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Learning through Play

It were the results of international tests that raised the red flag: students in Latin America ranked among the lowest performing in the world on standardized tests in Math and the Natural Sciences. In Argentina, the government decided to prioritize both of these subjects in its education policy.

In 2009, the Argentine Ministry of Education and the Inter-American Development Bank began to work together on a common objective: to identify teaching models that can reverse the trends of low performance in these subjects for children at the primary level. In a pilot, three inquiry-based models were tested, allowing students to learn through scientific reasoning, experimentation and, above all, group work, to find answers to everyday problems. These three models constitute a marked change from the prior practice of teacher-led demonstrations and the simple transmission of concepts. The three pedagogical models are: two designed to improve Natural Sciences education - Sciences, Technology and Creativity (CTC) and the Scientific Literacy Program (PAC); and one called Math for Everyone (Matemática para Todos).

The pilot program, implemented in a population of over 18,100 students in the provinces of Tucumán and Buenos Aires, quickly demonstrated its effectiveness. As Beatriz, a Natural Sciences teacher in Tucumán, explains: “This new way of working is as if you give children the possibility to look for information, open their minds; it’s a chance for them to use scientific methods, exploring, investigating, asking.” In Math, the results couldn’t be more promising, showing the strongest increase in learning. “Children who before did not participate, now achieve results because of the desire to win the game,” explains Carina, a Math teacher in the province of Buenos Aires.

Initial results

The aim of the pilot was to identify better approaches of teaching math and the natural sciences, reversing the trends of low student performance levels. Preliminary data from the evaluation have already revealed important changes after only one academic year.

Students exhibit a new willingness to learn, as articulated by the mother of a fourth grade student in the province of Tucumán: “She is much more motivated to go to school with this program. The first thing she does in the morning is look for her science book.” This new enthusiasm is a key factor in improving academic achievement, as demonstrated by the participants themselves: “We learn better in groups. We learn what others know,” says Lara, a fourth grade student in the province of Buenos Aires. In fact, all three approaches devised are based on learning through discovery research. Experimentation, group work, dialogue, and teachers who take on the role of facilitators represent innovations in the classroom. “Today our children learn science to explain things in their daily lives,” highlights Gabriela Sultana, a school principal in the Buenos Aires province.

This has not only renewed enthusiasm. The evaluation of the pilot program used both qualitative and quantitative measurement tools, including academic achievement tests, interviews, surveys and class observation.

Preliminary results

Initial results were observed at the end of the first academic year. Qualitative evaluation results indicate improvements in several aspects, including teacher content knowledge, professional self-image, and attitude towards student potential in these subjects. Quantitatively, all beneficiary students showed more improvements in learning than those in the control group.

The math teaching model had the strongest effect on student learning. Average test scores rose 44 points (close to one half of a standard deviation) as compared to 19 points (one quarter of a standard deviation) among students who received the traditional teaching model. The impact was especially striking in the Buenos Aires province, where the difference between the two groups was 34 points, one third of a standard deviation.

In the case of the two models implemented in the Natural Sciences (CTC and PAC), student improvement compared with the control group was only significantly different in the province of Buenos Aires in the case of CTC, and the Tucumán province in the case of PAC. In all three models, there were also variations by module, providing important inputs on aspects that need strengthening.

Implications for education policy regarding math and the natural sciences
The lack of consideration of evidence is a pervasive weakness of Math and Natural Sciences education in the region. In this respect, the pilot program provides valuable information on pedagogical approaches and teaching materials that work in situations where teachers have significant gaps in content and pedagogical methodology. Moreover, it also provides important information on suitable approaches for students in disadvantaged socioeconomic contexts.

Perhaps the most important policy implication is that academic achievement rises accordingly as we move away from the current practice of memorizing formulas. In all three models, students had the opportunity to arrive at solutions by themselves under their teachers’ guidance. However, we must acknowledge that many teachers felt uncertain as they shifted from formula memorization and automatic calculations in order to deal with more significant concepts. The qualitative evaluation highlights that a key aspect in addressing this problem was the combination of more traditional training with the continuous individual and group tutoring of teachers.

Because of the results evaluated, and based on the economic analysis of the pilot program (revealing PAC as more cost effective than CTC), PAC was chosen for nationwide implementation through an IDB-funded operation. At the same time, due to the brief period in which the CTC model was implemented, it will be continued in 200 primary schools. The Math for Everyone program, which yielded the most significant effects on student achievement, will also be scaled up with the help of the IDB to benefit students throughout the country.