Sonam Wangchuk – On The Role of Innovation In Education

Educator Sonam Wangchuk has dedicated his life to exploring alternative education systems that respect the diversity of cultures and environments in our country. A staunch advocate of context-based education and the need to redesign the way we teach in our schools, Sonam’s work at HIAL and SECMOL has won him many honours and awards. In this interview,Sonam talks about the purpose of education, the place of innovation in the field on education and the various roles that factions of society play in preparing our children for the future.

The following is an excerpt of the transcript of the interview conducted by Pukhraj Ranjan originally for hundrED. You can find the entire original published transcript as well as the video clips for the interview here.

What is the purpose of education?

I think education is a discovery of the outer world and the inner world. It may need a teacher or not, but it is learning, a discovery. And then equipping the students with the skills to help make the world a better, happier place. That happens when you are happy yourself. I think when education is used just as a ritual, sometimes even with unknown goals (because you copy some other place and some other people). That is one challenge facing most of the world that you don’t know why (you educator) and you just do it as a mindless ritual because some others did it that way. It may have helped their context or may not even, but you are made to repeat it. Most of the colonized world is put through this process. 

So, the purpose of education is to let the young ones discover the world around himself or herself, and the world within. And then learn to be happy in it and make the world happier. Now, this discovery is best when it is in tune with how we have been on this planet for millions of years and through evolution, we have learned to adapt. When education is in tune, it is more engaging and is happier, that is when children flourish.

What are the biggest challenges facing education today?

We have been on this planet much longer than the last few 100 years of the industrial revolution and yet our methods of learning are all geared and designed towards these last few 100 years. Whereas I feel, nature has designed us through evolution to learn in very very different ways. For example, babies learn by playing. Playing is not a light thing, it is quite serious. It is the software nature has packed in every young one of humans and animals. When you see kittens, puppies – nature has designed them to play, learn that way and prepare for life. But we cut that all and think children will learn without play. It is not how we are designed. 

We have to have the flavor and spices of play at a very young age. As teenagers, I believe nature has designed us to take real, physical challenges, just like those that were taken by hunter-gatherers, farmers, etc. But because we could out-source everything to fossil-fuels, we have made our education system into these passive classrooms with lectures, paper assignments, etc. Today, we are not able to come out of this into how we have been on earth for millions of years. So I feel that this dependency is a challenge that kills the learning spirit in many children.

What does a good learning environment look like?

A good learning environment is happy and safe, but calculated challenges should be there. A good learning environment shouldn’t be so safe that there is nothing challenging left. It should be mainly about things the students can put into practice, apply their learning by using more senses than just what it takes to hear or read. It is important to apply what you learn to see the magic – those experiences become memorable. I always say – rather than giving a hard time to children for forgetting their lesson, let’s make an environment that makes lessons unforgettable.

So, learning is more than chapters of textbooks. It should be whole systems of living, and being with others. It could have experiences from cooking to gardening to taking care of others like animals, etc. What we try at SECMOL is exactly that. You could be gardening and the joy of it will be there but you could also apply trigonometry, mensuration of flower bed area, the depth and volume of water needed than just memorizing the formula of volume. In real scenarios, you get to see what volume is in different shapes and sizes. So making learning relatable to a person and for a purpose makes the activity a great learning environment.

What do you think the role of innovation is in education?

Over the years, learning has become boring – an intellectual exercise or ritual. I don’t think you can call education an innovation even – innovation is trying new things. The most ancient thing I know about learning is how young ones learn by playing or by experimenting. So, bringing back what we always knew, what nature has programmed us for – which we have forgotten or have gotten distracted, we need to bring it back. We need to learn from how nature works. If you want to learn a language, look at how a 1-year old baby learns. The way is much better than what school tries for ten years, and still, we stammer. Whereas a baby with no support of a language learns in one year what schools find hard to train in ten years. So going back to learning from nature, how it has designed us and how we have evolved doesn’t sound like innovation as it has been around since time immemorial.

Doing things in tune with nature sounds like innovation but it is not. I am often surprised by how we do things differently, to innovator, but it takes us away from what works best for us. It is crucial to not forget who we are on the planet and tuning learning to that rhythm.

How can we prepare students for the future?

We need schools where young adults get to do things and use their energy that nature has provided in plenty. As I said, we have evolved to take challenges in nature. Still further young adults in their 20s, in colleges and universities, should be able to apply their learnings and learn by doing. What we are trying to do in our work in Ladakh is to have a University of a different kind, and therefore, for now, we call it an “alternative” university. Hopefully, it won’t remain an alternative. At HIAL, we believe young people in their 20s have much more capabilities than just sitting in a classroom, listening to lectures and scribbling notes. We believe they can make so many things happen. Young people used to be a very important part of society since time immemorial.

So if you have a school of, say, tourism in this university, we hope to have these young people run projects on tourism- they can run hotels, homestays, and other new programs where they can be developing these ideas and see how their learning come alive. When you apply so much, you are not only learning but could fetch a young person or the institution some income. When that happens you don’t need to charge students high fees for sitting in classrooms. The university ventures can bring in income through real-life projects, then education can be free for everyone. So the students still pay but not in the currency of dollars or rupees but they pay through their sweat, their imagination, and their effort. Such students are prepared for real lives and as soon as they come out of the university, they can start their own ventures or add value to an employer, unlike what is happening in universities now who work to only educate their students in an intellectual way and turn the students into a liability than an asset. The employers have to train such passive students again at their own expense, which is a waste and this I see as a thing that needs to change for the future.

What skills should we teach more of (and which less)?

Seeing what is happening in schools in many parts of the world, I will start with “what less”. We need to stop mindlessly doing rituals like memorizing things without knowing why and do more of self-directed, self-driven learning, stemming out of curiosity and interest. The skills of thinking originally, critically and having curiosity – nature’s gifts received by every child is a great skill but we end up killing it in most schools. It is very important to be engaging and enhancing this skill of wanting to know about the world and helping children with the ownership of their own learning journey.

What role does community play in the future of education?

I think learning is always a collaborative exercise. You can not learn much alone. Alone you don’t get the stimulus that comes from your peers and other people. This applies to children as much as it applies to other stakeholders int the sphere of education. We are all learning how to learn and therefore, schools and governments need to learn to collaborate and put into practice this ‘learning to learn’ from one another. This is how things grow. When you have a mass of initiatives in different places and they get distributed to each other, we got further. Rather than duplicating things and spending all our energy and resources in doing the same thing as somebody may have done, it goes without saying that we need to go forward. Our help in furthering someone else can help another person move even further and that is going to help everyone move deeper and higher at the same time. 

Therefore, schools need to learn from one another and need to collaborate with one another. Similarly, governments to ensure that children in their respective countries are happy, have all the skills and where their childhoods are not sacrificed only to boost the economy, need to learn from one another, work together and collaborate as a way forward.

This transcript is an excerpt from the hundrED’s interview with Sonam. Please visit hundrED to know more about their work in child-centric education and the visionary educators they support.