Back to the Future of Education

“It’s your kids, Marty, something has got to be done about your kids!”

Doc Brown’s line at the conclusion of Back to the Future did more than hint at future sequels. It captured the underlying motivations of modern parenthood. Unfortunately, it also says much of modern government. There is no greater threat to our Republic than the merging of the helicopter parent with the modern day legislator.

The miracle of modern childhood is that children flourish despite parents’ best efforts; the miracle of a market economy is it thrives despite government’s paternalism. The story of an Indian educational entrepreneur illustrates that well.

When Sugata Mitra received his PhD in physics, he anticipated a lengthy teaching career. He quickly realized the only people who understood computer programming went into physics. Then one day in 1999, looking out his Delhi office window, he noticed groups of ragtag children wandering the streets.

He had an idea. He built a simple kiosk that housed nothing but a computer. He did not know what to expect but his rules were simple: Only children could use it. There would be no adults and no instructional manual.

That “Hole in the Wall” experiment did more than launch a new career. It led to Minimally Invasive Education—a philosophy built around the notion that unsupervised poor Indian children, without the benefit of English but armed with a computer and Internet connection, could develop basic computer literacy equal to the average office assistant in the West.

It also inspired Vikas Swarup to write the novel that later became the movie Slumdog Millionaire.

Many speak well of free enterprise, but perceptions vary on what exactly it is. Some think it’s a system about money and how to make it, based on the ups and downs of Wall Street or the right time to buy a house. But these are shallow understandings of the idea, so it’s no surprise that many think “market perspectives” are of little help to policy makers as they wrestle with many real-world problems.

The “Hole in the Wall” illustrates the importance of the economic way of thinking both in our households and in government. It conveys four lessons.

First, markets are dynamic. Contrary to textbook models, real-world markets are not static, predictable, or perfectly efficient—like machines. Rather, they are unpredictable and self-organizing—like organisms. As Dr. Mitra comments in his recent interview on RealClear Radio Hour, the “spontaneous order” of myriad individuals making their own decisions leads to emergent learning. Those children learned to operate and play with the computer with minimum intervention. They picked up skills and tasks by constructing their own learning environment and passing that acquired knowledge on to others.

Second, markets lead to economic progress because they encourage on-the-spot experimentation among millions of individuals. From this decentralized trial-and-error process come innovations and coordination that no single mind could have planned. After two months, the children wanted a faster computer and a better mouse. They also taught themselves rudimentary English. All this without planning.

Third, when altering rules of the game, be on the lookout for “unseen” consequences. The institutions governing markets are crucial. They are complex and ever changing. Because people respond to incentives, minor changes in market institutions can have far-reaching effects, both positive and negative, that are difficult to see and even harder to predict. When Dr. Mitra created his first computer kiosk he intentionally set it at three feet, the average height of the children he was observing. Set it too low, and the kiosk would simply become a plaything for smaller children; set it too high and adults would crowd out the kids. Rules matter but rules don’t predict outcomes.

Lastly, act like a gardener, not a blueprint-writing engineer. Public policies that pick winners or prescribe one-size-fits-all solutions tend to freeze markets and reduce innovation. It is much better to ensure underlying rules of the game that (a) maintain the openness and dynamism of already-established markets; and (b) encourage the evolution of decentralized, self-organizing markets where they do not yet exist. Minimal supervision does not mean no supervision.

Over time Dr. Mitra created computer learning rooms from England to India to South America along some simple guidelines: a room with no furniture except for four stools, a large screen facing the open door to benefit “instructors,” and a posted teaser or puzzle for the children to explore in their own purposeful way.

In the early days of that first computer kiosk, children would ask Dr. Mitra, “What is it”? “Can I touch it?” “What does it do?” He easily could have answered their questions, but realized that his lingering around would discourage the children from exploring and trying to solve problems on their own. So he smiled and walked away. And explore and grow and solve problems they did.

Congress and the administration could learn much from that lesson.