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Students in Brazil review their social media.
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Adolescent isolation, ideology, and the missing voice of parents: A social listening analysis of Brazilian education

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Introduction

The first case of coronavirus in Brazil was confirmed in February 2020, followed by a rapid increase in cases, news, and discourses on social media. Since then, life for many Brazilian students and teachers has become more difficult not only due to the disease’s health impacts, but also its social impacts. For education, the immediate repercussion of the pandemic was the sudden suspension of face-to-face activities and the temporary closure of schools and universities. As a result, emergency distance learning activities were implemented—generally without adequate technological infrastructure, educational material, or previous teacher training. This took place amid economic, social, and political disruptions in which educational institutions played a key role. Our effort in this report is to understand and share what Brazilian teachers, parents, and students are discussing on social media about education both before and during the pandemic.

This report is the third in a series of social listening research from the Center for Universal Education (CUE). Earlier analyses reported on the findings of social listening in England and the United States, and a study of India will follow.

Understanding conversations on education in Brazil represents broader research interests at the CUE. Brazilian organizations participate in CUE’s Family Engagement in Education Network (FEEN), a global peer learning and exchange community of practice that looks at how family-school engagement contributes to education system transformation. We were interested in understanding the broader educational conversation in Brazil beyond our FEEN.

As in our studies of England and the United States, we were interested in understanding what parents, teachers, and students were discussing in relation to education and how those discussions have shifted over time. We were also interested in whether the three groups were talking about the same things or talking to each other. Finally, we wanted to know if the groups were talking about major news related to education in Brazil. Our analysis uncovered the following key takeaways:

  1. Conversations on Twitter are often different from the news media. Only sometimes did Twitter reflect the news media conversation on education, showing that there is a separate discourse taking place on Twitter.
  2. Students are unhappy. What isn’t covered in the news media but is vividly captured in social media is that students are deeply unhappy about their educational experience before and during COVID-19, and they appreciate any opportunity for support from parents and teachers.
  3. Inequality in education is a serious concern for students and teachers. Frustrations with public schooling and inequality in education increased during the pandemic.
  4. Values clash. We also observed clashing values over the role of school in society, divided along political lines.
  5. Teachers worried about themselves and their students. Overall, teachers were concerned about their own safety and the well-being of their students, with many going the extra mile to ensure their students could learn during the pandemic.
  6. Parents’ voices were missing. Parents’ voices are largely missing from the conversation.

Who is talking and on what platforms?

To conduct the analysis, we developed a query for education and related words in the Talkwalker platform using a Boolean search. We focused our query on the “average” social media user to better understand the everyday conversation around education versus that of a celebrity or influencer. We used Talkwalker data to gather results and analyzed the content, author, source, and engagement of posts—observing, for example, how many times a tweet was shared or an article’s view count.

We categorized the data into three time periods:

  • Pre-COVID: September 11, 2019 to February 29, 2020
  • COVID Year 1: March 1, 2020 to February 28, 2021
  • COVID Year 2: March 1, 2021 to October 15, 2021

For each period, we analyzed top themes and the most engaging posts within each theme to get a sense of the overall conversation around education.

The data included three social media sources: Twitter, online news, and blogs. We recognize that the conversation on Twitter in Brazil is not representative of the entire social media conversation (8 percent of the population is on Twitter), so we triangulated our data with other online news sources wherever possible.

Who is in our sample?

Our sample encompasses 3.9 million results over the period from September 11, 2019 to October 15, 2021. From Figure 1 below, you can see that the biggest spike in conversation occurred in March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic first shuttered schools in Brazil.

Figure 1. Volume of education conversation from September 2019 to October 2021

Figure 1. Volume of education conversation from September 2019 to October 2021

Source: Talkwalker.

What types of media did they use?

Our analysis mostly looks at Twitter posts, which made up 60 percent of our sample (Figure 2). To determine whether the Twitter conversation reflected major education news, we also looked at online news and news-related blog posts, such as G1.Globo.com, ElPaís Brasil.com, and CNN Brasil.com, which together made up the remaining 40 percent of the sample.

