Teaching in favelas: a new approach to schooling children from slums

Yvonne Bezerra de Mello has developed a pedagogy based on neuroscience to help children raised in the slums of Rio de Janeiro bridge the achievement gap. This is an extract from the Guardian

Why do children raised in tough slums perform worse than others when they get the same schooling?

Too often a lack of self-confidence or self-discipline get the blame but, according to Yvonne Bezerra de Mello at the Uere Project in Rio de Janeiro, the real reasons are more complex. Trauma and violence in early life create specific learning difficulties that block children’s capacity to learn.

At her school in one of the city’s most impoverished favelas, De Mello has developed an innovative pedagogy that integrates neuroscience with didactics to fill in the learning gaps that prevent such children making progress. The results are so successful it has been adopted as a method in 150 state schools in Rio and has started to attract attention overseas: in 2012, a group of 15 teachers from Cologne visited the project because they were having difficulty adapting old methods to today’s multi-racial classrooms…

De Mello’s method stresses “repairing the brain’s synapses” so that students’ minds become active and engaged – in some cases, for the first time in their lives. In a community where gun crime, drug-related violence and domestic abuse are endemic, her methods improve brain functions such as memory, focus, verbal skills, concentration and logic that may have been blocked by constant exposure to violence and trauma. She believes all teachers should be trained in the basics of neuroscience.

…De Mello believes children from very deprived backgrounds inevitably fail in mainstream education because they lack the “pre-learning” that equips them to absorb information, to concentrate or understand information that may seem obvious to others.

“Intelligence can be repaired,” she says, “and we have found the way to do it.”

Her teaching method aims to fill in that gap so that even the poorest children have a chance to succeed in mainstream education. In Brazil, children attend school for half a day – De Mello’s students go on to a session at a mainstream school in the afternoon.

…In another classroom at the school in Mare, 15 or so younger children are having a maths lesson – interchanging number games and switching between five languages – all the children at Uere learn basic vocabulary and numbers in several languages to keep their minds alert. It is impressive to watch these small children in flip-flops and shorts who rarely leave the slum switch between Mandarin, French or German confidently. Everton, a 17-year-old boy who wants to be a vet, tells me he prefers the Uere school because children from the slums are snubbed in mainstream schools.

The emphasis at De Mello’s school is on equipping the students with the tools they need to learn, and this includes self-esteem and emotional intelligence. The young teachers are warm and tactile with the kids, who shower and eat two meals on the site. In one lesson, De Mello asks teenagers to tell her what happened at home the day before and a girl begins to cry when she recalls a fight between her parents. De Mello explains gently that she is not responsible for her parents’ lives and it is clear that no one has ever helped the girl to see her life in this way before…

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What do you make of the approach outlined in this article? Might it have some relevance to situations in the UK? Please share in the comments or on twitter… 

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