Teaching kids by getting out of their way

Sergio Juárez Correa teaches at José Urbina López Primary School in Matamoros, Mexico -- a violent, terribly impoverished border town. His school is often referred to as "a place of punishment." But when he encountered the educational ideas of Sugata Mitra (who famously installed computers in slums for illiterate street-kids to use, and found that they'd taught themselves to use them and were educating themselves), he rebuilt his teaching around leaving his kids alone as much as possible. His classroom became one of the highest-scoring groups in the Mexican educational system.

Moreover, one of Correa's students, a young girl named Paloma Noyola Bueno, demonstrated extraordinary talent and appears to be some kind of savant with incredible potential. That's pretty amazing and heart-warming, but what gets me as the parent of a school-aged kid (and as a sometime teacher) is the demonstrated efficacy of letting kids drive their own education with their own curiosity and passion.

I hate the way schools are focused on producing high test-scores. It scares me that if my kid walks into a classroom excited about reading and it's time to do math, she'll have to do math, because no one -- not the teacher, nor the school, nor even the kid -- can afford to have her blow the standardized test. Every important thing I know, I learned because I became passionate about it and then the adults around me let me pursue it.

One day Juárez Correa went to his whiteboard and wrote “1 = 1.00.” Normally, at this point, he would start explaining the concept of fractions and decimals. Instead he just wrote “½ = ?” and “¼ = ?”

“Think about that for a second,” he said, and walked out of the room.

While the kids murmured, Juárez Correa went to the school cafeteria, where children could buy breakfast and lunch for small change. He borrowed about 10 pesos in coins, worth about 75 cents, and walked back to his classroom, where he distributed a peso’s worth of coins to each table. He noticed that Paloma had already written .50 and .25 on a piece of paper.

“One peso is one peso,” he said. “What’s one-half?”

At first a number of kids divided the coins into clearly unequal piles. It sparked a debate among the students about what one-half meant. Juárez Correa’s training told him to intervene. But now he remembered Mitra’s research and resisted the urge. Instead, he watched as Alma Delia Juárez Flores explained to her tablemates that half means equal portions. She counted out 50 centavos. “So the answer is .50,” she said. The other kids nodded. It made sense.

How a Radical New Teaching Method Could Unleash a Generation of Geniuses [Joshua Davis/Wired]

(Image: Peter Yang)

Notable Replies

  1. Testing is a tool. A tool all too often misused because the results get confused with reality. But used correctly, student testing is very helpful.

    For instance, would you begin teaching all kids about fractions? Most likely you'd want to know what they know already. If they can't count, might need to back up a bit. If they've mastered fractions, then skip it.

    My wife uses all sorts of testing. Standardized testing, open response, pre-testing, journaling, etc. She uses it to craft what she is going to teach and how. Given that she has them set fires, build Rube Goldberg contraptions, and debate the history of genetic research, it would be hard to say she's teaching to the test. She uses testing as an input, not an output.

    Car analogy: It's like checking the speedometer, listening to the engine, checking your mirrors, and scanning the road. Not because those are your goals. To know when to hit the gas or brakes, and when to swerve. To reach your goal of getting where you want to go. And sometimes going offroad works best.

  2. Jorpho says:

    Well, at least one can't make the argument this time around that it's a class of affluent kids with supportive parents willing to pay through the nose to get them into a school with excellent facilities and experimental teaching methods – as so often seems to be the case in articles of this nature. Still, there's a curious lack of details regarding disruptive kids. (The bad kind of disruptive.)

    I'd still much rather trust my children to some possibly-broken system of tests than some poorly-implemented horror story like "whole math".

  3. All they're really doing is making sure they have the correct network in future life to rub shoulders with, glad hand eachother etc. The mutual recognition codes are verbal accents, garments, behavioural aspects - in short, a whole lot of impossible to emulate in totality and over an appropriate period of time characteristics that inform the inner circle who you are.

    Paid education is a step up to a potentially easier life, but it wants to mould the kids to its own system. The British system was set up to feed the Empire administrative requirements. Obviously, doesn't need that any more, but many people are besotted with it.

    Personally, I didn't give a damn how my kids are educated, so long as they can exploit the amazing potential they have, they don't exit screwed up by the system, and they can either make a decent dime or survive happily in the wilderness.

  4. kcmpls says:

    She had the best math test score in the country. I assume the10 year old with the best math test score in the US is also called a savant or a genius.

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