It’s all about the kids: Bringing Colombia’s Escuela Neuva approach to Zambian classrooms

December 14, 2015John Patch

I recently returned from a visit to a Camfed project in Zambia funded by the Girls’ Education Challenge: “Child-centred schooling: Innovation for the improvement of learning outcomes for marginalised girls in Zambia”.

In this project, Camfed are providing support to girls through Help Desks which provide a range of child protection activities, and Safety Net Funds, which provide targeted in-kind support to the most vulnerable children, identified by members of the community.

The project is also implementing the Escuela Nueva model in 90 schools in partnership with the Fundacion Escuela Nueva (FEN), which has been running this model for 27 years in Colombia. It is an exciting innovation, adapting this model to the Zambian context, and it was this that I particularly came to explore, to see what progress has been made so far and what we can learn from this.

My initial interest in this was as a model for teacher training, but for anyone that knows about Escuela Nueva, it is much more than this. It is an integrated approach, which includes provision of well-structured Learner Guides. These are supplementary books, aligned to the curriculum, which help teachers use a student-centred approach and help students with their own self-directed learning. The approach puts a lot of emphasis on:

  • children’s participation in the class
  • helping the teacher to develop learning materials from local resources
  • establishing Learning Corners for different subject areas
  • establishing elected Student Governments (in class and for the school)
  • engaging parents more in their children’s learning.

Ambitious stuff - and at the core is a real mission to build children’s self-confidence and their ability to take control of their own learning and development.

So is it working? Well, for the results we await midline and endline studies and various qualitative analyses. But from this visit to the field, I had the chance to spend time with Camfed’s highly committed district team and get out to schools, observe classes, speak to teachers, children, parents and others. What I can say is that I too rarely go into classrooms that feel this vibrant, with so much of interest on the walls; maps, charts, the work of children in the class, local objects. I even saw some local animals (dead fish, frogs and a snake!), collected by the children for examination and discussion in a science class. During the classes, teachers organised learners in groups, to discuss and work together, and get all involved in speaking and giving short presentations and feedback. Some lively discussions took place in one class around whether snakes incubate their eggs and whether all frogs lay their eggs in water.

Everyone I spoke to tells me that it was not like this before. So, without taking a scientific sample, I can say that what I saw in these schools represents positive and probably significant change. The teachers I spoke to seemed genuinely motivated by the way it has changed their students’ engagement. Some of the other classrooms in the same schools, but whose teachers have not had the training, do not look the same - although some are now copying the approach.

However, I also saw a big challenge in the context in which this work takes place. Most of the classes I saw were taking place in Bemba (the local language), when in fact the medium of instruction from Grade 5 is English. Zambia is grappling with a reform a few years old to teach from Grade 1 – 4 in the local language (there are seven main languages in Zambia), and to transition to English at Grade 5, with English introduced as a subject at the end of Grade 2.  There is much debate about these language policies around Africa, and how to implement them, but on balance it seems about right for Zambia. However, there are some big challenges in implementing this. Many children are not getting the basic literacy in their mother tongue, which in turn makes learning English harder. The teachers I saw are trying their best, and the new approach may even help in some ways, but there is no getting away from the enormity of this challenge and how children are struggling at the higher primary grades to keep up with the curriculum. I can’t help thinking some radical measures are needed, measures that don’t wait until this group of kids have left the system, dropped out or moved on to secondary schools without the necessary skills.

Despite this, I came home feeling very positive about the work of this project and the innovations they are testing. Change is taking place and teachers and students seem happy and motivated by this. There are systems in place for teachers to support each other and hopefully they can sustain the changes, even though there will be challenges along the way. At some point Camfed will formally present results of this to the Zambian Government, and we will see then how this can influence change more broadly. There will need to be honest reflection on what has worked and not worked, drawing from the significant data and evidence being established in coming years. The project team has worked to adapt this model to the Zambian context and continues to think about this. Perhaps they will end up giving it a Zambian name, or just the English, New Schools, which some of the stakeholders already use. Perhaps it does not need a name.  

Of course, this is the Girls’ Education Challenge, and while this intervention benefits boys and girls equally, I found myself considering the specific benefits to girls.  From the discussions I had and observations of classes, there is some basis to think that girls are given an equal status in class and in the life of the school through the establishment of School Governments. In the rural context in which this is happening, this may be an important development, where girls are expected not to be assertive. From what I saw, girls participated equally in class discussions, boys and girls sat together, and took equal responsibilities. Perhaps most impressive was the 12 year old girl from Grade 7 I met in one school who is President of that school’s Student Government, and highly articulate about what they have done and the way they have helped each other. In some cases they have reported teacher behaviour to the Head Teacher and mediated on issues such as severity of punishment for children who have misbehaved. She told me her intention is to be President of the country one day; we can only hope she gets there.

John Patch is an education specialist on the Girls’ Education Challenge (GEC). He has worked on education policy and programmes for 20 years, with development agencies including UNICEF, AusAID, the European Union and other organisations. John joined the GEC in 2013 and has been supporting project work across Southern Africa and Asia, as well as Strategic Partnerships with the private sector.

Photo Credit: Jessica Lea/Department for International Development

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