The Constructionist Approach: The Integration of Computers in Brazilian Public Schools
by Maria Elizabeth B. Almeida
Maria Elizabeth B. Almeida is a professor in the faculty of Education of the Universidade Católica de São Paulo in Brazil. She is also the coordinator for the Computers in Education project. She is presently doing research in the training of teachers for computer technology to complete her doctorate. She has been involved in the field of educational computing since 1990.
This chapter will discuss the implementation of computers in Brazilian public schools — from a few isolated university trials to the first national program when Logo was introduced circa 1983 to the present day. Despite the current widespread availability of computer hardware and software, the use of computers within the educational system is, for the most part, restricted to a practice in point or to computer classes. The chapter concludes with a reflection on the possible causes for this lack of integration of computers in the pedagogical process, pointing out the fundamental need for adequate teacher preparation.
IN THE BEGINNING
In the ’70s, Brazil invested in the educational sector to support the introduction of computers to Brazilian society. While concrete results in the educational sector fell short of expectations, researchers at Brazilian public universities continued to experiment with the use of computers in education.
The “Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro - UFRJ”1 was the first Brazilian institution to employ computers in education. Initially, computers were used as an academic research rather than pedagogical tool. However, in 1973, UFRJ, through “Núcleo de Tecnologia Educacional para a Saúde/Centro Latino-Americano de Tecnologia Educacional para a Saúde - NUTES/CLATES”2, used computer simulations for teaching chemistry in the health sector and hospital management (Andrade & Lima, 1993).
THE EDUCOM PROJECT
The use of computers for educational purposes was introduced to the public school system in the ’80s when the “Ministério da Educação e Cultura - MEC”3 supported the EDUCOM project. Pilot-centers researching the use of computers in education were created in five public universities. Each center adopted a specific pedagogical approach, associated with either educational software or with the use of computers as a tool for project development and problem resolution. Of the five centers, two were distinguished for the employed the constructionist approach: the “Núcleo de Informática Aplicada à Educação - NIED”4 at the “Universidade Estadual de Campinas - UNICAMP”5; and the “Laboratório de Estudos Cognitivos - LEC”6 at the “Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul - UFRGS”7.
The EDUCOM project was conceived and operated according to suggestions from Brazil’s scientific community, which set a new tone in terms of public policy. Unlike to what happens in other countries – as in the United States, for example, the educational concern is mainly with computer literacy, whereas in France, the focus is on promoting mathematical ability and logical thinking in students. In the Brazilian project, on the other hand, the computer was perceived as a catalyst to bring about pedagogical changes (Valente & Almeida, 1997).
This educationally innovative perspective (Andrade & Lima, 1993) was concerned with the development of critical reflection and marked a change in the educational approach — from one centered in teaching and the transmission of knowledge to a pedagogical practice that
prioritized the learning process and the construction of knowledge by the student. All The five pilot-centers for the EDUCOM project developed their investigations centering in the use of computer by the students in the learning process. (Valente & Almeida, 1997).
Despite the potential for educational transformation, the EDUCOM project limited itself to the implementation of the five pilot-centers and public school experiments (Andrade & Lima, 1993). While sweeping changes in the educational system failed to materialize, the ideals of the project continue to be disseminated by a loyal body of researchers.
THE FORMAR PROJECT
In 1987 and 1989, UNICAMP offered Computer for Education courses (FORMAR project, sponsored by MEC) at the post-baccalaureate level to 100 teachers participants like students from across Brazil. The goal was to establish computer centers in every state of the country and to use computers as a pedagogical tool and to act as trainers to other teachers. The development of the activities these courses counted with one teaching staff coming from the institutions with relevant experience in the area. Participants were provided with a perspective on the different kinds of theory and practice being developed in Brazil, with emphasis on the Logo approach. They spent two months learning how to master the technology, studying the underlying educational theories, and formulating proposals for bringing computer centers to their own institutions.
