CHENNAI: When I was in class 8, I tutored a sixth grader in all his subjects. At the time, I had no idea about what I would go on to do with my life,” shares Raaji Naveen, co-founder of Beyond 8, India’s first complete learner-centric (heutagogical) school system in Chennai, walking us back to where it all started.
“I certainly didn’t imagine that I would spend the better part of my life in creating meaningful education for all children and young adults. The only indicator I had was that I was always frustrated with not knowing the purpose of everything we were told to learn in school and college,” she shares.
Although academic success came rather easily, she didn’t see a strong correlation to the lives many adults lived with their academic achievements. But Raaji had figured the skill of how to learn. Over the last two decades, along with her husband (co-founder of Beyond 8) Naveen, she has developed expertise in heutagogical education.
“We learned a lot about the contours of education, how it differs from learning, and how learning and education lead to social transformation and developing self-worth,” notes Naveen. In a tete-a-tete, the couple, who left their well-paying jobs in the US to pursue their passion of reshaping education discuss the tenets of Beyond 8, question the archaic education system, emphasise the need to reimagine it and enable young people for their future. Excerpts follow.
How was Beyond 8 conceived?
On the one hand, we were seeing a lot of students with varying interests ask us for flexibility in school schedules. And on the other, we were noticing how fruitless our best efforts were when it came to educating children who were fundamentally different, and interested in so many other things. They needed a different education, not the one a curriculum prescribes.
In trying to get every child to achieve the same outcomes, they were only growing more disenfranchised. We learned to trust our children more and more and realised they handle responsibility well when they are supported and encouraged to do so. So we started by allowing students to have more flexibility: when they came to school and what subjects they could learn elsewhere even if we didn’t offer them at our school.
We noticed a growing interest in using our flexible approach to education. This is when we realised that we must put a new education system in place, an alternative to school that was focussed on enabling passions, not preparing students for a curriculum alone.
Can you share some observations that you’ve made over the last two decades while evaluating what is taught and learned in schools?
Schools are curriculum-focused and not learner-focused, exam-focused and not learning-focused, teaching what to learn rather than teaching how to learn, location, time and infrastructure- focused rather than making learning experiential, expected to teach the past; they must instead be current and only connected to the past, driven by “textbook content delivered by teachers” rather than expert practitioners championing learning interests, are timebound, fixed by periods and by age levels. They must instead be modular, and optional, based on interests. The curriculum is the biggest problem. It tells what every human being needs to know with a constraint on both time and space. Schooling has to be less about a curriculum and more about knowing oneself. Schools lack the autonomy to do any of these.
In a country where the education system hasn’t yet identified its different learners, how effective has this approach been?
Beyond 8 isn’t for everybody. It is for those who recognise that a 200-yearold system is ineffective and are willing to go with different imaginations, especially those that are put together by experts in child development. The learners are thrilled to have found us, and so are their parents. Broadly, five categories of learners and families will find Beyond 8 valuable: Students with clear passions who find schools limiting their opportunities; children who are yet to find their passion or specific academic interest, but wish to pursue their own interest, in their own time; parents who ‘listen’ to their children and see a partner in us to enable their children, children who are bullied or too smart, and parents who know that degrees and certificates don’t have value anymore.
Doesn’t reimagining education also mean a paradigm shift in the roles and responsibilities of educators?
Yes, more than teaching, we need enablement. Our learners must learn to take responsibility for their own learning, and for that, they need guidance and encouragement, strategies and mentoring, not teaching. Given our 20 years of building a culture- oriented organisation at Headstart, we’ve often attracted people with our same or similar beliefs. Also, we have put down our culture into a document that helps families, facilitators and other team members know if we are a good fit for them before becoming a part of our ecosystem. Learning does not require teachers. It requires enablers, mentors, coaches and facilitators, parents and an eco-system for learners to thrive.
How can this learner-determined approach to education be customised to individual needs?
The crux of heutagogical process of learning is the importance given to the learner. The learner is quite simply the captain of the ship and drives what, how and where to learn (rather than being limited by a prescribed curriculum). They work together with their mentors who function as facilitators of learning, rather than mere disseminators of information. At Beyond 8, we enable this sense of agency by an extensive activity called dream mapping that is conducted with individual learners and their families on their enrollment. During dream mapping, a trained facilitator engages with the learner to deeply understand his/her vision for the future and further create highly personalised lesson plans for them. This ensures that the learner is developing the skills, knowledge and attitudes needed to excel in the field of choice as opposed to being part of an ‘assembly line’ that treats him or her the same as it would any other person.
Are industry leaders and markets ready to recruit individuals who have autonomy and look at growth beyond the workplace?
Interestingly, conventional schools claim to train children for workplaces. If this is true, they are selling our children a grossly misinformed image of the workplace of the future. The current education system assumes that children will grow up to work with people who are the same age as them, must never ask for assistance to progress, and must carry of use their certificate to advance. Ask a real industry expert from any field and you find this to be farthest from the truth. Industry clamours for a new breed of graduates: those who are driven by autonomy and agency, value collaboration over competition and critical thinking over run-of-themill ideas and wellness over burnouts. It is time for the current education system to mirror this new way of work as it prepares the next generation of learners.
In today’s world, where self-worth is often gauged by one’s productivity, how does Beyond 8 break this school of thought?
The metric of success has often been recalibrated over the years. For some, it is closely tied to one’s rise on the corporate ladder, for some it is productivity and for some, it is producing their life’s best work. However, we believe happiness has been a rather underrated yet efficient way to measure success, be it in learners or employees. We encourage our learners to follow their passions and find happiness in the fulfilling and purposeful lives they wish to lead.
How does this education system prove beneficial to the mental health of the young population? According to this year’s World Happiness Report, Finland and Denmark fared the highest in happiness levels. India has slipped into the bottom 15. Why are so many adults unhappy in India? We believe the short answer is that the current education system is not enabling young people to lead fulfilling lives. On the one hand, a multitude do not receive a full school education. And those who do, are neither satisfied with the present nor in control over their futures. From our experiences with learners at Beyond 8, we have seen many children display high levels of motivation when given the freedom to think, but retaliate when forced to mindlessly memorise concepts. Also, the few who are provided with an opportunity to learn differently, driven by their own interests and passion in what we call ‘alternate’ learning environments, feel purposeful about their lives, and grow up with high levels of self-worth and motivation. Happiness is intrinsic to heutagogy, where we listen to our learners’ voices, their hopes and aspirations and co-create the learning choices that will help them achieve all of them.
In these times of disruption and working from home, how is this concept more relevant now?
The jobs of the future will look nothing like those of today. According to a McKinsey report, automation will have a significant impact on the global workforce with nearly 50 per cent of all our current activities technically automatable by adapting currently demonstrated technologies. What our children are learning in schools today may be obsolete in the current decade itself. But, when we help our children to be lifelong and life-wide learners, we are enabling them to adapt to these unprecedented changes with resilience and creative thinking. For more, visit beyond8.in