Scaling Innovation: The Escuela Nueva Story

This story is a case study in a forthcoming book on systemic design. Help me out by adding your feedback below.

The year is 1967. Israel triples in size during its six day war against Egypt, Jordan and Syria. The Beatles release their eighth studio album, Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Imagine you are a 20 year old American Peace Corps volunteer sent to Tibú in Norte de Santander, Colombia on the border with Venezuela. Tibú would be uninhabited jungle if not for its oil, which after creating a boom town, soon dried up. The land was then given to colonos — landless colonists from across the country to try and farm. There is no regional identity, no money, no infrastructure, and no schools. The nearest phone is three and a half hours away.

This is the situation Beryl Levinger found herself in, dropped off by the Peace Corps with basically no instructions and no guidance. Since the only life experience she had was being in school, and education was clearly a problem, Beryl began to work with the local teachers. She encountered teachers who were enthusiastic and receptive to new ideas, but lacking in education themselves and operating in an environment of extreme physical deprivation. It was rare to have paper for the children to write on, let alone books to teach from.

Putting Escuela Unitaria into Practice

As she worked with the local teachers, Beryl started hearing stories of a man, Oscar Mogollón, who ran a demonstration school in Pamplona called “La Unitaria.” The school was sponsored by a new UNESCO program for multigrade education called Escuela Unitaria (Unitary School). Pamplona was also in the department of Norte de Santander, but it was a world away from Tibú: a prosperous town nestled in the cool and fertile East Andean mountains. Pamplona’s entire economy was driven by education, specializing in private boarding schools for wealthy Venezuelans. If you wanted to stage a revolution in education, Pamplona would be the ideal launch pad. Beryl decided to travel to Pamplona and meet this Oscar.

I go and I visit Oscar and he is an incredibly gifted teacher, an amazing teacher who is doing all kinds of things in this school which was at that time the teacher preparation institute. It would be our equivalent of a high school. He himself is a normalista. He has no university credentials but he’s in an incredible teacher. He’s doing this method that involves five grades worth of students in one classroom and he’s actively engaging with all of them. They’ve got this school and he had many, probably 65% — 70% of the trappings of what would make Escuela Nueva look like Escuela Nueva.

In 1961, a UNESCO conference in Geneva among Ministries of Education had launched Escuela Unitaria to meet the unique needs of low density rural populations. Escuela Unitaria was grounded in the century-old philosophy of active learning espoused by Maria Montessori, John Dewey, and Jean-Ovide Decroly, and directly influenced by the pedagogy of Luis Fortunato Iglesias. A gifted young Argentinian teacher assigned to a poor rural school on the outskirts of Buenos Aires as a punishment for outspokenness, Luis served as the school’s only teacher for twenty years. It was here that he developed an active and personalized approach to learning, which he published in 1957 in one of his many books, La Escuela Rural Unitaria.

Oscar’s school received guidance from UNESCO experts, including Luis Iglesias and distinguished Chilean educator Marta Pizarro Véliz. An international colleague of Oscar’s, Professor Richard Kraft, described Oscar’s method as follows:

Oscar was one of those people who “thought outside the box.” I will never forget when I asked him how he successfully got teachers to quit copying from books onto the board, and then having the children copy meaningless words into their notebooks. He said, “It’s easy; all we did was come in with a saw, cut up the blackboards, and give the small pieces to the children, with a piece of chalk. The children should be doing the writing, not the teachers.”

By the time Beryl arrived in Colombia, Escuela Unitaria had on paper expanded to 150 schools. But apart from Oscar’s demonstration school, Beryl’s research (she later wrote her doctoral dissertation on Escuela Nueva) revealed that:

These schools were neither practicing nor approximating the methodology that Oscar had developed in Pamplona. There was no systematic attempt to train rural school teachers who were actually serving in one-teacher schools in these methods. Furthermore, there was no supervisory support for this new methodology given to rural teachers in one-teacher schools.
A key point to note is that Escuela Unitaria training was primarily delivered to normal school [teacher’s college] teachers. However, teachers who held positions in rural schools were not escalafonados, meaning that they weren’t “certified” or trained as teachers. This is the basis of the disjuncture between what existed on paper and on the ground.

