“How dare you decide to open a school without teaching for at least 8 years?” You will almost never hear this in a class which is about designing a school but professor Linda Nathan kept reminding us exactly this while giving all of her expertise from decades of designing and running schools. I intend to follow my professor’s command but in the meanwhile, I want to tell you about the school that I designed in A320: Building Democratic Schools in the spring semester of 2022 at Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Despite all their failings , our schools are still seen as a place of hope where the next generations learn about the world in a safe environment. Much needs to be done in making schools that can serve the children in ways that they deserve. Schools in my village in Himachal, India are no exception. Parents put a great deal of trust in the teachers and schools but they tend to be disappointed as they don’t sufficiently prepare their children to lead a better life. My main aim of designing this school is to address two challenges that tend to disappoint our parents and children; one, not having a curriculum that makes children think and two, schools tend to function in isolation from the communities that they serve. My design aims to create a school that has a rigorous curriculum and is not isolated from the wider community it serves. And to do it all in a village in Himachal!
The first step in the design process was to design a mission statement that demonstrated what the school aimed to do.
Mission, logo and name: Most of our classes started with us singing our mission statement, this was a way of us internalizing our ‘why’ of creating a school. Articulating how it would be different from other schools. After a ton of head-scratching, discussions, stakeholder interviews, multiple drafts and delving in my experience of growing up in rural Himachal, I put together the mission statement of my school to be, “Vidya Sadan creates world leaders who are proud of their heritage. We nurture unique talents of every student through education that is rooted in our heritage, is rigorous and demands excellence.”
Every word in this statement is intentional — focus on heritage, creating world leaders, nurturing unique talents, rigorous education and the demand for excellence — all of it! This school is to be in my village, Suliali. One of the biggest complaints that I have from my education is that is never allowed me to have world views about topics that defined me — role of caste, sports, choosing a career. When I speak to my father, who taught for 32 years in and around my village, my cousins and my neighbors who are still going through these school, I still hear about the same things that there is no space in their education to explore their passion, form and express their views, and be good at something. Why can village schools not be as good as international schools? I wonder. These are some of my motivations behind this school.
The logo of the school depicts the heritage of my state which is symbolized by the mountain as it is a state know for its beautiful hills. The ‘chakra’ or the wheel is an element from the Indian flag that demonstrates evolution towards better future. The chakra rising from behind the hills signifies the harmony of the state and the national heritages towards a better tomorrow like a rising sun depicts hope for a better day. The last element is the name which is written in Hindi to depict the language mostly used in official communication in that region.
What does Vidya Sadan bring?
A rigorous curriculum: A curriculum in many ways determines the trajectory of student achievement in a school. It sets standards of excellence but if not chosen well by a school, it also creates a glass ceiling beyond which students are not able to push. Currently, most of the schools in the area have curriculums that focus encourage memorization with giving students the tools to apply their knowledge to the surroundings around them. Rigorous curriculums like the IB are mostly implemented by private schools in cities where children from high-income families study. Vidya Sadan aims to remedy this perception that a rural school can not run a curriculum as rigorous as the IB. By adopting such a curriculum, Vidya Sadan will set its students up to become leaders who have the agency to think in complex ways about challenges of today and tomorrow, adopt a scientific approach, and be articulate about their ideas.
A school that gives and takes from the community: I went to school in Himachal, a state endowed with history, nature, and good people but throughout school, I never learned about the history, art, craft, and culture of my state. For instance, Pahari painting (linked below) is a form of painting that was done in and around my state and has produced stalwarts like Nainsukh but this history is not taught in schools of the state. Similarly, the history of the people, tribes, art, and its culture is not taught in its schools. This robs the students of opportunities to build scholarship, create contextual solutions, and in general learn about their heritage. Vidya Sadan aims to change that. It aims to create citizens who are aware of the heritage of our state through innovations like community led internships where the students learn local craft, and skills from the community members. The village will contribute to raise its children and the responsibility will not just be put on the teachers.
Pahari painting - Wikipedia
Pahari painting (literally meaning a painting from the mountainous regions: pahar means a mountain in Hindi) is an…
Culture of Vidya Sadan: I see the culture of our school to be of enquiry, happiness, and community where the students work independently on their learning and are provided opportunity to push themselves and their friends. There are noisy classrooms where people, young and old, engage in dialogue. There is a purpose behind everything that people do in that space. This purpose is constantly shared and refined. The behavior system comprises of students owning their learning. The teachers focus on the concepts and skills rather than procedure. I envision that such a culture would allow the students to talk about some ‘elephants in the room’ such as caste system, controversial topics of history, and politics. Below snapshot summarises what I students should be able to discuss in their class if the culture of the school is as I defined above.
