Interview report: Leonardo Garnier | Former Education Minister of Costa Rica

Interviewed by the Observatory of Educational Innovation


Leonardo Garnier Rímolo, Former Education Minister of Costa Rica, has several publications in journals and books on economic and social topics related to development. He promotes the theory of subversive education, defined as helping students become who they want to be.

Observatory: How can we develop skills in students based on emotional intelligence?

Leonardo Garnier: In many countries, education is based on subjects, which is one way of organization, with its advantages and disadvantages. One of the most interesting experiments in the world right now is being conducted in Finland. They are scrapping subjects and working only on projects, something that the Jesuits are also doing in Spain. However, an exceptionally mature educational system and an extremely highly-trained faculty are required to develop skills in our students on the basis of emotional intelligence.

For example, teachers who work only with projects, without subjects, they need to have a command of the subjects even though they are not being taught as such. They must have the highest pedagogical capacity, since it is so much easier to teach in the traditional way. I think you have to be very careful and consider educational reforms as part of a gradual process.

One of the most interesting experiments in the world right now is being conducted in Finland. They are scrapping subjects and working only on projects.

Copying a Finnish reform in Latin America wouldn´t be recommendable if you don’t have the organization or culture; I would opt for reforms that do have this more ambitious vision, but that take into account which stages need´s completed so an organization can gradually change and, above all, so that the culture can change.

Another way of responding would be to work with projects within the subjects. In Costa Rica, an interesting strategy was to mix soft subjects (music, art) with hard subjects (mathematics or science), and, all of a sudden, students are working on a joint project for both subjects. So, the teachers coordinate with each other, but keep their own subject. Why not scrap subjects? Because I don’t think we’re ready to scrap them, just yet, even though in theory it might seem the right thing to do.

Copying a Finnish reform in Latin America wouldn´t be recommendable if you don’t have the organization or culture. 

Observatory: Based on your experience in education in your country Costa Rica, and in other Latin American countries, what is the main obstacle to developing or implementing innovation?

Leonardo Garnier: There are two main obstacles that are tied in with each other. In the education area, a permanent battle has been between the conservatives and the liberals. The conservatives have understood education very much in the style of the inquisition: preparing obedient, well-behaved children whom follow instructions, they have to memorize all information. In Latin America, many people have tried to break up this paradigm. This conservative resistance is deeply set in not only in the education system, but also in parents who usually think: "I’ll send my child to school so they can teach him to be obedient ". It’s such an old-fashioned mentality: you should fulfill your role as a parent and the school should make the child creative, free, audacious, but not obedient, that’s another matter entirely.

The second challenge is that in order to achieve an education with freedom, well-trained teachers are required. In Latin America, we have two key issues: if the teaching profession is not well respected or well paid, we can’t attract the best people to this profession. That’s crazy. If you look at countries like Korea or Finland, among other countries that have been successful in education, the teachers are the most highly respected and valued profession in their societies. But it’s not enough just to recognize teachers or pay them well; the problem we have is on teacher training, including the institutions that produce teachers.

Leonardo Garnier at CIIE 2015.

Leonardo Garnier at CIIE 2015.

In Latin America, we have two key issues: if the teaching profession is not well respected or well paid, we can’t attract the best people to this profession. That’s crazy.

Observatory: In your conference, you mentioned that we have to learn to follow rules, but also change and challenge them. In your opinion, what is holding us back from this subversive education?

Leonardo Garnier: I tend to be rather liberal, open, flexible, but I don’t know what it means to be a high school teacher and stand up in front of forty teenagers. That can’t be easy. An example would be one of the reforms we implemented: in Costa Rica, if students got a bad conduct or behavior report, they failed their academic courses. So, there were many students who were failing academically, not because they hadn’t passed their classes, but because the teacher had given them a poor conduct report. So, the conduct report had replaced the ruler and chalkboard eraser that were used to keep us in check when we were at school.

Our responsibility is to educate, but they say: "No, students have to learn to obey rules.” If blue pants are part of the uniform, they have to come to school wearing blue plants. If they don’t like it, there’s a process for changing the uniform and they can participate, maybe successfully and the uniform is changed, maybe not and they will just have to put up with the uniform. However, I think it is a very important lesson that’s not black and white; there are also grey areas.

Teachers are afraid of the students.

Observatory: How do you think teachers see themselves in front of the students in the classroom?

Leonardo Garnier: Teachers are afraid of the students. I can understand it in some way, but I think we have to stop being afraid. Education is much richer when we remove fear from the equation.

Observatory: What should be the first change made to revolutionize education?

Leonardo Garnier: Teachers need to undergo a transformation. Here we are, thinking that when we train teachers at university, with critical thinking and the theories of Freire, Piaget, Vygotsky and others, they will go out to teach like that. But they leave college, get hired in educational institutions, and on the first day of classes they turn into their old high school teacher.

The new generations of teachers aren’t teaching as they were trained to do at university, but in the same way that they were taught at school 20 years beforehand. Shining away from this is extremely dificult, but that’s the challenge. There are many teachers who do manage it. Something that helped us to understand was that we weren’t inventing anything new, but there were already many teachers doing this in their classrooms.

Observatory: What recommendation would you give to our teachers?

Leonardo Garnier: That’s a tough one. To start with, I really like the way in which Tec de Monterrey is evolving, changing direction towards an education based more on projects and reviving the topic of citizenship, leadership, I think it’s fantastic. Moreover, the goal of increasing the percentage of students who come from socio-economic sectors that could not normally pay for a university like Tec de Monterrey, I think that’s being socially responsible.

The students’ experience will transform the institution, because they won’t just learn from the teachers, but also from their classmates. We can build a rose-colored bubble where everyone comes from well-o- families and the like, but we’ll gain a completely di-erent picture of the world if the kids all come from di-erent backgrounds. I think it’s a fine educational proposal. My congratulations to Tec de Monterrey because I think it’s moving in a direction I like and which is part of its objectives, to place the student at the core of the process.

Observatory: In your opinion, why is it important to hold events like the International Congress of Educational Innovation?

Leonardo Garnier: There are two reasons: first, education is an indispensable tool to turn each student into the person he or she wants to be. It is the most crucial tool for change. And second, activities like this congress are important because in general, our educational systems tend to be very conservative, resistant to changes and old-style ways of understanding learning, which, instead of driving education, holds it back.  

2nd International Congress on Educational Innovation (2015). Retrieved from 2nd International Congress on Educational Innovation (2015). Retrieved from masters/leonardogarnier/