The normalistas trained by Oscar were always assigned to urban schools, which already outperformed the rural schools and had over twice the primary education completion rate. The rural schools were staffed by teachers who did not meet certification standards, most of whom had the equivalent of an eighth grade education.

Beryl saw an opportunity to take the UNESCO model and Oscar’s methods and apply them where they were actually intended to go. To try this, Beryl had to find trainers to work with 10 teachers in Tibú. She knew that the normalistas in Oscar’s classes had a military obligation to perform a social service. So she travelled to Cúcuta to meet with the local military commander, Colonel Miguel Vega Uribe.

I introduced myself. I said, “I would like you to give me ten normalistas and I would like you to let me choose them from among people who are studying with Oscar. I will supervise them and I will assign them to a group of ten schools that I will visit at least once a week. Their job is to be in the school and help these teachers adopt this methodology.” Basically, he said, “Sounds good to me. Sure, go ahead.” I’m 20 years old and this guy’s giving me ten soldiers. It’s kind of a ballsy thing to do!

The ten soldados-normalistas would not be the teachers, but rather act as teacher-staff developers.

Beryl now had two years to experiment with Escuela Unitaria in the most underprivileged setting. She learned that the model needed to consider much more than just the student and the teacher. Parents, supervisors, communities, politicians, unions, and companies had diverse and divergent expectations of the education system — and could work as a force for or against change. Second, building the social support system was as important as the new teaching method itself. The soldados-normalistas created the course materials for the teachers and coached them on the approach. Community of practice meetings and workshops helped the teachers to learn from one another and co-create additional materials. For Beryl:

I think the most important thing — the lesson of the entire experience — is by giving teachers who cared an opportunity to learn a system that enabled kids to reach their potential, kids who came from extremely poor backgrounds did really well. I think that’s just extraordinary.

When her two years with the Peace Corps was up, Beryl worked as an educator in U.S. State Department sponsored schools in Honduras and Colombia. In 1974, Beryl moved to Colombia’s capital, Bogota, to work for USAID. It was here that she met Vicky Colbert.

Renaming and Reframing: The Birth of Escuela Nueva

Vicky Colbert was born in Oregon to an American Navy Officer and a Colombian mother, but grew up in Bogota. Her mother was an outstanding educator trained in active school theories who founded several teacher’s colleges in Colombia. Her godfather, Rafael Bernal Jimenez brought the ideas of active pedagogies to Colombia jointly with Decroly. Although Rafael brought the active school movement to Colombia, the elite schools benefitted most from it. Vicky studied sociology at Javeriana Pontifical University, then completed her two Masters from Stanford University, which took a sociological perspective on education. Her ideal was to bring the ideas of active learning to the most vulnerable schools in the country. Upon graduation in 1973, she returned home to work for the Colombian Ministry of Education as the project coordinator for rural schools. She was assigned to be the National Director of the Escuela Unitaria Program in the Ministry of Education.

By 1974, Escuela Unitaria pilot projects had spread to Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay, with mixed results. In Colombia, a USAID-sponsored innovation group was formed to collate lessons from Escuela Unitaria, design the project, and improve the learning materials. The project hired the University of Pamplona to bring together teachers, supervisors, university professors, and Ministry of Education staff with Escuela Unitaria experience.

Once the project was approved by both the Ministry and USAID, Oscar Mogollón, Beryl Levinger, and Vicky Colbert were all appointed to the steering group. Oscar was the leading rural teacher in Colombia in the active method. Beryl had shown how to make it work in the most extreme and deprived environment. Vicky was thinking on a national scale, developing consensus among regional perspectives, and mobilizing the machinery of government towards the vision of all 34,000 rural schools implementing the active approach. Together, they created Escuela Nueva.

