Raúl Collazos has developed a new system of rural education in Colombia that promotes creativity and self-determination in children, draws campesino parents into the educational process and promotes productive activities that restore the environment.
The New Idea
Raúl Collazos has created a rural educational model, "Reforest the Heart First," that provides opportunities for parents, teachers, children and members of the community to assume responsibility for education. The method at the center of his model involves bringing students, parents and teachers together to identify, design and implement development projects. Educational activities are then constructed around the project, contextualizing learning within a process of creative community problem solving. Because the projects tend to be geared strongly toward environmental restoration, Raúl's approach also raises environmental awareness throughout the community. Raúl has piloted the model in the violence-ridden region surrounding Medellín, where he has one independent model school linked with a dozen rural public schools that utilize aspects of the model. He runs teacher training programs from the model school, as well as having developed a course for teachers at the University of Medellín. Looking toward national expansion, he is seeking to integrate his approach selectively with the ministries of environment and education.
The principal benefit from his approach, according to Raúl, is transformed thinking and behavior of teachers and parents with respect to education. Where education was once seen as the way to impart skills that could enable children to obtain employment in the cities, the school is now seen as a powerful resource for uplifting the community. "The tangible benefits provided through the school-initiated project activities are one thing," says Raúl, "but the really major thing is the new mentality that has arisen. The campesinos now see education as something relevant to their daily lives." Among other things, the pilot experience around Medellín has produced the beginnings of a whole new curriculum for rural education that has been designed and written mainly by campesino parents and children.
Violence and conflict are endemic throughout Colombia, and many who live in rural areas are in a constant state of terror. Tragically, revolutionary armies, criminal gangs, and drug and arms traffickers define the character of life in Colombia today. Partly in response to the intolerable levels of rural violence, many rural areas are emptying into the cities, contributing to urban instability. While life in Colombia's vast urban slums is little better than that in rural areas, nothing seems to be able to turn the tide of this massive migration. Rural education contributes to these phenomena is several ways. Schools are not created in a way that teaches children how to make difficult choices or deal constructively with the problems of society. They simply do not provide the skills for independent thinking that could potentially help these children work to better their communities. Even worse, Colombian schools tend to reinforce authoritarian attitudes and behaviors that feed the culture of violence. Classroom teaching tends to rely on rote learning methods. For parents and students alike, education is a necessary evil that may provide skills that would enable the child to "escape" to the city.
Raúl's multi-part strategy to transform rural education using his "Reforest the Heart First" method evolved out of a sequence of small innovations that Raúl and a number of teachers began introducing in the public school in which Raúl was teaching. At a certain point, they were blocked from further development by a recalcitrant school principal, and Raúl left to set up a new independent school that could implement every aspect of the now well-developed model. To provide an institutional context for this work that ensured ongoing access to the public schools, Raúl set up "Teachers of Life" as a membership body of like-minded teachers from a dozen schools in the region. This group continued to implement aspects of the model where possible in public schools while elaborating the model in the independent school. Next, "Teachers of Life" began to offer training for teachers. Raúl also established a course on his method for teachers at the University of Medellín. Plans are advancing to establish a post-secondary school of sustainable development for children graduating from the rural schools participating with "Teachers of Life." Raúl's core method begins with the formation of a group of students, parents and teachers who conduct investigation and pedagogical experimentation. This group investigates community needs and environmental dynamics and decides upon the theme for a community project relating to environmental restoration. Once a project is decided, the effort shifts to infuse it with formal education activities. This involves designing courses to produce skills required in the projects and even designing education-compatible project implementation methods. Once in the project, students supplement their conventional school studies with an integrated curriculum of reading, writing, mathematics and natural sciences. One group living around a native Andean forest park, for example, conducted an inventory of the flora and fauna in the forest, combining it with the study of organic agriculture. They then developed a commercial garden compatible with the ecosystem. Mathematics was taught through a related seed cooperative, with advice by the parents.
The projects themselves are carefully documented. All labor involved is provided voluntarily by the students, parents and community members. "Teachers of Life" assists the project leaders to develop a funding proposal and raise what funding may be required for the project. Given the care with which the groups proceed and the power of this innovative model of education, the groups have had little trouble raising project funding, a trend Raúl believes will only continue as the reputation of the work, based on their results, spreads.
The next level of the method involves linking participating schools to create a larger "ecosystem" within which the model functions. Each of the twelve schools involved houses at least one of the integrated environmental projects, such as recycled organic material, organic farming, school orchards, water management or conservation of endangered species. As links grow among the projects, the students come to see how important they can be to one another. The links also help the schools adopt more of the model by taking on curricular material developed by the projects of other schools, or even copying each other's successful projects including school gardens, stores and micro-businesses.
The third level of the program promotes children communicators. Students in the program are taught that reading and writing are free and natural methods of expression. Using an original printing manual, the children learn to write with ease and pleasure. They produce and publish their own writing, newsletters, textbooks, cards, etc., which are distributed to the communities and the schools in the region.
Several innovative features cut across every aspect of the overall work. Every effort is made to base curriculum on local culture, myths, legends and traditions. The sustainable forms of agriculture production that are introduced through environmental education are put into context by relating them to the history of the community and the relationship between people and the local ecosystem. Similarly, the "participatory action" of children, teachers and parents is stressed throughout-even in the construction of the content of the curriculum. This methodology thus integrates the knowledge-creation process into daily life, in the market, the family, the river, the farms and community meetings.
Raúl's efforts now turn increasingly to articulating his rural education model to national systems of public education (Ministry of Education) and environmental education (Ministry of the Environment). The Minister of Education has designated his model school as a "pilot project" to be studied for possible replication. Raúl has been invited to participate in the design of curricular materials for environmental education. He intends to build considerably on these two important openings over the next two years as he develops a detailed strategy to spread the model.
Raúl grew up in a poor family with many of his relatives dependent on land for their livelihoods. Ever since then he love the land and the work associated with it. During his time at university, Raúl participated in music and theater groups that performed for indigenous groups and rural workers of the department of Cauca. Also while at university, Raúl met his wife of fifteen years, Clarissa. As musician, storyteller and teacher, Raúl is a fundamentally creative person who has never hesitated to start something new where existing ways proved resistant to change. As he moves fully into the spreading stage of his new idea, he believes that his greatest personal challenge will be to maintain his creative enthusiasm while finding ways to shift the highly bureaucratized education system.