Creating New Learning Spaces

Manish Jain

In the September issue of Teacher Plus, in his article entitled ‘Reclaiming Shiksha’, the author introduced Ivan Illich’s idea of deschooling and discussed replacing school-based education with an open community based system that is child led rather than simply child centred. He urges us to ask ‘disturbing’ questions that take us beyond ‘business as usual’ in terms of education.

Is it really possible for us in India?
Contrary to popular misconception, unschooling and deschooling are not from the West or only for the West. We need to understand that Shiksha and Education are not the same. They come from totally different historical, philosophical, spiritual and epistemological roots. We need to reclaim the meaning of shiksha and forms like the guru-shishyaparampara. Shiksha is more closely rooted in selforganised and experiential forms of learning. Real gurus were never self-proclaimed/state-imposed instructors, nor did they seek to impose a uniform standardised syllabus on those who learned with them. For us in the subcontinent, shiksha grows from concept-practices such as in satya, swadhyaya, samvaad, ahimsa, anekantavad, yoga, sahayog, lok vidya, shram, vinumvrata, kshama, etc. There are many powerful stories of self-learners throughout history. Eklavya being one of the most famous ones. However, these heroes have been sadly maligned by the guardians of the Institutional Faith. Some of the initial experiments with Nai Taleem and Shantiniketan also tried to embody these principles but somewhere along the way, they also got corrupted in the framework of institutionalised education…

In fact, I truly believe that it is much easier for us to make this connection than for those in the West, because we still have so many living learning spaces. In villages and even in most towns and cities, you can still find opportunities for apprenticeship learning, you can easily get to a forest, you can experience life in a joint family (full of rich relationships of all ages). We luckily do not have to go to a zoo to see animals; we can interact with them on the roads and in the fields. One can learn yoga without going to a yoga center. Everywhere, you can find a million forms of kabaad (so-called waste) to jugaad with, to make something useful, beautiful and durable. The best part about these opportunities in India is that most have not yet been commodified. One quite fortunately does not have to pay a lot of money to access them.

Indigenous resources
We urgently need to look at our learning assets outside of the framework of schooling. This exercise has not been seriously undertaken in the last 50 years. Gandhi had some inkling of it but the work was abandoned post 1947. If and when we undertake this, we will soon begin to realise that India is not a ‘poor’ or ‘backward’ country in terms of learning resources. We need to honestly re-evaluate what is ‘forward’ and what is ‘backward’ in India. For example, I recently met a woman from Canada who was sharing with me an educational programme that she had started in schools to teach children emotional empathy and sensitivity. For a number of reasons, there are very few opportunities for children in Canada to touch and hold small babies. Millions of dollars were being spent to bring small babies into the classroom so that middle school children could interact with them for a few hours a week. I felt we were quite fortunate that children in India are able to naturally witness birth as well as death. I pray for the day when we in the Global South will begin to understand that we are in many ways much better off than our heavily institutionalized Western counterparts.

The real threats to these vibrant indigenous learning resources are the institutional viruses that pose as roses: like the campaigns against child labour and for compulsory/coercive education. While I agree that hazardous labour should be outlawed for men, women and children, I do not feel that all labour is bad or should be banned from our children’s lives. Indeed, one of the leading reasons behind the degradation of human health today comes from the lack of authentic physical work and labour in our lives. Such productive labour kept us alive and thriving for generations, why do we want to banish it from our lives? It is important to re-look at the link between using our hands/body, meaningful work and the growth of our mind, spirit and emotional well-being.

Where is the hope?
For the last nine years, I have been working with people around the world to respond to the question, “If not the culture of schooling, then what?” What’s sprung up are several networks. One is the Learning Societies Network1 where we have invited a number of unusual partners (farmers, artists, artisans, activists, filmmakers, healers, storytellers, local businessmen, children, youth, parents, grandparents, illiterates, spiritualists, etc.) to explore what kind of learning and living we want in our society. We ask people who are interested to start by sharing their town experiences and experiments with learning in different ways in their own lives. The idea behind the Learning Societies Network is to demystify and break the monopoly of education experts and professionals over discussions concerning human learning. We do not believe that educators alone can envision and make the deeper changes in education that are necessary for the 21st century. People with diverse worldviews who are leading/supporting real-world experiments across many different domains need to be in the discussion. Today, friends in fields as varied as global climate change, community media, organic farming, free software movement, etc., are raising the kinds of profound questions about life that can eventually shake the foundations of the education system. Are we willing to listen?

Just as natural farmers are redefining the field of agriculture, and self-healers are redefining the field of medicine, so are many youth determining their own paths of learning as more than 90 per cent of youth in India do not attend college. These pathbreakers are however, at the same time nurtured by and nurturing the growth of a large and vibrant underground system of Shiksha. We share their stories, experiences, insights, opportunities and experiments through the Swapathgami Network. The Swapathgami Network is also called the network of walkouts and walkons; that is, people who have walked out of dehumanising, exploitative or violent situations, institutions, attitudes, products, etc., and who are walking on to live in more meaningful, authentic, healthy and honest ways. In the process of taking control of their own learning, they are re-discovering and co-creating many amazing learning opportunities around the country. It is a silent revolution. They are once again reminding us that millions of ways of understanding/knowing/being exist in the world, which are outside the scope of schooling.2 Are we willing to see these?