Escuela Nueva built upon the experiences of Escuela Unitaria. One of the most significant differences compared to Escuela Unitaria was that teachers were not required to make their own educational resources. Vicky explained why this was so important for scaling the model:

What Oscar was doing was not very easily replicated. He was doing it in a couple of schools but not really doing it and thinking about the whole 34,000 rural schools of Colombia. What we started thinking was, if the issue and constraint is the planning time for the teacher, let’s go directly to the student that already knows how to read basically, second grade up. Let’s go directly to them with the learning guides…. A learning guide is like a hybrid between a textbook, a workbook and the guide of the teacher, all in one, but directed to the student not to the teacher. Here what we wanted to do was empower the students.
We designed the materials very, very concrete, simple, pragmatic learning materials for children very focused on questioning — higher level thinking skills. We gave a structure to their learning process. The children started working individually, in pairs and in groups, dialoguing among themselves, constructing knowledge together.

The learning guide was one of the key artifacts that enabled the Escuela Nueva model to operate at scale for overworked rural teachers who did not have the time to develop their own learning materials. As Vicky, Beryl and Oscar designed the new model and co-authored the first teacher’s manual, they realized their model needed a new name. According to Vicky,

The UNESCO experience was called Escuela Unitaria, unitary school. The emphasis was on how one teacher handles several grades simultaneously. We wanted to emphasize a renewal of teaching practices. This is why we shifted from Escuela Unitaria to Escuela Nueva, which introduced a more systemic way of thinking. That was the big difference. It was an opportunity to renovate teaching practices.

How was the approach systemic? One of the most striking features of my interviews with Vicky and Beryl was how deeply they considered and accounted for the needs of all of the stakeholders, not just the students and teachers. Vicky’s education in sociology prepared her to consider and design for the community engagement aspects of the new model:

When you’re tackling concrete problems, you have to think of, if I do this with the children, how can I do it now with the teachers? If I do this with the teacher, how can I bring the parents in and how can I let the administrators be supportive of this? How can this not fade away, so we have to generate a network? It was just question after question. Very simple concrete questions when you’re in reality. I think what was good for us is that we were really bottom-up and this forced us to think systemically.

The following table summarizes the way that Escuela Nueva accounted for the needs of key stakeholders in a way that Escuela Unitaria had not.

Escuela Nueva accounts for the needs and interests of all stakeholders.

This sophisticated understanding of stakeholder interests translated into a comprehensive and integrated program design. The main elements of the Escuela Nueva program are: curriculum; training; administration; and community.

Curriculum. The new curriculum encourages collaboration, critical thinking and questioning by students, and provides learning guides directed at the child. The learning environment extends beyond the classroom, to include a vegetable patch and garden, family sports ground and community facilities.

Training. Training teachers in their new role as facilitators of learning — using exactly the same methods they are expected to use to facilitate learning. The training uses a strategy and a process that promotes attitudinal changes. Training includes initiation workshops, use and adaptation of the learning guides, organization and use of the library, and local communities of practice. The training is complemented by demonstration schools, micro-centres and teacher’s learning circles that showcase exemplary practices and drive continuous improvement. Micro centers also serve as a follow-up mechanism and as a starting point for a community of practice.

Administration. Administration in the program is focused on orienting rather than controlling. Administrators are trained for their new role. They are taught the objectives and pedagogy of active learning so they can in turn provide technical support for teachers.

Community. Escuela Nueva schools play the role of information hub and community integrator. They mobilization the community for school activities and increase the community’s knowledge through artifacts such as calendars of agricultural events and cultural monographs. The library and the school facilities are open to the community.

Making Escuela Nueva National Policy

Beryl completed her USAID assignment and left Colombia at the end of 1976. Vicky now had to organize a team at the national level and obtain continued financial and political support. She managed to have Oscar assigned to be the head of the Normal de Varones (Teacher’s College) in Pamplona along with two other outstanding teachers (Hernando Gelvez and Pedro Pablo Ramirez), and then had Oscar appointed to the Ministry. This was the first time a national government team was composed of both experienced rural teachers and researchers. Their bottom-up, evidence-based approach was crucial to influencing policy decision making using demonstration schools and real world results.

