Reform in Mathematics Education: A New Curriculum

In 2010, the Costa Rican Minister of Education, Leonardo Garnier, approached Angel Ruiz concerning a possible reform of the school Mathematics curriculum. An agreement was reached with authorities at the MEP to carry out the reform from first grade to the last year of academic upper secondary. The agreement included that the curricular reform would be the first step in an integral reform strategy that would include teacher development and support materials. It was further agreed that the development would be led by a group of researchers associated with Center for Research and Teacher Preparation in Mathematics Education. That group would be reinforced with in-service elementary and secondary teachers, and there would be a network of advisors and reviewers in Costa Rica and other countries to support the work.

In August of 2011 the first curricular proposal was presented to the Higher Council of Education (CSE). The CSE asked that the public universities study and evaluate the proposal. Before the final approval of the curriculum, the MEP and the reform team, in the second half of 2011, performed a national process of “socialization” of the proposal with in-service teachers. This process involved more than 7500 elementary and secondary teachers, national and international experts, university academics, and specialists in curriculum design, Mathematics Education, evaluation, technology and other.

With the suggestions from the universities, in-service teachers and the writing team itself, a version of the new curriculum was presented to the CSE in April of 2012. On May 21, 2012 the new curriculum for elementary and secondary Mathematics was approved. Implementation began, gradually, in 2013.

The main approach of this curriculum is Problem Solving, with a special emphasis on real contexts. Although this terminology has been used in curricular experiences in various parts of the world, in the case of Costa Rica it has been done in a specific and original way with a pedagogical strategy in the classroom that breaks the dominant paradigms with respect to teaching Mathematics. Higher cognitive capacities are constructed in the students by starting from associations with real environments and with interesting challenges to promote learning and mobilize and apply knowledge adequately. Its contents and perspectives aim to overcome the dominant “mathephobia” and make a qualitative leap in Mathematics learning that will serve the citizenry in using Mathematics and the related competencies to improve the quality of life for all.

To advance this educational reform, in 2012 a megaproject was launched: Mathematics Education Reform in Costa Rica that integrates various types of activities ( The project, written and directed by Angel Ruiz, was funded by the Costa Rica United States Foundation for Cooperation (CRUSA, an NGO) for three years (within the period 2012-2016) and it was extended in 2016 for a new period 2016-2018, this time with the financial support of CRUSA and mainly the Costa Rican Entrepreneurial Association for Development (a network of important private business enterprises).[1]

In addition to writing the final version of the new programs, the project has developed:

  • • Blended (hybrid) courses (that integrate face-to-face and online sessions).
  • • Pilot projects (to measure the progress of the project),
  • • Many support documents for teachers,
  • • A virtual Mathematics Education community and various means of communication and dissemination,
  • • MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) for in-service teachers.

This synergistic combination of actions puts Costa Rica at the vanguard in the region.

This Project has disrupted the conditions of initial and continuing preparation of Mathematics teachers in the country. The nature of professional development has drastically changed:

  • • More support from the MEP by involving secondary and elementary teachers (for years this later group had not received much support).
  • • Professional development that breaks with the face-to-face tradition offered by the universities,
  • • The blended (hybrid) and virtual nature of the professional development,
  • • An emphasis on the pedagogy specific to the Mathematics, in contrast to previous professional development that treated Mathematics and general pedagogy separately,

• Blended courses used not a “trickle down” scheme, but included two steps: one step with teacher leaders and regional mathematics pedagogical advisers (officials set by the MEP to attend both primary and secondary teacher activities at the regional level) and another with large populations of teachers, where the leaders are facilitators in this second level of courses.

The Project is in charge of all the details of the design and development of the courses directly with the teacher leaders. This has been very successful, maximizing the nourishment of an essential pedagogical leadership. The massive blended courses, although they are designed by the project and there are facilitators prepared by the project, are not served directly by the project. Instead, the IDP-UGS and MEP’s regional directorates are directly responsible and, therefore, so far the national results have been quite varied. In some regions there has been great success while in others there have been serious difficulties. It will be in the medium and long term when it will be fair to evaluate the global achievement of this innovative modality for massive professional development.

With respect to initial teacher preparation, UCR, ITCR and UNED are carrying out actions to bring about consistency between their preparation programs and the new school curriculum. So far, it is UCR that has advanced the farthest in this effort.

This educational reform will need considerable time to be consolidated, but very solid steps have been taken.

It is interesting to note the international connections that Angel Ruiz has brought to this project. Not only was there CANP 2 (inaugurated by the Minister of Education and in which many ministerial advisors took part), but also in late 2011 an ex-President and the two Vice Presidents of the Inter-American Committee on Mathematics Education visited Costa Rica to present activities in direct support of the curricular change.

This reform of school Mathematics has put into motion in an integrated way factors that have been in development for many years, but did not necessarily guarantee what has fortunately happened. There has been significant research in Mathematics Education, high-level international connections, and a homogeneous team committed to progress in this discipline. The political circumstances (perhaps fortuitous) of a Minister of Education who supported these actions paved the way for a change in the perspectives related to teaching this subject. Details on this process from it incubation to the present can be found in Ruiz (2013).

  • [1] Updated data in 2016.
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