Meet 12-year-old Paloma Noyola Bueno. She goes to José Urbina López Primary School in Matamoros, Mexico. She's being touted as "the face of Mexico's unleashed potential." Mentioning Steve Jobs in the headline is purposely attention-grabbing — on Wired's part and on mine — but the gist of it is this: Our current idea of "genius" might be a Silicon Valley white guy with glasses, but a small brown girl from a dirt-poor town could be a future game-changing icon, thanks to experimental teaching methods.
The Wired cover story isn't really about Paloma, though she's a big part of it. It focuses on her teacher, Sergio Juárez Correa, who, frustrated with a boring curriculum and uninspired students, decided to change his teaching methods. He discovered videos about 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.
Many people have become familiar with Mitra's work, which emphasizes curiosity-fueled exploration instead of the usual discipline and routine schools generally enforce. It's all about critical thinking, free-thinking, organic thinking.
As Wired's Joshua Davis points out:
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.”
Davis mentions Nicholas Negroponte of the MIT Media Lab, and 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.
Paloma is one of these kids who can just figure stuff out — when given the chance. And her sharpness inspired Juárez Correa. This anecdote gave me goosebumps:
Juárez Correa was impressed [by his class's response to experimental methods]. 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.
Back in the day, I was Paloma. I'd go to a new school and do really well and then it would taper off, and the next semester all my grades were meh. My parents accused me of not applying myself or being lazy — especially since I could pass standardized tests very well — but looking back now, I see so clearly that I was just mind-numbingly bored. And I bet either you, someone you know or your own kid is the same way. Understimulated, forced to memorize instead of conceptualize. With thousands of kids dropping out of high school every year, in a society that seems to reward high YouTube views more than high SAT scores, isn't it time we re-thought education?
“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.”
The entire piece is worth your while, but just FYI: After taking an achievement exam, Paloma received the highest math score in her class. It also happened to be the highest math score in the state, as well as the highest in the country. She's amazing. And: There are Palomas all around the world.