Education systems across Latin America are taking steps towards allowing more innovation – some more, some less. But in the case of Brazil, the arrival of innovative new actors is looking more like an invasion.
Each year, Sao Paolo hosts LearnFest, a global conference whose goal is the promotion of educational innovation through entrepreneurship and technology. The event gathers both political and business leaders and its organizer, Russell Goldman, is optimistic about the future. “Brazil has long-since been a global leader in digital engagement, but over the past five years there has been an explosion in entrepreneurial activity. A revolution that began with a new wave of e-commerce entrepreneurs, developers, and e-cosystem building organizations is now spilling over into regulated, impact-focused industries like education and health.” he says. “It really is both exciting and inspiring.”
Brazil’s education systems are in dire need of improvement, as learning quality remains low for too many students. In the latest OECD PISA evaluations, Brazil scored 391 points in math, compared to the mean of 494, and in science, Brazil scored the second lowest result of all participating countries.
And in reading, the country scored 410 compared to a mean of 496 points. Put another way, according to the OECD, the percentage of 15 year olds that fall short of PISA’s basic reading proficiency is 50 percent –compared to 19 percent in other OECD countries.
These numbers are particularly troublesome because they demonstrate that Brazil’s education is not keeping up with the country’s increasing economic success. The Brazilian middle class has expanded from 38 percent of the population to over 50 percent in just a decade. But these rising incomes don’t paper over the fact that the quality of education children have access to is still largely determined by their socioeconomic conditions.
Access continues to be a problem as well, with high dropout rates plaguing the system – especially for the lowest income students: only 23 percent of the poorest quintile of students graduate from high school. In addition, only 11 percent of Brazilian adults have any post-secondary education, which is below the OECD average and falling further behind.
At this year LearnFest, this point was driven home by Denis Mizne, the Executive Director of Brazil’s non profit Fundacao Lemann. Founded in 2002 by the successful businessman Jorge Paulo Lemann, the Lemann Foundation seeks to leverage innovative technologies and techniques to deliver better educational outcomes.
Mizne was clear that curriculums need to be adapted to the 21st Century if they are to be effective in reaching students. “As we have seen in all sectors of society, technology will soon saturate everything,” he argued. “Schools, parents, students – the whole education ecosystem.” He adds, “In Brazil, we have the basics: infrastructure, teachers, school meals. But we need students to actually learn, which is where innovation can really add value.”
There are also some Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) being developed as well, with Veduca being the most famous example. Veduca takes courses from world class universities like Harvard, Yale, and MIT, and makes them available in Portuguese – and their videos currently have over 230 million views throughout Brazil.
The American Ky Adderley is another example of the culture of innovation taking hold in Brazil. Adderley started as a teacher in Washington, DC, and founded his first charter school at age 30 in Brooklyn, New York. Then, in 2011, he took his expertise to Rio de Janeiro, where he worked with the local groups Sistema Elite and Gera Ventures to create a new network of similar schools. “Personalization, blended learning, and adaptive curriculum are all present in every debate here in Brazil,” he says.
As in all Latin American countries, the role of teachers is an extremely important part of the debate over education quality. Rafael Parente, who was an Under Secretary for Education for the city of Rio de Janeiro, argues that, in order to keep up with these changes, teacher education and training should also include the soft skills – team work, critical thinking, and adaptability – that the labor market is increasingly demanding of students.
Indeed, in Rio, the city government has made a concerted effort, through a number of initiatives, to instill in its teachers the values of being able to change and adapt – before they ever sit down to learn the specifics of new technologies. Parente points out that teachers are often challenged by these adaptations, given that they did not begin their careers as “digital natives”. But at the same time, they are still young enough – with most between 30 and 45 years old – to be able to learn new ways of doing things.
One key in the case of Rio, as it has been elsewhere, was getting civil society groups involved in pushing for new methods. In Parente’s words, “innovation is spreading in Brazil, but we need more bottom-up pressure, from civil society, from NGOs, and pressure on political leaders to keep pushing for reform.”
Adderley concluded “Brazilians are still not upset enough with the low quality of education,” nor do they demand enough from their political authorities. “There is more need of that in Brazil.”