As part of a symposium focused on educational innovation around the world at the annual conference of the American Educational Assocation in Chicago next week, we are sharing commentary papers from the participants. Today’s contribution is from Santiago Rincón-Gallardo, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.
The Learning Community Project (LCP) in Mexico and Escuela Nueva in Colombia are examples of effective instructional innovation at scale. When I talk about instructional innovation I refer to pedagogical principles and practices that deliberately disrupt the traditional instructional culture and power relations of schooling. More specifically, an instructional innovation is one that radically redefines the instructional core by deliberately shifting the relationships between teachers and students in the presence of content.
Learning Community Project (LCP)
In the LCP, for example, students select their topics of study from the available collection of topics mastered by a tutor in the group, they develop individual lines of inquiry at their own pace, and are expected to demonstrate their learning in writing and in public presentations to the group and often to the larger community. Once they master a topic, they are expected to become tutors to other students – and even to adults in the group. The boundary between teachers and students becomes blurry, with teachers becoming students and students becoming teachers depending on who masters a particular topic and who is interested in learning it. Tutorial relationships are the key technology to encourage deep learning in these learning communities: the tutor and tutee engage in one-on-one dialogue to make evident what the tutee already knows about a topic, identify areas of struggle, and to crafts questions or point to additional materials so that the the tutee t can come up with her own answers.
Escuela Nueva in Colombia transforms the conventional culture and structure of schooling into a learner-centered participatory model with a flexible promotion mechanism that allows students to move from one grade to another and complete academic units at their own pace. In these multi-grade schools, children work individually and in small groups using learning guides that are by design interactive and dialogue-based as well as learning materials available whenever needed in a “Learning Corner.” Students help each other when they struggle, and ask the teacher for suggestions or comments when necessary. Individual mastery and cooperation are seamlessly integrated into every classroom activity. Teachers constantly move from group to group, tailoring their one-on-one and group interventions to the emerging needs in the classroom. Community participation and a student school government are integrated in the everyday activities of the school, offering multiple opportunities to practice and master democratic behaviors and values.
Innovation, effectiveness, and spread
These are examples of instructional innovation in action. They have radically redefined the instructional core. But innovation per se is meaningless if it doesn’t deepen and improve student learning. Both the LCP and Escuela Nueva have demonstrated significant improvements in student performance on national standardized tests, even though standardized tests have not been their area of focus. Learning Community schools increased in 3 years the percentage of students achieving good and excellent levels in language and math at a faster pace than the national average (DGDGIE, 2012), whereas in the 1990s Escuela Nueva students – mostly from rural schools – consistently outperformed their better-off counterparts in urban schools (Psacharopoulos, Rojas & Velez 1992).
And maybe more importantly, these two models, have spread from a handful to thousands of schools at some point in time. In 2012, LCP model was operating in 9000 public schools across Mexico. In the 1980s, Escuela Nueva had been adopted as national policy and reached 20,000 rural schools in Colombia. These initiatives are similar in their genesis and development to social movements. Upon witnessing powerful learning themselves and observing clear improvements in the learning and engagement of their students, teachers and local educational authorities have mobilized in coordination with project leaders to activate social networks, spread interest and gain support. Leaders of both projects have been able to gain access to institutional power and political influence to disseminate the new pedagogies on a large scale. Dalila López and Gabriel Cámara, historical leaders of the LCP were invited in 2009 to the Department of Innovation at the Mexican Ministry of Education and once there brought in several project leaders to her team. Vicky Colbert, co-founder of Escuela Nueva, was Deputy Minister of Education in Colombia when Escuela Nueva was adopted as a national policy, she also brought to her team teacher leaders with strong experience on instructional innovation. Once in power, these two guiding coalitions developed a progressive partnership between policy and practice, rather than the conventional top-down separation that has characterized education policy in Latin America and abroad . Across the system, project participants, regardless of their formal role in the institution, were expected to practice and model the new pedagogies on a regular basis.
Conditions and challenges for innovation and spread
Here are, in a nutshell 5 key conditions that were created to enable the large-scale dissemination of the new pedagogies advanced through the LCP and Escuela Nueva.
1) developing a new pedagogy that allows teachers to experience powerful learning themselves and to witness observable improvements in the knowledge, skills and attitudes of their students as a result of changing their practice
2) creating access to multiple opportunities to observe, practice, and refine the new pedagogy (e.g., classroom-based coaching, communities of practice, and school visits/exchanges);
3) gaining the support or permission from local educational authorities to depart from conventional schooling practices
4) starting at the margins of the educational system, where the needs are greatest and the presence of institutional controls over the everyday activities of schools is weaker. This offers tremendous opportunities to radically depart from conventional practice
5) creating a guiding coalition of pedagogical change leaders with access to institutional power and political support to protect and expand the influence of the innovation
A key limitation to the large-scale instructional innovation approach just presented is that it is subject to marginalization or disappearance from the policy arena when there are drastic shifts in the political agenda. This has been the case in both the LCP and Escuela Nueva. At the pinnacle of their success, changes in administration and in system priorities resulted in the departure of the national leadership of these projects from their respective Ministries of Education.
Bureaucratization, ritualization or mechanization of the original model is also a risk when the innovation is brought to scale too quickly, a phenomenon that has been observed in the two cases in question. In both cases, the work to sustain the movements of pedagogical change spurred by these projects and to ensure quality of their core pedagogical practices has continued through NGOs formed by the former leaders of LCP and Escuela Nueva. As is often the case with social movements, their visibility may be reduced for now, but they continue to cultivate a movement that is radically redefining teaching and learning in public schools. In this new phase, the model of dissemination at scale will have to rely more on the power of effective networks to consolidate and spread the new pedagogies reliably and at scale than on formal access to institutional power.