Kickstarting Innovation in Brazilian Education, Part II: The Educators

Kickstarting Innovation in Brazilian Education, Part II: The Educators


It’s a problem for entrepreneurs that transcends boundaries and industries: How can startups survive in an environment that is slow to respond to innovation?

That was the question, repeated many times, by the 150-plus attendees at a session on education entrepreneurship at Transformar, a full-day conference in Sao Paulo organized by the Lemann FoundationInspirare and the Peninsula Institute.

The procurement process is nebulous at best; it can take 12 to 18 months--or longer--to close a contract, depending on what kinds of connections you have with the authorities. Even setting up a pilot for schools to test a new tool can take a year. Allegations of government corruption and collusion with incumbent publishers are abundant, fueling an overall distrust of the system. No one in the room of 200 offered specific advice beyond variations of “you just have to know the right people at the top.” Some on the panel advised side-stepping the public school system altogether--but at the risk of ignoring 80 percent of the school market.

If Not I, Then Who?

There are encouraging signs, however. Increasingly, teachers and principals are actively experimenting with new technology and teaching practices on their own. They will not simply wait for the government or education authorities to hand it down to them.

Gislaine Munhoz, a teacher at EMERF Rivadávia Marques Junior school in Sao Paulo, has developed a following among the educators’ community for taking it upon herself--and sometimes spending out of pocket--to bring technology to her students, who range from 8 to 16 years old. She runs a lab with twenty computers, where her students have created over 50 games using Scratch, the free programming language and tool developed at MIT. (She blogs regularly about her students’ projects.)

“It’s common here for Brazilian public school teachers who are pioneers with innovation to spend their own money,” she says. “Otherwise, it will never happen.”

Munhoz has become recognized for demonstrating the value of game-based learning. Her students use PowerPoint to lay out the storyboard and ideas behind the games, then uses Scratch to build them. Beyond computational and logical reasoning, students’ reading levels, communication skills, and overall interest in learning spiked. “There is also a clear improvement in students’ behavior,” Gislaine says. “There is less violence,” which is a common problem in her working-class neighborhood.

In Sao Caetano do Sul, just outside of Sao Paulo, two schools had the privilege of being among the first to use a new Portuguese Khan Academy platform. (The Lemann Foundation funded the translation.) In two schools I visited--Bartolomeu and Decio Machado Gaia--students in grades 3 to 5 had been using Khan for about two weeks. The principals there say there was already a newfound sense of engagement and focus in math not otherwise seen in students.

Since 2012, the Lemann Foundation has trained over 1,000 public school teachers to implement Khan Academy in their classrooms. “We don’t ever force teachers to use Khan Academy,” says Daniela Caldeirinha, part of the Lemann team overseeing the Khan pilots in schools. “But of the teachers who agree to try it, none have backed out.” By the end of 2014, 50,000 students across nearly 500 schools will be using Khan Academy in the classroom.

Students on the Portuguese version of Khan Academy.

If Not Now, Then When?

As the host of both the World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, Brazil will remain in the international spotlight for years to come. How the country resolves serious social issues like education will continue to be scrutinized and magnified.

There is cautious optimism that the government will be spurred to provide better social services like education--either proactively or in reaction to domestic anger. But it is not likely happen from just top-down initiatives. It requires a concerted grassroots efforts from public and private sectors across all industries. In education, rising group of entrepreneurial actors--teachers, startups, foundations and investors--are already taking action.

“The government is a reflection of society,” said one attendee at the Transformar conference. “Instead of waiting for government to change, let’s change our society.”

Disclosure: The Lemann Foundation covered expenses for my participation as a panelist at Transformar.

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