Is she The Next Steve Jobs?



Is she The Next Steve Jobs?

Original post from Wired:


How a Radical New Teaching Method Could Unleash a Generation of Geniuses.


José Urbina López Primary School sits next to a dump just across the US border in Mexico. The school serves residents of Matamoros, a dusty, sunbaked city of 489,000 that is a flash point in the war on drugs. There are regular shoot-outs, and it’s not uncommon for locals to find bodies scattered in the street in the morning. To get to the school, students walk along a white dirt road that parallels a fetid canal. On a recent morning there was a 1940s-era tractor, a decaying boat in a ditch, and a herd of goats nibbling gray strands of grass. A cinder-block barrier separates the school from a wasteland—the far end of which is a mound of trash that grew so big, it was finally closed down. On most days, a rotten smell drifts through the cement-walled classrooms. Some people here call the school un lugar de castigo—“a place of punishment.”
For 12-year-old Paloma Noyola Bueno, it was a bright spot. More than 25 years ago, her family moved to the border from central Mexico in search of a better life. Instead, they got stuck living beside the dump. Her father spent all day scavenging for scrap, digging for pieces of aluminum, glass, and plastic in the muck. Recently, he had developed nosebleeds, but he didn’t want Paloma to worry. She was his little angel—the youngest of eight children.
After school, Paloma would come home and sit with her father in the main room of their cement-and-wood home. Her father was a weather-beaten, gaunt man who always wore a cowboy hat. Paloma would recite the day’s lessons for him in her crisp uniform—gray polo, blue-and-white skirt—and try to cheer him up. She had long black hair, a high forehead, and a thoughtful, measured way of talking. School had never been challenging for her. She sat in rows with the other students while teachers told the kids what they needed to know. It wasn’t hard to repeat it back, and she got good grades without thinking too much. As she headed into fifth grade, she assumed she was in for more of the same—lectures, memorization, and busy work.
Sergio Juárez Correa was used to teaching that kind of class. For five years, he had stood in front of students and worked his way through the government-mandated curriculum. It was mind-numbingly boring for him and the students, and he’d come to the conclusion that it was a waste of time. Test scores were poor, and even the students who did well weren’t truly engaged. Something had to change.
He too had grown up beside a garbage dump in Matamoros, and he had become a teacher to help kids learn enough to make something more of their lives. So in 2011—when Paloma entered his class—Juárez Correa decided to start experimenting. He began reading books and searching for ideas online. Soon he stumbled on a video describing the work of Sugata Mitra, a professor of educational technology at Newcastle University in the UK. In the late 1990s and throughout the 2000s, Mitra conducted experiments in which he gave children in India access to computers. Without any instruction, they were able to teach themselves a surprising variety of things, from DNA replication to English.
Elementary school teacher Sergio Juárez Correa, 31, upended his teaching methods, revealing extraordinary abilities in his 12-year-old student Paloma Noyola Bueno.
Juárez Correa didn’t know it yet, but he had happened on an 
emerging educational philosophy, one that applies the logic 
of the digital age to the classroom. That logic is inexorable: 
Access to a world of infinite information has changed how 
we communicate, process information, and think. Decentralized 
systems have proven to be more productive and agile than 
rigid, top-down ones. Innovation, creativity, and independent
 thinking are increasingly crucial to the global economy.
And yet the dominant model of public education is still 
fundamentally rooted in the industrial revolution that 
spawned it, when workplaces valued punctuality, regularity,
 attention, and silence above all else. (In 1899, William
 T. Harris, the US commissioner of education, celebrated 
the fact that US schools had developed the “appearance 
of a machine,” one that teaches the student “to behave in an
 orderly manner, to stay in his own place, and not get in the
 way of others.”) We don’t openly profess those values 
nowadays, but our educational system—which routinely tests 
kids on their ability to recall information and demonstrate 
mastery of a narrow set of skills—doubles down on the view that
 students are material to be processed, programmed, and
 quality-tested. School administrators prepare curriculum
 standards and “pacing guides” that tell teachers what to 
teach each day. Legions of managers supervise everything 
that happens in the classroom; in 2010 only 50 percent of 
public school staff members in the US were teachers.
