Fellow Since 1997
This description of Arturo Muñoz's work was prepared when Arturo Muñoz was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1997.
Arturo has created a model system that manages aggression in children from disadvantaged backgrounds whose education has previously been neglected, using games and activities in a creative, open and compassionate environment which allows true learning to occur.
The New Idea
Arturo's educational model deals with the inefficiencies inherent in the current public education system, by directly managing the aggression of young children, particularly those whose lives involve a significant amount of time spent on the street due to their disadvantaged backgrounds. The basis of his model is respect for children's need to release energy before attempting to teach them formal subjects. In order to break the cycle of violence they face growing up in war-torn Colombia, Arturo's model allows children to express themselves freely, and even aggressively, if necessary. Doing so also opens them to the learning process. Disadvantaged youth are often put to work at an early age and are only allowed to play once they are finished with their work. Strategically designed games play a critical role in allowing the children to conduct themselves autonomously, presenting new engaging ways to learn, developing cognitive skills, and teaching students the importance of cooperation. Unlike teachers in traditional Latin American schools, the educators in Arturo's model are not afraid to allow their students freedom of action and expression. Rather than reprimanding students for "excess" energies, they provide outlets for them. Instead of disciplining aggressive students, they re-channel their energies toward productive purposes and rehabilitation. The educators demonstrate tremendous affection towards the children. The open, caring, and respectful environment that they create enables students to feel comfortable, to discover things for themselves and to truly learn, providing them with the necessary tools and strength to overcome their disadvantaged backgrounds and the violence that pervades their communities. Whereas street children are often sent unwilling by their families or court orders to enter state-run rehabilitation programs, Arturo's model is completely voluntary. In state programs, children face strict rules and little freedom to express themselves. Arturo's educational program maintains a higher retention and success rate than that of state programs. His strategically designed system of games and activities addresses the specific needs of at-risk street children. Without such specialized intervention these children risk entering a permanent life on the street.
Due to poverty, the breakdown of family life, parental neglect and the increase of family violence, the number of children living on the street in Colombia is rapidly increasing. The 50-year-old civil war has contributed to the creation of a society imbued with violence and desperation, affecting Colombians from all sectors. According to Colombia's Justice and Peace Project, in certain violent areas of the country, "simply being young puts one at risk." Children from poor backgrounds are particularly affected by these problems and have great difficulty in succeeding in the current educational system as a result of their backgrounds. Colombian schools do not currently train teachers to address the special needs of children facing poverty and violent environments within their homes and on the streets. According to Arturo, Colombian schools do not provide a safe, caring and respectful environment for children. As soon as disadvantaged youth enter these schools they are immediately marginalized because of their poor dress and the assumption on the part of many teachers that they are not capable of achieving much. This unfriendly environment, which ignores the major social and psychological problems from which these students suffer, makes it extremely difficult for students to pay attention in class and to maintain the desire to return to school. Due to this lack of attention to the real needs of these children, only a small percentage of these children make it to 4th or 5th grade before dropping out. The majority only make it through first grade. Once they have left the school system the probability of their eventual relocation to the streets rises. With this relocation also comes the increased risk of violence and drug use. Though Colombia is one of the most violent nations in the Andean region, the problems of children living on the street and increased violence among youth are growing rapidly throughout Latin America.
Arturo's model begins with work on the streets. He and his team go to the streets, meet with children, bring games and art supplies to them, and slowly gain their confidence to attract them to his center. The children then attend his school on a voluntary basis. Once in the school the education is centered on the use of various types of games. Arturo has established three categories of games to address various levels of educational development. The first category is unstructured games. These include dressing up and acting out scenes, using plastic toys and pillow fights, for example. These types of games allow the children to express themselves freely and release aggressions. The second level of games are semi-structured. There are relatively few rules for their use, but they do involve cooperation as they need to be shared and cared for. These activities include checkers, cards, and drawing, which teach children concentration and patience. The final category, structured games, have various rules for their use and incorporate educational materials such as math, reading, and geography. Games are created with numbers and maps, for example, fostering cognitive and sensory development. Within Arturo's educational complex, each of these game categories has its own location to provide the appropriate space and freedom from distraction of other activities. The educators in Arturo's model are particularly tuned into the social problems these children face, and demonstrate great respect and affection towards them. This caring environment opens up the students to the learning process. They decide when they are comfortable there and when they are ready to learn. They are not forced to learn before that time. The educators do not stand in front of a group of students in a classroom and dictate lessons to them; rather they share materials with them and facilitate their learning, often using an outdoor setting. The educational program includes art workshops for creative expression, outdoor excursions for scientific lessons, and recreation. Arturo's model has benefited many children. For those children already living on the street, he has provided them an outlet for their aggression, a safe place to spend time and has been able to reach and educate them as no other public institution has been able to do. For those children not yet living on the street but who are spending more and more time there and face the risk of leaving their homes permanently and for younger children who have not yet been introduced to street life, he is breaking the cycle before it begins, not only by working with the children, but also by incorporating parents into his educational model. His program is a comprehensive one that provides direct and indirect training for parents as well. Parents learn directly through special classes organized for them on weekends and through household visits. Indirectly they learn from the changes in behavior and attitude that they witness in their children once they have spent time in Arturo's program. Within the educational complex, there is a site for medical services and bathrooms that street children can use to attend to their hygiene needs, to clean themselves up after spending time on the streets. Recognizing the role poverty plays in the problems his students confront, Arturo is also studying the feasibility of extending his family program to include vocational training, enterprise development, and job opportunities for parents of neglected children, to try to restructure a nurturing home environment as the best means of preventing the alienation of young people Arturo has gained regional recognition for his model. The state has provided him with six hectares of land on which he is building a farm to house his alternative education complex and to create productive opportunities for the families involved in his program. He has been invited to several national and international education conferences to share his model of education. Through the National Education Ministry he presented his model to 48 institutions from various regions in Colombia. There is great potential for expansion of his model, as the Colombian education system has become decentralized and allows for greater autonomy in selecting educational models. Arturo also has strong connections with the (private) Foundation for Superior Education (FES). Because breaking the cycle of violence is among the priority issues requiring immediate action in Colombia, the FES is very interested in Arturo's project and assisted him to present his program to the European Union. The EU visited his model and is considering supporting his project "National Program to Attend to Street Children" to replicate it across Colombia.
Arturo is trained in education, mathematics and physics. After years of teaching in the school system in Colombia, Arturo found that the students in these schools were not truly learning the subjects being taught. Disenchanted with the education system, he quit the profession and moved to Ecuador. While in Ecuador he began to work with the Experimental Center for Education Based on Spontaneous Activity. He initiated investigative work in social problems through the Center for Social Movements of Ecuador. During this time he began to develop his own ideas and materials for dealing with the problems of the poor and inefficient education systems. So disillusioned was Arturo with the public school system in Ecuador that he pulled all three of his children out of school and began to educate them at home. Convinced of the value of his new model school, he returned to Colombia to implement it, and put his own children in the program to learn along with young people suffering from problems with drugs and violence. Back in Colombia he created his own Education and Social Foundation, URDIMBRE. Arturo is completely committed to consolidating this alternative model of education and spreading it through Colombia to break the cycle of violence that permeates Colombian society and to foster effective education. Through his increasing international connections with alternative education institutions, Arturo will work towards spreading his model throughout Latin America.