Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 299 | Junio 2006


Latin America

What Must We Change To Provide Quality Education?

In this fourth and final article on initial education, Peralta argues that educating will never be easy, because it’s the most complex human phenomenon there is, While there are no recipes, theory, practice and research have taught us what we have to do and change to provide quality education and get better results. Having the appropriate knowledge makes committing to quality education an ethical issue.

María Victoria Peralta

It isn’t enough to guarantee the broadest possible infant education coverage. We also need to guarantee its quality. For many theoretical reasons and based on different research projects, it’s now possible to think about higher quality infant education in Latin America. It’s something we can achieve; it’s really possible. And it doesn’t depend on lots of financial resources, sophisticated infrastructure or costly teaching materials. It depends on recognizing that girls and boys deserve greater possibilities and opportunities; that we have to make them better protagonists of the era in which we’re living.

Quality criteria in designing
an education proposal

What criteria should be considered to ensure the quality in each of the processes involved in installing educational programs? Several basic ones have to be considered when designing the proposals. The first is that no program functions well if it doesn’t clearly identify the target population and its particular characteristics. If the infant population is dispersed or in the middle of a desert or the jungle, a distance learning proposal is needed, involving a traveling teacher and radio or television. But this is often not taken into account. Instead, there are just one or two models of infant education and they are applied everywhere.

This has been the story with the “daycare” homes—they have different names in different countries—that have been developed in Latin America, copying the models of developed countries. I’ve visited such homes in the United States and Denmark. There you arrive at supposedly middle-class houses—they’d be considered upper class here—and find a special bedroom for the children, lots of toys and a family that receives and cares for two or three babies and charges for the service. In such families, the father might be a lathe operator who has his own shop in the house and the mother probably has older children who can help her look after the babies. But when this model has been transferred to Latin America, the conditions are so different that you might find a one-room house packed with babies, depriving that family of its only communal living area.

The second criterion is the relevance of the objectives. If we propose an enormous number of objectives, from environmental conservation to poverty elimination by way of the fight against malnutrition and even the just demands of women, it will be very hard for that educational program to succeed. It’s essential to focus on just two or three relevant objectives. In most infant education programs in Latin America there are more objectives related to adults than to children, even though the essential, most basic thing is to define what we want the children to learn, what emotional and cognitive skills they should develop.

Another quality assurance criterion is the level of participation, consensus seeking and appropriation of the project among the different actors involved in education. There will be no family participation if we don’t plan it. And without family participation, without empowering the families as thinkers rather than mere collaborators, there will be no quality. The question that has to be put to the parents is: How should we go about seeking consensus around an early childhood program that should prioritize what the children are going to learn? In other words, what things do you want your boy or girl to learn? With this kind of dialogue and with consensus the program and the children’s homes share the responsibilities.

It’s also important to incorporate degrees of adaptation and flexibility into the proposal design. Nothing in education is or should be rigid. Models can’t be linear; they can’t force a sequence in which nobody subsequently moves anything. And as contradictory as it sounds, this flexibility has to be planned, providing moments in which the educators or parents will define objectives, and others in which the children and their families will decide from among a number of different options.

There should also be coherence and consistency among the different aspects involved in the educational proposal. Sometimes a supposedly very democratic and participatory proposal emerges, but when it comes to the evaluation there’s suddenly no room for dialogue.

Finally, the design has to incorporate feasibility and viability. This isn’t about abundant resources, but rather about moments and conditions. It will be tough for a program to bring families from an agrarian community together in the midst of harvesting, for example, when they’re concentrating on other tasks, so relevant precautions have to be taken when designing any program and its calendar.

We’ll fail if we have bad leadership

After the design, the second phase is managing what has been designed. What quality criteria should we consider in management? First we have to decide who’s going to lead the project. And for that, we have to analyze the quality of the leaders we have. Even the best intentions fail if they aren’t suitable. Are we open? Do we give room to others? Are we democratic?

Immediately after the return of democracy in Chile, all of our educational programs failed. Why? Grand proposals were designed and given to the communities, neighborhood boards were created and there were leaders—almost always women—so what was the problem? It was that these local leaders had been functioning for years with authoritarian models and suddenly a super-democratic project came along, so the leader set it up but without allowing anyone any participation, telling everyone what they had to do. Years later, when we managed to get the communities proposing their own leaders—some even proposing to rotate leaders—everything started to work better. The ideal leader is one who is recognized and valued by the community.

Another important aspect of administrative management is to distribute appropriately the functions to be undertaken by all the different project actors. The whole responsibility shouldn’t fall on the shoulders of one or two people. Functions should be delegated and it should be clear what each person will do. Care needs to be taken in this respect in any human institution, but it’s particularly important in an educational project attempting to create the right human environment for the growth of children and their families. It’s important to promote democratic forms of relating and working and avoid top-down leadership, a trap into which we fall all too frequently. It’s essential to have a leadership that incorporates everything to which the community aspires.

