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October 24, 2013 12:36 PM   Subscribe

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. -- Wired reports on a teaching method finding success in Mexico
posted by Potomac Avenue (30 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite

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.”

posted by chavenet at 12:42 PM on October 24, 2013 [9 favorites]

I like the version with the sandworm.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 1:00 PM on October 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

Interesting. Guided self-education. And a lot of positive reinforcement. I'm not sure how radical this is, but it sounds like a great approach.
posted by bearwife at 1:06 PM on October 24, 2013

The sandworm didn't float as water was added.
posted by ryoshu at 1:07 PM on October 24, 2013

Correa's story is great, but this Wired article is terrible. This isn't particularly radical, nor particularly new. Lumping all of "classroom" teaching together is fucking ridiculous. Mitra is horribly misguided at best and a snakeoil salesman at worst, and what he's doing in India is completely different from what happened in this article.

This sort of thing is often used as a call to privatize a public school system which has a lot of successes in addition to its more visible failures, and those failures are often attributable to external realities of globalized economics, or previous attempts at "data-driven" reform from earlier technocrats with a grand solution.
posted by codacorolla at 1:09 PM on October 24, 2013 [14 favorites]

Previously/related: All schoolwork and no play makes Jack more likely to be depressed, and What if the real problem is school itself? Two prior posts on articles that focus on student led education.
posted by filthy light thief at 1:14 PM on October 24, 2013 [4 favorites]

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.

The other way of looking at this is that what it takes to be successful at a company hasn't really changed but that academic credentials can't be used as much by companies to differentiate between potential candidates. A company that hires 10 people out of 100 applicants is going to try to hire the top 10% regardless of the average competency of the local workforce. Also, plenty of Fortune 500 companies are fine with hiring illiterate/unskilled/uneducated workers to do a lot of the jobs that existed in 1970, it's just that today those jobs are in countries where they don't have to pay a living wage. Education can always be improved but if anything the bar is already too high in terms of level of education required to find a basic entry-level job with a decent career path.
posted by burnmp3s at 1:19 PM on October 24, 2013 [7 favorites]

The difference between this article and the prior two is that this one focused on a specific case of how a teacher took kids in desperate situation and not only gave them the chance to be critical thinkers who enjoyed the challenge of educating themselves, but with this method they scored at the top of their country on a standardized test. The other two look at US schools as failures, and either put up examples of schools that don't (appear to) compete on standardized tests with other US schools, or rely on theoretical settings of what could be great.
posted by filthy light thief at 1:20 PM on October 24, 2013

Mm, yes. I enjoyed reading the story and god knows Paloma needed a break like this and for sure Mexican public school pedagogy needs a refresh and adequately applied funding, but the broader implications that the Wired article implies are heavily problematic.

Student-led learning is a great idea and there's plenty of, say, Paulo Freire/critical pedagogy devotees in the US and elsewhere (and it seems like a big blind spot revealing authorial bias that the Wired author didn't seem to mention Freire or anyone actually doing modern educational pedagogy) who try to make it a reality, but education is not so simple a thing to untangle as the conclusion to the Wired article makes it sound.
posted by librarylis at 1:22 PM on October 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

Correa's story is great, but this Wired article is terrible.

Yep. It inserts this one great story of a charismatic and smart teacher and a seemingly well-run student-centered classroom into a weird mishmash of single-paragraph sideswipes that collectively make up the Wired techno-utopian worldview, from neoliberal education "reform" to technocratic OLPC stuff to garbled out-of-nowhere references to evo-psych, without any suggestion that there are political, social, and economic factors involved beyond lame futurist hype:

Now that our society and economy have evolved beyond that era, our schools must also be reinvented.

