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Bernardete Angelina Gatti: Toward better teacher education policy

A researcher discusses barriers and challenges in training new educators

Léo Ramos ChavesOn a January afternoon, the sober silence in the large meeting room at the São Paulo State Education Board (CEE) is disturbed only by muffled sounds audible from the street. “Today it’s delightfully quiet, but tomorrow it will be packed full,” says educator Bernadette Angelina Gatti, 75, who has served as chairwoman of the Board since August 2016. The next day, all seats will be filled in a session to discuss new approaches to evaluating higher education institutions and other matters. Every Wednesday, Gatti presides over the public plenary sessions at the CEE, a body created in 1963 to formulate policy for state and private schools and provide direction to public higher education institutions in the state. The Board operates on the second floor of the Caetano de Campos building at Praça da República, in downtown São Paulo. Opened in 1894 and then popularly known as the “plaza school,” this historic building trained several generations of schoolteachers until in the late 1970s it became home to the State Department of Education.

In the antechamber leading to her office, pictures of smiling children holding pencil and paper are a reminder of Gatti’s early career as a schoolteacher in the 1960s as she pursued a degree in pedagogy at the University of São Paulo (USP). Her experience as a reading and writing teacher and her doctoral research in psychology at Paris Diderot University, in France, led to her receiving a post as a researcher at the Carlos Chagas Foundation, a prestigious educational assessment institution, in 1971. She has since led a number of seminal studies on teacher education in Brazil.

One of these studies, in the late 2000s, reviewed curriculum proposals for 94 bachelor of education (licenciatura) programs in pedagogy, Portuguese, mathematics, and biological sciences and found they were sorely deficient in developing essential teaching skills—disciplines such as educational psychology and didactics accounted for only 10% or less of the curricula for these programs. In this interview, Gatti discusses the problems that still persist in the training teachers receive to work at elementary and secondary schools in Brazil and recalls her experience as a reading and writing teacher in her early career.

Age 75
Undergraduate degree in pedagogy from USP (1962), PhD in Psychology from Paris Diderot University (1972)
Carlos Chagas Foundation
Scholarly publications
Authored or coordinated approximately 120 scientific articles and 19 books

In your view, what is the current state of teacher education in Brazil?
We are still seeing many of the same, deep-rooted problems that have existed since the first bachelor of education programs were created in Brazil, and the mentality that to be a teacher all you need is to master the subject you will be teaching. This mentality makes little of the need for education skills. Teachers working with preschool-aged children or teaching reading and writing to children and adults will typically have attended a bachelor’s degree program in pedagogy, in which they will have studied education psychology and teaching practices. But bachelor of education programs for primary or secondary education teachers in other fields, such as Portuguese and biology, fail to provide solid training in education.

Why is the training teachers receive deficient?
Education training exposes teachers to aspects such as developmental psychology, the sociology and history of education, and teaching methodologies. This provides the foundation teachers need to deal with students in a classroom setting. It is nothing trivial to teach math to 10-year-olds. The disciplines of teaching practices and methodology require aspiring teachers to mesh pedagogy content with the subject they will teach. There are teaching methodologies that apply to subjects such as biology in basic education, but which do not apply to mathematics. I’m not saying that teachers are to blame, but the training they receive in higher education has an impact on how they perform in basic education. In almost all institutions, a bachelor of education program is still seen as merely a supplement to a bachelor’s program in the relevant subject area. Policy-wise, this discussion on curricula has never been taken seriously enough.

Is this a problem in Brazil only?
Teacher education is in crisis almost everywhere in the world. Some countries do have good training centers, however. Institutions in France, such as the University of Nantes, have set up centers dedicated to research on education practices. Similar initiatives have been undertaken at Universidad Complutense de Madrid, in Spain. Teaching is not only about imparting knowledge; it’s also about values, mindsets, and communication processes. Brazil needs to move in this direction.

What is at the root of the crisis in teacher education?
It is the notion that subject-matter content prevails over teaching methodologies and the detachment of teaching methodologies from curriculum content. In Brazil, the National Education Board [CNE] began discussing these issues in 2011. In 2015, the Ministry of Education [MEC] approved Opinion no. 2/2015 on the situation of teacher education in Brazil and the performance of our education system. The CNE opinion concluded that a major overhaul of bachelor of education programs was needed. This led to a resolution on a national common curriculum for teacher education that should come into force in July this year.

