Special Focus
Roads Less Traveled: Alternative Approaches to Education

The world is changing fast. Yet around the globe, education systems largely still adhere to the century-old, industrial-age factory model. In the face of fake news, mass migration, rising inequality and digital disruption, vital skills such as media literacy, empathy, collaboration and creativity remain largely absent from school curriculums.

Fortunately, bold innovators are challenging the status quo, designing alternative models of education and fostering skills that are often overlooked, offering learners paths that were never available to them before. They are creating new norms; moving innovation from the margins to the mainstream. This summer break, we feature several of the alternative paths to education that are shaping the lives of students worldwide.


Community-Based Education: A Perspective From The Escuela Nueva Model

Ms Vicky Colbert
Founder and Director, Fundación Escuela Nueva
Jul 18, 2018

Community-based education represents a true learner-centered and participatory education. It offers relevant, contextualized, and future-oriented educational processes; it also represents a way to materialize Dewey’s philosophy of experience.

Overall, community-based education aims to build interconnections. It develops students’ identities and their sense of belonging (Powers, 2004), links knowledge and reality (Gregory A. Smith & Sobel, 2014), takes advantage of local knowledge and students’ previous knowledge (Melaville, Berg, & Blank, 2006), reduces students’ alienation (Gregory A. Smith & Sobel, 2014; Theobald & Curtiss, 2000), promotes social networks and social capital (Melaville et al., 2006) and connects individual and social purposes (Melaville et al., 2006).

Approaches to community-based learning include community service programs, civic learning, environmental education, project-based learning, and community participation in school, among others (see: Melaville et al., 2006; Gregory A. Smith, 2002; Gregory A. Smith & Sobel, 2014; Theobald & Curtiss, 2000) An interesting case that combines several of these approaches is the Escuela Nueva model (EN), which can be considered as community-based education.

In order to face the challenge of changing education into a holistic, systemic, and community-based process, EN transforms the educational act and the notions of time and space in the school (Colbert, 2016). The educational act requires a shift in the role of the teachers, in which they become a guide who facilitates students’ learning processes; at the same time, students are not passive receptors of information but active participants that make decisions about their own learning processes. When the educational act is learner-centered, the concept of time also changes. It becomes flexible and includes different learning paces. Finally, the idea of space shifts from a rigid-well-defined physical structure (e.g., the classroom) towards an open space, full of learning opportunities linked to students’ families and their community. Thus, the learning process transcends the classroom and the school and becomes an essential part of daily life.

The EN model utilizes pedagogical tools that facilitate these transformations, and some of them have a particular emphasis on the community dimension. For instance: a) the Learning Guides, which are interactive books, facilitate active and participatory learning processes centered on students. The learning guides contain activities for students to work on individually, in pairs or teams and encourage interaction between students, teachers, families and communities; b) the Traveling Notebook helps to connect the classroom with the community. It presents a topic and different actors express their thoughts and feelings about it. The notebook goes from student to student making a journey across all students’ homes or communities; usually contributions are the result of collaboration among students and family or community members. It allows everyone involved in the process to learn about each other, strengthening respect, tolerance and self-esteem; or c) the Community Map, which is a representation of the local community, helps to understand the dynamics of the community, its characteristics, and all those elements that are valuable (or not) for students, parents, and teachers. The Community Map is a collective endeavor in which all the community should participate. When asked about their experiences with the Learning Guides, a 4th grade student in UK said, “I like the fact that it says ‘with your family’ as normally in school we don’t get to do things with family.” (Akay, L., July 2018, field notes) whereas a 4th grade teacher, when talking about his experience with the Traveling Notebook, remarked, “I did feel like I knew more about the parents. For example, I always thought this particular parent was a bit disinterested and didn’t want much for her daughter in terms of ambition. But the answer she wrote was far from what I thought…” (Akay, L., April 2018, field notes).

According to Sarmiento and Colbert (2018), EN helps students to “internalize their understandings of justice, equality, and rights and are empowered to act upon them to create peaceful and democratic environments.” (p. 65) Thus, a well-structured combination of clear, simple and cost-effective tools, with precise pedagogical intentions can help to restructure the school-community relationship while developing empathy, critical thinking and creativity among other life skills. A community-based education, such as the one promoted by the EN model helps students become active citizens, able to make positive contributions to their societies.


Colbert, V. (2016). Metodologías para la educación del SXXI: Escuela Nueva. Ruta Maestra. Melaville, A., Berg, A. C., & Blank, M. J. (2006). Community-Based Learning: Engaging Students for Success and Citizenship. Omaha, NE: Coalition for Community Schools.

Powers, A. L. (2004). An evaluation of four Place-Based Education programs. Journal of Environmental Education, 35(4), 17-32. Sarmiento, A., & Colbert, V. (2018). Social justice, educational change, and Escuela Nueva. In H. Janc Malone, S. Rincón-Gallardo, & K. Kew (Eds.), Future directions of educational change: Social justice, professional capital, and systems change (pp. 53-70). NY, New York: Routledge.

Smith, G. A. (2002). Place-based education: Learning to be where we are. Phi Delta Kappan, 83(April), 584-594.

Smith, G. A., & Sobel, D. (2014). Place- and Community-Based Education in Schools. New York, NY: Routledge.

Theobald, P., & Curtiss, J. (2000). Communities as curricula. Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy, 15(1), 106–111.

Access and Inclusion, Future of Education, Higher Education

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