María Isabel Santillana

Ashoka Fellow
Fellow since 1995
This description of María Isabel Santillana's work was prepared when María Isabel Santillana was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1995 .


María Santillana is engaged in an imaginative effort to upgrade the skills and improve the performance of public school teachers, particularly in disadvantaged rural areas. The tools that she employs in that effort include a series of training programs carefully tailored to the most pressing needs of their participants and a national magazine that enables teachers to share innovative materials and teaching methods.

The New Idea

Distressed by the failure of the Peruvian government to provide effective in-service training for the vast number of underqualified teachers in the public education system, María Santillana is developing a dynamic training initiative that elicits the active engagement of its participants, - encourages them to identify the most pressing needs of their students, schools and communities, and helps them acquire skills, materials and teaching methods responsive to those needs. Other hallmarks of María's training endeavor include its accessibility and relevance for teachers in poor rural and urban communities, a heavy reliance on volunteer teacher trainers, an emphasis on inventiveness in curriculum and materials development and particular attention to the needs of students for whom Spanish is not their first language.To complement her training initiative, María also publishes a national magazine for teachers, in which particularly innovative and effective teaching materials and classroom techniques are featured and teachers share their reflections on issues of common concern. In addition, she is establishing a number of "Women's Education Houses," which will provide an additional locus for the exchange of ideas and teaching materials.

The Problem

The deficiencies of Peru's public education system are legion. Its overly centralized bureaucracy is unresponsive to widely varying conditions and needs, dismissive of the values and traditions of indigenous cultures, and ill-equipped to develop new curricula and teaching methods that would better serve the needs of the vast majority of students that the system purports to serve. Large numbers of teachers are neither sufficiently nor appropriately trained, and efforts to revamp teacher training are, at best, half-hearted and seriously flawed. Similarly, in-service skills-enhancement programs are woefully deficient in scope, and the few that exist are hollow exercises with little impact on teachers' classroom performance. The need for additional on-the-job training for the system's 200,000 teachers is particularly acute. On a nationwide basis, slightly more than half of the teachers in the public system lack the prescribed teaching certificates. In some of the country's poorer regions, the vast majority of teachers do not possess the minimum formal requirements for the posts that they hold, and many of them are seriously deficient in basic reading and writing skills. Unfortunately, however, government-organized programs to upgrade teachers' skills consist primarily of occasional massive weekend gatherings at which as many as 2,000 teachers listen passively to lectures on topics that are often quite distant from their own experience and needs.

The Strategy

The core of María's initiative is an ongoing in-service training program that comprises, for each intake of teachers, a series of fifteen four-hour workshops. In the initial workshop sessions, in which school administrators also take part, participants are asked to diagnose their own and their students', schools' and communities' most urgent needs. That process establishes an intensely participatory mode of operation from the outset of the program, and it also enables subsequent sessions to be tailored to the needs identified (which will vary according to particular schools and communities represented).Later sessions in the workshop series emphasize innovative teaching methods of particular relevance to poor rural areas. Teachers who have developed such methods lead sessions in which they demonstrate their techniques (e.g., teaching mathematics with the aid of the quipu, an Inca record-keeping system based on counting knots in strings of different colors). As that example suggests, the use of culturally relevant materials and bilingual approaches to primary education is also stressed. And throughout the program, there is sustained emphasis on helping the teacher/participants improve their own reading and writing skills.The workshop initiative is reaching ever larger numbers of teachers (approaching two percent of the national total, at last count), and it can be easily extended to additional locations and new groups of teachers. It relies heavily on volunteer trainers, and participants pay small fees that cover most of the modest costs involved. María meets with the volunteer trainers on a regular basis both to monitor ongoing programs and plan new ones, and she has formed an informal association of trainers and program organizers.The workshops are supplemented and the audiences that María reaches are enlarged by a teachers' magazine, Educating, which is distributed and sold throughout Peru. The magazine features the accomplishments and ideas of particularly successful teachers and is another important vehicle for the dissemination of innovative teaching methods and educational materials.In addition, María is establishing "Women's Education Houses" in various parts of the country. Those centers will provide hospitable settings for the exchange of ideas, experience, and teaching materials and help strengthen teachers' commitments to their profession.

The Person

María is a seasoned activist in the fields of educational reform and teacher training. As a student in a Catholic high school, she organized and led a group of classmates in an effort to modify the school's curriculum. At the Catholic University in Lima, where she completed a degree in education, she wrote her thesis on student participation in school administration and students' roles in instigating positive changes in their schools.María's lengthy, dedicated and wide-ranging professional engagement in the educational arena began with eleven years of service as a primary school teacher. She moved on to several posts in the national educational system, including that of trainer in an education reform program that was abruptly canceled in the wake of a military coup in 1979. At a later point, she served as director of the pedagogical methods unit of the Ministry of Education. In various assignments, she has been an influential contributor to curriculum planning and a strong proponent of special attention to educational needs in rural areas.Currently, in addition to her duties in the program described above, María is playing a leading role in an important reform movement in Peru's national teachers' union.