The results speak for themselves: Hundreds of thousands of
 kids drop out of public high school every year. Of those who 
do graduate from high school, almost a third are “not prepared 
academically for first-year college courses,” according to a 
2013 report from the testing service ACT. The World Economic
 Forum ranks the US just 49th out of 148 developed and 
developing nations in quality of math and science 
instruction. “The fundamental basis of the system is fatally 
flawed,” says Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor of education
 at Stanford and founding director of the National Commission
 on Teaching and America’s Future. “In 1970 the top three skills 
required by the Fortune 500 were the three Rs: reading,
 writing, and arithmetic. In 1999 the top three skills in
 demand were teamwork, problem-solving, and interpersonal
 skills.

 We need schools that are developing these skills.”
That’s why a new breed of educators, inspired by everything from
 the Internet to evolutionary psychology, neuroscience, and AI, 
are inventing radical new ways for children to learn, grow,
 and thrive. To them, knowledge isn’t a commodity that’s 
delivered from teacher to student but something that emerges
 from the students’ own curiosity-fueled exploration. 
Teachers provide prompts, not answers, and then they step 
aside so students can teach themselves and one another. 
They are creating ways for children to discover their passion
—and uncovering a generation of geniuses in the process.
At home in Matamoros, Juárez Correa found himself utterly
 absorbed by these ideas. And the more he learned, the 
more excited he became. On August 21, 2011—the start of 
the school year — he walked into his classroom and pulled
 the battered wooden desks into small groups. When Paloma 
and the other students filed in, they looked confused. Juárez 
Correa invited them to take a seat and then sat down with them.
He started by telling them that there were kids in other parts of
 he world who could memorize pi to hundreds of decimal points. 
They could write symphonies and build robots and airplanes.
 Most people wouldn’t think that the students at José Urbina 
López could do those kinds of things. Kids just across 
the border in Brownsville, Texas, had laptops, high-speed
 Internet, and tutoring, while in Matamoros the students 
had intermittent electricity, few computers, limited Internet, 
and sometimes not enough to eat.
“But you do have one thing that makes you the equal of any
 kid in the world,” Juárez Correa said. “Potential.”
He looked around the room. “And from now on,” he told them,
 “we’re going to use that potential to make you the best 
students in the world.”
Paloma was silent, waiting to be told what to do. She didn’t
 realize that over the next nine months, her experience of 
school would be rewritten, tapping into an array of educational 
innovations from around the world and vaulting her and
 some of her classmates to the top of the math and language
 rankings in Mexico.
“So,” Juárez Correa said, “what do you want to learn?”
In 1999, Sugata Mitra was chief scientist at a company in
 New Delhi that trains software developers. His office was
 on the edge of a slum, and on a hunch one day, he decided
 to put a computer into a nook in a wall separating his building
 from the slum. He was curious to see what the kids would do, 
particularly if he said nothing. He simply powered the
 computer on and watched from a distance. To his surprise, 
the children quickly figured out how to use the machine.
Over the years, Mitra got more ambitious. For a study published
 in 2010, he loaded a computer with molecular biology materials 
and set it up in Kalikuppam, a village in southern India. He 
selected a small group of 10- to 14-year-olds and told them
 there was some interesting stuff on the computer, and 
might they take a look? Then he applied his new pedagogical 
method: He said no more and left.
Over the next 75 days, the children worked out how to use the
 computer and began to learn. When Mitra returned, he 
administered a written test on molecular biology. The kids 
answered about one in four questions correctly. After another 
75 days, with the encouragement of a friendly local, they were 
getting every other question right. “If you put a computer in
 front of children and remove all other adult restrictions, 
they will self-organize around it,” Mitra says, “like bees around
 a flower.”
A charismatic and convincing proselytizer, Mitra has become a 
darling in the tech world. In early 2013 he won a $1 million 
grant from TED, the global ideas conference, to pursue his work. 
