Fundación Escuela Nueva: Changing the Way Children Learn from Colombia to Southeast Asia

The Center for Universal Education (CUE) here at Brookings recently hosted Ms. Vicky Colbert, founder and director of Fundación Escuela Nueva (FEN) and 2013 Wise Prize for Education Laureate. Since the 1970s, Colbert has developed, expanded and sustained the Escuela Nueva model for improving the quality of education across the world, and in addition to the Wise Prize has received the first Clinton Global Citizenship Award, the Henry R. Kravis Prize in Leadership and awards from the Schwab Foundation, the Skoll Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship and Ashoka. Our roundtable discussion at Brookings continued a series that features leaders in education from around the developing world.

Having heard about the famous Escuela Nueva many times in passing (translated as “New School”), I have to admit that I didn’t really have a grip on what it was exactly. Was it a school? An intervention?  A pedagogical model? During Ms. Colbert’s passionate description of her lifelong project, I soon came to learn that Escuela Nueva is definitely not a school, as the name may have you believe. It is actually a model of active, cooperative, self-paced learning and experiential teacher training. The model was first co-developed by Ms. Colbert in the mid-1970s to tackle the poor state of rural, multi-grade schools. Children of varying age and skill levels share classrooms in such schools, which are very common in countries with low population density. Escuela Nueva’s model employs cooperative, child-centered pedagogy by encouraging students to work together in groups while the teacher facilitates, activates and guides the work of children from different levels, rather than attempting to lecture to all of the levels at the same time.

Since its inception, FEN has challenged the conventional teacher-driven pedagogy and has also adapted the Escuela Nueva model for urban contexts (Escuela Activa Urbana), for displaced or out of school children (Escuela Nueva Learning Circles), and as a program for communities affected by conflict and natural disasters (Escuela Nueva Itinerant). Most recently, FEN has leveraged its model and methodology to promote entrepreneurship and 21st century education skills that empower students and develop leadership skills. At the roundtable discussion, Ms. Colbert emphasized the importance of changing the learning paradigm for students and teachers, changing their instruction style in the classroom. By running training sessions that put the teachers at the center of their own learning, they are learning-by-doing, observing the Escuela Nueva model in action. The model also places a premium on collaboration among teachers, training new teachers with visits to demonstration schools where the model is already in place—an innovation born out of cost-saving measures—and hosting teacher study groups for existing teachers to meet and discuss best practices.

With its focus on child-centered active learning for the most disadvantaged students, Escuela Nueva has managed to grow from just a few schools in Colombia in 1976 to over 20,000 schools in Colombia by the end of the 1980s—representing over two-thirds of the country’s rural schools. The model has also been adopted by schools in 16 countries from Latin America to Southeast Asia, reaching five million students worldwide—an effort supported mainly by governments and international organizations like UNICEF, the World Bank and UNESCO. Colbert attributes the success of this scaling to strong partnerships with NGOs and the private sector, and the demand from communities that an effective school model be used for their children. Education cannot be left to governments alone, or when regimes change the quality may be put at risk. Escuela Nueva’s success has also been shown in students’ academic performance, with the model giving students an advantage over traditional schools (Psacharopoulos, Rojas and Velez, 1992; McEwan, 1998). Additionally, Ms. Colbert touts its success in improving peaceful social interactions and democratic behaviors among students. The model’s success at improving attendance, lowering drop-out rates and improving learning achievements is another reason behind the high international demand for its use.

In a time when all developing countries are looking for solutions to low levels of learning and achievement, Escuela Nueva is a good example of how basic innovations in pedagogy, with the child at the center, can be scaled up relatively quickly. The simplicity of the model and its results make it an interesting model to replicate. Ms. Colbert focused her talk on the science that underlies Escuela Nueva and serves as its key to success, highlighting the model’s contrast with governments that have much passion but little science. However, I couldn’t help but believe that it was also Ms. Colbert’s passion that got Escuela Nueva to where it is today.