Sonam Wangchuk challenges India’s ‘ritual’ education with common sense

MANILA, Philippines – In a remote village atop the Himalayan mountains, a man is leading a community’s fight against climate change. Together with a school of children, they are finding solutions to the harsh conditions one would expect when living in a cold desert on one of the world’s tallest land formations.  

For the 300,000 or so people living there, answers can come in the form of “ice stupas” or ice mountains. These are artificial glaciers that supply the communities’ need for clean water through springtime as water from glaciers no longer reach towns like they used to. 

Then there are school buildings made out of mud and run 100% on solar power. The buildings are designed to keep learners warm during harsh winters, as temperatures can plummet to -30º C, and cool when the scorching summer sun brings a peak of 30ºC. 

Sonam Wangchuk – who received the prestigious 2018 Ramon Magsaysay award – is the force behind these creations.

He fostered these solutions through years of educational reforms instituted through his alternative school, the Student’s Education and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL), and in public schools in the mountain state of Ladakh in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. 

But while some have called these “innovations” in education and science, Wangchuk prefers to call them common sense. 

“It is just common sense. How we do our schools generally is what surprises me more because we just make a ritual out of education in a classroom with a textbook and a lecture. This is not how children learn…. We learn by doing things, in the real world,” Wangchuk told Rappler in an interview on Wednesday, August 29.

The changes Wangchuk brought focused on returning to what he believes was always the goal of education: to answer real needs of the world today. (READ: 'Redesign education to heal planet, people' – Magsaysay Awardee Sonam Wangchuk)

“It (education) became a ritual only recently. Since the industrial revolution, we started doing everything artificially so education became an exercise to get a certificate, get a job. Otherwise, we have always learned with a purpose and I think it is very important that we continue to link education to a real purpose; otherwise, people won't be interested,” he said.  

Since he started SECMOL in 1988 with colleagues and his brother, roughly over 2,000 students have gone through the school’s system. Here, much of the learning is done in activities outside, rather than lengthy lectures in the classroom.

For Wangchuk, this is the best way to learn: “to link everything that is too theoretical to something practical, to something applied, something that grows and does something, and takes a shape.” 

Forged in failure

The trailblazing education he is recognized for is not without its growing pains.

Hailing from Ladakh himself, Wangchuk came face to face with the traditional education system in India, which he himself had difficulty dealing with as a young boy. 

Wangchuk, schooled by his mother up until he was 9 years old, learned basic skills in his mother tongue. Later on, he enrolled in a school in Srinagar, where the language barrier and distant theories had hampered his learning so much that he sought schooling elsewhere. 

“Everything was copied and pasted in Ladakh from Kashmir and so you just took that. And in Kashmir, it was pasted from New Delhi; in New Delhi, it was pasted from London. So by the time a copy of a copy of copy reached the mountains, it hardly made any sense. It was not even legible.” 

He again faced gaps in the traditional schooling system when as a young engineer in India’s National Institute of Technology, he tutored students struggling with their studies to pay for his tuition. 

Once again, it was almost impossible for him not to notice how the education being fostered in his hometown was far removed from their reality and surroundings. 

“A lot of students used to fail in our part of the world. I learned that they are not failing, it is the system failing. There is nothing wrong with the students (yet) 95% of them were declared failures…. You can't blame them for not being good students when what they study is not of interest or importance to their lives,” he said. 

Facing this failure prompted Wangchuk to venture into education.

The career change is self-proclaimed in his Twitter profile, which amasses a following of nearly 14,000 people, as he described himself as an “engineer turned education reformer” who likes “playing with fire, ice, sun, earth.” 

“I thought of bringing change in the system instead of adding another engineer to the market,” he said. 

This is how Wangchuk started to install reforms in government and rural schools in Ladakh. In 2001, he became an education advisor for the Leh Hill Council Government, a region in Ladakh. 

From 2002 to 2005, he also started and operated the Ladakh Voluntary Network, wherein he would teach educators and individuals in the community about his education reforms. It was also during these years when Wangchuk became a member of the Indian government’s national governing council for elementary education and Ladakh’s committee that would draft the state’s roadmap till 2025.

ACHUK GOES TO ANTARCTICA After 3 day Antarctic trip with many scientists, now in Santiago for the Future Congress... Achuk is my childhood name (still the 12 yr old inside) pic.twitter.com/fVIZ97Yc6w — Sonam Wangchuk (@Wangchuk66) January 15, 2018

Wangchuk said reforms he pushed took a double approach: incremental and “indirect” changes in state schools and more direct changes through his SECMOL alternative school. 

