Vicky Colbert of Colombia was awarded the inaugural Yidan Prize for Educational Development earlier this week during a ceremony in Hong Kong.
The $3.9 million USD honor, one of two Yidan Prizes handed out Sunday night during a gala at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, is among the world’s largest and will go toward funding the ongoing work of her Fundación Escuela Nueva organization, which has been advancing rural education in Colombia and at least 16 other countries since 1987.
Photo: Vicky Colbert was awarded the first Yidan Prize for Educational Development by Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam. (Credit: Jared Wade)
“I want to thank Mr. Charles Yidan, this wonderful Yidan Prize Foundation, and all of you that have accompanied me in this wonderful celebration,” said Colbert on Sunday during her acceptance speech in Hong Kong. “I have no doubt that the initiatives of the Yidan Prize Foundation will be greatly successful and that they will make a significant contribution to the quality of education around the world.”
The award is the flagship effort of the Yidan Prize Foundation, which was formally launched last year by Chinese entrepreneur and philanthropist Charles Chen Yidan. The billionaire is best known for being a co-founder of Tencent, the Shenzhen-based holding company now worth half a trillion dollars that he helped build beginning in 1998.
While less of a household name in the West, the company has grown into one of the globe’s largest digitally focused firms. Its tentacles extend into everything from telecommunications, popular Chinese messaging app WeChat, and mobile gaming to physical supermarkets and equity investments in firms including Spotify and Snapchat.
Chen has diverted his attention to philanthropy in recent years, however, and the Yidan Prize Foundation is set up for years to come with an endowment of around $320 million USD.
“Vicky has done a lot to promote education,” Chen told Finance Colombia during an interview in Hong Kong. “I have been talking to her, and in the process I have come to appreciate her passion in her work in the field of education. She has done a very innovative project — with a very limited amount of resources. She has worked hard. Her student-focused approach has been a very effective innovation.”
He created the prize — and purposefully made it so lucrative — to push for progress and attract more attention to the best ideas about education from around the world. “Pedagogical theory” like the Escuela Nueva philosophy employed by Colbert, as well as scientific research like that conducted by Yidan Prize for Educational Research winner and Stanford University professor Carol Dweck, rarely receives significant mainstream attention. But by attaching such a lofty sum to the award, he hopes it can both fund their ongoing efforts and drive further conversations around these themes.
Colbert created the Escuela Nueva methodology in the mid-1970s following her master’s studies in sociology at Stanford University, and it was later adopted as the national policy for rural education in Colombia. It spread to at least 20,000 schools in the Andean nation and would go on to become highly influential in other Latin American countries including Brazil and Guatemala.
The methodology, which is predicated on student-focused learning and teamwork as opposed to teacher lectures, has been widely praised and supported by the World Bank. Other global organizations, including the United Nations, Clinton Foundation, and World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE), have recognized Colbert for her work with Escuela Nueva, which in recent years has spread to Vietnam, Zambia, and other locations. Educators in the United States and China have also shown great interest in adopting the methodology, according to Colbert.
She has seen firsthand the major progress that Colombia has had in rural education since Escuela Nueva supplanted the traditional methods used in the small, multi-grade classrooms dotting the country’s mountains and jungles in the 1970s. “Teachers did not have specific training to handle several grades simultaneously,” said Colbert. “It was like a failed business: no results. [But] what started as a constraint became an opportunity for challenging massively the conventional teacher-centric model.”
Colbert and Dweck both announced during the summit that they would use the funding from the prize on their work and even begin to collaborate together in an effort to expand their impact and help build a community around the Yidan Prize.
The Escuela Nueva pioneer stresses, however, that the money is not a cure all. It will help as an investment into the foundation’s future, but she is now challenging both public officials in Colombia and other like-minded international organizations to help build on this award with further project funding.
Chen, speaking on Monday in Hong Kong, where his foundation held a summit of teachers and educators from around the world in concert with the award ceremony, noted that he created to prize to “pay tribute to revolutionary achievements.” But, just as vitally, he said he wants the Yidan Prize to be ”forward-looking” as a means to kickstart subsequent work. “We aspire to promote ingenious ideas and share outstanding outcomes so they may be applied on a larger international scale, creating the greatest global impact,” said Chen.
In addition to the gala ceremony to formally award Colbert and Dweck with their Yidan Prize, the educational summit featured speakers including Cherie Blair, former U.K. first lady and Asian University of Woman Chancellor; Martin Lau, president of Tencent Holdings; Ahmed El Eissa, education minister of Saudi Arabia; and Jaime Saavedra, head of the education global practice at the World Bank Group and former education minister of Peru.
Throughout the Yidan Prize Summit, those mentioned and dozens of others continued to praise Colbert for her remarkable achievements. “Vicky Colbert, founder of Colombia’s Fundación Escuela Nueva, pioneered a groundbreaking new educational model that reformed rural schools in Latin America,” said Chen. “Her conscientious work at the frontline of education reveals deep insight on how to enter the kingdom of knowledge.”