Top image: Sugata Mitra accepting his TED prize. Photo credit: Steve Jurvetson.

Alternative learning techniques date back to the age of Socrates, although it wouldn’t be until the early 1900s until they started to take off. That’s when Maria Montessori, Rudolf Steiner, and A.S. Neill established their respective schools. By the late 1960s, technology was starting to become a factor and, in 1999, Sugata Mitra’s “Hole in the Wall” experiment showed that the kids in his New Delhi slum could teach themselves how to work a computer if left to their own devices.

The common thread in all of these teaching methods is a self-guided approach that allows the students to take the lead. In the most-viewed TED Talk ever, Sir Ken Robinson makes a strong argument against traditional schools and their undermining techniques.

It’s not just the 20 million TED Talk viewers who are getting the point. From New Delhi to New York, education is getting turned on its head. This year, TED awarded a $1 million grant to Mitra so that he could further his “School in the Cloud” program. In his own TED Talk, Mitra noted that “education is a self-organizing system, where learning is an emergent phenomenon… it’s quite fashionable to say that the education system’s broken — it’s not broken, it’s wonderfully constructed. It’s just that we don’t need it anymore. It’s outdated.”

Some 7,300 miles away at the Manhattan Free School, the first year of the Agile Learning Center is now underway, replete with a self-guided, self-governing student body. The agile learning method combines a management style often use for software design and the time-tested results of self-organizing learning. The results are, historically and presently, impressive. According to neuroscientist Joel Voss of Northwestern University, that’s because a good education can be boiled down to one basic principle: “The bottom line is, if you’re not the one who’s controlling your learning, you’re not going to learn as well.”

Kelly McCartney


Kelly McCartney |

Having won prestigious literary competitions in both grade school and junior high, I attended college with a Scripps Howard Foundation scholarship, earned a BA in Journalism, and interned at Entertainment

Things I share: I seek. I write. I think. I roam. I listen. I care. I wonder. I help. I flirt. I try. I dream. I grow.