In Latin American Classrooms, a Television Triples Enrollment

October 22, 2014


Telesecundaria in Xenimajuyú village, in Tecpan, Guatemala 


Thousands of young people in Guatemala, Mexico and Colombia watch an average of one and a half hours of educational programming daily.

We live in an age of screens. From smartphones to computers to televisions, we spend hours a day glued to them. And this is particularly true for teenagers.

But can this technology become an ally in their education? Contrary to what parenting magazines or popular theory may say, the answer is surprisingly yes.

From Mexico to Colombia, a growing number of Latin American students watch an hour and a half of educational programs in the classroom daily.

This practice is not a waste of time or an excuse for teachers to avoid their classroom responsibilities. It is a methodology known as Telesecundaria in which all school subjects are taught in modules that include watching television, reading, doing exercises and taking tests.

Increasingly popular

Telesecundaria schools have become popular in several Latin American countries. One is Guatemala, where more than 105,000 young people attend schools that use this system.

 “Before Telesecundaria, young people completed primary school and then went to work in the field. The girls stayed home with their mothers to prepare tortillas and help with the housework,” says José Hernández of the Telesecundaria Unit in the Ministry of Education of Guatemala. Telesecundaria fills the void left by the lack of secondary schools in remote areas,” he says.

The image on the screen is not only a powerful tool of this method; it also functions as a hook to reel in community members to the schools.

“Initially, several parents came out of curiosity. It was rumored that we had a television in the school and that we used it to teach classes,” says Juan Francisco Coconcoy, director of the Telesecundaria Institute at Xenimajuyú, near Tecpán, the ancient Maya capital.

Now, however, it is not just televisions that attract attention –most telesecondary schools do not even use TVs or DVDs, but rather projectors, computers and hard drives – but also the fact that the students have their own textbooks.

“When you live in the countryside, having a book that you can call your own is a treasure,” says Hernández, who adds that during class, Guatemalan children not only watch television, but also “read for at least half an hour every day.”

But Telesecundaria was not born and raised in Guatemala; rather, it was developed in Mexico in 1968. Currently, 20% of schoolchildren attend a Telesecundaria school in the country. Recently, however, it has extended throughout the isthmus– in Honduras and Panama it is known as Telebásica – and has even reached South America.


" Initially, several parents came out of curiosity. It was rumored that we had a television in the school and that we used it to teach classes "

Francisco Coconcoy


Super teachers for future leaders

“We facilitate the learning process,”  explains Coconcoy. Unlike a teacher at a regular secondary school, Telesecundaria instructors teach all subjects and the classroom method allows for carrying out several tasks simultaneously.

According to experts, Telesecundaria is an innovative methodology because it enables students to teach themselves and to work independently. “If I have to attend a board meeting, I can leave the students to work on their own,” explains Yohana Álvarez, director and facilitator of the Telesecundaria school in Cerrito Fraijanes, a village south of Guatemala City.

According to Eledoña Xico Gomez, Telesecundaria coordinator of Chimaltenango Department, this teaching method has transformed local youths into professionals. “The students using this methodology obtain better jobs because they have received a good education, are leaders and make themselves known,” she says.

 “Telesecundaria schools have been a key factor in taking secondary school to all corners of Guatemala. Currently, one out of five secondary school students in the 196 poorest municipalities attends a school of that type,” says Juan Diego Alonso, senior economist at the World Bank. In fact, it is in these municipalities where enrollment in the 7th, 8th and 9th grades nearly tripled between 2007 and 2013.

The pending subject

According to its proponents, even though Telesecundaria has given more young people access to education and better prepares them for a quality life, it still shares some of the more complex problems of the education system overall. In the case of Guatemala, for example, these difficulties are associated with quality and diversity.

For its part, the Ministry recognizes that it still needs to include and adapt contents in other languages: in addition to Spanish, Guatemala recognizes 23 Mayan languages, as well as Garifuna and Xinca.

Moreover, more than 80% of students in the last year of secondary school failed math – including those attending Telesecundaria schools –, according to the most recent statistics of the National System of Education Indicators developed by the Ministry of Education.

Guatemala’s educational reality is not unusual for the region. In 2012, the eight countries in Latin America that participated in the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) ranked far down on the list of middle-income countries. A recent World Bank study attributes this result mainly to teachers’ poor classroom performance.