What will change?
Bachelor of education programs will no longer be ad-ons to other undergraduate degree programs and will have their own policy and pedagogical frameworks. At least 20% of coursework should be dedicated to training in education. It has also been proposed that bachelor of education programs should be required to include coursework focused on practical application as a curriculum component. This means that an algebra course needs to address teaching practices specific to algebra. A state resolution has been issued in São Paulo to align our programs with national legislation.

“Schools increasingly become a dreary place. Children become more constrained and their interests confined to formal learning”

What are some of the findings from your 2008 study on teacher education curricula in Brazil?
We wanted to learn about what curricula were being implemented by higher education institutions to train teachers. Working with my team at the Carlos Chagas Foundation, I undertook a large-scale, sample-based research project to assess the pedagogical basis of bachelor of education programs at public and private universities in Brazil. We requested that institutions provide information about their policy and pedagogical propositions, and the course syllabi and textbook descriptions for their bachelor of education programs in pedagogy, mathematics, language and literature, and biology. We found that these programs were not designed to train teachers. They primarily focused on theoretical training in the relevant subject area. While Brazilian legislation required at least 10% of coursework to be dedicated to teaching-related subjects, institutions were devoting no more than 7% of their curricula to those subjects. Bachelor of education programs in biology were training biologists rather than high school teachers. There were no courses on psychology or educational evaluation. I then redid the study in 2011 and 2012. Our findings were shocking and underscored the need to rethink the curriculum framework in which teachers are being trained at both public and private institutions. We found textbook descriptions that were entirely incompatible with the course syllabus. The textbooks for one institution’s educational evaluation course were largely works by Paulo Freire [1921–1997]. The problem, of course, is that Paulo Freire never wrote about educational evaluation proper. His focus was elsewhere.

And what kind of training do faculty in bachelor of education programs have?
In general, the professors training our future teachers have had only general pedagogical training, if any at all.

How can the situation improve?
Through discussion in academia. The issue has become so important that there has been a response even in fields such as medicine and engineering. There are now scientific journals specializing in teaching medicine and engineering. At UNICAMP [University of Campinas], professors in these fields have shown an interest in improving their pedagogical training. In 2010, UNICAMP created a Teaching and Learning Support Space to improve the quality of undergraduate teaching within the university. In 2016, a Higher Education Teaching Support Network [RADES] was implemented as a collaboration between UNICAMP, USP, and UNESP [São Paulo State University] to provide a common platform for pedagogical training initiatives for professors at these universities. While these initiatives are very welcome, it is important to bear in mind that almost 90% of teachers are trained at private institutions.

Because private universities and schools have more places available in bachelor of education programs. It is essentially a policy issue. In addition, many people decide to pursue a bachelor of education degree because they are unable to find work in their field—for lack of options, they take up teaching. The problem is that the training teachers have not received at university then needs to be provided by the public education system through continuing education.

How so?
Continuing education is typically understood as a lifelong pursuit of professional and cultural development. It is intended to build on an individual’s formal education. But in Brazil it has been repurposed as a way of providing the basic training in education that has been neglected by bachelor of education programs. This is clearly seen in the nature of continuing education programs developed by the Ministry of Education and state education departments.

Would you say low pay is another factor in poor-quality teacher education?
If a career as a teacher meant better pay, more young students would be attracted to it. There are also wage gaps across states and municipalities. For some subjects teachers can give lots of classes and this affords them somewhat better pay. Other subjects, such as English, sociology, and philosophy, are taught only once or twice a week. In these cases the hourly rates teachers receive don’t add up to much. We need to find ways to make better use of our human resources at schools. In Cuba, teachers with interdisciplinary training can teach both history and sociology. Others teach both math and physics. In other situations, teachers could devote their available time to thematic projects. This would require a change in hiring practices and in the curriculum framework itself.