A third fundamental aspect for a project to function and not come crashing down is the capacity to establish inter-institutional and sector-wide networks and coordination. In Latin America we fall short a lot in this respect. There’s always jealousy and sometimes things work better at the grassroots level than at the top. It’s much harder to get three or four ministers or deputy ministers to sit down at the same table than to bring together a whole community. Coordination is necessary not only in administrative affairs but also in the educational and cultural spheres. Children can’t be kept within the four walls of an educational center if we want to encourage a “21st-century” education. If we want children who go to the public library, to museums, to handicrafts workshops, it will be easier to make that happen with a network prepared to help the children take advantage of all the knowledge, learning and experiences that await them outside of the center.

Empowering means circulating knowledge

The management model has to empower people. In educational work we have to banish that top-down conception in which the educator is the professional and the parents know little and are uneducated. Empowering means giving someone the power of knowledge. And that means making sure knowledge circulates. What do we mean when we say that we’re in a society of knowledge? We mean that knowledge is no longer concentrated in the hands of a few or in certain centers, but rather circulates freely so it can be appropriated by everyone.

We have to be careful with manuals that provide ready-made recipes of what to do with children, using texts that offer no appropriation of meaning and don’t encourage thinking about why we should do this or the other. Empowerment can’t be developed without meaning, without a reason. How are kids going to learn important things if they only get to write strokes and dots and only stick little bits of paper together? The important thing is to explain to them why they’re doing what they’re doing. It’s the same with the family. In the Chilean Education Ministry, we’ve designed a program called “Educating in the first years.” We started with the moms while they were still expecting their baby and shared with them knowledge of neuroscience, which even though simplified for outreach purposes still covered the subject in-depth. Just because they’re poor or have limited education doesn’t mean they won’t understand. If you show them an image of a brain and explain what happens in babies’ brains when they haven’t been talked or sung to from birth, how this affects their neuronal connections, you’re effectively empowering them. And empowerment is one of the great tasks that increase the quality of our educational projects.

We want our children to be
intelligent and creative

After a quality design and management that guarantees quality education, what are the other basic criteria for ensuring that such quality doesn’t start going downhill? These have to do with family participation. We can’t impart education without first asking the families what they want their children to learn, what kind of boys and girls they want to have.

The parents have to participate in the whole process. It’s no good just asking them at the beginning and at the end. The family has to participate in the program and in the classroom continually, passing on its knowledge and experience. There is no one alive who can’t contribute to the education of small children: a mother who knows how to sing, or knows about handicrafts or medicinal plants; a father who knows about agriculture, or knows how to fish… Illiterate people have a lot to teach. People’s dignity starts right there: “You know how to plant cassava, so could you come and show the children how to do it?” The families’ knowledge must be incorporated into the curriculum. Most programs don’t consider this and only use the family as “labor,” to clean the classroom or repair the little house that serves as a school.

Education is a great human process of striving for perfection, although we soon forget that. When things get all technical on us, we lose track; we forget that education exists for the human promotion of all: the children, the families, the community. That’s why interaction is so important. Without it we could end up falling into an instrumentalist and technological model, which is a trend of our times.

Research is demonstrating that emotional and cognitive interactions involve the aspects most relevant to the quality of an educational program. The emotional sphere includes the capacity to welcome children, accept them, help push them to improve, always say “you can do it.” In Chile, we reviewed our emotional interactions at the beginning of the educational reform and discovered that they were a total failure. The following were the typical contents of an authority’s typical visit to a school or kindergarten: “Hello, children, how are you?” “Fine, thank you!” “And how have you been behaving” “Well!” “And have you eaten all of your food?” “Yes!” Just what exactly are such questions validating? Discipline and what they eat. Have the authorities ever asked, “Are the children here good friends?” No, that never gets asked. “And do the children here have good ideas?” Questions transmit very powerful messages: “Do the children here help each other? Have they invented anything new?” When we ask these questions, we’re saying that’s what interests us. We’re telling the children we’re interested in them being intelligent and bright, not rewarding what children have always been subjected to: discipline.

Breaking routines

Quality is also at play in the way we organize the time involved in our daily work with the children: the school day, the daily routine, the activity timetable. The following is a typical school day: the children arrive, greet each other, sing a song, all sit down and tell what they’ve done, and are asked questions. Then comes the snack or some work, which generally involves group rather than individual activities, including templates and models, with everyone doing the same thing. If you spend all year doing a routine like that, it becomes really routine! The periods need to be renewed. They should be based on the community, on the children’s experiences. For example, five- and six-year-olds are at a stage in which they start to group according to sex: little girls and little boys. They like to do things together and go around with their arms around each other and say, “This is my friend.” In Chile, where they say, “This is my compadre,” one educator who saw this decided to set up a “compadres’ period” in her kindergarten, because they all had their best buddies. She encouraged them to get together, but on the agreement that they do something together: sing, recite, come up with some good idea…

Periods that are a routine part of the organization of daily time have to be rejuvenated, and the dedication of so much time to welfare aspects like food and hygiene has to be avoided because, while those things are important, they aren’t what interest us the most. What most interests us is the development of thinking, and that requires time and space. Any moment is interesting if it makes children think or makes them feel an emotional interaction.

Seeing change as opportunity, not a threat

To change conceptions and achieve quality, we have to install a model for changes. How can that be done? People only grow if you tell them you trust them. They grow in settings where they are respected and valued.

