New School

Rethinking education in rural Colombia with Cotopaxi Grantee Fundación Escuela Nueva.

Words and photos by James Roh

A winding gravel road leads me past lush rolling hills dotted with modest farmhouses, grazing animals, and rows of potato crops. In the background, low-hanging clouds obscure the true peaks of the enormous Andes. Around a corner I finally find the small one-room school where a horse is tied to the fence. As I approach, two children greet me and usher me inside.         

Two students work together during class. FEN’s model prioritizes students collaborating together to learn, teach, problem-solve, and complete tasks. As a result, gender barriers are broken down and students regard each other as equals.

The school is one of many in rural Colombia that has adopted an educational model developed and supported by the nonprofit organization Fundación Escuela Nueva (FEN). In 1987, FEN set out to improve the quality and relevance of education in schools with limited resources by restructuring the way school children learn in the classroom. While FEN has since spread to many countries and several continents, I traveled to Colombia to witness the model in its home country.  

The classroom is noisy and full of activity—chaotic, even. At each circular table, students are occupied with a variety of activities ranging from drawing to reading to cutting paper. Some are even just chatting with each other. Meanwhile, the teacher casually drifts from one table to another, seemingly not bothered by the madness. At one point, she sits down and sings a song with the children. Plastered on the walls, posters encourage cooperation, peace, values, and teamwork.  

Inquisitive students use a globe to locate their home during class.

As I’d come to learn, this scene is not only normal but is exactly what makes FEN unique and incredibly effective. The FEN model flips the traditional classroom roles and instead uses a child-centered approach that emphasizes creative collaboration and changes the teacher’s role from lecturer to facilitator. For students, the school day is no longer sitting and listening. They are now active participants in their own education by taking on leadership roles, creating art projects, producing plays and performances, and voting. Essentially, the students learn how to learn while developing cognitive and social skills. FEN views each child as an agent of change that is crucial for maintaining peace and democracy for the next generation.   

“They are now active participants in their own education by taking on leadership roles, creating art projects, producing plays and performances, and voting.”

Perhaps the most important aspect of the new educational model is its ability to address the needs of students on an individual basis. The teachers are able to adjust the pace for each student, ensuring that no child falls behind or is unchallenged. Instead of singling out students with disabilities, they are integrated into the classroom with the other students. This not only boosts the confidence of the individual student, but allows others to learn respect and acceptance for all.  

A disabled student cheers alongside her teammates during a school activity. All students are welcomed and included in schools using the FEN model.

Every once in a while, the students take a break from their tasks and ask me about myself, where I come from, how to say things in English, and even about the U.S.’s recent elections. Their level of maturity and curiosity is astounding. Then again, just moments before, I laughed as students pinched their noses and made funny faces. I’m not a child-development specialist, but I’d say the students reflect a healthy balance of maturity with, well, normal kid antics.

Dana, left, shows me her farm during my stay with her family in Cómbita. Dana’s mother says that the FEN model has inspired her daughter to become more confident and curious about the world.

Ambassador James Roh traveled to Colombia in November 2016 to visit Cotopaxi grantee Fundación Escuela Nueva. The nonprofit’s unique teaching methodology was created for rural Colombian schools with limited resources, but has proven to be so successful that it has spread to urban schools and numerous other countries.