There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.? Machiavelli, The Prince
As we embark on the journey to reimagine education, we are aware of the elations and the lows, the successes and failures, the unwavering stands and the compromises that a ?new order of things? demand of us. We are fortunate to be loved and supported by our families and friends, who joined us on this day when we inaugurated a community of learning and loving.
On a bright sunny Sunday morning, kids (and parents) of all ages gathered at Northstar campus for experiencing play based learning. It was an amazing experience not only for the kids but also for their parents and Northstar educators. We do what we do because every child we touch today will create a new world for herself tomorrow. We want to ensure that, that world is a beautiful world for not only herself but for everyone.
It began as a seed of an idea on a sleepy afternoon 3 years ago in Cambridge. Dreaming about it and seeing kids walk in to the school with their parents are two utterly different experiences. When I started thinking about the school, I realized that people are looking for utilitarian outcomes like jobs and placements, packages and benefits. I felt an undercurrent of apathy towards the thinking and inquiring approach to education. But there is a community, albeit a small one, that exists in defense of the libertarian and democratic education. So what is ?right? for the society? That question kept me up at night for too long. Eventually and repeatedly, I have had to come to an understanding, a kind of acceptance, that as much as I have the right to imagine society in the light of experiences I've had, others have equal and possibly divergent views given their journey of life. But it is still possible to make a value judgment that the society we live in has, as its members, people who are able to ask the right questions, are able to think independently and out of their ?mindset? established by a lifetime of experiences. Can our current system of prescribed curriculum, regimented routines, assessment systems and accountability structures create an environment where students don't have to be like everyone else?I don't believe so.
Having spent a very long time in thinking about the purpose of education, a person eventually needs to make a choice on practicalities of such ramblings. The bridge between, in Aristotle's terms, ?Theoria? and ?Praxis? needs to be scaled or at least a choice of staying in one needs to be made. I have chosen (or made to choose, I'm not quite sure) a life of ?Praxis?, of doing things. And that necessitates messy work, being able to live to compromises and managing expectations. But I am quite evidently on the road to progressive education and If I had the slightest bit of influence, I would urge you to think the same. Ultimately a good education for me, in Dewey's words, is freedom to express and cultivate individuality rather than imposition from above, free activity rather than external discipline, learning through experience rather than texts and teachers alone, and living a present life rather than living in preparation of a remote future
- Mohit Patel, Founder
It is generally assumed that learning activities should happen within the four walls of a classroom with a blackboard on one wall and students seated in neatly arranged rows in front of it. In an effort to uncover the unproductive traits of traditional education so that we can change it for the better, Mette and I hung a huge question mark on this notion of ?restricting? learning to a single space. We asked ourselves: what can we learn from the rest of the campus? and how can we deliberately design the campus to support learning experiences? We started exploring all the possible sites for out-of-classroom learning: corridors, gardens, common spaces, stairs, etc, but we also pondered how we might redesign the classroom to allow for different kinds of ?in-class? learning experiences We were amazed to know that there are so many learning opportunities in our surroundings which are completely ignored. As we brainstormed these issues, we thought how wonderful would it be to get together a group of professionals from diverse fields and allow them to explore and think about all the learning opportunities that the Northstar campus might offer . It was an instantly appealing idea and without any delay we sat out do just that. Getting a group of amazingly talented and passionate people and get them talking about learning! The primary idea of the??Learning Environment Workshop (LEW)??workshop was to get?concrete ideas and suggestions on how to create opportunities for students to learn from the Northstar campus and surrounding community.
?Mette and I both have been introduced to design thinking as a way of exploring ideas.
I have experienced the amazing potential of Design Thinking in?Shrikant Datar's course at Harvard Business School. I was always eager to use these principles in the context of designing learning experiences and this was a great opportunity to do just that. Mette has been teaching Social Entrepreneurship using Design Thinking at various places including Boston, Maastricht and Yaounde.We find it an amazing method to explore new ideas in an organized manner. ?After going through multiple design iterations, we finally settled on a format for the workshop:a presentation by us, followed by activities and discussions by the participants that involved a lot of teamwork and finally a presentation by the participants themselves. The frame of mind that we wanted our participants to be in was that of a beginner.
We think it is extremely important for experts to keep a beginner's mind in order to come up with something entirely new and original.
The next step was to identify and approach potential participants. A key element for us was to get a diverse set of people who are experts in their respective domains while also being passionate about education.We spent quite bit of time in finding the right people and eventually we got an amazing bunch of people ready to brainstorm with us and each other. Here is a list of people who participated in the Learning Environment Workshop (LEW).
