Olympic Learning for Brazil?

Smile, you're on cameraIt was far too short with so much to learn in such a large and diverse country as Brazil but nevertheless we managed to spend a few days there and left inspired but with as many questions raised as those answered which simply begs a return visit!


Brazil celebrates its 200th year of independence in 2022 and this perhaps sets a useful target for its nascent educational transformation programme. Currently committing over $15 Billion to host the Olympics in 2016 and $11 Billion to the FIFA 2014 World Cup it’s little wonder that the Brazilian public, who are footing the bill, are wondering why there is less enthusiaism from government to commit to delivering Olympic or FIFA standards to their public services including schools.


The disruptive history of Brazil is a good indicator of that which has lead to its challenges with public (state provided) education. From colonialism, outside interventions (ongoing) and military dictatorships to redemocratization it hasn’t been an easy ride for the Brazilians. Even today there are vast inequalities amongst marginalised ethnic groups such as the underrepresented Afro-Brazilian population, which is extraordinary when you consider that a recent census showed that 50.7% of the Brazilian population define themselves as black or dual-heritage.


The public education system in Brazil has historically been tragically underfunded and the status of teachers and educators undermined by successive governments. Over recent years there have been many attempts to meet the challenges of transforming their educational systems through the use of technology with a variety of national schemes including the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), 1:1 computing with Intel Classmate PC and various mobile phone programmes of which none could claim to have been successful. Commentators within Brazil have even suggested that these were vanity projects that merely suggested change but met other more commercial interests.


But grassroots activism, social entrepreneurship and public-private partnerships are emerging to meet these challenges. The country is so vast and diverse with a population of nearly 200 million that “change must be orchestrated in partnership with the civil society” as one government official told me. By this, he recognised that the creation of a long term plan that could transcend changes of government in a democracy could only be really achieved if the plan was owned by external social and commercial enterprises.


Gilbert Dimenstein

Our first visit was to meet with the people behind Porvir, an initiative of the Inspirare Institute, whose mission is to inspire innovations in entrepreneurial activities, public policies, programs and investments that improve the quality of education in Brazil. It is the brainchild of Brazilian business man, Bernado Gradin, whose family fortune was made in the petrochemical industries before investing in sustainable energy sectors and other social programmes.


Interviews with Bernado and the many people either behind Porvir or who share the same mission will be featured in the Learning {RE}imagined book.


The creation of Porvir is a not for profit response to the dearth of knowledgeable reporting in the Brazilian mainstream media about education. It acts as a furiously productive editorial office that produces daily stories about global and regional innovations in education that it makes freely available to the mainstream media under Creative Commons licence. The organisation runs workshops for journalists and lobbies mainstream media from newspapers to radio to television and online to carry insightful reportings on educational innovation. The objective is to engage both the general public and policy makers in the discourse about educational transformation.


It is here that I believe the world can learn something. So often “education” is regarded by the public as something that either doesn’t interest them, they have no voice in or is just plain dull. And yet in many countries we hand our children over to the state apparatus without a question about its purpose or whether the outcomes are, in fact, relevant to their childrens future or the well-being of their nation state.


Porvir’s vital mission then is to change that and it’s already bearing fruit for its labour by providing journalists and editors with a resource that enables them to understand the meaning and impact of education and insights from global thinkers and activists.


As a news resource for educators everywhere Porvir is worthing following.


NAVE RioWe then headed down to Rio de Janiero to visit the NAVE Rio School which has won numerous plaudits for being one of the worlds most innovative schools. Thus our expectations were high and we weren’t disappointed.


Literally hidden away in Tijuca, built in to an existing telephone exchange building the school is a partnership between Brazil’s largest telecommunications corporation Oi via their Institute of Social Responsibility, Oi Futuro, and the state departments for education of Rio de Janiero.


The school is a public, state school for students aged 16-19 and is a exemplar of how public schools could be in Brazil given the necessary level of support and vision from the private as well as the public sector. Competition for one of the 500 places at the school is fierce with some 5000 applications for the 120 places available each year. But also the demands placed on students is also fierce. Given that the school is compelled to meet the statutory demands of the state education department but at the same time is striving to provide students with marketable skills in the digital domain such as coding and design students work a 10 hour day, 5 days a week.


I spent much of my day with a group of students who showed me their school and took me to lessons. Like High Tech High in San Diego the school features a strong project based learning ethos where cross-disciplinary subjects are merged to solve particular challenges with the results being exhibited within the school building.


School in a Telephone ExchangeAnd what a school building it is. Policy makers who assume that architectural enhancements to learning are a folly should take note. The environment at NAVE Rio is one of the key’s to its success. Like High Tech High and the offices of IDEO in San Francisco the building is a design space full of collaborative common areas imaginatively decorated and lit. The inside of NAVE Rio looks more like the inside of a corporation like Google than the sort of schools that resemble prisons. In discussing this with the students it’s clear that this environment is key. Like employees of Google they are expected to spend long hours in the building while being able to meet the demands of the day, staying sharp, social and creative. Whilst both the students and teachers would like to see a shorter day, which may actually come to pass, the environment was compelling rather than oppressive and in my mind answers the question about environment when so many policy makers see it as an unnecessary luxury at least from the benefit of their leather chair in a luxurious government office 😉


The basis of the school being a private/public partnership is similar to the charter schools in the US and academies in the UK so I was cautious about the motives behind the investment of Brazil’s telecoms company Oi in this venture. Was it intended to simply be a training camp for compliant future employees willing to work 50+ hours a week?


Carla BrancoI put this question to Oi Futura’s Industry Liaison Head, Carla Branco, who explained that whilst mine was a natural suspicion the initiative was “not intended to create future employees for Oi but to stimulate local well-being and independent wealth creation within the community itself. If Brazilians are doing well then so do our businesses.”


What is key, Carla told me, “is that students from NAVE Rio generally gain entry to the state-funded universities which are far better than the private ones’. This statement was also roundly supported by the students who all have ambitions for future careers and not necessarily in the digital industries.


3 days in Brazil can never be enough, it’s a complex country with a booming economy but with a restless population demanding better public services as the treasury begins to expand. Unrest and dissent is the reality and indicator of a healthy democracy and one can be optimistic that without external interventions that Brazil can capitalize on its relative stability and growing wealth provided that it is distributed. If it can do this then it will genuinely have become independent and make 2022 a year really worth celebrating.