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Just one subject, until the end

The director of the Jair de Andrade State Primary School needed four years of much study and persistent work to break with the traditional teaching system and to implement a new pedagogical practice, based on learning through experience. But Marlene Luz was not alone in this task. She was able to rely on the support of an academic research project, coordinated by psychologist Heloísa Szymanski Ribeiro Gomes, from the School of Psychology of the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo (PUC).

Maintained with financial resources from FAPESP, the project began with a structural change: instead of the usual timetable of several disciplines a day, with 40 minute lessons for each subject, the school adopted the modular system, which provides for one subject to be worked on at a time, for as long as necessary. “As in this system the pupils study just one subject for several weeks, it was soon realized that the traditional method of expository lessons would be unbearable for both pupils and teachers”, says Heloísa. The solution found by the director was to implement the Labor method, already successfully employed by Associação Aldeia SOS, a non-governmental organization that takes care of orphaned children.

The implementation of the new method called for many precautions. To explain: the Labor methodology is based on learning by projects, that is to say, the concepts are conveyed from the pupils' real experience, which must necessarily result in a product. Thus, to teach straight lines and angles, for example, the children may work on making a kite. “We didn't know whether it would work well in a public school, where the pedagogical tradition is more deeply rooted and the classes are much larger”, she explains. Moreover, the Labor method had never been tested in the final years of basic education, nor in high school, which would call for good liaison between teachers from various disciplines. Even so, Heloísa went ahead with the project. And More; she invited another public school, the Giulio David Leone Primary and Secondary State School, to take part in the project.

In the two schools, the teams involved in the project were trained, and managed to implement the methodology with success. The results: an increase in attendance, more interest and involvement of the pupils in their activities, a higher degree of learning and of retention of content, active participation of the family, and a reduction in the level of dropouts. “This is all that an educator can wish for”, explains Heloísa. “And it proves the theory that you only learn what is meaningful.” The novelty was so well received by the pupils that they began to reject traditional lessons.

At first, the parents were suspicious. “They would come to the school to ask what was happening, because their children didn't want to miss the lessons any more”, the researcher tells. “There were many who thought, including some of the teachers, that if the pupils were happy and at ease, then the lesson could hardly be serious”. But it was. So much so, that one of the teachers managed to teach an entire class to read in the 1st grade. “This happened at a school where the culture was one of teaching only 20% to 30% to read, and admitted that the process could take two or even three years”, explains Heloísa. In the following year, the same teacher taught the whole of a 3rd grade class to read; 80% had not yet learnt to do so.

Another important result was the recovery of pupils who had quit school. A survey carried out with the families of these children showed that the majority had dropped out because the teacher had already told them that they would not be promoted to the next year anyway. With the project, all the children went back. There were 60 children, which means 10% of the total number of pupils at the school. But in spite of these positive results, when the project was concluded, the Giulio David Leone school went back to the traditional scheme. “The institutional support of the directors was lacking, and without this it is impossible to go ahead with a proposition for pedagogical change like ours”, says the researcher.

“Fortunately, the same did not happen at the Jair de Andrade school, which continues steadfastly in its proposal for offering better opportunities for learning, even after the conclusion of the project”, she says. In Heloísa's opinion, this outcome has made it clear that, for there to be a real and consistent change, it is indispensable for there to be total commitment of all the levels involved in the process. This is why she closes her report on the research project with this statement: “More than providing for teacher training, a project to change pedagogical practice calls for ongoing education of the directors”.