A Small School with Big Dreams

Exploring (new) ways of learning for a Bright, Beautiful and Sustainable World

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Loka is an innovative small school with big dreams in a remote and rural village in Bihar, North-India. At Loka everyone is welcome; children from different backgrounds and with different learning abilities study together. Besides equipping students with academic skills, Loka makes a difference by connecting with the local community, applying the learned to everyday life, integrating art and craft, creating awareness for planetary health and applying slow and reflective ways of learning. Rather than creating a standardised model of schooling to be copied and pasted, Loka’s school aspires to be an inspiring example of an education that is shaped to the natural ways of children’s minds and hearts and relevant for both its local context and today’s world. Loka’s future dreams include a Maker Space and a new kind of University that provides personalised courses that build on best practices of all times and places. Loka aims to be a centre for learning that equips students to create a new world -on village scale.

Introduction

Let’s sing a new song! ~Late Kabir Jaithirtha, Founder/Educator at Shibumi School Bangalore, during a Conversation on Education in December 2017

How does the kind of world (Loka) we would all love to live in look? Children living in a remote village in Bihar explore this question through their education and are equipped to create spaces, design systems and start businesses that give inspiring answers. At Loka’s school, students are provided with a free space -from the Greek word skole- where they can shine in their true potential. The task of the teacher, who is also a learner, is to educate or in Latin educare -to train and educere -to draw out. Loka’s school is continuously evolving; everyone involved reflects, shares experiences and builds on everyday learning. Loka is a unique school in the making that is sensitive to its local surroundings and by exploring new ways of learning, aspires to contribute towards a bright, beautiful and sustainable world.

Humble beginnings

It all starts with dreams in our minds and passion in our hearts. ~Faisal Husain, Friend of Loka and Founder/CEO Synechron

Loka was founded by Sanat Kumar and Charlotte Leech in 2007 as an experiment in education along the river Ganges in a village near Varanasi. Coming from completely different backgrounds and equipped with complementary skills they decided to join hands and dedicate their lives towards a shared mission. When the space in Varanasi was no longer available a plot of land was purchased in Bihar. There Loka’s school was built along the Punpun river at the entrance of village Manikpur, in the same surrounding area where Sanat spent his childhood days. The village people welcomed Loka; they saw the school as a symbol of hope in their struggling lives. Initially Loka’s land was used for organic farming and Sanat lived in a jeep on a field where the school was being built, brick by brick. Spring 2015, after six years of dedication and determination, Loka carefully opened its doors for 25 children from Manikpur. The opening was celebrated with art workshops by Madhubani artist Avinash Karn from Bihar and contemporary artist Eleni Tzatzalos from Greece. Both artists were impressed by the young students’ creativity and unique ways of expressing themselves; children from a village who never before had been exposed to formal art classes.

Starting a school in a remote area was not without challenges. There were limited materials and few skilled people available, if at all. Sometimes it took months for a plumber to visit the location. Internet and electricity could not be taken for granted. Teachers willing to work in a village in Bihar -a state that is generally in the news for its corruption, poverty and ongoing violence- were hard to find. The extreme Bihar climate in combination with inadequate health facilities made those who did join, often leave soon. But there were also possibilities. Being in a remote area meant having to be inventive and it also gave space -or at times even forced one- to do things differently. The few people who were courageous enough to join Loka’s small team and stay through it all, were drawn by something more than merely having a job and open to learn and apply new learning methods. Something else was that until then development had limited access to this relatively unknown part of India. This provided opportunities to actively envision new ways for a village to progress from within, rather than passively letting usual ways enter/being dominated by the usual ways.

In retrospect, the place and time to start Loka’s school turned out to be exactly right. The remote location, the hardships, the openness of students and their families and even the lack of qualified  teachers all contributed to this. This made us wonder. Maybe a new kind of education will emerge from the place and people least expected. Bihar is, after all, a space of great things. Great violence, but also, great wisdom.

A Free Space for Everyone

With our thoughts we make the world. ~The Buddha

Once upon a time Magadha was an ancient Indian kingdom in southern Bihar and counted as one of the sixteen great countries of India. It was in the land of Magadha that Prince Siddharth attained enlightenment and became known as the Buddha and where Nalanda, an ancient centre for learning, attracted students from all over the world. Today, in that same area, children in a remote farming village are imagining the impossible and shaping their surroundings. They are creating a new world on village scale through their education.

Loka’s campus is a beautiful and natural space where children are encouraged to shine with their true potential. Its 2,4 hectare grounds include a natural farm, flower gardens, trees, a handcrafted play system, sports fields and a school with thoughtfully designed classrooms with wooden furniture, handmade by a local carpenter. A study centre provides space for residential and guest educators to live, reflect and learn. Buildings are beautified with colourful Mithila murals made by local artists. The campus provides an excellent atmosphere and infrastructure to learn, create, innovate, play and reflect. Loka’s organic farm is managed together with local farmers and meant to connect the learning journey of students with the soil, rather than creating a disconnection with the main occupation practiced in the region. Students are involved in the farm through experiments and projects that build on and add to existing farming knowledge and practices in their village. 

At Loka, children from different backgrounds and with different learning abilities study together, creating understanding and connections from a young age. Families of most students work as seasonal small-scale farmers and day-labourers (90%) and some students come from business families in the region (10%). Admission is on basis of geography, age, gender (in support of girl students) and committed parents. Families who cannot afford the school fees, which is mostly the case in the rural setting from where the school operates, can have their children’s education sponsored by Friends of Loka. This way economical backgrounds never create an obstacle for admission. At the moment of writing 90 students aged 4-14 from nursery class until grade 8 study at Loka. In years to come the school will increase up to 108 students who will receive a complete education of head, heart and hands.

