Beatriz Cardoso is ensuring that all children, in and outside school, have the right to cognitive development in early childhood. Through a new way of researching, designing, and delivering learning tools, Bia is equipping adults to continuously support children’s early learning in daily interactions.
The New Idea
Beatriz Cardoso is revolutionizing the approach to early childhood learning in Brazil. Recognizing that solutions must be grounded in research and testing in order for them to be truly effective, Bia created the Education Laboratory, an organization emphasizing Research and Development (R&D) in order to connect academic work to educational practice. Unlike many organizations in the sector that see education as merely a product, the Education Lab develops materials and tools for early childhood education based on insights from the fields of cognitive psychology, linguistics, and pedagogy.
Every child learns all the time, and so, every adult educates all the time. Bia’s vision is to make adults aware of children's learning process and empower them to influence it, ensuring that all children have an equal opportunity to learn. Bia sees children’s interaction with parents, teachers, and other potential educators as the best way to bring about this change. As such, the material Bia develops is translated into communication tools for all adults who interact with children, giving them the means to be protagonists and mediators in children’s learning. For these tools, Education Lab focuses on language development as the common thread running through each of its projects, as it is the key for continued learning throughout a child’s life.
While many citizen sector organizations (CSOs) attempt to actually carry out models of education, Education Lab’s strategy is not to operate an educational model, but to produce quality solutions that are implemented by others and to serve as a model for other CSOs with their focus on R&D. The use of technology in many of their solutions is key to expanding their reach for little cost. The solutions are also designed to be accessible to adults with all levels of education. Partnerships with public entities and teacher training centers are also important for scaling Education Lab’s solutions. As Bia’s previous experience in leading in the education sector proved, if a solution addresses a gap in the public system, it can be taken up and scaled by the public sector.
In Brazil, only 26 percent of the population aged 15 to 65 reach full literacy. Only one third of Brazilian youth and adults have the ability to read and understand texts, make inferences and relationships between text and reality, and communicate effectively in different situations. This information is alarming, especially because literacy is not an end in itself, but a foundational element of all education. The relationship that a child develops with language impacts her relationship with learning throughout the course of life. Beyond its deficits in teaching adequate reading and writing skills, the Brazilian public system has a larger problem: it is not yet able to ensure that children develop their cognitive capabilities in a way that impacts their learning as a whole, inside and outside of school. While reading and writing are tools for learning, cognitive development establishes the most important skill: the ability to learn.
Early childhood is a critical time for human learning. It is at this age that a child’s brain architecture develops and builds connections between neurons. A baby establishes, on average, 700 of these connections, or synapses, per second. After this time of rapid growth, there is a plateau and then decline of synapse development; a 12-month old has twice the density of synapses as an adult. So although lack of stimulation during this time of rapid growth will not stop synapses from forming, there is evidence that it will make them stronger and prevent them from deteriorating into adulthood. Early childhood is, therefore, a key moment to give equal opportunities to all children. By the time a child is 18 months-old, disparities in vocabulary and language processing for children in different socioeconomic situations are already apparent.
Although scientific evidence reinforces the importance of investing in children’s cognitive development, most especially in early childhood, educators rarely base their methodologies on this research and public funding does not focus on this age group. The Brazilian government, for example, allocates most of its resources to secondary schools and universities, neglecting the early childhood years. In 2005, 120 percent of per capita GDP was spent on college students, while only 10 percent of it went to preschoolers.
There is then a need to shift focus and resources to child development in these early childhood years. However, currently, investment in the social sector in Brazil is heavily determined by the private sector agenda. In order to receive funding, citizen sector organizations are incentivized to conduct projects with quantitatively measurable social impact, which often emphasizes quantity over quality. Thus, most of the initiatives in the education sector focus on partial solutions that have impact in the short run but do not take into account the complexity of the educational sector and end up not addressing its structural problems, which are preventing longer term solutions. Furthermore, because of the insistence on execution and immediate results, social organizations cannot invest time and resources in extensive research but instead jump straight to implementation. And then, instead of continuing get feedback and improve these initiatives, they tend to be treated as experimental and non-scalable projects that are short-lived.
With the objective of cementing the language acquisition process as a basic element of all learning, Beatriz Cardoso founded CEDAC (Educational Community) in 1997, an organization she led for 15 years and that became one of the largest citizen sector organizations in education in Brazil. CEDAC created nine programs to improve education in partnership with several companies, which indirectly benefited 980,000 public schools students in different states. One of these, the Escola que Vale (School that Matters) program, in partnership with the company Vale, was acknowledged by UNESCO as a reference in teacher training. Another, the Trilhas project, in partnership with Natura, developed material that the Ministry of Education took up as a standard for children aged 6 to 8 years old and distributed to more than 3,000 municipalities.
Bia was president of CEDAC until 2012, when her learnings through this experience led her to seek new solutions more in line with her ideals. So, she created the Education Laboratory to bring sophisticated information to daily educational experiences. In a sector as complex as education, transformations that are really effective and impactful should be based on quality research as well as the learning process in practice. With a multidisciplinary team of academics and education practitioners, the Education Laboratory’s initiatives are based on both the structural needs of the public system and scientific research in the different areas of pedagogy, cognitive psychology, and linguistics – fields that usually do not interact with one another within academia. Bia and her team develop solutions to make sophisticated knowledge increasingly applicable, translating it into something useful and practical. In this sense, the effort to bring together these distinct perspectives in the design of low-cost materials is extremely innovative in the education sector. The materials also address a gap in the lack of tools available to help adults support the learning and cognitive development of children.
