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¿21st century education?

 Texto en español: ¿Cuál educación del siglo 21?

Everyone talks about 'Education for the 21st Century' or 'Education in the 21st Century':

- 21st century knowledge
- 21st century skills
- 21st century students
- 21st century educators
- 21st century schools
- 21st century classrooms

Strictly speaking, however, there is no 'Education in the 21st Century'.

The century is just beginning

We can hardly visualize one or two decades ahead. The world could not anticipate, and prepare for, the 2020 deadly global pandemia. Who can tell what the planet, human life and education will be like in 2050? Nobody can anticipate what can happen in 100 years, and in this century in particular, characterized as one of big uncertainties, rapid changes, major crises and catastrophes.

What 21st century?

- About 1 in 4 people live in multidimensional poverty or are vulnerable to it.
- More than 40% of the global population does not have any social protection.
- 840 million people live without electricity.

- Over one thousand million people has no drinking water and 2 in 5 people have no facilities for hand-washing. 
- 43% of schools worldwide have no facilities to wash hands with water and soap (UNICEF, 2019)
- 6.5 billion people – 85.5% of the global population – don’t have access to reliable broadband internet.
Source: UN/UNDP 2020

The 21st century is not the same for everyone. Millions of people do not enjoy the benefits of modernity and comfort, do not have running water, toilets, electricity, decent work and housing, reading and writing, good education opportunities, basic services and basic citizenship rights.

Inequalities - within each country, between countries, between the global North and the global South - become structural: extreme poverty and extreme wealth, hyper-consumption and misery, overinformation for some and zero information for others, the illiterate and the overqualified, the connected and the disconnected.

Home-based virtual education, recommended by UNESCO and others while schools are closed because of the covit-19 pandemia and the confinement, remains out of reach for half of the world's population who lack access to the Internet.

Evidently, life in the 21st century is very different for those living with less than 1 or 2 dollars a day (those living in extreme poverty) and for those participating fully in the Information Society, the Knowledge Society, the Digital Society.

What education?

There is no education in singular, as a universal fact and as a homogeneous experience. There are educations, in plural, diverse in nature, purposes and qualities, because realities, cultures, ideologies, aspirations and needs of concrete social groups are highly diverse. And because education is not confined to the education system; there is education in the family, in the community, at the workplace, through the media, participation, social service, etc.

Education and learning needs and experiences are shaped by specific economic, social and cultural contexts and conditions. Community and family education models shaped historically by indigenous populations, many of which continue to operate in many countries worldwide, have different logics and epistemologies.

There are no one-size-fits-all education formulas for all.

Education in the 21st century? 

Education in the 21st century is diverse, placed historically in this century and geographically in each specific context, and does not necessarily correspond to the '21st century' vision coming from the 'developed world'.

Millions of children and youth have never seen a computer and don't know what can be found behind a screen. Millions of children and youth don't know where food comes from, how to grow a potato, a lemmon, a tomato. Different types of ignorance.

21st century skills? 

World Economic Forum, The Future of Jobs, 2016

Skills needed are different or have different priorities for different people in different places, cultures and circumstances. Lists of "21st century skills" circulated by international organizations are generally conceived and proposed from the North, for eminently urban realities. Childre, young people and adults living in poverty, need and develop skills than enable them to survive in very difficult circumstances, help and take care of their families, learn and share in their communities. The 'top 10 21st century skills' circulated worldwide in 2016 by the World Economic Forum and adopted by millions of people in the North and in the South, have little to do with the skills real people need in 2020 to deal with the global covid-19 pandemia.

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One child, one teacher, one book and one pen

Rosa María Torres


One child.

One teacher.

The child first.  

The teacher second.

With what?

One book.

One pen.

So that we can read. 

So that we can write.



What for?

To change the world. 

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Escuela Nueva: An innovation within formal education (Colombia)

This article was published by IBE-UNESCO Prospects (1992, No 4). I wrote it while working as a Senior Education Adviser at UNICEF Headquarters in New York, and following a study visit (1991) to the Escuela Nueva (EN) Program with an official delegation from the Ecuadorian government. The article looks at the evolution of EN from its creation in 1975 to the early 1990s, period in which it expanded in Colombia, became a national policy for the rural areas, and a regular program within Colombia's Ministry of Education. We also discuss topics related to the survival, scaling up and replicability of the innovation.
In 1987, the Escuela Nueva Foundation was created by the team that developed EN in the 1970s, in order to help strengthen the program, diversify and adapt it to urban areas (Escuela Activa Urbana), and promote its expansion to other countries. The EN model has been experimented in 16 countries. Over the years, it has received numerous international awards, including a WISE Award in 2009 and the 2013 WISE Prize for Education given to Vicky Colbert, co-creator of the EN model together with Prof. Oscar Mogollón.


Colombia's Escuela Nueva (EN) 'New School' Program has become an international reference. UNESCO, the World Bank and UNICEF have lent their support to the program and promoted it. UNESCO described it as "an experience of unquestionable international value." The World Bank recommends disseminating its lessons among education planners and policy-makers. Study missions visit Colombia to find out more about it. Several countries are interested in replicating it.

What makes EN so special? 1) the fact that it is an innovation within the formal school system; 2) the long time over which it has evolved; 3) the system approach adopted; 4) the focus on the curriculum and pedagogy; and 5) its results.