The novel approach also brought new challenges and created tension within the Ministry. Vicky faced serious resistance to change, especially from theoretically inclined mid-level bureaucrats, who underestimated the potential and capacity of rural practitioners in policy reform. To overcome the resistance, Vicky focused on gaining the support of senior leaders, both inside the Ministry of Education and with key allies, such as the National Planning Department. To get these leaders on board, Vicky had to build the business case for Escuela Nueva. The business case contained three key elements: evidence, demonstration, and feasibility.

Evidence. Vicky worked with researchers at the Instituto Ser de Investigación and Colciencias (National Institution for Science and Research) to gather evidence that Escuela Nueva was working. They showed that children in the system started achieving better results against the traditional measures of academic achievement in language and mathematics. But they also started to measure against new outcomes, such as self-esteem, social skills and democratic behaviour, to show how Escuela Nueva could improve equally vital soft skills. They extended their evaluation beyond children, to measure changes in the behaviour and attitudes of teachers and parents involved in Escuela Nueva. Empirical evidence was essential to getting the attention and sustained support of senior leaders.

Demonstration. The team established a network of demonstration schools in each region that enacted the Escuela Nueva model and provided senior leaders and teachers alike with a local, tangible experience that brought abstract philosophies to life. Vicky emphasized the importance of:

Visual images, to have demonstrations to show the way to others, because for teachers to make changes by themselves, they need to see other schools. If you don’t have visual images, just by theory and rhetoric you cannot change attitudes and behaviours. It was really thinking, how can I change behaviours, how can I change attitudes, how can I change values, how can I change roles? You have to show these things in action and play all these different variables together.

Feasibility. Escuela Nueva was designed for technical, political, and financial feasibility. Technical feasibility meant ensuring that any teacher could learn it from their peers and do it in an environment of resource deprivation. Political feasibility meant getting teachers, unions, and other stakeholders on board, rather than enemies of the change. This resulted in voices from outside the government advocating for Escuela Nueva. Financial feasibility meant convincing the government of a developing country that the model was cost effective to roll out to all of the schools across the country. A World Bank evaluation found that Escuela Nueva significantly improved educational outcomes at unit costs that were only 5–10% higher.

Vicky’s business case was compelling. Escuela Nueva became national policy.

Once it becomes a national policy you can have big numbers. We reached 20,000 schools. That is also crucial because then the World Bank came into the picture. They selected it as one of the three most important innovations in the developing world that had successfully impacted national policy. Then we started getting many countries coming to Colombia to see Escuela Nueva.

Taking Escuela Nueva Beyond Government

In 1986, the Government of Colombia passed a decentralization law emphasizing the primacy of local decision making. This was not necessarily a bad thing for Colombia, but it created a dilemma for the proponents of Escuela Nueva: how do you scale innovation in a decentralized system? The previous strategy had been to recognize bottom-up innovation from the field, then scale the innovation from the top-down through the national government. In a decentralized system, the national government could no longer mandate a particular approach. The previous enablers of innovation started to become constraints. Vicky recalls the transition:

In that process of the country learning how to decentralize, things become complicated when you’re in the middle of scaling up an innovation. That was a constraint at that moment because the local mayors didn’t have any idea of Escuela Nueva, so they transferred all the trained teachers, they named new teachers who had not been trained, and they didn’t worry about training the new teachers. It started becoming debilitated in the 1990s.
I was the first coordinator of Escuela Nueva for eight years. I then became the vice minister of education in Colombia which was crucial because with that I gave the political support, I already had a team in place. It was a bottom up experience. We had evidence and results. We reached the 20,000 schools without any problem, and that’s why we had wonderful results. However, the ministry started becoming a constraint, because the ministry was so focused on learning how to decentralize that they forgot about everything else. Who was going to take care of the baby? It’s holding the baby in all these stages.

