Wise 2013 Special Address
Building the Future of Education
Mrs. Vicky Colbert, Founder and Director, Fundación Escuela Nueva, 2013 WISE Prize Laureate
Your Highness, Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen of the Global Wise community,
As I stand in front of all of you, I wish some very significant and dear people would be with me; my mother Pauline, a forward-looking educator in Columbia; my godfather — in Latin American we have godfathers — who brought to Columbia the most progressive ideas in education and Oscar, a dear colleague and the first rural teacher I met when I started my career. I owe to them to a great extent, the inspiration and courage to engage in this lifelong journey and life project of more than 30 years, dedicated to create opportunities to give quality of life education to all children. I owe to them a very, very wonderful feeling and emotions of thanking. Wherever they are in the Universe, they are looking at me and I thank them for their love, support and especially for the inspiration.
I would like to tell you the story of two people, one of them is myself. I studied Sociology in Columbia, initially. As a sociologist, you always want to reduce inequalities and drive social change. I taught Sociology of Education in Schools of Education, that basic education was crucial. This was my conclusion, that without quality, basic education, no social, economic, peace or development could ever be achieved. You can only sustain the goals of other sectors of health and nutrition unless you have quality basic education.
I then started to work in distance education, trying to reach the most remote schools of Columbia but I realized we were the ones that were distant from education. I realized that there was huge gap between what teacher’s learned in the schools of education, at least in Columbia and some countries in Latin America, and the reality of the poorest, vulnerable remote schools of the country. For example, teachers were receiving conferences on active participatory learning and they were instructed that they use active methods, themselves. How could they make the change if they had not practiced these methods while being trained as teachers?
The challenge was finding simpler ways to express all these complex ideas that are at the academic level. It was a really desperate need to translate complexity to more simple things, and this is the only way to ignite social change.
Everybody had the rhetoric but not the concrete instruments or strategies to make it really happen. Then I had the luck and opportunity to go to Stanford University and I focused myself at the micro level. I wanted to see the interactions of what really happens in the classroom. Here I started to understand that the way students interact in the classroom and solve problems, their daily routines, could have a big impact on society, especially in nurturing citizenship, skills, attitudes and peaceful behaviors. There is an intimate relationship between pedagogy and citizenship building. This is what John Dewey said 90 years ago.
I realized that cultivating the soft skills of social capital is central to produce engaged, responsible citizens.
Returning from Stanford, I was committed to reducing inequality and worked where there was the highest inequity in the educational system of Columbia — the poorest, isolated rural schools. Most of them were multi-grade; that means where one or two teachers have to handle simultaneously several grades, but they were invisible to educational planners, teacher’s colleges and funders. The work did not exist in the schools of education, despite that they were 60 percent of the rural schools in the country.
At that time, Columbia, as other Latin American countries, did not offer complete primary education in the rural areas, despite it was a constitutional mandate, so I decided to make these schools visible and their teacher’s visible and embark myself in that endeavor. That has been more than 30 years.
Everything was challenging in the rural schools: high drop outs, repetition rates, no academic results, low self-esteem of children, low teacher morale, inefficient, theoretical expensive teacher training that had no impact on renovating teaching practices, urban-biases teaching curriculums, conventional rote-memory, teacher-centered methods, and the teachers in the multi-grade schools never received support to really handle simultaneously, several grades at the same time. It was like a failed business, like a failed company — no results. It was very interesting because what we started seeing as a constraint became an opportunity, starting from the margins. You have to handle so many problems, but this is wonderful for innovation.
At this moment of the story is when I met Oscar, an outstanding, charismatic, motivated rural teacher from 6:15 ___________, a region of Columbia. He was a teacher at a demonstration school supported by a UNESCO project, that was applying the techniques to help teachers handle simultaneously, several grades at the same time. This UNESCO project was all over the world. This was the starting point of this long journey, and we started thinking big, trying to impact the whole system.
