Editor’s note: This is the first of a three part series.

The innovation academic literature and international data consistently show that innovation moves from North to South rather than South to North. There are many reasons for that flow. Most of them are related to economic development and knowledge creation theories. There are few examples of innovational education models flowing from South to North. I will review three models that are recognized as innovative by scholars and international organizations looking into new ways of teaching and learning.

Being an e-learning educator for over 14 years, I knew there was a huge need in this sector of education. 

I will explore three models that use innovative approaches resulting in improved academic success of students despite economic constraints. The intent of this article is to share information of these educational models I learned about in Colombia, a country most Americans would not look to for research-based options and models. These innovative models could be helpful in resolving key issues in the U.S. educational system such as inclusion, flexible curricula, teacher training and vocational training.

The Beginning

My father passed away a year and a half ago. His death was sudden and the manner of death was undetermined. Incredibly, the timing of my father’s death coincided with a long lost family member, from his side, finding me on Twitter after searching for our family for over 40 years. The impact of my father’s sudden death, my unknown family finding us, and the reunion of the family was profound and unpredictable. One of the resulting factors led me on a personal journey that ensued a few months later that affected my personal and professional life thereafter.

I have read that people may react in unpredictable ways to a death in the family and my reaction resulted in a year-long journey to Colombia where I discovered successful innovative models of education. My focus was to discover ways to “give back” to my roots and, on the flip side, to seek resources that could possibly support education in the U.S such as ELL programs. My passion for seeking support for English Language Learner (ELL) students was due to my experience as an ELL student — I spoke Spanish before English— and for the severe lack of resources in online and blended learning.

Being an eLearning educator for over 14 years, I knew there was a huge need in this sector of education. When I entered kindergarten, there were no ELL programs or resources and, as a result, I was placed in a speech therapy program. Although there are now formal programs supporting English language learners, there is still a great need for resources to fully support the needs of ELL students. During this time of research and learning about the educational landscape in Colombia, I discovered pockets of successful and impactful innovative educational models that, we as educators in the U.S. could learn from. I will be offering descriptions of three such models based on their unique pedagogical model, impact at scale and affordable solution.

Modelo Fontan (Fontan Relational Educational Model – FRE)

Fontan Relational Education is an innovative whole school model centered on the student. FRE provides the tools for a personalized learning path where students work around their individual academic — and social — needs, their abilities and their interests. The model promotes learning and explicitly prepares students with entrepreneurship and 21st century skills. FRE is best understood when one is there in person to fully absorb and appreciate the value of the model. I observed true student ownership of their learning. Upon my return to the U.S., I had tried to describe the FRE Model to educators and experienced the difficulty of relaying what I observed into easy to understand descriptions. I quickly realized that it was so far from standard practice in the U.S. that to be understood it had to be seen. Since my first visit to FRE schools, two other groups of American educators visited the schools and were able to understand what they were seeing…autonomous student learners.

  FRE is a personalized pedagogy model proven to improve student academic performance. It was developed in Colombia in 1957 as part of the Centro icoecnico, a center to design and promote innovative teaching methodologies. In 1985 the Colombian Ministry of Education officially recognized the Fontan. FRE recognizes that, “A student’s productivity, interest and creativity are limited when they are required to share a learning model. Innovation occurs when a student has the freedom to create, instead of having to follow a learning framework established by others.” Currently, The FRE model is implemented in private and public schools in Colombia, Chile, Spain, Mexico, and now in the U.S. The features of the model are:

  1. Student excellence
  2. Development of autonomy
  3. Educators as catalysts
  4. Goals oriented

There is also an explicit focus on literacy as a tool to access information and to be able to become autonomous learners. Under the FRE Model, students follow four stages to reach their full learning potential.

Stage 1: Starting/Ending Points

Students reflect on prior knowledge related to the unit of work. They look into personal experiences, every day facts among others, and answering questions related to the unit of work. The facilitator provides contextualized questions that are answered by the student. The student creates hypotheses on learning achievements.

Stage 2: Research

Students look for information related to the units of work. They can look into different media and other sources that support their hypotheses as they create evidence of their research. They must provide a list of references and evidence of their research that responds to the questions asked in stage one.

