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  October 30, 2000

Educators Compare Notes on Teaching
Math in U.S., Chilean High Schools

A new project led by UConn's Office of International Affairs is giving a group of Chilean high school math teachers a first-hand look at American education theories, methods and current teaching practices in Connecticut schools.

Under a contract with Chile's Ministry of Education, the project is giving 25 educators an opportunity to spend an expenses-paid six weeks visiting the University of Connecticut and schools in Windham, Mansfield, Hartford, West Hartford and New Haven. During their stay, the group will also visit Boston, New York City and Washington, D.C., and during weekends take in cultural landmarks such as Mystic Seaport and the Mashantucket Pequot Museum.

The goal of the program is to enhance the Chilean high school teachers' competencies in mathematics instruction in the classroom, centered on technology, problem solving and assessment, as well as their ability to be innovative in their teaching, says Boris Bravo-Ureta, executive director of the Office of International Affairs.

Bravo-Ureta, who is a native of Chile, played a key role negotiating with Chile's Ministry of Education to bring the high school teachers to Connecticut under the sponsorship of UConn's Institute of Public Service International. "This is a first for us in both size and complexity," he says, noting that the program requires interdisciplinary cooperation and support.

The teachers, who arrived on campus Oct. 1, are taking a highly structured and intensive series of workshops developed by faculty from the Neag School of Education and the Department of Mathematics, that compares and contrasts the theories, methods and experiences emphasized in this country with Chilean standards for teaching high school math. The training also focuses on new classroom computer technology. The workshops are conducted entirely in Spanish, as required by the Chilean education ministry.

UConn's American English Language Institute, Homer Babbidge Library and the School of Business Administration are providing support, including computer lab space, technicians and instructors to provide some English language instruction.

There is also help from outside UConn; the calculator and computer software manufacturer Texas Instruments Inc., for example, supplied Spanish-speaking instructors to assist Spanish-speaking UConn faculty in instructing the Chilean teachers on new geometry, probability and statistical programs installed in calculators.

"To me it is amazing that we could leverage so many of the assets we have at UConn, both among the professorial ranks and technical services, in order to offer this program," says Eliana Rojas, a visiting assistant professor in the Neag School of Education's Department of Curriculum and Instruction, who is serving as the program's academic director.

Rojas, who is Chilean, conceived the idea of bringing the high school math teachers to UConn while on a trip to her home country last year. "Our challenge is, in just six weeks, to enable colleagues who are already in the trenches and teaching to do a better job," she says.

The program is part of ongoing national educational reform in Chile that commenced after the country's return to democratic rule in 1990, says Rojas. As a result of widespread dissatisfaction with the quality of teacher education programs and the diminishing number of applicants for the teaching profession, in 1996 Chile's Ministry of Education created a highly competitive, international scholarship program aimed at updating and upgrading high school educators' teaching skills.

For this year's program - the fifth consecutive year the initiative has been underway - Chile's Ministry of Education has earmarked $7 million to send 915 teachers to 36 universities in 11 foreign countries under 40 programs - of which UConn's is one, Rojas says. Since the program's inception, the Chilean government has sent 4,139 teachers abroad.

"The program attempts to reinforce the changing processes of the educational system by investing in selected educators so they can become communicators and trainers of their peers," she says.

The math teachers visiting UConn come from urban and rural schools and different regions of Chile, a country where nearly every school is connected to the Internet and supplied with computers, says Rojas.

But for nearly all the educators visiting UConn, it is their first trip to a foreign country. "Many of them are overwhelmed by the amount of facilities and equipment we have in this country," observes Rojas.

Each Chilean educator is keeping a journal, which is used during a daily reflection time built into their schedule in order to promote group discussion and analysis of what is being learned and how it might be incorporated into the curriculum back home. "But they are learning that even in the United States, where it seems teachers have everything, nothing happens in a classroom if the teacher doesn't take charge and make it happen," says Rojas.

The Chilean education ministry requires that each participant in the program bring back "a substantive project" to be implemented in their school districts. The Neag School of Education will continute to work with the math teachers on their projects for up to a year.

"A single experience is not enough," stresses Rojas. "There needs to be follow-up if they hope to implement educational change."

During a recent question-and-answer session with faculty of the Neag School of Education, many of the Chilean educators' questions focused on how culture influences both achievement and academic orientation.

Jaime Ruz of the Liceo Veneciano in La Cisterna, Chile, asked why American students "seem so alone," noting that Chilean students tend to be more sociable and group-oriented.

"Individualism has been encouraged in the American educational system," replied Tim Reagan, associate dean of education.

Patricia Maure, a representative from Chile's Ministry of Education in Santiago who is accompanying the group, asked for advice to guide the ministry in developing new teachers. Reagan said there are no guarantees that specific programs or techniques being employed in the United States are transferable to another country.

In both the U.S. and the Chilean educational systems, he said, "Our real challenge is to train people who will be leaders within our schools to promote change and reform. And that is what this program is trying to help do."

Rojas agrees, noting that a strength of the project is its focus on teachers. "In many similar projects around the world it has been mostly government representatives and school administrators who have been involved," she says. "This experience is meant to enhance the teachers' world views and enrich their practices through observing and reflecting on different mathematics teaching practices."

David Bauman