Vicky Colbert works in Colombia, largely in rural schools, where she achieved astounding results with her New School (Escuela Nueva) model. It is recognised as one of the most important innovations and successes, in the education of the poor, by the World Bank. Colombia’s rural schools were plagued by familiar problems in low-funded, rural schooling; a low population density (small single, mixed-age classes), lack of materials, lack of completion, rote learning, teacher absenteeism, low teacher morale and high teacher turnover. Schools also had to cope with a long-term armed conflict, a displaced population of two million and the drug trade. On top of this was frequent political change.
New School approach
Colbert implemented a bold but holistic plan, that put students at the centre of her efforts, but was widely inclusive, with many other stakeholders; teachers, administrators, parents, employers and the community at large. In particular, she forged links with local employers, such as coffee growers. Setting up a ‘Foundation’ was also critical, as it protected the initiative from constant political interference, although she was keen to keep the government as key stakeholders.
She wanted a consistent approach that was flexible, yet cost-effective, replicable and scalable. Above all her approach focused on the real needs of the community, sensitive to context and the reality of their everyday lives. Far from being traditional schooling, Colbert wanted relevant and sustainable education that made a real difference to people’s lives.
Learners learn in small groups with independent, self-paced, interactive modules, so that they can catch up if they need to be absent. As harvests are a real feature in the lives of these rural communities, the self-paced modules were designed to cope with the reality of such absences. The students map their local area and have to learn about their local agricultural calendar and farming needs. Vocational skills are as important as academic skills. Relevant entrepreneurial skills are also central to the curriculum, so learning how to learn, critical skills, teamwork and decision making are part of the process.
Teachers no longer stand up front doing only direct instruction and rote learning with questions and chanted responses. They are facilitators and receive practical, experiential, teacher training, coming together in ‘microcenters’ for workshops and the sharing of experiences and best practice. Teachers must feel part of a teaching community giving each other mutual support. They must learn the method but also be flexible enough to apply the method to their local circumstances. This, Colbert believes, is a necessary condition for success.
It is a testimony to the success and flexibility of the model, that it has been copied in Panama, Paraguay, the Dominican Republic, Salvador, Honduras, Guyana, and the Philippines. To succeed in this environment, it is clear that one must take an all-inclusive approach, that involves as many people as possible, is relevant to the realities of rural life, with real skills and strong teacher training. It works because it is deeply embedded in the whole community and not isolated ‘schooling’ separate, academic and remote from the realities of life. Schooling is still dominated by the European, Huboldtian model that fails, time and time again in contexts where ‘schooling’ goes through the motions, defying the realities of local culture and economics.
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