STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And I'm Steve Inskeep with the story of a woman who aspired to bring better schools to poor and remote places. She started in Latin America, and her concepts have now spread around the world. She is the latest of our bound breakers - people who break through barriers to change the world. Here's Anya Kamenetz of the NPR Ed Team.
ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: We're inside a little orange schoolhouse among rosebushes and potato fields on a dirt road, 9,000 feet up in the Colombian Andes.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: (Speaking Spanish).
KAMENETZ: A third-grader in a green school uniform and a bright feather mask is reciting a South American folk tale about a diabolical, tobacco-smoking monster called a Mohan. In a world in which many schools in poorer rural areas offer little more than rote call and response, this moment is remarkable.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: (Speaking Spanish).
KAMENETZ: This little girl is learning about her culture. She's practicing performance skills and how to share a stage with others. The school is called Escuela Rosal. It's one of tens of thousands that follow a model called a Escuela Nueva, or new school. And we've ridden up here in the mountains with the woman who created these schools, Vicky Colbert. She founded Escuela Nueva back in 1975 with an incredibly ambitious goal.
VICKY COLBERT: That if we do not have quality basic education, nothing will be achieved in any country in the world.
KAMENETZ: Vicky got her master's in sociology at Stanford in the early 1970s. Then she returned here to Colombia, her home country, and got a job in the education ministry.
COLBERT: You make a social revolution, which was not the way I was looking forward, or you make a silent revolution, which is through education.
KAMENETZ: In 1970s Colombia, revolution wasn't an abstract notion. The M-19 guerrilla movement and the Medellin drug cartel were just starting up, and the violence back and forth went on for decades. The day we visit Escuela Rosal, it's like six different classes are going on at once inside this little, one-room schoolhouse. The children sit around tables - a tiny one for the 4-year-olds, up to the tallest one for the 10-year-olds. And the cool thing to me was what we didn't see - no teacher standing up in front of the class and yammering on, no call and response.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: (Speaking Spanish).
KAMENETZ: Instead, each student was following something called a learning guide. It's a big part of the Escuela Nueva model.
COLBERT: That sort of summarizes and synthesizes our concept of textbook, workbook and the guide of the teacher all in one.
KAMENETZ: The learning guides are a really simple tool for enabling each kid to work at his or her own pace. On each page is an illustrated story, a lesson, open-ended questions and both an in-class and a take-home activity. That last part was one of Vicki's most powerful ideas. At Escuela Nueva, homework becomes a tool to transform communities. The lessons cover what Vicky calls child survival behaviors.
COLBERT: Vaccination, how to handle diarrhea, how they can differentiate between a simple cold and respiratory infection, breastfeeding, basic aspects of nutrition.
KAMENETZ: OK, so already you're thinking just because I run the school, I'm not just responsible for the children learning reading and math. But I can use the school systemically...
COLBERT: Oh, definitely. Instead of reading which is the longest river of Egypt, you know, how could I help my siblings not die of diarrhea? It was, you know, just common sense.
KAMENETZ: Vicky will be the first to tell you the Escuela Nueva adapts many well-known elements of progressive education. It's like a Montessori school. It's child-centered, practical with a focus on the arts and independent learning. But she pulled all of this off in poor villages with teachers who may be barely trained with the cheapest possible materials and with a broader social mission.
COLBERT: Children can become agents of change but also involve their parents in the learning process.
KAMENETZ: Since the early 1980s, this model has reached an estimated 5 million children both through governments and nonprofit organizations. It's in 17 Latin American countries and lately as far away as Zambia and Vietnam. They've adapted the model to cities, and there are plans to come to the U.K. and maybe even to the United States. Attendance is better than at typical rural schools. There's less repeating of grades, better behavior, higher reading and math scores. And there's also research showing that the more a school follows this model, the more you see an increase in behaviors like cooperation. That social and emotional dimension is key to Maria Isabel Camargo Guio, the teacher we meet at Escuela Rosal.
What do you love about this method? Why do you want to teach that - in this method?
MARIA ISABEL CAMARGO GUIO: (Speaking Spanish).
KAMENETZ: She says, what she likes the most is that the children are living out the concept of kindness. One word they use a lot here is convivencia; it means the art of living together. Increasingly, experts are saying this is what schools need to be teaching right now in the age of automation. We need cooperation, collaboration, along with creativity and socially engaged independent learning. Twenty-first century skills, they're all right here. I love the friendship wall in the classroom where students leave each other encouraging notes.
This is a letter from Laura addressed to her friend Natalie, and she says dear Natalie, I love you because you're my best friend and you play with me. And I hope that you take a good shower (laughter) and hopefully you can have better handwriting, too. Thank you for everything.
And remember, Vicky wanted to promote peace and democracy. Here even the smallest kids take a leadership role. As the class gets ready for recess, one committee of students cleans up. Another's in charge of deciding what game to play. Today, soccer.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN PLAYING)
KAMENETZ: I went home thinking I want my kid to go to a school like this, to be empowered and motivated and be having fun.
COLBERT: Like the story of Cinderella. You know, we started with the poorest of the poor. And then at the end you say, oh, my God, this is cutting edge pedagogy. Everybody's talking about it.
KAMENETZ: So that's how this model Vicky Colbert developed in Colombia 40 years ago may help students all over the world meet the challenges of the future. Anya Kamenetz, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.