María Marta Camacho Alvarez

Ashoka Fellow
Headshot of Fellow María Marta Camacho Álvarez
Costa Rica
Fellow since 1999
This description of María Marta Camacho Alvarez's work was prepared when María Marta Camacho Alvarez was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1999.


María Marta Camacho has developed a new style of teaching mathematics to children, with an emphasis on building confidence and having fun.

The New Idea

María Marta Camacho will not rest until she revitalizes methods of teaching and learning mathematics in Costa Rica and beyond. María's Program for Active and Creative Mathematics tries to make math fun and to build students' confidence by helping them find their own best study habits. Her teaching methods allow students to develop a capacity for logical reasoning and for thinking in the abstract at an early age. María is thus changing the belief that mathematics is boring, difficult, and can be mastered by only a select few. Her math program is cheap enough to be within reach of any family or school, because it relies on whatever materials are available. In the long term, María hopes to reform mathematics teaching techniques across Latin America. The Ministry of Education and the University of Costa Rica are already using María's texts, videos, and music cassettes for teacher training and ongoing professional development.

The Problem

Even though Costa Rica's educational system is one of its crowning achievements -- especially compared to the rest of Central America -- the system is far from perfect. According to Costa Rica's Ministry of Public Education, in 1994 approximately one-sixth of Costa Rican children did not finish primary school. Of those that did, a quarter had to repeat a grade. There is also a huge discrepancy in private and public school education.

Traditional math teaching methods have sparked apprehension about the subject. This fear is responsible in part for the country's high dropout rate and grade repetitions. In the long run, students' failure to develop quantitative skills weakens their self-esteem and does nothing to prepare them for jobs that require numerical and technological aptitude and contribute significantly to economic growth.

The Strategy

María makes mathematics accessible at the earliest age possible by using games and toys to explain concrete ideas. She trains and advises parents and teachers how to teach preschool students to use visual aids like laminated cards and dominoes, auditory cues, song and dance, and tactile stimuli such as textured cards. Preschoolers are introduced to a variety of concepts including geometric figures and solids, geometric measurements, and mathematical operations, among others. María gives young students the opportunity to work with various sensory aids and concrete concepts first, before moving on to abstract concepts.

María realizes that her program cannot occur in a vacuum. She gives lectures around Costa Rica and in other Central American countries about her teaching methods, and published the book Adding, Subtracting, Multiplying, and Dividing is Fun. As a teacher in two Costa Rican universities, María has access to a large number of future educators to whom she offers training sessions. She has already conducted training for more than seven hundred teachers and parents. She is also promoting teacher exchanges and organizing math fairs and exhibitions where she distributes teaching aids.

To evaluate her work and confirm its efficacy María regularly visits children, teachers, or institutions that have used her methods. In a 1998 survey she conducted, 100 percent of the three hundred twenty children in the El Rosario school, which uses María's methods, indicated a positive attitude towards mathematics. She plans to launch a publicity campaign detailing these results.

María has developed strong print and broadcast media relationships that have catapulted her into prominence as something of a national figure, with frequent TV coverage and a list of invitations to seminars and events that is longer than she can currently handle. As a result, María is negotiating with officials from the Ministry of Education to formally introduce her reforms in several districts. Now that comprehensive pre-school curricular reform is all but assured in Costa Rica, she will work on devising similar age-appropriate strategies for grades through high school. María plans to share her methods with colleagues in Colombia, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, and eventually across Latin America. She attended two education conferences in 1999 in Nicaragua and Panama and arranged training sessions for preschool and primary school teachers in both countries.

The Person

María Marta grew up in a family devoted almost exclusively to education, including school directors, founders, and professors. Her parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles founded a public school in a poor urban community. Coming from this background, it is no surprise that María has been inclined toward education since she was a child. When she was just nine years old, she taught basic grammar and math to the watchman at her home -- an achievement recognized by her school. While studying at the university, she established a preschool education program in the Central America School, and in 1996 began her efforts to improve adult literacy. The same year she started a creative educational program for at-risk children in El Salvador, she began the Program for Active and Creative Mathematics. María has an impressive academic education and a strong social commitment. She is motivated by an intense desire for the development of her students, and is a role model for teachers everywhere.