Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Wrong Hook

Wired magazine's recent cover story has been getting lots of notice online. It tells of a school in Matamoros, Mexico, where a teacher "upended" his teaching methods and helped reveal extraordinary mathematical abilities in one of his 12-year-old students (Paloma Noyola Bueno, shown on the cover).

I'm all for the kind of educational change the teacher implemented in the school, but I have an argument with the cover. Its hook is that students like Paloma may be the next Steve Jobs, and as evidence the caption provides this fact: "Last year she had the top math score in the country."

Did Steve Jobs do well on standardized tests? Is that what it takes to be a technological innovator? Or is it more likely the innovators will be people who work outside educational systems (no matter what their shape)?

It reminds me of a tweet I once saw, and can't attribute. It quoted a startup tycoon who said, "I love MBA graduates. They make great employees."

Paloma may yet be the next Steve Jobs, but it seems more likely to me that she'll be a scientist or a mathematician, rather than a tech innovator. That doesn't mean it's not good that her teacher changed her classroom to allow her abilities to blossom (and those of her classmates as well -- 10 others scored in the 99.99th percentile on the same test). But even her teacher recognized the irony that the students' new way of learning was only widely recognized because they did well on a standardized test.

"These exams are like limits for the teachers," he's quoted as saying. "They test what you know, not what you can do, and I am more interested in what my students can do."

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