The tweets in our sample were almost entirely in Portuguese. For the purposes of this paper, we have used the Twitter “translate” feature, which uses Google Translate so that the tweets are readable by an English-speaking audience. We realize this English translation is not always entirely accurate, so we describe the Tweets in the main body of the paper.

Figure 2. Types of media

Figure 2. Types of media

Source: Talkwalker and authors’ calculations.

Our sample represents a younger user base than our other analyses (i.e., compared to England, U.S., and India). Close to half of all users in the sample are in the 18-24 age bracket. The 25- to 34-year-olds represent the second large demographic at 44.3 percent. (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Age of social media users

Figure 3. Age of social media users

Source: Talkwalker.

Another interesting finding from Brazil versus the other countries in our series is that users from our Brazil sample skew female: 55.6 percent of users identified as female, while 44.4 percent identified as male (Figure 4). Typically, social media users skew male, as we saw in our England, India, and U.S. analyses. Worldwide but also in Brazil, social media users exclude those who have no access to technology or who are not literate, which include some of the most marginalized communities.

Figure 4. Gender of social media users

Figure 4. Gender of social media users

Source: Talkwalker.

What did we learn?

Across our sample, we found a range of motivators driving conversations about education. At any given moment, some people want to share information from their networks, others want to vent their frustrations, and still others sought to share accomplishments. As seen in the word cloud below (Figure 5), the topics of conversation were varied—with top themes emerging around schools (especially elementary schools and public schools), face-to-face classes, and students’ family members (particularly their mothers).

Figure 5. Top themes in the education conversation

Figure 5. Top themes in the education conversation

Source: Talkwalker and authors’ calculations; Design credit: Meghan Foley.

Surprisingly, the conversation about education in Brazil was not significantly more positive before the COVID-19 outbreak. We observed that even before the outbreak of the pandemic, many discussions—especially among students—reflected negative feelings about the public school system and their overall educational experience.

In addition, a unique feature in our sample was low usage of hashtags (a departure from our samples in England, the United States, and India). The most relevant hashtag we found was related to #AdiaENEM (“postpone ENEM National Exam”), which became prominent among students beginning in 2020 (discussed in Insight 2).

We also noticed a slight increase in posts from parents and teachers during the pandemic. However overall, we saw very few posts from parents—a finding we will discuss further in Insight 6.

Another notable departure in the Brazilian education conversations from the social media discussions in other countries that we analyzed was the low expression of group or community identity on social media. In the U.S., for example, it was very common for teachers to self-identify in their Twitter bios as a “3rd grade science teacher” or for their Twitter handles to indicate their profession—for instance, “@MissSmithGr5,” denoting they are a classroom teacher in grade 5. Teachers and parents in Brazil often did not self-identify in their Twitter profile. Knowing these characteristics can be a helpful tool for understanding how a specific community has felt the impacts of the pandemic crises on their daily lives and how they have faced the struggles related to school closures or their posts.

Overall, there were six main themes that emerged in our analysis, which are described below.

Insight No. 1: Only sometimes did Twitter reflect the news media conversations on education, showing that there is a separate discourse taking place on Twitter

Brazil, like the rest of the world, has been heavily impacted by COVID-19. The health crisis exposed latent social tensions among students, teachers, and parents. While reviewing the educational conversations happening online, we observed that for many key areas of discussion, discourse on Twitter and traditional news and media coverage diverged. Only sometimes did the conversation on Twitter reflect the full scope of education news covered by the traditional news sources in our sample.

One example of this divergence is the impacts of the pandemic on working mothers, a topic that did not show up in our sample of tweets but did in traditional media sources. According to an Atlas Politico survey commissioned by EL PAÍS online media, 74 percent of mothers say that housework and work with children has increased due to the suspension of face-to-face classes, compared to 69 percent of fathers.

