Guilherme Cintra has a difficult time succinctly answering the question “what do you do?” because he packs so much into his life. He’s a partner at a Brazilian venture capital fund, principal at a school, and a consultant for education projects developing textbooks and curriculum. Oh and he’s 25 years old. He’s the kind of person who has a guiding light that he follows with every step of his life. He is set on his purpose — to create personalized education for kids at a large scale.

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He takes that passionate purpose with him everywhere and applies it daily to his school — Sistema Elite de Ensino or “Elite” for short. Elite is a part of 55 schools all under the umbrella of Grupo Eleva, a holding company in which Gera invests. The school lacks many of the technological tools and toys becoming ever more present in North American schools. Cintra has discovered that it isn’t technology that creates personalization, but rather it is the collective staff mindset that achieves this success. How he approaches it is nothing short of revolutionary.

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Personalized education exists

The first teacher to introduce personalized learning to Cintra was his mother, when he began learning to read at a young age. Cintra and his mother would read together in English and Portuguese before he was taught to do so in school. His older brother Eduardo, on the other hand, was not overly interested in reading and lacked the enthusiasm to participate. Their mother knew that Eduardo was interested in science, and would cleverly leave science-related reading materials around the house for him to find. Naturally, he would pick up the articles and begin reading, building his reading skills without a direct learning format.

I realized that my challenge for my life is to scale up personalized learning.

The second introduction to personalized learning occurred when Cintra later taught for a non-profit, working with kids to assist their education. He discovered the joys of teaching and the positive impacts that can shape the direction and potential of a child’s life. One student, in particular, Cintra remembers coaching one-on-one to learn math. This student would go on to take a math-intensive engineering program in Brazil and considered Guilherme’s guidance pivotal in his education.

Cintra describes these turnings points as critical moments in his career. “When I understood what my mother did with me and that there are all of these kids with talents that we waste, I realized that my challenge for my life is to scale up personalized learning.”

These are classic examples of how different people learn, and how students’ different interests require different approaches to their education. The idea of personalization is by no means a new concept. It is a widely advertised outcome by both education and technology companies alike, with the simple purchase of their product. The challenge, of course, is in creating individualized learning at a scale that is both effective and achievable. No school has mastered this, but Cintra and his school are giving it a real attempt.

Understanding every student

Sistema Elite de Ensino is not a place with many different student and teacher technologies; rather most of their data is managed on old-fashioned paper. Cintra recognizes that this presents a challenge to his dream of personalization, but doesn’t hinder his goal. “Basically we use a lot of processes. It starts with school coordinators having a deep understanding of each and every student.”

Teacher coordinators are required to speak with and understand every student in the school. That means understanding their strengths and challenges, and where they need extra help with their learning. When problems are identified, it is the responsibility of these coordinators to find solutions and report on their findings. The coordinators are held accountable by a running chart with counts of the number of students spoken to weekly, and with regular meetings with Cintra.

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The goal of this initiative is to gather data on every student, to inform the direction of curriculum, identify areas for teacher professional development, and build individual learning plans for each student. Though this initiative is only in its first year at Cintra’s school, insights are already beginning to reveal themselves from the data. Cintra points to adding PD based on the results. “We learned that up to third grade, kids like math. After that, they start to dislike it. What happens in third grade? That is when variables come into play, and math becomes more abstract. Now we are educating third-grade teachers to teach variables in a way that helps students better understand the concepts.”

From the outside it can appear to be a tedious process, attempting to speak with each of the one thousand students in the school on an ongoing basis. Cintra employs a management structure that resembles that of a private for-profit organization, with coordinators reporting metrics to him weekly. Processes make it possible, with specific instructions on how many students coordinators need to speak with weekly, what they are looking for, and on what metrics they should report.

Success from this project will be measured by re-enrolment next school year. As Cintra puts it, “if they [students] re-enroll it’s because they want our product again — our education. It means that parents are happy with us.”

It’s about mindsets, not technology

It takes more than good processes and big ideas to make real progress towards personalized education. No technology or metric can get students a learning experience that grows with them and guides them to their full potential. According to Cintra, to create personalized education at a scale, the staff at any school must adopt the correct mindset. “The first mindset is to treat kids as individuals, understanding that each one is different. The second is that each kid has the potential to learn with the proper approach. We need to behave in a way that acknowledges these mindsets every day.”

The key is approaching personalization in a more data-driven way.

Cintra advises other schools to begin with the idea that understanding every student is possible. “Each kid has a background, and if they’re not learning it’s because you didn’t fully grasp the way this kid could learn.” It’s difficult to make a behavioral change on any level, but according to Cintra, it is the responsibility of school leaders to inspire that change in their staff and curriculum.

Education is, of course, different in every country, and educators everywhere have different skills and teaching methods. Some schools have more technology than others, and student demographics change in each school. The core idea is to create personalized learning with the mindset that it is possible to do, supported by data. As Cintra puts it, “ the general trend of personalization is happening and is necessary. The way to do that will be different everywhere, with different technologies and skills. The key is approaching personalization in a more data-driven way.”

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