We examine here these five points and conclude with some considerations about the program's survival and potential for replicability in other contexts.


It is common to associate educational innovation with NGOs, grassroot organizations, out-of-school or non-formal education. Many people think Escuela Nueva is a NGO program, like other primary or basic education programs highlighted by international organizations (such as BRAC's non-formal primary schools in Bangladesh). However, perhaps EN's greatest merit is that it is a transformative innovation within the formal, public, mainstream education system. Colombia's EN shows that systemic innovation is possible within government structures.  


"Pilot projects" have lost credibility. Many pilot projects remain local experiments. At the same time, we also see massive-scale programs rushing without going through a gradual process. Escuela Nueva has grown from a micro experiment to a national education policy.

UNESCO's Unitary School model (1960s)

EN emerged from the Unitary School model promoted by UNESCO in 1961 at a Ministers of Education meeting held in Geneva and adopted in several "developing countries". The Unitary School was characterized by:

a) presence of one teacher in the school,
b) automatic promotion,
c) active learning, enabling children to learn at their own pace,
d) instructional cards ("fichas") for the teacher to work with various groups at the same time,
e) provision of a complete primary education cycle, and
f) application in disperse areas, with low population density.

In Colombia, the first Unitary School was set up at the Instituto Superior de Educación Rural (ISER) in Pamplona, department of Santander, under UNESCO Project 1 for Primary Education. The teacher in charge of that school was Oscar Mogollón, a public school teacher who would later become Escuela Nueva's National Coordinator at the Ministry of Education (See Note below)
- By the mid-1960s, the small unitary school had multiplied into 150 schools. 
- In 1967, the government adopted the Unitary School methodology for all single-teacher (multigrade) schools in the country. A Manual was published and Departments of Education started to train rural teachers in this methodology.
- In 1975, the Escuela Nueva Program was created on the basis of the Unitary School model and experience.
Oscar Mogollón, together with Vicky Colbert and Beryl Levinger, from the US Agency for International Development (USAID), worked on the EN model.
Between 1975 and 1978, with USAID support, EN was implemented in 500 schools in three departments. Later, with the support of the InterAmerican Development Bank (IDB),
private Colombian organizations such as the Coffee Growers Association, and FES (Foundation for Higher Education), the program expanded to 3,000 schools. 
- Between 1982 and 1986 EN expanded to the Pacific Coast. Learning Guides were adapted for this region, with UNICEF technical and financial co-operation.

- In 1985, the Colombian Government adopted EN as a strategy to achieve universal rural primary education. By then, there were 8,000 EN schools in the country.
- In the late 1970s and early 1980s the government negotiated a loan with the World Bank in order to expand and improve basic education in rural areas. In 1987, a second loan assisted the Universalization Plan. The EN program received educational materials, teacher training, sanitary installations, furniture and school improvements (Ministry of Education-UNICEF, 1990). Investments were expanded until the mid 1990s.
- Since 1987 there was a rapid expansion. The program reached 17,984 schools by 1989.
- In 1990 EN received the Simón Bolívar national award. Internationally, it was chosen by the World Bank as one of the three most important basic education models for rural areas.

- In 1991, 20,000 of the 27,000 rural schools were involved in the program, with an estimated coverage of one million children. 

Escuela Nueva is not a methodology. It is an integrated system that combines four components: (a) curriculum, (b) training, (c) administration, and (d) community. None of these components stands on its own. Their interrelationship is what makes the model both coherent and feasible.

(a) The curriculum
Emphasis is placed on the curriculum. Key features include: active learning, learning materials known as "Learning Guides", Study Corners, School Library, School Government, and Flexible Promotion.

The EN Program was devised for rural areas, primary education (five years in Colombia), and multigrade teaching (one or two teachers in charge of all grades). Children study in small groups using Learning Guides, supplied by the State free of charge. The Guides are organized by subjects (mathematics, natural science, social studies, and language) and by grade (from second to fifth grade; there are no guides for the first grade). They are designed for self-instruction, with graded activities and detailed instructions, so that students can work to a large extent on their own, helping one another. This saves teachers' time, reduces their burden, lessens the need for highly qualified teaching staff, and enables students to progress at their own pace. Teachers are trained to adapt the Guides to the specific characteristics of the children and the local environment -- although they seldom do it.

The Study Corners are arranged by field of study and comprise objects collected or made by the children or provided by the parents and the community.

Each school has a small Library: the idea is to encourage reading among children, teachers, families and the community. The school libraries have a stock of about 70 books, including reference books by subject, reference works (encyclopedias, dictionaries, atlases), literature, and materials on community-related topics.

The School Government is a student council responsible for organizing children's school activities. Its purpose is to involve children in school management, initiate them in civic and democratic behavior, and foster attitudes of cooperation and solidarity. The School Government comprises a President, Vice-President, Secretary, Committee Leaders and Assistants for each grade, is elected by the students following democratic procedures, and is renewed periodically to enable all children to gain leadership experience.

Assessment and grade promotion differ substantially from the conventional school system. Its main role is making teachers and students aware of areas needing reinforcement. There is Flexible (not automatic) Promotion. Each child moves on to the next grade when he/she achieves the educational objectives set. This can take more (or less) time than a regular academic year. Any children temporarily absent from school can resume their studies without having to drop out.