This article goes on to describe the mental toll that this added household burden has taken on many Brazilian mothers. One mother explains the guilt of not always being able to juggle all her responsibilities: “I always say that the daughter of a single mother has a forced independence. During the pandemic, Marina had to learn to shower alone, because I didn’t have time to help her anymore.”

Another article details the concerns of mothers as in-person work returns. The article describes the scramble for childcare as workplaces open without the concurrent opening of schools, and the economic ramifications.

The various stages of the pandemic have posed disproportionate hurdles for Brazilian mothers, and while these are documented in the news, mothers have not turned to Twitter as an outlet, reflecting the lack of parental voice on social media about children’s education.

Another divergence between traditional media and tweets in our sample is the discussion of teacher strikes. In early 2021, two sets of teacher strikes were reported in the news as teachers faced returning to in-person classes without widespread vaccination. While teachers expressed their opinions on Twitter about returning to school (discussed in Insight 5), we did not observe tweets from teachers supporting, disapproving of, or calling for additional strikes.

One potential reason our sample may not have contained tweets from mothers discussing the mental and financial toll of the pandemic or teachers rallying for strikes could be that that we observed few Twitter users expressing their collective identity in their social media bios or posts, as discussed above.

Insight No. 2: What isn’t covered in the news media but vividly captured in social media is that students are deeply unhappy about their educational experience before and during COVID-19, and appreciate any opportunity for support from parents and teachers

Twitter became a major outlet for students to disclose their unhappiness and frustrations with their education both prior to and during the pandemic. Related to Insight 1, online news sources in our sample did not capture the level of frustration, fear, and negativity from students across topics such as dissatisfaction with the school system, bullying, and anguish about their academic and professional future.

Students pointed to deficiencies in the quality of learning even before the start of the pandemic. For example, this student expresses not feeling prepared for grade-level math.

Brazil tweet 1Another student tweeting before the pandemic expresses dissatisfaction with the pace and structure of school, writing that there is too large a gap between the relaxed education of earlier grades and the strenuous education of secondary school.

Tweet 2

Bullying is another common topic in our sample. This student points to an unexpected silver lining of the pandemic, explaining that the lack of in-person classes meant no bullying.

Tweet 3

When the COVID-19 outbreak began, students shared their feelings of demotivation and frustration on social media. The 2020 school year took place predominantly in a remote environment for most students in the country. Students shared their thoughts on this new mode of learning, commenting about the volume of activities to be carried out, the lack of guidance, and frustration with themselves for being behind. This student notes he is behind on his schoolwork, which is having an impact on his mental health.

Tweet 4

In addition to the emotional toll of mounting schoolwork, students shared their isolation, loss of opportunities to bond with friends, and devastation from missing out on school traditions. In this post, a student shares the loss he feels for adolescent and school experiences.

Tweet 5

As the above tweets indicate, most students were focused on their own experiences, and it was not common for students to share tips or suggestions for navigating the challenges of education during the pandemic. Students appeared to show support through sharing their own challenges. For instance, this student expresses dissatisfaction with her school experience, connecting her experience with that of other public school students.

Brazil social listening analysis image with text paraphrased above the image.

A notable exception to the trend of students focusing only on their own experiences was students’ reaction to the timing of the High School National Exam (ENEM) (Box 1). Here students turned outward to protest and empathize with their peers.

Brazil social listening analysis image with text paraphrased above the image.

Box 1. What is the ENEM and what controversies have surrounded it in recent years?

 

The High School National Exam or ENEM (in Portuguese: Exame Nacional do Ensino Medio) is a noncompulsory, national standardized test used as an admission exam for many universities in Brazil and for high school degree certification. The ENEM contains five sections, each with a score range of 0-200, and the highest possible score of 1,000.

 

Multiple controversies have surrounded the ENEM, intensifying during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the 2020 school year, President Jair Bolsonaro’s administration received pushback for the decision to administer the ENEM in person despite high rates of COVID-19 and closures of schools across the country. The 2020 ENEM had a record number of abstentions, with about half of the 5.7 million registrants not showing up to the test.