You can almost hear the THE FUTURE IS NOW! missing exclamation points. If this were just one person being silly and over-excitable it'd be one thing, but we know by now how this works: this article's kind of techno-utopian voluntarism is the useful idiot's worldview that ends up licensing ongoing assaults on public education and the public good in general.
posted by RogerB at 1:36 PM on October 24, 2013 [7 favorites]

Here's a pretty great article about the death of math and how teachers are more or less forced to make math much less interesting in order to fit in everything that has to show up on standardized tests.
posted by ssmith at 2:03 PM on October 24, 2013 [4 favorites]

Given Wired's readership and the usual bent of tech world stories on education, the fact that this article at least nodded at the notion that more student-lead learning could exist within a public school framework to develop both geniuses AND raise up the outlook for regular kids, I felt like it was a huge step forward.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 2:07 PM on October 24, 2013

In other words, this teacher was teaching his children to THINK. Which I am starting to be paranoid enough to believe has never been a true goal of a public school system.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 2:13 PM on October 24, 2013 [3 favorites]

Stories like this are exciting and motivating, but then I remember a neighbor's son in self directed learning at a local Montessori school, and all the summer school and tutoring he needs just to meet basic requirements.
posted by lstanley at 2:13 PM on October 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Mitra is horribly misguided at best and a snakeoil salesman at worst, and what he's doing in India is completely different from what happened in this article.

Care to expand on this? Preferably with some sustaining links -- "[person] is a big so-and-so" isn't a fact, it's an opinion. Nothing personal, but people here do that and you kinda did it there.

I was impressed by what I learned of his original experiment -- which I thought was both innocent and instructive -- but haven't kept track of where he's gone with it since.
posted by George_Spiggott at 2:46 PM on October 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

True, this article presumes to have One Great Idea about education, like Ted Talks do, whereas learning is obviously a complicated process with many different processes that work for some and not others, and the article, in reality, reflects this. This article implies the success not so much as "self-directed" learning (Montessori, Summerhill for a more radical example), but the benefits of group learning, which are uncontested (at least in my mind). In my classroom, or in my experience as a college student, working in small groups produces a really high quality of intellectual stimulation.

Regarding something else the author touched upon: some students do come up with intuitive genius ideas when the teacher expects to have to coach the student through a long process.

One time, teaching piano, I was about to launch into a lesson about transposing a tune from one key to another. (When transposing from the key of C, this would involve adding some black keys.) On a whim, I asked her to just try it playing the same tune in a different key. She did it flawlessly. I said, "How did you do that?" She said, "It's like I have ears in my fingers." !!!
posted by kozad at 2:48 PM on October 24, 2013 [4 favorites]

George_Spiggot, here's a great follow up on Sugata Mitra's Hole In the Wall school experiments.
posted by Joh at 4:38 PM on October 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

This Wired article greatly annoys me. The first time I read it, I thought it sounded amazing! So inspiring! The talented child from the disadvantaged background is being uplifted and allowed to reach her full potential! And its so simple!

But then I became suspicious of the story, it really just seemed too good to be true. When you look at the story as written in the article, it all seems like such a perfect Hollywood feelgood movie storyline. There's the downtrodden genius child from the disadvantaged background. She lost her father recently. There's the young rebel teacher who threw out traditional schooling and tried something new. They even have a bad guy - the district administrator.

I think there is definitely value to be had from incorporating student-driven group projects into classrooms. My son's elementary school is working on doing this right now. I love it. However, I think it is disingenuous to imply that education can be fixed by just throwing away all the traditional lesson plans and switching to this new method, because one class had such amazing success. If it really was that simple, then wouldn't someone else have done it already?
posted by Joh at 5:03 PM on October 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

Lots of criticism here for both the article and the basic idea. I'm not an educator, hell I'm not even a parent, but I can tell you with total certainty I would have done FAR, FAR better in a classroom like Correa's than the traditional classrooms I grew up with. That is all.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 6:07 PM on October 24, 2013

Care to expand on this? Preferably with some sustaining links -- "[person] is a big so-and-so" isn't a fact, it's an opinion. Nothing personal, but people here do that and you kinda did it there.

