Revolution in the classroom: Escuela Nueva

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Revolution in the classroom: Escuela Nueva

Mónica del Pilar Uribe Marín writes about how the ideas of a Colombian teacher are now used around the world.


The Escuela Nueva model gives children more power and independence. ©Sean Sprague/Alamy Stock Photo

Oscar Mogollón looked at the clock, drank his coffee, took his motorbike, and went to a small, rural primary school in Norte Santander, on the Colombian border with Venezuela.

His students were waiting for him. He got off his motorbike and looked into his pockets but there was no classroom key – again! Now his students had to wait for him to go back to get the key.

Later one of the students said, ‘Sir, why not give me the key? I won’t forget it!’

Oscar Mogollón looked at him and decided that this was the moment to practise an idea he had – giving his students more power and independence. He thought they could make decisions, take part in school activities, and guide the teacher.

So, he gave the student the key.

That was the start in the Colombian countryside in the mid-1960s of the Committee of the Keys. Oscar and his students formed committees for health, the school garden, the library, and so on. All together, they made a ‘School Government’.

Oscar saw it was important to bring in the community and parents. So next he started the ‘Communitarian’ part. Parents began to help, gardening and looking after pigs to raise money to buy new books.

He didn’t stop there. Oscar introduced his model in 200 schools in the area. Teachers met in the afternoons to improve educational materials. They had the idea of making hand-written documents (‘Academic Guides’) and using colours for different subjects and grades.

As there were more children than documents, teachers put them on a music stand made from branches so that everyone could work from them.

Oscar’s model revolutionized education in Colombia – and across the world, especially in rural areas. In the 1980s he joined another Colombian, Victoria Colbert to develop the Escuela Nueva model. About 50 years after the start of the Committee of the Keys, this model is still used in 25,000 schools in Colombia and in 16 other countries, across the world.

Andres Torres Guerrero is a teacher, who learned in this way as a student in the 1970s. He says, ‘It was a powerful experience because it saw that it was important for education to have interaction, experimentation, and creativity. Music, theatre, art, and fun were part of everyday teaching.

Now as a teacher, he uses it when he can. ‘We help a passive student who repeats information to be a student-researcher, who can build knowledge that helps society,’ he says.

The Escuela Nueva method comes from the ideas of Brazilian educator Paolo Freire, and others. Freire said that teaching should change the idea that it is the teacher who knows everything gives information in a one-way process.

A teacher remembers how Oscar said he would come into classrooms with a saw, cut up the blackboards, and hand out the small pieces with a piece of chalk as ‘children should do the writing, not the teachers.’ This was his way of showing other teachers how to stop simply copying from books onto the board.

The World Bank and UNESCO have studied the idea of putting children at the centre of learning and not the teacher and find there are very surprising results.

Confident children

Miriam Ruby Gamboa Coral has taught the model to children and teachers. She says, ‘Children learn to work in teams, to think and take decisions, and to think about others. The student government gives students a way to be independent, responsible, to be leaders, and to communicate, and it helps them to feel better about themselves.’

Escuela Nueva shows higher scores on tests, fewer students leave education, they take part in the community, and do better in some subjects like mathematics and language.

Oscar died in 2009. But his ideas will continue to help children’s education all over the world. His model is used in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Peru, and other Latin American countries, in Equatorial Guinea and Uganda, as well as Timor-Leste, Vietnam, and the Philippines.

Mónica del Pilar Uribe Marín is a Colombian journalist, and Editor-In-Chief of The Prisma.


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have changed).