 

Controversies continued into 2021. Only 3.1 million students enrolled in the 2021 ENEM, the lowest number since 2005. The low enrollment is purported to be explained by the administration’s decision to stop exempting fees for those who missed the exam the prior year (exemption of fees are usually available for students whose families make under a certain income). These decisions have changed the composition of students taking the ENEM, with many fewer Black and low-income students taking the 2021 ENEM.

 

Scores on the ENEM exam can translate to scholarships for Brazilian students. However, in 2021 the government reduced the number of potential Student Financing (Fies) contracts from 100,000 in 2020 to 54,000 and also increased scoring requirements.

 

President Bolsonaro has long criticized the ENEM for what he sees as its left-wing bias. Controversy came to a head when 37 education ministry officials resigned just two weeks before the 2021 ENEM, citing “intolerable pressure” and “harassment” as they were forced to change exam questions. President Bolsonaro explained the changes by saying, “The questions on the Enem are starting to resemble this administration.”

Launched in 1998 to assess the quality of secondary education in Brazil, the High School National Exam (ENEM) has gained importance as a ‘passport’ to higher education for Brazilian students. Although it is not mandatory, many high school students choose to take the exam for this reason. During the pandemic, there were multiple controversies surrounding the ENEM’s scheduled timing, its questions, and its scoring (see Box 1).

Many students posted on social media that they did not feel safe taking the ENEM during the pandemic for fear of contagion. Others worried they were not prepared for the test given school closures. Feelings of frustration, anger, and injustice were prevalent and often directed toward the Ministry of Education and the broader education system.

In the example below, a student laments the many challenges of taking the exam during COVID and specifically calls out the Bolsonaro government for exacerbating these challenges.

Brazil social listening analysis image with text paraphrased above the image.

The Brazilian Union of Secondary Students (Ubes) and the National Union of Students (UNE), on behalf of secondary students, organized a social media campaign against carrying out the 2020 ENEM according to the scheduled calendar.

Stefany Kovalski, 20, a high school student and coordinator of Ubes, is quoted in the tweet below, commenting on the injustice of conducting the ENEM when there are students who lost access to schooling during the pandemic.Brazil social listening analysis image with text paraphrased above the image.

Students joined this social media campaign, using the hashtag #AdiaEnem (postpone ENEM) to show their support. In the post below, a student highlights the stakes of the decision to hold the ENEM, writing that postponing the ENEM is a question of equity.

Brazil social listening analysis image with text paraphrased above the image.

Students’ level of unhappiness and reaction to national exams during the pandemic was not unusual. In our studies of India and England, two countries with similar high-stakes exams at the end of secondary school, we found that national exams also created controversy.

Given all the above challenges both during and before the pandemic, students made it clear that they appreciated any support from parents and teachers. This student reflects on a teacher he remembers fondly.

Brazil social listening analysis image with text paraphrased above the image.

Another student excitedly shares a TikTok her mother—a teacher—made, celebrating her commitment to her students.

Brazil social listening analysis image with text paraphrased above the image.

The level of student unhappiness was poignant and something not captured outside of Twitter. However, Brazilian students who looked to teachers were often met with many offers for support, as we will explore in Insight 5.

Insight No. 3. Frustrations with education inequality and public schooling increased during the pandemic.

Students and teachers in our sample raised issues of inequality in a number of different ways. Notably, they discussed the differences between public and private education in Brazil and emphasized how the pandemic widened these differences.

Discussing the school system more generally, one teacher shared how she only received one message wishing her a happy teachers’ day since many of her students have dropped out of school. She wrote that her students understand that the school system is flawed and acknowledged that the school system bears some responsibility for drop-out rates.

Brazil social listening analysis image with text paraphrased above the image.

Students chimed in to discuss the educational advantages of private school even before the COVID-19 pandemic. This student complains that private school students do not understand the value of their education:

Brazil social listening analysis image with text paraphrased above the image.

