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)