In Chile we have a model we’ve called “humanist-trusting in people,” based on the idea that education is going to work well if you, the educator with the power, do what you have to do. We put our trust in you to do things better. We make this idea explicit, even writing it down. All of our decisions are based on telling people that we trust in them and their capacity and in the capacity of the children and families; that they are the most important factor and everything depends on them. We also tell them that change is a process and we don’t intend to change everything and set it all up new overnight.

You have to present change to educators as a great opportunity, not as a threat. When educators who’ve spent 30 years working in the same, sometimes top-down and very routine way are told they have to apply a new educational proposal that empowers children, which is the 21st century pedagogy, and that children will play a very active role, they get scared and resist because they see it as a threat. I’ve worked 30 years thinking I was doing very well, they think, and now I’ve got to change? No matter how delicately you put it, if there’s another proposal it means they weren’t doing so well. This makes them clam up and not see the change as an opportunity. There are societies in which change is ongoing and seen as an opportunity, but there are others that are much more conservative, that see change as a threat.

But we’re not talking about change for change’s sake here. You have to change for a reason, whether to empower the children, generate brain development or provide some meaning for what they’re doing. Change without end or purpose is of no use. It looks fleeting, indecisive, unimportant. Nor can we just change all of a sudden, overnight. You have to plan the change. All research shows that when introducing a curricular change, you first have to establish the material aspects. The educational arenas have to be improved. So if your proposal is an active one in which the classrooms must have materials within the children’s reach and have activity corners, that’s where you have to start, with the most tangible aspect. You leave for later any issues with the educators, who have to re-examine themselves in order to change.

If you want to change, the help and support of your colleagues is more decisive than that of any supervisor, because you don’t realize the kind of interactions you’re establishing. In Chile we organize what we call “community educators’ committees,” a horizontal support network that has enormous force. It’s also more critical, because a critical observation by a colleague is much better received than one from a supervisor.

Power and the profound influence of beliefs

Research tells us that in a process of change, what the educators believe—not think, but believe—about the educational proposal is very important: whether they believe it to be good, just more of the same, very challenging or unattainable. Because the teachers’ beliefs are highly relevant in education, yet most of the time they aren’t asserted.

Those educated for 12 to 15 years with a very traditional, top-down curriculum and limited participation, where order and discipline take precedence, will believe deep down inside that it’s the best kind of education. And when they have the chance to educate, they will impose their belief in the value of a disciplinary, rigid education that puts order above all, even if it is explicitly written in all the curricula that education should be free, participatory and meaningful.

In Chile, the Catholic university of Temuco researched the beliefs that students majoring in early childhood education brought to the university, comparing them to those they left with after four years of what can be described as a very good education from one of Chile’s best universities, where educators are formed according to everything prescribed by modern education. The first thing the research revealed was that the students entered with a tremendously traditional conception of education, which was no surprise. The university banked on deconstructing such schemes and undermining their previous beliefs.

The surprise was that the same students evaluated after four years of learning and receiving a new discourse had changed in only a few aspects. It’s very hard to knock down beliefs that have been implicit in someone’s training for 12 to 14 years, no matter how good the new education is. Naturally there are solutions and changes are achieved, but this resistance indicates that such difficulties have to be taken very seriously and tackled much earlier.

Quality also requires our follow-up and evaluation system to comply with quality criteria. This implies evaluating the objectives with open options, because not everything interesting can be planned out from the beginning. The evaluation must be flexible and the evaluation system known by those whose work is going to be evaluated. This is a basic criterion. The more the person knows, the more growth there will be. The evaluation must be participatory and allow feedback, and the indicators must relate to the most important aspects. We once reviewed evaluation indicators and found that whether we had children who thought and demonstrated solidarity was hardly evaluated at all. What was most evaluated was whether they could jump with their feet together.

We’ve only been talking about
“quality” in education since the sixties

If you review all the texts of those educators who pioneered infant education in Europe—Comenio, Pestalozzi, Froebel, Montessori—you won’t find a single reference to the concept of “quality.” Why did those great, visionary educators never talk about the quality of education? Because they saw it as implicit to the coherent proposals they were making. Quality comes from a Latin word that means “inherent,” and quality was inherent in the proposals made by the founders of early childhood education.

The concept of “quality” in education emerged during the 1960s in an important meeting organized by UNESCO at the Paris Planning Institute. It was the first time a group of specialists from different disciplines had come together to analyze what was happening worldwide in the field of education. At the time, basic or primary education was already being universalized throughout the world, and as it covered almost the whole population a growing disparity was emerging between the discourse and reality. This hadn’t happened during the implementation of the first experiences, limited as they were to small groups.

The specialists meeting in Paris—economists, philosophers, sociologists, but no educators—analyzed why such a gap existed between the reality and the aim. They started to employ the concept of “quality,” although they did so according to the parameters of industry, transferring the criteria of efficiency and performance to the field of education. From then on the concept of quality started to be employed as an aspiration of basic primary education. Very soon educators and pedagogues realized that education had to create its own parameters to express exactly what educational quality consists of.