The critiques of the differences between private and public schools increased during the pandemic when many public schools were unable to go online. This tweet from a conversation thread explains that although the pandemic was difficult for students in private schools where remote learning was taking place, many in public school did not have access to the internet.

Brazil social listening analysis image with text paraphrased above the image.

Teachers also shared their experiences in under-resourced public schools, like this teacher who comments on the lack of hygiene products and the large number of students:

Brazil social listening analysis image with text paraphrased above the image.

Although inequality comprised a larger part of the online conversation, we did observe some students describing social mobility opportunities through education. However, these stories were individualistic, unlike many of the posts on inequality that focused on its systemic nature. For instance, this student celebrates his graduation by commenting on the importance of mobility opportunities that have helped him and his siblings become engineers, doctors, and lawyers from a working-class family.

Brazil social listening analysis image with text paraphrased above the image.

Additionally, the student below explicitly notes that although she has achieved personal career success after a public school education, she knows she is the exception and not the rule. Both this post and the one above reference meritocracy and the fact that it is not universally accessible, with the student suggesting that the idea there is meritocracy in Brazil is a “barter” or scam.

Brazil social listening analysis image with text paraphrased above the image.

References to inequality were tied to education in our sample since education is often seen as a way to support social mobility. This notion was challenged by many in Brazil who noted that students who were least socially advantaged often lost access to schooling during the pandemic.

Insight No. 4. Some posts reflect divisions in society related to what belongs in school, quality of public schools, and social mobility.

The pandemic highlighted value-based debates in Brazil, as it did in many other parts of the world. Political and education debates often coalesced into the issue of what should be taught and tested in schools.

When president Jair Bolsonaro took office in January 2019, he did so on a campaign agenda that included combatting feminism, rescuing family values, and respect for Judeo-Christian religion. We observed clashes over these values as people questioned what belonged in schools. The content of textbooks was one such question. In 2019, Bolsonaro made clear his desire to in his words “soften” and “take out leftist ideology” from textbooks, while adding the Brazilian flag and national anthem. Many of the textbook changes took effect in 2021, during the middle of the pandemic. We found strong reactions to these changes.

For example, LGBTQIA+ education was questioned by the government. Bolsonaro brought back into public discourse the School Without Homophobia program (pejoratively called the “gay kit”), a program that sought to address homophobia in schools. We saw strong reactions to this politicized issue, such as this teacher who emphasizes that homophobia is a crime.

Brazil social listening analysis image with text paraphrased above the image.

Teachers and students on both sides of the political spectrum reacted to increasing political tensions on school-related topics by commenting on—or in some cases taking legal action against—what they viewed as indoctrination in schools. We observed this throughout our sample’s timeframe, beginning with a student suing the state of Santa Catarina for leftist indoctrination in the classroom in early 2020. Later in the pandemic, a teacher comments on the irony of people who worried about indoctrination pre-pandemic, but who are now desperate for the return of in-person classes, as seen in this tweet below.

Brazil social listening analysis image with text paraphrased above the image.

Students also discuss the topic of indoctrination on social media. In this post below, a student says the fight to end indoctrination in schools must start with students.

Brazil social listening analysis image with text paraphrased above the image.

Insight No. 5: Teachers were deeply concerned about the well-being of their students and their own safety, with many going the extra mile to ensure their students could learn during the pandemic.​

Teachers were active on Twitter throughout the pandemic, sharing their experiences with remote work, returning to the classroom, and how the pandemic was impacting education. While teachers worried about their own safety, they also worried about their students—acknowledging the challenges they faced and often going above and beyond their job descriptions to offer support.

After being thrown into remote work at the beginning of the pandemic, many teachers responded with trepidation when asked to return to in-person teaching. As discussed in Insight 1, teacher strikes were reported in the news in early 2021 as teachers faced returning to in-person classes without widespread vaccination. While they did not mention the strikes on Twitter, teachers did express their frustration, such as one teacher who cites the irony of returning to teach in-person as a science teacher—when science would support staying at home.