Eduardo Cesar A plenary session led by Gatti at the State Board of EducationEduardo Cesar

Some private schools have adopted teaching models that integrate different subject areas together. Can innovative approaches also be adopted at public schools?  
In theory, public schools are not prevented from implementing alternative models. In the municipality of Americana, São Paulo, one state school implemented a concept called “learning blocks”. For two months, students would study only math in connection with other disciplines. In the following two-month period, they would study Portuguese. It was an interesting approach, but was ultimately discontinued. Bureaucratic mindsets often prevent novel approaches from gaining traction in public schools. Schools need to be given greater freedom to develop improved teaching programs. Many initiatives will initially get off the ground, only to eventually be abandoned. Some teachers, however, have succeeded in taking forward very innovative propositions.

Are Brazilian schools improving on pedagogy?
Most preschools have good teaching propositions. They understand that children are there to develop, learn, and enhance their interaction with the world, while also acquiring important cognitive capabilities. Things begin to change in first-grade elementary school. Children are no longer taught through fun, games, and music as in preschool. As they grow older, school becomes a dreary place that exerts increasing demands on children and the physical strain of having to remain seated in front of a white board as if that stimulates cognitive development. Children become more constrained and their interests confined to formal learning. Not that that’s a bad thing, but it could be done without precluding fun and creativity.

Not least because in adult life the job market demands creativity.
Initiative and creativity are what drive modern-day life in many sectors of society and are skills that come into play all the time. But students are placed in a little box. The few schools where children are encouraged to think and to create are by and large private schools. In public education, a rare example of this is seen in integral education schools, where teachers and students work together on collective projects and activities. There are now approximately 200 schools that have adopted this model.

Let’s talk a bit about your early career. You completed your undergraduate and bachelor of education degree in pedagogy at USP in 1961 and then ventured into mathematics. Can you tell us about this experience?
When I finished high school at the State Normal School in Matão, São Paulo, I decided to study pedagogy. At the time, undergraduate degree programs in pedagogy included mathematics and statistics. In the fourth year of the program, students had to choose an area of specialization and I chose statistics. I had long taken an interest in this field and I even studied mathematics at USP, but ended up not completing the course as I decided to do my doctorate in psychology in France between 1967 and 1970. My interest in psychology had also been a long-standing one. When I enrolled in pedagogy, there were then no undergraduate programs in psychology. In Brazil, psychologists were trained in pedagogy programs.

“It has always been my belief that education and teaching ought to work for the betterment of civilization”

So your interests were very diversified.
Yes, and the training I received was multifaceted as a result. While I never completed the course in mathematics, the credits I did complete were sufficient to master applied statistics. In France, during my doctorate research in psychology at Paris Diderot University, I also used the opportunity to attend lectures on applied statistics. I studied innovative descriptive models at a laboratory and used statistics extensively in my thesis, which I defended in 1972. I completed psychology credits as well.

In what way has statistics been incorporated into your work on education?
Two of my professors had a great influence on me. One was psychologist Carolina Bori, of whom I was a student in the pedagogy program at USP. I participated in some of her research projects, in which she pioneered the use of statistical methods in experimental psychology. The other professor was José Severo de Camargo Pereira, who taught statistics in pedagogy and psychology at USP. I also participated as a student in research done by psychologist Arrigo Leonardo Angelini, who also worked with data and statistics. This prompted me to further develop my training in mathematics, and had a tremendous influence on my career as a researcher. I could have pursued a career in statistics, but instead decided to remain in education—understanding the art of teaching had become an important aspiration for me.

Have you ever worked as a schoolteacher?
In the late 1950s I worked as a primary and math teacher. At that time I had already taken a keen interest in the civic development of students and not just the technical content of the subject area. I also taught reading and writing. At a leprosarium in Barueri, in the metropolitan area of São Paulo, I tutored the children of patients with leprosy. I was later transferred to São Paulo City and taught at a school near a landfill. I can truly say that teaching children to read and write was the most difficult task I have ever undertaken. Today children are encouraged to pick up pencil and paper at preschool and even at home, but not back in the day. Teaching a child to pick up a pencil and write is a challenging task. Children need to be followed closely by teachers with proper training. It wasn’t easy to address a class of 40 students who still couldn’t read or write and get them to write a note or a letter. I experienced first-hand the challenge it is to be a literacy teacher.