While these courses marked a milestone in Brazilian public education (Almeida, 1996), teachers graduates had to contend with a number of drawbacks. First was the inherent conflict between the imposed structure of the courses (the institutionalized criteria for grading, curriculum, etc.) and constructionist theory. An even greater challenge was the excessive number of hours of class a day, with 360 hours being completed in two months. This compression of time made it difficult to assimilate the material and to allow for more in-depth explorations. A further difficulty lay in the diverse computer backgrounds of the participants, which hindered rapid proficiency with the software while at the same time enriching the discussions with different points of view and styles of exploration (Almeida, 1996).
Finally, theoretical studies centered mainly on Papert’s and Piaget’s theories to the exclusion of other thinkers such as Vygotsky, Dewey and Paulo Freire, whose ideas would have shed additional light on the educational use of computers.
At the end of the FORMAR project, graduates attempted to implement the “Centros de Informática Educativa - CIEDs”8 in their home states. Yet their efforts were impeded due to the political structure of their institutions, as well as the lack of appropriate equipment. Eventually, the majority of the centers were set up, and graduates began to train other teachers and to offer free courses for students, using open-ended software such as text editors, computer programming languages such as Logo, and educational software such as CAI (Computer Aided Instruction). Although most of this activity lay outside the realm of the classroom, new interest in computers was stimulated while the contents and methodologies dealt with in the FORMAR project were widely disseminated. The FORMAR project has since been successfully adopted as a training model in various contexts (Barrella & Prado In Valente, 1996), although it has had to be adjusted according to the specific needs and interests of new training groups.
THE EDUCOM-UNICAMP PROJECT
Unlike CIEDs, the universities employing the EDUCOM project developed pilot programs within the school system. An example is the EDUCOM-UNICAMP project, started in 1985 and implemented at two public schools, including the EEPSG João XXIII. Using Logo programming language and methodology, teachers facilitated the interaction between students and computers while helping students implement projects related to the contents of each school subject.
The Logo classes at this school were taught during regular class time at a computer laboratory set up in two classrooms. Groups of students took turns between the two computer labs, providing equal access to the computers. Eventually, the two labs were merged with an adjacent classroom, joining all the rooms into a single space. Initially, teachers at EEPSG João XXIII felt threatened by the ease with which students interacted with the computers. While teachers attempted to control the learning process according to traditional pedagogical principles, students were surpassing them in their mastery of the computer language.
In weekly meetings, the teachers realized that they were threatened by the newness of the process and that it was time to review their values, concepts and teaching styles. In an attempt to fine-tune their own performances, they became more autonomous within the Logo environment, changing the methodology, making it more flexible, and providing students with the necessary information, according to the demands of their projects.
In the end, conflict gave way to cooperation, with teachers and students acting as partners in the learning process. For those teachers able to rise to the challenge, “the EDUCOM project is, and always will be, a path leading to new pedagogical approaches, leading to new methodologies”. (Oliveira at alii, 1993: 393, 386).
THE EDUCOM-LEC PROJECT
The EDUCOM-LEC, Project at “Laboratório de Estudos Cognitivos”9 at “Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul - UFRGS”10 conducted cognitive studies based on genetic epistemology. Trained in the Logo environment, teachers applied the clinical Piagetian method to promote autonomous learning in children. Research conducted by LEC had three axes: basic research (which investigated interactions with computers), researcher development and educator development (Andrade, 1993). New researchers were trained according to the practice employed by the International Center for Genetic Epistemology in Geneva. Here undergraduate students beginning their research training worked alongside more experienced researchers, promoting cooperation between the two groups and encouraging autonomy in the less experienced group. Grounded in the research modalities, the teachers’ training was carried out through service training and post-baccalaureate courses.
Initially, the hub of the LEC project was in the “Centro de Preparação e Iniciação à Ciência da Informática
- CEPIC”11, where the Logo environment was employed to promote cognitive, affective and social development. In an attempt to decentralize operations and to bring computers closer to the students, in 1987 sub-centers were created at both the pre-school and the primary school levels (from grades I to IV).
