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13.2.2023 | Rachel Pells |

Transforming a nation: How a Colombian learning model connected vulnerable children to education

Vicky Colbert, founder and director of Fundación Escuela Nueva, speaks to HundrED about how she transformed rural schooling in Colombia and beyond.

In 1970s Colombia, a child’s education depended heavily on where they happened to be born. At the time, half of the country’s rural schools did not offer complete primary education, and more than half of rural children aged 7-9 had never attended school at all, as in the rest of Latin America.

Policymakers tasked with the expansion and improvement of existing multigrade schools in rural Colombia came up against challenges: teaching children of different abilities and ages, often in a single room at the same time, was not for the faint-hearted. The geography of these spread-out rural communities meant teacher training was also expensive and impractical to implement – if indeed teachers could be persuaded to stay. 

But more than this, the curriculum for rural schools was not contextualized, explains Vicky Colbert, who was a young professional working in Colombia’s ministry of education at the time.

“It was not seen as relevant to rural life, and therefore families were not incentivised to send children to school – because what they learned was not applicable to their rural environment and community.”

Challenging bureaucracy

Colbert was up for the challenge. Together with academic co-founders Beryl Levinger and Oscar Mogollón, a Colombian rural teacher, Colbert established Escuela Nueva – the “New School” model – designed to improve enrolment and quality of education in existing rural schools. The group began with just a handful of schools in three regions in 1976, and by 1989 the project had grown to 17,948, serving around 800,000 students. 

“Starting an innovation on behalf of the state was very difficult – we were constantly challenging bureaucracy,” she reflects, almost five decades later. “We had to start with bottom-up strategies and gather solid evidence in order to convince the ministry of education that Escuela Nueva was having measurable, positive results.”

In 1982, Colbert was appointed vice-minister of education, making her responsible for universalising primary education – enabling her to take the Escuela Nueva model across the entire country.

“It was a real Cinderella story, because we started with the most invisible, isolated schools and we ended up with a model of schools for the future,” she says. “In the process of scaling up, we had to design strategies that were technically and politically viable, while being cost effective. Necessity was the mother of innovation.”

A radical new approach to learning

Today, Colbert is the chief executive of Fundación Escuela Nueva, a non-profit, non-governmental organisation that she founded out of the same principles as Escuela Nueva to ensure its quality and to continue innovating Escuela Nueva to new populations and contexts. Fundación Escuela Nueva introduced two innovations, Escuela Activa Urbana to urban marginal populations and Escuela Nueva Learning Circles for displaced and migrant populations.    

Escuela Nueva is a fresh approach to schooling that flips the traditional chalk-and-talk education model on its head by placing pupils at the centre of the learning experience. The approach may be fairly common practice in modern, progressive education systems, but in the mid-1970s and indeed 1980s, it was a radical and at times controversial thought experiment.

“The philosophy of Escuela Nueva is not new,” says Colbert. “We have learned from Dewey, Montessori, Piaget and other great pedagogues, the essentials of student-centred learning. What is new is that we managed to put it into a simple, systemic format that is easily scalable and cost effective.

The principles behind Escuela Nueva are to ensure pupils develop cognitive skills, academic achievement, social emotional skills and civic engagement, but also practical life skills such as responsibility , leadership and peaceful social interaction.

“Students in conventional schools were not engaged in their learning, in part because they were not given the agency required to bring lessons to life – classrooms were places where pupils were expected to be quiet and listen,” Colbert explains. “By putting pupils at the centre of the lesson, letting them dialogue among themselves and interact with their peers – especially in classrooms with pupils of different ages – we can nurture their confidence, communication skills and creativity.”

"By putting pupils at the centre of the lesson, letting them dialogue and interact with their peers – especially in classrooms with pupils of different ages – we can nurture their confidence, communication skills and creativity.”

A rural school in Vaupes.

Scaling up the model  

The Escuela Nueva model is a simple one: students sit in small groups, each group with their learning guides to work from. The learning guides facilitate group discussion, individual work and frequent feedback from the teacher. After going through an exercise on their own, pupils are encouraged to discuss it with the group, helping each other and discussing the content in detail. The role of the teacher is to observe, guide , facilitate, orient and give frequent feedback, more formative evaluation and offer help when needed. In Escuela Nueva the curriculum was modularized combining both personalized, self-paced learning and cooperative learning.

