Left to right: LearnZillion CEO and Co-Founder Eric Westendorf; Lemann Foundation New Ventures and Partners Leader Helena Velloso.
This is the latest installment in a series of interviews we’re calling The Future of Curriculum. LearnZillion CEO Eric Westendorf is sitting down with education thought leaders from across the country to discuss how technology will continue to shape education.
In this episode, Eric looks at the role of curriculum in Brazil, where the Lemann Foundation is supporting the rollout of new, national education standards. He chats with Helena Velloso, New Ventures and Partners Leader at the Lemann Foundation.
The Lemann Foundation, a nonprofit family organization founded in 2002 by Jorge Paulo Lemann, works to ensure that all Brazilian children have quality public education and to create a network of talented people dedicated to solving the main Brazilian social problems. To achieve this goal, the Lemann Foundation develops programs that impact millions of public school students throughout Brazil and supports institutions of excellence that work for a fairer and more developed country.
In 2015, the Brazilian Ministry of Education published the first version of the country's national learning standards, known as Base Nacional Comum Curricular (Base for short). Drafted by a team made up of members of local and national education agencies, academic experts, and classroom teachers, these mandatory standards seek to define what is essential to the teaching of all students at each stage of school life.
Public consultations were held and the society was able to contribute to the document with millions of suggestions. In this process, the national learning standards document has been improved and its third version was made public in April. It is expected that state and local governments, as well as the public sector, start to implement the new standards by the end of 2017, using them as the basis to develop their own curriculums. The Lemann Foundation is working with Brazilian education organization Nova Escola and LearnZillion to build instructional materials from the ground up that address these new standards and meet the diverse needs of teachers and students across the country.
Lemann Foundations’ three pillars approach to transforming Brazilian education
We have a mission here [at Lemann] to transform Brazilian education. We don't believe that education has a silver bullet in which you do one thing and high quality education is the immediate result, but we do believe in a series of approaches that converge into the next stage of development. These are technology, working closely with teachers and education administrators, and policy.
We believe that technology is going to help close the gap between those who have access to great education and those who don’t. We've been partnering with startups all over the world that are bringing technology to schools and implementing those technologies ourselves in Brazilian public schools. We’re making sure that a boy who has access to Khan Academy here in Sao Paulo has the same content as a girl looking at Khan in other Brazilian states.
The power of bridging this gap, we believe it's something that education technology can help us with. Of course it's not going to do so alone, but it's an important piece of the puzzle and can be a great ally to teachers and students.
We’re also working on bringing connectivity to the schools. So within working with policy in Brazil to make sure that every school has internet with the speed needed for online educational purposes, [we’re working to ensure that students] also have internet connectivity that helps them stay in touch with technology and understand what can be done with it.
Working with teachers and education administrators
For a long time we've been working on teacher training. We think it has been very effective, but last year we took a step back and thought, "Well, what would happen if we trained education administrators - principals, pedagogical coordinators and the educational districts' staff-, so they were prepared to work with and help develop those teachers?
And so we developed an entirely new program that works with education administrators, making sure that they understand their roles and that they make schools a place for learning.
And finally, our third pillar is policy. We believe that all decisions should be made by taking relevant data and the reality of schools, teachers and students into account.
For example, Movimento pela Base Nacional Comum (Mobilization for the National Learning Standards), of which the Lemann Foundation is a member and the Executive Secretary, played an important role in the creation of the learning standards document, having devised multiple studies and discussions to guarantee its quality and alignment to classroom reality.
The time to enact lasting change is now
The Lemann Foundation has [been around for] 15 years, and we are saying that this year is the year that we really have to make all those pillars talk to each other and work together, because they're not going to make a huge impact separately.
We are catalyzing technology. We're trying to ensure the quality of the National Learning Standards and making sure that teachers have the necessary tools to really bring them to their classrooms. We're talking to districts, we're thinking about professional development for the teachers. So we've been working on bringing them all together.
I think there is a lot of momentum because Base is coming out and people are excited to see it. It really becoming a state policy that changed precedents in the country, since different governments in the past years agree on how important it is for education in our country.
