I am with my friend Jeff as we drive to the airport to pick up Sugata. I only know him from his TED video, which has been watched a gazillion times and forwarded to me by various friends throughout the years. I have little expectation as I’ve become accustomed to meeting people and finding them far different than their online personas. Almost as if there is a puppet and I now have the chance to meet the puppeteer.
Jeff drops me off and I wait at the exit before the luggage claim. I see what appears to be everyone on his flight from San Francisco, but he is nowhere to be found. 10 minutes pass and I start getting nervous. I pull out my phone to compare his picture on the Internet with all the Indian looking men waiting by the luggage claim. There is a man half his size and I squint my eyes trying to imagine if it’s possibly him. The closer I come, the more obvious it is that it’s not.
Then, low and behold, I see a man coming down the escalator. I walk to shake his hand and smell the freshly smoked cigarette, which gives away why it took him so long to make it to the luggage claim. It’s the first impression and I quickly notice that he is not a man that is trying to keep up appearances.
We get back in the car with Jeff and he quickly shares his love of junk food and vodka. We all laugh as we discuss his dinner options at the Holiday Inn Express that he will be staying at. He smiles as he considers the microwaveable food that he will be having at the hotel. This is a far cry from his high charging speaking engagements, yet it is exactly this style that makes him so lovable.
He has come to speak at an event that Jeff has arranged, inviting 150 teachers from around the Ohio area. Although Sugata can charge a lot for his speaking, he does it for free to support Self Organizing Learning Environments (SOLEs), a dream that he has been nurturing into the world for many years.
At this moment in the story it may be good to take a step back and share what it is that gave Sugata so much status in the world, and more specifically, in education. Sometime in the 90s, with the Internet was still in its infancy, he cut a whole in a wall in a slum in New Delhi and put a computer in it.
It was a bit of a social experiment. “How far will the kids come on their own?” He asked himself. It was not that long after that something remarkable happened. Those same uneducated, barefoot children began to learn how to use a computer on their own, and at the same time, learned English and math skills. As Sugata says, “You must remember at that time we were at the infancy of computing and we didn’t actually know that children would be able to pick up computer skills so quickly.”
He goes on to share that simply by leaving children to their own devices, there was a dramatic shift in their test scores. “Just make sure that the screen is very large so that everyone can see what they are looking at. That is better than any child safety you could install.”
Sugata is more of a philosopher than an academic. He studied physics not human development, yet if you listen to him speak, it sounds as if he has taken philosophy and applied it to every conceivable aspect of life.
The following day arrives and he speaks for 4 hours on subjects ranging from understanding how children learn to the deepest philosophies of Socrates and Plato. If you spend a few moments with him, it’s clear that his views are extreme in the current mindset of education.
He often points to the Industrial Revolution as the starting point to Victorian Education and our present day education system. He shares that it was that system that was created to supply factories with skilled labor. For the labor to develop they needed people who could read, write and do maths. This story has been repeated hundreds of times since he originally shared the idea. So much so that you may not know that he was the one who shared it first.
As Sugata shares his vision of a future reality I see an audience of skeptical teachers who are mesmerized. He does not present rules and suggestions, rather reflections and wonder. He begins his talk by sharing a question that he received earlier that morning. “What is emptiness?” There is no context, only the question. He spends the first 10 minutes of his talk only speaking to this subject. He points out, “emptiness does in fact not exist, because there is always something that occupies space.” He creates what feels like a meditation as the educators fall silent and the computer screens that they would normally be looking at are replaced with deep gazes.
He ends his talk with the many people asking for photos. He is happy to accommodate but shows little interest. He makes his way back outside for a cigarette and a quiet moment to jump back into the quiet of his own thoughts. He has written several books and it is clear that the quiet he carries does not mean that he is not processing the world around him.
I go outside and share a cigarette with Sugata. I laugh with him as I start to realize that he was in fact not there to teach anyone anything. He was actually sharing his philosophy for life by living it in the moment. He did not overly plan what he was going to say, nor did he try to follow a strict structure. He was living the principle of Self Organizing. But instead of a class of children, it was a group full of educators.
What struck me most was the power of philosophy. He was living the world of Socrates, without declaring it. He was asking questions as a means of inquiry and letting the world figure out their reality from their own experience. It dawned on me that he was in fact changing education through an idea. I had just recently seen the movie Inception and the character played by Leonardo DiCaprio says, “Once an idea has taken hold of your brain, it is almost impossible to eradicate.” Sugata was planting an idea. And the beauty was that he was not attached to where that seed would grow.
There was a clear surrender in his life that was not defined by achievement, but rather by the constant connection to this single moment. He was leaving the world a gift of understanding. If you want to change the future of education then you must begin by looking in the mirror and recognizing that I’m part of the problem, and at the same time, I’m part of the solution.
His gift to humanity is that he lived his truth and has given others the opportunity to be inspired to see where that takes them.
Andy Chaleff is one of our heroes in the profound work of healing our world’s heart.
He is an acclaimed author, motivational speaker, talk show host of “A Wonderful Chaos”, a conscious business advisor, and a beloved mentor to many.
He dropped everything and devotionally toured across America for three months holding “Last Letter” healing circles for a wide array of communities to safely explore the depths of their grief, giving people permission to release suffering and move forward with an opened and unburdened heart.
This recent body of work, “The Wounded Healer”, showcases personal stories of breakthroughs where most people deprive themselves of self-love. We are honored to showcase excerpts from this transformational series. A voice of clarity and wholeness in our transitional time.
Cover Image source: https://medium.com/workandlife/the-future-of-learning-96511f20db67