AS/COA Online Exclusive Interview: Costa Rica’s Education Minister Leonardo Garnier on Innovations in Teaching

“[T]he central strategy we have followed is not just to have more students, but to offer a more relevant, significant education.”

Costa Rica’s high literacy rate has long made its educational system the envy of the Americas. Still, high school enrollment and access to higher education remain tough challenges in the Central American country. Costa Rican Education Minister Leonardo Garnier spoke with AS/COA Online’s Editor-in-Chief Carin Zissis, not only about how his country is fighting dropout rates, but also how new teaching approaches and technology can play a role in boosting education. Garnier says that changes underway offer “more relevant, more significant, and more entertaining education so that kids will stay in high school—but they will stay for a good reason, not just for staying there.”

AS/COA Online: With a 96 percent literacy rate, one of Latin America’s highest, many see Costa Rica’s education system as a model for other countries in the region. What models in other parts of the world do you look to for inspiration and ideas?

Garnier: Well, I don’t see Costa Rica as a model. I think we have done some things that have been useful for us, but still, we have a lot of problems. When we look at other countries, for example, the things that small countries like Finland have done with education, certainly there is big room for improvement in our system.

For one thing, Costa Rica still has a problem with high school attendance. We have been improving that; we have been bringing down the dropout rates. But still, between 20 and 30 percent of our young people are not finishing high school, and that is something that we have to bring down. Every young person in Costa Rica should at least finish high school, and then see if they can go on to technical schools or higher education.

But finishing high school is a must.

AS/COA Online: You mentioned Finland. Is there something that Finland does to boost that type of secondary education enrollment rate?

Garnier: Well, one thing they have achieved is having very good teachers. That’s not something you can achieve in a couple of days. We have been doing several things in that respect. One, for sure, is to improve the wages of the teachers so that there is incentive for young graduates to go into education. If you don’t get your better kids to study education, then it’s going to be very difficult in just 10 or 15 years to get good teachers.

So we’ve focused on that, and also improving the capacity of the current teachers. We started teaching English in public schools in the 1990s. But one problem was that our teachers were not very well trained in English. We have been intensively improving the capacity of our English teachers, so they have been improving in terms of their knowledge of English. And also, we have been working on improving our English-teaching methods.

AS/COA Online: On the topic of languages, I know that Costa Rica has a national English plan called Costa Rica Multilingual that seeks to ramp up English-language skills among high school graduates. How and why is this project being implemented? And have you considered Chinese?

Garnier: Chinese is going to be very important, but at this point, we have to recognize that English is the second language of the world. You can communicate in English with people from China, from Germany, from France, from wherever.

In Costa Rica, we have, of course, Spanish, but English is the second language. There is a very long tradition, also, of teaching French in our schools and high schools—especially in the high schools. But we consider it a reality that our students need to read, to speak, and to write in English. And that is why we have put a lot of emphasis on this: It is important in terms of what they research; it is important in terms of their relations with people from almost any other country.

And, you know, it’s also important in terms of culture. Learning different languages is something that allows you to read Walt Whitman in English—just an example.

AS/COA Online: Has there been a shift in the way that English or other languages are being taught?

Garnier: We’re working on that. We are conducting a very interesting experiment supported by the Inter-American Development Bank and with U.S. universities that involves a pilot project with a group of 70 schools, working with one methodology and type of software for learning English; another group with a different software and different methodology; and of course a control group. We’ve been doing that for two years, and next year we will have the final results so that we can best determine how to use technology, using specific software and English-teaching methodologies.

But, of course, what we had to do first was what we’ve been doing: teaching English to our English teachers. Because if you don’t have that, then no software is going to be able to solve that problem.

AS/COA Online: Speaking of technology, over the past five years, the portion of Costa Rican schools connected to the Internet has risen from under 30 percent to roughly 60 percent. Can you talk about how technology is playing a role in terms of new innovations in Costa Rican education?

Garnier: Sure. In that respect, Costa Rica has been a pioneer. Since the 1980s, we started a program between the ministry and the Fundación Omar Dengo to have informatics education in more than half of our schools right now that have [computer] labs . The main difference in this program compared to what was done in other countries at the time was that we didn’t think of computers as the tools for learning how to use word processing or databases but as tools for learning how to think logically.

We started that in the 1980s; it’s always been growing and improving. And right now, we have, as you said, improved Internet connectivity from under 30 percent to over 60 percent. That’s just not a change in percentages; the kind of connections we had four years ago were those old telephone connections. Now, we have broadband. And our goal is to reach between 90 and 100 percent connectivity with much higher-quality broadband so that you can transmit large quantities of content back and forth from the schools via the Internet.

Also, we are using different approaches to computers. We don’t share the perspective of some countries that you should go with one computer for every student in every school in all the country because for one, that’s terribly expensive and it’s very difficult to sustain financially over time and, again, because there is not just one way of using technology. So what we’re doing is experimenting with different approaches. We are using a one-to-one approach in rural areas with rural high schools. In schools with more students, we are working with one computer per classroom, but we emphasize that this is not a technological issue; this is an educational issue. It’s not just having more computers; it’s knowing why or for what you need computers.