It is a special time not only because of the momentum, but also because it is a huge opportunity to make a difference in [Brazilian] education and to make sure that we have lasting equality in Brazil.
Why have national learning standards in Brazil?
We believe that the standards are going to set a high quality mark for education all around Brazil. We don't have a [nation-wide] curriculum today in the country, and some states have made their own while others haven't. The same goes for municipalities.
The result of that is a lot of inequality throughout schools. So in the same grade, you might be teaching how to count from one to ten in one school, and in another school, in the same city or even neighborhood, how to count from 1 to 1,000. Teachers and education administrators all over the country have a very different understanding about what it is important inside the classroom.
Ensuring teacher buy-in
The Lemann Foundation has always discussed the issue of making sure that teachers participate in the debate in education, so they can actually be part of the construction of the education that we want to have in the country.
In 2015, we ran research to discover what [tools] teachers liked to access. What brands do teachers look for when they are looking for professional development? What brands do they trust? And Nova Escola was by far the first name that teachers always said. It was funny, because every time that I went into a school and entered a teacher's room, the one thing that I always saw was a Nova Escola magazine. It is a 30-year-old brand that teachers access and they trust.
So we [at the Lemann Foundation] thought this would be the perfect opportunity for us to empower teachers, and make sure that they are protagonists of the change in education in Brazil. Nova Escola is one of our channels to talk to them, to bring them to the debate, and it’s our platform for being everywhere that teachers are, and the resource that they look for.
We want to make sure that teachers have the right tools as well. Imagine giving a doctor a hammer. And so those tools evolve, and you need to change them. And I think it's the same thing with lesson plans, and thinking about how they evolve. They are the teacher's tool. So, we’re very excited to start doing this in Brazil.
So with Base being published, there is a lot of momentum in the country. We want to make sure that Base gets inside the classrooms, and we know that only having a set of standards is not going to be enough for this to happen, right? And so we're really thrilled with the idea of using LearnZillion’s methodology [of building curriculum with teachers] to help us develop lesson plans that are completely aligned with Base, and that teachers can really use inside the classroom. We've been talking a lot with teachers, and they trust the content that other teachers build.
In Brazil, teachers like to hear [from people] that go through the exact same challenges that they have, and who understand them.
And so it's not only content aligned with Base inside the classroom, but also content built by teachers for teachers, aligned with Base inside the classroom, that they can iterate on, can use in the way they want, that isn’t static on paper. We will be able to grow this material with them.
Keeping curriculum current
In working with LearnZillion, we understand the importance of having a curriculum that can be changed, and that can add new knowledge, new methods, and new ways of thinking. And do it in a way that considers that possibility of having teachers adding to it, and principals looking into it to make sure that it’s a curriculum that renews itself over time, and doesn't stay the same for 20 years. Which of course would mean no one will use it.
So that's something that we're going to figure out in Brazil. We don't have a national curriculum, but I think it will be really relevant to have a feedback loop between how Base, a state's curriculum, and the classrooms actually connect.
What is your vision for Brazilian classrooms five years from now?
[What I see is] the classroom where kids are really focused on the work they're doing, where you see the teacher as a facilitator looking to make sure that the kids have the right tools, and that they are doing the work that will lead to the best learning outcomes.
I love the concept of productive struggle. I think that's one thing that is always on my mind when I look into classrooms, that kids focus on that productive struggle. What I want to see in five years in Brazil are students really putting their best work into the class, and really enjoying it. They’re having fun at the same time that they are dealing with hard questions, but they could ask the teacher, they could ask their colleagues, they could try and struggle a little bit on their own, and I do believe that's how an engaging classroom looks.
We want to see the best learning outcomes that we can see in the country. There is a phrase that we use a lot here, which translated means "excellence for everyone." And I think that's how we're going to get there. With classrooms where kids are focused, teachers know what they have to do and they feel they have the support they need to do it, and there are many different ways in which they can deal with the materials to make sure that they're going through the entire Base [standards].
Helena Velosso is the Lemann Foundation New Ventures and Partners Leader
Eric Westendorf is the CEO and Co-Founder at LearnZillion.