The learning environment expands beyond the classroom. EN schools have a vegetable patch and a garden; sports grounds and community facilities form part of the wider school environment. Inside the school, there is space for the study corners, library, kitchen, dining-room and washroom facilities. Teachers often have living facilities for them and their families on the school premises. The natural environment is the main object of study and provides most of the resources for teaching and learning.

(b) Teacher training
EN teachers have a role of facilitators - guiding, directing and evaluating learning - and of  community leaders and organizers. These roles imply major attitudinal changes. Therefore, attitude changes - pedagogical and social - are given emphasis in teacher training.

Initial training (for new teachers) includes three sequential workshops - 
initiation, methodology and organization - each of one week's duration, and use of the library. After the first and second workshops, there is a six-month and a three-month interval, respectively, so that teachers put in practice what they learned. Attending the first workshop is a requisite for including the school in the EN program and for teachers to start working with it. The idea is to reproduce in teacher training the methods and real-life situations that the teachers will encounter in their classrooms and in their relations with the students.

In-service training takes place through so-called Rural Micro-Centers, where teachers can exchange, update and upgrade their knowledge and experience on an ongoing basis. They operate with groups of 10 to 15 teachers from neighboring areas.

(c) The administrative component
This is the one that has received least attention. It is a crucial and complex area, involving political and institutional factors that go beyond administrative issues. Administration "has more to do with giving direction than with controlling" (Ministry of Education-UNICEF, 1990), which means that administrative officials, too, must familiarize themselves with the program's objectives and components, and especially with its pedagogical aspects.

EN is a decentralized program. A coordinator and a small team (ten persons in 1991, most of them involved with EN in leadership positions since its inception) are responsible for co-ordinating and designing policies and strategies, and evaluating implementation. At the departmental level, the structure comprises a representative committee, a coordinator and a team of multiplier agents. From 1987 onwards - when the Plan for the Universalization of Rural Primary Education was launched and the EN expansion process began - several changes were introduced in the administrative structure with emphasis on decentralization. Two new structures were created: a universalization committee at national and departmental levels, and educational units (Ministry of Education-UNICEF, 1990).

(d) The school-community relationship
The EN school is expected to operate as an information center and a focal point for community integration. The school-community relationship is one of mutual benefit, with parents and the community joining in school activities, and the school promoting activities to foster local development and improve the quality of life of the population.

In order to facilitate teachers' understanding of the community and the local conditions, EN uses various tools: the Family Record (information about the agricultural activities of the area and its seasons), the Neighborhood Map and the District Monograph. Students, parents and the community participate in their elaboration.

EN tries various ways of involving parents in their children's activities and stimulating children's interest in learning more about their parents and their lives. The library, the school premises and cultural and recreational activities are open to the community. Achievement Days - days when academic results are announced and the school government reports on its activities - are opportunities for sharing school and community activities.

Demonstration Schools, organized in each department where the program operates, are schools in which the four components can be "seen" operating in exemplary conditions. Visiting a Demonstration School is a key strategy for teacher motivation and training.


Educational innovations often give prominence to organizational aspects and neglect the pedagogical ones. Many innovative experiences are recognized as such for the changes they introduce in management, planning and evaluation, infrastructure, and/or curriculum content. Teaching and learning relationships, approaches and methodologies, the corner-stone of educational change, are often overlooked. The central role of pedagogy and of pedagogical change is one of EN's most remarkable features.

EN combines features of progressive educational theory. The program is based on the philosophy of the Unitary School (derived from the Active School): multigrade teaching, individualized instruction, active learning, educational materials that enable the teacher to work with several groups at once, and automatic promotion.

EN's methodology includes learning by doing, linking theory and practice, individual and group work, study and play, guidance and self-instruction. Children learn to think for themselves, to analyze, investigate and apply what they have learned. Active learning principles are also applied to teachers in their own training and in their daily work in schools. The conventional duties of the teacher-instructor are shared the learning guides (contents and methods), the library (an additional reference source), the study corners (observation and experiment areas), the group of students (who work together and help each another) and the school government (where children learn democratic values and procedures).

Teacher training emphasizes teaching and the capacity to innovate. The micro-centers promote team work, experience sharing and critical analysis of teachers' practice.

EN's slogan "More and better primary education for rural children in rural areas", describes this attempt to reconcile quantity and quality. It is not just a matter of providing children in rural areas with access to education: they deserve and need good education. Departing from conventional teaching practice -- top-down, authoritarian, rote and passive learning -- is a crucial element in EN's development and achievements.


Comprehensive evaluations of EN have been conducted so far by Psacharopoulos et al. (1992), and Rojas and Castillo (1988). Both utilize data collected in 1987 in 11 Colombian departments.

Psacharopoulos found that EN students achieve higher scores than their counterparts in conventional rural schools (except in fifth grade Mathematics) as well as improved self-esteem, creativity and civic behavior -- co-operation, responsibility and solidarity. EN has increased community participation in school-related activities and has reduced drop-out rate among children completing fifth grade (however, not third grade). Rojas and Castillo found that EN has had a significant impact on adult education, agricultural extension, athletic competitions, health campaigns, and community celebrations.