He’s now in the process of establishing seven “schools in the
 cloud,” five in India and two in the UK. In India, most of 
his schools are single-room buildings. There will be no teachers, 
curriculum, or separation into age groups—just six or so 
computers and a woman to look after the kids’ safety. His 
defining principle: “The children are completely in charge.”
“THE BOTTOM LINE IS, IF YOU’RE NOT THE ONE 
CONTROLLING YOUR LEARNING, YOU’RE NOT GOING TO
 LEARN AS WELL.”
Mitra argues that the information revolution has enabled a 
style of learning that wasn’t possible before. The exterior 
of his schools will be mostly glass, so outsiders can peer in.
 Inside, students will gather in groups around computers and
 research topics that interest them. He has also recruited 
a group of retired British teachers who will appear occasionally 
on large wall screens via Skype, encouraging students to
 investigate their ideas—a process Mitra believes best fosters 
learning. He calls them the Granny Cloud. “They’ll be life-size,
 on two walls” Mitra says. “And the children can always turn
 them off.”
Mitra’s work has roots in educational practices dating
 back to Socrates. Theorists from Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi 
to Jean Piaget and Maria Montessori have argued that students
 should learn by playing and following their curiosity. Einstein
 spent a year at a Pestalozzi-inspired school in the mid-1890s, 
and he later credited it with giving him the freedom to begin 
his first thought experiments on the theory of relativity. Google 
founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin similarly claim that 
their Montessori schooling imbued them with a spirit of
 independence and creativity.
In recent years, researchers have begun backing up those
 theories with evidence. In a 2011 study, scientists at the
 University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the 
University of Iowa scanned the brain activity of 16 people 
sitting in front of a computer screen. The screen was blurred
 out except for a small, movable square through which subjects 
could glimpse objects laid out on a grid. Half the time, the subjects
 controlled the square window, allowing them to determine 
the pace at which they examined the objects; the rest of
 the time, they watched a replay of someone else moving the
 window. The study found that when the subjects controlled
 their own observations, they exhibited more coordination
 between the hippocampus and other parts of the brain involved
 in learning and posted a 23 percent improvement in their ability
 to remember objects. “The bottom line is, if you’re not 
the one who’s controlling your learning, you’re not going to
 learn as well,” says lead researcher Joel Voss, now a
 neuroscientist at Northwestern University.
In 2009, scientists from the University of Louisville and MIT’s
 Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences conducted a study 
of 48 children between the ages of 3 and 6. The kids were 
presented with a toy that could squeak, play notes, and 
reflect images, among other things. For one set of children,
 a researcher demonstrated a single attribute and then let them
 play with the toy. Another set of students was given no
 information about the toy. This group played longer and
 discovered an average of six attributes of the toy; the group
 that was told what to do discovered only about four. A similar
 study at UC Berkeley demonstrated that kids given no instruction
 were much more likely to come up with novel solutions to a
 problem. “The science is brand-new, but it’s not as if people 
didn’t have this intuition before,” says coauthor Alison Gopnik, 
a professor of psychology at UC Berkeley.
Gopnik’s research is informed in part by advances in artificial 
intelligence. If you program a robot’s every movement, she
 says, it can’t adapt to anything unexpected. But when 
scientists build machines that are programmed to try a variety
 of motions and learn from mistakes, the robots become far 
more adaptable and skilled. The same principle applies to children,
 she says.
 Evolutionary psychologists have also begun exploring this 
way of thinking. Peter Gray, a research professor at 
Boston College who studies children’s natural ways of learning, 
argues that human cognitive machinery is fundamentally 
incompatible with conventional schooling. Gray points out that
 young children, motivated by curiosity and playfulness, teach
 themselves a tremendous amount about the world. And yet 
when they reach school age, we supplant that innate drive to
 learn with an imposed curriculum. “We’re teaching the child that
 his questions don’t matter, that what matters are the questions 
of the  curriculum. That’s just not the way natural selection 
designed us to learn. It designed us to solve problems and figure
things out that are part of our real lives.”
