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David Kirp, author of several major books on early childhood education, a model school district, and several other topics, describes a noteworthy educational innovation (everything old is new again):
“These students are grouped at tables, each corresponding to a grade level. The hum of conversation fills the room. After tackling an assignment on their own, the students review one another’s work. If a child is struggling, the others pitch in to help.
“During my visit to one of these schools, second graders were writing short stories, and fifth graders were testing whether the color of light affects its brightness when seen through water. The teacher moved among the groups, leaning over shoulders, reading and commenting on their work. In one corner of the classroom were items, brought to school by the kids, that will be incorporated in their lessons. The students have planted a sizable garden, and the vegetables and fruits they raise are used as staples at mealtime, often prepared according to their parents’ recipes.”
Was he visiting an expensive, elite private school in New York City or Boston or the District of Columbia?
No, he was describing an experimental school in Colombia that is experiencing great success and has been widely replicated:
“During the past four decades, this school — and thousands like it — have adopted what’s called the Escuela Nueva (New School) model….
“Escuela Nueva is almost unknown in the United States, even though it has won numerous international awards — the hyper-energetic Vicky Colbert, who founded the program in 1975 and still runs it, received the first Clinton Global Citizenship prize. That should change, for this is how children — not just poor children — ought to be educated….
“Decades ago, John Dewey, America’s foremost education philosopher, asserted that students learned best through experience and that democracy “cannot go forward unless the intelligence of the mass of people is educated to understand the social realities of their own time.” Escuela Nueva puts that belief into practice. I’ve witnessed the demise of many ballyhooed attempts to reform education on a mass scale. But I’ve tabled my jaded skepticism after visiting Escuela Nueva schools, reviewing the research and marveling at the sheer number of youngsters who, over 40 years, have been educated this way.
“I’m convinced that the model can have a global impact on the lives of tens of millions of children — not just in the developing world but in the United States as well.
“There’s solid evidence that American students do well when they are encouraged to think for themselves and expected to collaborate with one another. In a report last year, the American Institutes for Research concluded that students who attended so-called deeper learning high schools — which emphasize understanding, not just memorizing, academic content; applying that understanding to novel problems and situations; and developing interpersonal skills and self-control — recorded higher test scores, were more likely to enroll in college and were more adept at collaboration than their peers in conventional schools.”