EN has changed the face of rural education in Colombia. It is proving that it is possible  to design an educational model tailored to the rural context, that includes both quality and efficiency. EN is showing that some of the traditional disadvantages of rural areas can be turned into advantages - ample space, linkages with nature, natural resources, contact with the community, central role played by the school and the teacher in community life, etc.


As with other acclaimed innovative experiences, there is a tendency to deny or minimize problems and limitations. However, we know there are always discrepancies between the ideal, desired model and its implementation.

A study trip (1991) to see EN operating in the field allowed me first-hand contact with the many EN strengths and also with some of its weaknesses (Torres, 1991). So far I have referred to the former; I shall now refer to the latter.

There is room for improvement in all the components and elements described. In fact, the EN coordinating team is not satisfied with any of them. The Guides require thorough revision (three revisions have been carried out to date), especially in Mathematics and Language. Many contents and activities need to be better adjusted to the circumstances and needs of a rural child. Not many teachers are using the adaptation mechanism built into the Guides. There are limitations in the instructional design, too formal and inflexible for the requirements of do-it-yourself learning materials such as these.

There are shortcomings in teacher training -- coverage and quality. The rural micro-center strategy is not yet fully understood or established in all areas. School governments are not always set up or, where they are, not always as planned. A controlling or paternalistic approach by teachers and adherence to form and ritual may defeat the objective of the school government. The school-community relationship depends to a great extent on the teachers' initiative; their characteristics, training and personal motivation determine the quality of that relationship, which often replicates conventional school patterns.

The teaching of reading and writing - basic skills and the factor which largely determines children's academic future - is still one of EN's main shortcomings. As indicated, there are no Guides for first grade, leaving teachers free to choose the literacy methods and techniques they deem most appropriate. This is an open invitation to the conventional teaching approaches and outdated methods that prevail in literacy education. One of the major challenges facing EN is coming up with new ideas in this area, drawing on the important knowledge and experience gained in the region and internationally.

The teacher-student relationship proposed by EN has yet to be fully owned and applied. While some teachers are moving towards a new teaching role, others continue to apply conventional teaching approaches. Translating EN principles and strategies into practice implies a long and complex process.

EN demands two main roles from teachers: a teaching role and a community role. It is not easy to strike a balance between the two. Demonstration Schools seem to be placing more emphasis on the community relationship than on teaching. 

There is a conflictual institutional issue. Although EN is a government program framed within the Ministry of Education, the relationship is difficult and never fully clarified. From open boycott to passive resistance, EN has often had to swim against the tide or operate on the fringes of the system, looking for the support of international organizations and private Colombian organizations. Its precarious situation within the government structure weakens the program's capacity to consolidate and expand.

A long evolutionary process such as the one EN has witnessed can lead to development and progress, but also to stagnation. Efforts are necessary to rejuvenate it continually. The aging of Escuela Nueva is a recurrent concern among those involved in the program. 

Expansion has brought both an aggravation of old problems and a series of new ones. As stated (Ministry of Education-UNICEF, 1990), the "cost of going for scale" has included "inevitable sacrifices in terms of effectiveness and efficiency" and has resulted in "a reduction in the number of days spent on training workshops or, in some places, a failure to provide the study guides in time for the training sessions. One consequence of these problems is, of course, a weakening of experiential learning in teachers' training, added to teacher apathy and criticism of the program." The new administrative structure that has emerged as a result of the program's expansion has led to conflict with the technical teams, not always consulted, and has caused a sharp rise in the number of administrative officials with training demands that the program has been unable to meet.

Another factor is the proliferation of "demonstration schools" during the expansion phase. Although such schools are considered to be a key strategy to maintain quality, their introduction on a massive scale may have the opposite effect.


The combination of innovation and replicability is highly valued, especially by international organizations. Innovative experiences are expected not only to expand, but also to adapt to other contexts.
In fact, many would like to find a magic one-size-fits-all formula for primary education in rural areas in "developing countries". A few comments on EN in this regard.

In the first place, the specific nature of EN as it has developed in Colombia must be born in mind. It is a formal, public, rural, multigrade, primary education program. These characteristics must not be overlooked when considering possible adaptations or variants. Nor must it be forgotten that EN is a system organized around four components (curriculum, training, administration, and community), not an assortment of isolated elements.

There are a number of factors of Colombia's EN Program that are unique and not readily available or easily replicable in other contexts. 

"Rural school"  "Rural schools" are very different in different places. Colombian "rural schools" are generally well endowed with infrastructure and equipment (government loans with the World Bank in the late 1970s and in the 1980s improved the physical infrastructure of rural schools in the country). Many EN schools have housing facilities for the teachers and their families. Many have a kitchen, a dining-room, washrooms, running water, electricity, television. This is not the reality of rural schools in many Latin American countries and in most "developing countries". 

Languages  Colombia is a rather homogenous country in linguistic terms. The EN program has a tremendous advantage in dealing with one language: Spanish. In the majority of Latin American countries and throughout the world, multilingualism is the norm. Introducing the EN model in bilingual or multilingual contexts means venturing into entirely new territory.

Teachers' educational background  According to the World Bank study (Psacharopoulos, 1992), most EN teachers have secondary or higher education. Also, compared with other rural schools in Colombia, EN has more teachers living on the school premises. Both factors - teachers' level of education and teachers living in the school - have a positive impact on students (a university education was associated with better cognitive outcomes; teachers residing in the school was associated with better scores in creativity and civic behavior).