Learning @Loka

Do we really need buildings to learn? Once we break down the brick boundaries we surround ourselves with, we will be able to see the world around us with our own eyes. That is education. ~Student of Loka

Loka started as a mainstream school; the known was used as a starting point. Until today students follow the standard curriculum for which National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) books published by the Indian government form a guideline. Loka distinguishes itself from other schools in the region in several ways: 1) Comparison and competition are replaced by authenticity and collaboration. 2) A complete education of head, heart and hands is provided with emphasis on art & craft. 3) The near to far principle is applied; teachers explain a topic starting from the child’s interests and that what is familiar, before moving to more abstract concepts. 4) The local community is involved and awareness created for planetary health. 5) Knowledge from books is made relevant for real life. 6) Teachers are also learners and 7) the school is kept small and learning personalised. 

During short daily meetings Loka’s educators look into existing interesting examples of learning and share their experiences of working at Loka and interacting with students. Every day the team builds on that learning. Students have increasingly been involved in shaping their school through reflections and dialogues. Meaningful interactions between educators, students, the village, guests and Loka’s partners have greatly contributed to the transformation of a regular school into a learning space that is relevant for both its local context and preparing students for an ever changing world.

Loka provides (pre-)primary education up to grade 8. Every year a grade is added. Loka’s smallest ones are instilled with a love for learning through: art & craft, conversations, play, music, poetry, storytelling, nature walks, observation classes and educational games. After three years of creating a basic foundation, students move to primary and middle school and a variety of subjects are offered. Academics and also creative classes such as Hindi poetry, dance and classical Indian music.  Regular performances and presentations enable students to express themselves creatively and build confidence. Through field trips students explore the nature, culture and history of their region. Students keep the school campus neat & clean through manual work and every Saturday morning they plant trees or clean their village. A new 4-year course is being designed for grades 9-12. Besides preparing for required certificates for further studies and/or employment, through this course students will be equipped to create their livelihoods, empowered to uplift their surroundings and enriched with a sense of purpose.

Think, Feel, Act – Projects of Loka

Somebody created this fast paced world as it is with all its pollution and these kind of things. Somebody has to stand up and make this world unique. I think slow learning and deeply understanding nature can bring this about. ~Student of Loka

Learning at Loka is enriched with inspiring projects designed and implemented in collaboration with valued partners with whom Loka builds long term and in-depth relationships. These projects have a great impact on how students think, feel and take action for a beautiful and sustainable world. Three projects are highlighted below that make a difference for Loka’s school, students and community.

Out of Eden Learn (OOEL) is an online platform, thoughtfully designed by Project Zero (Harvard) that connects children from all over the world in meaningful ways. It offers several learning journey’s that invite young people to slow down, share stories and make connections. The platform is connected to Pulitzer awarded journalist Paul Salopek’s Out of Eden Walk. Through OOEL students look more closely at their local surroundings and share their observations and thoughts online with other students or walking partners all over the world who do the same. A global conversation starts by commenting on each others posts. Through OOEL Loka’s students learn new practical skills like creating videos and writing emails. They also make slow walks, look more closely, learn more deeply, understand the meaning of the everyday, conduct research and become storytellers. For more information on OOEL see the official website and Loka’s blogpost.

ANJ Meetings started to create awareness for menstrual hygiene among Loka’s girl students in collaboration with Ecofemme in Auroville. The meetings have evolved to include a broad range of girl and woman related topics, such as: equal participation of girls, future dreams,  domestic violence, and the need for girls only activities. Loka’s girl students are slowly involving village women in the conversation. By raising awareness, sharing knowledge and through thoughtful action the quality of life in villages is being improved in ways that are in tune with the ecological and cultural values both Ecofemme and Loka embrace.

Art & Science Workshops greatly enrich Loka’s students and school. Artists from within India and abroad conduct various workshops such as theatre, printmaking, painting with clay, animation and dance. Recently a collaboration with Artreach India started and their workshops have proven to be of immense value. Guided by artists of Artreach, Loka’s students created a mural of blown up shadows of plants, explored and re-imagined their bodies through art, made animated videos and organised an art event for the village. During science workshops of Teach for Green’s founder/director Ajay Kumar, students designed and made their own solar toy cars and lamps using waste materials. Thanks to   inspiring workshops throughout the year, students receive exposure from outside their village and are equipped to imagine and shape their worlds.

Future Dreams

We move to make the impossible possible. ~Late Stephen Leech, engineer, storyteller and inventor, an inspiration for Loka

The journey of Loka has just begun. In years to come a Maker Space will be added; a living laboratory where students of all ages will be invited to shape their worlds through making, inventing, tinkering and creating things and spaces. A Loka Cafe serving wholesome dishes from the farm, an Internet of Things lab, an up-cycling studio, a bamboo workshop, a pottery department, a research centre for organic farming & green energy, a repairing unit and a Museum of New Things are some of the ideas teachers and students have in mind. What is happening at Loka will slowly move beyond the campus and into the local community. In the further future a new kind of University is being imagined within Loka’s existing infrastructure. A learning centre offering personalised courses, relevant for the local surroundings and responsive to an ever changing world.  

Imagine the impossible. Students living in an unknown part of India are transforming their village into a space of beauty, peace, innovation, progress and sustainability and creating an inspiring example for Loka’s ultimate dream: a learning world.

 

More information

www.loka.in

www.facebook.com/lokalocus/

twitter.com/LokaLocus

 

Charlotte Leech

Charlotte Leech is co-founder of Loka. Before Loka, she used to work as a Project Manager and Policy Maker for Art & Culture in the Netherlands. Currently Charlotte manages Loka’s communication and educational vision and researches (new) ways of learning through daily interactions and activities with students.

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