Responding to the Spanish educational system that is rooted in standardized curricula and outdated pedagogical methods that emphasize rote memorization and passive learning, Montserrat del Pozo is building an educational reform movement in Spain and abroad connecting teachers, administrators, parents and both private and governmental institutions. Focusing on frontline educators, the movement stimulates teachers to see themselves as agents of change, able to innovate, in order to meet the needs of their students by drawing on a wealth of educational resources, tools and methodologies drawn from the field of education and beyond globally.
The New Idea
Montserrat is leading an educational reform movement that starts by changing how teachers see their roles, provides them the tools to play their new roles and creates the support system that enables them to carry out the needed transformations.
Through training, Montserrat provides teachers, on top of everything, the inspiration and security to lead the change. The first module of a well-structured 5 module training program for teachers focuses on motivation. It stats by telling teachers “Look at how the world looks like” by showing them inspiring movies or documentaries that speak about present and future challenges and show successful and inspiring examples from around the world to ask them right away if they believe that the educational system is prepared to face those challenges. This phase generates “the need for searching”. This part of the training is open to parents of the school as well.
Further on, the training given to teachers focuses on how to put students at the center of learning by placing their needs at the core of the curriculum and bringing out the best of each child. It shows teachers how to stimulate active learning, promote self-confidence among students and make students responsible pro-active players in their own education.
Once the mindset is changed, Montserrat offers schools and teachers in particular, a set of tools and proven methodologies that help them transform the curriculum, the teaching and evaluation methodologies, classroom and school organization, and teachers’ and students’ roles.
The techniques and principles that teachers embrace and adapt to their circumstances are numerous, but entail common threads such as the emphasis on critical thinking skills, project based learning and integrating service learning and social entrepreneurship in the curriculum in a well-structured manner that fits into the legal frame of compulsory education.
Teachers are exposed to tools, examples and tested methods that they are asked to adapt and apply right away (from the first session teachers are asked to implement pilot projects at their own classroom) and that serve as well as a tool to open their minds and expand their world of references by showing inspiring examples, talks and experiences from around the world.
Through guiding teachers, administrators and families to rethink the school system together, Montserrat is changing the way students learn and teachers teach.
With considerable success in transforming many schools in Spain, Montserrat is able to offer significant evidence of the success of her reform approach, through both her own school and numerous others that are already part of this movement, motivating in this way other schools, administrators and families to be part of it.
Spain is near the bottom of the list of international rankings measuring the quality and effectiveness of its educational system. The PISA report, an evaluation run by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in 44 countries, places Spanish students at the bottom of the ranking in subjects such as math, science or reading skills. It also shows that they are less prepared to face everyday life dilemmas than students from other countries. The failure of the educational system is a subject of ongoing debate in media, specialized forums and society in Spain. Teachers are frustrated. According to a survey conducted by the SM Editorial Foundation of 2,900 teachers across Spain, 87% concluded that the current education system does not prepare students for what is expected of them afterwards, and 86% believed that Spain’s current evaluation systems do not allow them to fully develop students’ capabilities.
There is an emerging consensus that the current school system, based on a “classic model” designed back in the eighteenth century and focused on exercising memory and developing basic language and mathematic skills, does not fit any more with Spanish society. The twenty-first century’s needs are radically different as education should be preparing students for a rapidly changing society and an unknown future.
Spain’s traditional education system only works with two out of the eight different types of intelligences identified by educational researchers (initially by the American educator and researcher, Howard Gardner): the logical-mathematical and the linguistic-verbal, missing 6 other critical areas of need. The Spanish system is furthermore based on the principle that everyone learns the same things at the same time at the same place, which results in large numbers of students exiting the system at an early age.
Although Spain has gone through several State reforms of the educational system in the last two decades, the results have not improved. Neither the evaluation system nor the curriculum has significantly changed. At the core of the problems perceived by the experts in the sector is the issue of teacher training: although it is compulsory (as it is linked with salary bonuses), it is outdated and inefficient.
Families are sometimes an obstacle for change. Parents themselves, as well as teachers, have been trained and taught in the same old system and tend to perpetuate it.
The result of this situation is dramatic, being Spain on of the European countries with higher dropout rates: the percentage of students not finishing compulsory education is 30% among boys and 20% among girls (according to an EU-Eurostat survey published in 2013).
At the core of the educational reform movement that Montserrat is leading, there is an intensive work done with teachers and educators. She describes as one the most essential elements, the attitudinal change on the part of teachers, so they see themselves as engines of change in the classroom.
Montserrat has come up with a synthetic training proposal divided into five modules that begins the change process. There is a long and a short version (going from 20 to 150 training hours) that incorporates elements wherever appropriate to context. The training proposal is called “Sustainable Learning Model” as it is constantly adapting to incorporate new needs that come from the permanent observation at the classroom and reflection of the participating teachers.
The first module of the training program she offers is focused on the attitudinal shift, or what she refers to as the “personal change” aspect. As part of the training program, participants keep a journal in which they record their reflections and experiences as they launch new projects in the classrooms concurrently with their training.
After that first module that manages to make teachers protagonist of the change by encouraging them to ask the right questions, offering motiving examples and linking education with the reality and needs of their students, the following modules focus on giving them the tools to help design their own curricula and implement new reforms immediately.
