No roads lead to Vaupés, one of the most remote regions in Colombia, deep in the Amazon. The only way there is by river boat or plane. Most who call this region home are Indigenous, with a population density of just .75 people per square kilometer (for comparison’s sake, the density of Los Angeles, CA is 3,206 people per square kilometer).
It’s rural, remote areas like Vaupés that our nonprofit partner, Fundación Escuela Nueva (FEN), focus most of their efforts on. In 1987, this Bogota-based nonprofit began as a grassroots initiative to improve education for students in rural Colombia. In the decades since, its transformative approach to learning has spread to over 18 countries, including Vietnam and Zambia.
Paola the teacher with her students
This summer, a team of FEN pedagogical trainers flew to Vaupés for a week to work with five schools. On field visits like this, the goal is to train teachers on the Escuela Nueva Activa (ENA) model, which totally regimagines learning. We spoke with the trainers and a couple of the teachers involved to learn more about how FEN is reimagining learning.
The FEN Trainers
- Gloria Gilma Jimenez
- Sonia Montaño
- Luz Dary Rojas
The Teachers in Vaupés
- Gaudencio Rodríguez, a teacher at Mituseño - Urania school of kids ages 5-11
- Paola Andrea Botero Londoño at the Timbo - Betania school of kids ages 5-12
Gaudencio and Gloria in a classroom
The “New Active School” Model
As the English translation of its name suggests, the ENA model is a transformative, active approach to learning that repositions the teacher as facilitator, and empowers the student to learn for the sake of learning.
Studies have shown that students who learn this way perform better academically, socially, and emotionally. And during FEN visits like the one to Vaupés, trainers help rural teachers implement this “active, cooperative, personalized, student-centered way of learning,” as trainer Gloria explains.
Since the first FEN training August 2022, Paola is fostering more “cooperative and personalized learning” through dynamic methods “focused on encouraging children to love studying.” She has already seen improvements in her classroom.
So, what does this actually look like? Student government that cultivates leadership and participation. The gamification of learning. Classroom committees that shift responsibility to the kids. Families encouraged to become more involved in their children’s education and learning. And learning that transcends the boundaries of the classroom to take place in nature, or out in the community.
Even after 31 years of teaching, Gaudencio has been open to the knowledge and “valuable instruments” provided by FEN: “That kind of learning style makes students more active and alert and helps them be leaders.”
Understanding First, Training Second
One of the challenges Gloria experienced in Vaupés was working with teachers from different Indigenous communities. This has meant “keeping in mind not only their culture and beliefs but also their way of seeing the world.”
This situation is not unique to Vaupés, however. Sonia Montaño remembers a project with the Indigenous Sikuani and Saliba people in Puerto Gaitán (Meta district). “It was a great challenge because we had to understand their culture, their economic and political organization, and their way of seeing life and making decisions,” says Sonia.
By making an effort to understand the context before starting to train, these communities not only felt the ENA training was valuable, but they also noted “how grateful they were” to the trainers for respecting and valuing their culture, Sonia explains.
Luz agrees that success as a trainer is contingent upon listening closely. She likes to “get to know the needs of teachers in those remote areas to understand their reality.”
Paola and Gloria in front of a school in Vaupés
Teacher Validation & Motivation
For teachers in remote areas cut off from much of the world, staying proud and passionate about their profession can be difficult. So reinforcing the importance and value of teachers, as well as finding ways to boost teacher motivation, is something all three FEN trainers on the Vaupés trip prioritize.
On a visit like the recent one to Vaupés, Luz considers her main goal ”to be able to touch the heartstrings of teachers who are alone in a rural school.” She wants to help them fall in love with their profession again and understand how crucial their job is to the world.
The efforts of these trainers focusing not only on pedagogical models, but on teacher satisfaction and sense of purpose, have paid off. Gaudencio says he immediately felt more dedication to his work as an educator after the FEN training.
“A Teacher of Teachers”
Many of the FEN trainers are former teachers themselves. The team of three who flew to Vaupés have all spent time teaching in rural areas, which may be why they’re so empathetic to the unique challenges that educators face.
Beyond supporting the growth of the teachers she trains, Sonia also wants to grow from the experience herself. Learning from the teachers she works with makes her own work as a trainer more meaningful.
Gloria enjoys a sense of accomplishment as a trainer: “I feel very proud to be a teacher of other teachers. I also feel proud every time I see teachers, students, and parents grateful, committed, and applying the ENA model strategies and tools.”
School by school, FEN is truly reaching the world with its innovative paradigm shift. Not only has FEN documented sharper academic performance with its model, but it’s boosted self-esteem among students, planted the seeds of democratic behavior, and shown children how to coexist peacefully. There’s even evidence that its methodology helps promote gender equity in the classroom.
Whether informing government education policy, or traveling to the rainforest to work with some of the most remote schools on the planet, FEN has demonstrated that its teaching philosophy works. Ultimately, the ENA model isn’t about imposing rules. It’s about eliminating them, freeing the act of teaching from preconceived notions and unnecessary rigors to get both the student and teacher excited about learning.
We’ve partnered with FEN since 2016 on creating lasting change for students in Colombia. We’re proud to support their critical work improving the quality of education and transforming learning paradigms in Colombia, and around the world through our Cotopaxi Foundation. You can learn more or donate here.