Could there be life on Jupiter? What is sarcasm? What happened in Ancient Rome?

If you could ask and research any question, what would it be? How about: Can children teach themselves?

Sugata Mitra, professor of educational technology at Newcastle University in the United Kingdom, answers that question with a resounding “yes.” Starting in 1999, Mitra began what he calls his “Hole in the Wall” experiment. He has placed computers in public spaces in impoverished neighborhoods in India—the first in a hole he drilled in a wall separating his New Delhi office from the neighboring slum—and let children have at them. Many figured out how to use the machines to research their own interests.

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Sugata Mitra visits one of his Hole-in-the-Wall sites in India. Photo/TED Conference

Emboldened by the results, Mitra has adapted the process for other settings. As reported last year by PBS NewsHour, some U.S. schools are using his Self-Organized Learning Environment (SOLE) approach. In SOLEs, an adult provides kids with computers and a research question, or helps them come up with a question themselves. The kids organize themselves into groups and spend an allotted time conducting a collaborative investigation.

“SOLEs work anywhere with an Internet connection, with or without teachers,” Mitra, who won a $1 million TED Prize, has said. With access to the right equipment, he added, what students are capable of teaching themselves is “astonishing.”

Mitra’s work is part of a growing movement toward self-directed, interest-driven learning. As we reported last week, approaches like deeper learning and connected learning posit that children are most engaged when they are empowered to use their personal interests, experiences, and skills as a jumping-off point for learning. Listening passively to a teacher’s lecture and later regurgitating the information on a test doesn’t always motivate students to engage with the material.

Mitra’s work, and his belief that children don’t necessarily benefit from adult participation in their education, has engendered both acclaim and anger.

“Thinking that technology alone and kids left to their own devices can educate themselves in the way that we hope and become the types of people they want to be, I think, is ludicrous,” Michael Trucano, senior education and technology policy specialist at the World Bank, told PBS.

Some say it is the job of an adult to introduce children to ideas that might not immediately capture their attention. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed earlier this month, social psychologist Christine Ma-Kellams wrote that requiring students to do work that does not interest them or come easily can help them learn important skills like persistence, and also help them discover an aptitude for something new.

In the Hechinger Report, writer Anya Kamenetz praises Mitra’s support for kids’ curiosity but cautions against dismissing all tenets of traditional education, ultimately calling his project a “naive technocratic fantasy” that experiments on underserved students.

“The precise nature of teacher intervention is crucial.”

According to Trucano, Hole in the Wall lacks something critical: “A highly capable, competent, committed teacher there alongside [students] to help guide their learning.”

“What good teachers know is that the precise nature of teacher intervention is crucial,” educator Jeremy Harmer wrote after hearing Mitra speak. “Our job is to keep students on task, help them to focus, help them when they are having problems, find different solutions as problems emerge, be a resource and a prompter, a motivator.”

Critics of Mitra’s approach maintain that a computer is not a proxy for guidance and mentorship. But the Hole in the Wall project is a reminder that kids are capable of more than we give them credit for. Many educators and organizations are taking a page from Mitra’s book, exploring how to promote self-directed learning in and outside classroom settings.

A project at Northwestern University attempts to find the sweet spot between pure exploration and rigid structure. FUSE, an online learning program used in some schools and afterschool programs, guides users through science, technology, engineering, art, and math lessons. Structured like a competitive video game, FUSE is divided into “levels,” each with a flexible “challenge” that has kids building robots or mobile apps.

The Hole in the Wall project is a reminder that kids are capable of more than we give them credit for.

Participants are encouraged to pursue their own creative solutions to problems. In one challenge, students build a model of the fastest roller coaster they can imagine; in another, they design their dream home using a software program. (Once they beat that level, their next challenge is to help a virtual client rehab a building.)

The problems are open-ended, and the kids are encouraged to experiment. But help is there when they need it. There are video tutorials at their disposal, and peer feedback is built into the process. After trying to solve the problem on their own, kids can ask adult “coaches” for guidance. The adults provide necessary scaffolding, presenting challenges and pointing students in helpful directions.

FUSE’s hybrid approach—one part self-directed learning and one part adult mentorship—makes sense. But in an education landscape where only half of American students are engaged in school—becoming decreasingly so each grade level, according to Gallup—it’s no wonder that thinkers like Mitra propose pie-in-the-sky solutions. The Hole in the Wall project doesn’t have the evidence to back it up, but the status quo isn’t working either. So, hang onto healthy skepticism, but bring on the visionaries.