04/06/2018 by Carney Sandoe Staff |

The Yidan Prize for Education

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When the inaugural Yidan Prize for Education Research and Yidan Prize for Education Development were announced in 2017, we were impressed by the choice of recipients, not to mention the size of the financial award.

The 2017 Yidan Prize winners are Vicky Colbert (Development) and Carol Dweck (Research). The latter is well known to American educators for her groundbreaking work on the effects of one’s mindset on learning. Dweck is a professor of psychology at Stanford University and author of “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success” (2006), among other works. Since the publication of “Mindset,” Dweck has been one of the field of education’s most sought-after speakers, and educators everywhere have been wrestling with the question of how to help students develop a growth mindset, the belief that intelligence isn’t a fix asset but a quality that can be developed through study and work. In opposition is the fixed mindset, the belief that intelligence is more or less fixed from birth. When Dweck’s research reveals is that those with a growth mindset tend to tackle problems with interest and commitment and joy while those with a fixed mindset tend to shy away from challenges that feel too difficult.

For the American audience, Vicky Colbert is less well known. But she is modern-day cultural icon in Colombia and very well regarded internationally for her work in education. The Stanford-educated Colbert is a sociologist from Javeriana University in Colombia and the key mover behind Escuela Nueva, a student-centered, active learning model that she helped spread throughout her home country of Colombia and which is now being replicated in 16 other nations. Colbert is also the founder and current executive director of Escuela Nueva Foundation, which helps support the use of the Escuela Nueva model worldwide.

What we like about the four-decade-old Escuela Nueva model is that is a bottom-up innovation. Originally designed to help students in poor, rural districts in Colombia, it is now at the core of the nation’s official education policy. The model has four essential components:

  • A flexible curriculum focused on a cooperative, active, and participatory learning methodology where students advance at their own pace. In recent years, the program has added a focus on social development, peace education, and entrepreneurship.
  • A focus on building strong relationships between schools and their surrounding communities. School activities incorporate the local culture and encourage community members to get involved. Each school forms its own student government to promote democratic values and civic participation.
  • Teachers are trained in the model’s methodology and taught to be facilitators and advisers of children’s learning, not transmitters of facts. Professional learning circles help teachers share best practices, collaborate, problem solve, and promote positive attitudinal changes.
  • School administrators are encouraged to become more involved in the learning process and in the outcomes of their students.

According to the folks at the Center for Education Innovations, “Schools employing the Escuela Nueva model demonstrate higher academic achievement, lower dropout and repetition rates, and often outperform conventional schools. It has also shown a positive impact on the development of democratic and civic behavior, as well as peaceful interactions.”

Much of this program, of course, reminds us of independent schools, all of which focus on the individual learner but in the context of the broader community. It’s also encouraging to see the way efforts in independent schools to focus on active learning are mirrored in the larger field of education. For us, this shift toward active learning is one of the best shifts in education in decades.

The one area where Escuela Nueva stands out from the vast majority of schools is in its focus on students progressing at their own pace. This kind of accelerated learning model isn’t embraced in many schools in the United States today. We offer honors and Advanced Placement courses, of course, but this is still a form of group education. While some schools offer individualized projects, these are usually electives offered for only a short period of time. Fully individualized learning is rare. We know of only one school — the Urban Collaborative Accelerated Program (UCAP), an independent public middle school in Providence, Rhode Island, for kids at-risk of dropping out — that has been fully committed to the idea of students progressing at their own pace. They’ve been doing this quietly for more than 30 years and with remarkable success.

Many ed-tech companies, of course, would like to see all kids learn at their own pace, but do so primarily in front of computer screens. Escuela Nueva insists on social engagement as an essential element of quality education. And this difference is significant. It reveals a deep commitment to the notion that education is for both the individual and the society.

Established in 2016 by Charles Chen Yidan — a Chinese entrepreneur who found Tencent Holdings, an investment firm, and is now a committed philanthropist — the Yidan Prize has a mission to create a better world through education. Through a series of initiatives, the prize serves to establish a platform that allows the global community to engage in conversation around education and to play a role in education philanthropy. Each recipient receives a personal award of HK$15 million (US$1.92 million) and another HK$15 million of funding for future projects. Given the importance of the work of Carol Dweck and Vicky Colbert, we certainly hope this funding enables both women to continue the work they do on behalf of children — and, indeed, all of us.

We look forward to seeing who wins the Yidan Prize in 2018.

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