Escuela Nueva Has Transformed Rural Education in Colombia and Now Founder Vicky Colbert Is Expanding Her Methodology Across the Globe
Vicky Colbert has spent more than 40 years building an acclaimed model for rural education in Colombia. Now, she has another $3.9 Million USD in funding from the Yidan Prize to support even more global growth for Escuela Nueva as the revolutionary learning methodology pushes into Africa and Asia.
For more than four decades, Vicky Colbert has dedicated herself to improving rural education. Her work began in the 1970s, when the situation in her native Colombia was grim. Guerrilla conflict and disorder had already become the prevailing reality in many areas and, combined with scarce resources and under-development, millions of children were entering adulthood without the knowledge and skills to make a decent living.
Colbert was young and idealistic. Blond and fair-skinned, the Bogotá-born sociologist wanted to make a difference. She studied at top schools and worked to find solutions. As things progressed, she started to see a new path forward.
But back then, even on her most ambitious days, Colbert never envisioned just how much impact she would eventually make.
While she has had many successes, the latest came in the form of the Yidan Prize for Educational Development. This educational honor was awarded for the first time this year and is already among the world’s most lucrative education awards, giving Colbert and her Escuela Nueva Foundation roughly $3.9 million USD in funding — a massive windfall in a realm where the budgets and grant money are never enough.
This is far from the first award for Colbert or Escuela Nueva (“New School”), which has become an internationally acclaimed teaching model whose principles have been adopted in more than a dozen countries since it has proven its worth in Colombia.
In 2005, she earned the first-ever Clinton Global Citizen Award, a prestigious honor now given out annually by the foundation of former U.S. President Bill Clinton and former U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton. She later won the World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE) Prize in 2009 — the first time that the Qatar Foundation handed out its global education prize.
It seems that whenever a new prominent global recognition is created, Colbert’s name tops the list. And so it was this year for the new Yidan Prize created by Chinese entrepreneur and philanthropist Charles Chen Yidan.
Yidan has said that one reason education is close to his heart is because his grandmother never learned to read. It took just two generations of studious learning, however, for the family to watch Chen not only earn degrees in applied chemistry and economic law but use his knowledge to help develop one of the globe’s biggest companies. With no need to work any longer, the billionaire co-founder of conglomerate Tencent wanted to use his money to help fund education.
Colbert was the perfect recipients for the inaugural award. On top of the work her foundation has done in Colombia, Dorothy Gordon, head of the Yidan Prize judging panel, praised Escuela Nueva for continuing to expand to other areas of the world. Gordon was impress with how “this model has spread, making small, under-resourced rural schools effective in many Latin American nations.”
The Escuela Nueva Methodology
Escuela Nueva is a learning methodology. In scholarly circles, it would be referred to as a pedagogy, and the method is based upon several core principles that have elevated it into a global standard of excellence.
At its best, Escuela Nueva aims to instill values — responsibility, tolerance, discipline, community — as much as academics. Due to the small class sizes and multi-grade classrooms (known as “multigrados” in Colombia) common in rural areas, there are always a few students who finish their lessons first and a few that lag behind.
This is common the world over, and Escuela Nueva confronts this fact with a collaborative approach. It promotes teamwork through ongoing open dialogue and hexagonal worktables that force children to face one another. The design encourages the quick-finishers to assist their peers. In this way, normal human social dynamics allow for leaders to develop and students to view collective problem solving as the default way to complete a task.
Vicky Colbert, during a recent interview in her humble Bogotá office, said she believes the benefits of this approach are even more pronounced in the modern era. Almost all professions require people to work together on projects with people from different backgrounds, different intelligence levels, and different disciplines. The Escuela Nueva style sets children up to operate this way from a very early age. And she says these are the skills useful in the workplaces of today — not being able to retain information dictated in long lectures, memorize book facts, and prove yourself once every two months on an end-all-be-all test that will define success or failure.
Tests are of course a part of the Escuela Nueva methodology. It is not some new-age alternative learning experience. And the curriculum is not revolutionary. The signature workbooks contain the same information and exercises expected in any elementary school lesson plan. Perhaps more than almost anything, these simple workbooks are critical to Escuela Nueva’s success.
