Abelardo Palma Molina

Ashoka Fellow
Fellow since 2007
This description of Abelardo Palma Molina's work was prepared when Abelardo Palma Molina was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2007 .


Abelardo Palma Molina has developed a new educational methodology that guarantees students master both their native language and Spanish, by offering material adapted to a community’s context and needs. His strategy encourages communities and students to actively participate in the design and enrichment of the program, while maintaining the communities’ values, history, and traditions.

Die neue Idee

Abelardo has developed and implemented the first educational program to address the inefficient application of the current system among indigenous populations by incorporating a strategy to strengthen first, their native speaking language, and then Spanish, while contextualizing their educational realities and involving the entire community in the learning process. The educational system he proposes, which parallels the official system, deals with the problem of “functional illiteracy” of indigenous communities by applying a methodological strategy that emphasizes the proficiency of first languages and incorporates Spanish gradually into students’ learning process. At the same time, it is the first educational program to incorporate the indigenous population’s perspective and the diversity present among communities in terms of their language, history, and culture.

Abelardo’s project represents a systematic change in the educational system with the potential to put an end to the historic lag that indigenous communities have faced, while respecting the particularities of each community and enriching their learning process. To close the existing cultural gap between professors and students, he is incorporating community members in the teaching process, primarily as educational promoters. Having the teachers elected by the community, and creating mechanisms to obtain feedback from the community, Abelardo is putting an end to the paternalism that has characterized the educational system, while opening a space for the community to participate in their own development.

Abelardo’s methodology is revolutionary. It is the first time indigenous communities initiatives, work, and ideas play a significant role in the creation of high quality educational programs of their design. Indigenous communities attain proficiency in both their native language and Spanish and a thorough comprehension of material that will be useful both personally and professionally.

Das Problem

The existing educational programs applied to indigenous communities lack the methodological strategies to enable students to develop oral and written abilities both in their native and second languages. The diversity in languages that characterizes indigenous regions is not taken into account and the same methodology applies to all communities regardless of their particularities. It has been pointed out that bilingual education is currently in a state of crisis, which can only be addressed with a better methodology. “Indigenous education” has been characterized by its consecutive failures, given the poorly designed study plans and programs elaborated by “specialists” without community-level work experience.

The existing system also focuses on repetition and memorization, which creates passive students with greater difficulties accumulating useful knowledge for their professional lives. Since community members are not involved in the teaching process, they are not able to offer feedback. Also, because the number of schools is limited and they are located in dispersed communities students are often absent, which lends to high failure rate. The state of Chiapas has the highest educational lag and illiteracy index, so the implementation of an efficient education system that considers the context of each community is urgently needed.

An additional problem is that most professors are foreigners who don’t speak the native language and so regardless of the grade all courses are offered in Spanish. They generally do not understand the community’s structure or context, which makes communication with their students more difficult. They are considered “outsiders.” Though children often learn to speak, read, and write in Spanish, they do not have a structured understanding of the language or the material. They may become “functionally illiterate”, familiar with, but never quite mastering their native language or Spanish—a tremendous obstacle to their ability to learn.

Foreign professors often choose to live in the closest city and spend little time in the community—with challenging transportation and communication between communities, teacher absence and tardiness is common, and sets a poor example for students. Since the current teaching system allows teachers who have taught longer to choose where they want to work most teachers prefer the cities while the newer and less experienced teachers are assigned to the further indigenous communities. Ultimately, turnover is high and contributes to a lack of teaching consistency among indigenous communities.

Also, the current education system does not include pedagogic tools that instill a genuine awareness about gender roles and the importance of more equitable relationships between men and women. This continues to generate male domination, female submission, and violence among men and women. Education programs should confront these outdated paradigms by integrating balanced equitable relationships and equal opportunities for men and women.

The 2000 National Census showed 27 percent of students between seven and twenty-nine years left school because they did not like to study. This implies that the current system is not useful for students and a more efficient system that meets community needs, language diversity, and context is required so that the educational system is a tool that enables students to develop personally and professionally.

Die Strategie

With Abelardo’s innovative methodology, students develop their oral and written skills in their native language and then in Spanish, while actively participating in the learning process. Local educators are trained to teach this method, which comes from the community, and incorporates a balanced gender perspective.

Abelardo formed a group of four outstanding local teachers who knew their courses and the community’s realities. He and his team designed the program for the primary level. To guarantee proficiency of their native language, the first courses are taught only in that language. In third grade, Spanish is introduced with simple bilingual concepts, and later Spanish is spoken to share stories about their daily lives and then gradually applied to various courses so that every student becomes bilingual by sixth grade.

The most relevant change regarding coursework was adapting the content to a specific community’s context, environment, history, and present reality. This involves the whole community in the improvement of their education program and makes learning more accessible, interesting, and useful to students. Separating the learning process for each language and contextualizing the teaching materials has proven to have a strong effect on students’ level of comprehension, which improves the educational quality and facilitates its application in various fields of students’ lives. Students are stimulated to be more active and creative, enriching the program with their own participation. Moreover, this system allows the community to embrace its history, traditions and values—its cultural richness.

