Why would someone start a new school? Don’t we have enough trouble already navigating our day jobs with our children? And do we even know what it takes to start a new school? Are we playing with our children’s futures by planning to put them in an experimental setup? How will we find space? What kind of a board will the school have?
This is just a sample of questions that come to mind when you think of starting a new school.
In spite of these daunting questions, a few brave parents dared to ask the impossible question. Why not? What if we? So we started exploring what it might take. We talked with experts and visited successful schools in Mumbai and surroundings. We debated issues about pedagogy, governance, structure and content.
To learn about education and how schools are run, we talked with the wonderful team at Adhayayan, who work with hundreds of schools, helping them improve the quality of education. A few of us visited the Bombay International School, an elite school in Mumbai run primarily by parents. Few of us also visited Innodai, a Waldorf school in another part of Mumbai. Then a few of us took a drive to Pune to meet the wonderful folks at Jidnyasa, a Sudbury style learner-centric school.
The Quest for Knowledge
As they say, “Ignorance is bliss”. When we don’t know about things, we don’t worry about them. But when we started asking these questions, we came across some facts, that once we knew them, became hard to ignore. The pioneering work done by John Holt, had already told us that children don’t learn anything in classrooms. While we knew that, we really did not question it beyond a point. We accepted that schools have classrooms and children spend bulk of the time inside classrooms, because we knew nothing better.
The trip to Jidynasa changed everything.
Jidnyasa is a school with a learner-centric model. Here there are no traditional classrooms and the space is organized in a way that our world is organized. The school has sixty children, complete with farms and animals, in a small plot in the outskirts of Pune.
As Jidnyasa’s (Jidnyasa means curiosity) founder Sachin Pethkar told us, the problem with schooling is that while its goal is to enable learning, it is in fact oriented around teaching. When we are born, we learn so much without putting an effort towards learning. We learn breathing, perception, cognition, walking, talking, all extremely complex tasks without a teacher standing in front of us lecturing about any of them. He does not call his institution a school, but a learning center. There were no teachers, only facilitators.
Another thing he explained is that we don’t learn through subjects. Subjects like science, math, history etc are higher abstractions of knowledge that we can explore, when we have the curiosity to learn more. And this curiosity has to be kindled by our everyday experiences, and our inborn human desire to learn more about our existence.
In a school like Jidnyasa there are no limits on what a child can learn. There is no age-driven grouping, but groups are loosely formed based on activity and the level of difficulty a child can handle.
Later in the trip, we also had an opportunity to experience another learning center, that was even more radical.
Born To Be Free
Sharmila Govande runs a learning center at a home with around ten kids. This learning center belongs to an even more radical thought, that children are the best judges of how they want to spend their time, so much so that they try to impose as few rules as possible. The term associated with this type of a system is usually un-schooling. If children want to play video games, then they are allowed to do that. The argument is that video games also require intense skill and concentration, and they trust their children are learning a lot of skills by playing these games.
It was a fascinating experience talking with Sharmila and a few other parents whose kids spend their days at the learning center. We asked them about addiction and exposure to tools and gadgets designed to be seductive and habit forming, but they seemed very confident in their children’s abilities to navigate this world and come out stronger.
The Two Rebellions
Later when we were debating about these models, I realized there are two rebellions. Maybe there are other ways to classify this, but this is what helped me put things in perspective.
1. Reforming the education system
The current education system, clearly does not cater to learners. We all know that and that needs to be changed. People who choose to question the current schooling systems, are taking on this system. Their goal is to provide a better learning experience to their children, compared to the current system. They want their children to ultimately integrate in the mainstream and become good citizens.
2. Reforming society
The second rebellion is a much more serious one. A society where a failed education system is allowed to not only exist, but also thrive, itself needs to be questioned. There is a lot more rotten about society than just education and we need to raise our children to question everything that is rotten about society, and they can only do that when they are supremely in connect with their inner selves. This is going to back to Hobbes’ State of Nature, and starting over from first principles. Allowing children to be at their own will and follow their desires also felt like an Epicurean way of living.
While we salute those communities that are willing to question every way of life, and they play a very important role in society, our own inclination was more towards reforming the education system and not the whole society.
After doing all the research and visiting the schools, all of us met to discuss what we want of our new school to look like. Here is the gist of what we believe is going to be the vision of our new school.
We want our children to grow up as confident individuals, without fear. We want them to be liberal and secular in their outlook, and free of as many prejudices as possible. We want them to be driven toward excellence and rigor and be able to compete with the best in the world. We want them to be good citizens, participating in society and doing their public duty. We also want to include children from all sections of the society as long as the parents agree to the overall philosophy.
We want our schools to be learner centric. We want our space to be a happy and stimulating environment. We want to bring in experts from various fields to talk to our students and inspire them. We want our children to pick what they want to learn, when they want to learn, how they want to learn. We want the learning to take place by debates and discussions, and not instruction. We want them to learn certain baseline skills that they need to navigate the real world. We want our children, when they are of the appropriate age, to be equipped with netbooks so that they can explore online resources like KhanAcademy and other and take control of their learning.
This means that children will not be grouped by age. Every child will map her own journey at her own pace. Children will be grouped based on the activity and the level of competence. Children will also be left to do their own thing if they wish.
We want the children to be able to select their own matriculate certificate (NIOS, IGCSE or any other) and choose their own path and time in appearing for these exams.
We want the school to be governed as a not-for-profit. We want the above principles, to be non-negotiable even as we grow as a school. We want parents to be able to participate in as many ways as they can within the framework of our principles. We want to have faculty that believes in this learner centric vision and want to be learners themselves. We want to be able to welcome faculty on short and mid-term duration and spend time in the school.
The school will also be run as a democratic school, within the framework above. Children will take part in taking decisions about rules of the school and have a say in decisions and resolving disputes.
At this time, we have just gotten started! We don’t yet have a name, place or a legal entity for our selves. All we know is that we want this school to be located in central Mumbai (i.e. Central Line).
We don’t know whether we will be successful or not. We have aspirations of not only creating a learning environment for the children who come to this space but also to create a model for reforming education overall.
It is an exciting journey and we are looking for like-minded partners.