Colbert initially created the workbooks as a rudimentary how-to guide for teachers but they have changed over the years — with the help of government planners — to serve as a functional roadmap that can walk children through their entire academic year. “She has transformed conventional, teacher-centered schooling practices to a new learner-centered model,” said Gordon of the Yidan Prize judging panel.
Teachers don’t just sit back and watch the students fill in the books, however. They explore the materials together and discuss the themes in a way that resembles a conversation more than a series of instructions. “I think the real role of a teacher,” said Colbert, “is to be a good coach, to stimulate your students, to know their strengths, to know their weaknesses. It’s not to spend so much time giving information. Information comes packaged in so many other ways now.”
From her office in Bogotá, which is cluttered with medals, international prizes, and photos of Colbert alongside the likes of Bill Clinton and Pope John Paul II, she continued to stress the essential importance of this concept. “We’re going from the transmission of knowledge to the social construction of knowledge,” she said. “So it’s promoting more child-centered learning, personalized learning. Not everybody learns the same thing at the same time. There are different learning rhythms. You construct knowledge together through dialogue and interaction, but you have to have instruments and strategies to do it right. So, if you do child-centered education without having materials or mechanisms, it’s just theory.”
For all its good ideas — and even despite its name — Colbert admits that Escuela Nueva is nothing new. When it comes to theory, it is mostly still just a means of teaching young people the same type of knowledge that kids have been learning for the past century all over the world.
“I’m not an inventor starting an idea,” she said, citing the pioneering efforts of Dr. Maria Montessori, John Dewey, and Lev Vygotsky. “I had to build on what already existed…We know the theory — but the theory only comes to the elite schools in our regions, not the poorest of the poor schools.”
At her core, Colbert is a pragmatist. She is enthusiastic about the high-minded values and community-based aspects of Escuela Nueva, but ultimately describes it simply as a “proven solution to improve quality education.”
Since the beginning, Colbert had her eye on creating something that would remain viable in three ways: technically, politically, and financially. Technically meant that it must be easy to implement and teach. Financially meant it couldn’t be too expensive. And politically meant navigating labor union issues and surviving the whims of the election cycle.
“Anything we did, we could do in the 34,000 rural schools in Colombia,” said Colbert. More than even the methods themselves, impact and scale were the foundation of Escuela Nueva. “From the outset, we wanted to influence national policy — not to have just a nice little project.”
Beryl Levinger, who says elements of the educational principles she helped craft decades ago in Colombia alongside Colbert are still in use at Middlebury College in the United States, credits the Fundacion Escuela Nueva fonder for always remaining focused on this vision. “We created a pedagogy,” Levinger said in an interview with Middlebury. “But it was Vicky who became a vocal advocate for this methodology and transformed it into a worldwide movement.”
A Good Idea Becomes National Policy
As someone who started out as a sociologist, and earned a master’s degree from Stanford University, Vicky Colbert has always seen the educational journey as more than just a personal achievement. To her, it underpins everything. “Without quality, basic education, you cannot achieve anything,” said Colbert. “You cannot achieve social, economic, or cultural development — nor peace nor democracy. So we need quality, basic education. I’m totally convinced of that. Without quality, basic education it would be very difficult for a country to reach other goals.”
In the 1970s, public education in even the largest cities in Colombia was lacking. But she was more concerned about the rural areas that in many cases barely had functional classrooms. There was no guarantee of universal basic education from the government, and in the schools that were managing to operate, one teacher was likely overseeing dozens of children ranging from five to 13 years old. Nobody was doing anything about this deficiency. “There were many schools that were invisible to educational planners,” she said.
Fixing these issues was the genesis of Escuela Nueva, and something she realized she could do better outside of government than in the first role she held for a short time in the Colombian Ministry of Education. Colbert began developing the core principles along with a Colombian teacher named Óscar Mogollón and Beryl Levinger, who initially came to Colombia as a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer and development worker before later becoming an international studies professor at Middlebury College.
Together, they started building on what already existed and trying to forge a consensus among different stakeholders in the country. “It wasn’t easy,’ said Colbert, but they eventually found funding for a pilot project in the three Andean regions of Cundinamarca, Boyacá, and Norte de Santander.
The results started to impress the decision-makers in Bogotá. In addition to performance score improvement, dropout rates fell and fewer kids were being held back to repeat grades. In time, the progress was undeniable, and the Escuela Nueva method became the national policy for rural education in all of Colombia. It was instituted into some 20,000 schools, and this monumental achievement created the momentum that took Escuela Nueva beyond the country’s borders.
