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Stories of Change - Reforming the Educational System by Placing the Pupil at the Centre

Author: Kine Nordstokka
Published Date: 14 August 2015

At SIX we think it is important to tell stories where social innovation has impacted people’s lives for the better. Our Stories of Change series tells you the stories that inspire us from around the world.

Escuela Nueva is a pedagogical model that has significantly expanded and improved education in Colombia’s rural areas, and beyond. Vicky Colbert, who pioneered Escuela Nueva, was motivated to develop the model because of the large gap she experienced between what teachers learn about education, and the actual needs in the rural schools in Colombia. Unsuitable curriculum led to high drop out and grade repetition rates amongst pupils as well as low moral and high turnover rates amongst teachers. As a response to this challenge, the Escuela Nueva model effectively improved the quality and relevance of primary education for rural populations in Colombia.

The challenge

Although Colombia has a policy in place to provide primary education to all, this was far from the reality in its rural areas. Prior to the introduction of Escuela Nueva, few children in rural areas had access to a complete primary education. Many rural children received their education in classrooms with around 40 pupils ranging from grades one and five – only supported by 1 or 2 teachers. The teaching methods were they same as in single grade classrooms: authoritarian teaching without separating the support for the pupils according to grade. Beyond this, because the schools did not take into account the reality of the rural lives, schools had high drop out rates. For example, schools would not accommodate harvest periods when many pupils would leave school to help their families. Many children coming back to school after harvest had to either repeat the grade or decided to leave school.

Why education?

Early on in her career in the educational field, Vicky Colbert became convinced that sustainable development and democracy depend on high quality education of all children. When school systems fail, it misses out on the opportunity to build effective and engaged citizens of the future, and to give young people the skills that build effective pathways out of poverty, inequality and exclusion.

“My vision is that Escuela Nueva empowers all children to become contributing members of their communities through a quality education that promotes citizenship skills and democratic behaviours.” (Vicky Colbert)

The Escuela Nueva Method

The pupil at the centre of the learning process

At the core of the Escuela Nueva model is the move away from conventional, teacher-centred teaching, towards child-centred, active and collaborative learning. At Escuela Nueva, the teacher takes the role as a facilitator as opposed to transmitter of facts. Teachers focus on cultivating initiative, responsibility, and empathy. Students learn how to learn, how to work in teams and how to take leadership. Although not all students are doing the same thing at the same time, each of them always knows what they are doing and why.

Working in small groups, students learn how to act as team members, as leaders, and as self-directed learners. This collaborative learning approach instils in the young people democratic behaviours, tolerance and entrepreneurial skills. Learning guidebooks are central to the model. While working through their learning guides the pupils learn collaboration and teamwork, creating a dynamic where students are helping and working with each other. Learning guides also encourages a constant dialogue between the pupil and the teacher.

Flexible learning

At Escuela Nueva, pupils are allowed to direct the pace of their own learning process. This flexible model is tailored to meet the needs of each individual child, allowing pupils to complete units and advance to higher grade levels at their own pace. It also means that, for example, frequent absences during harvest periods, which are normal in the rural areas, do not force the pupil to repeat grades unnecessarily. Instead they can simply continue where they left off in their learning guides upon returning to school.

Relevance to the daily lives of the pupils

Escuela Nueva connects education to the daily lives of pupils and their communities. For example, it introduces new elements into the curricula that are applicable to the pupils’ daily lives; such elements include mapping the area where they live and learning about the agricultural calendar. Escuela Nueva actively strengthens the ties between the school and the community. The learning guides direct students to share what they learn in school with their families and community, and the parents and the community are encouraged to take an active part in the children’s learning.

Working with the teachers

Escuela Nueva has always been developed and spread in close collaboration with the teachers themselves, changing their methods by training them in a new way. In addition to interactive and self-guided teachers' guides, teachers receive hands-on training and access to ‘microcenters’, where teachers come together for concrete workshops on relevant topics such as how to use the educational materials or manage a library, and also to share their experiences with each other.

Spreading the model 

As the Escuela Nueva model proved its effectiveness in improving education in the rural areas of Colombia, it was quickly taken up in other contexts and countries. Escuela Nueva first scaled out across rural districts in Colombia, before becoming a core part of Colombia’s national education policy. Since then the model has been implemented in 16 countries (in Latin America, Vietnam, East Timor and Zambia), reaching more than 5 million children. In addition to rural populations, the model has been adapted to displaced children, vulnerable people in crisis and low-income urban schools. 

One of the reasons for the model’s ability to scale so well is Vicky Colbert’s ability to transform complexity into simple and adaptable methods that can easily be taken up and used across a variety of contexts. Colbert founded the Fundacion Escuela Nueva to safeguard the quality and essence of the method while continuing to develop new adaptations of the model for new populations.

The impact of the model

  • UNESCO ranked Colombia's rural schools as superior to its urban schools, and also determined that Colombia offered the second-best rural education in Latin America, an assessment for which Escuela Nueva is largely responsible.
  • The World Bank recognised the Escuela Nueva model as one of the three most successful public policy reforms in developing countries around the world as well as one of the most important reforms in global education.
  • In 2000, the UN Human Development Report selected Escuela Nueva as one of the three greatest achievements in the country.
  • The University of London also released a report in 2006 on the schools influence on non-cognitive dimensions, such as self-esteem, democratic behaviours, solidarity and cooperation. Results have shown that the model has a positive incidence in these dimensions. Girls’ participation skills and leadership skills are particularly boosted.
  • Escuela Nueva pupils outperform their students in traditional schools academically.
  • It also has lower dropout and grade repetition rates than traditional schools.

To read the above reports and research findings have a look here.