A long process  EN has made a long and distinctive process. "In Escuela Nueva, the necessary technical conditions have been met, since the program has been designed and put to the test over a period of 15 years. Furthermore, the present government has fulfilled the necessary political conditions. In addition, adequate financial conditions have been assured through the allocation of government funds, a loan from the World Bank and the cooperation of UNICEF, which has lent its support to maintain the quality of the program as it expands" (Ministry of Education-UNICEF, 1990). How many countries and governments can offer such a combination of technical, political and financial circumstances?

Technical capacities  Let us mention only one crucial component of EN: the Learning Guides. As acknowledged by the World Bank, elaborating good textbooks needs highly specialized technical competence that is not easy to find: "Translating curriculum specifications into good textbooks requires considerable expertise. Textbooks must have the appropriate content and reading level; be consistent in approach, method and exposition; be properly sequenced; motivate the students; and finally, be readily taught by less qualified teachers, yet allow good teachers to expand upon them. Throughout the world, few individuals possess the expertise required for writing good textbooks" (Lockheed and Verspoor, 1991). How many programs can avail themselves of such human and technical expertise?

Financing  In addition to government funds channeled through the Ministry of Education, EN has been receiving regular financial support from various international agencies - USAID, IDB, UNICEF, the World Bank - and from private organizations. The estimated cost of EN is between 5% and 10% higher than that of conventional schools (Schiefelbein, 1991), while teacher training costs at least three times higher (Psacharopoulos, 1992). Can similar financial support be expected in other countries? Can EN itself expect sustained support to enable it to continue to expand while improving its quality?

Survival  In a world where policies and programs are easily discontinued by government changes or international decisions, EN stands out as an exceptional innovative experience. How has EN been able to survive the political and administrative instability characteristic of Latin America and of Colombia specifically? Someone has attributed EN's success to "a mixture of advertisement, strategic support, academic standing of the developers, and simple luck" (Schiefelbein, 1991). The "luck" factor no doubt covers a wide range of unpredictable, inexplicable and non-reproducible factors.

Leadership  Studies show that one of the characteristics of successful programs and effective schools is the role played by specific individuals with drive, vision, leadership, charisma, and perseverance. This is true in the case of EN. The original team remained relatively stable. Individuals in key positions have had a decisive impact on the program's development, locally and nationally. "Even though Escuela Nueva has been institutionalized in the whole country, the support it receives in some provinces largely depends on the personal preferences of local administrators" (Psacharopoulos, 1992, p. 19).

Ten years elapsed between EN's official establishment as a program in 1975 and its adoption as a national education policy in 1985. The process has followed three stages (Ministry of Education-UNICEF, 1990): (a) learning to be effective (1975-1978), (b) learning to be efficient (1979-1986), and (c) learning to expand (since 1987). Even with the time, resources and planning that went into the program's development, everything indicates that EN was not equipped to cope with its rapid expansion, at least not without jeopardizing its quality. If this happens with a resourceful program such as EN, what can be expected of programs that are required to expand and even achieve universal implementation without having gone through the stages and met the requirements essential to their very survival? Pressure from governments and international organizations to reach big numbers, show results and become successful models in record times does not help real, transformative, sustainable innovation in the educational field.

There is a great deal that Colombia and other countries can learn from EN. There is also a great deal that can be done to consolidate and improve the program, while protecting it from the hazards of fashion and the risks of domestic shifts.

Radical changes required in education today takes second place when concerns continue to focus on access rather than on effective learning. Universalizing access to education without universalizing quality education, is delivering more of the same that produces non-learning, frustration, drop-out, repetition, and wastage of resources.

Transforming formal education is a major challenge. Schools must become less formal and more flexible, relevant, useful, creative, enjoyable, responsive to students' and teachers' needs, respectful of diversity, open to participation by parents and the community and accountable to society. EN is showing a way to do it in Colombia. It is important to know the program better and learn from its many lessons.


[1] In 1992, professor Oscar Mogollón joined the Academy for Educational Development (AED) - a US-based non-profit -  to work on the design and implementation of the Active School approach in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Peru and Equatorial Guinea. He passed away in 2010. See: Oscar Mogollón and Marina Solano de Mogollón, Active Schools: Our Convictions for Improving the Quality of Education, AED, 2011.


COLBERT, Vicky and Jairo Arboleda, "Universalization of Primary Education in Colombia: The New School Programme", UNESCO-UNICEF-WFP Co-operative Programme, Paris, July 1990. 

COLOMBIA Ministry of Education-UNICEF, El Programa de Escuela Nueva. Más y mejor educación primaria para los niños de las zonas rurales, Bogotá, 1990.

LOCKHEED, M. and VERSPOOR, A., Improving Primary Education in Developing Countries, Oxford University Press, a World Bank publication, Washington, 1991.

PSACHAROPOULOS, George, ROJAS, Carlos, and VELEZ, Eduardo, "Achievement Evaluation of Colombia's Escuela Nueva", in Working Papers, World Bank, Washington, D.C., April 1992.

SCHIEFELBEIN, Ernesto, In search of the school of the XXI century: is the Colombian Escuela the right pathfinder?, UNESCO-UNICEF, Santiago, 1991.

