Fresh winds are blowing through the stuffy halls of academia. A few days ago, I got to see these changes with my own eyes when I visited a little private school in Guadalajara called Instituto México Inglés (IMI).
“We don’t use textbooks here,” I was told by director Luis Medina. “Every one of our students has an iPad. And we don’t have exams anymore because the Apple system we use shows us each student’s production and progress literally moment by moment.
“As for teachers, we don’t use that word anymore. The members of my staff are coaches, who do their best to help our students carry out their own research. And we don’t have an old-style curriculum either. Instead, we present our students with a monthly challenge and they investigate it. This month’s challenge is ‘How to Resolve a Crisis.’”
To understand how a little school in Mexico reached this point, let’s pause a moment to reflect on what education has meant for most of the world’s history.
The traditional model of a school is a place where students come to sit at the feet of a teacher. The teacher expounds his or her knowledge of a subject and the student hopefully absorbs it or at least takes copious notes on the subject. Although the system has been around forever, it is highly inefficient simply because memorizing the words of a master is not enough to guarantee understanding of a subject. Awareness comes from personal investigation, from hands-on encounters.
In the previous millennium, knowledge was locked up in books and the best overview of what humanity had learned during its entire history could be found in encyclopedias.
Then came the internet and search engines. Today no one would run to their bookshelves and open a dusty volume of the Britannica in order to investigate the concept of “bullying.” Likewise, no one would open their once highly esteemed Merriam-Webster to find out what an MP4 file is.
They would turn to Google. We would all turn to Google! So why would we send our kids to school and expect them to learn from textbooks?
“Already in 2005 we had an inkling of this,” Luis Medina told me. “An organization based in California did away with individual textbooks for math, history, etc., producing a course of subjects unified in a single printed volume which came in monthly installments.
“By 2015, however,” continued Medina, “it was clear that nothing in printed form could come close to offering the richness and timeliness of what Google was making available to everyone. This was when we decided to adopt an approach developed by Noel Trainor and Noemí Valencia in Morelia, Michoacán, called Knotion (Knowledge in Action).
“This is a true innovation because it is really learning in action, learning directed towards real life. There are now 70 Knotion schools in Mexico (and one in Guatemala) and already Knotion has been recognized at an international level as providing one of the best models for education in the world.”
“The founders of Knotion,” continued Medina, “have created an approach which replaces the study of ‘subjects’ like history and math with the investigation of challenges, with problems to be solved. The latest challenge is called Crises and the Resolution of Conflicts and the students are spending 20 days working on it. Naturally biology, history, geography, etc. all come into play when you dig into a subject like this.
“While investigating conflict resolution, some of our students heard about a Mexican government organism called Condusef, which means National Commission for the Protection and Defense of the Users of Financial Services. So what did the kids do? They went on the net to check it out and then got on the phone, called Condusef and asked for the email address of their delegate for western Mexico ‘because we need to interview her.’
“These are fourth-graders, 10 years old! Well, they were told to fill out a form for this and those kids went right ahead and filled it out and sent it in and as a result, a committee of eight of our students went to Condusef here in Guadalajara to ask them questions about how they are protecting people from financial abuse.
“This in turn made the kids realize that most people don’t know how to manage and save money, so they sent teams out to financial institutions like Banorte and La Caja Popular and they came back and presented what they had discovered to their fellow students . . . so, these students ended up teaching the other ones and thanks to the technology we use, they could share what they learned through videos, recordings and photos, with everyone learning from everyone else.”
Medina pointed out that in such a situation the teacher can’t be the teacher because he or she is not an expert on economy. The teacher becomes a co-researcher, a kind of guide and catalyzer, so Knotion uses the word coach instead of teacher.
“In a Knotion environment,” says Medina, “students gain competence not only in ‘hard skills’ like science and history, but they also become masters of ‘soft skills’ like communicating, problem solving, developing projects, teamwork, innovation, leadership and creativity — and all of these are what 21st-century companies are looking for in an employee.”
How, you might ask, was an approach developed in Morelia recently ranked in London among the top 10 educational systems in the world?
“How did it all begin?” I asked co-founder of Knotion, Noemí “Mimy” Valencia.
“We started our own little school 24 years ago,” she told me. “We started it for our own daughter. We had moved away from Mexico City and wanted to live in the country, but we couldn’t find a school that met our expectations. My husband Noel Trainor and I both had had the opportunity to study in schools that fostered our curiosity and creativity and empowered us. So when we saw that our little girl wouldn’t have that opportunity in Morelia, we started our own school and right from the beginning we and the other parents had one essential question: what’s best for the kids?
“That is what has been taking us on this journey, figuring out what kind of world we are living in, the kinds of skills and competencies our kids need in order to face the world we adults are leaving behind, and the kind of citizens that the world needs in order to become a better place. We are striving for a new humanity with different patterns of thinking and behaving and understanding. We want to create a new generation characterized by compassion, by tolerance and by social commitment, so they can really make a difference.”
Are they succeeding in this? Here is the opinion of a Knotion coach Cristina Pratts:
“The most important thing is to develop children who are autonomous, self-taught, who are forever curious and wanting to learn, and I think Knotion does this. From the very first moment they catch them and make them want to keep going, to know more, more and more.”
And here is what a Knotion parent, Lorena Rodríguez, has to say:
“I am overwhelmed by what I see happening in this escuela. In primary and secondary school they are doing the kind of research that — in my day— would have been carried out in graduate school.”
Finally, as I finished my visit to IMI, Luis Medina casually mentioned that representatives of three of Mexico’s best universities had recently visited him, each one to quietly encourage him to send his graduates to their institution, “and all of them offered to give my students scholarships,” he told me with a proud smile, “100% scholarships!”
Now if you are looking for a mark of success, I think that pretty well takes the cake.
The writer has lived near Guadalajara, Jalisco, for more than 30 years and is the author of A Guide to West Mexico’s Guachimontones and Surrounding Area and co-author of Outdoors in Western Mexico. More of his writing can be found on his website.