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We are not an alternative school.
We are the alternative to schooling.

Learning has to be about the learner


Raaji Naveen

Oct 06, 2020

The most fulfilling part of being an academician is the opportunities we have to make our world brighter and kinder, one child at a time. Young learners are far more capable of taking control of their lives and charting their career paths than we believe. I recently participated in a panel discussion organized by Chetana alongside my fellow-educators, Dr. Gayathri Deepak, Dr. Bhavani Shankar, and Ms. Priya Dixit and Ms. Akila Srinivas. During the course of the discussion, we covered some pertinent areas, which I have presented in this post.

What is self-determined learning? What are the practical ways in which schools can empower teachers and parents to be partners when it comes to guiding and supporting a student’s interests, learning, and ambition?

I am a big believer in children determining their own course and schools and parents just being facilitators to “enable” learning. Fundamentally, every child wants to do well and every child inherently experiences a need for growth.

In their journeys of learning, children possess:

  • Competence - they feel they have developed the necessary skills
  • Capability - they are able to demonstrate their competence in a variety of settings
  • Connectedness - they feel a sense of belonging in the field of study
  • Control - they are allowed and encouraged to take charge of their own goals and behaviours

Of these, control is essential for them to feel the other three. Without control, they will have no motivation to develop new skills or know more, because someone else is driving the agenda all the time. Also, without control, they will only consume what others offer unquestioningly and never develop into confident and purposeful citizens of this world.

We cannot expect children to become responsible, caring, or compassionate citizens unless we encourage them to determine their own paths. And that is why I believe in self-determined learning systems.

How can educators set the ball rolling practically?

  • Encourage children to try their hands at things they are interested in through small modular engagements.
  • Be coaches instead of teachers; listen to them; learn with them through collaboration; and provide a supportive ecosystem for learning. Where it is possible, introduce them to industry experts who can share more.
  • Provide guidance and tools to help learners see their own progress and self reflect on their next steps.
  • Foster collaboration among peers and encourage learners to develop relatedness which is important to foster a sense of belonging and connection.
  • Provide non-judgemental spaces for learners to feel confident of voicing out their aspirations and expressing their choices.
  • Look to build upon their innate skills, knowledge, and attitudes. It's a strengths-based approach. We cannot build performance on weaknesses, one can build performance only on strengths. And this is often ignored by schools because learner’s strengths are considered more or less irrelevant to what they are looking to do.
  • Above all these, it is important that we build learning to learn skills that will help children become lifelong learners - something that is constantly needed in an ever-changing world.

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2. When we talk about kids taking ownership of their learning, the immediate question that parents ask is:

" Is my 13-14-year-old child capable of making these choices? Do they even know what they like and what mastery in a particular field might involve? Do you, in your experience, see that fostering this enables them to accomplish their academic goals also?"

Don’t we often see very young children, even 2-year-olds, deciding and expressing choice and opinion? Liking and disliking certain food, who gets to cuddle them, and what scares them and what doesn’t...

And we adults seem to have this ability too, to decide on what’s good, both for us and for our entire family. So I suppose it continues to develop from birth and the more one engages with decision making, the better they get at it.

Yet somehow when we tell families that high school children’s voice is important and that we must listen to them expressing their thoughts and opinions and that they must learn by choice not be coerced to study everything in a curriculum, we are almost always asked if the high schoolers have the ability to decide wisely?

Of course, they do! The research-backed and evidence-based 4-stage child development framework we have created helps learners progress from their kindergarten years to the higher secondary years with boldness and confidence.

We shower children with love, care, and affection as preschoolers when they are still discovering this beautiful world around them. This helps them look at school as a safe space.

As they move to the primary years, they are provided with opportunities to observe the world as a whole and not just as a sum of disconnected parts. They are given opportunities to experience leadership and decision making. The Primary student council - tackles complex issues such as bullying by working with their peers, facilitators, and teachers as well.

And when they reach their middle school years - merely 10 and 11-year-olds they are motivated to explore and become social entrepreneurs. Large scale social improvements are possible only when those who skillfully pursue their economic interests are committed to social betterment. And through this experience, they learn to collaborate, communicate, use their creativity and critical thinking through real-world exposure. However, this requires them to have a strong sense of their own strengths, capabilities, and choices. Only then do they embark on a journey of identifying needs, creating products and services, selling them in their communities, and finally giving back to those who are not economically privileged. Thus they become problem seekers - where they seek a need in the society around them and design solutions according to their strengths. Isn’t that what we desire for the future? Hold on, there is more!

By the time they reach their 10th and 11th grades, they are engaging with the community and leading initiatives of their own - some of them as complex as bringing about sensitivity on gender-related issues or discussing taboo topics such as menstruation. When learners go through such a series of experiences, they will have the capability of expressing and making choices at 13 years.

They will set high standards of excellence for themselves and thrive in the process of meeting those standards. They are happier and it comes with no surprise that their happiness is shared and enjoyed by us facilitators too.

Listening to the learner's voice is ever so important today as we facilitate learning for Gen Z who are characterized by their strong sense of autonomy, independence, and affinity towards self-determined learning approaches.

Basically, it boils down to having had a habit of being trusted with decision making right from their younger years.

3. In this endeavour to provide students with an opportunity to apply what they have leant to the real world, we hear about some new buzzwords in education today like entrepreneurship, innovation, active citizenship, and social awareness with real-world applications. What are your views on the stance that these should form the larger context of what school education is all about?

The purpose of schooling, mass schooling especially, is for creating a greater pool of employable youth. And by teaching everyone the same things, and assessing and assembling them in a sorting order, what educational institutions are trying to do is to help employers identify the better products (in this case, students) in their individual lots.

But the employers of today are not seeking what the employers of 200 years ago were asking. They aren’t even asking what employers of last year were asking. A case in point has been uncovered by a 2020 Coursera study: 8/10 of top trending data science skills in 2020 were not included in 2019. So it is high time that we realize that by doing the wrong things rightly, we will only become “wronger”.

A curriculum is no more useful. And the future of our country's youth cannot be negotiated, mandated, engineered, and controlled into existence by a curriculum; all that a curriculum does is it takes the past and the present and projects them forward to the learners. We also know that academic excellence has only a modest correlation to career excellence in the first year of college and a very trivial correlation very soon thereafter.

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So as industries evolve, we need to move with the times, and also understand the changing nature of the learners of today and adapt to their learning needs. We need to re-engineer education and turn it right side up, and begin with the learner in mind, think about how to enable the learner to thrive in this new world we are in. Automatically then, industry and society will see greater value in them.

It is in these thoughts and actions that we will make education relevant for our learners again.

Therefore, a total overhaul of the curriculum and a fundamental shift in the mindset of parents, teachers, and schools is what will serve both the learners of today and the system as a whole

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We are not an alternative school.
We are the alternative to schooling.

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