Scale up, then down
On Monday, Vicky Colbert, founder and Executive Director of Escuela Nueva, stopped by for an informal chat in the green pod over wine and cheese sticks. Charlie Leadbeater guided the conversation, with about 15 others asking questions about her journey of creating an innovative and viable educational model, scaling up to Colombian national policy, then shrinking down to an NGO when the government decentralized.
In a nutshell, Fundación Escuela Nueva is a Colombian NGO that offers a model of cooperative, self-directed, democratic education aimed directly at the child. Realizing in the 1980s that teachers were ill-prepared and using teaching-centered pedagogies, Vicky and her team collaborated with local governments and civil sector partners to restructure the classroom with round tables where students problem-solve together, built learning corners for science and art using local materials, and set up voting stations to practice democratic rights. The emphasis on leadership skills through empathy is prevalent in other Escuela Nueva models, like EN for emergency situations, and EN for women (you can read more about the models and their recognition here).
So what do collaborative, self-directed, empathetic, democratic children look like? Let’s apply the Escuela Nueva lens to the boys in William Golding’s classic Lord of the Flies. The novel addresses the age-old struggle between good and evil, represented as civilization (good) vs. savagery (evil), embodied by adolescents and little boys (Littluns).
Golding’s argument that humans are inherently savage, kept in check only by society, is played out between a few boys: we have Ralph, who represents civilization and order; he leads the boys to build huts and find a way to be rescued. When Jack – power-hungry and violent – becomes obsessed with hunting and preys on the group’s fears, the boys ditch Ralph and turn to a life of destruction and blood-lust with Jack at the helm. Then there’s Simon – spiritual, human goodness – who believes in the inherent value of morality. He is kind to the Littluns, and recognizes that the Lord of Flies is the beast inside everyone; still, Simon is killed at the hands of the others.
Skills, not spears
If their boarding school had followed the Escuela Nueva model, the boys would have been more productive in their group work. Instead of relying on one leader to tell them what to do, the Littluns would have known how to work together using materials at their disposal to find solutions.
Their self-regulated learning would have prepared them to be more confident and less distracted, ultimately saving their new homes – even a friend – from a raging fire. With a profound understanding of democratic education, Jack would have been more gracious when losing the election, and found other ways to be an effective leader, while the voters would have respected the outcome instead of destroying their fragile system. Hunting still would have been a struggle, but their empathic mind-set could have supported Jack and not let him get isolated with his violent obsession.
Equipped with analytic thinking skills instead of spears, the boys would have questioned the sudden appearance of the beast instead of blindly accepting the parachute to be evil. And the officer who rescues them would have been proud to see proper British boys building a society, instead of appalled by the destructive nature of the blood-covered, barbaric little boys crying with fear and shame at the depths of their inhumanity.
The Escuela Nueva model is already in over 16 countries, helping 5 million young people realize their potential for good through collaborative problem solving. In Colombia, rural students outperform their urban peers in all but the largest cities. The peace-building efforts to rebuild the social fabric after decades of violence are literally grassroots. It is a testament to Vicky’s vision and drive that the organisation is the longest running successful NGO coming out of the global south, but the road ahead for Escuela Nueva promises to be difficult.
As Charlie Leadbeater said in our talk, Vicky was open-source before open-source really existed. This has led to widespread use, but the same openness has distanced the organization from potentially useful feedback (and profit). The lack of access to data outside of the Colombian context means Escuela Nueva doesn’t know how the program has been adapted, and to what ends. As they join forces with new partners to spread the relevance and ride the wave of digital education, the organisation’s scaling strategies will be crucial for its continued success.