Monday, April 7, 2008

Who are your storytellers?

Thirty years ago, Vicky Colbert returned to Colombia after completing a master’s degree in education. Her graduate studies at Stanford had been all about the possibilities to be achieved through active, child-centered learning facilitated by well-prepared teachers. But back in the country where she grew up, she found high dropout rates, lack of training to improve teaching methods, and few connections between school and community. Undaunted, she took on a challenge that no one else seemed to care about: improving rural education.

Recently at the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship, I heard Colbert describe the successful program she has developed. She calls it Escuela Nueva—Spanish for “new school.” Working first in small village schools, she was able to help teachers see the value of students learning cooperatively in multigrade classrooms. Learning at their own pace, driven by their own interests, connected to their communities, students began to blossom. And because Colbert created demonstration classrooms and encouraged peer-to-peer professional development, other teachers took notice. The model quickly spread—from rural to urban areas, then from Colombia across Latin American. Escuela Nueva now reaches some 5 million children in more than a dozen countries. The model will expand next to secondary schools.

Listening to Colbert, I was stuck by her determination to change not just one or two schools, but the entire system of education. Although she has worked within government for part of her career, she is savvy enough not to rely on bureaucracy to maintain reforms. She has built alliances with the business world, such as coffee growers who need employees to understand how to work as a team. She has gathered data to prove that her approach works. But the key to lasting change are the teachers and community members who now demand schools that are good for children. Colbert calls this “bottom-up social change,” and it seems like an idea that needs to be exported back to U.S., where Colbert’s hopeful vision first took shape.

Colbert shared one practical idea that teachers—anywhere—can borrow without having to wait for seismic change. Escuela Nueva uses a simple but powerful strategy to engage parents and other community members: invite them to share what they know. Each school fills out a set of “family cards” to capture the talents, skills, and interests of parents and other community members. “We ask, who in this village is the artist? Who is the storyteller? Parents have knowledge,” Colbert says, “and we want to bring them in to the school.” The result is what she describes as a “greater sense of belonging.”

This common-sense approach reminds me of asset mapping (a strategy for identifying community resources that Jane and I describe in more detail in Reinventing Project-Based Learning). Without doubt, Vicky Colbert is an asset for children and everyone who cares about their future.

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