Brazil social listening analysis image with text paraphrased above the image.

Another teacher critiques a federal deputy, accusing the deputy of defending the interests of private schools over safety.

Brazil social listening analysis image with text paraphrased above the image.

These fears came from real experiences of loss from the pandemic. One teacher learned that she was replacing a teacher who had died of COVID-19 only two weeks after she had joined her new school despite the government decree banning in person learning.

Brazil social listening analysis image with text paraphrased above the image.

Despite this fear for their own safety, teachers expressed continued concern for their students, even when this support might come in conflict with their own safety. For instance, in a response to a tweet asking if it is safe to go back to in-person classes, this teacher emphasizes that returning to school is essential for students who do not have access to the same levels of support as other students.

Brazil social listening analysis image with text paraphrased above the image.

Teachers also responded to the needs of students by offering their tutoring support, even to those not in their classroom. We saw many examples of tweets like these from teachers offering support to students in a variety of subjects, especially students from the less well-resourced public schools (“rede pública”).

Brazil social listening analysis image with text paraphrased above the image.

Insight No. 6: Parents’ voices are largely missing from the conversation.

We found very little representation of parent voices in our sample overall. This is quite distinct from our findings in England and the United States, but similar to India. The few posts we observed from parents reflected concerns for their family’s physical and mental well-being. One parent shared a video of his child crying while his online class sang him happy birthday, but emphasized that better days will come.

Brazil social listening analysis image with text paraphrased above the image.

We observed a few instances of vocal parents either supporting or protesting the return to in-person learning, although this was not widespread.

Early in the pandemic, one article referenced a protest in Cuiabá, where parents gathered outside of city hall to call for the return of in-person learning. According to the article, parents pointed to the difficulty of finding child care as part of the reason for their protest, a topic we explored in Insight 1.

In the tweet below, a parent references a letter written by parents explaining their belief that face-to-face classes should not resume until the pandemic is under control. This demonstrates a rare example of collective action toward a common goal in our sample on Twitter.

Brazil social listening analysis image with text paraphrased above the image.

The low representation of parents in our sample means that we were able to draw few conclusions about parents’ views on education and their perspectives on our key questions. It is possible that parents are choosing to express their views on education on other social media platforms not captured in our study or are voicing their perspectives through offline channels. It may also be the case that parents in Brazil are simply missing from the public discussion about education—either because they do not believe it is their role to comment or they have not been invited by their children’s school to share their views. Whatever the reason, the limited voice of parents in our study was notable, especially in relation to the participation of teachers in the public online discussion—a portion of whom we assume are also parents but chose to voice their views only through their educator identity.

Conclusion

COVID-19 brought a large range of societal conversations to the surface in Brazil. Our social listening project tracked social media posts related to education, but we discovered that educational topics were often intertwined with those of mental health, political ideologies, inequality, and social mobility.

Students and teachers were the most vocal groups in our sample, with parents noticeably absent. We were interested in understanding what these groups were talking about and how they talked to each other. We found students mainly focused on their own experiences, often discussing  difficult schooling incidents and sharing how the pandemic was taking a toll on their mental health and education. The exception to this was students’ outrage over the timing of the ENEM where many students showed outward empathy for their fellow peers. We found that teachers were distinct in reaching out to each other and students to offer support.

Although the Brazilian sample differed in some ways from that of England, the U.S., and India, we still gained valuable insights into how students, teachers, and parents talked about education over the past two years. These findings highlight how important it is to look to a variety of sources when attempting to understand how people think about education. If we had turned just to traditional sources of news, we might have missed students’ cries for educational improvement. If we had only captured tweets, we would not have understood the toll the pandemic took on parents—especially mothers—or the striking of Brazilian teachers.

Acknowledgements

We are grateful to Jeannine Ajello, Adam Barton, Meghan Foley, Danielle McMurtry, and Katherine Portnoy for their assistance in developing this report.

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