“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 498,000 [...]. 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.'”
This is the opening of a 2013 Wired Magazine article that inspired us and the way we look at education. We’ve summarized it below, and you can read the full story here.
An unlikely place for geniuses to grow
A primary school next to a dump might not sound like the kind of place that would be home to new ideas about education, but a young teacher decided to try something new with his students. Sergio Juárez Correa had spent 5 years working through the government-mandated curriculum with his students, and it wasn’t working. Most students weren’t doing well on standardized tests, and even those that were getting good scores weren’t engaged in their studies. Juárez Correa grew up in the same town where he was now a teacher; he had become a teacher specifically to help kids in this community have more options that come with access to quality education. The standard curriculum didn’t look like it was the quality education he wanted to be providing.
The world has changed, has education?
As Sir Ken Robinson points out, our education system is still designed for the first industrial revolution, and the world has changed a lot since then. As education expert, Professor Linda Darling-Hammond, points out “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.” Even if the education system had caught up to 1999, education would still be way behind; at that point Instagram was still 11 years away, App Developer wasn’t a job title yet, GPS was restricted to military use, and you’d only been able to Google things for 2 years. The types of skills that employers are looking for are very different now, but schools around the world continue to place high value on grades and standardized testing results. Higher grades are inversely correlated to innovation, and in a world that is constantly focused on creativity, disruption, and innovation, it wasn’t surprising that when Juárez Correa started researching some new ways to run his classroom, he came across an emerging philosophy of education in the digital age.
“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.”
Educators around the world are starting conversations that are inspired by the internet, evolutionary psychology, neuroscience, and artificial intelligence to shift classrooms to be more driven by the curiosity of students and less driven by the requirements of specific tests.
“Teachers provide prompts, not answers, and then they step aside so students can teach themselves and one another.”
21st Century Skills in a low-tech classroom
Many educators that we hear from have classrooms full of advanced technology. SmartBoards, laptops, VR, wireless internet access. Classrooms just 30mins away from Matamoros in Brownsville, Texas had all of these things, but they might as well have been on the other side of the world. Juárez Correa’s students had intermittent access to electricity and internet, few computers, and many were coming to school hungry. Looking around that classroom, Juárez Correa saw a room full of students with potential to do great things, given the opportunity to take control of their own education. So he asked the big question: “What do you want to learn?”
A new idea?
Juárez Correa would present his students with questions or basic information, and then let them work through the problem and direct the lesson. In a classroom with no internet access, the students jumped from microbiology to math to astronomy and beyond. This student-centred approach encouraging collaboration and innovation has ties to educational giants like Socrates and Maria Montessori. Einstein and the founders of Google studied in classrooms that were built on the same principles that Juárez Correa was using. And if the evidence sounds anecdotal, it’s not. Studies from the University of Louisville, MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, and UC Berkeley have all found proof that kids (and adults) learn better and innovate more when they have fewer directions. A study from the University of Illinois and the University of Iowa found that “when students controlled their own observations, they exhibited more coordination between the hippocampus and other parts of the brain involved in learning”. Professor Peter Gray from Boston College points out that young children teach themselves a lot about the world around them by asking questions and trying things, but that school might just be robbing them of their creative genius.
“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.”
So what do those results look like?
Does focusing on curiosity and self-directed learning pay off? In the 1990s, Finland overhauled their education system to be more student directed, and they jumped from near the bottom of international education performance rankings to first place by 2003. Children in a remote community in Ethiopia taught themselves to operate tablets without getting anything other than a powered off tablet in a box. And in a small community in Mexico, Sergio Juárez Correa’s students took the national standardized math exams, even though they hadn’t been taught to the test.
"Not only did they all do well on the test, but one of the students received the highest score in the country. Many of the students scored in the 99th percentile."
With technology in classrooms being prioritized as the only way for students to succeed, students in this community achieved academic success according to conventional measures, without any expensive bells and whistles, by focusing on 21st Century skills and taking charge of their learning. Their teacher valued curiosity and creativity and let them take responsibility for their own learning, and it paid off. Students also handle conflict resolution and classroom management, putting their social-emotional skills to practical use right away. Juárez Correa’s students were doing so well that he was awarded a million dollar grant from TED in 2013 and was invited to work with his state’s Secretary of Education in 2016.
Radical Schools Today
The good news is that more schools are willing to do something radical to help their students thrive in a world that needs their curiosity and creativity more than ever before. Brooklyn Free School is a democratic school, where students and staff have equal vote in decision making at the school and learning is centred through play and exploration. Villa Monte school in Switzerland lets students choose what they do every day, which can lead to a gap in facts, but outsized skills in independent learning, making it possible for them to catch up on any necessary content within about 6 months once they start University. Pittsfield School District in New Hampshire shifted all of their classrooms to student centered learning, and their college-going rate jumped to 60% from 47% in 3 years. Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School (WHEELS) “encourages both children and adults to become increasingly responsible for directing their own personal and collective learning” and balances time for independent inquiry with collaboration and service. These schools remain the exception rather than the rule, but Juárez Correa told a story to his students to illustrate that the challenge of making the education system work for them is also an opportunity.
"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.'”
To read more about José Urbina López Primary School and students around the world benefiting from this education revolution, read the full article by Joshua Davis at Wired Magazine here.