Another benefit to the approach is that it works well for bigger conventional classes and monograde schools where one teacher works with one grade. This situation inspired Fundación Escuela Nueva to adapt Escuela Nueva to urban contexts and populations., naming it Escuela Activa Urbana. With the support from Interamerican Foundation, this project was initiated in 1987 piloting it in different cities and giving technical assistance to other private and public organizations to develop Escuela Activa Urbana. Different organizations have received technical assistance from Fundación Escuela Nueva and they have successfully implemented it.

In the year 2000, 20 public schools with the lowest academic achievements from low-income communities of Bogota implemented Escuela Nueva. The National University evaluated these schools demonstrating that they improved their results by 45% in language and by 81% in mathematics.

In 2001, Fundación Escuela Nueva expanded its reach once more through its Learning Circles program – which aims to restore the right to quality education for out of school, hard to reach children in vulnerable situations. This initiative was a response to displaced and migrant populations.

The Escuela Nueva Learning Circles are spaces for groups of around 15 students to work together with the aid of a tutor from the community, who facilitates learning and personalized support until pupils are ready to transition into the formal official school. Evidence has demonstrated results not only in cognitive achievement but in self-esteem of children. This Program also became a national policy.

Escuela Nueva has inspired many educational reforms worldwide. More than 40 countries have visited Escuela Nueva. In 1989, the World Bank selected it as one of the three innovations, worldwide, that had successfully impacted national policies. Empirical evidence has always been supporting Escuela Nueva.   

Academically, the model is a success: analysis by the World Bank (which helped to finance FEN) concluded that Escuela Nueva had had a “significant independent effect on student outcomes” and at a unit cost per student “which does not differ substantially from that of traditional schools”. And in 1998, the first Unesco comparative study for Latin America and the Caribbean concluded that Colombia was the only country in South America where rural schools obtained better results than urban ones, except in large mega cities all thanks to the Escuela Nueva model and methodology. 

And yet, despite these achievements, Colbert is not complacent. “There has been so much global progress in the past decades but not in education,” she warns. “The classroom stays the same in many countries around the world, a stagnant approach to education. And technology is not always the answer. A paradigm shift is needed,” she adds.

Going forward, Colbert hopes to continue to expand FEN’s reach to include more children who live disconnected lives – may that be from lack of internet access or otherwise. An additional challenge will be “to strengthen the socio-emotional dimension and its measurement [in education], for instance by building openness towards experience, responsibility, extraversion, collaboration, emotional stability and achievement of goals, alongside 21st century skills such as critical thinking , decision making. and the ability to work in teams.

When the Covid-19 pandemic forced schools world-over to close their doors in 2020-21 and 2021-22, the benefits of the Escuela Nueva model once again came to the fore. In the case of children in most rural areas where there is no connectivity, they could work offline from their printed, self-paced learning guides with their families while the teacher continued to support children through WhatsApp connections. 

In addition, the conditions created by the pandemic became an opportune and strategic moment to strengthen our virtual campus, Renueva for teachers. Since most of them live in the nearby towns where there is connectivity, our virtual campus, Renueva, was strengthened and supported our microcentres or teacher's learning circles and promoted a community of practice for 2500 teachers, from 20 departments (States), 244 municipalities during the last three years. Seven thousand teachers were registered and interested in receiving training in Escuela Nueva. There was a huge demand. This was done jointly with the Ministry of Education. 

The pandemic forced the education process to be more child centred, forced the teacher to assume a new role and strengthen the participation of parents in children's learning process, all the principles Escuela Nueva has been promoting during many years. “If anything, the coronavirus pandemic showed many other countries that technology can trigger changes but that solutions don’t always have to be online or technology-based to be accessible,” says Colbert. “The challenges are more pedagogical than technological.”

Fundacíon Escuela Nueva is part of the HundrED Hall of Fame. Each year, we select 100 of the brightest innovations in education for our Global Collection. 

Submit your education innovation to be considered for the next Global Collection.