On the day of the workshop, we all gathered in a room on RK University campus. Design Thinking involves a lot of teamwork and collaboration. Many participants were new to such an approach of discussing and brainstorming, so the process itself became a learning experience. Eventually, we managed to sail through and come up with some extremely innovative ideas for learning experiences on the Northstar campus and in the surrounding community. Surely we would never have come up with such a wide array of ideas on our own. The power of collective intelligence (a key element of the Northstar Approach) was clearly on display in this workshop. In a way the workshop represents our philosophy of learning at Northstar: collaboration, exploration ,iteration, and visible performance are all crucial to our mission of fostering deep understanding. For us, the process of working and exploring idea together is often more important that the final outcome of such activities. This is not to say that the final outcome of the workshop was irrelevant. On the contrary, if the process is well planned and executed with participants adopting a beginner's mind and being open to feedback and suggestions, the final outcome invariably turns out to be great.
It's hard to teach what you were never taught, and if you have gone through the Indian school system, chances are that you have had little experience with teamwork and collaborative problem-solving, unless, of course, you have been exposed to this later in life. I bring up this issue of collaboration because, during my stay in Rajkot, Mohit and I designed and facilitated several workshops with parents, educators and professionals. Many of our activities required participants to collaborate with each other in small groups and I was surprised to learn how little familiarity and, as a result, how few strategies our adult participants had with group work of this kind
The blank stares and uneasy silence made me feel as if we had just asked a group of race car drivers to complete the Tour de France with some of them never even having seen a bicycle.
In fact, the analogy of the race car drivers and the cyclists is a faulty one in the sense that both the drivers and the cyclists perform their work in teams. Yes, a single person might ultimately be standing on the podium and be announced as winner, but the process is a collaborative one involving a team of people working to advance a joint mission. In fact, teamwork and collaborative problem-solving seem to be unavoidable features of the 21st century workplace, but that doesn't mean that all teams and team members are created equal! A study from MIT on the characteristics of successful teams (link:?Why Some Teams Are Smarter Than Others found that the smartest teams were not the ones whose team members had the highest combined IQ. Instead, the most effective teams were the ones whose members ?contributed more equally to the team's discussions, rather than letting one or two people dominate the group? and whose members scored higher on a test measuring their ability to read ?complex emotional states from images of faces with only the eyes visible.? The answer to the question: ?is your child a team player?? is thus dependent on his or her ability to engage in balanced group interactions both listening and offering input and on his or her degree of empathy.
Back to our summer workshops. Let's take a look at what happened when people with little experience with collaborative problem-solving were asked to do just that: Faced with the unfamiliar challenge, groups of faculty, parents and professionals proceeded to respond in various ways: many teams were initially very quiet, seemingly unsure how to approach a task that demanded collective idea generation and decision-making; others immediately gravitated towards an in-group leader figure in a likely attempt to make the situation more familiar and comfortable; and still others set out to initially solve the task individually, thus postponing having to deal with the unknowns of collaboration for as long as possible. Providing and receiving feedback between groups presented another giant leap into unknown territory, and often these feedback conversations would be heavily skewed towards thinking about how an idea might NOT work, rather than exploring the potential of a new idea through collaborative, supportive inquiry. Of course there were also a minority of groups whose members were perhaps more familiar with team work and who managed to create a healthier group dynamic where everyone's voice and ideas were heard and decisions informed by discussion and consensus. The real question is: how do we make such teamwork the norm, not the exception?
In Denmark, where I am from, education is more participatory and more collaborative than the traditional model in many Indian schools. By engaging in regular collaborative activities, students learn how to navigate group work, how to share perspectives and ideas and how to provide constructive feedback. I'm not saying we have it right in Denmark in fact, I feel we have a long long way to go when it comes to education but I want to point out that it is possible to effectively practice collaboration in schools.
Collaboration is a key focus area in the Northstar Approach
At The Northstar School we strive to create a culture of collaboration between all members of the learning community. For example, because we understand that it is hard to teach something you have not yourself mastered, we train all our teachers to collaborate with each other when designing and delivering student learning experiences. This is because we believe that life is interdisciplinary so school should be too!? but it also provides students with a model of what effective collaboration can look like.
Our focus on experiential learning has students engaged in tackling real world curiosities, often working in project teams that demand collaborative decision-making and action. We encourage students to welcome differences of opinion as opportunities for personal reflection and growth and to collectively negotiate meaning in conversation with others to reach deeper understanding. Such learning experiences allow students to practice and strengthen their communication skills and level of empathy to help them master the social art of collaboration and emerge as team players.