Mexico ranks lowest in math education among OECD nations. It has nothing to do with the ability of the kids. What can change this sad reality?
A great day in school today, I remember thinking. We finally got where I’ve been driving for the past three years — painless math drills. While the kids won’t have anything to do with rote tables, they’ll play ¡SUMAS! (Addition Bingo) until I’m forced to kick them out to bring in the next group. 3 plus 7, under the U! 9 plus 4 under the M! 6 plus 5 under the S!
“Which S?” they cried. Ah, a flaw!
“Both,” I answered, as if the double S on my handmade cards were intentional. The kids who had 11 under both S’s grabbed another poker chip, and I realized that it turned out to be an inspired mistake, moving the games along more swiftly.
Next up was ¡X POR X! (x times x) or Multiplication Bingo. ¡X POR X!, pronounced ¡Equis POR Equis!, turned out to have the same flaw, this time the double X. Oh well, carry on. Seis por ocho (6 times 8) under the X!
“¡Cuarenta y ocho! (48!)” the kids yelled.
“Equivicados. (You’re wrong!)” I said.
“¡Cuarenta y ocho!” They yelled again.
Wait a minute. Seis is 6. Siete is 7. I often confuse them. The answer is 48, not 56 as I thought. “Cuarenta y ocho,” I admitted.
“!Ayy, Dayán!” they groaned, rolling their eyes.
The grade six boys of Chacala’s village school aced advanced ¡Equis POR Equis! They had no trouble with 7 times 4, 9 times 6, 8 times 8. Very encouraging. When the girls arrived, I had to limit my questions to the tables from 1 to 5. Why is that?
Maybe the school’s small sample confirms the common gender math hypothesis. But I’m not ready to accept that boys are naturally more adept at math. It happens that all the boys in Grade 6 that year were cousins, grandsons of the one fisherman in the village who had a real talent for numbers, legendary for his ability to judge the weight of a catch at a glance and to price it out for sale almost without thinking.
The girl’s weren’t good at multiplication, but at least they loved playing ¡Equis POR Equis!, and they were keen to come back for more the next day.
All during ¡SUMAS! and right up to ¡Equis POR Equis!, Vianey and Hector sat quietly at the next table painting with my sister-in-law. Vianey, who was born to draw, took to watercolour without hesitation. My single hope for her is that school wouldn’t crush her god-given talent. While the boys had math in their heads, she had an eye. I probably didn’t have to worry. It’s quite likely she’d have no trouble surviving the few right-brain assaults that Chacala’s village school would offer her, and she’d move on into life with her creativity intact.
Math was not for Hector either, but at least he was soaking in it.
We needed more days like that. When the Rotarians set up the small library across from the school, surely this is what they had in mind. Fun and learning, the occasional visitor dropping in and letting kids lead the way, the library full of children engaged in activities. On days like that, Maria de Jesus, the single teacher who was managing six grades, had the rare luxury of concentrating on one grade at a time in the classroom.
That morning was everything I’d been working toward. But the best? The look on Alexis’ face when he was reading, in English, Dr. Seuss’ One fish two fish red fish blue fish and realized he could understand it.
Two things happened a few weeks later. The first was that Maria de Jesus’ reputation as a fine teacher had spread and more students showed up at the school. Classes in Mexico begin in late August and this was the middle of February. Where had these kids been all this time? Naturally, the new students had varying levels of ability, not to mention highly inconsistent understandings of the material in their textbooks. Maria de Jesus’ already difficult job became yet more challenging.
And there was a further complication. Among the new arrivals was Jaquelin, a slender and stunningly beautiful young girl whose mere glance rendered the boys in Grade 6 incapable of anything but moonstruck stares. Jaquelin handled their attentions demurely and concentrated on her school work. Unfortunately, both she and her equally handsome younger brother appeared to have had little formal schooling up to that point.
Coinciding with the new arrivals, I had another breakthrough. A huge piece of educational opportunity slammed into place. I discovered Salman Khan, the former hedge-fund analyst turned advocate for social good. Khan gets my vote for human being of the century — an astounding brain and a non-mercenary heart. His unexpected transformation into an educational revolutionary, told here in his TED Talk, caused him to ask: Why not use the internet to offer a world class education anywhere, to anyone, for free?
I always fall hard for people who think big.
Only a few of the thousands of the Khan Academy’s instructional videos had been translated into Spanish at the time I began to use them in the school, but that hardly mattered. With clear examples and visual explanations, math doesn’t need language.
The brilliance of Salman Khan’s system is that it’s set up like a game. Get the answer right and you win points. Get it wrong and you get another chance. Get it wrong again and you’re offered a short video with a clear explanation at a single click. While learning math, the kids collect points, gain badges and advance to higher avatars.
The children in Mexico’s rural schools need a lot of math remediation. It is not surprising that their understanding of the basics of arithmetic is spotty. Good math instruction builds understanding concept by concept. In rural Mexico, where school attendance is irregular and teachers are often absent, or disinterested or overworked — all of which I’ve seen — any comprehensive math program is nearly impossible.
But now this — a system that allows children to work at their own level and at their own speed. The Khan Academy seems designed for Chacala’s students.
This just might work!A great day in school today, I remember thinking. We finally got where I’ve been driving for the past three years — painless math drills. While the kids won’t have anything to do with rote tables, they’ll play ¡SUMAS! (Addition Bingo) until I’m forced to kick them out to bring in the next group. 3 plus 7, under the U! 9 plus 4 under the M! 6 plus 5 under the S!
This is the 11th story in the weekly publication A Remarkable Education: Lessons Learned in a Mexican Rural School. The next story describes my first visit to el Colegio Patria in Las Varas.