Ernesto Shiefelbein, Escuela Nueva and 21st-century education

January 29th, 2024, Bogota – Colombia.

IN MEMORIAM. Today, we want to remember our great friend Ernesto Schiefelbein Fuenzalida (1934-2024). Ernesto was not only a distinguished Chilean economist and academic, recognized for his significant contributions to the educational field, but he was also a pioneer in ENA research. Ernesto was one of the first allies of the model and FEN. His reflections remain relevant, and his profound understanding of the ENA model continues to facilitate its comprehension and dissemination at both regional and global levels. His memory and ideas will continue to be an integral part of the driving force behind our work.

Ernesto Shiefelbein, Escuela Nueva and 21st-century education


Vicky Colbert – Eduardo Velez Bustillo.

In 1991, the Chilean pedagogue, economist and politician Ernesto Schiefelbein wrote a publication for UNESCO and UNICEF, In search of the School of the XXI Century: Is the Colombian Escuela Nueva the Right Pathfinder? There were less than ten years until the end of the 20th century and a crucial and complex task was still on the educational agenda of many countries: universalizing basic education with quality and defining 21st-century education.

Schiefelbein was a judicious researcher, a pioneer in promoting the use of research and data analysis for the design of educational policies in Chile and Latin America. Schiefelbein dedicated his life to studying and addressing the most felt educational needs of developing countries, including finance, access, quality and equity in education. This prolific author, who in 1994 became Minister of Education of Chile and later Director of UNESCO for Latin America and the Caribbean, published extensively on educational policy, planning and financing, educational    achievement and school reform. And he was particularly interested on issues related with repetition and dropout and was convinced that active pedagogy, group work, collaborative learning, and critical thinking were key elements to improve quality of education among all students, urban and rural, boys and girls, from high- and low-income families.

The Colombian Escuela Nueva educational model did not go unnoticed by a scholar of Schiefelbein’s stature. The model developed in Colombia in the mid-1970s by Vicky Colbert, Oscar Mogollon and Beryl Levinger in the Ministry of National Education with the support of USAID and other international organizations such as the IDB and the World Bank, at the time had achieved important results in rural areas in terms of student academic performance, and family and community involvement in the education process.

In the 1970s, Schiefelbein had been Planning Director of the Ministry of Education in Chile, and the reforms he led achieved universal primary education. Indeed, among its achievements are the compulsory nature of primary education and its establishment as the initial cycle of schooling, as well as the extension of primary education to eight years. However, although access to education was practically universal, in primary school there was still much to do in terms of quality.

But regardless of whether the education was rural or urban, Schiefelbein was concerned about the low-quality education. He was concerned, for example, about the low levels of reading comprehension among fourth-grade students in the majority of public educational institutions. He knew that reading comprehension, inferential reading, and critical reading were competencies critical for XXI-century education.

For this reason, Escuela Nueva caught his attention and he dedicated himself to studying the model, its systemic view, and understanding its operation, its theoretical foundations, its implementation, and its results. From his point of view, Escuela Nueva constituted a transformative approach to education, precisely because it emphasized student-centered learning, the new role of the teacher, family and community participation, and flexible learning environments. In other words, for Schiefelbein Escuela Nueva could effectively improve educational results and promote social equity through active learning, the new role of the teacher as a counselor and facilitator, and the participation of parents and local communities in the educational process. This was particularly key in the difficult Latin American context with a large rural population and an insufficient number of teachers to cover the educational needs of this vast rural population.

The good results that Escuela Nueva had been having since the seventies in academic and socio-emotional results, was one of the aspects that most interested Schiefelbein and made him a firm supporter of this innovative educational approach. In his detailed analysis of Escuela Nueva published in the book mentioned at the beginning, Schiefelbein identified a series of principles that work in an interrelated way and that explain its success. Among others: student-centered learning, the new role of the teacher, family participation and community, spaces for flexible learning, modular evaluation instead of grade repetition, self-paced learning guides that foment interaction and higher level thinking skills, homework linked with daily family activities, among others.

First, Schiefelbein advocated student-centered learning, a cornerstone of Escuela Nueva’s approach. He believed that conventional education systems often neglected the individual needs and learning styles of students, leading to disengagement and poor academic outcomes. With its focus on flexible and personalized education, participation, cooperativity, and curricular organization through pedagogical materials for students, it offered a solution to this challenge. By placing students at the center of the learning process, Schiefelbein argued, a deeper understanding of subjects could be fostered, and critical thinking skills essential for success in the modern world.

Secondly, Schiefelbein emphasized the importance of the participation of mothers and fathers and community participation in education. It recognized that successful educational initiatives require the active participation of parents, teachers, and local stakeholders. Escuela Nueva’s decentralized structure, which encourages collaboration between schools and communities, aligns with Schiefelbein’s vision of education as a collective effort. By involving parents and community members in decision-making processes, it not only improves the relevance of education but also strengthens social cohesion and community development.