Throughout the research project, teachers with different educational levels and backgrounds were integrated with researchers and people with computer training. This assimilation favored a reciprocal exchange among participants and promoted the development of individual competencies.
The Logo environment called upon teachers to exercise a new role as facilitators of students’ learning. The teacher helps facilitate the student’s cognitive development through questioning that challenges preconceived notions and introducing the student to heuristics — a learning process that encourages open-ended exploration and individual styles of thinking (Petry & Fagundes, 1992; Almeida, 1996).
Teacher-facilitator training took place during programming activities, observation of students, and seminars involving theoretical discussions. This broad range of activities enabled teachers to experience situations from a learner’s perspective and encouraged them to become aware of their own learning process.
In the early 1990s, LEC drew on Jean Piaget’s psychogenetic theory to investigate socio-cognitive interactions of people communicating via telematic net. The same time, LEC’s current focus of study is on the processes of presentation construction, using a multimedia environment for learning.
WORKING WITH CHILDREN AT SOCIAL RISK
Children at social risk is the Brazilian phrase for children and adolescents who live or work, often to support their destitute families, on the streets of large cities. Easy prey for criminals, they are at constant risk of becoming criminals themselves.
In an effort to provide socio-educational assistance to children at social risk in the city of Brasilia, in the ’80s the public educational system in the federal district created a program called “Promoção Educativa do Menor - PROEM”12. It is support by the Educational Foundation and run in the Parque da Cidade School. Among the typical problems identified among children at social risk between the ages of 10 and 18 are learning difficulties and poor school performance.
Adopting the principles of genetic epistemology, the PROEM initiative is directed towards individualized student attention, taking into account the individual needs and life experiences of the child on the streets. Students may join the school, which offers eight grades of fundamental studies, at any time of the school year.
In 1989, the project “Educação Científica para os Meninos de Rua de Brasília” (Science Education for Brasilia’s Street Children) was launched at the Parque da Cidade School. Its aim is to promote the use of computers in educational activities to awaken an interest in learning and to pave the way for the student’s professional development (Valente, 1993b). The computer, together with Logo methodology and applications programs (text editor, electronic spreadsheet, data base manager), are used as tools for problem resolution and project implementation. The curriculum is tailored to the individual needs of students, according to personal interests, styles and levels of development.
Teachers, administrators and researchers tracking the progress of students in the program report an increase in self-respect and motivation to learn, along with an acquisition of the necessary groundwork for a professional career in the field of computer science (Valente, 1993b; Macedo & Suguri, 1992).
A case in point is 26-year-old Juracy, who presently works as a computer assistant and hosts programs at a community radio station. Juracy came with his family (parents and five siblings) from a small city in the Northeastern dry lands to live in one of the cities around Brasilia. Although abused by his father, Juracy worked as a car attendant at a grocery store parking lot to help support his family. At 9 years of age, the illiterate child joined PROEM and was soon recognized as a diligent student.
When the project “Science Education for Brasilia’s Street Children” was launched, Juracy was chosen for a teaching assistantship, which he combined with his studies and work (Valente, 1993b). As a teaching assistant, he specialized in Logo, developing free programs using the Logo language, including a simulation of the solar system. While not every PROEM graduate has achieved the same degree of success as Juracy, most students were strongly affected by their experience at the school. In the case of Ronaldo, who was undisciplined, aggressive, and plagued by learning difficulties, the Logo environment helped him to become more cooperative, independent and self-confident. The ordered programming world enabled him to create his own private microworld, where he felt more secure and in control (Valente, 1993b).
THE DISSEMINATION OF EDUCOMAND OF FORMAR
The EDUCOM and FORMAR projects were implemented at research centers and then branched out to the educational system as experimental pilot programs. The introduction of computers at public schools brought about a bold proposal for changes in the educational process. This new perspective, in contrast to the prevailing technocentric view of the ’60s, caused some discomfort in observers of Brazilian education.