TORRES, Rosa María, Escuela Nueva: Una innovación desde el Estado, Fronesis, Colección Educación Nº 2, Quito, 1991.

Related texts in this blog 
» Rosa María Torres and Manzoor Ahmed, Reaching the Unreached: Non-formal approaches and Universal Primary Education
» Rosa María Torres, Transforming formal education from a Lifelong Learning perspective
» Rosa María Torres, On Innovation and Change in Education
» Rosa María Torres, "Antes, aquí era Escuela Vieja"

Transforming formal education from a lifelong learning perspective

Rosa María Torres

Conference prepared for the
  International Conference on Learning Cities
           UIL-UNESCO and China's Ministry of Education,
           Beijing, China, 21-23 October 2013

(draft, in process)
Pawel Jonca

Lifelong Learning means Learning throughout Life

Many people confuse Lifelong Learning (LLL) with Out-of-School Learning (Informal Learning, Open Learning, etc.), leaving the school system out of it. Many think LLL as Adult Education or as Non-Formal Education, leaving children out of it. All these associations seem to ignore that Lifelong Learning means literally learning throughout life.

In the first place, LLL is a fact: all of us learn from birth to death, everywhere and from many sources: family, friends, play, observation, practice, experience, nature, school, work, reading, writing, solving problems, participating, etc.

LLL is also the paradigm proposed for education and learning policies and systems in the 21st century. It embraces and emphasizes two key concepts: LEARNING and LIFE.

- NOT getting access to
- NOT teaching
- NOT studying
- NOT approving

- NOT only adulthood.

Formal education and lifelong learning 
Formal education
is "institutionalised, intentional and planned through public organizations and recognised private bodies" ( UNESCO's
International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED, revised in 2011). The education ladder includes pre-school education, primary education, lower and upper secondary education, technical and vocational education, adult formal education, and higher education. 

Formal education is a very important part of the LLL experience. However, viewed in a LLL perspective, formal education occupies a rather small portion of learners' lives. Most of what we learn in life (and some of the most important, such as learning to speak) is the result of  informal learning: non-institutional learning that occurs in daily life, and where no actual or deliberate teaching is involved.

Millions of people worldwide get no or very little formal education; others make it through various school levels, get diplomas and higher education qualifications. All of them - the illiterate and the Ph.Ds - are lifelong learners. Without learning, survival and life would be impossible. Those who never go to school learn basically through informal learning and oral (non-written) interaction.

Life and lifelong learning

Life is getting longer. Life expectation has grown considerably throughout the world over the past two decades. Consequently, adult and older learners have multiplied - current population trends indicate they will continue to multiply in the coming years. New scientific knowledge confirms that aging implies cognitive deterioration but it also confirms that older adults are capable of learning almost anything. Now we also know that learning begins before birth, and that it takes place also while we sleep.

Schooling and lifelong learning

Formal education continues to expand downwards and upwards. Institutionalized initial/pre-school education grow in many countries, and even become part of compulsory education in a few countries; the age to start school is also lowered in some countries. On the other side, higher education continues to expand, adding degrees and titles. School life expectation and the number of years of schooling and/or of higher education graduates are taken as indicators to compare countries' educational status.

However, the real objective is not a competitive race for titles. The objective is learning, enhancing lifelong learning opportunities for all, creating learning societies.

Formal education and learning

Access to school, especially to primary education, has been the traditional focus of national governments and international agencies vis à vis "developing countries". Completion of primary education and other levels and cycles, was the next step. Actual learning has remained an elusive objective until very recently, and often continues to be confused with approving school tests. And yet, the core mission of education is learning. Teaching without learning is absurd and a waste of time. Learning remains a critical area of school systems worldwide. Ensuring learning within the  school system is thus a major challenge in itself.


OECD's PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) test applied to 15 year-olds since the year 2000 assesses competencies in three key areas: reading, mathematics and science. Initially designed for OECD countries, over 70 countries have participated in PISA so far.

In recent times, OECD has also applied ‌the Survey of Adult Skills, a survey conducted in 33 countries as part of the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies  (PIAAC). The survey was applied in 2012 to 16 to 65 year olds. It measured "Literacy, Numeracy and Problem Solving Skills in Technology-rich Environments". They are considered "information-processing skills", "key cognitive and workplace skills needed for individuals to participate in society and for economies to prosper." The questions could be answered via computer or with pen and paper. 5,000 individuals were interviewed at home in each participating country.

This is the first international survey on the subject, the first one digging into LLL from an adult (16-65) learning perspective. The first results were released in October 2013.

                                          PIAAC: Some results
PIAAC provides insights into how these "information-processing" skills are developed and used at work and at home. Below a concise summary of some of these results:

▸ LITERACY AND NUMERACY skills are low in most countries.

▸ INITIAL + CONTINUING OPPORTUNITIES There appears to be a combination of poor initial education and lack of opportunities to further improve skills.

▸ AGE In general, older adults have lower proficiency in the three domains than younger ones (the peak is around 30 years of age). This is especially true in relation to modern technology. The extent of the gap between generations varies considerably among countries.

▸ GENDER differences are there (men have higher scores in numeracy and problem solving in technology‑rich environments than women), but the gap is not large and is very small among younger adults.

▸ LANGUAGE is a major barrier affecting the immigrant population, especially in the literacy domain.

