Education in Latin America and the Caribbean is facing an unprecedented crisis. The Covid-19 pandemic has forced governments to close schools in the vast majority of countries, forcing study to take place at home partly through computers and other devices. But many teachers are still unprepared to use technology effectively in the learning process. And there are long standing problems in learning, especially in math, where 65% of students fail to reach a minimum standard according to data from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), 41 percentage points above the figure in OECD countries.
The Covid-19 crisis could significantly hurt students’ earning potential, while closing them off from a technological world where math is foundational. It could also significantly impede the region’s long-term growth prospects.
As revealed in a recently released IDB book, however, there are solutions in computer-assisted study that can help teachers adjust to the pandemic and increase students’ motivation, critical thinking, and learning. There are ways to take advantage of the comparative advantages of technology to boost the region’s human capital.
An Essential Guide to Math Learning
The book, Learning Math in the 21st Century, combines the expertise of psychologists, educators, and computer engineers from Latin America as well as from the United States. It seeks to provide a guide to governments and educators in the region that can help them use technology in math education more effectively and catch up with the digital age.
There are many reasons to focus on math, specifically. Math is key to growing areas of the economy, including computer programming and data analysis. Successful teaching methods can easily be replicated across the region. And math learning readily lends itself to computer-assistance, given the importance of visualization and automatic and immediate feedback in the process of imparting math concepts and skills.
Unfortunately, math learning in the region today is still dominated by outmoded ways of teaching. The typical math class in Latin America and the Caribbean is not a dynamic space. Instead, it is one where teachers emphasize formulas and memorization, rather than concepts and real-world problems. Exercises are ill adapted to the different levels of ability within a classroom. Feedback from teachers is sporadic and late, and there is little collaboration between students in the effort to learn better. All this leads to a feeling among many students that math is dry and boring and impedes acquisition of one of the most important skills for success in the 21st century.
The Promise of New Technology in Education
Computer-assisted learning can correct for many of these weaknesses. Good software allows for everything from personalized instruction, where students follow their individual learning trajectory, to providing appropriate content to different groups of students. It can offer immediate feedback, not only as to whether an answer is right or wrong, but on the ways that a student has understood or failed to understand a concept. And it can motivate students through gamification, the use of games and competitions to stimulate learning.
An example of this is the ConectaIdeas experience in Chile where students combine twice-weekly, 90-minute math sessions in a computer lab with math tournaments between classrooms from different schools. Kids see on their computers a graph displaying their progress relative to other members of the class and to other schools. In the lead up to the tournaments, they help each other with math problems and train enthusiastically as a group, motivated to learn by the thrill of competition and shared triumph. The results are impressive. Students at 24 low-income primary schools in Santiago who participated in a 2017 experiment involving ConectaIdeas improved their math scores on Chile’s national standardized exams by an average of 50% compared to a control group, many times the gains from the most frequently discussed types of school reform, like lengthening the school day and reducing class size.
The Need for Better Teacher Training
Technology, of course, is not a panacea. It depends on well-trained teachers who are essential in guiding and motivating children in the new technologies and will always be the key actors in education. But for teachers to play that critical role, governments will have to dispense with mass teacher training courses, which tend to be theoretical, and adopt more practical ones that are tailored to an individual teacher’s grade and type of student. Such programs, as discussed in Learning Math in the 21st Century, could be far more cost-effective in helping teachers use the new technologies to provide feedback, and in deepening students’ conceptual understanding and motivation.
It is time to make the promise of technology in learning math a reality. That has been true for a long time, but it can’t wait any longer. The Covid-19 crisis, with its distance-learning and digital demands, has made the need for a revolution in math education essential, a revolution that can yield huge, long-term gains long after the pandemic has passed and students return to school.