This transformative vision forced us to rethink and reinvent everything, the classroom and the curriculum, intervention, the training of the teachers, the relationships with the parents, and the communities and the administrators. In other words, it forced us to think systemically from the beginning and beyond the classroom. This was the starting point for Escuela Nueva which means ‘new school.’ Later on, Oscar, this wonderful teacher, charismatic teacher, Beryl Levinger, USAID education officer that helped us finance the pilot project, and myself, co-authored the first Escuela Nueva training manual, where all the underpinnings of the model are designed.
But now you may be wondering, what happened to the second person of the story. This is Diego. He is 12 years old. At his school in 7:40 Cadeo [?] a state in Columbia in the Coffee [?] region, children sit in groups and work, grouped by grade level, it is a multi-grade school where all grades are taught in the same room with one teacher. This was our starting point.
When you enter the school, you immediately notice that it is quite different from a conventional school, and you instantly shift your attention towards the children and what they’re doing; some are working on their assignments, others discussing in groups. You hear the buzz and hum of work getting done and learning taking place. Each one seems to know exactly what he and she are doing and is focused. If you ask them what they are doing, they explain very eloquently and confidently, and most importantly, they explain to you how they are learning. They know they’re learning through observation, discovery reflection, working individually, in pairs, in teams. They receive feedback from their teacher during the process, not at the end, share their work with others, advance in their learning and at their own pace. They finish academic units at their own pace, because we had to modularize everything — the delivery of the curriculum. In this school, the teacher is really doing the right role, she’s a facilitator, a guide, instead of just a transmitter of instruction and facts.
This is a real new role of the teacher, a teacher that has more time to give feedback during the process, to help slow learners, to motivate. It’s a different role, a more important roll with empathy and leadership, this is in Escuela Nueva school, a type of school where students collaborate, participate, dialog, interact, exchange; one that fosters self-paced learning, but at the same time, cooperative learning, where learners develop social and emotional skills. I call them 21st century skills, such as learning to learn, to lead processes, to take initiatives, to plan, but specially work in teams. This is very difficult, unless you learn it in school.
Children are organized in student governments, nothing new, and have committees, but they are really learning to participate and have genuine responsibilities. The student government promotes the leadership of both girls and boys, in equal footing. I once asked a boy what he thought about the fact that the president of the school government was a girl; by the way, everywhere I go I see this, and he replied, “She’s great. She’s much more organized,” and he continued working by himself, with others, with no problem, so this suggests there is a cultural change.
What is innovative about this? Well, most of you that have learned that way, I myself was exposed to this learning, well this is really not new. You’re familiarized with it, but this is not the case of the low-income public schools, I should say, in developing countries.
The ideas on which we built the models are not new. They are grounded on solid, educational theory. What is new is that we made this possible for thousands of low income schools in more than 16 countries, mainly through governments, and international organizations, managing to transform complexities into simple manageable actions, so that any teacher, without a Ph.D or a masters, could transform their learning environment, improve the classroom climate and have results, not only in academic learning achievement, but in peaceful, democratic behavior. It is simple, replicable, scalable and cost-effective.
So, let’s talk a little bit more about Diego. What’s so special about Diego? Well, apart from being a boy, like so many living in poverty and exclusion, Diego suffers from epilepsy, causing him difficulties in learning. He used to attend a traditional school near his home, however, he says he was ignored by the teacher and teased and bullied by his peers. He felt rejected and left behind, so at 10 he decided he wanted to quit and not go back to school. Thanks to his supporting parents, he changed schools. He now attends the Escuela Nueva school. This school is two hours in each direction from his home, a trip he does twice a week by horse back, accompanied by his mother. No matter the long distances and many obstacles of the way, Diego and his parents will do anything, so he attends the school where he says he feels welcome, happy, motivated, loved and he feels he’s learning.
In Escuela Nueva school, the school adapts to the child, and not the other way around. What do we see here? Flexibility, inclusion, empathy, adaptation.
