Attempting change from within: Student-centered learning in Mexico

Is it possible to radically challenge education systems and alter them from inside those systems? That’s exactly what Delila López, director of community education and social inclusion for the National Council for Educational Development (CONAFE) says her organization is trying to do throughout Mexico.  Santiago Rincón-Gallardo discussed some of this work in an IEN interview  in 2014. In that interview, Rincón-Gallardo focused on the Learning Communities Project, which provides radically student-centered learning to students in rural Mexico.  This post takes a deeper look at the CONAFE organization. Drawing on an interview conducted with López and two of her colleagues, Gabriel Camara and Ernesto Ponce, we describe some of the history of CONAFE as well as their new program, Aprender con Base en la Comprension y el Dialogo (ABCD, or Learning Based on Dialogue and Understanding) that launched in July 2016.

Since 1971, the CONAFE has been dedicated to community education.  Due to its success, CONAFE has become part of Mexico’s ministry of education (called SEP), but operates semi-autonomously. Working from preschool through secondary school, they offer schools and programs for indigenous students and students who would not otherwise have access to schools throughout Mexico. In the process, CONAFE fits into Mexico’s overall education system by offering access to school in communities that SEP does not have the capacity to reach. Yet, CONAFE is more than a simple extension of SEP that provides access to schools in rural areas.

CONAFE’s central mission is to create community schools run by communities. To do so, they have developed a specific approach and recognizable model for schooling. Using this approach and model, CONAFE has reached hundreds of communities and created 9000 schools throughout Mexico, including 35 telesecundarias (distance learning schools). While CONAFE is now present throughout Mexico, Camara describes the push for this model of education as something that has developed little by little over the course of decades.

The CONAFE model is a loose structure of schools based on community engagement. In addition to starting new schools in indigenous communities, these schools reflect a pedagogical model deeply linked to the community in which the school exists. The CONAFE offers curricular materials and support such as Spanish language textbooks, but the organization’s design is to build schools that the community ultimately owns and directs. Furthermore, curriculum emerges based on students’ interests in subjects and themes.

This model may appear simple but it is also radically different than the dominant education model in Mexico. Given its intention to create schools that are spaces run by local communities, CONAFE takes steps to ensure that local cultural practices and beliefs drive the school’s structure. For instance, teachers must be able to teach in students’ first language, which is often an indigenous language. Deeply influenced by the work of Paulo Freire (in fact, Camara was a student of Freire), curriculum emerges through dialogue, problem-posing, investigation, and research. CONAFE schools may use some materials provided by SEP, but CONAFE schools have not traditionally used a set curriculum package. Instead, students and teachers are encouraged to use their interests to create and pursue learning experiences. In this way, CONAFE schools share much with approaches such as Colombia’s Escuela Nueva, but deviate from these initiatives in the individualizing approach of each school and each student’s experience.

While guided by these principles, CONAFE is not exclusively a cultural learning experience for students and community members. CONAFE presents specific organizational objectives of improving education levels and commitments to schooling from children and families in each community in which it works. A World Bank study found that the CONAFE improves outcomes in “traditional” measures such as primary school math schools and secondary school Spanish language scores on standardized tests. Furthermore, the organization aims to create conditions that allow students to undertake rigorous academic projects (or “journeys” to use Dr. López’s words) based on everyday problems they notice in their communities and schools. While we spoke of many ways in which CONAFE pursues these objectives, one particularly compelling example is its teacher education scholarship and program.

Some students in secondary CONAFE schools are eligible to become instructors in their or other CONAFE schools. Once they complete their secondary school, these teachers receive scholarships to go to a community to live and learn with that community while also learning how to teach. The scholarships typically cover 1 to 2 years of living in a community while training to teach. Dr. López points out that beyond the direct impact on these communities, the program also creates a way for students to continue their education after finishing secondary school. This program closely aligns with the CONAFE’s notion of reciprocal learning, where students, teachers, and communities in general all learn from and teach each other.

In addition to this type of initiative, CONAFE has just launched a new initiative for their schools. This approach extends CONAFE’s work by introducing a more explicit pedagogical model and approach to evaluation that aims to directly impact student learning outcomes. Learning Based in Understanding and Dialogue (Aprender con Base en la Comprension y el Dialogo, or ABCD, in Spanish) encourages children to be autonomous participants that develop their community and understand the broader, global community. ABCD stays true to CONAFE’s focus on increasing school access to those who might not otherwise have access to schools. The model also maintains CONAFE’s community-based approach, where those in the community own and direct the school’s structure and identity. Where ABCD extends previous work is in an explicit focus on building quality learning experiences that lead to more evident student learning outcomes. López provides an example of how ABCD intends to function. When a student demonstrates knowledge or understanding of a theme, a teacher acting as a facilitator asks this student to share their learning and process with other students. Through students developing interests in learning themes and teaching each other through dialogue and collaboration, López suggests that the school’s culture positively develops as well.

As the organization continues to grow with more schools and new programs, the CONAFE has expanded its presence throughout Mexico. With projects like ABCD program, they are also strengthening the work they do in existing schools. The CONAFE program of working within the existing education system might appear daunting. Yet, with thousands of schools, teachers, and students visibly engaged in problem-posing education and community-based education, it is difficult to deny the impact of the CONAFE approach.

One response to “Attempting change from within: Student-centered learning in Mexico

  1. I totally think its possible to change them. The number one goal with my students is engagement. Its easy for instructors to throw lesson plans at students expecting them to succeed, but I think that its when we really “engage” them and get their feedback/input that we are able to adapt good curriculum that best benefits them. Good post.

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