Rather than abandon the baby, Vicky left government and in 1987 founded a nongovernmental organization (NGO), Fundación Escuela Nueva. There were three motives for establishing a charity dedicated to Escuela Nueva. First, a dedicated charity could maintain a focus on quality of delivery better than government. Second, it provided a space for continuing innovation such as adapting it to urban areas, and strengthening the dimensions of peace, democracy, and cooperative learning. Third, it could catalyze novel public, private, and civil society collaborations.

While the NGO was piloting the adaptation to urban areas, Vicky accepted an invitation from the Head of UNICEF to be the Education Adviser for Latin American and the Caribbean. In this role, she started the internationalization of Escuela Nueva. This included sending Colombian teachers abroad to different countries. Escuela Nueva was adapted to Brazil, and Oscar accepted a position to initiate Nueva Escuela Unitaria in Guatemala. Other teachers went to Paraguay, Panamá, Honduras, and Chile. When she realized Escuela Nueva was becoming debilitated at home however, she resigned from the United Nations and returned as Director of the NGO she had founded.

Back at Fundación Escuela Nueva, Vicky continued to build an alliance with the Coffee Growers Federation she first established in the Ministry of Education. The federation recognized that Escuela Nueva was good for business. The alliance reduced the movement’s dependency on government funding and support alone. The NGO began experimenting with active learning in urban schools, creating the Escuela Activa Urbana (Urban Active School). They adapted the model to migrant populations displaced by conflict, creating Escuela Nueva learning circles in the slums of Bogota, which later also became an official national government program. Most recently, Fundación Escuela Nueva has begun to seed the active learning approach well beyond the education sector as it is traditionally defined, and has expanded the reach of active learning to include peace and democratic processes.

We have started something recent, last year, it’s participatory learning, so why don’t we work with women’s organization? Why don’t we work with the health sector, the financial sector? For example, we started using not the model, but the Escuela Nueva methodology, participatory learning with our learning guides which is one of our key instruments. For example, we teamed with Fundación Capital, another NGO, they give money for microfinance for women in Latin America. We produced the learning materials to introduce the Escuela Nueva learning approach and methodology in their content. We can get any content in any sector and work with the methodology. Here we are moving beyond the formal into the non-formal sector. We are now trying to go beyond a proven methodology or model to leading a global movement.

Lessons Learned from Escuela Nueva

Escuela Nueva is truly a global movement that has reached over 5 million children in 14 countries. Despite a distinguished career in international development spanning over 80 countries, Professor Beryl Levinger still considers Escuela Nueva to be the biggest educational reform in a generation, and her involvement in it the height of her career.

What lessons did Beryl take from the experience into her international consulting and academic career?

The biggest lesson that I’ve learned in my career that comes initially from this experience is if you’re going to innovate, you have to embrace the idea that you don’t know what the innovation looks like when you start. That you’re on a learning journey and your capacity to learn is going to determine how effective you are as a innovator. It’s a little bit different than saying, “I have to be willing to fail,” which is sort of the tried and true trite comment that’s offered up. I don’t think it’s that you have to embrace failure as a likely outcome. It’s that the process of innovation must be emergent.
Vicky and Oscar and I in different ways kind of departed from one another but when we were together working, I don’t think that I’ve ever had more exciting or more enlivening conversation. Vicky and I used to say that we were as close as sisters. Not necessarily because we shared a whole host of personal points in common, but that process of co-creation where you’re learning from each other’s ideas and getting constantly inspired and sparked and the same thing with Oscar. I think that was extraordinary and so what I took forward from that again, was not knowing the nature of the innovation, not trying to even claim to know, and the importance of conversation as a creative force, as a very significant creative force. The notion that things don’t happen overnight or even over a decade.
The other thing that is interesting to me is I didn’t have vocabulary for many of the ideas that we had. In education there is much written on what’s called socioconstructivism. I didn’t know that term. None of the three of us knew that term but we turned out to be brilliant implementers of the socioconstrutivist educational model.
In the past we used to talk about the quality of the curriculum, the quality of the teacher, the quality of the school building, the administrative quality, the supervisory quality, community relations quality and no discussion per se about child quality.
I think what the Escuela Nueva did was improve child quality. You normally would think that the child quality can be largely determined outside the school. The kid comes in and either is or isn’t ready to learn, is or isn’t well-nourished, is or isn’t able to have whatever learning resources are needed for the school program. But I think that by engaging kids actively and having kids engage in higher order thinking overall child quality improved. I think that’s really, really an important piece of the puzzle.

