Education for Real Life

The revolutionary founder of SECMOL Sonam Wangchuk shares how he, along with a group of like-minded people, transformed the education system in Ladakh.

I am from Ladakh, and to greet you in Ladakhi, I’ll say ‘Juley’. And with Juley you can travel to Ladakh, because Juley means Namaste, it means Goodbye, it means thank you, it means Goodnight. All of it. It’s a very well designed word!

What I will share with you now is the story of our struggles in Ladakh in the field of education, environmental solutions and activism; more as a victim of absurdities and environmental assaults. I speak here today about reforms in education from the standpoint of a victim than someone who is qualified with a long list of degrees.

Situated in the northern most part of our country, Ladakh is bordered by Tibet on the east and Pakistan on the west. The intense cold and harsh terrain is what  people most often think about when they think of Ladakh. Most villages/settlements are at an altitude of 3500m or more but some villages can go up to an altitude of 14,000 feet. But even if it may appear harsh and unliveable, people have not just survived but have thrived here for centuries; and a vibrant culture of languages, religions, dances, ways of life with animal rearing as well as farming has flourished at these heights.

Ladakh was opened to the world with the building  roads, in the 60s.  In the 70’s it was opened up to ‘development’. With this opening up, the Ladakhi way of life and local economy came under threat.

Disconnect from Reality

What was also imposed was a standardised, centralised curriculum totally irrelevant to the context.  I can share some examples with you. We need to teach a child an abstract concept like a letter of the alphabet by  bringing in a tangible object, to lead a child from the known to the unknown. But for a child at 11000 feet neither ‘d’ for dolphin, ‘e’ for elephant nor ‘s’ for ship would make any sense!

Another example is from my teacher training experiences. I came across children memorizing from the text book that, ”rice is grown using monsoon rain” and the reality of a desert like Ladakh is that barley is grown using glacial melt water! In fact we have a saying that ridicules villages for waiting for the rains to begin farming. And so when I asked the teacher, what if some children write in an exam that we grow barley using glacial melt water, her reply was, “Well, I would give  them a zero!” So in such a system the teacher was trained to rate students, not on what the reality was but based on the content in some book even if it was totally disconnected from reality!

Another anomaly was the medium of instruction and what the child is subjected to. In the beginning they are introduced to Urdu(an alien language) and they would be reprimanded/slapped for saying a word in Ladakhi, instead of in Urdu.  But after picking up the language, in 9th grade the medium of instruction is suddenly changed to English with hardly any preparation. No wonder with all these factors the pass percentage was abysmally low in our schools. The statistics showed that 95% of the students were failing the Matriculation Examination.

So I got interested in what was wrong with the system. If 95% of the students were failing the exams then you better look into the system and reform it. How ill designed the system was struck me starkly when I began tutoring students of class 9 and 10 to support my own higher education.

A group of like-minded people  decided to question the system, get to the root causes because we wanted to change the system.

We listed the following as the main causes for an ill adapted system-

  • alien medium of instruction
  • irrelevant curriculum
  • untrained teachers
  • no scope for community involvement
  • general mismanagement and lack of accountability

Operations New Hope

We started addressing the causes rather than blaming the system, the teachers or the children. We launched Operation New Hope – a triangular collaboration between community, state and civil society organisations. Before applying it on a mass scale or taking the proposal to the government we piloted, or prototyped it in a school, the Saspol Village School in 1991. We changed one school and in one or two years the results were obvious. The children and teachers were happy and the  results were better.

We then wanted public ownership of the idea. The need for change, the hope for change and the possibilities for change had to reach the people. We enlisted the support of the higher secondary and college students to take the idea to the villages and mobilise support. The idea then spread from one school to thirty three schools and at that time the government adpoted it .

And today it is a very interesting collaboration, for example,  the government publishes the primary school text books designed by us  which are contextual and relevant for our environment. There are many other such collaborations too.

For us Operation New Hope became not just a movement for educational reforms but a movement for real democracy as well. When people took ownership for long term goals like quality education and moving away from a short sighted focus only on subsidy for food and power, they were able to affect change on a larger scale. Education then became the priority for the politicians, bureaucrats  and other stake holders as well and it was not left to the teachers group alone to solve the problem. This movement got a further impetus in 1996 when the  when the first Ladakh New Hill Council Government was set up.

  • They declared education as their top priority.
  • They adopted Operation New Hope as their official policy on education.

This is perhaps the first elected set up in India to declare education as their priority. Not because the council was enlightened, but because people were demanding it.  It was easy for them, because  everyone everywhere was asking for good education.