Balancing high standards and accountability: Historically, the benchmark of what a high-quality schooling looks like in my village has been different. Parents measure success of the students through grades and their children’s ranking in class on end of year exams. But skills like critical thinking, questioning, scientific inquiry, communication are hardly emphasized and demanded. Vidya Sadan would bring these skills to the center of the conversation, where students can say that the classes ‘make their brains hurt’ in a great way. This is one of the reasons for my emphasis on selecting a curriculum like IB which is rigorous and focuses on life skills. The idea of creating my own curriculum is alluring but I understand that re-inventing the wheel on this might not be a great idea when there are great curriculums available.
At student level, the accountability can be through the quality of work they produce and skills they master along the way. Getting quality feedback on their work and having access to open rigorous rubrics is a great way to create student accountability. At the teacher level, accountability can be through the teaching skills that they master and the outcomes of the students. Looking for teachers who are experts in their subjects is key as they can curate better learning experiences for students in comparison to a teacher who has a generic understanding of the subject. At the leadership level, making sure that we foster the culture of excellence in school through teacher collaboration, training, and autonomy.
The question of funding: The question of funding the school is still unanswered. It will remain so until we are on the ground and ready to start the school. The biggest assumption currently is that the students will not pay anything. If the school decides to adopt IB, then the cost of the curriculum, teacher trainings, and certification will be considerably higher. The mission of the school focuses on adopting a rigorous curriculum which focuses on the academic skills and at the same time engage students with the local knowledge present in their surroundings. The budget per pupil would be spent accordingly towards both endeavors. Currently, most non-profits raise their funding from the the corporates that spend 2 percent of their profits on social causes. Vidya Sadan also aims to follow that path. The benchmark of the cost per student per year is the amount spent by the Himachal school government which was INR 59,449 in 2017–18 (Bordoloi M., Pandey S., Irava, V., and Junnarkar, R. (2020), “State Education Finances”, Accountability Initiative, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi, India).
It is also pertinent to consider the question of decision making power in finances. School Management Committee (SMC’s) is a parent body mandated by law. This body comprises of parents (elected) who collaborate with the school leadership in running the school. This body is empowered to monitor the utilization of funds received by the school and advice in the general functioning of the school. While most SMCs are either non-functional or not empowered, Vidya Sadan will create an SMC which will be empowered and function as laid by the law of the state. It would serve as the voice of all parents in the school and a delegation for the community. It will also serve as an advisor on financial decisions of the school. Similarly, student bodies will represent the voice of the students in and outside the school. The student body will actively participate in shaping the direction in which the school should spend its financial resources and will serve as the voice of all students in financial matters.
A student vignette: I often wonder what would a day in the life of a student at Vidya Sadan look like. In an exercise of imagining what a student in grade 8 say, I wrote the following student vignette.
“My name is Neelam. I am 15-year-old and a student at Vidya Sadan. My day at school starts with a 90 min dance workshop where I have been exploring different types of dance forms every month. I think dance is my passion and I want to be a professional dancer as I grow up. I want to have my own dance studio, but I am not sure which dance form am I most passionate about as I like all of them. After my dance workshop, I have a 15 min break, after which I meet my advisor, Ms. Dhiman. She is advising me on my research project on documenting dance forms in my state and the how these dance forms have originated and evolved. This project has allowed me to connect with my dance practice more deeply as I am able to think about the history of the people and the evolution of this dance form. This project is also helping me practice my writing and reading skills as well as connecting with some of the best dancers in the state and learn from them. I have been interviewing people who have more knowledge of the traditional dance forms. After my research, I get lunch. My home is close by so, I sometimes go home and eat, other times I pack my lunch. The school gives us seasonal recommendations to eat a balanced diet. Since there is a lot of farming in my village, there are a lot of vegetables available and I enjoy eating most of them, except carrots. While walking back to my classes, through the common space, I look at exhibitions that students put up. Sometimes, it is poetry, sometimes pictures and sometimes a craft that they are learning. This allows me to think about the diverse talents of my friends and how they are becoming better at their passions as well. After lunch, I go directly to the library and work on my online-asynchronous material to be completed before class. I can do this at any time at home but having a dedicated time in school allows me to not take too much homework. Doing it right before class meeting also allows me to engage better and clarify my doubts with the teacher. I enjoy going to my subject classes. I take two subject classes each week. All classes have work that makes me think about my surroundings and push me to think about things that I am learning. The online portal for parents also allows my parents to see the work that I am doing in school, in real time. So, my parents and I are also able to talk about things that I am learning in school while we have dinner.”
Below is a snapshot of what I envision different stakeholders to say:
Overall, I have a strong conviction about the purpose of setting up this school and what is aims to remedy. There are still questions that remain unanswered such as funding, hiring quality teachers, and if the students would pay or not but I hope to keep working on these questions towards making this idea come to life.
2. Notes to future self:
- Stay true to the mission of your school. Go back to it when you want to answer hard questions about money, power, and direction.
- Have a board. Gather people who think differently from you but are passionate about schools and children. Leverage them for dilemmas.
- Don’t take money from the wrong people.
- Have a learning agenda. List questions that your school is working to answer and what it will do to find those answers.
- Partner with the Horticulture university nearby.
- Link to Design Papers