[FoRK] How a Radical New Teaching Method Could Unleash a Generation of Geniuses

Eugen Leitl eugen at leitl.org
Wed Oct 16 00:51:21 PDT 2013


http://www.wired.com/business/2013/10/free-thinkers/all/

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

BY JOSHUA DAVIS10.15.136:30 AM

These students in Matamoros, Mexico, didn’t have reliable Internet access,
steady electricity, or much hope—until a radical new teaching method unlocked
their potential.  Peter Yang

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 the 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 of 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.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF ALTERNATIVE SCHOOLS Alternative Schools, a History · New
research shows what educators have long intuited: Letting kids pursue their
own interests sharpens their hunger for knowledge. Here’s a look back at this
approach. —Jason Kehe

470BC |  Socrates is born in Athens. He goes on to become a long-haired
teacher who famously let students arrive at their own conclusions. His
questioning, probing approach — the Socratic method—endures to this day.

1907 |  Maria Montessori opens her first Children’s House in Rome, where kids
are encouraged to play and teach themselves. Americans later visit her
schools and see the Montessori method in action. It spreads worldwide.
 
1919 |  The first Waldorf school opens in Stuttgart, Germany. Based on the
ideas of philosopher Rudolf Steiner, it encourages self-motivated learning.
Today, there are more than 1,000 Waldorf schools in 60 countries.

1921 |  A. S. Neill Founds the Summerhill School, where kids have the
“freedom to go to lessons or stay away, freedom to play for days … or years
if necessary.” Eventually, such democratic schools appear around the world.

1945 |  Loris Malaguzzi volunteers to teach in a school that parents are
building in a war-torn Italian village outside Reggio Emilia. The Reggio
Emilia approach—a community of self-guided learning—is born.

1967 | Seymour Papert, a protégé of child psychologist Jean Piaget, helps
create the first version of Logo, a programming language kids can use to
teach themselves. He becomes a lifelong advocate for technology’s role in
learning.

1999 |  Sugata Mitra conducts his first “hole in the wall” experiment in New
Delhi, India. On their own, slum kids teach themselves to use a computer.
Mitra dubs his approach minimally invasive education.

2006 |  Ken Robinson gives what will become the most frequently viewed TED
Talk ever: “How Schools Kill Creativity.” Students should be free to make
mistakes and pursue their own creative interests, Robinson argues.

2012 |  Forty-five US states adopt the Common Core, new curriculum standards
that include student-centered learning. Math students, say, should “start by
explaining to themselves the meaning of a problem.”

Brooklyn Free School Students here direct their own learning. There are no
grades or formal assignments. Brian Finke 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.


Sugata Mitra’s research on student-led learning inspired Juárez Correa.
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.

Want to help teachers like Sergio Juárez Correa make a difference? Here’s how
you can get involved in the student-centered movement.


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