Mauricio Wild has demonstrated a radical alternative approach to education for children in Ecuador that he has spread from Quito into outlying indigenous communities and further into the Andean region.
The New Idea
Mauricio Wild's philosophy challenges the traditional meaning of teaching: rather than adults feeding prescribed information to children, teachers should provide opportunities for learning. In 1982, he founded the Pestalozzi Educational Foundation to provide an institutional framework for his educational philosophy. Since that time he has established an alternative model that has spread by force of its attractiveness.In contrast to the fixed curriculum and rote methodology typical in Ecuador's public education, the Pestalozzi School has no pre-set course of study. The classroom is only one of many tools students can use; teachers redefine their roles to be facilitators and coaches. A child's fascination with bicycles could stimulate questions like: What would you have to know to build it? How do the gears shift? The bicycle could become the basis for study of geometry, accounting, transportation, history–even apprenticeship in a bicycle shop. Many educators have stressed the need for innovation, including Johann Pestalozzi, a 19th-century Swiss educational reformer, Montessori, Piaget, Thomas Kuhn and Humberto Maturana, to whom Mauricio often refers. One distinguishing characteristic of Mauricio's education alternative is his determination to weave it into Ecuadorian society. Despite the fact that it is almost completely alien to Ecuadorian education officials, through Mauricio's dogged efforts the Pestalozzi model has secured accreditation up to the secondary level. Further, he has addressed the problem of how people can pay for Pestalozzi in a poor country. Mauricio has developed an economic strategy based on barter and interest-free loans: within Ecuador's overall capitalist system, he has created local cooperatives that support his schools and strengthen community interaction.
Fifty percent of Ecuador's children leave school by the sixth grade. They drop out of classes where materials, even blackboards and textbooks, are in short supply, the teachers' pay is low and the teacher/student ratio often exceeds forty to one. In order to be able to vote in Ecuador it is necessary to read and write, and the likelihood that dropouts will be able to support themselves without more education is decreasing. Their numbers are particularly high in the indigenous communities that comprise 45 percent of the country's population.Students who stay in school continue in a system that, by its nature, instills a sense that education is conferred by an external authority. Its prescribed curriculum offers no support for students to rigorously examine the system they live within or to look for ways to change it for the better. Creative and critical thinking are not encouraged; students' intellectual capacities and their abilities to think independently remain underdeveloped. Moreover, neither secondary schools nor universities offer practical experience that prepare students for jobs, and firms preoccupied with reducing their costs are increasingly unwilling to provide internships or on-the-job training. Ecuador's economics contribute to the weakness of support for its children's educational development. The country has been "structurally adjusted:" in order to meet the goals of reduced inflation and repayment of the national debt the government has reduced domestic investment, and education, like other social programs, has suffered. What resources do exist are often siphoned off by corruption or the stimulation of exportable commodities such as oil and the shrimp monoculture that has stripped the coastline bare. The educational system is part of a generally weak infrastructure expressed in potholed roads and intermittent electricity for telephones and the well pumps that people depend on for their water supply.While Mauricio has created an alternative school, it is private and therefore not supported by the state. In a poor country, that creates the problem of how children of all social classes can have access to a Pestalozzi education.
Mauricio started by designing a system around the developmental needs of children. His philosophy of education is that growth, development and learning result not from being taught, but from a supportive interaction with a rich environment. In his words: "The genetic program of an organism defines its potential. If the environment is adequate, the resulting growth, development or learning will be adequate. If the environment is not adequate, the organism will accommodate_. So one of the important roles of adults in our view is to prepare the adequate environment for the students." The Pestalozzi School does not have classrooms. The entire campus "is a prepared environment for all possible activities children like to do. There are also rooms and buildings because we have lots of materials and many activities are more convenient to do inside," explains Mauricio. Teachers rotate weekly through the different areas, and children are free to choose where they want to be. Students have at their disposal tools, many three-dimensional manipulable objects, and weights and measures. In place of standard textbooks, students write and make their own books and use libraries; though there are no reading classes, every student learns to read. For all its freedom, there are signs everywhere of highly structured and refined format. The general feel of the school is joyful.The staff members are responsible for creating the learning environment. They are chosen through an extensive process of mutual observation and interviews; then they undergo 60 hours of immersion in the theory behind the school and also in use of the materials so that they understand how learning takes place in the Pestalozzi system. Once employed, all staff members continue to consider themselves in training. They attend two two-hour meetings per week, one devoted to theoretical concerns and the other for training and practice in the use of concrete materials. This ensures that staff members, like students, are constantly growing. Mauricio says that the most common obstacle he has faced during twenty years of building the Pestalozzi system is rejection from people who are impressed at what they physically observe in the school but do not understand the educational philosophy. As he puts it, "We are still using the same words, but we really mean something different." It has been crucial for him to find a way to bridge this gap in order to secure accreditation for the school. Mauricio could not, in good conscience, compromise with the official legal guidelines; and for that reason the government did not approve the school for its first twelve years. But eventually Mauricio clarified and dealt with the two major objections from the authorities. Control over the children was the first issue. With regard to behavior, the staff report that their students have few reasons to produce discipline problems; in Mauricio's words, "Do you know anybody who feels happy and behaves badly? The problem is