"23, 24, 25 ..." The class counts out loud as Carmen brushes her teeth. She has left the faucet running and, after just 30 seconds, the sink is half full. Maria, their teacher, has designed this lesson to demonstrate how much water students can waste getting ready in the morning. "46, 47, 48 ..." It takes Carmen 56 seconds to finish brushing, and the sink is about to overflow. Maria asks her students-4th graders at the Escuela Normal Superior de Ubate (ENSU)--to think about the effect that wasting water has on the environment. At the end of class, she asks students to brainstorm ways they can save water at home and to incorporate those changes into their daily routines.
Ubate is a rural community about an hour's drive north of Bogota, Colombia. Maria is a talented educator, adept at communicating complex ideas and instilling a sense of social and environmental responsibility in her students. She is also just 17 years old.
ENSU and the other public Escuelas Normales Superiores in Colombia provide aspiring teachers like Maria with a traditional K-11 public school education with a focus on pedagogy beginning in the 8th grade. After graduating from high school, students can enter a two-year, postgraduate ciclo complementario, which counts as the first four semesters of a university degree in education. Maria has studied here since she was four years old; next winter, she will graduate from the ciclo as a licensed teacher.
The Colombian system is based on a simple idea: Every student is a potential teacher. Principals talk about molding ciudadano-pedagogos--citizen-educators who view teaching as a way of interacting with society, not just as a profession. Starting in 8th grade, students at most Normales observe local teachers, facilitate workshops, and design pedagogical games and activities that are distributed to classrooms throughout their district. By the time they graduate from high school, they are seasoned educators. Those who continue on to the ciclo are already familiar with the pleasures and pitfalls of teaching, and they adapt quickly to new responsibilities. Those who choose other careers can use the leadership skills they learned as normalistas.
This view of pedagogy not only elevates the status of teachers, but also promotes a more proactive and socially conscious attitude among all students. "We focus on the humanity of every human being," a student at ENSU explained. "And we defend that humanity in everything we do." This sense of responsibility is reinforced by as many as 20 hours per week of practica--hands-on experience.
Colombia is a nation of glaring inequities, and students at the Normales are acutely aware of these inequalities and spend much of their time engaged in community service. At the ENS Maria Auxiliadora de Villapinzon (ENSMAV), many students log practica hours working with the city's disproportionately large special needs population. Others teach classes for rural extension students, many of whom are adults. In a Saturday morning biology class, a group of middle-aged students was busy drafting a petition to the municipal government requesting funds to promote the use of manure and compost on local farmlands. The petition explained in scientific terms the damage that chemical fertilizers cause to the soil, estimated the economic cost of that damage in terms of land left uncultivable, and proposed a publicity campaign to help raise awareness of the problem and the proposed solution. A group of graduating ciclo seniors helped these older students with the structure and science of the petition. "This is biology class, but I want to make it as practical as possible," said one young teacher. "I want my lessons to transform their daily lives."
Some Normales have expanded into university-caliber research and publications, becoming regional authorities on a variety of social ills. The ENS de Copacabana in Medellin, for example, has launched a variety of projects to transform what the principal describes as the "preconceptions that we have as human beings when confronted with difference. …