First step: Assessing the reality

Educational quality must be seen as something dynamic, which changes and adopts different characteristics. It’s not something fixed, but rather must be built up, like a building under construction. To achieve the necessary quality we have assess our current quality needs. But if we come together again in five years’ time, we’ll have to review whether what we defined then is still valid because quality will almost certainly demand a lot more of us five years down the line.

The first step is to assess the country’s situation at the particular moment to discover what the infant education programs most need to achieve greater quality. Then three to four years later this needs to be reviewed to see whether the problem persists, if it has been resolved or semi-resolved, whether to incorporate a certain criterion or stress another. There are no fixed quality criteria that are eternally relevant. Quality is an evolving process, just like everything else in education.

When democracy returned to Chile, our education was at rock bottom. Seventeen years of a top-down authoritarian dictatorship had caused a lot of pain and damage. During those years there was no family participation and everything was given to the children prefabricated because the educators had no real degree of freedom. So when the dictatorship ended we found ourselves with a very poor quality educational system. We had even lost a lot of what had been achieved in Chile before the dictatorship. At that moment we fixed as a basic quality criterion something that was apparently elemental, but was exactly what we needed: making the curricula active again. This was because the children weren’t thinking, didn’t decide anything, weren’t given the opportunity to do anything and just waited to be told what to do. So we said, we have to return to the ABCs of early childhood education. It may be super basic, but we’ve lost it and have to recover it.

So we vigorously started to plan a curriculum in which the children played a pro-active role, in which they thought, felt and acted, and built their own learning. It wasn’t at all easy because the educators, the director, the kindergarten, the system as a whole were all plugged into a top-down, authoritarian regime and it was hard for us to trust in the children and the educators again. After the first four years of renewed democracy, we analyzed whether we had consolidated “activeness” as a quality criterion and saw that we had made progress, that the kindergartens had corners in which the children could choose what to do, that the educators didn’t give them everything already done, that the children thought a lot more… So we tried to work out what the weakest quality criterion was. It was family participation, so we launched ourselves into strengthening it.

Parents’ meetings were prohibited during the dictatorship. It wasn’t at all easy to get families back into the schools, the kindergartens, ensuring that they turned up and expressed their opinion, saying “I want the education to be like this” or “I think my child should do this or that.” They were used to entering the kindergartens only to clean up, never to be treated like people who had a lot to say about their children’s education. So we started a campaign to get the families to participate. The kindergartens opened up and we organized weeks-long campaigns to get them to come in and visit, to help break down all of our mutual distrust. It’s something we’re still working on.

No easy answers

Many factors play a part in achieving quality. The worst thing we can possibly think—and many authors have thought it—is that it takes relatively little to resolve quality and that the answers are easy. One of my country’s ministers, who’s quite well known outside the country as well because he now works for an international organization, came to the Ministry of Education, analyzed primary education and decided: “It’s bad and to improve it we have to produce units explaining how to work with each grade, hand them out to the teachers and then with a well-designed and structured curriculum the problem will be resolved.”

What happened? When the teachers found out about these units and that the same recipe was going to be applied from the north of Chile right down to the south, they said, “Don’t count on us. We’re education professionals; we work with groups of children who live in different contexts. Don’t expect us all to do the same thing.” Freedom of teaching and the educators’ rejection of easy solutions proved more powerful than the minister’s decision. The units disappeared and the minister only lasted six months.

It’s always tempting to opt for the easy solution. There’s always someone who thinks that “if I buy fantastic materials for the kindergarten, then the problem’s over!” No, a lot is at play in achieving quality. It’s very important for the curriculum to have quality criteria, but we can administer it badly, impose it by decree, or even generate attitudes that hinder quality by applying quality processes poorly. Implementing a quality curriculum is a real challenge. You might have one, but if you don’t know how to apply it to a country, train and and enthuse the educators and manage the change, even the most beautiful curriculum will end up a dead letter.

A modern or postmodern approach?

When approaching the issue of quality, we can do so with a modern vision or a postmodern vision. The modern era was characterized in all fields, including education, by a homogenization of principles, grand truths, grand statements and stable and fixed patterns defined by experts. Postmodernity recovers diversity, plurality and subjectivity. It questions the grand truths: nothing said lasts forever; everything is in a state of ongoing construction, gathering in the world of diversity. Uncertainty is considered valid, which produces a feeling of insecurity among many people.

In the modern era, quality was defined on the basis of rational standards well thought out by experts and presented as universal. And because they were universal and produced by top-level specialists, they were put forward as unquestionable. It was also propounded that these principles could be measured and thus the complexity of the educational process could be reduced because it could be measured and was quite easy to evaluate.

A postmodern approach doesn’t consider that such universal standards exist, nor does it value them any more for having been defined by experts. It considers that everyone involved in the educational process has something to say about quality, believing all subjective viewpoints to be valid. It also views building quality as an ongoing process and that its revision should therefore be ongoing as well. It recognizes the complexity involved in achieving quality in education and therefore understands the complexity of evaluating it. This approach aims for all actors in each community participating in the educational process to question what quality means to them, rather than having an expert come tell them what it is.