It gained international acclaim after the World Bank, which had earlier provided a loan to help the program flourish in Colombia, in 1989 named Escuela Nueva as a global standard of successful educational innovation. The early indicators highlighted great potential and only looked better as time went on. One fact Colbert recites proudly is that, according to an 1998 study from the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Colombia had risen to rank second, behind Cuba, in Latin America in terms of providing the best primary education to rural students. The study also showed that Colombia was a global outlier by having the bulk of its rural schools outperforming its urban schools.
As the word got out, countries from throughout the region — Brazil, Peru, Chile, Guatemala, and more — started sending representatives to Colombia to see what everyone was raving about. More than a dozen nations would eventually adopt the methods to some degree. International organizations kept arriving as well, including more World Bank agencies, UNESCO, UNICEF, and USAID.
Colbert would become vice minister of education of Colombia in the early 1980s, which helped to further embed Escuela Nueva into the fabric of the nation. She would also work in a high-level leadership role in the region for UNESCO. But eventually she wanted to be home overseeing her life’s work because the climate of the country was changing.
Even more than the previous decade, the 1980s were a chaotic time in Colombia. Just as the rapid rise of the drug trade hit, there was also an increased push for decentralized government. With the nation becoming torn apart and local politics beginning to assert more influence, the nascent Foundation Escuela Nueva needed to retain the confidence of federal bureaucrats in Bogotá but also launch efforts to win over thousands of local mayors and officials. “It started becoming debilitated in some regions,” she said, “and stronger in others…I wanted to get back into the picture in Colombia, and not let Escuela Nueva fade.”
There was so much to be done and she believed her program was on the cusp of making even greater impact — just when war-torn Colombia needed it most. “We wanted to continue innovating,” she said. “We want to adapt it to new contexts and populations. We want to adapt it to the urban areas also. We want to adapt it for displaced children caused by our conflict.”
Escuela Nueva in the Real World
This focus on scalability — led by one individual’s tenacity — is what allowed Escuela Nueva to develop into a global model of success. The classroom style and underlying educational principles, however, are what most kids adore. Test scores and student retention rates in a spreadsheet can impress bureaucrats. But nothing that can match the smile on a proud child’s face.
There are plenty of teeth showing in an Escuela Nueva classroom, where accountability means students are in charge of keeping attendance. Rather than the teacher calling out names, the kids personally mark the calendar each morning when they arrive. If they miss a day, they get a note from their parents explaining the absence and put it in the “excuse” box.
A large priority is placed on student government. The children elect a president, vice president, secretary, and treasurer. Kids from the lower grades are encouraged to begin participating early and enthusiastically. The schools also set up “work committees” that can include categories like sports and recreation, the environment, and even cleaning. Each group consists of a few representatives who plan events and activities. From “peace week” and kite festivals to science fairs and tree-planting days, organizing the committee agenda aims to instill values and give more students a leadership role in the classroom community.
Ethics and respect for the community become more than platitudes. The children embrace these core values. The classroom aims to instill citizenship — not merely scholarship.
All of this is on display at a small school in Quindio, the nation’s smallest department (which is the equivalent of a state or province). Quindio has become an iconic symbol of Colombian coffee country, a gorgeous green and slope-filled Andean mountain region that has managed to largely sidestep the worst damage of the armed conflict. Though tourists now flock to the working coffee town of Salento to see how beans are harvested, Quindio remains sparsely developed apart from one modern highway that runs through the region. The bulk of the families living here are poor and subsist as campesinos, working land they don’t own to carve out a meager living.
According to the local government, 208 schools in Quindio employ the Escuela Nueva method, and the Yidan Prize organizers arranged a press visit there to show reporters two of these locations. One is called Sede Barragán, a school of around 80 kids located about 40 minutes outside the departmental capital of Armenia. Sitting among towering mountain peaks, multiple rivers, and tropical fruit farms, the building itself is modest, but colorful and designed in the style of the vibrant red, blue, and yellow structures typical in Salento.
