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Is Young Paloma Bueno The Next Steve Jobs?

Paloma Noyola Bueno, remember that name because she may be the next Steve Jobs. At least, that’s what people are calling her. She’s not a nerdy protegee at MIT or an entrepreneurial genius like Mark Zuckerberg. She is a 12-year-old 5th grader in Matamoros, Mexico. Paloma got the the highest score on the Mexican standardized tests in math and the third highest in Spanish. What makes this girl so unique isn’t just her level of proficiency of in math and writing, it’s where she’s from. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Matamoros, but it is an unlikely place for a mathematical genius. The town has been plagued with drug violence and extreme poverty for decades. Paloma’s school is literally next to a giant garbage dump. It stinks so bad in the Northern Mexican heat that it seeps through the walls of the school. Up until a year ago almost half the kids in Paloma’s school failed the federal standardized tests. This year only 7% failed the math section and 3.5% failed Spanish. So, what made the difference? As the old saying goes, “When the student is ready the teacher arrives.”

Sergio Juarez Correa is Paloma’s 32-year-old teacher and one of the primary reasons behind the school’s phenomenal success. Instead of the rote learning from a boring and antiquated curriculum, Correa decided to do something radical: let the kids control their learning. It’s like Socrates’ method of teaching but with less togas and hemlock. Correa was inspired by Sugata Mitra, an Indian scientist in the field of education who theorizes that children learn better when they are only loosely supervised by adults. In other words, they learn to solve problems on their own. He set up a computer with educational programs in a slum in Delhi and didn’t even show the kids how to turn it on. The kids not only used the computer to learn they retained the information better. As Mitra says, “if you put a computer in front of children and remove all other adult restrictions, they will self-organize around it, like bees around a flower.”

But what does a teacher like Correa do in a small town where the school can’t afford computers? He gets the kid’s questions and goes home to look up the answer online and brings it back to the students. He becomes a sort of a digital to analog connection. What does all this mean? Though Paloma is clearly a genius and will go on to do great things, the other kids in her class excelled too. In the poverty stricken areas of Latin America these kids are written off as a lost cause. They will never amount to anything other than manual labor or gang members. That’s what the upper classes and government think. It’s outdated, classist, and racist. That’s why they don’t bother trying to improve the system. Correa told the children that though they may not have a lot of resources,

“You do have one thing that makes you the equal of any kid in the world, Potential. And from now on, we’re going to use that potential to make you the best students in the world.”

What this isolated case shows is that given the right stimuli and teaching paradigm the children of the poor can excell. You aren’t getting far in the world without an education, something that is usually out of reach to these children. If Latin America is ever going to rise out of the developing world we need many more Palomas.

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