What is a school? My two cents.

Children playing on the beach in Fuvahmulah – Photo by Asad

In an overly materialistic world, we have come to associate the quality of education and knowledge with the materials that a learning environment is built with. We seem incapable of detaching knowledge from brick and mortar. A school has become a social construct, a physical structure that has to be built with the most expensive materials. Our expectation of a school is not what is taught there but rather the physical built quality of the building and the comfort of the environment.

About a decade ago, I came across the story of Sugata Mitra and his ‘hole in the wall’ project. His story is fascinating. It is a story of our capacity to self-organize and learn even from a very young age. A software engineer by profession, Mr Mitra wanted to make education accessible to the underprivileged. In this youtube video, he explains how he started thinking that the victorian English education system that the rest of the world adopted in the 20th century standardised education and how he thought that limited human creativity. After the initial experiments, he came up with concepts like Self organized learning environments or SOLEs and the Granny Cloud. These concepts and the school in the cloud turn our conventional ideas about schools on their head.

The late Sir Robinson is another educator who had strong opinions against the systems of schooling we see today. He called for a new paradigm in education and introduced such terms as ‘education’s death valley’ and described schools as places that kill creativity in children. He was perhaps the best TED speaker ever. Here is one of his TED talks where he talks about customizing and personalizing the way we help children in schools.

I recently read the autobiography of Amartya Sen, the Nobel-winning economist and global thinker who recollected details of his childhood and school days in his most recent book ‘Home in the world’. Professor Sen attended the Shantiniketan, but not during the life of Rabindranath Tagore. The description of Shantiniketan and the learning environment during Professor Sen’s time there and before that opens a window into how education was viewed back in those days. It reminded me of the importance of helping each child reach their full potential in life instead of standardising education. Some brave thinkers have tried to demonstrate this through stories and this is a story I came across many years ago and shared on my blog.

Another important lesson I learned from Professor Sen’s book is the myth of colourful academic achievement during childhood equating to success later in life. When Professor Sen won the Nobel Prize for economics in 1998, the principal of his old primary school in Dhaka wanted to honour him during his next visit to Bangladesh and when the principal dug through the old records for Professor Sen’s academic results in primary school, he was surprised to find that those results were very ordinary. He was not a straight-A student. Schools should teach kids how to think rather than what to think. They should be taught life skills, social skills and self-awareness more than anything else.

For a long time, I have had very different opinions on how our education system is organized. As far back as 2009, I argued against island school SMTs for trying to exclude certain kids from their schools. The idea of extending boundary walls to keep the so-called ‘street children’ out never appealed to me and it goes against the principles of open community schools that we are supposed to have on the islands. Kids on the street, especially those being lost to delinquency, are the result of the failure of educators who are responsible for that catchment area – the SMT of the very school who are trying to keep these kids out of their premises. Here is the link to a document that was prepared in 2011 about an educational vision for Fuvahmulah as I saw it then.

My formative education was mostly extracurricular. They had very little to do with formal education. I learned from my grandfather’s Achchange, from my uncle and from backyard gardening with my father. At school, my best lessons came not from the books but from the work that our principal Ibrahim Waheed made us do – organizing his library, printing a newspaper and a magazine and acting in plays. I am grateful for my childhood and to all those beautiful people who shaped my childhood that made me who I am.

So what is a school? To me, it is not about schools but more about schooling as a concept. Schooling as helping children grow in their capacity to be independent thinkers capable of looking after themselves and those around them. Schooling is about enhancing their capacity to make meaning of themselves and the world they live in. Schooling should not be associated with a glorified building. Schooling can happen anywhere. Discipline and life skills can be taught anywhere in the neighbourhood – be it inside a tin shack, a mud hut, an odi haruge (boat hangar) or on the beach on small islands. What is important is not where our children are educated but rather with what knowledge and competencies.

About Hassan Saeed

I am a lifelong learner. I learn every day and I learn from everybody I interact with - I live with this simple philosophy. My goal is to help spread knowledge and information that helps people get better every day. Learning should fit into everyone's daily routine. Learning should empower individuals to achieve more and drive them towards excellence and perfection.
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