Most reference books still have a modern approach to quality in education, offering well-defined, universal criteria ready to be applied and then measured.

Is “quality” the same in Denmark and Chile?

The postmodern approach is more appropriate, albeit riskier. You have to take the risk of asking the family, the parents, what quality means to them. As a professional, my idea of quality is children playing an active role, but I have to ask the family and be open to the possibility that their answers will be different and that I may not like them.

When groups of parents from vulnerable sectors were asked about quality in infant schooling, for example, they defined it as “teaching the children to read and write.” From our professional training we think reading and writing is for primary school; we develop other skills in pre-school. But if we listen more carefully to those parents, we can hear them explain, “My kids won’t get all the way through primary school and the most important thing for me is for them to learn to read and write as soon as possible.” It’s a valid, logical argument. We could get into a discussion with them, explaining that reading and writing is very advanced for such a small child and doing other tasks now can favor that kind of learning later. But whether we do or not, we must be willing to incorporate different visions from the real world.

And it’s not only about listening to parents and communities; it also involves listening to the children themselves, which is much more challenging. Some ask how little children can talk about quality if they only know how to play? In Brazil, I once heard a Dane presenting a research study that asked children in Denmark why they thought kindergarten was good for them, which is another way of asking them about “quality.” Most of them replied that it was good because they met other children. When I got back to Chile I decided to do the same study with the same question in kindergartens in marginalized neighborhoods of Santiago. And the majority answer there was that kindergarten was good because there were “aunts”—the term for educators in Chile—who played with them.

Why were the answers different in Denmark and Chile? Why was quality one thing in one place and another thing elsewhere? In a developed country like Denmark, where there are single-child families and that child spends a lot of time playing alone in the family apartment, the children felt it was good to get together with other children, which was what happened in the kindergarten. In marginalized Chilean neighborhoods, children have loads of brothers and sisters at home, and even if they don’t there are other kids in the neighborhood; the streets are full of them. In Chile, the mother of those kids—often a single parent—is busy washing and ironing and unfortunately has no time to play with them. At the kindergarten they found educators, or “aunts,” who were willing to play.

It’s so interesting to listen to the children tell us what quality means to them. A lot is said today about the pedagogy of listening. You have to know how to listen to everyone. All voices must be heard and recognized if we are to make the word an emancipating force, as Paulo Freire taught us.

The importance of evaluating
with respect and affection

Quality can be evaluated, but this usually involves applying very rigid instruments. You go to the classroom, observe the class, ask 10,000 questions and finally determine that the education is poor quality! The educator is left bewildered. There are hundreds of research studies on educational quality in Latin America and all of them conclude that it’s bad. There’s one kind of external evaluation in which the educators are treated as objects and contribute nothing. In some, the only thing produced is greater despondency. There are educators trying to do something with 40 children with the help of three little manuals and yet when it comes to the evaluation nobody considers the conditions in which they’re working and trying to develop quality.

One evaluation in an important Chilean public education institution reported that the educators’ work was of mediocre quality. I know that institution quite well, so when I heard this I made them see that the average age of the women working with those little children was 53. What are you going to ask of women who’ve been working with little children for well over 20 years, have lost both their waistline and their voice and are riddled with work-related ailments?

An evaluation of quality has to be respectful. Contex-tualizing doesn’t mean justifying bad quality, but it does imply understanding the circumstances and using them to analyze the quality. It’s easy to work on quality with 10 to 12 children in a fantastic school full of materials. There’s no great secret to that. The art lies in finding a way to work on quality when you’ve got 30 to 35 children in a rickety, poorly equipped place with limited materials and one tired, elderly and badly paid teacher for the whole group. Our Latin American educators work in very difficult conditions. Can anyone work well when they’re hungry and earning starvation wages? I’ve visited teachers in Ecuador who give classes barefoot in a house with an earth floor and earn less than $20 a month.

Many evaluations of quality in Latin America haven’t considered this, thus failing to show the educators the respect they deserve. People who have spent 20-30 years routinely telling children what to do no longer have the ability to step back and reexamine their teaching practices. In this case, the evaluation has to be done with great tenderness, suggesting, helping the teachers reflect on their practices. The evaluation must be orienting and illuminating. That’s the only way to make people grow, to help them change and improve.

Quality always has a context. It implies different criteria in a kindergarten in the jungle than in one in the desert, or in a marginalized urban zone or an indigenous community. That’s why you have to get everyone involved in a dialogue on the meaning of quality in each particular context and work out shared meanings, which in itself is essential to quality.

Quality criteria are different
in Japan, Sweden or Latin America

The classic pedagogical approach, which has a humanist philosophical focus, includes a predominance of universal quality criteria. One such criterion that would be valid for early childhood education anywhere in the world is that of active education, in which children play an active role in their learning. It appears to be universally valid because this active role seems to be a cornerstone of education. It’s an essential, central criterion that plays a normative, orienting role, and its universal nature makes it applicable in any situation. But how is active education interpreted in an indigenous population, a traditional population or a postmodern population? Different people will surely interpret it in very different ways.