One of Montserrat’s primary goals is that teachers take ownership of the project from the very beginning and recognize the need for continual innovation. Montserrat describes what is offered as an “emerging pedagogy” which has no “finish line” but is continuous. Rather than having a fixed method, it is much more open source, but rigorously emphasizes aiding teachers to create their own path based on a cycle of action-research, from investigating to implementing reforms, to evaluating and changing them.
The other modules of the training focus on: Multiple intelligences, methodologies, critical and creative thinking, entrepreneurship and evaluation.
Once a teacher is motivated and begins experimenting, the challenge is to jump from a class project to a school project and reform effort, requiring “group work” among teachers and management boards and often parents as well. The transformation that needs to take place at school level is based on 4 pillars.
The first pillar focuses on creating new curricula built on skills and competences needed by students that is delivered through interdisciplinary and often multilingual project based assignments. The overall approach is to empower teachers in schools to make choices and create curricula that meet their students’ needs, offering them examples and tools to do this, rather than pre-determining what curricula is appropriate. Within the reform movement, schools have created their own curricula, and imported others, such as the International Baccalaureate.
The second pillar is about transforming instructional methodologies, taking into consideration both teaching methods and learning styles, as well as evaluation processes. The base approach employed to achieve this transformation is an emphasis on cooperative work: based on their own strengths children learn to help each other. Grading in this approach depends on team results. This team work is enriched with the use of technology and other methods (some of which are not derived from the educational sphere), including a focus on critical and creative thinking, and approaches which incorporate problem-based learning, skills projects (i.e. basic research), and the case methodology.
In terms of evaluation a variety of assessment methods are put in practice such as direct observation, recordings, interviews or tests and exams. A continuous assessment is done through a personal Portfolio that measures the learning achievements of the individuals based on a selection done by the teacher and the student of what they consider important in their learning process.
The third pillar is the change of school organization in terms of schedules, time distribution, staff organization and group size and composition, including the use of flexible age groups. Innovation in this area also helps teachers and students re-conceptualize their roles, with teacher’s adopting more of a coach like role, and students becoming active learners, which the movement likens to a “search engine”.
Finally, the fourth pillar involves the restructuring of the school’s “architecture”. The working methods offered in the initiative’s approach imply a more flexible structure with large classrooms, connecting spaces, and other structural reforms. Conceptually, the entire school, not just classrooms, is structured as either Source Areas: places where you “drink” or receive information from a teacher or classmate and Cave Areas for personal reflection or meetings.
In order to reach a wider audience, Montserrat’s team has produced books and manuals and run training session for trainers. The expansion strategy is increasingly decentralized, as the schools operated by her order have in turn become models, trainers and tutors for new teams and schools. Through the Catholic Schools Association in Spain, that comprises 2,400 government funded schools and represents 20% of Spain’s school system, she has already reached 3,000 teachers in 300 schools. They all have access to an online tool (Learning Platform) that gathers materials and serves as exchange and sharing platform for participating teachers.
Montserrat has also launched an online television channel, “Think One TV” which serves as a platform for training, which is particularly useful as the reform movement expands internationally. It currently has 2,500 unique visitors each day who are able to access up to date information, training videos and more 24 hours each day.
More recently Montserrat and her reform movement have begun to expand internationally, in Africa, Latin America, and it is just starting in Asia. The path to expansion occurs through multiple channels, both via her own institution schools, together with other organizations (religious and non-religious) as well as directly with the governments. In most of the cases, she has combined a top level engagement with bottom-up partnerships. They are careful to ensure that wherever they expand there are teachers and the local communities possess by the desire for reform and with the willingness to embark upon this challenging path.
Montserrat del Pozo was born in Caracas (Venezuela) 57 years ago. At the age of 10 she moved to Barcelona, where her family exiled.
She started showing leadership attitudes from very young in different areas: at her basketball team at work, leading a group of teachers promoting change in educational change... etc. She recalls having always vocation to help others and after entering university she decides to make it concrete by joining a religious order.
After graduating in philosophy at the Autonomous University of Barcelona she obtained a Masters in Family Psychology. Passionate about cinema, she also studied a degree in Image and Sound and worked as a journalist.
In 1986 she becomes principal of the Montserrat School (despite the coincidence, the school is not named after her), where she also taught and became aware of the high school failure and dropout rates of her school and others.
Searching for solutions makes her traveling, something natural to her family and personal background, learning directly from researchers of the most innovative theories of human development in the United States, France, Italy or Japan. After all the learning and experiences she decides not to adopt a single model but to combine the best elements she had found.
Montserrat begins to apply changes very soon; starting with early stimulation in early childhood education and good results encourage her to move on to deeper changes in all educational stages at her school. She came to define a model that is not a model in itself, as it is based on a principle of constant change and innovation with the aim of adapting education to be effective for all students.
She led the school to its current position at the top of the school rankings in Spain. The school has been her “laboratory” for trying out new elements and methods but it also serves as proof of evidence of her success, motivating others to get involved.
The Montserrat School, although government funded, is operated by Montserrat’s religious order, a small Catholic order of nuns called The Missionary Daughters of the Holy Family of Nazareth. (Its status is similar to, but distinct from US charter schools). Montserrat’s order operates 9 schools in Spain, which were the first to participate in her reform movement and serve, today as multipliers.
Recently Montserrat was elected as the Mother Superior of her small order which comprises several hundreds of nuns internationally. The election was an expression of support for her visionary leadership in the educational field, and has bolstered her ability to take her reform movement global.