Some school systems have begun to adapt to this new
 philosophy—with outsize results. In the 1990s, Finland pared
 the country’s elementary math curriculum from about 25 
pages to four, reduced the school day by an hour, and
 focused on independence and active learning. By 2003, Finnish
 students had climbed from the lower rungs of international
 performance rankings to first place among developed nations.
Nicholas Negroponte, cofounder of the MIT Media Lab, is taking 
this approach even further with his One Laptop per Child initiative.
 Last year the organization delivered 40 tablets to children in
 two remote villages in Ethiopia. Negroponte’s team didn’t 
explain how the devices work or even open the boxes. 
Nonetheless, the children soon learned to play back the
 alphabet song and taught themselves to write letters. They also
 figured out how to use the tablet’s camera. This was impressive
 because the organization had disabled camera usage. “They
 hacked Android,” Negroponte says.
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?”
JUÁREZ CORREA FELT A CHILL. HE HAD NEVER ENCOUNTERED
 A STUDENT WITH PALOMA’S LEVEL OF INNATE ABILITY.
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.
For Juárez Correa it was simultaneously thrilling and a bit
 scary. In Finland, teachers underwent years of training
 to learn how to orchestrate this new style of learning; he 
was winging it. He began experimenting with different ways 
of posing open-ended questions on subjects ranging from the
 volume of cubes to multiplying fractions. “The volume of 
a square-based prism is the area of the base times the height. 
The volume of a square-based pyramid is that formula divided
 by three,” he said one morning. “Why do you think that is?”
He walked around the room, saying little. It was fascinating 
to watch the kids approach the answer. They were working 
in teams and had models of various shapes to look at and
 play with. The team led by Usiel Lemus Aquino, a short
 boy with an ever-present hopeful expression, hit on the idea 
of drawing the different shapes—prisms and pyramids. By
 layering the drawings on top of each other, they began to divine
 the answer. Juárez Correa let the kids talk freely. It was a
 noisy, slightly chaotic environment—exactly the opposite of
 the sort of factory-friendly discipline that teachers were expected
 to impose. But within 20 minutes, they had come up with the
 answer.
“Three pyramids fit in one prism,” Usiel observed, speaking for 
the group. “So the volume of a pyramid must be the volume of
 a prism divided by three.”
Juárez Correa was impressed. But he was even more intrigued
 by Paloma. During these experiments, he noticed that she 
almost always came up with the answer immediately. 

Sometimes she explained things to her tablemates, other times 
she kept the answer to herself. Nobody had told him that she
 had an unusual gift. Yet even when he gave the class difficult 
questions, she quickly jotted down the answers. To test 
her limits, he challenged the class with a problem he was sure 
would stump her. He told the story of Carl Friedrich Gauss,
 the famous German mathematician, who was born in 1777.
When Gauss was a schoolboy, one of his teachers asked the 
class to add up every number between 1 and 100. It was
 supposed to take an hour, but Gauss had the answer almost
 instantly.
“Does anyone know how he did this?” Juárez Correa asked.
A few students started trying to add up the numbers and
 soon realized it would take a long time. Paloma, working 
with her group, carefully wrote out a few sequences and looked 
at them for a moment. Then she raised her hand.
“The answer is 5,050,” she said. “There are 50 pairs of 101.”
Juárez Correa felt a chill. He’d never encountered a student 
with so much innate ability. He squatted next to her and
 asked why she hadn’t expressed much interest in math in the
 past, since she was clearly good at it.
“Because no one made it this interesting,” she said.
OUR EDUCATIONAL SYSTEM IS ROOTED IN THE INDUSTRIAL 
AGE. IT VALUES PUNCTUALITY, ATTENDANCE, AND SILENCE ABOVE ALL ELSE.
Paloma’s father got sicker. He continued working, but he
 was running a fever and suffering headaches. Finally he was 
admitted to the hospital, where his condition deteriorated; 
on February 27, 2012, he died of lung cancer. On Paloma’s last
 visit before he passed away, she sat beside him and held his 
hand. “You are a smart girl,” he said. “Study and make me proud.”
