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How to improve math learning in public schools

With Such Bleak Math Scores in Paraguay, Do Methods Matter?

The answer to the question posed in the title is a most definite yes. In Paraguay’s Cordillera province, you can see why. The best part of the day for preschoolers at Escuela Básica 201 is when the teacher plays Tikichuela. Students stand up and form a circle and then the music starts. They jump, they sing, they play with objects of different sizes and forms. And they count, in both Spanish and Guarani.

Image removed.Changing teaching methods is one way that Paraguay, where more than half of its third graders are unable to solve simple addition problems, is improving math scores of its students in impoverished areas. Lessons from the first year of implementation of the Tikichuela methodology offer a glimpse of how Latin America—among the worst performers in international math assessments tests—can turn around test scores in a relatively short period of time.

And time is indeed short: if Latin America doesn’t do anything new to improve education, it will take the region 21 years to catch up with math scores and 42 years with science scores of students in countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Prior to the Tikichuela project, a team of experts led by the IDB education team videotaped what was going on in Paraguayan elementary school classrooms and compared the teaching with that of schools from around the world known for high educational standards, such as Japan, Canada, and the United States.

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Few countries in the region have dared to open this “black box” to investigate if their children are really learning, in part out of fear that they would discover precisely what was uncovered in Paraguay. The analysis showed that Paraguayan students spent most of the time copying the blackboard instead of solving problems and that classroom content was insufficient. All scenes pointed to procedural—as opposed to conceptual—understanding that bears little connection to the real-life challenges awaiting students.

For example, the box below shows a comparison of learning between Paraguay and Japan:

Image removed.

With results such as those in hand, and drawing on experiences from other countries, Paraguay embarked on a pilot project to improve math skills among low-income preschool children in both urban and rural areas. The goal is to jointly develop the ability to count and to recognize shapes and patterns, so numbers and counting becomes second nature. This makes it easier for children to then learn addition and subtraction when they start primary school.

The country adopted Big Math for Little Kids, a daily math teaching program successfully implemented in low-income schools in New York. Under the program, teachers follow a lesson script that uses interactive play to engage children in learning and apply basic math concepts in everyday situations, such as counting the number of objects in a jar or putting objects in a bag and asking children to grab them with their eyes closed so they can analyze the shape.

Paraguay then adapted the program to its country-specific circumstances and preschool curricular content. As a result, Tikichuela: Mathematics in My School was born. Tikichuela introduced elements of Paraguayan culture and made the program bilingual, since most of the country’s population speaks both Spanish and Guarani. In order to address deficiencies in content and teacher techniques, Paraguay brought the program to classrooms through short audio programs, a decision inspired by successful results from audio math lessons in Nicaragua.

The audio lessons—divided into 108 CDs of about a half-hour each—helped reduce the burden on teachers. However, teachers received training to teach the program and ensure that it was implemented evenly.

Based on the encouraging results (see the first infographic), Paraguay decided to continue the implementation of the pilot project for another two years and expand the program to the first grade at the beginning of the 2014 school year.

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