When I first started working on inter-cultural education and asked the chief of the Mapuche people what they understood as comprehensive education—which is another criterion we might consider universal and for all contexts—his vision had little to do with our conception, which comes out of Western psychology. For us, comprehensiveness implies the child’s emotional, cognitive and psychomotor development. For the indigenous chief, it was the much richer cosmovision of a child integrated into his or her natural environment and his or her spiritual world.

Nobody would say that education shouldn’t be comprehensive, that we should only develop children in a single aspect. It’s obvious, basic common sense that this is wrong. But even within the Western European world it has to be asked how to interpret the idea of a comprehensive education. Some might say that 33% of the emphasis should be placed on emotional aspects, 33% on cognitive ones and 33% on psychomotor ones, while others might adopt the paradigm of cognitive psychology, considering that cognition already integrates emotional and psychomotor aspects. Yet others might adopt a personalist-humanist line, proposing that intellectual and motor aspects should be integrated around emotional behavior. These are three conceptions of comprehensiveness based on three different psychological theories within the same cultural tradition, so it stands to reason that conceptions from different cultures would be very different. What is understood by comprehensive education in China, a Mayan community or a rural community?

Another criterion is that there should be a certain proportion of children per adult in a classroom. For us, this proportion—which doesn’t exceed 20 children per adult—ensures quality. We further think that the smaller the group, the more likely we are to ensure quality. Well, that’s not what they think in Japan. If we look at the quality criteria for a Japanese kindergarten, they explicitly propose big groups as the ideal, a deliberate aim, and not because they don’t have the economic resources, as is the case in Latin America. They think that the educator should work with 30 or more children to produce greater quality educational quality.

Why does Japanese society believe this? Because it’s a society built on islands, with little space and a very numerous population. All images of Japanese cities show multitudes of people, and their houses are very small spaces. In such a context, the Japanese kindergarten accustoms the children from a very early age to living in a society with many people and very limited personal space.

One last example to help us better grasp the relative nature of supposedly “universal” criteria. On one occasion I was among a group of people who visited various kindergartens in the context of the presentation in Stockholm of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) report Starting Strong, one of the world’s most fundamental instruments in the field of early education. I joined the group that was going to visit “quality curricula.” We were taken outside Stockholm to a beautiful and enormous park where there was a kindergarten that looked like a house straight out of Hansel and Gretel, made of wood and surrounded by nature. The Swedish children were playing outdoors, where there were no swings or anything of the sort, just logs, stones, earth and sticks.

After half an hour of watching them play, I began to get bored because I see that every day in Latin America. I’ve come halfway across the world to see this? So I went to the director and asked her, “Where’s the quality program you offer?” And she replied, “You’re looking at it.” I finally got it: in such an urban society, the quality lay in the fact that the children could play with natural elements, as opposed to the artificial ones they normally played with. It’s a good example to help us understand that quality is relative to both the group and the context.

A classic and very revealing investigation

There are research studies that have tackled the issue of quality in education in general and in some cases in initial education, an area in which there is still very limited research, particularly in Latin America. But we now have certain clues and empirical field research is endorsing a lot of what we’ve been taking from theory.

One of the oldest studies that began contributing to the issue of quality in infant education was a classic research study carried out in the United States. They took four very different curricular models for working with small children: the first was relatively traditional, the second a “cognitive curriculum” proposed by the researchers and more recently imported and applied in several Latin American countries, and two others that were fairly consistent internally. The researchers followed a group of children taught with these four models for 27 years looking for significant results. They wanted to demonstrate that a quality curriculum not only has an impact on children’s lives during that initial stage, but also on their basic education and the rest of their lives.

This study is referred to at least once in every specialized event on infant education. First and foremost, it demonstrated that any curriculum will have an important impact on children if it is internally consistent, deliberate and has a clear orientation. The researchers thought that “their” rather free, Piaget-based cognitive curriculum would prove better than the others, but the same thing held true for all of the curricula. So what was demonstrated was that the impact is always positive, regardless of any theoretical differences, as long as the curriculum used is consistent, has clearly defined foundations, a clear intention, planned ideas and organized space, time, objectives, activities and evaluations.

The second thing demonstrated by this study has since been used in the public policies of countless countries throughout the world. Those children whose initial education included a quality curriculum had better results in later life than those who did not enjoy a quality education. They tended to drop out of school less, got better grades in elementary school, junior high and high school, got higher quality jobs with better salaries, held down their jobs longer, had greater perseverance, did things better, tried new experiences and were more open to learning new things. And they also built better families and related better to other people. As the researchers were gringos, they also measured other things: students taught with a quality curriculum were arrested fewer times and were less inclined to get mixed up with drugs.

This study was widely disseminated to the leaders of different countries and had a major impact. It demonstrated that as adults those children needed less state support, which led to the conclusion that the state recovered seven dollars for each dollar invested in initial education, which became a very important figure for politicians and economists. Although many, many things can happen in 27 years, not all of which can be explained by early education, it is true that its consequences are felt throughout one’s life. World consensus was achieved on that particular conviction.

