Vicky Colbert de Arboleda

by Anthea Milnes from Oxford

“My goal became to make sure that all children had equal opportunities of access to success despite their low income.”
Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship (Fundacion Escuela Nueva Volvamos a la Gente)
Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship (Fundacion Escuela Nueva Volvamos a la Gente)

Imagine a primary school where children work together to learn things that are relevant to their lives, where teachers are facilitators who foster comprehension and democratic behaviour, and where parents and communities are actively involved in their children’s education. Now imagine that this is not an exclusive private school open to a wealthy few, but a state school in a developing country attended by children who are among the poorest in the world.

This is not a utopian dream but reality for over 20,000 schools in Colombia attended by five million children today. They are “Escuela Nueva” schools, founded on an innovative educational model created by Vicky Colbert and rural teachers in Colombia in the 1970s.

Vicky Colbert de Arboleda was born in the United States but grew up in Colombia. Although she had a privileged education, she was always aware that many other children in Colombia did not. It was this sense of injustice and inequity that led her to work in the field of education, as well as her conviction that sustainable development and democracy could not be achieved unless all children were educated from an early age to become future citizens in society. “My goal became to make sure that all children had equal opportunities of access to success despite their low income,” she says.

When Colbert was appointed as national co-ordinator for rural schools in Colombia, many of the schools she was responsible for had few resources, multi-grade classes, and delivered poor results, with large numbers of children repeating years and dropping out. However, drawing on the work of educational theorists such as Ovid Decroly, John Dewey and Maria Montessori among others, she gradually began to transform conventional schools.

Escuelas Nuevas (Fundacion Escuela Nueva Volvamos a la Gente)
Escuelas Nuevas (Fundacion Escuela Nueva Volvamos a la Gente)

“It was a bottom-up process,” she says. “We started with the children and rural Colombian teachers, with their parents and communities and the schools. It was a large-scale systemic approach to educational reform.” The defining features of the Escuela Nueva model Colbert developed are: it replaces traditional teacher-centered learning with active, participatory, and cooperative learning; it strengthens the relationship between the school and the community; and it offers a flexible schedule and evaluation system customized for the needs of a child.

Colbert claims that the major achievement of the model is that it is scalable and cost effective. In fact, it has been adopted as national policy for rural primary schools in Colombia and has spread throughout much of Latin America and beyond – sixteen countries on two continents at the last count. A study by Unesco in 1988 found that Escuela Nueva impacted rural education with lower dropout rates and higher academic achievements, permitting Colombia to characterize itself as having the best primary rural education in Latin America, after Cuba. In 1989, the model was selected by the World Bank as one of the three most outstanding reforms in developing countries, worldwide. Recently, the Institute of Education of the University of London published “Education for All and Multigrade Teaching: Challenges and Opportunities”, where there is a chapter dedicated to Escuela Nueva´s last research study that shows its positive impact on democratic behaviors and peaceful coexistence of children.

As for Colbert, she has subsequently been appointed vice minister of education in Colombia, regional education adviser for Latin America and the Caribbean for UNICEF, and founded Fundación Escuela Nueva Volvamos a la Gente, a non-governmental organization created to ensure the quality and sustainability of the Escuela Nueva model around the world. She has received a range of awards, including Outstanding Social Entrepreneur from the Schwab Foundation, the Leading Social Entrepreneur in Education from Ashoka, the World Technology Award in Social Entrepreneurship and the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship. Most recently, she was selected by ex-President Bill Clinton to be part of his education advisory group within the Clinton Global Initiative.

“Now, it’s not my project,” Colbert says, “it’s a whole movement where children, teachers and communities are the main actors of change. It’s a solution not only for Latin American countries, but for Asia and Africa. It’s so important that learning happens in these places, because educational failure is terrible for building peace, democracy, the economy, everything.”

So, who inspired Vicky in her quest to provide quality basic education? “My mother was a special hero; a great teacher,” she says, “because I saw that she also introduced changes in society. And I have seen so many wonderful dedicated social workers and wonderful shining teachers that are transforming schools, overcoming all the problems, in the middle of violence, in the middle of conflict areas. People who make silent changes. I love silent revolutions,” she concludes.

Page created on 8/5/2014 11:25:40 AM

Last edited 1/5/2017 8:58:50 PM

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