Alumni Spotlight

Vicky Colbert, MA ’73, enables transformative learning at national scale

More than 5 million children have experienced the Escuela Nueva model begun in rural Colombia for democratic, cooperative schools

Vicky Colbert, MA ’73, is an educational innovator, coauthor of the Escuela Nueva model that has transformed education in her native Colombia. Escuela Nueva (New School) has been adapted to more than 16 countries, has inspired educational reforms worldwide and has had an impact on more than 5 million children. 

Applying cutting-edge pedagogy learned in part at Stanford to Colombia’s thousands of rural one-room schools – first as a government official, then as leader of the nonprofit Fundación Escuela Nueva, Colbert turns these schools’ seeming challenges into transformative strengths. In the Escuela Nueva model, multi-age classrooms become groupwork settings in which older pupils help younger ones. Farm parents become valued sources for facts on botany and other sciences. Their agricultural schedule, which prompts frequent student absences, led to Escuela Nueva’s self-paced learning models. Throughout the Escuela Nueva curriculum, cooperative learning and democratic values are key. 

By the end of the 1990s, Escuela Nueva had reached more than 20,000 schools. The first UNESCO international comparative study in the region, published in 1998, showed that, mainly because of Escuela Nueva, Colombia was the only Latin American nation where rural primary students outperformed urban peers in all but the largest cities.

Today, Fundación Escuela Nueva, the NGO that Colbert created in 1987 to ensure the quality of the model and to adapt it to new contexts and populations, produces curriculum learning guides for up to grade 9, for both rural and urban schools, and, as Colombia enters a post-conflict era of rebuilding after decades of civil war, a curriculum and pedagogy for children experiencing housing insecurity and those affected by conflict. 

Colbert’s many honors include the $2 million inaugural Yidan Prize for Educational Development, awarded Dec. 10 in Hong Kong. She spoke with the Stanford Graduate School of Education about her Stanford experience and about her plans for the Yidan Prize award. 

How did you end up coming to Stanford?

I had the great opportunity of getting a Ford Foundation scholarship. The Ford Foundation was extremely helpful for many of us in Latin America. Professor Robert Arnove, PhD ’69, a  faculty member at the University of Indiana and a member of the Ford Foundation team in Colombia, told me, “You have to go to Stanford.” I learned about Stanford Education Professor Martin Carnoy and the SIDEC (now ICE) program. Robert Arnove was also a visiting professor in Stanford.

When I arrived, I got so much not only from Martin but many more teachers. I had a wonderful teacher, Professor Elizabeth Cohen, who researched the effectiveness of complex learning environments and wrote a text on designing groupwork. I got so much on cooperative learning from her. 

Stanford was extremely inspiring. One of the most important things I learned there was the importance of having empirical evidence, research evidence. In Latin America, we produce a lot of poetry and not much science. When you are working for change, you need to employ evidence-based decision-making.

In what way is Escuela Nueva innovative? Here in Silicon Valley, we often equate innovation with technology. 

Let me quote a Uruguayan friend of mine, Luis Osin: “Introducing a laptop or a tablet into the classroom without changing the pedagogy, without a solid new pedagogy paradigm in place, perpetuates at higher cost a traditional technique.”

When you work with the poorest of the poor and the most vulnerable, you have to work with what you have. When there is no Internet connectivity, you work in other ways. Tech can trigger innovation. But you have to learn how to introduce innovation based on where you are.

We innovated starting with the multigrade schools because that’s where we had to concentrate. They were invisible schools to most educational planners at that time. They required a new type of classroom that could facilitate different learning rhythms in the classroom in order to universalize primary education in Colombia. Sixty percent of the rural schools were like that – multiage or multigrade. They exist where there is low population density, but they force you to innovate more. 

The strength of Escuela Nueva – its philosophy is not new – is that we made it feasible, replicable and scalable. We designed its method and strategies in a simple, cost-effective, replicable and scalable way. 

For example, we designed materials that are reusable. Student workbooks and teacher manuals guide project-based learning using local materials. 

Why did Escuela Nueva begin its work in rural schools? 

At that moment, Colombia did not offer opportunities in rural areas. As is true elsewhere in Latin America, there was no universalization of primary education in rural areas, even though universal primary education is in our Constitution. There were many, many isolated rural schools, as there are in many countries in Latin America. They’re invisible schools to most educational planners and funders.

We worked through the public sector first. In making a local innovation become a national policy, we had to have three things in place. First, demonstration. When you work with rural teachers, you need to provide visual images. People learn from seeing. Here in Latin America, we’re so full of theory! I needed teachers to see things being successfully done by other teachers. It’s crucial to promote attitudinal change. 

Secondly, we needed empirical evidence. Third, we needed feasibility – technical and financial and political. We have strong unions. We had to work with teachers. They are the actors of change. 

One of our early partners was the Colombian Coffee Growers’ Federation. It had an interest in schools that would support farming while providing quality education. 

Our work in rural schools started in Colombia through the government. But then, the country decentralized. Instead of working through an education ministry, we had to convince a thousand mayors. To continue innovating, we had to create an NGO. We wanted to help the government because innovations can be very vulnerable to political changes. 

Most recently, we’ve focused on children displaced by armed conflict. Also, on children in urban areas. Because Colombia is urbanizing. 

Some educators, like Tom Luschei, PhD ’06, would like to introduce Escuela Nueva in the United States. I never really thought about it, because my intention is to solve needs in developing countries. 

But even though we started with trying to get results in isolated areas, we’re excited to go beyond. It’s modern pedagogy. It’s more relevant than ever and it’s a desirable way of learning. 

What results has Escuela Nueva shown? 

Not only is there an impact in reducing educational inequity, in learning achievement, but we’ve also shown how to strengthen peaceful and democratic behaviors. The impact goes beyond the student to the family and community. In a study by a Colombian professor, economist Clemente Forero Pineda, MA ’71, PhD ’76 (Economics), three-quarters of parents said they discipline their children with more positive methods through the influence of the school. They also are more likely to solve problems communally, to seek to serve their communities and to expect accountability from their leaders. 

What will you do with the Yidan Prize award?

We want to strengthen our strategic lines, which include full implementation of the Escuela model in Colombia and its export to other countries. We want to support education and local authorities in post-conflict areas of Colombia because we have evidence that our program contributes to peace-building. 

We’d like to have seed money for matching funds, including for local governments to participate. 

We want to have a more customized model and methodology. To work with teachers’ colleges in Colombia, to strengthen teaching practicum and preservice training for future teachers. Right now, most Escuela Nueva training is post-service. 

We’d like to strengthen community connections. We have a virtual campus that we established in 2013 that leverages technology to improve training. We’re doing our best to strengthen a community of practice. We have developed new learning materials, especially for secondary education. We’re already up to the ninth grade. 

We want to develop a sustainability fund. A small amount in reserve would guarantee the stability of the organization. There’s not a culture of philanthropy here. Fundraising is really tough. 

Any advice for young educational entrepreneurs?

Be sure that where you are there’s a really a need. We had so many needs. We knew we could make a difference. I go back to the criteria we talk about: We needed to be sure that our work could be technically feasible. I recommend that founders really have their shoes on the ground. Especially if you want to contribute to the developing world. 

Watch Vicky Colbert discuss Escuela Nueva on video

Learn how she brought the Escuela Nueva model to scale

Read Colbert’s interview with the American Educational Research Association on how to effect educational change. 

     -- Barbara Wilcox

Top photo: World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE)