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Reinventing the classroom

A recent Wired cover story by Joshua Davis explored how a neglected elementary school class in Matamoros, Mexico has been transformed through the determination of a single teacher willing to employ new strategies.

The article covers familiar ground, listing flaws in the current educational model:

…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… 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.”

Davis also touches on the groundbreaking work of educator Sugata Mitra, who explored the innate ability of children to discover answers through group work:

For a study published in 2010, (Mitra) 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.”

The core of Davis’ article is the undeniable case-study success of Sergio Juárez Correa’s class of 12-year-olds at José Urbina López Primary School.

(Juárez Correa) 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.”

On the two-day national standardized exam, Juárez Correa’s students scored well above the national average.  But it was the math scores that amazed everyone.  Ten of the José Urbina López Primary School students scored in the top 99th percentile.

As might be expected, skeptics emerged; sweeping curriculum change did not follow Juárez Correa’s classroom success, but it certainly points to a possible future.  (Read the article to find out what frustrating, myopic thing one Mexican educational official said about what Juárez Correa and his students achieved.)

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