Stage 3: Skill Development

Skill development represents the central focus of the learning process because students are required to apply the knowledge they acquired during their research to new applications within the unit of study. The student demonstrates capacity to transform and/or improve the knowledge detected in stage one. The educator provides an assignment related to the student’s initial questions, the findings and the students’ needs and abilities.

Stage 4: Relating

Students relate their new knowledge to the context around other students and their school. Students critically assess what they have discovered — new learning, new tools etc. They also “evaluate how their original hypotheses of the unit of study have been modified, validated or rejected through the learning process.”

New Roles: In the FRE model, roles are different compared to the traditional roles we grew up with. The role of the facilitator is to “develop the faculties and empower a person.” They facilitate the learning for students and help to put together the pieces between prior knowledge, new knowledge and critical evaluation.

Learning: The student provides guidance, support and advice during the learning process so students can perform well in their academic and personal lives. 

Technology: Students use a proprietary online platform called QINO. QINO offers students, teachers and parents access to data, learning plans and all information related to student progress.

The tools of the model are:

  1. Subject area assessment:  Assessments and an interview to gather information on the student’s academic and personal interests. The information goes into the Student Learning Plan.
  2. Educators and the Student Learning Plan:  The educator and the student create a Learning Plan      aligned with the school/district standards.
  3. Educator promotion assessments. Student Learning Plan: An overview of the student activities that need to be carried out to reach individual learning objectives.
  4. Workshops: Individual work potential, a sense of community and cohesiveness among peers. These tight-knit groups of students will share both daily routines, including meal time and extracurricular activities, such as field trips and community service.

Research Based Curriculum: In order to address how learning best occurs, faculty are trained to:

  1. Design standards-based curriculum — using the principles of backward design
  2. Align appropriate assessments to the standards.
  3. Implement project-based learning activities that are aligned to standards and reflect research-based best practice.

According to Erika Twani of Learning One to One Foundation —the nonprofit foundation that supports FRE in the U.S., “Today, we serve more than 20,000 students in countries achieving outstanding results…”

In 2015, schools using FRE experienced:

  • An average of 40 percent increase in reading comprehension.
  • Five percent increase YOY (Year Over Year) in GPA.
  • Dropout rates close to zero.
  • Zero percent student failure rate.
  • Academic performance Ratio of 1.029 against 0.36 of traditional education.
  • Thirty-seven percent of students finishing a grade in seven months.
  • Total average of students finishing a grade in nine months.

The Colombian Ministry of Education ranked the Fontan School in Bogota as “very superior,” which is the highest a Colombian school can achieve. The adoption of FRE methodology in Colombian schools has shown consistent improvement in government performance tests. Public schools using FRE moved from failing near closure to top rankings in Colombia with waiting lists. 

FRE model focuses on:

  1. Personalized learning pathways.
  2. Individualized attention for each student.
  3. Ongoing evaluation.
  4. Highlight of areas of strength and areas of improvement.
  5. Student accountability for reaching his/her excellency.

FRE adds to traditional assessment measures using innovative measurement tools that are Academic Autonomy: Students’ ability to manage their own education process;

Quality: Ability to reach excellency, demonstrating a breadth and depth of content knowledge.

Reach: Students’ ability to surpass the required curriculum standards.

Work: Number of learning objectives achieved — i.e. the completion of units of study — in a given timeframe.

Personalized Learning Plan Accomplishment: Students’ ability to reach objectives and their satisfaction with the process.

FRE schools also prepare students in the areas of entrepreneurship and 21st century skills that include autonomy, solving real world problems, planning, critical thinking, decision making, collaboration, leadership and excellence.

Putting things in perspective, Erika Twani shared this story with me, “Carlos Andres Castro was 10 years old when he lost his vision. He learned braille, but living in a rural community, his only future was to become a beggar. His mother was preparing him for that: he used to go to school with no shower and dirty clothes… until the Minister of Education decided to innovate in some schools in the country and Carlos’s school was one of them.  Carlos started learning under Fontan Relational Education (FRE), which is a personalized learning pedagogy that fosters learning autonomy supported by a learning community and the development of students’ potential. Carlos had a leader inside him! He became the students’ president by vote. He received a full scholarship and graduated in Communications. He later started working at the Ministry of Communications where he created a national program that allows the blind and deaf to go to theatre and understand movies through technology. Carlos is living proof of the potential we have out there.”

Judy Perez is the CEO & Founder of iLearn Collaborative (iLC). For more information, visit

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