“Opportunities to Reinvent and Redesign”: The Druk White Lotus School

“Design at its best is not only sustainable, it is holistic.  It considers future needs as well and supports ancient traditions.”

            –The Druk White Lotus School

After watching another documentary for the final meeting of my graduate level class Globalization and Curriculum Implications, I wanted to write a follow-up piece in response to an original blog post of mine: “‘Schooling the World’: The Myth of Progress?” This original posting grappled with many difficult questions and some subsequent feelings of turmoil and sadness regarding the way in which the ever greater spread of a formal, mass, and an essentially western style education system is destroying the last independent and sustainable indigenous cultures all over the world.  The second documentary assigned to my class was a short piece on The Druk White Lotus School in Ladakh, India.  As a graduate student in the field of education, and more specifically Comparative and International Education, it was incredible to watch this piece and see an example of how tradition and modernity can co-exist in harmony, and an education system can contribute to supporting an indigenous community to thrive.

As stated in the documentary, the vision of The Druk White Lotus School is that it will serve as a model of “appropriate modernization.”  What this means more concretely is that the founders of this school and those who have designed and developed it believe it is critical to educate youth in Ladakh about the modern, but also about the merits of their own culture. Underlying the establishment of this school is the belief that one must know their foundation, their past and traditions, to responsibly move forward into a more modern future. [1]

Wonderfully stated by one of the environmental engineers on the project, Francesca Galeazzi, “the school is a product of merging the traditions and the culture of the society with the needs of modern education,” and this is done in a number of ways. [1] Tashi Tsering, the principal of the school and also a teacher, on one hand acknowledges that there is “no option other than providing a modern education” for these children.  They prepare the youth in this school for a challenging future locally or abroad by providing a curriculum based in the English language from kindergarten.  On the other hand, however, there is also a passionate commitment to the premise that these children do not forget where they came from and what their roots are.  They also learn their own language and once every week an instructor visits the school to teach the students moral education and to give them Buddhist mantras to recite. [1]

Buddhist traditions are widespread and strong throughout this culture and this is further reflected in the design of the school buildings and their layout.  It is noted both on the school website and in the film that the vision for the school was inspired by a spiritual leader in the community, His Holiness Gyalwang Drukpa. [1][2] For example, the school assembly courtyard is designed after a dharma wheel in its cylindrical shape with eight pavilions organized out and around a central space and this represents Buddhist teachings.  The way in which these spiritual elements are incorporated into the design of the buildings is remarkable. [1] As noted by Jonathan Rose, one of the architects of the project, the school is a “project planned around a scarcity of resources and the desire to do as little harm to the earth as possible.  Both are Buddhist principles but also, not coincidentally, basic tenants of sustainable design.” [1]

It is this loss of a sustainable relationship with the Earth due to Western education that was emphasized in the documentary Schooling the World: The White Man’s Last Burden.  In contrast, to see the sustainable practices used to develop modern education in this rural area was encouraging.  All of the building for this school is done by hand with little tools and little power.  Importing materials from outside Ladakh puts a tremendous strain on the surrounding Himalayan Mountains, so a commitment was made to using materials locally available.  This would ultimately mean that what was built would be appropriate for the community, would support the local economy, and would utilize the knowledge and labor of local people who knew how to work with the materials being used with techniques developed in India for centuries.  The buildings themselves are designed to capitalize on the use of daylight and ventilation so that they don’t rely on electricity at all for lighting or heating, and in the context of a high altitude desert scare of water, water conservation was essential as was the incorporation of ventilated improved pit latrines. [1]

It was interesting to watch and listen about how, about 25 years ago, the addition of an airfield to the area opened this environment and culture up to tourism.  This was a huge draw for people in the rural communities to come and work serving the tourists and in turn making money, but this also put a tremendous amount of pressure on a traditionally subsistence economy.  The even bigger question from an educational standpoint was about the pressure this put on the youth in the area about how they should learn and develop. [1]

Arup Corporation, the company involved in designing the school buildings, is a large consultancy that is involved in projects all over the world.  While this does mean that there is some foreign influence on this community and their vision for education, both parties talked about the process as one of mutual collaboration, exchange, and learning.  On one hand, Arup was committed to linking very closely with the local community to obtain an intimate understanding of their needs and expectations, rather than just coming in and imposing some fancy Western design.  On the other hand, those from the local community in no way wanted to shut out modern education or ways of life, but rather, wanted to embrace the best of the old as well as the new. [1]

Hopefully, the total of ten awards that have been given to this school thus far is an indication of recognition that this is the type of model that we need to be paying more attention to and replicating. [2] Not just in “developing” communities that are grappling with questions of how to modernize responsibly, but also in “modern” communities all over the world that undoubtedly need to exist more harmoniously with our environment.