Once this initial resistance was overcome, there followed a period of stagnation in terms of public policy and investment, which lasted until 1996. At the same time, a line of IBM-PC compatible microcomputers was launched in the national market, rendering obsolete existing equipment and software. Many projects already underway also came to an abrupt halt, all of which prompted reflection on the possibilities of continuity and the search for new paths. At the same time that several educational institutions abandoned their computer studies, others took the initiative to delve into the field. Some universities created disciplines for the study of the pedagogical use of computers at the undergraduate level, while others established interdisciplinary studies on new technologies and education. A case in point is the strictu-sensu post-graduate program offered at the “Universidade Católica de São Paulo – PUC”13 and the “Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul – UFRGS”.
JOINING FORCES WITH OAS
In recognition of the innovative Brazilian plan for the integration of computers into the educational system, the Department for Educational Studies of the Organization of American States (OAS) invited Brazil’s Ministry for Education and Culture (MEC) to propose a project for multinational cooperation among Latin American countries. The multinational project for Computer Sciences Applied to Elementary Education encompassed eight countries and was approved by OAS in 1989. With Brazil in the leadership role (Petrópolis, 1989), the project spanned five years (1990-95), but was suspended in 1992, due to a lack of resources that prevented Brazil from paying the annual dues.
The dual purpose of the project was to identify common concerns in terms of research and human resources development for the implementation of computers in education, as well as to secure subsidies for the expansion of the multinational project. From these initiatives emerged the principles underlying the cooperative venture: participation, integration, solidarity, diversity and respect for different cultures (Moraes, 1997).
As mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, the use of computers for educational purposes in Brazil was launched by the EDUCOM and FORMAR projects. As a result of the FORMAR project, computer centers devoted to the training of school teachers and to the promotion of courses in the public school system were established in most states. Despite the lack of new investments and programs from the federal government, new initiatives for computer education multiplied, reaching other sectors at the municipal level and within private institutions. Until the appearance of IBM-PC compatibles, CAI and Logo language software were used in conjunction with 8 bit computers. The widespread growth of microcomputers invalidated the existing educational software and deprived the Logo working groups of software to use with the new equipment. The production of educational software was put on hold until a translation of foreign software into Portuguese became available.
The Windows environment posed additional challenges to researchers working with a constructionist approach. Questions emerged, such as how to adapt mouse clicks to Logo programming and how to continue drawing with a turtle in light of modern drawing editors such as Paintbrush. These explorations led to a more in-depth examination of the constructionist approach, which was tested in computer environments outside the realm of Logo. The result was the creation and the application of the description-execution-reflection-debugging cycle detailed by, among others, Papert (1985, 1994), Valente (1996, 1993a), Prado (1993) and Almeida (1995, 1996).
THE FIRST LOGO STUDY GROUP
The aforementioned questioning gave rise to the “1o Grupo de Estudos Logo”14 at UNICAMP-NIED in March of ’94. Discussion revolved around the role and training of teachers in the Logo environment and the characteristics of the Logo language. To prepare for the two-day meeting, each participant was requested to write one or more essays, exploring the topics to be discussed. The essays were sent to the participants in advance so that they could familiarize themselves with different perspectives prior to the meeting.
At the meeting, the principal emphasis was on clarifying the function of the teacher in the Logo environment and setting training procedures and performance standards. After the meeting, the essays and seminars were published in the form of a book entitled “O professor no ambiente Logo: formação e atuação” (The Teacher and the
Logo Environment: Training and Performance), edited by José Armando Valente.
Below are the main ideas advanced by the participants in the study group, whose collective knowledge, enriched by individual study and related experience, is of fundamental importance to future investigations.
