Revolution in the classroom: Escuela Nueva

Colombia
Education
 from passive students to active members of society.
From passive students to active members of society – the Escuela Nueva model gives children more power and autonomy. ©Sean Sprague/Alamy Stock Photo

Oscar looked at the clock, drank his coffee, grabbed his motorbike and set off for a small, rural primary school in Norte Santander, on the Colombian border with Venezuela.

He found his students awaiting his arrival. He got off his bike and reached into his pockets but had forgotten the classroom key – again. His students looked on, impatient. They would now have to wait while he went to fetch it.

Later on, one of them said, ‘Sir, why not give me the key? I won’t forget it!’

Oscar Mogollón looked at him and decided that this was the moment to put into practice an idea that had always obsessed him – giving his students more power and autonomy. He felt they were responsible, capable of taking part in school activities and guiding the teacher.

So, he handed over the key.

That day in the Colombian countryside in the mid-1960s, the Committee of the Keys was born. It was to be the first of many. Oscar and his students formed committees to cover health, the school garden, the library and so on. All together, they made up a system of ‘School Government’.

Oscar understood the importance of bringing in the wider community and parents. So next he created the ‘Communitarian’ element. Parents began to help out, gardening and rearing pigs to raise money to buy new books.

He didn’t stop there. As his wife and fellow teacher, Marina Solano de Mogollón recalls, Oscar rolled out his model in another 200 schools in the region. Teachers would meet in the afternoons to fine tune educational materials. They hit on the idea of creating hand-written documents (‘Academic Guides’) and using different colours to differentiate subjects and grades.

As the children outnumbered the documents available, teachers pegged them on a music stand fashioned from branches so that everyone could work from them.

What emerged at Oscar’s school would go on to revolutionize education in Colombia – and across the world, particularly in rural settings. In the 1980s he joined forces with fellow Colombian Victoria Colbert to develop the Escuela Nueva methodology. Some 50 years on from the Committee of the Keys, this pedagogical model is still going strong, now used in 25,000 schools in Colombia and in 16 other countries, across the world.

‘It was an enriching experience,’ recalls teacher Andres Torres Guerrero, who learned in this way as a pupil in the 1970s, ‘because it emphasized education as interaction, experimentation and creativity. Music, theatre, art and fun were built into the everyday teaching methods of our teachers.’

Now a teacher, he uses it wherever he can. ‘We turn a passive student who repeats information into a student-researcher, able to build knowledge that helps society,’ he says.

The Escuela Nueva method draws on the thinking of Brazilian educator Paolo Freire, among others, who said that teaching should break with hierarchical power relations that have an all-knowing educator dish out information in a one-way process.

An international colleague recalled how Oscar said he would come into classrooms with a saw, cut up the blackboards, and hand out the small pieces with a piece of chalk as ‘children should be doing the writing, not the teachers’ – his way of persuading other teachers to stop mechanically copying from books onto the board.1

De-centring the teacher, and encouraging children to take control of their learning has been documented by the World Bank and UNESCO to have had some astonishing results.

Confident kids

‘Children learn to work in teams, take thoughtful decisions and think about others,’ says Miriam Ruby Gamboa Coral, who has taught the model to both children and teachers. ‘Student government, in particular, strengthens independence, responsibility, leadership and communication, as well as increasing self esteem.’

Escuela Nueva scores higher on traditional measures too, with lower drop-out rates, high community participation and better performance in some subjects like mathematics and language.

Oscar died in 2009. But the innovations of this charismatic teacher will continue to impact on children’s education all over the world. Versions of his model are actively taught in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Peru and other Latin American countries, in Equatorial Guinea and Uganda, as well as Timor-Leste, Vietnam, and the Philippines.

Mónica del Pilar Uribe Marín is a Colombian journalist, and Editor-In-Chief of The Prisma.

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