Finding the Ethos of a Democratic Education Centre

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Last year when I decided to become a facilitator at our learning centre I had no idea what that would mean. I was uncomfortable. I was warming up to the fact that my kids were growing up to self-manageable age. Soon it was going to be good bye to tantrums and welcome to the age of dialogue. From there taking a U turn and babysitting a bunch of kids was making nervous. I do teach college kids but this is an entirely a different game. In front of the twenty somethings you can be ‘very matter of factly’ and authoritative if you want to. 

But what would it mean to manage 5 and 8 year olds? What would words like democratic and non judgmental mean to them? If they were to feel free in this space, does that mean they will shout, scream and run amok? They sit on my head and I smile. Tolerate everything. Frankly, all this looked very dicey from my stand point. Anyhow, I jumped in. 

This past one year, I have travelled a lot. Into the narrow lanes of my mind, that is. I have never found myself in this utter state of self doubt and comtemplation. There have been days when I felt I have been completely unproductive and worthless. I have wondered what I have been doing and what I have contributed to this mission. Without any direction of what is expected of me and how to conduct myself I have felt completely at loss. To start with, you can’t teach anything here. You can’t instruct. You can’t help them directly. You can’t yell at them. You can’t even say NO. For everything there has to be an arduous procedure of dialogue. You have to probe them to think independently so they come up with their own solutions. One day a five year old comes to me while I was cleaning up the cupboard,

Child: Can you pass me the new box of play dough?

Me: Oh, don’t we have an opened one?

Child: Yea but I still want the new one.

Me: Oh I see…can I ask why?

Child: Because I want it that’s why.

Me: Hmm…can you think of why? (All I wanted was to tell her to use the resources judiciously)

The child looks affronted and walks away, leaving feeling guilty.

Another incident…

Child: What is the spelling of star? 

Me: Hmm…what do you think?

Child: …S…T…R. 

Me: Okay, do you think that is correct?

Child: Yeah, I think so…

Me: Hmm….aaaaa…(I was just about to…)

Child: you don’t seem to know? 

Similarly, once at home.

Husband: I’m making some tea, do you want some?

Me: Hmm…what do you think?

Husband: Looks confused… and bracing up for what’s coming next…

So as you can see, I was completely messing this up. I didn’t understand the head from the toe. I wasn’t able to understand the delicate balance of when to probe and how to probe. What is facilitation puzzled me. I didn’t understand the Art of doing Nothing as they say. I can’t just be the fly on the wall. I have to observe, be mindful and give my non judgemental opinions. I didn’t know how to do all this mature stuff. 

I was partly delusional. I thought we will come together and create this stimulating environment, where children can flourish. But they had a different agenda. They were not interested in anything else but play. Everything else besides this was distraction for them. All I saw was their indifference and callousness. Any mention or hint of teaching would be met with a frown. Any talk in regards to setting up rules will be looked upon as boring. Even if rules were made collaboratively, we were policing them. We would persuade and cajole them but no one will fall for it. We found ourselves doing most of the chores and housekeeping. Any call for help will find them running away. Patiently every day my partner and I did most of it and set up the place for the next day. This was unsettling for us. We felt something was amiss. We couldn’t do anything that Daniel Greenberg or Yaacov Hecht mention in their books. Reflecting upon, I guess we didn’t give up control. The key aspect that sets us apart from children. The want to control. Most of the times we didn’t realise we were exercising control through our behaviours and things done and undone. We thus became the authority. This realisation discomforted us, since we were here to shun authority and empower them. 

All was not grim last year though. We had lots of fun and took many trips. We had many visitors to our centre. We built many things together. We were not perfect, but at any given point of time children were playing and happy. Almost all the days they wanted to stay back longer. We goofed around with many ideas of how to run this place. We put in a lot of effort in setting up systems. But all along I had this grave feeling that I was insufficient and not able to do the magic. I thought I either needed nerves of steel or a big bag of cold ice. We discussed our plight to folks like us whom we met at education conferences. A similar centre like ours called BeMe in Bangalore stepped forward to help us through a workshop.

BeMe is an open and democratic learning centre for children from 3-16 years. They have been around for 5 years, not long enough to have forgotten the initial pain and not short enough to understand that this too will pass. This  program called ANKUR was no less than a therapy. We met online, now that life is like that. It was a seventeen days long program centred on understanding the philosophy, brainstorming and exploring the way forward. 

The sessions were conducted by Annies Ephraim and Namrata Bhatt both facilitators of BeMe. Annie is extremely modest and intellectual; whereas Namrata is a tower of patience and treasure of stories. Both looked so wise and humble, I was silently dreaming of me and Poorva (my partner) becoming like them one day.

