You are wrong. Education can be beautiful here too. #EduTrip

Although usually the purpose of these posts is to describe the schools I visit, this one is going to be slightly different. This post’s aim is to disprove common arguments of many «educational» organizations about the limits that stop them from doing something really significant.

I spent 6 months working in the North-East of India. Supposedly, working on development of rural education. Based on what I’ve seen, I can state that sending a child to one of those schools is, arguably, the worst harm one can do to this child.

I’ve heard opposing arguments, saying that at least schooling allows many of these children to get the government jobs, maybe move to the city, increase their income. But in the big picture that’s exactly what leads to the initial problem of so-called rural development: villagers start considering earning as their only motive, rival for shitty jobs in the city, the whole rural lifestyle becomes corrupted (note, originally there is nothing wrong with the word «rural» except the label we give to it). In other words, in the very process of «pulling the village out of poverty» we create this poverty.

Let’s go further. Who deals with the problem of rural education in India? Countless educational NGOs. In fact, it’s a huge business — there are hundreds and hundreds of them in the country; they create hierarchic structures: some NGOs working on the «grassroots», another NGOs managing the first ones, then foundations and trusts dividing the funds among the rest. Apart from the obvious cost-increase effect, it also creates a constant bias in the interests. In many cases the whole enterprise starts not with the problem/solution approach, but with the donor’s desire. Thus it ends up serving the interests of corporate CSRs (usually it’s either tax decrease / government requirement or pleasing the villages they exploit anyhow) or government grant-makers (who are only concerned with the report sheets).

I want to make it clear. It’s not just a typical problem where a good-willing NGO has to struggle between the grant requirements and what’s actually needed. Instead it becomes the primary motive for the NGOs to work, merely covered by the bold claims to «save the poor children from the horrors of being not-educated».

I’ve seen this same picture on different levels: from small organizations to nation-wide and even global NGOs with thousands of schools and lakhs of children they work with.

Some random picture from the search “India NGO”. But shows exactly how it looks.

In some rare moments one might be able to break this wall of hypocrisy — a company would accept the truth of what they do; then you can show the alternative, talk about the principles of Education (instead of schooling), use the words they all put to their websites in their actual meaning. But in the next moment you’ll face a set of arguments of «why it can’t be done», which open the door to fall back into the illusive world.

Here are exactly the ones I encountered:

  1. «Alternative education» can happen only in the cities, because:
  2. Children in the village are not smart / exposed enough due to their family background
  3. Teachers in the village are not motivated and qualified enough for the alternative education. It’s just a job for them.
  4. Literacy and academics plus diploma are much more important for the village kids because that will allow them to get a government job.
  5. The ones who give the money are big corporates and they don’t actually care about education. So, we’ve got to follow their interest (thus, you are all crazy about «scaling up»)
  6. And anyway, alternative education takes much more money than these corporates are ready to give
  7. Government has a great deal in it, so we’ve got to follow official curriculum strictly
  8. The only way to attract children to the school is fun activities. Learning can not be interesting.
  9. It takes a passionate founder to start a school like this. Where are we to find one?

Sometimes there was not enough courage to state these arguments as they are, but if you go deep enough — that’s exactly what they mean.

And the truth is — with all my previous visits to the alternative schools, these points stayed intact. I’ve gone to the schools with the kids from some pretty wealthy families, passionate teachers from all over the country (sometimes — all over the world), being usually in or not far from the city.

That changed with Puvidham school. And here is why:

This video is made completely by the students of the school with only little help from me.

Let me elaborate a bit.

Like other places I’ve been to, Puvidham doesn’t look like a typical school at all. The first thing you see is 2 small buildings with some study rooms inside. A little farther there is similarly simple hostel for the children who decide to stay in the school. The school is powered by solar energy and only some additional buildings are connected to the grid . Between the school area and the playground there is a yard with chickens and some other animals. And all of that is surrounded by a big green area for farming (I couldn’t believe that just a decade ago it was a bare desert land).

I visited the school during almost the last week of the academic year — so there were only 2 grades left, and the schedule was quite flexible by that time. However, I easily could see the diversity of what they were doing in the school.

Academic part, perhaps, was the smallest in the span of the day and consisted completely of individual work with each child. Although it couldn’t see it myself that time, but I know that the school’s team has developed a new program from scratch to transform standard curriculum into activity-based learning.