Nomadic Schools in Yakutia (Russia)

Being simultaneously an Asian, Sakha (Yakut), and a citizen of Russia, I face unhidden interest about my homeland and my origin. Influenced by centuries-long stereotypes about Russia, many people do not know how diverse Russia is. It’s almost my daily, unpaid duty to reveal the diversity of Russia to others. When my international friends talk about my country, they use terms “Russia”, “Russians”, “Russian language”, “Russian culture”, imagining one notion instead of many. For instance, not many people use the country’s official name – the Russian Federation. However, only Federation embraces multinational, multicultural, and multilingual Russia. The Russian Constitution starts with: “We, the multinational people of the Russian Federation, united by a common fate on our land, establishing human rights and freedoms, civic peace and accord, preserving the historically established state unity…” However, this diversity often remain invisible.

The Sakha Republic (Yakutia) is a unique and special in every way. First of all, Yakutia is the largest federal subject of Russia by its territory and covers three time zones (1/5 of Russian territory, the Sakha Republic territory equal to five times of France territory). Yakutia is a home to several indigenous ethnic groups of Siberian north with their traditional lifestyle, culture, and education.


from wikipedia.org

According to 2010 Census results, 403 nomadic families with 782 children live in the Sakha Republic. Reindeer husbandry is the main occupancy of nomadic families. In addition to traditional family education, there are 13 nomadic schools covering 180 children.

In extreme conditions of the Russian north, nomadic schools are designed to follow reindeer migration routes and provide access to education for children of native Siberians. For reindeer winter routes nomadic schools have buildings, for summer routes they use tents. These schools are supplied with compact computer, chemistry, physics, and biology labs. The curriculum includes classes of native language, Russian, national history, national culture, traditional ways of hunting, fishing, reindeer husbandry, environment protection, etc. Learning of the native language is one of the important goals since all languages of northern peoples are included in the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Endangered Languages. UNESCO and local government play key roles in nomadic schools development.


from ysia.ru

A teacher of the nomadic school is required to speak a native language, to be able to teach several subjects for children of various ages, to know traditional nomadic way of life, and be ready to face severe life of the Arctic. In 2006, the Yakutia Teacher Training Institute has introduced a special two-year program (with an option of distant education) to train teachers of natural sciences and mathematics.

Some northern children of Russia attend boarding schools in towns away from their families and traditional way of life. Children have access to the radio, television, and, in some places, to Internet. Not all of these children would like to return and continue traditions. Some of them dream to live in town, to get a university degree, to travel, etc.

Today, an International Arctic School project is being developed by a group of experts from Yakutia and it is undergoing a process of discussion. The international arctic school is expected to provide a university level degree with international standards to students of arctic regions. It is proposed to build an environment-friendly school in close proximity to the native populations.

Notwithstanding many positive outcomes, Russia’s indigenous people continue to face serious issues, including transport, healthcare, etc. I believe that all native indigenous people of the north should be granted a special status; laws and programs shaping this status should be designed together with representatives of Evenk, Even, Chukchi, Dolgan, Yukagir and others to ensure their survival and development in the future.


from news.iltumen.ru






Afghanistan’s Education Post Taliban

Post 9/11/2001, Afghanistan’s education system has been as convoluted as its politics. There have been many internal struggles as well as external players. As soon as Karzai’s government was placed in power it began to reform education in order to differentiate itself from the Taliban, hoping to appear progressive. In the political context where power is fragmented across the nation, the Afghan government inherited a completely defunct education system, which has been placed in a state of dependency with the United States and its allies who influence both policy-making and the new regime. According to Afghanistan’s Ministry of Education, the Taliban era has left the educational system the following legacies:

  • Less than one million students, 20,000 teachers with almost no female participation.
  • 34, 00 schools–majority with unusable buildings.
  • No standard national curriculum or textbooks.
  • Only four Teacher Training Colleges with 400 students.
  • Only 1500 boys enrolled in Technical and Vocational Schools, and
  • 220 unregulated Madrassas without any formal curriculum.