The sooner the better...
and the poorer the sooner

One book that caused quite a stir in Latin America was Education and Knowledge, produced by the UN Economic Commission on Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) in 1990-92. This is now a classic text in the world of education and the economy. It synthesizes the proven benefits of pre-school education, showing that the effects of infant education are very positive providing it is applied opportunely and is of sufficient quality. It also demonstrates that pre-school education programs benefit children of all social strata, although it has a noticeably greater impact on such children from lower-income homes than on those from middle-class or well-off families.

It further shows that the duration of pre-school programs is an important factor in guaranteeing effectiveness. A three- to four-year program has an optimum effect on children, while a year-long program is of limited benefit to them. One important fact is that when children living in poverty attend pre-school for just one year between ages five and six it contributes virtually nothing to their development. They have to go when they are three or four years old for it to have a real effect. After that, it’s too late. Why? As already mentioned in an earlier part of this series, the emotional and cognitive structures, neuron connections, attitudes and tendencies are forming right from birth. A good decision-maker will therefore say, “I have to start as early as possible to offer quality alternatives of a longer duration.”

A research study by the University of London’s Institute of Education showed that the sooner the pedagogical intervention begins, the greater its impact on independence, concentration and sociability. It also showed that it doesn’t matter whether the children spend half a day or the whole day in kindergarten; what’s important is the quality of the time spent there. More time spent in infant education doesn’t necessarily mean more impact. It was also demonstrated that centers that attend to both educational and social aspects (health, hygiene and diet) achieve better results.

Perhaps the most important study today in the area of infant education in terms of its seriousness, the weight of those who carried it out and the countries involved was published by the OECD, an organization in which Mexico and Chile are member countries and other Latin American countries are observers. As already mentioned, the study has a very beautiful name: Starting strong. As the title suggests, you shouldn’t start expanding the children in a wishy-washy way, but rather start strong right from the cradle. This text, which included the collaboration of the best brains in Europe, makes a strong call for quality in education and reasserts all of the previous findings.

Why such good results in Cuba?

The best Latin American study on factors influencing quality in primary education was done by Juan Cassasús, a UNESCO specialist. In recent years, UNESCO has studied 12 Latin American countries, applying the same math and language tests to fourth graders to compare the results. The only country to score top marks was Cuba. Three countries—Chile, Argentina and Brazil—placed in the second tier and the rest placed in the third. The most interesting thing here was to study the reasons.

The Cuban case was studied extensively. What did Cuba have, what had it stressed, to obtain such good results in spite of its poverty of didactic materials? After all, there’s a pitiful lack of paper in Cuban schools and kindergartens, where children in the infant circles work with little pieces of wrinkled brown paper that have already been used on one side and little colored pencils whose marks can hardly be seen.

The report identified at least three causes. The first was social policies that emphasize education. Cuba is an educational society, where everyone has access to education and you can find a taxi driver who has a doctorate in linguistics. Second, the Cuban state is committed to social issues and teacher training. Cubans take the formation of their educators very seriously and guide them heavily towards research. Cubans research everything. I’ve been in many of their congresses and have seen some incredible research studies. I saw one female kindergarten educator who was researching why children arrived a few minutes late.

The third reason is the one I most want to stress here: Cuba is the only country in the world with 100% initial education coverage from 0 to 6. From the moment they are born, all Cuban girls and boys are involved in some educational program, whether in the infant circles for working mothers or the non-formal “Educate your child” program that teaches families how to work with their babies in the house or yard. All of them without exception are educated from the moment they are born.

Which is most influential: School or home?

In Chile a test is applied in fourth grade. In 2000 and 2002 it was a study of why some children get better grades and on both occasions it was proven that those who did better had received infant education. It was also proven that those who got two years of infant education did better than those who just got one. We now know that one year isn’t enough for children from vulnerable sectors; they need at least two. We also know that the earlier the intervention the better. And we know that the intervention has to be high quality, participatory and have an educational intent rather than be pure recreation.

Another study examined all studies that had been done in the developed world on one basic question: when you have good results in education, which is most influential: the school or the family’s socio-cultural surroundings? It concluded that in developed countries the socio-family effect—educated parents, educated women, books, dictionaries, computers and other materials at home, trips and interesting conversations—accounted for 80% of the good school results. The school only systematized and organized the learning. In short, children who happened to live in families with the resources mentioned above already had 80% in their favor.

In developing countries, the effects of the socio-cultural and family surroundings accounted for 50% of the educational influence, equal parts in favor and against. The school’s characteristics accounted for the other 50%. In Latin America, school and pre-school play a much more decisive role in children’s education than in the developed world.

The mother is the greatest influence

Using the UNESCO research in 12 Latin American countries, Juan Cassasús studied what had made the difference. He basically found that what carried the most weight in the 50% of educational influence attributable to the home is not the family’s socioeconomic situation or the parents’ income or schooling, but rather the mother, her studies. Children whose parents have lower education levels and work in less prestigious jobs have less chance of academic success. But disaggregating that, the main influence here was what the mother does. Things go better for children whose mothers are more educated, among other reasons because they feel she’s there for them.

So working with mothers, trying to get them to promote education, even to study something themselves, has more influence than any other investment. In Chile we initiated a program to give women greater self-confidence, greater security and increase their self-esteem. This included an important and beautiful program to give women dentures, because they obviously feel less dignified when they have no teeth and are embarrassed to smile or laugh.