Although it is fairly common knowledge that children must be stimulated early on to develop their cognitive ability, the Brazilian public system continues to produce generations of people that do not reach their learning potential. As one tool to get around this broken system, Bia created a program called Learn Language as a way for adults to work with young children through small, daily stimuli. These stimuli are oriented towards language acquisition, which is essential for a child’s development and for truly understanding his or her surroundings.
Through four characters that represent children of different early childhood age groups, the online Learn Language platform illustrates how language development occurs in everyday situations. The platform addresses issues that cut across all ages: interaction, phonetics and phonology, vocabulary, grammar, and discourse, providing explanations at different levels of complexity. These explanations range from practical and simple explanations of everyday language development opportunities, to guides and strategies for parents and educators to best stimulate the development of children, to scientific evidence and academic research that offer a more in-depth explanation of each step of linguistic development. Thus, the idea is that the material is accessible to all adults, regardless of their own level of education. The material is structured based on the questions and thoughts that adults usually voice when interacting with children and their language mistakes. One of the contributions of the platform is to point out that even the mistakes made by a child are logical, because there is a cognitive process behind them.
Based on the principle that there is no single actor who is responsible for a child’s education, the tool is meant to be appropriate for parents, teachers, and any other educator. Bia recognizes the need to have a public structure that supports its work. Thus, through a partnership with the municipality of São Paulo, the platform will be implemented in the training of educators in nurseries and preschools throughout the city. Additionally, the through this partnership, Learn Language will be open to evaluation, testing, and feedback for its continuous improvement.
In addition to tools, such as Learn Language, to help adults to create an optimal learning environment in early childhood, Bia also provides educators with tools to work on cognitive development at every stage, up to 10 years - old. Learn Language is the platform used in the first years of life, developing the cognitive capacity of children through small daily stimuli. From school age on, the materials provided to educators focus on developing the intellectual capacity of the child in various ways through more intense interactions with language.
Unlike other social sector organizations, Education Lab’s strategy is not to operate educational models but to produce quality solutions that are operated by others and thus scaled. Bia has different strategies to expand the access to her materials nationally. First, as proven by her successes with CEDAC, a scientifically grounded solution that meets a structural public need will be naturally scaled as it is taken up by public agencies. Because many of the solutions and tools are computer- or web-based, the simplicity of technology allows for further scaling of the impact. Bia also plans to incorporate the tools and solutions into radio programs, making them accessible even to those who do not have internet access.
Knowing that a good solution needs time and experimentation, Bia designed a continuous process of research, innovation, and testing for the solutions created by Education Laboratory. All materials the Lab produces are based on this process, which begins with systematization of multidisciplinary scientific knowledge available. Besides studying the available research, pre-tests and focus groups are conducted to understand user context and experience. Then, the appropriate learning tools and materials are designed and redesigned. Next, these solutions are tested and undergo a process of continuous feedback so that their quality is always improved. In this way, the Education Lab bridges worlds that do not communicate: academia, schools, the social sector, and society. As a think-action-tank, Bia aims to continuously feed the social sector with efficient and updated inputs to transform learning, and more than that, to impact the citizen sector as a whole by presenting a new dynamic of financing and operation. Her strategy aims to ensure that all children, in and outside school, have the right to cognitive development through learning.
From an early age, Bia has been interested in education, especially in the literacy and language acquisition processes. In 1997, she founded CEDAC (Educational Community), which became one of the largest NGOs in education in Brazil and has strongly influenced policy across the country. During her time at CEDAC, Bia built several partnerships with the private sector that led to exchanges and learning on both sides. However, over the past few years, the citizen sector in Brazil has undergone a major transformation and the commercial vision of donors began to exert great influence in the work of the citizen sector. Grants became increasingly geared toward improving brand image and sales, instead of the actual problems needing solution. After becoming disillusioned with this dynamic, Bia left the organization she had created and chaired for 15 years. However, rather than retiring, Bia created a new organization from scratch -- the Education Laboratory.
Bia’s trajectory has always been strongly influenced by the role models and experts she has sought out or grown up with. Her parents were respected academics, and gave her an education that emphasized humanities and social causes. Due to her parents’ influence, she was brought up in contact with key actors within the context of social and political unrest of the country, especially those involved with the democratic process during the transformation and political consolidation of Brazil. For his involvement with democratization, Bia’s father was exiled, and as a result, Bia and had to change countries, schools, and cultures several times. Her father later entered politics, and in 1995 became the president of the country. Her mother, on the other hand, was a key person in structuring the citizen sector in Brazil. She created different social projects backed by the federal government, one of which was "Solidary Community," which focused on strengthening civil society.
Driven by intellectual curiosity, Bia went to Spain to study with the professor Ana Teberosky, an expert in the acquisition of written language. Without even knowing her, Bia asked to accompany her work, became her pupil, and today they are friends and colleagues and have written a book together. In addition to these contacts with education experts, Bia has built other relevant bridges with the media, the public, and academic sectors. Examples are her partnership with TV Futura, in which she traveled around the world recording the best learning experiences, and the Harvard Advanced Leadership Initiative, where she had the opportunity to exchange and share experiences with social entrepreneurs from the different corners of the world.