Paloma missed four days of school for the funeral before
 returning to class. Her friends could tell she was distraught,
 but she buried her grief. She wanted to live up to her father’s 
last wish. And Juárez Correa’s new style of curating challenges
 for the kids was the perfect refuge for her. As he continued
 to relinquish control, Paloma took on more responsibility
 for her own education. He taught the kids about democracy by
 letting them elect leaders who would decide how to run 
the class and address discipline. The children elected five 
representatives, including Paloma and Usiel. When two 
boys got into a shoving match, the representatives admonished
 the boys, and the problem didn’t happen again.
Juárez Correa spent his nights watching education videos. He 
read polemics by the Mexican cartoonist Eduardo del Río (known 
as Rius), who argued that kids should be free to explore whatever 
they want. He was also still impressed by Mitra, who talks 
about letting children “wander aimlessly around ideas.” Juárez
 Correa began hosting regular debates in class, and he didn’t 
shy away from controversial topics. He asked the kids if 
they thought homosexuality and abortion should be permitted. 
He asked them to figure out what the Mexican government
 should do, if anything, about immigration to the US. Once
 he asked a question, he would stand back and let them engage 
one another.
A key component in Mitra’s theory was that children could 
learn by having access to the web, but that wasn’t easy 
for Juárez Correa’s students. The state paid for a technology 
instructor who visited each class once a week, but he 
didn’t have much technology to demonstrate. Instead, he had
 a batch of posters depicting keyboards, joysticks, and 3.5-inch 
floppy disks. He would hold the posters up and say things like,
 “This is a keyboard. You use it to type.”
As a result, Juárez Correa became a slow-motion conduit to 
the Internet. When the kids wanted to know why we see only 
one side of the moon, for example, he went home, Googled it, 
and brought back an explanation the next day. When they 
asked specific questions about eclipses and the equinox, he
 told them he’d figure it out and report back.
Juárez Correa also brought something else back from the Internet.
 It was the fable of a forlorn burro trapped at the bottom of
 a well. Since thieves had broken into the school and sliced the
 electrical cord off of the classroom projector (presumably to sell 
the copper inside), he couldn’t actually show them the clip that 
recounted the tale. Instead, he simply described it.
One day, a burro fell into a well, Juárez Correa began. It wasn’t
 hurt, but it couldn’t get out. The burro’s owner decided that the
 aged beast wasn’t worth saving, and since the well was dry, he
 would just bury both. He began to shovel clods of earth into 
the well. The burro cried out, but the man kept shoveling. 
Eventually, the burro fell silent. The man assumed the animal 
was dead, so he was amazed when, after a lot of shoveling, 
the burro leaped out of the well. It had shaken off each clump 
of dirt and stepped up the steadily rising mound until it was 
able to jump out.

Juárez Correa looked at his class. “We are like that burro,” 
he said. “Everything that is thrown at us is an opportunity to 
rise out of the well we are in.”
When the two-day national standardized exam took place in 
June 2012, Juárez Correa viewed it as just another pile of dirt
 thrown on the kids’ heads. It was a step back to the way school 
used to be for them: mechanical and boring. To prevent 
cheating, a coordinator from the Ministry of Education 
oversaw the proceedings and took custody of the answer sheets
 at the end of testing. It felt like a military exercise, but as the 
kids blasted through the questions, they couldn’t help noticing 
that it felt easy, as if they were being asked to do something 
very basic.
Ricardo Zavala Hernandez, assistant principal at José Urbina
 López, drinks a cup of coffee most mornings as he browses 
the web in the admin building, a cement structure that houses
 the school’s two functioning computers. One day in September 
2012, he clicked on the site for ENLACE, Mexico’s national 
achievement exam, and discovered that the results of the June
 test had been posted.
Zavala Hernandez put down his coffee. Most of the 
classes had done marginally better this year—but Paloma’s 
grade was another story. The previous year, 45 percent had
 essentially failed the math section, and 31 percent had failed
 Spanish. This time only 7 percent failed math and 3.5 percent
 failed Spanish. And while none had posted an Excellent 
score before, 63 percent were now in that category in math.
