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Learning About Schooling in Rural Colombia

by Marshall Fritz
Presented to E. Fresno Kiwanis Club, May 12, 2000

A third-grade girl in a rural two-room schoolhouse surprised me with her answer to the question of why she likes her school: Because the students are taught that learning is their job and that the job of the teacher is mostly to help the students become self-teachers.

The setting was in Tenjo, an hour's drive west of Bogotá, Colombia. The school was one of 17,000 Escuela Nueva (esKWAYlah nuAYvah, New School), a Colombian schooling innovation now 25 years old.

Later we were told that some of these children walked two hours each way ? bypassing a conventional graded school in town ? because they and their parents thought the small rural multi-graded "new school" was better than the conventional town school. This explains why an eight-year-old rural Colombian schoolgirl spoke to us of pedagogy rather than the typical response in the U.S., "Because my friends are here," or "Because of sports, clubs, band, and other extra-curricular activities."

We visitors were an ad hoc team of Americans and Mexicans, each with his own reason for investing three days in Colombia to examine these schools first hand.

A homebuilder is searching for edu-innovations because he's trying to improve the availability and quality of education for the lower economic two-thirds of Latin America. A New York Teacher of the Year is searching for edu-revelations even though he has just completed a book that I believe ? having read a pre-publication version ? might become the most seditious book ever written on education. Both the Mexicans want to improve education in their country. I study other cultures to further my work for educational freedom in the U.S. I'm trying to find ways to provide schooling for the poor without state, federal, and even local government financing and compulsion.

We learned that the Colombians have made important advances that can be copied and even improved. Unfortunately, I also noticed that they have taken the first steps in destroying what they have created. And, aside from education, each of us was struck by the beauty of the countryside (looks like Switzerland without snow). Lastly we were delighted by the safety we felt. Indeed, we Gringos were a bit miffed at the U.S. State Department for warning U.S. citizens not to visit Colombia.

Now a caveat before I describe Escuela Nueva: Any schooling system must fit the culture. We are not trying to improve elite U.S. boarding schools, Montessori schools, Sudbury schools, etc. The homebuilder wants to reduce the cost of high quality K-6 schooling in developing countries to $2-3 per week. Of a score of items I liked, here are four:

  1. Escuela Nueva schools are child-sized with 50-80 children

  2. The schools are multi-graded like the one-room-schoolhouse of yesteryear where dear Miss McLumphy had 50 pupils age 6-14.

  3. In Escuela Nueva, the children use self-teaching paper-back textbooks. (I was amazed that they last 20 years.)

  4. The children work in self-selected teams of three or four and progress through their "guides" at the team's best pace. (This allows children to miss school for several months at a time ? common when they are needed for harvest ? but not be set back a full school year.)

Unfortunately, our South American cousins have begun to destroy their education gains by enforcing the idea of "common schooling." Like us, they combine children from different religions and world views. Such common schooling sounds nice because they, too, want to advance toleration and civic harmony.

But the price is too high. They are gradually downgrading from education to training by minimizing the opportunity for teachers to engage children in the serious questions seemingly unique to our species, e.g., "Why am I here?" and "What is the purpose of life?"

They've begun this destruction of education by removing religious specifics that might offend a minority. For example, we visited one government-financed "Catholic" Escuela Nueva where teachers boasted of no Madonna or crucifix in the classroom in order to "respect" the two evangelical Protestant students in this common school.

Further, throughout the system, the Ministry of Education has removed Christ from all but the religion textbooks. This attempt to compartmentalize God into two hours per week of "religion class" violates the Catholic teaching (as well as Episcopalian, Lutheran, Muslim, and Presbyterian) that God must permeate the lessons like sugar permeates ice-cream, else one has only cold cream with sugar on top.

Back to the positive side: When a man from the World Bank informed us that privately financed schools as small as 10-15 in people's homes were operating in the port city of Buenaventura, Colombia, we started planning another trip. They call them "Escuela Nueva Urbana." These 80 urban schools help even the poorest children develop the attitudes and knowledge that allow them to ascend beyond their tedious poverty.

While I have no illusions that tinkering with the "public schools" in the U.S. will do anything of lasting value, it is clear to me that as we move toward the separation of school and state we will find some of our answers among the poorest of the poor in South America. The little third-grade girl is pointing us toward one of the necessary improvements.

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