At Shikshantar, we are also exploring and regenerating the learning resources of our own city, in a process called Udaipur as a Learning City (ULC).3 One of my reasons for co-initiating this process was to open up more (un)-learning opportunities for both my daughter Kanku and me. In ULC, we are constantly looking for people and places around the city from whom we can learn to live a just and harmonious life. Most people are interested in finding relationships towards organic living, which includes city farming, composting, zero waste homes and zero waste neighborhoods, self-healing and herbal medicines, community media and urban space, bicycling and pedestrian power, healthy cooking, rainwater harvesting, and more… We are discovering once again that the home and neighbourhood are indeed powerful learning spaces for collaboration, creative experimentation and deep dialogue.

In all of these initiatives, we have found that it is important to find creative ways to engage with friends in the mainstream system. It is not enough to just be creating alternatives. For example, many of us need to Heal from the Diploma Disease. We recently came out with a publication of the same name4 that invites civil society organisations to stop using diplomas, degrees and certificates in their hiring and promotion processes. In its place, we ask that more appropriate systems of identifying and evaluating personnel be explored and used. This request has sparked a wider conversation about what we want to see manifest in our work and in our world, and we hope will help pave the way for more diversity in learning opportunities.

What now?
For me a critical point in my life was when I consciously stopped describing myself as a ‘teacher’ or a ‘planner/social engineer’ and started seeing my primary role as a ‘lifelong seeker of truths’. I do not see myself as Kanku’s teacher. In fact, I consider her to be one of my gurus since she has inspired me to take many new risks in my life. This shift should not be taken as yet another piece of superficial jargon – as is often done by the education establishment. It needs to start with some introspection, for example, by re-examining one’s own learning process up until now: what have been some powerful learning experiences in your life? Under what conditions have you learned best? What lies have you unlearned?5 What brings you real happiness? What are you curious/disturbed about now? Go explore it and share your journey with children. Invite them to do the same. Where are you feeling stagnant? What depresses you about your life? Share this as well. Perhaps they can help you find a way out. As long as one needs to be working in the education system, one can think about how to creatively subvert/dismantle its claims of authority and monocultural-ness. This is one of the primary challenges of our times. Shake up our own schooled mindsets. Reclaim our faith in the innate power of children and villagers to direct their own learning. Encourage your children to explore other opportunities and relationships outside of the four walls of schooling. Ridicule the examination system and its claim as a fair/useful form of evaluation. Refuse to be called a ‘product’ or a ‘human resource’. Make a strong commitment to regenerating peoples’ knowledge over expert/textual/institutional knowledge. Be creative. And perhaps, most importantly, open up real spaces to experiment and make mistakes.6

I realise, of course, this only works to a point (which is why I personally stopped trying to reform the education system). A friend once said, “It’s very hard to criticise something when your salary depends on not criticising it.” At one point or other, most teachers and schools have to come back to curriculum, textbooks, exams, etc., and more seriously, to the underlying politics and economy. In that authoritarian, unjust and artificial context, it is virtually impossible to sustain any real trust and authentic co-learning between yourself and the children.

So, for those who are genuinely interested in pursuing real shiksha and supporting others to do the same, I would frankly encourage you to walk out of the school system and walk-on to creating something new – learning spaces and learning webs that embody a deeper vision of human learning: ones that do not rest on commodification, competition, compartmentalisation or compulsion; ones that deepen human wisdom, imagination and friendship. Just remember that there are no readymade, mass-produced solutions (after all these years of being fooled over and over again, we should be really skeptical of anyone who offers/imposes these). We each need to invest ourselves in creating our own localised alternatives and connecting these to each other in dynamic ways. There can and should be a world with many streams, not just one mainstream. It is time for us in India to evolve a more mature vision of social equality – one that is not built on monoculture or copying the hypocritical West.

Since she was a baby, I have seen Kanku finding and choosing her own gurus (sources of inspiration) – of all shapes, sizes and species.7 Some of these are for a few fleeting minutes, others remain for many days. She negotiates and co-creates her own selfdiscipline and intensity. She is both moved and motivated by real world activities and problems. My experiences, co-learning with Kanku, have certainly made me believe that it is absolutely necessary to re-look at some of our core assumptions about how human beings learn and why we learn. This debate has to be opened up across the country with our friends, colleagues, children, grandparents, neighbours, leaders, etc. It should not be abstract or overly theoretical but rather start with our own honest personal and intimate experiences: How did schooling help deepen my learning capacities? How did schooling hinder/harm my learning capacities? What did I really gain and what did I really lose? What did my community really gain and lose? How has my local natural and cultural environment benefited and lost? The real debate is not about school vs. no school. It is about co-creating the best possible learning ecologies for ourselves and our children. This is what we are trying to do with Kanku and this is the invitation that I would like to extend to you as a reader. I look forward to being in a dialogue with you.

2. One can learn more about their gatherings, and read issues of their magazine (in Hindi and in English) online:
5. See my note “Ten Lies My School Taught Me” in Swapathgami:
6. Most so-called experiments in school are not really experiments as the result is known beforehand and there is no room to make mistakes.
7. See Co-Learning with Kanku: Some Experiences from 2006 at

Manish Jain is with an NGO, Shikshantar, that works in rural Rajasthan. He invites your questions, experiences and feedback at [email protected]

Leave a Reply