Conscious of gender inequalities, Abelardo has incorporated a balanced gender perspective across his program. He trains teachers to involve girls and boys in all activities so that the predetermined roles and stereotypes related to gender are shattered. Teachers and students receive incentives to participate equally and to interact with respect. He also establishes respect and protection for their rights as children in the home, school, and professional activities.

Abelardo’s program includes a selection process for teacher candidates from each community—rather than foreigners—to be trained to teach. Equally innovative is the fact that the whole community participates in the selection process by voting for the new teachers in local assemblies. Once the teachers are selected and start their new positions, the community is charged with their support, including food, basic needs, and caring for their land—any responsibilities the person previously held—to enable him/her to dedicate all of their time to becoming a well-prepared promoter of education.

The elected educator attends a rigorous training program offered by Abelardo and his team. During training sessions, which take place every two weeks, the trainers prepare the future teachers with the tools and knowledge they will need to offer high quality multilevel courses for primary students. The preparation covers issues such as: How to manage a group of kids, maintaining control in the classroom, effectively transmitting course content, making material applicable, and how to plan each session to cover the oral, written, and comprehension sections of the program. Teachers are able to uniquely contribute by adapting each course to meet the specific needs of a community. Community professors share their native language and know their community’s context. They are able to establish a close relationship with students and, with a personal stake in the community, are committed to the quality of its education. Without having to leave for the city, as foreign teachers may, high turnover is not an issue.

Abelardo has trained 160 promoters from different communities. He has 2,500 enrolled students and fifty-three schools—thirty-five are completely equipped—the rest will be equipped in 2008. The resources have come from an economic grant he received from the Basque government to foster project expansion. Most communities that have a school related to Abelardo’s system did not have one previously, and children attended the closest one, which was from 1 to 30 kilometers away from home.

Abelardo has expanded his methodology based on recommendations. Before he enters a new community he ensures there is a favorable environment and general acceptance of his system. The acceptance is extended through the recommendations of other communities where he has previously worked. Therefore, individuals or groups often approach Abelardo about applying his education method in their communities. Since he adapts houses or other existing structures offered by the community and turns them into schools, there is an incentive for the community to participate in the process from the beginning.

Abelardo and his team are convinced their program is superior to the official one, and they want to continue to expand; gradually covering more levels until they reach high school and college. The first step is to obtain the Secretary of Public Education’s recognition, which would enable them to offer an official certificate to students when they complete primary school. This way, students would be free to move from one system to the other to continue their studies without repeating courses.

Abelardo also wants to expand among communities and states in Mexico. Abelardo’s team has already grown significantly, and he is incrementally increasing the number of educational promoters by having the most outstanding and experienced become the trainers for new promoters. He will continue to supervise the quality and efficiency of the system. Abelardo is participating as a teacher and as an educational promoter so that he can observe, supervise, and enrich both processes. He is working on textbooks and other didactic materials that are adapted for different levels and complement existing material to maintain a high-quality of education.

Die Person

Part of the indigenous Tarahumara population, Abelardo was raised in extreme poverty in the mountains of Chihuahua until he was nine-years-old. He recalls walking in the mountains barefoot, collecting plants and mushrooms to supplement his family’s meals. Without protection from the cold, he also walked for hours to get to school. As a teenager he promised that he would devote his life to improving the conditions of indigenous communities so that future generations would not suffer as he did.

Following his parent’s separation, he moved to the city of Chihuahua, and two years later with his mother he moved to Mexico City, where he earned a Bachelors degree in Social Anthropology while working. After graduation, he was invited to work with the Ministry of Agriculture, Rural Development, and Fishing (SAGARPA) as a direct trainer. Abelardo had contact with various indigenous communities, learned from them, and helped to establish their needs. After thirteen years with SAGARPA he moved to the National Institute of Education (INEA) to do sociolinguistic research projects on Tzotzil (the Mayan language of Chiapas). Later, he headed the Department of Educational Development at INEA, facilitating training sessions, creating workshops and offering advice to enhance community development. This experience strengthened his commitment to work with indigenous communities.

By 1996, Abelardo realized the education challenges facing indigenous populations were significant and wanted to support their educational development. He left the government and began to work for himself; offering informal advice, and later through Formación y Capacitación, A.C.–an organization he founded with four others dedicated to community formation and training. Each member specialized in one of the following areas: Education, human rights, health and technical training. Abelardo’s area was education and he began visiting communities twice a week to identify their resources and what they needed to provide excellent education.

He was invited to become a teacher in the communities and met with key community members and authorities to work together on their educational development; reviewing their context and preparing students to become bilingual. Abelardo needed to go further and created a parallel system to compete with the deficient official system. It gave the indigenous population the tools to have a comprehensive understanding of the material learned at school and to proactively participate in the development of their communities. This is Abelardo’s life project and his goal is to spread it throughout indigenous communities nationally and worldwide.