Professor James G. Lengel, Hunter College, City University New York

This week’s guest blogger is James G. Lengel, professor at Hunter College School of Education, City University New York. Today, he shares Brazil’s practical approach to combatting the high school dropout rate and their efforts to prepare students for the workforce with 21st century skills.

Brazil's economy has been growing by 5% per year for the last decade, surpassing the United Kingdom (England) as the world's fifth largest economy. The United States and Europe are experiencing very limited growth.

Brazil’s middle class is growing, jobs abound, and this largest of South America's emerging nations is taking its place among the world's leaders. The commuter jet that I take to New York is made in Brazil; so is the coffee and orange juice I drink in the morning. With almost 200 million people, young and growing fast, Brazil is destined for greatness.

Brazilians recognize the importance of education for the health of their economy and their democracy. Since their recovery from two decades of military rule, the government and the economy have moved toward a free and open system that is the envy of many other developing nations. But most people in Brazil, today, do not complete high school. To remedy this, both government and economic leaders have focused on building schools that will prepare a new generation of citizens and workers for the country. Brazil has increased its spending on public education to 5% of GDP, about the same as the United States or the UK, and is ready to double this, as necessary, over the next few years to ensure a workforce and a citizenry that's able to sustain current levels of growth.

At two national education conferences in Brazil this month, I met the men and women who are leading this investment. They are not investing in the old technologies of books, paper, desks, chalkboards, and classrooms. They realize that to produce the kinds of graduates needed, the schools need to be different. So they are providing a tablet computer to every student, loaded with the entire curriculum. They are changing the teaching methods to focus on real-world problems, and building close ties between the schools and the industries around them.

As they build a new generation of high schools and technical colleges, they have opened many paths to governance. I worked with a school in Florianopolis, in Santa Catarina state, that's run, not by the local government as most of the schools are in Brazil, but by a consortium of local business leaders, SENAI (Serviço Nacional de Aprendizagem Industrial). The new school that they are building doesn’t design its curriculum around the academic disciplines, but around the kinds of skills and competency needed in the local economy. The teaching is practical and organized around real problems that students solve in small groups, like they will be doing when they enter the workforce.

The classroom at the SENAI school looks like an office or laboratory. Students work in small groups with computers and connected digital devices. As they work together to solve the problem presented by the teacher -- a foreman from the local industry -- they learn the math required for working out a java programming issue. Students call on the math teacher to help them figure out a more efficient way to compose the code needed to perform multiple iterations of a data set; then they videoconference with a professional programmer, who provides additional advice.

The student’s grade is not determined by a multiple-choice test, but by a presentation of their solution to a panel of experts from industry. The commentary and advice they get from this jury proves much more valuable than the grade they would have received under the former educational system. Like the work in the Microsoft IT Academy, these new Brazilian schools focus on practical skills and useful results allowing students to invest in their future.

 

 James Lengel earned his degrees at Yale College and the Harvard Graduate School of Education and has worked in government, academic, and industry organizations for 42 years. After serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Marshall Islands, James began his career as a public school teacher in Vermont, where he worked his way to the post of Deputy Commissioner of Education, and was appointed to a Fulbright Scholarship in China. James taught at Boston University and developed the digital media program at the College of Communication, and helped build a center for teaching excellence. James continues as a professor at Hunter College of the City University of New York, while consulting with organizations around the world on the application of new technologies to teaching and learning. James has authored nine books on education and communication, including Education 3.0 from Teacher's College Press, publishes a weekly column and podcast on teaching with technology at PowerToLearn.com, and is licensed by the U.S. Coast Guard as a Captain in the Merchant Marine. He cruises and races his sailboat Top Cat along the coast of New England during the summer season.