The change happened partly because it was owned by the people therefore owned by the government. The change also happened because the existing system made no sense. So to begin with we had to train teachers to teach in the way children should be treated and taught. We also had to remake textbooks and imbue in them the spirit of our place, our context.

We needed to respect to our way of life, to connect to land, to farming so that children don’t grow up alienated from it. So in the study of history we tried to bring alive Ladakh’s past and study about monuments like the palace of Leh rather Qutub Minar or the Tower of Pisa. And if it is environmental studies, we started with animals that you find in Ladakh. And using science to solve issues that has relevance in their immediate life. For example, ‘how will you use sun in your life to make yourself more comfortable in a cold region like Ladakh ?’ With this approach and governmental ownership, children started doing well and the results showed a dramatic improvement :  70 – 75% pass percentage by the year 2013. In a decade and a half this change was visible to all.

But what is to be considered is that  people initially just accepted the situation as an ultimate reality- that failure comes at the end of every year like the seasons follow each other. They didn’t think of questioning the system or changing it

The SECMOL story

While the overall situation had  improved a failure percentage of 25%  still existed and we decided to address this. We had solved some part of the problem but more needed to be done. This search led us to setting up our initiative in alternative education, SECMOL (Students Education and Cultural Movement of Ladakh) for the so-called failures and dropouts. This is not just an experiment to address the question of  how to do the right kind of schooling/education. It is also an experiment on how to live sustainably and yet have basic comforts.

This is a completely solar powered campus and we have been off the grid for 20 years. We have tried to do things differently, learning which is practical, sensorial and about real life. The children are in the driving seat and take complete ownership of the school. In fact it is run like a mini state with members being elected, taking responsibility and holding accountability. Each person is given an opportunity for this. The leader allots portfolios and the students work in governing councils, media centres, magazines, campus radio, organic farm, cooking in solar powered kitchens etc. The related tasks become their books and curriculum and they learn by doing. The children are also required to sell the produce that they grow and do it in a way that they are able to generate sufficient funds for a tour in the neighboring city. This becomes a way of learning  economics and commerce. They design their own marketing strategies and campaigns to sell their produce.

The next approach to learning is by connecting to the real world, something children can apply in their daily lives. For example, if we are talking about the Germ Theory in Sciences then we look for places to connect it in real life. Children apply that in jam fruit preservation where every summer, when the apricots are ripe in the village we conduct a jam festival.

The children make jams where half the produce is stored for consumption and the other half is kept aside for sale. The routes they take while distributing the produce becomes their geography lessons and they come and talk about their experiences on the campus radio and thus several skills are learnt on the journey. Innovation is an important part of the campus culture. We spend time thinking about new solutions connected to the elements of nature around us- earth, sun, ice and fire. The buildings are designed keeping in mind the rhythms and movements of nature.

The sun moves from southeast to southwest during the winters. The students’ building is placed at an angle of 15 degrees to the sun so that the building warms up one hour before the children arrive to study in the classrooms. So a little play with nature- harnessing solar power and trapping the heat generated through the air flow of convectional currents in the building can help us meet our needs. We do not need to resort to the conventional ways of generating electricity and increasing carbon emissions. While it is -15⁰to-20⁰ outside we manage to keep the room temperatures to +15⁰ to +20⁰ inside. We also look at altering our life style to depend more on natural lighting and minimise our usage at night.

Another innovation is around ice. The Ice Stupa is a project done by students of SECMOL and me. The idea was conceived by a senior project engineer when he tried to conserve the water collected from over summers to preserve it as ice. We came up with a geometry figure to preserve the water in the form of cones that require minimal surface area and hence do not melt with the rising temperatures All we needed to do was lay a pipe to change the flow of water which allows it to spring out in the form of the fountain.

Due to gravity, the water falls down and gets collect as ice in the conical form on the melting stupa that last even in the most scarce months of April and May. The village gathers around the stupa to celebrate and plant trees that are fed water by the melting ice on the stupa. If these trees don’t die we can scale it up with entire villages. Our way has been to find solutions to the challenges faced in Ladakh using innovations that are in rhythm with nature. Also to launch our former students as young entrepreneurs who can deliver these solutions. We also wish to  share our experiences through two International Courses on Passive Solar and Earth Architecture. Finally we are trying to upgrade the school experience into a “Univer-city” of the future where the township and community becomes the basis of learning. The philosophy of learning is to nurture bright heads, skilled hands and  a kind heart!

Sonam Wangchuk


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