Non-Cognitive Learning in Colombia

˙ PREAL Blog

This post is also available in: Spanish

Nobel Prize winner James Heckman has noted that non-cognitive skills (i.e., social and emotional skills) are crucial in determining the success of young people, and that public education tends to ignore this fact.

The Urban Active School (Escuela Activa Urbana, EAU) in Manizales, Colombia targets non-cognitive skills.

The program, a public-private partnership led by the Luker Foundation and the city of Manizales, is based on the model established by Colombia’s Escuela Nueva* (New School). The program seeks to provide “…an education that breaks the passive attitude of the student and the authoritarian attitude of the teacher.” Currently, EAU covers 38% of urban public schools in Manizales, and hopes to expand the model to more institutions.

The program is based on addressing three components that have the following objectives:

  • Classroom Management: “Replace the traditional educational model with an active teaching model that encourages participation, democracy, tolerance, respect, the resolution of conflict and problems within the classroom, cooperation, collaboration, teamwork, leadership, and the motivation of students in the learning process.”
  • Institutional Management: “Get schools to specify their institutional perspective, clarify their goals, vision, and mission; reformulate their Institutional Education Project; and design and execute their plans of study and improvement.”
  • Context Management: “Encourage community participation through efforts to integrate the school and the community, and to work with parents, seeking their active participation in school processes and their commitment to the socio-affective support of their children.”

The education program of the Inter-American Dialogue recently conducted an evaluation of the EAU in Manizales. Based on a review of existing documentation of EAU results and a visit to Manizales, three international experts convened by PREAL (Puryear, Barrera-Osorio, and Cortelezzi) produced the following findings and recommendations.

EAU students learn more than other public school students

  • At the cognitive level, standardized tests show higher scores in language, mathematics, and natural science at the EAU schools than at non-EAU Manizales schools and Colombia public schools overall (though they are still lower than those of private schools). Nonetheless, and despite their advantage, EAU students do not reach learning levels considered acceptable nationally or internationally.
  • At the non-cognitive level, nearly all of the actors consulted emphasized the benefits of the EAU model in both the emotional development of the students, and the promotion of social skills. The program is seen as a tool to build and strengthen society at the micro level; many have even identified it as the future of education. They often emphasized concepts such as “collaborative learning,” “coexistence,” “development of responsibility through work and cooperation,” “autonomy,” and “building of leadership.” The observation of one EAU principal helps capture a more general concept that ran through the discussions: EAU is a model through which “society is installed within the school.”

Various factors contribute to EAU’s apparent success

  • It has positioned itself well: EAU is based on an innovative model that responds to the demands that accompany open economies, global competition, and the knowledge society. The program also responds to non-economic problems that are widely recognized in the country, such as personal conflict, weak social structures, authoritarianism, intolerance, and insufficient personal responsibility and leadership.
  • It has benefited from good leadership: The partnership between the City of Manizales and the Luker Foundation has provided the legitimacy, autonomy, and agility necessary to develop and maintain complex programs. The partnership has appointed high-quality professionals, and has provided sufficient, and sufficiently flexible, funding. It has also documented and evaluated the EAU model systematically for a decade, establishing empirical data on results and facilitating beneficial adjustments.
  • It has developed the image of an established program that applies proven methods: The original program – Escuela Nueva (EN) – has many years of experience and has proven to be effective. EN has been adopted by the ministry of education and implemented at the national level, creating a positive image and decreasing resistance within and outside the education system toward projects like EAU. The challenge has been more to adapt than to invent.
  • It has benefited from important collaborators: The combination of the Municipality of Manizales, the Luker Foundation, The National Federation of Coffee Growers, and the Secretary of Education, along with other partners, has helped achieve crucial legitimacy, access, and funding.

Several aspects of the program could be improved.

  • Implementation: Although the EAU is based on a coherent and intellectually solid model, the quality and impact of the program rely heavily on proper implementation. It is important to monitor whether teachers are applying active teaching methods, and intervene promptly when they are not. Success requires an adequate system of quality control. The role of the Support Team (equipo de apoyo) should be reconsidered, in order to maximize its role in monitoring the model’s implementation in schools, and in improving the skills of teachers in doing so.
  • Personnel: Because the quality of teachers and principals is crucial, the program should consider developing information campaigns so as to make the EAU better understood within the education community, and help potential applicants get to know the EAU model better. One could, for example, organize internships through which teachers from traditional schools participate for a fixed time at an EAU school.
  • Clarifying and prioritizing the non-cognitive: Despite its centrality, the concept of non-cognitive skills used in the program is very general. It would be helpful to identify a subgroup of high-priority non-cognitive skills, and establish explicit strategies in training and support, and in the self-study guides, to make sure they are transmitted successfully.
  • Provision: It is important to update the tutorials and ensure the presence of small classrooms and appropriate furniture.

The EAU model offers at least three lessons for other countries

  • A fundamentally new approach to school organization and pedagogy can have a positive impact and be implemented systemically.
  • Changes in school organization and pedagogy can benefit from an extended process of experimentation, evaluation and adjustment, including pilot programs.
  • Patience and persistence are key. There are no magic bullets.

More rigorous evaluations would be helpful

On one hand, the Luker Foundation has organized a series of evaluations, starting with a baseline study in 2004. These have been very helpful, and have provided invaluable empirical data and analysis on learning and other outcomes. On the other hand, existing assessments are basically descriptive, comparing levels of learning of EAU students with students from traditional public schools. This type of evaluation is problematic because it cannot control for potential selection bias, making it impossible to determine how much of the differences in learning are due to EAU rather than to other factors.

In response, we propose conducting an impact evaluation that would establish cause-effect relationships between the program and the results. As a World Bank document spells out, impact evaluations, unlike general evaluations –which can answer many types of questions–, are structured around a particular type of question: What is the impact (or causal effect) of a program on an outcome of interest? An impact evaluation tries to identify the changes in outcome that are directly attributable to the program.

In the case of the EAU, an impact evaluation might include, in part, the following steps and elements:

  • Allocation of students by lottery in schools where demand exceeds the places available.
  • Collection of baseline information at schools (e.g. socio-demographic level, academic achievement, teacher characteristics, etc.)
  • Collection of tracking information, ideally at home, with a focus on “non-cognitive” learning.

For the impact evaluation, it is essential that monitoring be done during a specified time period. We suggest following students from the first grade, and measuring results at the end of each year. We also suggest evaluating the labor market experience of EAU graduates, so as to determine the program’s impact on professional trajectory and income.

* Escuela Nueva was established in Colombia in the 1970s to develop active teaching in rural schools. The model was adapted to the urban context (Escuela Activa Urbana) by the Foundation Escuela Nueva Volvamos a la Gente (FEN) in the 1980s.

Jeffrey Puryear is a Senior Fellow in the Education Program at the Inter-American Dialogue.

Felipe Barrera-Osorio is an Assistant Professor of Education and Economics at Harvard University.

María Cortelezzi es the Director of Evaluation at Fundación Cimientos.

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