The students in Paraguay’s Primary School No. 6873 settle into a circle. Their teacher turns on the radio, and the sound of music is heard throughout the classroom. It is time for the preschoolers’ favorite part of the day—listening to Tikichuela, an EDC course that teaches fundamental mathematics concepts through games, stories, and singing.
In schools just outside the capital Asunción, the same scenario is playing out. Wherever Tikichuela is playing, students are learning. Achievement gaps are narrowing. And, perhaps most importantly, attitudes about early mathematics instruction are evolving, important in a country that consistently performs below average on Latin American math and science assessments.
New research from the Inter-American Development Bank is shedding light on the power of Tikichuela, and EDC’s Noemi de Carter is enthusiastic about its success. “This is the first time we’ve had a math course for preschool students in Paraguay,” she says.
The study showed that after only five months, students in the pilot program of Tikichuela outperformed their control group peers on a mathematical assessment. The 2011 study included 2,800 students from 265 rural and urban schools in Paraguay’s Cordillera region.
The program didn’t just help students learn mathematics—it also reduced achievement gaps among many different populations. In Tikichuela classrooms, the performance gap between the lowest- and highest-performing students was reduced, as was the achievement gap between urban and rural schools. In Paraguay, urban schools typically have more resources and better-educated teachers than those in rural areas.
The results surprised everyone, including EDC’s Kit Yasin. “We didn’t expect to see results because it only measured five months of the intervention,” she says. Yasin believes the strong results speak to the power of the program’s methodology and implementation.
Tikichuela uses an interactive audio instruction (IAI) approach to deliver the mathematics part of the lessons. During the half-hour audio recording, songs and stories that feature recurring characters teach students about fundamental ideas in mathematics, including algebra and geometry.
The radio-based approach ensures the consistency of instruction across classrooms while also taking the burden of creating lessons off the teachers themselves. This is especially important in Paraguay, where many teachers lack both confidence in teaching mathematics and formal training in the subject.
Tikichuela was inspired by work that EDC did on the Big Math for Little Kids curriculum as well as EDC’s extensive experience with radio-based instruction. In 2011, EDC created 108 full mathematics lessons for use in Tikichuela classrooms, calling on production assistants, actors, and math content experts during the writing and recording process. Though the program evaluation ended in November 2011, many pilot schools continued to use Tikichuela in 2012 and 2013 because of its demonstrated impact.
A bilingual approach
Developing the materials was challenging because Paraguay is a bilingual country in which people speak Guaraní, a regional language, and Spanish with varying fluency. Early in the process of developing the audio lessons, the EDC team realized that the course would need to use both Spanish and Guaraní to effectively reach all students.
“We had to take into account both language and mathematics,” says de Carter. “But we realized quickly that if we did full translations of the content into Spanish and Guaraní for each lesson, it would be boring for children.”
They ended up taking a middle road. Each lesson presents the main mathematical idea in both languages. Then, some characters who speak Guaraní and others who speak Spanish are featured in the story.
This was not an easy process, explains de Carter. “How do we deal with both languages in a way that kids can understand the mathematics without reverting to translations?” she asks. “This was the hardest part of the design.”
This hard work paid off, however. The study of the pilot program found that math scores for both Spanish- and Guaraní-speaking students increased, with bilingual students benefiting the most from the dual-language instruction.
Language was not the only barrier. In Paraguay, most preschool mathematics instruction consists of pre-math activities, such as basic counting and sorting. De Carter found that many teachers had limited expectations for preschoolers’ mathematics aptitude and worried that Tikichuela would be too difficult for their students.
“Many teachers thought that young kids were not ready or able to learn mathematics,” she says. “We needed to work with them on that.”
Face-to-face mathematics workshops helped teachers see that preschool students were capable of doing mathematics in an engaging, meaningful way.
The program’s impact was clear. Tikichuela was a beloved program—so much so that when one of the radios used to deliver the lessons unexpectedly broke, a group of mothers donated money to purchase a new one.
And it wasn’t just the class parents who enjoyed Tikichuela. “One mother told a story about when her daughter was sick,” says Felicia Ramirez, the director of Primary School 6873. “Instead of missing school, her daughter said ‘Mom, I’m going to school because I am cured.’ She didn’t want to miss any math class radio.”
Originally published on March 7, 2013