The Escuela Nueva Learning Circles: learning in emergency situations

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Freder and his mother Graciela review his homework Freder and his mother Graciela review his homework

Freder, a seven-year-old boy from the community of El Carmen in Fonseca, Guajira in Colombia continues to learn at home on his own. When he needs support, he calls on his mother, Graciela, to help him with some activity proposed in the self-learning guides designed for the Learning Circles, an educational innovation used in Colombia to support children in emergency situations. If Freder manages to continue learning in this kind of “home schooling” adaptation of the Learning Circles, it will be a big success story.

The Escuela Nueva Learning Circles (ENLC) were designed to provide high quality education to children displaced by violence and other emergencies. The ENLC are an adaptation of the Escuela Nueva child-centered pedagogical model to provide quality education for out of school children, hard to reach children in vulnerable social situations due to poverty, health and natural emergencies or political conflict that forces displacement. The initiative, developed by the Colombian NGO Fundación Escuela Nueva, FEN, has successfully accelerated the integration of out-of-school children displaced by violence into the educational system, understood and supported their unique psychosocial needs and improved their learning outcomes. The model was initially piloted in Soacha, Colombia for displaced populations, and has been applied subsequently in different settings for vulnerable populations. 

How do they work?

The ENLC, recognized by the Ministry of Education (MOE), operate off-site from the formal “mother schools” but are officially linked to them through shared regular curriculum, academic calendars, grading systems and extracurricular programs. Children learn in these circles in groups of around 15 students with the aid of a tutor that facilitates learning providing personalized attention to children using community centers, local churches, and family homes until they are ready to transfer to the “mother school.” The location in the community provides a safe, caring and protective environment where the personalized and extra socio-affective support restores and strengthens children´s self-esteem, develops social and life skills as well as a joyful learning experience. It is now widely accepted that development of social skills, such as conflict management, group work, and acceptance of diverse opinions, is necessary to succeed in social life and work in today’s world. 

Results from the pilot project 

The evaluation of the pilot demonstrated improvements in coverage and academic achievements on national standardized tests, and strengthened democratic behaviors, peaceful coexistence and self-esteem of students. The ENLC achieved full enrollment, increased children’s self-esteem by 18.5% and obtained the highest level of improvement in both language and math, placing children of the ENLC 13.9 and 17.3 points, respectively, above the national average.  

Table 1

Escuela Nueva Learning Cycles School Model Math scores by intervention


Beginning of Cycle-April

End of Cycle-November

Score improvement


Exp 1


Exp 2

Exp 1


Exp 2

Exp 1


Exp 2











Exp 1:  new students in conventional schools; Control classroom (traditional method); Exp 2: new students in Escuela Nueva Learning Circles. Source: International Organization for Migration, IOM

Learning Circles and Migrants

The situation of internally displaced children in Colombia has been further complicated by the significant number of Venezuelan children that have migrated with their families, thus increasing the need for special education services.  As of June 2019, more than 400.000 school aged migrant children lived in Colombia and only 10 percent had enrolled formally in school (World Bank, 2019). The regular system was not ready for their needs. The methods of conventional schools assume that children learn at the same pace and have a similar knowledge base. Their frontal, teacher-centered methods with whole class instruction makes it extremely difficult for these children to succeed. To address the educational needs of these children, UNICEF and FEN, with support from the World Bank, set up in 2019 a program of Escuela Nueva Learning Circles in six cities of Colombia. Children work in groups of 15 with self-learning guides and a lighter curriculum in terms of content but stronger in life skills. 

Learning Circles in the pandemic

As ENLC started to be implemented for displaced and migrant children the Coronavirus pandemic hit Colombia. In the context of the quarantine that followed, the program rapidly adjusted to implement an adapted version of the ENLC to support isolated low-income students that may have barriers in access to regular internet services. 

The rapid adaptation is applied family by family using, primarily, cell phones. It has three elements:  i) use of learning materials delivered to each child (photocopy or originals of guides, workbooks, supplies); ii) delivery of written guidelines to parents or other adults responsible for the children with information on how the tutors and others will support children through phone calls or virtual media when available; iii) rigorous use of the structure, timetables and activities of the learning guides so children learn at their own pace and the tutors can monitor their progress and provide the required support. 

There is a clear path to monitor the program, including periodic individual phone calls. WhatsApp groups and other ways of interaction among students and tutors, use of photos, videos and audio messages sent by tutors or by children and parents; and evaluation of progress, feedback and guidance are all utilized as needed.   

The adaptation of the ENLC by FEN is also relevant today for other countries. In effect, due to the education crisis created by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic more than 1.3 billion students are out of schools, supposedly getting education through virtual media.  In Colombia and elsewhere, millions of children and families experience multiple barriers to education. Most of these are low-income family children and rural children for many of whom online education is not an option.  So, the potential for excluded children to benefit from education by using this type of appropriate and efficient education model is huge.  

UNICEF, MOE and the World Bank are planning an evaluation of the program and its adaptation that may provide useful information to help an important group of vulnerable students.  If Freder manages to continue learning at home through the adaptation of the Learning Circles, he not only will be ready to eventually enter a regular school, but his academic performance will be higher than the average Colombian student of his age.


Eduardo Velez Bustillo

Consultant, Education Sector, World Bank

Vicky Colbert

Founder and Director, Fundación Escuela Nueva

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