How Brazil’s schools are overcoming education inequalities through student-centred learning

By Camila Pereira, Director of Education, Lemann Foundation

With over 180,000 schools closed from March 2020 to August 2021, remote learning became the only option for Brazil’s 47 million students. Despite huge efforts by educators, public officials and families to support children while they were away from classrooms, a big impact on learning is expected. Brazilian education has long suffered from deeply entrenched inequalities and gaps that have been worsened by COVID-19. What solutions are needed for Brazil to overcome these inequalities?

The health crisis could set Brazilian education back four years, according to a study commissioned by the Lemann Foundation, which works to improve access to high-quality public education for Brazilians of all backgrounds. As schools start to reopen, it is urgent that teachers have the resources and support needed to mitigate this impact, which has varied widely between pupils. In this context, student-centred learning is a means of structuring learning experiences according to each student’s needs and interests. It means making sure each lesson meets students where they are in terms of prior knowledge and skills so that learning can be engaging and meaningful for them. And it also demands applying innovative teaching methodologies, such as differentiated instruction – adapting teaching methods to each individual student – in order to navigate nuanced classroom realities.

But with 35-40 students per classroom, this can be a tough challenge. The good news is that technology can help. With proper training and effective digital tools, teachers have the support they need to often assess students’ progress and assign personalised activities accordingly.

Our recent report shows that a combination of data-driven teacher instruction, student online individualised learning and active learning experiences generate considerable improvements in indexes such as learning, learning equity, school climate and teaching and student engagement, as well as a decrease in school dropout rates . One case study, for instance, looks at an experiment carried out over three years across 14 US schools enabling students to study maths at their own pace, through a combination of teacher-led instruction, group work and online learning. At the end of each day, students were tested on their knowledge and, using digital technologies, they received a customised learning plan for the next day. The students who took part in the project scored on average 23% higher on nationally standardised tests.

In Brazil, we at the Lemann foundation are working on the development and implementation of innovative teacher-training tracks and digital tools, for instance, with USD 2.36 million being invested in impulsiONar (a partnership with Imaginable Futures and IDB Lab); an educational and digital solutions programme for municipal networks to reduce and prevent learning gaps in Portuguese and mathematics for students in grades six to nine. Additionally, the Creative Schools Programme, a partnership with MIT Media Lab and a grant from the Lego Foundation, aims to advance the systemic adoption of student-centred approaches in the country, with the goal of reaching 500 000 students within four years.

But it is important to note that technology cannot fulfil its potential to support student-centred learning without a key infrastructure piece: school connectivity. Almost a third of schools have no internet access according to Brazil’s 2019 School Census. Even among schools that do have internet access, 58% are limited to speeds of 2mbps for the whole school, while the recommended speed in the US for instance suggest 1mbps per student.

To fully understand the problem and support districts to create a plan to connect all schools, we are mapping internet speeds in schools across the country working with a range of public and private sector partners, including the Brazilian Network Information Centre. The first step is the installation of a meter which records schools’ connectivity every four hours. This free tool is already being used in 43,000 schools. With access to up-to-date data, policymakers can identify where exactly to allocate resources to boost connectivity.

Last December, the Brazilian Congress approved a law that includes provisions to ensure high-speed internet access in all public schools by 2024. Additionally, in September, the government also included school connectivity as a counterpart for the use of the 5G spectrum, providing resources to achieve the 2024 goal. If this goal is met, it could transform our country’s education. Brazilian teachers realise the value of technology in education: 73% of educators said they plan to use more digital tools in the classroom, compared to before the pandemic, according to a recent Lemann Foundation survey. This means it will be essential to make sure schools are equipped with computers and tablets suited to learning.

Beyond efforts at a national level, we know from past experience that sharing knowledge across borders is essential to advancing education. To help design Brazil’s National Learning Standards, for instance, the Lemann Foundation brought together academics from around the world who had been involved in shaping other countries’ standards, including the US Common Core and the Australian Curriculum. Building on these efforts and ensuring Brazilian children the right to an education that prepares them for a meaningful and productive life will require further concerted efforts and international collaboration.