Vicky also reflects on some big lessons from her life’s work:

You have to work with governments to have big impact and reach but you need public-private alliances and civil society for quality and sustainability. If we had not created Fundación Escuela Nueva, it would had been very difficult to sustain the innovation. Innovations are very vulnerable to political and administrative changes.
We were forced to think systemically because we had to tackle all the problems at the same time, not each one in isolation: high dropouts, high repetition rates, no results, scarce learning materials, ineffective teacher training, weak follow-up systems, traditional teacher-centered methodologies, emphasis on memorization, no comprehension, weak school — community — parents relationship, low teacher morale etc….etc.!! Necessity is the mother of innovation. Every problem forces you to rethink each concept. Problems become opportunities!
We can say proudly it is one of the longest bottom-up innovations of the developing world that is still sustained. We have managed to keep it in the political agenda of Colombia! This year we will reach 1200 schools in conflict areas in Colombia.

In 2000, a UNESCO study of 55,000 boys and girls enrolled in the third and fourth grade across sixteen countries in Latin America found that:

Rural schools in Colombia had higher than expected outcomes that were above those of the urban schools in that country. This indicates that, even in unfavorable contexts, the application of appropriate and consistent measures (“Escuela Nueva”) can significantly improve student outcomes.

By 2000, the quiet revolution that started in Oscar Mogollón’s demonstration school in 1961 had empirically shown to have reversed a significant structural inequality between rural and urban education on a national scale. A small number of committed individuals achieved this remarkable feat by placing the child at the heart of the learning experience and then wrapping them in a pragmatic system of support that accounted for the needs and interests of all stakeholders participating in the children’s education. They did this without the language or theory of systems thinking or design, yet their practice both anticipates and aligns with contemporary theories of systemic design. Fifty years on from the initial spark, the active learning model continues to adapt and develop into new contexts in Colombia and around the globe.


Richard Kraft’s description of Oscar Mogollón is from the Foreword of: Mogollón, O. ‎M. Solano and ‎A. Flórez. (2011). Active Schools: Our Convictions for Improving the Quality of Education. Durham, NC: FHI 360.

A detailed analysis of the learnings from Escuela Unitaria is published in Colbert, V. (1987). Universalizaciòn de la Educaciòn Primaria en Colombia. La Educaciòn Rural en Colombia. Situaciòn , Experiencias y Perspectivas. FES.

The components of the Escuela Nueva program are documented in: Colbert, V., Chiappe, C., & Arboleda, J. (1993). The New School Program: More and Better Primary Education for Children in Rural Areas in Colombia. In Levin, H. M., & Lockheed, M. E. Effective schools in developing countries. London: Falmer Press. Also see

The World Bank study of the return on investment of Escuela Nueva is: Psacharopoulos, G., Rojas, C., & Velez, E. (1992). Achievement Evaluation of Colombia’s Escuela Nueva. The World Bank Working Papers.

The UNESCO study that demonstrated the effectiveness of Escuela Nueva is: UNESCO Report Prepared by the Latin American Laboratory for Assessment of Quality in Education. (2000). First International Comparative Study: Of language, mathematics, and associated factors for students in the third and fourth grade of primary school: Second Report, p. 13.

The expansion of active learning to include peace and peaceful interaction between children is covered in: Forero, C., Escobar, D., & Molina, D. (2006). Escuela Nueva’s impact on the peaceful social interaction of children in Colombia. In Little, A. Education for all and multigrade teaching: Challenges and opportunities. Dordrecht: Springer.

Fundaciòn Escuela Nueva maintains the original teacher training manual written by Oscar, Beryl and Vicky in 1976. Five new versions of the manual have since been developed and published by Fundaciòn Escuela Nueva.