So, at this point, the two stories meet. Let me link this with the Summit, Reinventing Education for Life. The theme of this year’s WISE summit, Reinventing Education for Life, resonates well with what I and the people around me have been doing for years, bringing education to life, reaching the greatest number. It means making each learner a better person, having the academic and social skills to navigate through life, and bringing life into the school. Bringing education to life requires finding cost-effective ways to provide learning for all. It means learning to become independent, free thinking citizens, lifelong learners, capable of building secure and prosperous communities.
And how was this possible from the outset? This plan was to make this social innovation technically, politically — we have unions in Latin America — they’re very strong, politically and financially feasible so that we can impact the national policy and reach great numbers. We demonstrated that it worked and started its dissemination. It’s one thing to have an innovation and another thing is how to introduce it into the system, and we started bottom-up, in an organic manner, not by decree, from child-to-child, from teacher-to-teacher, from school to school, from community-to-community. The real actors of change were children, teachers and communities themselves.
We started as a local innovation. It gradually became a national policy. So the Escuela Nueva model and methodology and pedagogy today has reached five million children in 16 countries, mainly through governments and support of international organizations; there have been many, 14:56 [?] and as part reforms as far as Vietnam and East Timor. However, leading change at large scale is not an easy task, as 15:02 Julia [?] was saying yesterday, and as Jeff 15:06 Mullgan, Morgan [?], the director of NASAA, National Academy of Scientific and Academic Achievement writes in the recent document on social innovation, quoting Schopenhauer “On any truth, first it’s ridiculed, second it is widely opposed, and third, it is accepted as being self-evident.”
Escuela Nueva passed through all these stages, so as I stand here today I am very proud to share with you my professional life project, defending Escuela Nueva pedagogy, evidencing it works and has results and ensuring the quality and sustainability over time, innovating and adapting to urban and displaced migrant children and populations cost by armed conflict in Columbia, ensuring it has impact on national policies and keeping it there, has been my life project for more than 30 years. I have worked to develop, expand and sustain this innovation from different organizational spheres.
As the first Escuela Nueva coordinator, then Vice Minister where I gave it total support in the country, as UNICEF’s Regional Educational Advisor for the Latin American Region, was a wonderful platform to expand in Latin America, but now, from 16:29 [maybe the name an organization – Director of Fundación Escuela Nueva, her current position according to her bio or Back to the People], I set up in 1987 to ensure the quality and sustainability of the model, and to continuing of aiding, we have adapted it to urban, to displaced, but we have learned over all these years, you need to work with government to have big impact and coverage, but you need public-private partnerships and the role of civil society for quality and sustainability. This was a way to protecting and enhancing the innovation, aware that innovations fade within bureaucracies and are very vulnerable to political and administrative changes.
To finalize, I want to leave you with five key takeaways that derive from Escuela Nueva and their absolute relevance to this year’s WISE Summit, and for the future.
Yes, it is possible to provide quality education for all, even in the poorest of schools. Yes we can, and this was before Obama’s campaign. More of the same is not enough. We need a shift of the learning paradigm, massively.
Third, learning goes beyond just cognitive achievement. Learning involves developing and practicing and civic, social, emotional skills. As you said today, learning to be, as UNESCO has been teaching us, learning to know, learning to do and learning to live together.These are basis for peace and democracy.
Fourth, we need comprehensive and systemic thinking if we want to lead large-scale reform.
Fifth, to reinvent education for life, you must prioritize pedagogical reforms, not just administrative changes.
As I said yesterday, I may be the most visible of the hundreds of people who have been with me, but there are many others, teachers, children, parents, colleagues and staff of national and international organizations, who have joined me for over 30 years in this beautiful journey, a collective-life project for all of us.
Let me close by sharing with you the great emotion, that having received the WISE prize this year, gives me a profound feeling of accomplishment. I want to thank you and Your Highness and Excellencies and all you who have accompanied me in this wonderful summit, and I truly encourage you to find your Diego and make his education come to life, quoting 19:06 Ashoka Asmoto, “everybody can be a change maker.” Thank you.