Sure. I posted the following after Mitra's TED talk was posted originally, and I still stand by my position:
His dream, a school run by a limited number of humans with a huge machine super-structure, is the ultimate techno-libertarian fantasy (from a TED Talk? no way!), where you eliminate all costs and somehow, magically, computers solve everything. His idea is a common one among utopian technologists of all fields: social institutions are a Victorian relic and that we can just put a bunch of technology down for people to use and let the market take its course.

The idea of loose constructivist learning (where you give the kids the materials and let them construct meaning for themselves) and intelligent tutoring software (where you let an AI do the work of a teacher) have a pretty storied history in education literature over the past 50 years or so, and there are major problems with each. Nothing he's doing here is really groundbreaking, and I don't see how any of the poorly defined results from his experiments actually point to an exciting new direction for education. Kids will learn some parts of an exciting new technology that's introduced to them? Well... ok. What are they learning? Can they put any of that in to practice? Are they learning the actual content, or are they instead learning their own version of it with misconceptions baked in? These questions go beyond what a "granny" (and let me say how much I hate that idea) in some distant country who doesn't speak the language and isn't a part of the local culture could be expected to field.

This seems like a sales pitch for his SOLE technology, which will probably go on an incredibly large pile of stuff labeled "failed technological saviors claiming to revolutionize education".
If, for some reason, you want APA citations to previous research about student directed learning (also called constructivist learning, problem based learning, constructionist learning, communities of practice, and any number of other related theoretical perspectives to education) then I suppose I can provide those.

Joh's link is fantastic, and does a good job of addressing a lot of the methodological problems with Mitra's work. This link does a good job at giving historical context which calls into question a lot of Mitra's assumptions.

Lots of criticism here for both the article and the basic idea. I'm not an educator, hell I'm not even a parent, but I can tell you with total certainty I would have done FAR, FAR better in a classroom like Correa's than the traditional classrooms I grew up with. That is all.

I actually like the basic idea quite a bit. Correa seems like a great teacher. My problem is the conflation of well implemented student based learning (what Correa seemed to accomplish) and Mitra preaching to the choir at TED (and getting substantial start up capital in the process).

Furthermore, many teachers learn about this and implement it in their own classes. These ideas aren't new, as the Wired article presents them. Individual implementation is a political question: standardized testing policies (once again: this is the result of techno-utopians applying a flawed method with no understanding the real context of educational praxis), a lack of student motivation due to economic despair, scab organizations replacing the cultural practice of teaching with unskilled college graduates who have no desire to stick around longer than a mandatory 2 years for a resume line item.

Indeed, if I had to "pick a side", I would probably identify as a constructivist in terms of educational theory. This Wired article is a gross, gross misrepresentation of that theory in service of neo-liberal solutionism.
posted by codacorolla at 8:08 PM on October 24, 2013 [6 favorites]

A further point re: the juxtaposition of Mitra and Correa, is that Correa in fact refutes the point that Mitra is making in his TED talk. Mitra envisions a student run school filled with computers and nominally watched over by a single "granny" who's there through tele-presence.

Correa is able to coax out the amazing potential of these children because he's a good teacher. The Wired article seems to downplay his role in doing this, but facilitating self-guided learning isn't an easy task, especially so without the aid of computers. Mitra's solution, applied to this school, is fundamentally unworkable because they don't have a massive bank of computers.

Correa is able to take limited resources, and through his role as a facilitator of learning is able to scaffold the kids to make sure that they're actually understanding what they're doing and to point them in the direction of what's useful to learn. A self guided learner can arrive at a beautiful solution intuitively and be completely wrong. Think of how many mathematical, scientific, and grammatical constructs have much easier intuitive (and incorrect) solutions than the difficult (but factual) solutions that a teacher can provide.

Mitra's counter-argument, from the TED talk anyway, is intelligent tutoring software which replicates this - but why design software when we have a technology which exists to implement this already: well trained teachers, like Correa. Well, I believe that the answer is that there's no cut to be made in teachers, but there's plenty of margin in selling computers and software to starry eyed governments. Correa, working in the barest of circumstances, is able to get the same effect.