not one of behaving badly but feeling badly. Since students do what they want to do, they are also willing to accept responsibility for what they do." From a more academic standpoint, the officials felt that in such a free school, children would be left too much to themselves and the teachers would not know enough about their situations to adequately monitor them. Mauricio explains: "To avoid this accusation, we developed a very thorough system of keeping track of all the activities of the children and the quality of those activities. These very extensive data are processed twice every school year and pedagogical reports written out. The reports are documents from 30 to 50 pages long, and the officials could not accuse us of not knowing what our children were doing."The second problem was the curriculum itself. The accreditors believed that such a radical approach that did not define what a child should be doing would make it impossible for the student to learn the basic skills that people need in modern society. But at the Pestalozzi School, Mauricio replies, "In the prepared environment you can find the whole curriculum present in concrete materials. The question if the students would by themselves use those materials is then necessarily connected to questions like developmental stages of the children or their authentic needs or special stressful circumstances." Mauricio admits that due to the self-determined curriculum, his graduates may not have acquired all the academic content they need to meet university entrance requirements. He believes, however, that by attending his school, they are meeting their authentic developmental needs, thereby enabling them to succeed in life, not just in school. If they decide to attend universities, they will find and develop the necessary strategies to meet the academic requirements when they need to; meanwhile the early years of their schooling should not be shaped by university policies. Again, the results speak for themselves: students who have been educated at Pestalozzi are consistently top achievers when entering other more traditional institutions. The Pestalozzi system of education is now recognized for preschool through primary school by the Ministry of Education under the name of "Ecuadorian Basic General Education without grades." In a sense, Mauricio turns the burden of proof on its head: students who want to take courses outside his school must go through a procedure where the staff analyses whether the student has grown autonomous enough to risk entering into a situation of being taught. Only if the staff agrees to it can students take courses outside the Pestalozzi School. Conversely, students who enter the school later than the optimum age three or four will have a different experience; but Mauricio believes latecomers can still compensate for the minimal developmental growth they bring with them from more traditional schools. For several years now, Mauricio has sought to extend his system at the university level. The proposed Universidad Autodidacta Pestalozzi (Pestalozzi Self-taught University) will be based on the same principles he has established at the earlier levels. Mauricio sees endless possibilities for creativity and innovation: "The University will function as a coordinating center so the self-taught can shape their own path, integrating their personal talents with our society's concrete socio-economic situation," states Mauricio.The structure of the Pestalozzi model is itself a good example of such integration. In order to have a school that low-income children could come to, where teachers could afford to work, Mauricio organized a mutual-assistance cooperative system that addresses their financial needs. Current Ecuadorian economics have resulted in severe interest rates–in late 1993 bank loans fluctuated over 50 percent–and most citizens suffer from a chronic currency shortage. Pestalozzi parents range from wealthy doctors to agricultural workers: from the beginning the school has been accessible to anyone who wanted to come. Mauricio put these elements together and created the Interchange and Local Transactions System Foundation, which provides a mechanism for people to pay their tuition and acquire goods and services without relying on money. Every Saturday there is an exchange fair where people meet and exchange goods or chits: for example, a dentist parent might "pay" tuition by contributing a number of hours of dental care; another might pay with garden produce. When someone needs to borrow actual money, such as a teacher who needs to build a house, the Foundation includes an interest-free savings and loan cooperative. Mauricio has also begun to explore the potential for creating cooperative affordable housing within the Pestalozzi community. A telling detail is that the Pestalozzi school system has spread into eight indigenous communities in Ecuador: Namarin, Lagunas, Tambopamba, Onacapac, Tenta, Ilincho, Yacuambi and the Saraguros indigenous people's council. The Pestalozzi model is working even in those very low-income areas. Like most good ideas, the Pestalozzi School has spread in part by its reputation. People have moved to Ecuador just to send their children to school there. Mauricio also disseminates his ideas through speaking; abroad, he has lectured in Switzerland, Austria and Holland; and at home he has established a coordination center near Quito where he offers seminars to the many people from around the world who come to see his successful education and economic models. He hopes to expand his educational system to twenty other self-teaching centers, relying on staff whom he has trained to replicate his school.
The son of Swiss immigrants, and now in his fifties, Mauricio brings wide-ranging life and educational experiences to the development of his educational and economic programs. His educational experience includes primary and secondary schools in Ecuador and Switzerland, and studies in psychology at New York University and theology at an Episcopal Seminary in Puerto Rico. Mauricio worked in his father's sawmill, dealt in lumber, helped run a banana plantation, administered an organic vegetable farm and served as deacon and Episcopal minister at churches in Cali, Colombia and Ecuador, before turning to education in 1977.Mauricio and his wife had begun to explore educational alternatives in 1967, stimulated by the frustration they felt during the early education of their first child. "We as parents experienced school for our first son as harmful, not just 'not good enough.' We decided to do something so that our second son would not have to go through the same experience." Finding inspiration and a theoretical foundation in Montessori schools, but believing they could do better, they started a school in Cali, Colombia. Returning to Ecuador in 1977, the Wilds founded a school in which they felt they could incorporate the still more innovative strategies that today constitute their revolutionary approach to education. "It was the right decision," reflects Mauricio, reflecting on "the vivacity, happiness, joy and spontaneity of our second son in our educational establishment."