▸ ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL WELL BEING is positively related to higher skills levels.

▸ WORK has major influence on skills use and development.

▸ FORMAL EDUCATION On average, adults with tertiary‑level qualifications have a 36 score‑point advantage – the equivalent of 5 years of schooling – over adults who have not completed upper secondary education. However,  levels and qualifications are not necessarily linked to skills proficiency.
Source: OECD Interactive Charts  OECD Skills Outlook 2013

Literacy and numeracy continue to be the most important and critical skills (all ages)

For the purpose of the Survey of Adult Skills, PIAAC defines Literacy and Numeracy as follows:

Literacy is the ability to understand, evaluate, use and engage with written texts, to participate in society, to achieve one's goals, and to develop one's knowledge and potential. Literacy encompasses a range of skills from the decoding of written words and sentences to the comprehension, interpretation and evaluation of complex texts. It does not, however, involve the production of text.

Numeracy is the ability to access, use, interpret and communicate mathematical information and ideas in order to engage in and manage the mathematical demands of a wide range of situations in adult life. To this end, numeracy involves managing a situation or solving a problem in a real context by responding to mathematical content represented in multiple ways.
Source: OECD Interactive Charts

Historically, literacy and numeracy are at the heart of the school system and of the mission of primary education in particular. Reading, writing and dealing with mathematical problems, continue to be at the top of any list of "21st century skills". However, literacy and numeracy skills continue to be problematic for a large part of the schooled population, be it children, youth or adults, in both "developed" and "developing" countries.

This is what PISA and PIAAC reveal, as well as many other research and evaluation reports throughout the world. Formal education is doing a poor job in this field. This is not new. The situation has been identified and exposed for a long time now.
▸ After completing 4 years of primary school, 130 million children worldwide cannot read and write (Education for All - EFA Report 2012)

▸ "In most countries, there are significant proportions of adults who score at lower levels of proficiency on the literacy and numeracy scales" (...) "Even among adults with computer skills, most scored at the lowest level of the problem solving in technology‑rich environments scale."
(PIAAC 2013)
(See: Rosa María Torres, El fracaso alfabetizador de la escuela | ¿Renuncia a un mundo alfabetizado?)

What does it mean transforming formal education from a LLL perspective?

Among others:

■ A unitary, articulated formal education system  
In many countries, the formal education system is segmented in two or more systems - education and higher education, or initial/preschool education, education, and higher education - in charge of different government bodies (Family, Social Wellbeing, Education, Technical Education, Training, Higher Education, etc.). with little or no co-ordination between them. A major challenge is thus viewing and organizing formal education as a continuum, as a teaching and learning system articulated in all dimensions: administrative and normative issues, curriculum, pedagogy, learning spaces, teacher education, etc. 

■ Placing learning at the centre
Moving from access to learning,
from student to learner,
from studying to learning,
from approving to learning,
from education for all to learning for all,
from lifelong education to lifelong learning.

■ Acknowledging learners’ and teachers' previous knowledge and experience
Acknowledging learners' (children, youth, adults) and teachers’ previous and out-of-school information, knowledge and experience and adopting it as a key pedagogical principle at all levels.

■ Rethinking TIME for education and learning purposes 
The school system is always in a rush, trying to add and cover as much content as possible, with the "next level" as the desirable and visible horizon. A LLL perspective of learning allows moving back and forth, seing beyond the next level and back to the previous level, and outside the school system. Learning requires time.
(See: Rosa María Torres, ¿Más de lo mismo? Un sistema escolar que se estira | Repensar los tiempos escolares)

■ Rethinking SPACE for education and learning purposes 
The school system is one of many education and learning systems. Learning is ubiquitous. Rather than trying to assume total responsibility and control over learning, counting with families as the only "outside partners", school systems and teachers have a critical role in visualizing community and out-of-school learning realities and possibilities, and identifying the role of the community as a learning community.
(See: Rosa María Torres, Comunidad de Aprendizaje: Educación, territorio y aprendizaje comunitario)

■ Rethinking AGE within the right to education and to learning (education and learning for ALL)
Radically rethinking the traditional vision of AGE for schooling, education and learning purposes.
- Learning does not begin with the first day of school. Learning begins at birth (and even before birth). Early childhood is the most important learning period and experience in the life of any individual. When children get to school they are competent speakers of their language, they have learned and know many things. This knowledge must not be denied but rather be assumed as the starting point for the school experience.
- Revisiting concepts such as 'school age' and 'over-age'.
- Promoting (rather than inhibiting) peer-to-peer learning and inter-generational learning.
- Acknowledging adult education as part of the right to education and of the learning continuum.
- Children's right to education must include the right to educated parents.
(See: Rosa María Torres, Pre-niños (los cimientos invisibles) | Children's right to basic education | Educar a los niños o a los adultos: falso dilema | Los niños como educadores de adultos | Kazi, el sin gracia | Kazi, The Graceless | Child learning and adult learning revisited)

■ Connecting school and out-of-school learning systems
Connecting the school system to the multiple learning systems operating out of school: home, community, media, play, work, religion, social and civic participation, etc.

■ Education centres and community learning centres and learning communities
Thinking education centres as community learning centres and learning communities (inter-generational, family-centred, learning-oriented).