Love carries the greatest weight of all

The “macro-cultural elements” of the home were also studied. This means, above all, what is talked about there. If no one talks in the house, if no one talks to the children, how will they develop language? Then there’s what’s read at home. Luckily people are increasingly likely to have books, or at least newspapers, booklets or catalogues at home. Public organizations, NGOs and health services all produce booklets and leaflets and there’s no longer the dramatic shortage of written material there once was, when there were houses without a single written text. Another influence is where families take their children. If they just go to shopping malls and never to a museum, a concert or a library, this is another limitation.

The influence of the “atmosphere” at home was also discovered. “Atmosphere” refers to whether a home is organized or has chaotic living routines and timetables, whether the children wake up, sleep, share, eat and play with any order. And naturally, the effects on a child’s education of abused at home was also discovered. Maltreated children don’t grow, learn or develop. And just as important as not abusing them is expressing affection to them. Peasant populations in the Chilean countryside find it very difficult to express affection to little children. It’s not that they don’t love them, but rather that in the traditional model it isn’t customary for men or women to touch children, be tender towards them or call them affectionate names. People can only really grow with love. Sometimes such simple things make the difference when it comes to a good education. Saying that children need love seems obvious, but sometimes that most obvious thing is missing, so we need to teach parents to express their love more and better.

Now we know what we have to do

One of Juan Cassasús’ books that emerged from this research study was La escuela desigual [The Unequal School]. Cassasús started digging around among the other 50%: why do children who go to certain schools do better than children who go to other schools? In the 12 countries involved in UNESCO’s research, he studied which characteristics a school needs to produce better results. He saw the importance of the school having basic infrastructure, although that doesn’t imply either a big building or big classrooms as much as architecture and spatial organization that favor suitable interactions and a good emotional atmosphere in the classrooms. The materials should not be kept under lock and key, no matter how good they are; the libraries should facilitate consultation, reading and taking books both outside the classroom and back home. Schools with fewer students per teacher—between 15 and 25—work better, although, curiously, things also go badly if the number drops below 15. It would appear that having very few pupils doesn’t encourage the teacher to provide better quality work.

. He also saw the importance of autonomy in school management in order to take initiative and exercise pedagogical leadership in both the classroom and community. In addition, the teachers’ professional autonomy in assuming their share of responsibility for their pupils’ success or failure also influences the results a lot. Schools work better when they provide systematic evaluation to track the children’s progress. And of course they work better if they respect diversity and don’t discriminate against little children on the basis of their sex or color. So it isn’t money that makes a school work better, but rather certain essential criteria and attitudes.

This study showed that efficient schools that generate good results encourage family participation at school, in the classroom and in all decisions relating to the school project. It also demonstrated that the emotional atmosphere established has more weight than appropriate infrastructure or the library. By “emotional atmosphere” we mean all of the processes that happen within the classroom. The pupils sense the classroom’s emotional atmosphere. They will learn less if they sense that the teacher doesn’t love, value or respect them, thinks they can’t learn anything, that they’re poor, peasants or weak. A good emotional atmosphere is decisive and it doesn’t cost a cent.

For me, this is most important research study produced in Latin America, because it was the first study of this importance and the first such qualitative analysis ever carried out. It offers us the chance to intervene in and improve various factors to achieve better results. It can be done.

We can improve education if we know we have to intervene at home, improving the condition of women, the atmosphere in the home, suggesting to the parents that they talk to their children when they come home, read with them every day even if just a page, talk to their children about the news they hear. And we can also improve education if we tell the teachers to show their children a lot of love, have great expectations of them, think they are fantastic and tell them so, not exclude them.

We’re facing an ethical challenge

Quality in education has to do with formation and training. But above all it’s an ethical issue. Maybe we didn’t have any fixed direction before, asking ourselves what we should be doing, what would be good and what would be better. We were following our intuition. But today we have “hard” research that explains where we should intervene to achieve quality.

Such intervention isn’t at all easy. Education will never be easy because forming other human beings is the most complex human phenomenon of all. Without recipes—because there aren’t any—we already know what carries most weight and what is most influential based on theory, practice and research. Because we already have the knowledge, it then becomes an ethical issue. If each of us helps circulate that knowledge in our different spheres, putting it into operation, talking it over with educators and families, with everyone, and we all become aware of it, we could move up another rung on the ladder and ensure our children a better quality education. It’s our responsibility to guide our actions with these Latin American theoretical contributions that will tell us what’s going to work best.

Education is one of the noblest fields in which a person can work because it’s about forming future generations with the hope of a better future for them and the coming generations. With a critical conscience, we have to commit ourselves to doing things in such a way that Latin America stops being a continent of second class citizens and starts to have equitable relations with the rest of the world. That can be achieved with social policies and a quality education that forms the hearts and minds of future generations.

María Victoria Peralta is a pedagogue and anthropologist who was director of Chile’s National Kindergarten Board for nearly nine years. This four part-article was taken from her seminar on “Quality Education Stressing Initial Education,” sponsored by Save the Children Norway.

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