Javier González

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Fellow since 1997
This description of Javier González's work was prepared when Javier González was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1997.


An educator with 25 years of experience, Javier González has created a didactic game to teach basic skills such as reading, writing, and math to illiterate adults as well as school children.

The New Idea

Javier González has created and spread a methodology that teaches literacy in such a way as to motivate continued learning, develop emotional intelligence, and generate a new role for teachers. His model is built on a game which incorporates the linguistic principles required to master reading and writing, including breaking down words into their components of syllables and letters. But it goes beyond these mechanics to motivate interest in continued learning. Illiterate participants develop logic and reasoning skills and learn to value knowledge in itself. By working in groups, they also develop their emotional intelligence. Participants learn to converse, to share their ideas, and to compromise, thereby enhancing skills that are important for the resolution of common problems. The model emphasizes a different view of the teacher, as one whose role is to animate groups and facilitate learning, rather than simply transferring a given body of knowledge to students. As a result, the "tools of the trade" are different; there is no blackboard, and teachers do not dictate courses from rigid, centrally produced textbooks. They allow the participants to make their own decisions, and errors are encouraged, as a way to further develop the learning process. Javier bases his model on the principle that students should actively learn, rather than passively "being taught." Participants discover the process of acquiring knowledge for themselves, breaking away from the rote learning on which the school system in Colombia and much of Latin America is based. Javier's creativity goes beyond the conceptual design of the game: he has already been able to spread the tool throughout Colombia and is making significant inroads in his efforts to introduce it in Central America.

The Problem

All across Latin America, students must repeat grades when they don't achieve the required standards, a common phenomenon which puts a strain on national education budgets. Levels of achievement in math and sciences are lower in Latin America than in other parts of the world. Many Latin American countries still employ highly centralized education systems which give little consideration to local needs, customs or innovations. The result is an overly rigid concept of education that is based on traditional training methods that have been unsuccessful in improving levels of achievement or even basic literacy. Until recently, illiterate workers could function in production systems using rudimentary tools, but this has changed with the need for a more technically skilled labor force in an era of electronic and communications revolutions. International organizations have recognized the problems of education in Latin America and the links between poverty and low levels of literacy. The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), contends that infant mortality is greatest in areas where education attainment is the lowest. Literacy rates are highly correlated with the capacity to improve domestic hygiene and sanitary practices, as well as with the adoption of modern agricultural practices. Improved education, then, is a tool to fight poverty and other social problems in Latin America. Without a rapid and effective methodology to solve the challenges of low education levels, many countries and communities will not be equipped to meet their minimum conditions of subsistence.

The Strategy

Javier's game, which is called abcdespañol, relies on visual images important for reading. Participants, at the first level, match puzzle pieces with a picture on a corresponding sheet. More difficult levels include changing the order of pictures; matching words with smaller pictures so that the focus is on the word; and matching parts of words, beginning sounds and syllables. Participants learn instrumental literacy and the techniques needed to learn to read and write after an average of 120 hours, in sessions of two hours each day. They also converse with others, give their opinions, and describe emotions, developing what Javier describes as emotional literacy, or the feelings one gets when one learns how to read. There are no teachers or students in Javier's model-- participants learn from each other. The process is facilitated by an animator, who ensures that the game runs smoothly and participants take turns. The animators do not grade or base the process on rigid class periods, but structure groups for each level of advancement. A program in Cartagena, called My City School, rewards those who have achieved literacy. After learning to read through Javier's model, the participants write their first letters and send them to the local paper. They then receive a free three-month subscription to the local paper, as an incentive to continue reading and learning. Through this program Javier hopes to demonstrate that the citizens themselves are excellent educators, and that it is possible to achieve the goal of literacy in a short amount of time. His goal is to encourage 28,000 illiterates to learn to read and write in six months. Of those that began the program in June 1997, 10,835 have already achieved literacy. The Mayor of Cartagena named Javier "Teacher of Teachers" for his collaboration in this project.
Because Javier has witnessed such success in his literacy game for adults, he is moving into new areas, serving children in special circumstances, launching programs in primary schools, and developing games in mathematics. Javier realizes that he must enter primary schools to reach children and further reduce illiteracy rates. He negotiated a proposal to enter schools in Cartagena after the city mayor agreed his model is a viable way to increase literacy rates.
Javier recently took his model to Central America, through an organization called the Central American Educational and Cultural Coordination. The Coordination is a regional organization to promote Central American integration, composed of the Education and Culture Ministries of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama. Javier acts as the technical advisor in the implementation of his methodology and as coordinator of a literacy project in which each country elects 30 people to act as multipliers of his model. They are trained in a week-long seminar and each in turn trains ten additional persons. Javier achieved significant results in Guatemala, a country with 24 languages; he tested his model in an area where 90 percent of the population speak only an indigenous language, and all learned to read and write Spanish. By the year 2000, Javier hopes to have taught three million people to read and write through the Coordination's program.

The Person

As a student in teacher training college, Javier learned to take notes and study for one very concrete reason: his family did not have the economic resources for him to buy books. Instead, Javier borrowed books from his classmates on the weekends, while they all went to the movies or other recreational activities. Because he had to return the books on Monday, he learned to summarize the materials, using diagrams and illustrations. He learned by doing, the methodology which is the basis for his didactic games. After graduating from the school, Javier worked in the countryside, as required by teacher training schools. After the school day ended he would meet with the local parents, many of whom could not read and write, to play dominoes. Through these nightly games of dominoes, Javier realized that a game could also teach the people how to read and write. In 1972, despite a lack of support for his model in Colombia, Javier was awarded a grant from the Organization of American States to develop teaching aids. He began to spread his game to religious communities and missionaries who worked with illiterate adults in the countryside. After ten years of improving the model, the game became more sophisticated and focused in the early 1980s. Through all of these trying times, Javier relied on the constant support of his wife and two children. His wife left her position with Colombia's Ministry of Education to support her husband's dream, and his children, now grown, have offered to return to Bogota to work full-time on his idea.