So that's another thing that pisses me off about this Wired article, which I've already seen shared countless times on Facebook, is not only that I disagree with it, but that if you examine its line of reasoning it seems to disagree with itself.
posted by codacorolla at 8:46 PM on October 24, 2013 [3 favorites]

The idea of loose constructivist learning (where you give the kids the materials and let them construct meaning for themselves) and intelligent tutoring software (where you let an AI do the work of a teacher) have a pretty storied history in education literature over the past 50 years or so, and there are major problems with each.

This is the kind of objection to ideas that you hear a lot, where people assume that because someone has run into problems implementing the idea in the past, that they will continue to always be a problem or that those problems are insurmountable. You saw it a lot with, for example, virtual reality, where people would just dismiss it out of hand because the VR goggles sucked in the 90s. Or that touchscreen devices will never catch on because the Newton's hand-writing recognition sucked.

But technology and society moves on and sometimes you should revisit old ideas. More powerful computers, better designed self-driven curricula, more information available for free on the internet, etc, etc, could all make this sort of thing work now when it hasn't worked in the past.
posted by empath at 2:07 AM on October 25, 2013

why design software when we have a technology which exists to implement this already: well trained teachers, like Correa.

How much does it cost to train a teacher? How much does it cost to buy an ipad? That is your answer.
posted by empath at 2:09 AM on October 25, 2013

I think if you actually read both comments you have answers to both of these. I'm not saying that because something didn't work in the past we shouldn't try it again, I'm saying that these aren't new ideas as often presented by Mitra and Wired, but rather HAVE been tried in the past with mixed successes and failures when implemented in the real world. Furthermore, the good thing about training a teacher is that you're getting a continuing resource, and a person who can train new teachers. An "iPad" (also I don't know what you're doing with solely an iPad... Mitra himself says that his scheme still needs people, tele-presence systems, highspeed Internet connections and his own custom tutoring software) will only do so much. And if you're making decisions based solely on total cost of teachers versus technology... well, it sounds like you'd be a great Republican senator.

You seriously act like you know anything about this, when it's clear that you don't. The power of a TED talk, I suppose.
posted by codacorolla at 7:24 AM on October 25, 2013

Everyone in the world should watch this mid 90s documentary from the Annenberg Foundation titled "Minds of Our Own" in which they interview fresh MIT graduates in cap and gown who cannot manage the simple task of lighting a light-bulb with a battery and a piece of wire.

Click the [VoD] button to the right of the program description.

Children learn on their own and that's the learning what sticks with them throughout their lives. Teach a student the Pythagorean Theorem and they'll remember it long enough to pass a test. Guide them to discover the theorem for themselves and they'll remember it for a lifetime.
posted by j03 at 10:40 AM on October 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

How many students can Correa teach in a year? How many can a single ipad?

You know, as long as we're practicing our reductionism.
posted by seyirci at 10:59 AM on October 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think the sentence "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." is misleading. The educational assistants who help SpEd students get one-on-one or small group time are not technically teachers, nor are school librarians, janitors, cafeteria staff, school nurses, school counselors, etc. The ONE part-time curriculum person at my last school was there to help us make the classroom more student-centered and exploratory. (I wish I'd had more curricular guidance, frankly.)

This is the direction teacher education in the US is going, if my recent master's program is any indication, but it takes a lot more patience and faith to do things this way than to just tell the kids how things work, especially for concrete, one-right-answer things. It sounds so good in the story, but it is scary to watch kids struggle. Standardized tests are going to be around for a while yet, I'm afraid, so I'm glad to see here and elsewhere that this educational style also translates to test scores. If it didn't there would be (more?) resistance in the schools.

