Learning about Democratic Education from Colombia | IDEA

Learning about Democratic Education from Colombia

Posted by Dana Bennis on Mar 27, 2015 - 06:27 AM

Last month the New York Times published an op-ed from David Kirp that opened many people's eyes to one of the most comprehensive examples of democratic education anywhere in the world: the Escuela Nueva model in Colombia. Across Colombia, 20,000 schools have been influenced by the model, which features project-based learning, parent and community engagement, learning by doing and according to student interests, and democratic decision-making. As Kirp describes:

Rather than being run as a mini-dictatorship, with the principal as its unquestioned leader, the school operates as a self-governing community, where teachers, parents and students have a real say in how it is run.

I wrote a Letter to the Editor with a few comments in reply, and while it was not published, we're including it here on the IDEA Blog:

Those working for educational change in the United States could learn a great deal from Escuela Nueva in Colombia. Instead of creating ever more tests with high-stakes results, blaming the teachers or students, or looking to a new common curriculum to solve our problems, Escuela Nueva shows what is possible when schools are guided by what we know about how children learn and by the values and practices of democracy. In practice this looks like collaborative and hands-on learning, student work that's connected to the issues of the community, and shared decision-making that engages teachers, students, and parents. 

While Kirp may be right that schools like this are not currently the mainstream in the U.S., such schools can be found flourishing across the nation, from Mission Hill School in Boston to Jefferson County Open School in the suburbs of Denver to Minnesota New Country School in rural Minnesota, as well as networks of schools such as the New York Performance Standards Consortium, Big Picture Schools, and EdVisions Schools.

The most powerful lesson to learn from Escuela Nueva's work is that this approach to education is especially successful for youth from lower-income families. Whereas in the U.S., the "reforms" being sold to poor families and youth of color in the form of policies and new school models call for more testing, drilling, and "no excuses," Escuela Nueva confirms what many educators and researchers have been saying for years: that lower-income youth will thrive when they are supported to explore their interests, have a voice in their learning, and connect learning to the needs of their community.