Redefining the Educational Form: Peace Education through Escuela Nueva

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Matthias Rüst

Consultant for Peace Education at Fundación Escuela Nueva, Colombia
(Featured article: Issue #96 July 2012)

escuela1In his article The Substance of Peace Education, Magnus Haavelsrud makes a case to analyze peace education through the lenses of three major components: form (pedagogy), content and structure. Introducing and relating the three components to each other, he suggests that “some peace educators seem to judge only one or two of the three components as important. Thus, it is not difficult to find peace education projects which are restricted to a change in the content of education.”

The 2011 report “Peace Education: State of the Field and Lessons Learned from USIP Grantmaking“ by the United States Institute for Peace (which was discussed in issue #89 of the GCPE newsletter) seems to follow the same argument. After an introduction defining the general field as such, the three ensuing sections entitled Developing Instructional Content, Preparing a New Cadre of Peace Educators and Mainstreaming Peace Education visibly refer to the different dynamics and challenges encountered in terms of content, form and structure, respectively. There seems to be a consensus in analysis that the elaboration of instructional content, apparently the least difficult intervention, has been widely predominant, and that the further development of the field of peace education must go hand in hand with a stronger focus on educational form and organizational structure.

The case of the Escuela Nueva pedagogical model from Colombia is of great interest here. It is not a peace education initiative or project, and actually the term itself has probably not been sufficiently made explicit in its 35 years of existence. Instead, the Escuela Nueva model is a thorough pedagogical reform inspired by the international New School Movement that was designed in 1976 to provide complete primary education as well as increase the quality, equity, and effectiveness of rural Colombian schools.

This pedagogical model is not just like any other initiative that seeks to provide quality education for all. Instead, Escuela Nueva stands out due to a series of significant methodological shifts and innovations. The character of these innovations indicates that, from its beginning, the Escuela Nueva model sought to not only improve but also humanize education, and through this, to humanize society at large and contribute to building a Culture of Peace.

However, instead of “entering” peace education from the content component like many other initiatives, Escuela Nueva’s main pedagogical innovation is a radical redefinition of the educational form, supported by a significantly more peace-enhancing organizational structure. It advocates and implements a participatory methodology that fully transforms the learning process and classroom interaction. The following highly interdependent principles and tools explain the essence of this approach:

Cooperative learning and active, social construction of knowledge: Active, participatory, personalized and cooperative learning in small groups is the centerpiece of the Escuela Nueva methodology. Learning guides, designed and structured to promote dialogue, interaction, as well as individual work, work in pairs and in groups, facilitate the children’s study of the different subjects. There is a focus on the development of processes that helps assure that the knowledge that the students construct is the result of the mental reflection and higher level thinking that has taken place while working on the different group activities. This approach allows the students to participate actively in the acquisition of knowledge, express their own points of view, listen to and respect those of the others, make decisions, develop autonomy and ownership, and discuss and share their knowledge.

Shift in the teacher’s role to guide and facilitate: Collaborative group work and self-paced, child-centered learning requires a new role for the teachers. They are no longer “the source of knowledge” as is the case in conventional schools. Instead, they assume the role of guides and facilitators. This change of role relies, in turn, on the organization of the classroom into small groups and the methodological structure of the guides which foster a learning process based on dialogue and interaction, practice and application. This makes it possible for the student to really be in the center of the educational process and fosters horizontal relationships between the teacher and the students.

Student governments as democracy in practice: Unlike in other educational systems, the student government in the Escuela Nueva model is not merely a representative body; it is a curricular strategy that encourages the students’ affective, social and moral development by means of experiential group activities. The student government carries a lot of responsibility in the management of the daily tasks at school, and solutions for many of the problems, challenges, and difficulties encountered are directly pursued by its diverse committees. In this respect, the student government constitutes a tool for real transformation of school life in the constant search for an ever growing and more sustainable peace and harmony.