Isabela Blandon Bravo, an 11-year-old, is the class president of Sede Barrangán. She formerly went to school in Medellín and misses some things about the urban setting but has adjusted to rural life. She has become a leader who her classmates look up to, and Isabela’s dream is to become a doctor. She thinks she might like to practice medicine in another country one day. France currently stands as her top pick.
While she may never make it to Paris, she will soon be moving on. This school ends at sixth grade, so she will be transferring to a different location, probably one of the larger schools in Armenia that doesn’t use the same teaching methods. But even though Isabela will have to adapt, Alva Lucia Orozco, the school’s head teacher, expects her to thrive in any environment.
Orozco has seen the difference first hand. While she is now among Escuela Nueva’s biggest evangelists, she has been teaching at the same location for four decades — long before the methodology came to Sede Barragán. “I am a part of the furniture,” said Orozco. In her view, the kids who leave this building now are much better prepared for the real world than those who she taught in traditional ways.
Vicky Colbert explains it plainly. “The most important part is people working in teams,” said Colbert. “I think that’s one of the most outstanding 21st Century skills. So what we started 40 years ago, now it’s the type of education everybody wants.”
Orozco’s first job is teaching students, but she also instructs the school’s other teachers on how to adapt to the Escuela Nueva style. “We’ve learned that teachers learn better from other teachers,” she said. Going over educational philosophy is key, and she has watched her colleagues, including Gloria Morena Zuluaga, grow more comfortable over time. Monthly meetings focus more on mentorship and open discussion more than detailed course planning.
There is always some situation that needs to be fixed, and they work together, often with help from the students, to overcome obstacles. “Colombians are inventors,” said Zuluaga. “We have so many problems that we have to look for new solutions. Every time we see a problem, we see an answer.”
Zuluaga has worked at the school, teaching all subjects to the second and third graders, for four and a half years. Though she now loves the learning style, at the beginning she was thrilled to start working at Sede Barragán for one reason: because it was a seven-minute drive from her house as opposed to the 45-minute motorbike ride she formerly endured to her previous school.
Many of the students also live in the nearby small town of Caicedonia. Though close, it lies across the departmental line in Valle de Cauca, a department in western Colombia that is much more plagued by drug-trade violence and conflict. But whether their home life is wonderful or trying, Zuluaga says that the attitudes she sees from students in her Escuela Nueva classroom stand apart from what she typically witnessed at her old school. “The kids are autonomous, and they are happy,” she said.
While Zuluaga had some experience in Escuela Nueva before transferring into Sede Barragán, many teachers who arrive in a new location know nothing about it. Most adjust. Some struggle. This is why in-the-field teacher training is such a core principle of a method that above all else relies on the instructor buy-in.
If the average teacher cannot understand the methodology and work within a student-centric guidebook environment, the kids will suffer. Because there are few options in a rural community. “We have to work with the teachers that are there,” said Colbert. “We cannot have a Ph.D. in the middle of the jungle.”
Escuela Nueva Embraces Urban Planning
Since the early days of Escuela Nueva, the rural population of Colombia has shrunk in terms of percentage of people living outside the cities. Decades of guerrilla conflict, paramilitary violence, and drug trafficking pushed so many people out of their villages and farming communities. Some found better lives in cities. Many others now live in slums and impoverished communities on the outskirts of Bogotá, Medellín, and Cali.
Along with the more than 260,000 people killed during Colombia’s half-century of conflict, at least 7.7 million have been displaced, according to the UN Refugee Agency. This is the second largest figure in the world, behind Syria (with 12.2 million). By comparison, there are 4.7 million displaced Afghans and 4.2 million displaced Iraqis.
Demographic restructuring hasn’t diminished rural need, however. In many ways, Colbert sees serving the students of Quindio — and areas with even lower population density, like the Amazon and Pacific jungle department of Chocó — as more important than ever. “Colombia has become urbanized, so there are not so many children [in rural areas],” she said. “But, still, these schools require special treatment.”
But Escuela Nueva has been expanding and evolving. Colbert has pushed to adapt the methodology for the city environment with Escuela Activa Urbana, which looks to bring similar change to the millions of students packed into Colombia’s sprawling urban metropolises. This has been part of the foundation’s work for decades but it is now taking on increasing importance.