The primary role of teachers working with the Logo approach is to facilitate the student’s learning process, which marks a departure from the traditional classroom role of a teacher (Fagundes In Valente, 1996). In acting not as an instructor, but as a guide to students’ learning through exploration and individual discovery, the teacher redefines the goal of teaching (Bustamante In Valente, 1996).
This innovative view of the teacher’s complementary role in the learning process demands a shift in training. In order to realize Papert’s view of the learner as the builder of knowledge, the teacher needs adequate preparation in the constructionist approach. This implies familiarity with the intertwining of theories related to the construction of knowledge, such as those of Piaget, Vygotsky, Paulo Freire and Papert (Almeida, 1996). Methodology specific to the Logo environment must also be acquired, according to the action, reflection and debugging cycle (Valente, 1996). Teachers must consider the different levels of reflection to allow for the assimilation of concepts, strategies and computer techniques, while conducting an analysis of computer bugs and the subsequent debugging.
The constructionist approach reaches beyond computational boundaries (Bustamante in Valente, 1996) to transform the educational process. In an environment that prizes dialogue, students learn to test and reformulate hypotheses and to build and re-build knowledge, all the while embracing ongoing technological development. (Fagundes in Valente, 1996).
In light of the fact that the Logo approach is a novel way of using new technology for educational purposes, an attempt has been made to apply constructionism to other pedagogical practices involving the use of open-ended software, such as authorship programs, text processors, design editors, electronic spreadsheets and data base managers. Applying this approach to the relevant software, students may teach the computer how to develop a presentation on a specific theme, how to solve a problem situation, or how to implement a project. The student — active builder of his or her own mental structures (Papert, 1985) — constructs knowledge in accordance with the topic under study. The computer, guided by the student, allows for the integration of content and promotes the development of new and more complex thinking structures.
The teacher, no longer a transmitter of information, acts as the student’s mediator, facilitator and consultant. In a flexible partnership with students, the teacher questions and challenges them, welcomes their collective input on selecting topics for study and setting targets, and invites them to verbalize their difficulties and discoveries. In this atmosphere of freedom and responsibility, students develop creativity and autonomy as they construct their own knowledge through experimentation, error and reflection. In order to create this environment, the teacher must have the opportunity to analyze and re-elaborate their own pedagogical practice, respecting individual styles. This is only viable through a process of continuous training that articulate the abilities required for the computer with pedagogical practice and educational theories.
THE PROINFO PROJECT
In 1996, MEC established the “Programa Nacional de Informática na Educação - PROINFO”15, which plans to implement computers in 13.5% of Brazilian public schools with more than 150 students at the elementary and secondary levels. This program is distinguished from previous ones through its emphasis on providing underprivileged students in the public school system with computers. Each state in the country has autonomy to define its own proposal. Schools wishing to apply to the program must submit to the “Secretaria Estadual de Educação”16 a proposal, detailing how the computers will be used as a pedagogical tool. Although there are no set guidelines on theoretical concepts, most state projects focus on the attainment of knowledge through the development of curriculum- related thematic projects, representing a change in the educational process.
“Núcleos de Tecnologia Educacional - NTEs”17, have also been created to serve as a training ground for teachers and as centers for the dissemination of experiences. The training of teachers multipliers of NTEs is comprised at the courses of post-baccalaureate of a minimum of 360 hours of courses that cover the fundamentals of education, the development of projects, and the pedagogical use of different software. Each course provides a different emphasis, but the underlying focus is on the use of open environments, such as text processors, data base manager, electronic spreadsheet, the Internet and different versions of Logo.
Since there are not enough teaching staff with experience in the pedagogical use of computers, courses of post- baccalaureate are frequently taught by a teacher from either the computer science or educational field. A dichotomy in practice may result, since these professionals often lack experience in both fields.
Presently, MEC, backed by the “Comitê Assessor de Informática na Educação”18 is engaged in a teacher development action that will re-orient activities in the new courses and in the classroom. The new proposals for groups under training should help create a better balance between theory and practice, action and reflection, computer expertise and pedagogical resources. Besides should contemplate to the teachers in training the opportunity of to act as observer and as mediator in activities using computers with students, so that they has ability to rebuild these experiences in your educational reality.