These innovations were only possible due to a transformation of teacher training strategies. Without exception, teacher training takes place in participatory workshops that replicate the methodology of the model itself, and their primary objective is to bring about a change of attitude on the part of the teachers. This is shown by the testimony of Carlos Alberto Carmona Lancheros, a teacher in Colombia’s Coffee region: “In my case, I was first teaching in a conventional school, then worked in an office and almost seven years ago started teaching with Escuela Nueva. Today I can say that for no reason I would ever go back to the conventional school model. Using the Escuela Nueva model our work as teachers is truly humane and inclusive. It allows the children to dream of a better world based on their own contributions.”

escuela2Through the direct application of the new pedagogical strategy, an alternative understanding of the educational process and the teachers’ role in it is cultivated among the teachers and the principals. The importance of this approach has also been pointed out in the USIP report mentioned before, affirming that “[p]eace education efforts that are solely focused on creating new textbooks and materials miss the critical aspect of the work, which is to prepare educators who themselves model the values of peace and can create a peaceful classroom. The most successful programs are where the mindset of the teacher and the relationships in the learning community are transformed.”1

The Escuela Nueva model, thus, considers peace education not as an “additional subject” at the periphery of the conventional curriculum. Rather, it unlocks empathy and other social skills, promotes peaceful coexistence and an approach to positive peace through its inherent nature. It takes distance from the conventional school that is based on memorization, authoritarianism, and the transmission of information to foment a focus on child-centered learning. This conception permeates all different elements of Escuela Nueva and is the key to the development of peace-enhancing knowledge, skills, values, attitudes and behavior.

Several national and international studies have highlighted the strong positive impact of Escuela Nueva on generating peaceful and democratic attitudes and behaviors. Most interestingly, this impact is not only sustainable in time with Escuela Nueva alumni participating with a higher probability in various voluntary organizations or collaborating more constructively with local authorities. It also causes a strong positive effect on the students’ families and communities. Intra-familial violence as a way to punish or reprimand children is being reduced, and parents participate more actively in the organization of committees to resolve problems that affect the community. The model has, thus, also proved very effective for peacebuilding at the community level, using the school as “entry point” into communities suffering from high levels of social or even armed conflict.

The model has been adapted by the Fundación Escuela Nueva to fit the needs of diverse population groups in both rural and urban areas, and has been applied with great success in peaceful as well as non-peaceful contexts. As a result, the Escuela Nueva model has impacted national policy in Colombia. It has also acted as an inspirational model for education reforms worldwide and has been visited by more than 40 countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia (see Fundación Escuela Nueva´s website for a list of countries).

Resuming, the Escuela Nueva model yields scientific results not only improving academic achievements, but also generating democratic and peace-enhancing skills, behaviors and attitudes, and has successfully managed to scale up and generate a multiplier effect, both nationally and internationally (to mention only two of the main strategic challenges presented by the USIP report). It incorporates in its design and implementation peace-relevant content, form and structure, thus providing an effective strategy for peace education that successfully addresses the fundamental challenges mentioned in the literature on the subject. The upcoming publication entitled Peace Education in Escuela Nueva will provide many more details about most of the aspects mentioned within this article, especially about the relevant research findings as well as specific success stories in the promotion of a Culture of Peace.

Finally, we have also identified interesting challenges for the development, deepening and expansion of peace education within the Escuela Nueva model. One point refers precisely to the task of making the dimension of peace education more explicit, a long process within which we have only gone some first steps. For this reason Fundación Escuela Nueva seeks to implement several peace education projects, among them a recollection of best practices developed by Escuela Nueva teachers and the elaboration of a peace-focused teacher training tool based on the Escuela Nueva methodology. Beyond that, further research is necessary to identify which elements of Escuela Nueva are the most relevant and effective in contributing to a Culture of Peace. For all these efforts we are actively seeking alliances with other institutions, agencies and international organizations that share our vision and desire to transform education to make it a vehicle for peace and harmony for humankind.

Resources and References:

  • Fundación Escuela Nueva Volvamos a la Gente, Peace Education in Escuela Nueva, by Matthias Rüst, Bogota, Colombia, 2012.
  • HAAVELSRUD, Magnus, The Substance of Peace Education, Department of Education, Norwegian University of Technology and Science, Trondheim, Norway. An earlier version of this paper was published in UNICEF: Development Education School Series, No 6, Geneva, 1979 and in International Educator, Vol 10, No 3, 1995: 29 – 33.
  • USIP, Peace Education: State of the Field and Lessons Learned from USIP Grantmaking, by Mari Fitzduff and Isabella Jean, United States of America, 2011.

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Matthias Rüst is consultant for peace education at Fundación Escuela Nueva in Colombia. He also works as independent trainer and capacity builder in the fields of project management and train-the-trainers, both in peace education as well as in other related domains. Prior to this work, he worked as project assistant at UNESCO’s International Bureau of Education (IBE) in Geneva and as project coordinator with the Swiss Branch of the Service Civil International (SCI), where he elaborated a comprehensive peace education tool-kit for youth associations (accessible online). Please contact him at [email protected].

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