The language scores were very high. Even the lowest was
 well above the national average. Then he noticed the math
 scores. The top score in Juárez Correa’s class was 921. 
Zavala Hernandez looked over at the top score in the state:
 It was 921. When he saw the next box over, the hairs on 
his arms stood up. The top score in the entire country was 
also 921.
He printed the page and speed-walked to Juárez Correa’s 
classroom. The students stood up when he entered.
“Take a look at this,” Zavala Hernandez said, handing him
 the printout.
Juárez Correa scanned the results and looked up. “Is this for 
real?” he asked.
“I just printed it off the ENLACE site,” the assistant principal
 responded. “It’s real.”
Juárez Correa noticed the kids staring at him, but he wanted
 to make sure he understood the report. He took a moment 
to read it again, nodded, and turned to the kids.
“We have the results back from the ENLACE exam,” he said.
 “It’s just a test, and not a great one.”
A number of students had a sinking feeling. They must have
 blown it.
“But we have a student in this classroom who placed first
 in Mexico,” he said, breaking into a smile.
Paloma received the highest math score in the country, 
but the other students weren’t far behind. Ten got math
 scores that placed them in the 99.99th percentile. Three of
 them placed at the same high level in Spanish. The results 
attracted a quick burst of official and media attention in 
Mexico, most of which focused on Paloma. She was flown 
to Mexico City to appear on a popular TV show and received 
a variety of gifts, from a laptop to a bicycle.
Juárez Correa himself got almost no recognition, despite the
 fact that nearly half of his class had performed at a 
world- class level and that even the lowest performers
 had markedly improved.
His other students were congratulated by friends and family. 
The parents of Carlos Rodríguez Lamas, who placed in the 
99.99th percentile in math, treated him to three steak tacos. 
It was his first time in a restaurant. Keila Francisco Rodríguez 
got 10 pesos from her parents. She bought a bag of Cheetos.
 The kids were excited. They talked about being doctors,
 teachers, and politicians.
Juárez Correa had mixed feelings about the test. His students
 had succeeded because he had employed a new teaching method,
 one better suited to the way children learn. It was a model that
 emphasized group work, competition, creativity, and a
 student-led environment. So it was ironic that the kids had 
distinguished themselves because of a conventional 
multiple-choice test. “These exams are like limits for the teachers,
” he says. “They test what you know, not what you can do, and 
I am more interested in what my students can do.”
Like Juárez Correa, many education innovators are succeeding 
outside the mainstream. For example, the 11 Internationals 
Network high schools in New York City report a higher graduation
 rate than the city’s average for the same populations. They 
do it by emphasizing student-led learning and collaboration. At 
the coalition of Big Picture Learning schools—56 schools across
 the US and another 64 around the world—teachers serve 
as advisers, suggesting topics of interest; students also work 
with mentors from business and the community, who help guide 
them into internships. As the US on-time high school graduation 
rate stalls at about 75 percent, Big Picture is graduating more than 
90 percent of its students.
But these examples—involving only thousands of students
—are the exceptions to the rule. The system as a whole educates 
millions and is slow to recognize or adopt successful innovation.
 It’s a system that was constructed almost two centuries ago
 to meet the needs of the industrial age. Now that our society 
and economy have evolved beyond that era, our schools
 must also be reinvented.
For the time being, we can see what the future looks like in
 places like Juárez Correa’s classroom. We can also see that
 change will not come easily. Though Juárez Correa’s class
 posted impressive results, they inspired little change. 
Francisco Sánchez Salazar, chief of the Regional Center
 of Educational Development in Matamoros, was even 
dismissive. “The teaching method makes little difference,”
 he says. Nor does he believe that the students’ success 
warrants any additional help. “Intelligence comes from 
necessity,” he says. “They succeed without having resources.”
More than ever, Juárez Correa felt like the burro in the story. 
But then he remembered Paloma. She had lost her father and
 was growing up on the edge of a garbage dump. Under normal 
circumstances, her prospects would be limited. But like the
 burro, she was shaking off the clods of dirt; she had begun 
climbing the rising mound out of the well.
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