When bad teaching is better for students


Oct 1, 2014

At the 16th annual FNESP (Fórum Nacional do Ensino Superior Privado), the largest gathering of all of the private universities in Brazil, I had the honor of meeting with many enthusiasts of blended and active learning methodologies. Although I had been asked to discuss the dynamics of disruption in education, I was even more fascinated to learn from everyone else about the very different challenges facing higher education institutions in Brazil.

Both countries suffer from social stratification in postsecondary education, but Brazil’s education system channels the more affluent students, who often come from private high schools, into free public universities. Lower middle-class students and workers, in contrast, pay for private universities, which are often of a lower status and also quite expensive. Only 278 of the nearly 2,400 higher education institutions in Brazil are public.

The nonconsumers of higher education in Brazil—people for whom the alternative is nothing at all—look dramatically different from American nonconsumers. In the U.S., we have approximately 71 percent of college-going students who could be characterized as nontraditional. These are folks who are often older than 24, are working part- or full-time, and have other commitments that interfere with the successful completion of their studies. They are also often seeking a different value proposition from their studies—one that connects more directly to careers and workforce needs. Ironically, the nontraditional are now the new normal in higher education, as the number of 18- to 24-year old students in U.S. is dwindling.

The country of Brazil, however, has a population of over 200 million people, but the number of enrollments in institutions of higher education is only 7 million students. Less than 15 percent of people aged 18 to 24 pursue a postsecondary degree. This is a totally different niche of nonconsumption that is up for grabs.

With the Ministry of Education setting a goal for a gross rate of enrollment in universities up to 50 percent by 2023, there are clearly some opportunities for Brazilian universities to attract new students. Unlike U.S. higher education institutions that are considering changing their strategies in order to home in on the new nontraditional student, the business model of Brazilian institutions may not have to change in terms of its target audience. Of course, this doesn’t mean that reaching those nonconsumers of higher education will be easy.

Indeed, in my discussions with those involved with the Laboratory for Innovative Methodologies (Laboratório de Metodologias inovadoras) at UNISAL (Centro Universitário Salesiano de São Paulo), it’s becoming clear that many students are clamoring for a different mode of learning than what is offered in traditional Brazilian institutions.

Antonio Sávio da Silva Pinto is the young director of the LMi, which focuses on six active learning methodologies:

  • Team-based learning
  • Project-based learning
  • Peer-to-peer instruction
  • Think-Pair-Share
  • Writing across the curriculum
  • Case studies

By 2020, Antonio hopes that the lab will have studied 13 in total. Some of these methods may sound familiar to folks who have likely incorporated some form of these in their classrooms; however, what sets the LMi apart is its controlled analyses of these six methodologies.

The predominant teaching method in Brazil is a 1 hour and 40 minute lecture with students rarely afforded the opportunity to participate. What is strange and somewhat nonsensical is that even though these are pure lecture classes, there are often caps on the number of students in a class. As an example, Antonio himself teaches constitutional law to 200 students, but because of the classroom caps, he is only allowed to teach 50 at a time. Therefore, he repeats the same lecture four times a day.

In a way, the inefficiencies of the current university system and static pedagogical approaches in Brazil have laid the foundation for an excellent trove of data to be collected on new learning methodologies. The LMi takes advantage of the multiple iterations of the same course by having its trainees teach half of their sections with their old methods and half with the new active learning methodologies.

The LMi instructors train a professor over the course of a two- to three-day period. They let a professor choose which methodology they would like to learn, but they also try to steer them in the right direction, giving guidance from past experiences of the disciplines that might not be as conducive to the deployment of certain methodologies. The new trainee must then incorporate the methodology throughout the entirety of the course—not just intermittently. That same professor can therefore teach and see how active learning compares directly with their prior pedagogical methods.

The LMi has now trained professors from over 54 Brazilian institutions. Within a six-month period of being trained in the new methodology, each new professor must then train five other professors. At the end of each term, all instructors must then provide all of the performance data from their classes (with and without the use of new methods) as well as anecdotal evidence on how things transpired in the course.

The results will speak for themselves in December 2014, when the LMi produces its first round of results. This is a fascinating way of scaling new pedagogical approaches while supporting reform efforts with robust data collection. It is precisely because of the inefficiencies of the “sage-on-the-stage” format of most Brazilian university courses, that the LMi will gain traction and ultimately transform the learning process into a student-centered one.

Michelle is the executive director of Sandbox ColLABorative, the R&D lab of strategy and innovation at Southern New Hampshire University. Michelle’s work in fostering innovation is an extension of her prior work as the senior research fellow in higher education at the Christensen Institute.