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Ethiopian unschooling

In primary school I very much enjoyed arithmetic. I distinctly remember rattling through activity books with names like “Starting Points” and “Fletcher”. One day, someone, possibly a teacher, alluded to a kind of mathematics that involved letters instead of numbers. It sounded very interesting, and I looked forward to “getting to” that. That was how it was, in school. You sort of learned what you were told to learn.

At the time it did not occur to me that I could just go and study algebra. In fairness I remember individual teachers in later years who gave me out-of-curriculum books to take home. But looking back on this I am left thinking that it is very easy for schools to hold children back, and even beat the enthusiasm out of them. I think the unschooling movement gets a lot of things right. Self-directed learning is more efficient because you are always studying what you are interested in.

Meanwhile, in Ethiopia, we find out what happens when you leave a big pile of tablet computers (loaded with Neal-Stephenson-Diamond-Age-esque software) in a village with no school.

We left the boxes in the village. Closed. Taped shut. No instruction, no human being. I thought, the kids will play with the boxes! Within four minutes, one kid not only opened the box, but found the on/off switch. He’d never seen an on/off switch. He powered it up. Within five days, they were using 47 apps per child per day. Within two weeks, they were singing ABC songs [in English] in the village. And within five months, they had hacked Android. Some idiot in our organization or in the Media Lab had disabled the camera! And they figured out it had a camera, and they hacked Android.

18 comments to Ethiopian unschooling

  • veryretired

    The future of education is unrestricted exploration, not factory school indoctrination.

    The major obstacle to educating our children properly is the educational establishment that exists, not to educate children, but to protect and extend the powers, salaries, and benefits of being a member.

  • Schrodinger's Dog

    If those Ethiopian kids keep up that rate of progress, it’ll take them about six months to build a HAL 9000.

  • 'Nuke' Gray

    so the best way to educate yoof is to wrap learning up in puzzles and enigmas, and try to keep it mysterious as much as possible! Tell them not to learn, and they’ll be even more eager to break those rules, and learn!
    I wonder if that would work with smoking or drinking? Make it compulsory, and they’ll stay away in droves!?

  • Julie near Chicago

    A couple of decades ago I read some remarks by a gentleman from Mexico, who pointed out that (at least at that time) in Mexico schooling was not only not compulsory, but often unavailable–and the youth (yes, I think including right up to and through the Terrible Teens) were desperate to go to school. They longed for the privilege. He thought our problem lay precisely in making it compulsory….

    So I think Nuke has a good idea there. :>)

  • Sam Duncan

    Oh, my good Lord. “Fletcher”. Haven’t heard that name in that context for years. Over 30, in fact. Hasn’t it been classed as an instrument of torture by the UN or something?

    Not, I hasten to add, that I found its problems hard. Quite the opposite; that was the trouble. Its page after page of endless sums (16+12… 42+7… 54+22… 12+37… a thought occurs: these days, Fletcher, whoever he or she was, could easily be replaced by a simple Python script) were so mind-numbingly tedious they would have turned even the most enthusiastic pupil into a truant. Thus rather proving your point. Algebra – actually working stuff out – was much more fun.

  • 'Nuke' Gray

    Yes, it sounds as though it should work, but try it on washing up and see if they still feel the compulsion to be naughty! Tell them not to do the washing up, and that’s when they decide to be angels, and obey you!

  • the other rob

    What was that Russian chap called? Ivan Illyich was it?

  • Stephen Willmer

    It’s a lovely story but, a word of scepticism: what proportion of these children achieved the dizzying hacking heights referred to? Could it be that this kind of learning favours uncommonly talented children but does little for the majority?

  • Julie near Chicago

    Well, Nuke *haughty sniff* it’s the exception that proves the rule, y’know.

    (I can’t say I’ve ever understood why people say that.)

  • ADE


    It’s the Olde English use of the word ‘prove’, meaning ‘to test’, so the phrase means ‘the exception tests the rule’.

    In that meaning, the Michelson-Morley experiment proved Newtonian mechanics, and found it wanting.


  • terence patrick hewett

    No school but an electric power supply apparently: Hmmmm.

  • It seems the computers were solar powered Terence

  • Sigivald

    I am myself extremely dubious about going from illiterate (“never seen a word” – which I doubt very much, given that they’re shown wearing cast-off Western clothing, which suggests from countless examples in Africa that they’ve almost certainly seen words, at least on T-shirts. Read them? One assumes not. Seen? Doubtless.) to “hacking Android”.

    I want to know what this “hacking” actually consisted in before I believe a word of it.

    I can believe figuring out how to turn it on, and figuring out how to run an application (since it is, after all, deliberately made as easy as possible!).

    I can’t believe actual “hacking” without access to the internet and documentation, especially in five months starting from complete illiteracy and never having seen a computer, let alone used one.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Ah, I see. Thanks, Ade. Sure, “the proof of the pudding is in the eating.” But you’ll have to excuse me now, as I’m in the middle of proofing the yeast. :>)

  • Done Gone Galt

    While I accept the claims of rapid learning. I doubt any of them actually achieved this “hack” on their own. This seems a perfect example of Duncan Watts’ “Six Degrees”.

  • jerry

    I’ll go further than Sigvald.

    This story, while charming, is, IMHO, someone or some group within OLPC selling their ‘idea’, The story ‘proves’ how wonderful the vision at OLPC is and that OLPC is working !!!
    Also IMHO, it’s complete bunk.
    Children going from complete illiteracy to ‘hacking’ ( in what way – EXACTLY ) in five months on their own without any supervision ??
    Right !!

  • kaiserkarate

    I wonder if this Negroponte fellow thinks of himself like Jane Goodall.
    “what OLPC really want to see is whether these kids can learn to read and write in English.”
    Does the OLPC or this writer not realize Ethiopians are human beings? Or am I just unaware of the well known fact no one in Africa has ever learned to read?

  • I found another article about this which has more detail and some interesting discussion in the comments.

    On the hacking:

    Elaborating later on Negroponte’s hacking comment, Ed McNierney, OLPC’s chief technology officer, said that the kids had gotten around OLPC’s effort to freeze desktop settings. “The kids had completely customized the desktop—so every kids’ tablet looked different. We had installed software to prevent them from doing that,” McNierney said. “And the fact they worked around it was clearly the kind of creativity, the kind of inquiry, the kind of discovery that we think is essential to learning.”

    But I’m more interested in this as a demonstration of using technology to reduce the costs of education and make poor people in remote areas richer.