A LLL perspective of literacy acquisition, use and development

When and where do we learn to read and write? Where do we read and write? Where do we develop our reading and writing skills?

The answer is: FROM BIRTH and EVERYWHERE.
- When children reach school, they have valid knowledge about reading and writing, they have developed their own hypotheses about their use by seing others read or write and by seing reading and writing materials around them.
- The school system is not the only one in charge of teaching and developing literacy skills. Moreover, within the school system, literacy education is embedded in the entire curriculum, not just in one particular subject.

Finland is a fine example in this regard: the whole society places great importance on reading and enjoys reading. Reading is a national hobby. Reading and writing are given great emphasis in the school curriculum. Families use libraries over the weekend; libraries are spread everywhere. Newspaper subscription is one of the highest in the world.

Given that literacy is often the main reason for school repetition in early grades, a wider vision of literacy acquisition would allow to understand it not as an objective for the first or two first grades but at least for the whole of basic education.
(See: Rosa María Torres, El absurdo de la repetición escolar)

Literacy, and reading specifically, require LLL policies and strategies, prior to and far beyond the school system, not tied to any particular Ministry (typically, Education and/or Culture), making use of all available and potential resources, from the local to the national level.

A schooled society is not necessarily an educated society. An educated society is a learning society. Proficient reading and writing are essential to an educated and a learning society.  
(See: Rosa María Torres, Escolarizado no es lo mismo que educado).

A LLL perspective of teacher education 

Teachers’ school biography and family background are key elements in teacher quality. Teacher education does not start with professional education. Quality formal education requires quality teachers, but quality teachers are educated in quality schools. School reform is thus a requisite for quality teacher education.
(See: Rosa María Torres, Los maestros son exalumnos | Talleres de lectura para maestros)

A LLL perspective of skills development

PIAAC confirms that "actual skills often differ from what formal education qualifications suggest".
▸ "Italy or the United States rank much higher internationally in the share of adults with tertiary degrees than in the level of literacy or numeracy proficiency".

▸ "On average, Japanese and Ducth high school graduates easily outperform university graduates in some other countries".
▸ "In many countries, there are large proportions of the population that have no experience with, or lack the basic skills needed to use ICTs for many everyday tasks".  (PIAAC 2013)
Answers to the question: Where are skills developed, used and eventually lost? include formal, non-formal and informal learning, and especially the role of home, school and work.

A LLL perspective of school "dropout" 

School "dropout" is generally not a personal decision but rather a sign of system disfunction. It is not a sudden fact, but a process. A process that starts in the early grades of primary school and even before, in early childhood and pre-school education. The school system gives students and their families permanent signs that things are going fine or wrong. Problems are viewed as "learning problems", "learners' problems", "individual problems", rarely as "teaching problems" and "system problems". Policies and programmes often see their mission as "reducing school failure" rather than "ensuring school success". Failure becomes the expected outcome, much more than success, especially if students come from poor and disadvantaged contexts. Nothing is more successful than success. If children are trusted, if high expectations are deposited in them, they will succeed. From the start. This is the best way to "prevent failure" and "reduce dropout".
(See: Preventing Dropout Effort Starts in Kindergarten, MindShift, Dec. 1, 2010).

A LLL perspective of family cultural environment and inter-generational learning

All studies and evaluations of school learning achievement conclude on the critical role of out-of-school factors and especially of the family, not only its socio-economic but also its cultural status and background. Literate/educated mothers and fathers, and a culturally rich and stimulating family environment, make a big difference in children's learning and performance in school. And yet, disregarding all scientific and empirical evidence, adult education continues to be treated with ad-hoc remedial policies, often reduced to adult literacy. A LLL perspective would imply an inter-generational approach to children's and adults' learning, address the family as a whole - family literacy, family education, family cultural development.
(See: Rosa María Torres, Niños que trabajan y estudian: Centro del Muchacho Trabajador, Ecuador)

A LLL perspective of "human talent"

Increasingly, the notion of "human talent" gets to be associated with formal education and, specifically, with higher education, science and technology. However: a) every person has talent(s), b) human talent is developed since early childhood, c) there is no necessary correlation between talent and titles. A LLL perspective of human talent development takes all this into account, for investment and pedagogical purposes.

Transforming formal education from a LLL perspective: a major 21st century challenge

Given the importance of the school system as a systematic teaching and learning system for children, youth and adults, one that is spread throughout the world and that is critical to fulfilling the right to education, transforming formal education from a LLL perspective is essential to make LLL an effective new education and learning paradigm, to organize learning communities, and to build learning societies.

This implies an authentic revolution, not just introducing innovations, reforming or "improving the quality of education". It requires scientific knowledge but also people's wisdom and lots of common sense. Political will - top-down and bottom-up - is essential, but so are creativity and imagination!

Març Rabal

Related texts in this blog (English)
Rosa María Torres, On LifeLong Learning Sobre Aprendizaje a lo Largo de la Vida (compilation)
Rosa María Torres, Sobre Lectura y EscrituraOn Reading and Writing  (compilation)
Rosa María Torres and Manzoor Ahmed, Reaching the Unreached: Non-Formal Approaches and Universal Primary Education (dossier)
Rosa María Torres, Lifelong Learning in the South: Critical issues and opportunities for adult education, Sida Studies No 2, Stockholm, 2004 (book, PDF) 


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