The defunding of schools and the deprofessionalization of teaching is also a concern of mine when I read those stories about someone dropping a computer in the middle of nowhere. It didn't even occur to me that the guy would be selling the magic software. Silly me. I'll go read the posted follow-up links in a moment.
These kids hacked android! (One kid did and told the rest how, if it's the same as with our TI-81s when I was in high school, but still good!) The kids on the street learned science! All of them? Did ALL the kids learn what some of the kids learned? Because a lot of my job is catching the kids who have a learning disability or won't do the work to figure it out if there's any roadblock or have been frustrated in the past or who see other kids seeming to do it easily and give up. We have a lot of problems in the American public school system, but at least we're SUPPOSED to educate ALL the kids.

I'm in China now (as are a really high percentage of the current schoolchildren in the world). There's a stage at the front of my classroom and the desks are bolted to the floor in tight rows. No one here has given me a satisfying answer when I ask what happens to the kids who don't respond to the lecture-style teaching. What if a kid gets sick and has a rough year or has a learning disability? The answer seems to be simply that they get tracked into the worse schools via testing every few grades. Still in classes of 50-60, still working through the government issued books at the mandated rate, I guess.

I'm supposed to be teaching an American curriculum, so a lot of what we're doing at this point is trying to get the kids comfortable with this less structured, less black and white sort of learning. It's scary for the kids, too, when it's different than what they've done before. It's okay, though, because my class is supposed to be kind of weird and different. If this was really going against the grain in an American school or district, where admins, teachers, and even some parents and students are worried about test scores, I can understand why people would be afraid to go for it, knowing it'll take a couple years to iron out and get everybody in the groove. (Still worth it in the long run, but that's a tough decision to make when you may not have a job anymore by the time the positive results come in.)
[Comment partially remixed from my facebook comments, as this has been posted to my wall a few times already.]
posted by MsDaniB at 8:09 AM on October 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

More powerful computers, better designed self-driven curricula, more information available for free on the internet, etc, etc, could all make this sort of thing work now when it hasn't worked in the past.

How good are computers as tutors?

I'm in China now (as are a really high percentage of the current schoolchildren in the world).

i hesitate to link to thomas friedman, but here goes :P

The Shanghai Secret: "There is no secret. When you sit in on a class here and meet with the principal and teachers, what you find is a relentless focus on all the basics that we know make for high-performing schools but that are difficult to pull off consistently across an entire school system. These are: a deep commitment to teacher training, peer-to-peer learning and constant professional development, a deep involvement of parents in their children’s learning, an insistence by the school’s leadership on the highest standards and a culture that prizes education and respects teachers."

cf. VN & SK (viz. Observations on South Korea: "South Korea's success has been deep but not wide.")

also btw In 'Flipped' Classrooms, a Method for Mastery (recall)

oh and How Smart Are American Kids? Amanda Ripley Responds

last but not least, this was really intriguing to me (speaking of technology-assisted learning ;)
Pierson, now 50, unveiled a technology company called Declara. The year-old startup, based in Palo Alto, has essentially built [...] a type of social network that links everyone in a company or an organization. With the help of algorithms developed by Pierson and others, including top engineers from Google (GOOG) and Microsoft (MSFT), Declara’s system learns how people interact, what types of questions they’re looking to answer, and who can best answer them. The company has raised more than $5 million in funding from investors, including Peter Thiel, the billionaire who first backed Facebook (FB).

A flurry of business-oriented social networks have appeared in recent years with a similar pitch. Microsoft, for example, spent $1.2 billion last year to acquire Yammer, which lets companies create private networks among their employees through an interface that looks almost exactly like Facebook. Box, Dropbox, and Jive Software (JIVE) are among the dozens of other companies that have received billions of dollars in funding to become the “collaboration platform” of choice for modern companies.

Declara does something different, say Pierson and Nelson González, the startup’s co-founder. Declara’s software flags people who seem to excel at certain tasks. Someone at a biotech company, for example, might want to know which enzymes seem promising for curing a particular disease. Declara will scour the company’s social network to identify the people others turn to most for information about that disease and who have the most up-to-date research at hand. Pierson and González describe Declara as a kind of automated consulting firm—except that, where the fees from a McKinsey or Bain can run into the millions, Declara charges $15 per employee per year. “We’re flipping the equation so that people can become their own consultants,” says González, who used to work as a consultant at Booz Allen Hamilton (BAH). “And we help people keep on learning, instead of leaving them with little more than a pretty-looking PowerPoint deck.”