AS/COA Online: You mentioned that you’re using technology in rural areas. What are some of the benefits of being able to use technology to reach Costa Rica’s rural schools?

Garnier: In the 1990s, we found that there were groups of kids living in very dispersed rural areas with no high schools. So around 1994, Costa Rica started a program called Telesecundarias, which used televisions and VCRs to develop high schools that were just seventh, eighth and ninth grade—it was not a full high school, just the first part of it—with very few teachers, and basically the TV as a teacher. I think that was very important at the time, but certainly times have changed.

And we have been under pressure to ensure that students in those areas finish high school and at the same time to have a more meaningful high school education. So we’ve changed or created this new type of rural high school. It’s very well-defined to fit the needs of dispersed rural areas. What we found is that in these specific high schools, you were teaching partly academic subjects, partly productive subjects, and helping the students to be very self-sufficient—and technology plays a particularly important role. So it’s one area where are starting to have a one-computer-per-student strategy. We are working with the Fundación Omar Dengo in these high schools and the initial results have been very good.

AS/COA Online: I want to get a little bit off-topic. Recently there have been large-scale student protests in Chile and more recently in Colombia over access to higher education. What are your thoughts on what’s happening in those countries and what it means about higher education access in the region?

Garnier: Well, the situation in Chile, in that respect, is quite different from Costa Rica because—and, we have to be careful when talking about the other countries—what happened in Chile during the Pinochet period was that they went for a strategy based on private education and municipal education. In Costa Rica, we have always been very much against that kind of a strategy. I’ll give you just one statistic: 92 percent of our students go to public schools and only 8 percent go to private schools. So, in one way you could say that something that the Chilean students are fighting for exactly for the kind of education you have in Costa Rica, which is basically public.

In terms of universities, we have two types. We have public universities, of which there are five, and they receive about half of the students in higher education and are of a very high quality. And you have a lot of private universities. There are about 50 private universities, and there you find something different. Some of them are doing a very good job improving their quality, offering very interesting careers. And some others are not very good.

So there is a wide market, both public and private, for higher education. And one thing we’re doing with the public universities is putting a lot of effort in increasing their ability to receive more students.

AS/COA Online: And how are you doing that?

Garnier: Well, one way is through the budget. The budget of public universities has been increasing very significantly for the past five years. And the other, which is a very good project, is we are working on the loan—it’s $200 million with the World Bank—aimed at strengthening the universities’ capabilities in science and technology, and very much geared towards widening their ability to receive more students. In some of these areas, Costa Rica has a very high demand for engineers, scientists, and technical professionals, and we’re not producing them in enough quantity or quality. One of the purposes of this loan would be precisely to help our universities move in that direction.

AS/COA Online: You’ve been minister of education during the last two presidential administrations. Looking back over the past few years, what do you consider to be some of your main accomplishments and biggest challenges?

Garnier: Well, I would say the biggest challenge is to reduce the dropout rates and to increase coverage. And that’s something that even if it’s a very slow process, it’s been working very well. For five years we’ve seen a decrease in dropout rates and higher rates of coverage in high school and in preschool education.

But in terms of content, the central strategy we have followed is not just to have more students, but to offer a more relevant, significant education. Maybe an example will be better than a lot of explanations.

We have a program called Ethics, Aesthetics and Citizenships. So we took the programs in arts and music and physical education and civics education, and we transformed all those things, which used to be very boring and useless, and we transformed them into meaningful, interesting courses. The kids are very much into it. Teachers have been very pleased with this transformation. And this is because we understand education is a process that allows kids not just to get a job later in life, but actually to learn how to live, and to learn, especially how to develop their social skills, which are basic skills in the twenty-first century.

Civics education has been particularly important. How do you learn to live with others? How do you learn to live in society, to improve society, to feel yourself responsible for what happens in your school, in your neighborhood—to use institutions to solve problems? So that has been one of the things we have worked harder on, both through the curriculum and through extracurricular activities—festivals, sport competitions, student governments.

In the academic field, we have been trying to increase the responsibility of individual schools and high schools. You cannot improve the quality of education if it doesn’t improve in school and in high school. If it improves in the paperwork of some central office in the ministry, that doesn’t really mean anything. So what we’ve been doing is giving more responsibility to teachers, to principals of the high schools, and making changes in some specific areas.

For example, in science we have been moving from a scheme of teaching science in a traditional way based on learning the answers, to a system that is much more based on asking the questions and building the answers to the questions. We have also introduced—and I have very, very high hopes for this—logical thinking, which is something that is very hard to teach. And usually you don’t have it as a subject to learn. Some learn it in math, but then they only use it when they are solving mathematical problems. So what we did was to work with a university philosopher and introduce the teaching of logical thinking within the subject of Spanish. So when our kids are learning their own language, they will be learning the rules of logical, critical thinking.

And now we’re trying something that is very ambitious, which is to change the whole curriculum of the mathematics education in Costa Rica, from the first grade to the twelfth grade of high school, because that’s one of the fields in which Latin America has always been unable to achieve good mathematical education.

So we have different plans aimed at having a more relevant, more significant, and more entertaining education so that kids will stay in high school—but they will stay for a good reason, not just for staying there.