COMPUTERS AT PUBLIC STATE OWNED SCHOOLS INSÃO PAULO
Besides PROINFO (the National Program), some states are investing in similar projects with their own distinguishing characteristics. The “Programa de Educação Continuada – Inovações no Ensino Básico, PEC-IEB”19 at the state of São Paulo deals with computers in education as a subproject. Teachers are trained in the pedagogical use of computers through joint programs at universities, including the “Universidade Católica de São Paulo – PUC”.
Beginning in September 1997, the subproject “Informática na Educação” (Computers in Education) has offered weekly workshops in theory and practice at the school’s laboratory. The primary objective is to provide the teacher with an understanding that the computer is not a threat to his or her profession, but rather a tool to enrich the practice of teaching.
At first, teachers in training act as learners in relation to computers, creating scenarios and texts, producing journals and implementing projects. The activities are designed to promote the development of creativity, cooperation and self-esteem, and to encourage reflection on the learning and teaching process.
Teachers then move on to explore and analyze educational software of diverse theoretical backgrounds, reflecting upon their potential and limitations for use in pedagogical practice. Proposals for the use of computational resources for students are detailed with the emphasis on partnership and cooperation. Teachers also work together with students on creating interdisciplinary projects for the use of computers.
Such a collaborative approach on the part of teachers marks a radical departure from the traditionally directive and instructional classroom format. This transformation of public schools is evident in the projects developed by these teachers in training. Take, for example, two projects implemented at EEPSG Pietro Petri, located in the outskirts of a small town near São Paulo. The Photo School project was initiated by the Arts teacher, who began by exploring the history of photography. Next, he had students manipulate cameras and explore the software “Como as Coisas Funcionam“ (How Things Work). Then, students visited a photo laboratory and, together with the teacher, created computer designs, texts and presentations. At this same school, a group of teachers from different disciplines is developing a joint project with students on health and epidemiology. They interviewed the City Secretary for the Health Sector and are creating a computer map that pinpoints focal disease areas. After analyzing the project, the training group suggested the integration of the two projects (Photography and Epidemiology). Teachers and students are visiting the locations and rural schools most prone to epidemic diseases, while suggesting preventive measures to people living in the area. They interview teachers and students at the schools, collect data and take photographs on location. They will then convert the data collected into tables and graphs, interpret the results, and develop projects using MicroWorlds to disseminate the information. The goals of the project are to eradicate the disease-causing insects and determine ways to improve sanitary conditions and the local quality of life. Once solutions are formulated, a campaign will be launched using computer-generated billboards, newspapers and leaflets to mobilize the community to combat the epidemic diseases.
The perspective of the subproject Computers in Education is educational change. Teachers must not only carry out project-related activities, but must also organize study groups for the exchange of experiences, as well as to assume responsibility for their own training and development.
Rather than attempt an exhaustive analysis of the use of computers in Brazilian public schools, the present chapter has focused on the constructionist approach within the educational system. Although the Brazilian initiative was innovative in nature, none of the public programs effectively transformed the teaching-learning process due to the complexity underlying the pedagogical use of computers. Among the diverse factors required for the successful integration of computers in education are the availability of equipment and software, solid political-pedagogical support, a new educational perspective that redefines the concepts of teaching and learning, and, above all, the key role of the teacher.
In linking up with universities, the public programs have recognized the importance of teacher preparation. Current training covers not only computer knowledge, but also the ability to select the software most relevant to pedagogical objectives and to create learning environments that favor the construction of knowledge.
The Logo programming language, available in different versions, is one such effective learning environment. Students acquire knowledge through the employment of the description-execution-reflection-debugging cycle, which can also be applied to a wide range of software — from authorship programs and text editors to electronic spreadsheets and data base managers and in the interactions and programming provided by the distance communication environments.