The Declara team is a mix of engineers and designers who’ve spent the past year working in relative secrecy with governments and companies to refine the startup’s technology. Chrapaty, who’s worked at Cisco (CSCO) and Microsoft, is about to join the company. Pierson says large banks and biotech companies such as Genentech (RHHBY) have signed on as customers. The agreements she talks most freely about, though, are with the Australian and Mexican governments.

In Australia, which has recently moved to have a single nationwide public school curriculum, educators from Sydney to Perth have digital access to the same lesson plans, tests, and all other classroom materials. Thousands of the country’s teachers have been given early access to a private network built by Declara called the Scootle Community. It’s a social network that will eventually link all 280,000 teachers in Australia and allow them to form groups around topics. “In one week, we saw about 50 groups set up, and the discussions amazed us,” says Susan Mann, the chief executive officer of Education Services Australia, a nonprofit owned by the Australian education system. “They were all about developing curriculum, teaching new technologies, working with disadvantaged students—and on this very serious, professional level.” Using Declara, teachers can pull up graphical displays that show hot topics among their colleagues, click on something like “8th grade math” and find tests and videos that other teachers have recommended, and, most important, reach out directly to their peers all over the country. “It’s like having a huge staff room,” says Mann. “People are getting answers to things that the other teachers in their school didn’t know.”

Declara’s technology watches all these interactions. It learns whom people tend to turn to for, say, complex physics questions, and which teachers seem to produce high test scores quarter after quarter. The software can search and catalog all the digital material collected during the past 15 years by the Australian school system. So, if you need to find advice on teaching gifted children, you type “gifted children” in a search box, and up pops all the available documents on the subject, along with some guesses about the experts in the area you might want to contact.

Declara makes it possible for these organizations and companies to operate in two modes—private and public. The Australian teachers, for example, can keep chats within their own network to themselves but also have an open area where companies with interesting technology or specialists in certain fields can participate. Pierson describes this as a kind of permeable membrane. “There are countries in Latin America and the Middle East that are industrializing and improving their judicial systems and moving into spaces they have never been before,” Pierson says. “They need to seek experts among themselves and outsiders.”

It’s on this last point that Declara can challenge the big consulting firms, she says. The software studies interactions on Twitter, can see which people have frequently cited academic papers, and, with permission, scans chat sessions for verbal clues about people who know what they’re talking about. (Companies such as IBM (IBM) have released similar software for finding internal experts.) “In Australia, there is no McKinsey team or Harvard school telling the teachers how to develop the world’s most innovative curriculum,” says co-founder González. “They’re doing it themselves by learning from their peers.”
which i think is the buried lede couched in what is an inspiring personal story!
posted by kliuless at 12:34 AM on October 29, 2013

one more :P

Can Emotional Intelligence Be Taught? "If everybody knows that test scores and grades aren't the keys to success, how do we teach, and measure, the things that are?"
So-called noncognitive skills — attributes like self-restraint, persistence and self-awareness — might actually be better predictors of a person’s life trajectory than standard academic measures. A 2011 study using data collected on 17,000 British infants followed over 50 years found that a child’s level of mental well-being correlated strongly with future success. Similar studies have found that kids who develop these skills are not only more likely to do well at work but also to have longer marriages and to suffer less from depression and anxiety. Some evidence even shows that they will be physically healthier...

Should social-emotional learning prove successful, in other words, it could generate a string of benefits that far exceeds a mere bump in test scores. This prospect has led to some giddiness among researchers. Maurice Elias, a psychology professor at Rutgers University and the director of the Rutgers Social-Emotional Learning Lab, has lauded emotional literacy as “the missing piece” in American education.
posted by kliuless at 12:41 AM on October 29, 2013

j cole on reforming education...
posted by kliuless at 10:32 PM on November 5, 2013

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