In state schools, these included training teachers in new and more interactive ways of teaching. It also meant changing items in textbooks to those that students would be able to relate to more. These could be as simple as replacing textbook references of tigers, elephants, and mangoes to snow leopards, yaks, and apricots – features more relevant to the immediate environment in the Himalayas. 

These incremental changes, Wangchuk said, helped students to gain more confidence in where they were born. Soon after this, he said results started to change and more students started to succeed. 

ALTERNATIVE SCHOOL. The SECMOL alternative school is 100% run on solar power. Photo from SECMOL website

ALTERNATIVE SCHOOL. The SECMOL alternative school is 100% run on solar power.

Photo from SECMOL website

As for students who still had difficulty learning in the public school setting, this is where SECMOL came in. Here, teachers and students work hand-in-hand in designing what is taught. Also, the admission criteria would be having failed the traditional education system. 

In SECMOL, subject matter is not taught in a rigid sense. For instance, lessons in biology, chemistry, business, economics, and home sciences can be incorporated and intertwined in helping students run their own vegetable gardens. 

Wangchuk gave the example as an opportunity where students learn how much water is needed to grow vegetables, the kind of vegetables that can be planted for the season, pricing and selling them to the school cafeteria, and learning elements that are needed to keep their plots fruitful.

This is a common theme of their alternative school.

Facing change 

Much as these reforms made sense, not everyone could understand the changes Wangchuk was pushing for. Among these people were those he described as individuals who, having gone to school and finished, were generally considered more educated. 

“Most educated people would think, why do we need to learn these things? These are local, they're unimportant. We need to learn about tigers and so on without understanding that education is a process that takes you from known to unknown. You learn about the immediate and then you build it up to go to elephants, tigers, the universe,” Wangchuk said. 

“They lost that common sense, especially in a colonial system where an original thinking is not encouraged,” he added. 

Wangchuk said that having gotten used to the traditional system made change uncomfortable for them. “When you try to make it work, people get disturbed. Very few like change.” Slowly, though, they understood and accepted the reforms.

"Education is a process that takes you from known to unknown. You learn about the immediate and then you build it up to go to elephants, tigers, the universe" 

Meanwhile, Wangchuk and his peers found allies in individuals and families living in rural communities. According to him, the education reforms he pushed for were answers to deep-seated doubts rural folk had about themselves.

“They always had this doubt – we are told we are illiterate and these are educated people who know everything, but we can see they can't do anything and yet they didn't have that courage to say that because they were cast as illiterate, unimportant people,” Wangchuk said.  

“They understood us more when we said that this is not working, people should be more skilled to live a life in the context they live [in],” he added.

For Wangchuk, it's in bridging education to address peoples’ immediate needs that pushed him to follow through, despite resistance from some. Morevover, its in seeing children who once failed value education again that keeps him going.

"Students who are otherwise rejected...shine again and do well not necessarily for the world, but for themselves, be happy and original and be themselves, and that is very satisfactory to see."

On to the next

For Wangchuk, there are greater heights to reach.

Up next on his list is starting a university by 2019 where this method of alternative learning will be fostered in higher levels of education. 

Wangchuk sees a university where two thirds of students’ time will be spent outdoors in application and one third will be spent in classrooms. He wants students to engage in real-life enterprises – be it in tourism and hospitality through running a hotel, or in education through running an "innovative school." 

These initiatives, he said, will also help to sustain the school’s expenses so that, hopefully, students will not need to pay to attend.  

"Even if they system doesn't help you, you try and apply it to things because ultimately what will be useful is what you can use." 

“When they work, not only do they learn the best way – the unforgettable way. They can also learn because they produce value and the university can sustain from the programs from the students,” he said.  

He added, “They may not afford pesos or rupees or dollars, but they can all afford sweat and imagination. So, they pay in that currency.” 

As for students elsewhere in the world who may be experiencing difficulty but don’t always have the benefit of an alternative school, Wangchuk urges them to find meaning in what they are learning and to think for themselves. 

Even if the system doesn't help you, you try and apply it to things because ultimately what will be useful is what you can use. Information itself is not going to be useful. How you can use it is going to be useful.”

Wangchuk added, “While you will have to go with the flow and to better with marks, don't sacrifice the learning for just the marks. When you actually understand something and are able to apply, you can also do better in the marks part of it.” – Rappler.com

Read other 2018 Ramon Magsaysay profiles:

Sofia Tomacruz

Sofia Tomacruz covers foreign affairs, the overseas Filipino workers, and elections. She also writes stories on the treatment of women and children. Follow her on Twitter @sofiatomacruz. Email her at sofia.tomacruz@rappler.com.

image