Over the last few months, we’ve been reflecting in various ways on strategies and techniques that try to engage the best native enthusiasm of our students and promote active and efficient learning. (See Kindergartners and Calculus, Exeter Math, The Language of Math.) Especially in math, there’s a new wave of very promising and productive experimentation that tries to unburden kids of the rote, regimented, and downright counter-productive habits of the past. The way curricula dissociate mathematical topics (algebra from geometry, for instance) and impose artificial hierarchies and sequences on intimately interrelated ideas is a nightmare.
But, a few weeks ago, we found a particularly touching and interesting success story. Late last year, Joshua Davis, writing in Wired, reported on a remarkable classroom in the border city of Matamoros in Mexico. There, the teacher, Sergio Juárez Correa, started adapting theories that drew on the work of the Indian researcher Sugata Mitra and a variety of theorists and scholars in education, evolutionary biology, and cognitive sciences, combining them into a sort of ad hoc curriculum. He would pose open-ended challenges to his students and encourage them to puzzle out solutions on their own. Working in groups and with minimal guidance, the students found novel solutions to unfamiliar problems and invented their own methods of investigation. The results were staggering. When time came for the students to take the rather retrogressive state exams, Juárez Correa’s fifth-grade classroom dazzled. Where in the previous year, 45 percent of fifth-graders had failed in math and 31 percent in Spanish, now only 7 percent failed in math and 3.5 percent in Spanish. More amazing, still, ten students in Juárez Correa’s class scored in the 99.99th percentile in math and one had the single highest math score in all of Mexico.
Since it’s Wired, much of the rest of the article makes an ill-advised attempt to fold Juárez Correa and his students into an internet utopian narrative where wifi-enabled laptops are the keys to a liberated student population. If anything, the story from Matamoros attests to something else, something simpler and more reproducible. A classroom where teachers are equipped and trained to enable student freedom can accomplish greatness. Many things are necessary along the way: teacher-training that prepares them for the subtleties of this different classroom environment; student-to-teacher ratios that allow students to concentrate and teachers to effectively govern, with a light touch; and a school culture that is open to experimentation.
Variations of this story are unfolding in many places around the world, from Matamoros, to Finland, to Exeter, NH. Many of the principles at play here are very old. To the degree that Wired is right and there is a web story to be told here, it’s in the development of at global conversation that brings these successes to light. Attention follows and, we hope, a culture change