Did you feel discouraged from continuing your career?
No. I was already studying pedagogy and life led me to continue in this field. I attended university in the afternoon, and worked as a teacher in the morning and evening. I taught math to eighth-graders for two years at a school in the district of Aclimação. I taught reading and writing from the age of 18 and math from the age of 20. But I found ways to explore abstract subjects when teaching teenage audiences. Instead of diving directly into theoretical explanations, I based my classes on real-world problems. I learned this from pedagogy. I would ask students: “Why doesn’t this building collapse?” And I would show them the mathematics that goes into constructing a building—how math is used to solve practical problems. It seems this approach was effective because no students ever missed my classes. It was at that time that I began to reflect on the kind of training that teachers were receiving.

What were your interests in your early career as a researcher?
Exploring large databases to look at where teachers were getting their education. Some of the early research I published with my team in Cadernos de Pesquisa, at the Carlos Chagas Foundation, also looked at the kind of training teachers were receiving in continuing education programs. In the 1980s I also worked on a project for the MEC and the World Bank in a collaboration with the Federal University of Ceará. We evaluated the Rural Education Expansion and Improvement Program in a five-year study that collected data from a sample of 603 schools in Pernambuco, Piauí, and Ceará. We analyzed variables such as teacher profiles, school infrastructure, and the socioeconomic status of second- and fourth-grade students. Students’ ability to learn some of the most basic concepts of Portuguese and arithmetic was clearly impaired. We saw no statistically significant improvement in student performance over the five-year horizon of the study.

What led you to join the Carlos Chagas Foundation?
I joined the foundation in 1971 after being invited as a member of an education research group. The kind of research infrastructure and support offered at the foundation was not available at USP at the time. Carlos Chagas had the resources to support major research projects in the humanities. I decided to remain part-time at USP, where I began lecturing in 1964 as a professor of statistics at the Institute of Mathematics and Statistics. The advantage was that I could then apply my statistics training in research on education, a field that was then rich in theories but poor in data.

You left the foundation after 43 years. Are you still involved in research today?
I left in May 2017, but still work as a consulting researcher for the foundation. I never abandoned research altogether. I am currently heading a study involving researchers from the foundation and PUC-SP [Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo] in partnership with UNESCO. The study will update the data in the 2009 book Teachers of Brazil: Obstacles and challenges. We will also update the section on education policies implemented in the last 10 years. Our research will also identify novel teacher education initiatives that have been put into place in Brazil. We’re looking for truly innovative initiatives.

“Teaching a child to pick up a pencil and write is a challenging task. I experienced first-hand the challenge it is to be a literacy teacher”

Have any preliminary findings caught your eye?
It is too early for any conclusions. But one thing we were surprised to find is that many teachers are working in subject areas for which they have not been trained. For example, we found a case in which a teacher trained in pedagogy was teaching high-school physics. But the teacher shouldn’t be diminished for it; he’s making a huge effort. This is just one of many indications that qualified teachers are lacking in certain subject areas. Data from INEP [the National Institute for Education Studies and Research] clearly shows the mismatch that often exists between training and occupation.

How did you identify these cases?
Cases like these often crop up as we look at the data from INEP’s Higher Education Census. The census provides data about teachers’ undergraduate training, qualifications, where they work, and what subjects they are teaching. It is common knowledge that people with a degree in pedagogy will often find themselves teaching subjects such as sociology and philosophy, because there are few bachelor of education programs in these two areas. But we have even found cases of physicians teaching biology and lawyers teaching Portuguese to secondary students.

Is this allowed?
A physician can be hired as a biology teacher after all attempts to hire candidates with a bachelor of education degree in biology have been exhausted. Otherwise students are left teacherless. Brazil needs a robust teacher education policy, and this will hinge on a change in national policy. The Federal Government needs to provide more funding for basic education through FUNDEB [the Fund for the Support and Development of Basic Education and Education Professionals]. This should be concurrent with investment in expanding access to bachelor of education degrees.

How would you summarize your contribution to research in education?
Throughout my career, I have always advocated the need for better-quality teacher education. It has always been my belief that education and teaching ought to work for the betterment of civilization. Many of the failings of our contemporary society, such as increasing violence, stem from a neglect of basic education and civic development. I have also done extensive work in the field of research methodology in education.