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What Happens When Learning Breaks Out in Rural Mexico?

By Richard Elmore

It is a sunny November morning. I am sitting at a concrete block that serves as a table outside a tiny two-room school with fifteen students in Santa Rosa, a dusty little village 60 miles west of Zacatecas, Mexico. I am being led through a geometry lesson by my tutor, María Cruz, a thirteen-year-old student in the school--one of fifteen students in this middle grades school. María explains to me, through our interpreter, that the problem she has chosen for me was an "easy" one, because she is unsure of how much I could remember from my prior experience with geometry. She presents me with a circle that has four smaller circles inscribed inside it, and she asks me how I would compute the area inside the larger circle that was not included in the four smaller circles, given the radii of the circles. She explains I will be required to "explain the steps" I would go through in solving the problem, and explain my work at each step. When I say that I would begin by calculating the area of the large circle, she asks, "why would you start there, rather than with the smaller circles?" In each step, as I offered my path through the problem, she asks me to defend my decisions and discuss alternatives. Eventually, after much discussion, I "solved" the problem and proudly offered my answer. María gave me a cautious nod, and then said, "but we are not quite finished." She points to the pi symbol in my formula for the area of a circle, and she says, "can you explain what that symbol means and where it comes from." A long pause ensues, while I scramble through my geometry. I say weakly, "it stands for a number, which is something like 3.14." "No," she says with a more insistent tone, "I want you to tell me where it comes from." For the next ten minutes or so, she leads me through a detailed discussion of the derivation of pi, including a proof of why it has a constant value for all circles. María has managed, with the wit and wile of an experienced teacher, to find a place in my learning where recall had replaced understanding (if the understanding was ever there in the first place) and has gotten me to demonstrate, with her guidance, that I knew something important.

As a learner, with María Cruz as my tutor, I found myself in an unusual situation. It was clear that I was engaged with someone who had mastered a practice. She was not bashful about stopping me when I moved from one step of the problem to another to ask for a clarification of why I made the decision I had made. Her manner was polite, respectful, but not overly impressed by my knowledge of geometry and every-vigilant for weak logic and ambiguous terminology. Her questions were clear and highly-focused. She did not share my enthusiasm for having gotten the "right" answer. She was more interested in what I didn't know, or couldn't readily recover from my prior knowledge. More importantly, she didn't "teach" me a method for solving the problem, she coached me through a process of thinking about the problem, and diagnosed a critical weakness in my background knowledge. I felt that I was in the hands of an expert.

Richard Elmore at Santa Rosa.jpg
Photo credit: Caitlin Schoenfelder

María is part of an extraordinary experiment in learning currently underway in Mexico. In English, it would be called the Learning Community Project. The project is currently operating in nearly 600 rural schools like María's, and will soon be expanded to nearly 7000 rural and urban schools in Mexico. In the Learning Community model, students choose a learning project from an array of curriculum materials and begin an individual line of inquiry; adult tutors, who are trained by a network of other tutors and network leaders, work with students in areas where they--the adults--have expertise; students prepare a formal response to the inquiry project they have chosen, and, after they have demonstrated mastery, they present it in a formal exhibition to fellow students, tutors, and parents. When they have developed mastery in a given area, students play the role of tutor to other students who are undertaking inquiry in the same area. Students learn both the content they study and the practice of tutorials. Over time, the learning of the students and tutors, coupled with the training that tutors receive in the broader network, becomes a fund of knowledge available to tutors and students in other schools in the network. Learning is disciplined throughout by norms of mastery. Students and adults work together to build a fund of common knowledge that is available to all.

No one has told these students that they cannot control their own learning. No one has "schooled" the adult tutors, who are largely recruited from the rural communities they serve, that they are "unqualified" to teach or to serve as leaders of learning in their communities. The students and tutors share an understanding that, if there are things that they need to know in order to teach others, they will learn them through the teaching of others. The students and adults form a powerful social movement, with a common identity around access to learning. Most of all, students are given the gift of adult trust that by engaging in learning, by choosing what to learn, and by giving the gift of learning to others, they will discover their power as leaders of learning in their communities.

The school in Santa Rosa is, I'm told, typical of the schools where the Learning Community Project resides. It is, at best, decrepit. The curriculum materials that the students and tutors use are somewhat dated. The furnishings are spartan. The front yard is dusty. But I saw something in Santa Rosa that I have never seen before. I saw the parents and community gather in the school yard and make a meal for their visitors. I saw the fathers arrive on horseback. I heard the town's mariachi band play. And I saw the parents of students stand in awe as their children, one-by-one presented exhibitions of their learning, as a rite of passage from student to tutor, in this strange and engaging practice.

I have often thought, since November, as I observe the somnolent, obedient, and passive behavior of American students in their richly-appointed classrooms, how very fortunate María Cruz is to be in her dusty little two-room school in Santa Rosa, Mexico, surrounded by people who honor her gifts as a learner and teacher.

For more about the Learning Community Project, see: Gabriel Camara Cervera, Learning for Life in Mexican Rural Communities (Consejo Naional de Fomento Educativo, 2003); Santiago Rincon-Gallardo, "Educational change as social movement in Mexican public schools: Reframing practice, policy, and research," Paper Presented at the Harvard Graduate School of Education Alumni of Color Conference, March 3-4, 2011; and Richard Elmore, "Transformation of Learning in Rural Mexico," unpublished paper, December 2010.

Richard F. Elmore teaches graduate students preparing for leadership roles in teaching and administration in schools at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He spends one day each week in classrooms in greater Boston, and he is a novice watercolorist.

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