First thing I found out during the sessions, is all the work that we didn’t do in our first year. So I recalibrate our last year as ‘Year Zero’. We made mistakes, a lot of them. Under the pretext of providing a free environment we have been guilty of manipulation. And it came out glaringly during the sessions when difficult questions were asked. We operated from our insecurities and held onto our prejudices. 

We discussed and rediscussed the ingredients of what makes a place like this. The theory of all of this is easy to discuss and debate. But a great deal of effort and time has to be put to evolve the systems and various practices. One has to be wary of these practices too. Be mindful that these are conjuring up the real philosophy behind. Where and how exactly does the rubber meet the road. We didn’t know until now. I can’t say that I have learnt all the tricks of the trade here. But it has definitely stirred me away from self doubt and towards possibilities. “This is going to take its own time” quips Annie, when she sees me excited and eager. We particularly had an interesting session on the idea of freedom. 

If we say that this place offers freedom to children. What do we exactly mean by that? What is freedom? Is it something that you give and take? Who are you to give freedom? This is what I think, the freedom at a societal level is given to us by the constitution of this country. So by birth it is awarded to us. There is no need to give since its already given. As an adult what I need to do is step away from the path of the child who is accessing his or her choice of freedom. Having said that, the next question is, are we really free? Can we do or not do every thing that we want to do or not do? Obviously, the answer is no. One can walk around without clothes in one’s room but not outside. What I am allowed to do in my community, may not be acceptable in other community. Will I under the pretext of wanting to live a complete free life go to the jungles? No way! Does that mean that freedom is sometimes a negotiated contract with the community? It is actually not that simple, freedom is very layered and contextual. But the key component here is community. 

We are bound by the community that we are associated with. This community can be extrapolated from family to society to country at large. Community hence becomes the body where everyone is a part of and thereby treated with parity. Community is the governing body and also then becomes the authority. There is a chance that the community and individual/s turn against each other. In such an event what you need is not confrontation but exactly the opposite of it. The individuals we are talking here are kids from 5 to 16 year olds who are learning to manage themselves, their emotions and figure out what they want to do with their life. They need support and acceptance. 

The place we hope to co-create with children is not going to be perfect and we all have our faults. We want this to be a place where everyone has a chance to be themselves and feel accepted even with their faults. We all make mistakes and a non judgmental space is all you need to realise this by ourselves. A child or an adult doesn’t naturally want to do wrong or harm anyone else. Only when that person is treated unfairly and devoid of love and warmth that they will turn towards “wrongdoings”. Children are largely self centered, focused on their immediate needs and immersed by their own world. Anything besides that is distraction and bothersome for them. 

While we discussed many other beliefs, in my mind after stripping away all the peripheral concepts. These very essential core principles remain which are freedom, community and acceptance. The other beliefs like justice (conflict resolution), mentoring, inclusiveness, respect for each other and communication all largely stem out of these fundamental core beliefs. 

Moving forward I think two things will determine the success of our centre. First is how grounded we are to our core beliefs and how we bridge the gap between the idea and its reality. Second is how we expand our community. In centres like this the maximum learning happens through social engagement with other kids. More the better, is the mantra here.

If you were assume the conventional educational system as a band wagon; and you have a ticket on that wagon you can be sure to reach somewhere. For everyone else who are not and fall out are doomed to fail. This can be a pretty dreary situation to imagine for your child. 

From where we stand in this content-exploding-internet age, I can offer a slightly different perspective. What I see is a child with a ticket to a happy and successful life, waiting for the wagon of his or her choosing. The child of today is in a much better state than ever to decide the kind of life he or she wants to live. I understand the concerns of the parents and I see many of you at the fence, who are eager and empathetic to this call. I know how it feels because I have stood there, before I jumped in. I can’t and won’t lend you a hand or show you the way. If you believe in it, then you got to take the plunge. All I can say is that there are quite a bunch of us on the other side. 

Meanwhile, I think I understand the worries as a parent but would like to know better. On behalf of Learners Collective, I would request you to take this survey on your idea of education for your child. This will not only help me but will help all of us as a community to understand the undercurrent thoughts and concerns we have for the future of our children.

Thank you!

One thought on “Finding the Ethos of a Democratic Education Centre

  1. It is good to know that you are creating a democratic education system for the children.
    The child will grow up with ideology of self reliance, co-operative working, responsibility, respect, acceptance and many more.
    We as a parents will have to show so courage as you rightly mentioned to cross the false wall of recognitions for the child’s better future.

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