Surprise! Deep Learning and Democracy

There’s solid evidence that American students do well when they are encouraged to think for themselves and expected to collaborate with one another.

There’s a great Opinion piece by David L. Kirp* in the NY Times today: Make School a Democracy 

The story begins in a one-room schoolhouse in Armenia, Columbia with a mixed-age (5-13) group of students grouped at tables working together in mutual support.

 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.


“The Big Room” 1972.

The activities in the room vary from table to table.  The teacher moves from group to group providing commentary on the children’s work and progress. These children bring themselves and their lives to school.

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.

This is the four decades old  Escuela Nueva (New School) model. And it works.

A 1992 World Bank evaluation of Colombia’s schools concluded that poor youngsters educated this way — learning by doing, rather than being endlessly drilled for national exams — generally outperformed their better-off peers in traditional schools. A 2000 Unesco study found that, next to Cuba, Colombia did the best job in Latin America of educating children in rural areas, where most of the schools operate with this model. It was also the only country in which rural schools generally outperformed urban schools. Poor children in developing nations often drop out after a year or two because their families don’t see the relevance of the education they’re getting. These youngsters are more likely to stay in school than their counterparts in conventional schools.

It provides a model from which we all could learn. This is effective school reform on a shoestring. Scalable? Well – we could work on it. Transferable? Why not? This is big time, large-scale educational improvement in a democratic developing country. Do we really want those outcomes?

And that may be the bigger question. Education is high stakes money game – there are our needs as a democratic society to have educated citizens. And  then there are the competing ideologies of politics and commerce. Lots of money to be made in school biz these days. And the profit is not being made  teachers and those whose interests are exclusively  concerned with  best outcomes for kids and our collective future.

So – what are some of the elements: The Escuela Nueva model respects and includes students interests and home lives; co-operation not competition drives the classroom culture; and the  learning is deep, social, active,  permeable and etc.  Sound familiar?

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Nobel-winning economist, Amartya Sen, posits that political repression impedes economic growth — that prosperity requires that social and economic well-being be tethered to democratic values.

While schools are ostensibly designed to serve a democratic society most schools public and private are not run on anything like democratic principles. And – in general – they seem to be getting more top-down than ever. Teachers voices it seems are not to be heard or attended to. And students are to be tested and retested and prepped and tested again not for their own learning but to evaluate those teachers. And parents – caught between political rhetoric of blame and the anxieties of our age – try to do their best for the kids they love.

IMG_3249Escuela Nueva is quite different: Escuela Nueva turns the schoolhouse into a laboratory for democracy. Citizenship is not an abstract concept but a matter of daily practice.

In the schools, students elected by their peers shoulder a host of responsibilities. In a school I visited in a poor neighborhood here in the city of Armenia, the student council meticulously planned a day set aside to promote peace; operated a radio station; and turned an empty classroom into a quiet space for reading and recharging. I was there last Halloween, when students put on a costume contest for their pets.

I love how Kilp connects these the ethos of these small rural schools with the work and thinking of John Dewey  who decades ago told us that children learned best through experience and that a vibrant democracy needs its people to be educated to understand their social reality and circumstances.  Escuela Nueva puts that philosophy into practice and closes the gap between the words and the reality with effective schools that walk the talk.


The open classroom of the era is shown in this c.1969 photo of a classroom in Western Australia. Note the range of activities and different areas of focus evident in this enlarged classroom space. Source: 1969 annual report of Western Australian Education Department via

It reminds me of the exemplary ideal of British primary schools of the post-war and  Plowden era.  In the years following the 1944 Education Act that legislated primary and secondary education for all,  primary schools became an educational battleground.

Some exhorted them to experiment and innovate.  And many did with remarkable success. And yet they were constrained by a high pressure, high stakes testing system called the 11+. This dreaded rite of passage opened the narrow gateway  for those deemed  academically successful to enter the grammar school to university pipeline. It was a system of managing resources and directing them the intellectually worthy. It sorted the sheep from the goats and graded the eggs.

I experienced both ends of that spectrum in my own primary education: a joyful two-room schoolhouse and the dreaded prison-house of desks bolted to the floor and the teacher at the pedestal desk where –  one hoped – she remained. Nothing worse than a teacher wandering the room and coming from behind armed with a ruler.

The elimination of the 11+ exam either gave rise to a golden era of progressive primary schools where enlightened, caring and creative teachers helped children thrive as independent, creative, joyful and successful learners.

Or  it led to a parallel universe of social decline, loss of intellectual rigor and a calamitous drop in academic standards and discipline of all kinds.

It’s a familiar story for all edu folk – this polarized and highly charged political debate about what is best for other people’s children. And teachers are often in the crossfire

From economic necessity and a democratic desire to educate all children democratically  Escuela Nueva seems to have hit on a cost- and outcomes- effective solution that resonates with earlier school examples both in the UK and the US.

Kilp is convinced that there are lessons to be learned here not just for schools with emerging economies in the developing world but also in the United States where the pendulum swings of “reform” have not led to 40 years of progress by any measure.

There’s solid evidence that American students do well when they are encouraged to think for themselves and expected to collaborate with one another.

I am glad Kilp drew my attention to the 2014  report from the American Institutes for Research: Study of Deeper Learning that defines Deeper Learning as: The combination of (1) a deeper understanding of core academic content, (2) the ability to apply that understanding to novel problems and situations, and (3) the development of a range of competencies, including people skills and self control.

It was research provoked by the failure of the No Child Left Behind Act (2001) to produce the levels of proficiency and college preparedness anticipated by its authors. This sparked debate about what students actually need to know and be able to do.

The key takeaways from the research include: integrated project-based learning; interpersonal skills; learning-to-learn through projects, study groups, and student participation in decision-making and a deeper learning school culture make the difference for student outcomes.

The point of all that is that we actually do know – and have long known – what works in education. What gets in the way is ideology, anxiety and fear. The roots of the ideology are a belief that learning is transmission of knowledge and in the need for command-and- control. The anxiety and fear are a failure of nerve to do what is right for all children. It’s as if there is a yawning gap between our knowledge and our courage to act.  And the gap is fed by a gnawing doubt that leads us to second -guess, take half measures, hedge our bets and question our understanding.

Rachel Lotan, a professor emeritus at Stanford, added, “Doing well on the high-stakes test scores is what drives the public schools, and administrators fear that giving students more control of their own education will bring down those scores.” Officials, and those who set the policies they follow, would do well to visit Colombia, where  has much to teach us about how best to educate our children.

Escuela Nueva shows us a way back to the values and possibility of education and democracy.

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