The rest of the time was occupied with a lot of stuff. A big deal was on work with hands. Children and adults were doing all different kinds of art & craft: they were painting the walls using the natural colors prepared before; they were doing tens of craft-items using clay and recycling materials (waste paper, bottle lids, glass and even old shoes).

They spent a lot of time on farming and gardening (with the stress on organic farming); they were building and crumbling all fascinating mechanisms (in my presence we installed the play-swing that was powering automatic rice-mixer and started doing the biogas generator); every week all the children go for a forest walk to some near-by (or sometimes quite distant) places.

Even in this tight schedule there was enough space for spontaneous activity. In fact, the whole movie above appeared out of a random proposal to shoot it together with the children on the school’s meeting — and in an hour after the decision was made, we already started the work. Another day we’ve got a phone call from one friendly organization to take part in painting the station in Chennai — and in the end of the week children set up on the bus there.

By the way, mentioning «grades» I should’ve clarified — although officially all children are assigned to different classes, you can’t find it in the school. It’s an environment where everyone has a chance to work alone, in any group or together with the whole school. That naturally leads to children not only working together, but also teaching each other. In fact, in the whole week I barely could see teachers teaching. Most of the time children did well enough to organize themselves, share what they knew and be just equal with teachers in the process.

There was some uniqueness in the relationships between everyone in the school. It wasn’t overprotective care of teachers over the students which really wouldn’t make sense there; nor it was any kind of external discipline, based on fear or recognition (they shared a belief common for all the alternative schools — «no fear, no competition, no comparison»). I guess, I could describe them as good friends who always come to help each other in need, but could also tease one another. Or, maybe, a family where everyone is confident in depth of their love and thus don’t need special symbols to show it.

And, indeed, these relationships make the whole difference. Many of the formats I described (art & craft, clay work, recycling, etc) are also used by those typical NGOs I started my post with. But believe me, apart from the appearance, you can’t find a lot in common between them and Puvidham. There is great genuineness in how it’s don’t here, together with honest respect for these village kids, true equality and humility from the teachers.

It’s weird. I imagine how someone from the schools could have asked me here: «how respect can not be there at all?»… And that’s the whole thing.

Now, does what I described look like a good alternative school in the middle of one of the developed Indian cities with the best teachers and privileged children? It well could be confused with one.

But this school is in the remote village in Tamil Nadu 150 Km from Bangalore.

All of the children in the school are from the local village families; most of them are first-generation students.

All the teachers are also from the same village. They originally have come to the school not because of it’s philosophy, but in search of job. However, they are now very deep educators, who can build connection with the child better than most of the elite-school teachers.

Students here learn academics and are able to pass their exams. But, what’s more important, they learn so much about the wild life, they learn to build almost anything and stay creative; they learn about themselves. I don’t think many of them would get a good-paid government job. Because I hope they can live a happy live instead — wherever it may lead them to (perhaps, it’s much more likely to find it in the village)

The school definitely requires some serious funds. And it’s not founded by the family of a billionaire who can afford it from his pocket money. So, they manage to raise money for the trust that runs the school, as well as engage a lot of people as volunteers and the ones who are just willing to help the school.

They are officially accredited by government. That’s why the papers would report the grades division and marks. But none of that is seriously taken in the school. They actually have convinced the officials to accept their modified activity-based curriculum.

And it’s not that there is so much entertaining fun in the school. I don’t know if cleaning the toilet is fun for someone. And building a biogas takes some serious work. But learning itself is enjoying here, not just the play.

Well, you can see where it goes, right? ;) The correlation with what we began with is clear — all of the typical objections about «why this won’t work» just break in Puvidham.

There is, however, one argument from the list that still seems to be true. “It takes a passionate founder to start something of this kind”. Meenakshi is definitely one of such people and I wish more people get to know her inspiring story. And it’s only when you have such a strong belief and passion, that Puvidham can be built.

And that’s the real reason of why such schools are so rare. So, it’s a question to all the founders and CEOs of those innumerable NGOs in India. Are you actually passioned about education and want to change something? Or words are just enough?

Because I’ve spent a week in a place called Puvidham. A place that, by your words, is impossible.