Let’s Make Grannies of Youth Leaders

The TED Radio Hour is a great podcast. Subscribe to it now if you haven’t already. Listen to this episode first. It features Sugata Mitra and his School In The Cloud idea and his philosophy of “self-organized learning environments” (SOLEs). Want to hear the whole talk? It’s here.

Mitra’s basic conviction is that children can organize themselves to learn really complex skills and information without a traditional teacher functioning in the way that traditional teachers function, namely giving lessons and assessing for comprehension. He has done multiple studies where he’s placed a computer in the middle of a rural village that has never seen one and then stood back and watched in wonder as the children from that village used it to learn at a level comparable to Mitra’s control group of elite private schools, but without the aid of a trained teacher.

Here’s the most interesting part though: adults still have a role in these SOLEs that tremendously impacts learning, but it’s not to instruct. It is to encourage.

The story from the talk is great. Mitra asked a 22 year old accountant to stand by the children as they played with the computer and to frequently remark things like, “Wow, how did you do that?” and “I could never have done that when I was your age!” He calls it the “granny” method, and it increased the learning of the kids in his SOLE’s by 50%, even though the young woman knew nothing about the subject the kids were exploring.

There’s some brain science behind this about how we function cognitively when praised versus when we’re threatened with punishment, but I’m less interested in the mechanics of that than the application for the church. What community of people is better positioned to “granny” children and youth into their own learning and growth than a church?

Is this not the main thing we’re asking adult volunteers to do when we invite them to help with youth group? With Sunday school? Encourage kids in their own exploration of God and faith and the Bible and the Church? That’s so much less intimidating than being asked to authoritatively teach some body of truth, because, really, who feels competent to do that? I certainly don’t.

But words of encouragement don’t mean anything if they don’t proceed from a person who is earnestly interested in the learner as a human being. I asked some 12th graders yesterday if they perceive that the adults in their life are actually interested in them as people. They do, happily. And they named particular teachers who express that interest. Their faces glowed talking about them.

The main thing granny does, after all, is like you.

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