denis Diderot was the driving force behind the project, and was accompanied by Jean le Rond d'Alembert until 1759.

The project was insanely vast, and raised substantial questions that still challenge scholars today: How do you categorize and classify knowledge? Should the arts be presented alongside the sciences? How exactly can a reader navigate a 20,000,000-word collection of information? Hardest of all was how to print the thing and not be imprisoned.

Diderot's encyclopedia was almost insanely vast. It incorporated more than 70,000 entries, including original work from Voltaire, Rousseau, and other luminaries of the French Enlightenment. Many writers contributed massive amounts of labor, almost all of it unpaid, spanning three decades.

Louis XV and Pope Clement XIII both banned the thing, though Louis kept a copy, and apparently actually did read it. Because of political and religious pressure in France, Diderot and his compatriots had to smuggle pages out of the country in order to publish them. Collecting human knowledge wasn't just an academic exercise—it was also political.

Diderot explained his goal like so (translated from the original French in an entry on the Encyclopédie itself):

The goal of an encyclopedia is to assemble all the knowledge scattered on the surface of the Earth, to demonstrate the general system to the people with whom we live, and to transmit it to the people who will come after us, so that the works of centuries past is not useless to the centuries which follow, that our descendants, by becoming more learned, may become more virtuous and happier, and that we do not die without having merited being part of the human race.

Well said.

TED-Ed produced a terrific video history of the encyclopedia. Have a look:

If you find that even remotely interesting, you'll love this online version of the encyclopedia hosted by the University of Michigan Library. It includes an excellent search engine, translations, and scans of the original pages—including illustration plates. If you're looking for a starter entry, read the entry entitled History (originally Histoire) written by Voltaire, which attempts to explain the history of history, at least from the perspective of an 18th-century French philosopher. Here's a snippet from the conclusion:

The method suitable to [the writing of] the history of your country does not [require] you to write on the discoveries of the new world. You should not write about a village as you would about a great empire; you should not write of the life of an individual as you would write the history of Spain or England.

These rules are well known. But the art of writing History well will always be rare. It is well known that one must have a grave, pure, varied, agreeable style. There are laws for writing History just as there are laws for all the arts of the mind. There are many precepts and yet so few great artists.

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