Another key aspect of Schiefelbein’s support of Escuela Nueva was his emphasis on flexible learning environments. Traditional school models often rely on rigid schedules and standardized curricula, limiting opportunities for individual exploration and creativity. Escuela Nueva, however, promotes flexible learning spaces and self-paced learning, allowing students to progress at their own pace and explore their interests. Schiefelbein recognized the importance of adaptability in education, especially in diverse and resource-limited settings, and saw that this model could effectively accommodate the needs of a wide range of students.

Additionally, Schiefelbein considered Escuela Nueva as a means to address issues of social equity in education. He was deeply concerned about disparities in educational access and quality, especially in rural and underserved communities. The focus on inclusive and participatory learning, along with its flexible, cost-effective, and scalable implementation, offered a promising solution to bridge the gap between privileged and disadvantaged students. By prioritizing equity and inclusion, Schiefelbein believed Escuela Nueva could help create a more just and equitable society.

After witnessing the technical solidity and pedagogical effectiveness of this way of learning, the Chilean pedagogue became an incomparable ally of this movement of pedagogical and educational renewal. In many other publications and public statements he applauded the work of Escuela Nueva students, teachers, and leaders, thus helping to make these school transformation efforts visible in the most remote corners of Latin America.

Likewise, in the urban sector, Schiefelbein is closely linked to the history of Escuela Activa Urbana. This began in the 1980s after the success of the Escuela Nueva in rural areas of Colombia where it contributed to the country’s objectives of universalizing basic primary education, reducing dropout and repetition rates, and improving learning achievements and socio-affective development of students.

In fact, the Escuela Nueva Foundation (FEN) with the support of the Inter-American Foundation, in 1987 began the adaptation of Escuela Nueva to urban populations. It was called Escuela Activa Urbana. It was named this way to differentiate it from the multigrade school in the rural sector. FEN was created precisely to begin the adaptation of Escuela Nueva to other contexts and populations. From this initiative, the Escuela Activa Urbana was designed and applied in urban-marginal sectors, and, subsequently, FEN initiated the Escuela Nueva Learning Circles (CAENA), created for displaced and migrant populations. In 1988, its implementation began in parish schools in Bogota. In 1994 the Mission of Science, Education, and Development (Misión de Sabios) recommended that urban schools incorporate the most important aspects of the Escuela Nueval model. In this context, in 1992 Ernesto Schiefelbein motivated us to adapt this urban system to two urban schools in Conchali (Chile) with the support of the UNESCO Regional Office of Education for Latin America and the Caribbean (OREALC) and the University Promotion Corporation (CPU). After the Chilean pilot implementation with Escuela Activa Urbana, FEN initiated pilot projects in different cities of the country in alliance with different partners such as Plan Internacional in Buenaventura and FEMSA in Ciudad Bolivar in Bogota and Medellin. Both experiences yielded positive results.

After the successful implementation in Bogota and Medellin, FEN sought out the city of Manizales, to initiate the pilot urban Escuela Activa Urbana, building on the successful implementation with the Coffee Growers in that region. In fact, FEN started working in several municipalities of Caldas with the local majors.

The Board of Directors of the Luker Foundation, motivated by this initiative, with the support of Jose Bernardo Toro and Ernesto Schiefelbein, sought out FEN to initiate activities in the urban area, and an alliance was initiated between FEN, the Luker Foundation and the Secretary of Education of Manizales.

With the Chilean adaptation of Escuela Nueva to urban schools, Escuela Activa Urbana became an option in different cities in Colombia.

Forty-two years have passed since the publication of In Search of the School of the XXI Century. Despite various educational reforms in Latin American countries, what seems to have changed is more the form than the substance. Three decades later, the results in reading comprehension, mathematics, and science in the PISA tests remain very precarious.

It is necessary to review again Schiefelbein’s judicious analysis of Escuela Nueva to find in this model elements that can surely contribute to remedying some of the educational problems of the region. Paraphrasing Schiefelbein, it could be stated that Escuela Nueva effectively offers clues that direct educational reformers toward XXI-century education.

In summary, Ernesto’s motivation, leadership, and permanent support to transform the pedagogical paradigm from transmission of knowledge to social construction of knowledge was a great contribution. His legacy, in addition to the academic world, is in the minds and hearts of millions of boys, girls, and teachers.




  • Schiefelbein, Ernesto. 1993. In Search of the School of the XXI Century: Is the Colombian Escuela Nueva the Right Pathfinder? UNESCO Regional Office of Education for Latin America and the Caribbean (OREALC) and UNICEF Regional Office for Latin America and the Caribbean – UNICEF.
  • Schiefelbein Ernesto, Castillo Gabriel, and Vicky Colbert (Processed). UNESCO, UNICEF, CIDE. Schiefelbein Ernesto, Castillo Gabriel, and Vicky Colbert. (Processed). Learning Guides for a Desirable School.
  • Schiefelbein Ernesto, Cobert Vicky, and C. Sotomayor (Processed).  Adaptation of Learning Guides: two successful cases.
  • Schiefelbein, Ernesto 1993. New Learning Guides for a Desirable School.  UNESCO – UNICEF.

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