Otoniel Morales Benjumea now works with the local education ministry but formerly served as the principal of Escuela Normal Superior del Quindio, a secondary school that has employed Escuela Nueva techniques in Armenia. Home to around 300,000 people, the Quindio capital is a small city by Colombian standards, but Morales said it brought positive changes to his former school, particularly among the most troubled kids.
He recalls one period when Normal Superior took in six students who had been kicked out of other educational institutions. Some of these “street kids” took to the program and began to excel. These type of adolescents may lack formal education and classroom discipline, but the group structure of Escuela Nueva can be comforting. They are accustomed to a fast-paced, sensory-rich environment.
Lectures and memorization challenges bore them and add to the inferiority they feel in a formal academic world. But interactive, communal learning lets them display their interpersonal smarts and mental dexterity — to the teacher and, more importantly, to themselves. This fosters curiosity, said Morales, and a willingness to explore potentially uncomfortable workbook lessons.
Such experience taught him to stop looking at the arrival of a troubled kid as a new problem to manage. Instead, he began to view it as an opportunity to reach someone who had fallen through the traditional system. “We want to change the world with this project,” said Morales.
Escuela Nueva’s Global Future
The experiences of Quindio highlight why educators throughout the world are looking to adopt Nueva Escuela principles. Vicky Colbert lights up when recalling how her philosophy spread to locations like Guatemala and Brazil in its early days. More recently, she has traveled to Mexico, and talked extensively with the governments of Vietnam, Chile, and Zambia, where technical assistance has been offered to set up a program.
These high-level discussions are the backbone of kickstarting programs in new countries due to the same impact and scalability dynamics she encountered in Colombia in the 1970s. But Colbert now also focuses on partnering with other non-governmental organizations (NGOs) when moving into new areas.
There are multiple reasons that this has been a better approach than setting up a local Escuela Nueva outpost. First, it simply cuts down on overhead and resources. While it would be great to have the foundation’s boots on the ground across the globe, funding can be better spent elsewhere.
Second comes political risk. Ultimately, partnering with federal governments is the way to have the biggest impact. They are the only ones in a country that can install a nationwide rollout. But the downside is much greater — a lesson Colbert learned in Brazil after the public officials who championed the program left office.
Brazil’s administration turnover, mass corruption scandals, and budgetary nightmares in recent years haven’t fully curtailed the foundation’s efforts in the country. At least 10,000 schools in the Portuguese-speaking country, under the name “Escola Ativa,” have used Escuela Nueva methods. But collaborating with established local NGOs and other private sectors stakeholders gives Colbert more confidence. They have staying power. And this helps ensure that the hard work spent laying the foundation for new programs won’t stall out with the changing winds of the next election.
In Mexico, Escuela Nueva now works with Fundación Azteca. In Zambia, it works with the Campaign for Female Education (Camfed). “In the case of Brazil, I should have had an organization from the private sector to work with, because innovations are very vulnerable to political and administrative changes,” said Colbert.
Despite such concerns, these days, the work is now more about expanding intelligently than fighting to break down roadblocks. After more than four decades of development, the challenge is no longer about convincing people that Escuela Nueva works. It’s about keeping up with demand.
This is why Colbert was overjoyed when she got the call about winning the Yidan Prize and the $3.9 million USD in funding that comes along with it. She hopes this can serve as something of a seed-round investment that attracts even more resources and partnerships — including more public support within Colombia — to kickstart a new, even-grander era for Fundación Escuela Nueva.
The interest is certainly there. Even the biggest country on earth wants to get involved. “There has been so much interest in China. So much interest,” she said. “I’ve been invited almost every year to go to China because they’re very interested in the Escuela Nueva model, especially for the rural areas.”
Though she has other priorities, Colbert says she has been flattered that even U.S. states, including California and New Mexico, have come calling to partner with the organization. “We want to work with the poorest of the poor children in developing countries,” said Colbert.
At an age when most are looking forward to retirement, Colbert shows no signs of slowing down. Even though the long journey has taken Escuela Nueva beyond the wildest dreams of the wide-eyed young woman who set off for Stanford University in the 1970s, there is still has so much work to be done.
Colbert is eager to continue the mission. And best of all, she is no longer alone. There is a growing group of supporters and educators, in Colombia and throughout the world, working toward the same goal. “This is my life project — and not only mine,” said Colbert. “But it’s a collective life project of many wonderful teachers that have been with me for so many, many years.”