After 13 years, how substantial is the change? How meaningful is education and what is the quality of education? These questions are difficult to answer and, while Afghanistan continues to face many challenges such as basic safety and security, it also has (according to the UNDP) a literacy rate that is “one of the lowest in the world.” While primary completion rates have gradually improved, the statistics show that in 2012:

  • 8.6 millions of children and youth are attending schools (over 5.29 million boys, and over 3.35 million girls).
  • Hundreds of thousands attend universities, and similarly tens of thousands are accessing literacy classes and vocational training.
  • While gender gaps and disparity still persist, access to education for girls and women has significantly improved over the years.

Again, though the numbers show quite an improvement, there is still a long road ahead. Some of these challenges, such as Afghanistan’s gender divide, continue to persist: “While 66 percent of girls attend primary school, compared with 92 percent of boys, the share of girls attending secondary school drops to 26 percent. Across the country, the growth in enrollment rates has been uneven. For example, over the past decade, nearly 350,000 girls have completed high school. In Kandahar, the country’s fifth-most-populous province, there are only 4,027 female high school graduates” (Mashal 2014).

Other challenges include poverty, health, lack of teachers and teacher training facilities and most importantly lack of security. While “more than 30% of primary school-aged children are still out of school… even children who attend school still struggle to read and perform basic math” (Albright 2013). Despite all the odds, Afghans continue to struggle. Recently I had a chance to interview an Afghan Fulbright student, Hamid Akbary,  who is currently pursuing his graduate studies in Sociology. He seems quite optimistic and reminds me that the youth of Afghanistan are hopeful.

Hamid states that just during his years he has seen a significant growth in children’s access to school. Many universities and colleges that were closed during the Taliban era have reopened, allowing greater freedom of thought. He states that students have the freedom to “express their ideas and use creativity in their skills and expression of new ideas and intellectual discussions.” He continues that this freedom of thought is the key for young Afghans to “play a role in moving the country forward to a free society through media, student organizations, and other democratic ways.” Although he does acknowledge the aforementioned challenges, his optimism seems to be contagious!


Albright, A. In Afghanistan, Teachers and Children Go to School Despite Real Danger
Baiza, Y. (2013) Education in Afghanistan, Developments, Influences and Legacies Since 1901. Routledge, Routledge Studies in Middle Eastern Society, United Kingdom
Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, Ministry of Education website http://moe.gov.af/en/page/2021
Mashal, M. (2014) An Afghan Town Gets its First Female High-School Graduates. http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2014/2/8/even-at-graduationtimeafghangirlsovershadowedbyboys.html
United Nations Millennium Development Goals for Afghanistan http://www.us.undp.org/content/afghanistan/en/home/mdgoverview/overview/mdg2/



“Schooling the World”: The Myth of Progress?


Recently, for a graduate level class Globalization and Curriculum Implications, I was required to watch a documentary titled “Schooling the World: The White Man’s Last Burden”.  Given the class discussion that spurred from the viewing of this film and the tumultuous feelings that it incited within many of my classmates, I felt compelled to share this documentary with the educational community to hopefully to start a conversation around some of the key themes and points that it raises.

A recurring question that appears on the website promoting the film is “If you wanted to destroy a culture, where would you start?…With the children.”[1] The core premise is that formal mass education, as we know it, is destroying the last independent and sustainable indigenous cultures around the world by indoctrinating the young people of these cultures into being members of a global consumer society.[1]  Further, the film’s tagline “The White Man’s Last Burden” brings to light the, often taken for granted, air of superiority that underlies the mission of mostly white, Western nations that are deemed “developed” to carry out education aid projects in developing nations in order to bring them a “better life” and lead them out of poverty.[1]  The spread of formal mass education has not, however, led to lifting the developing world up out of poverty, and the documentary highlights that it would take four planet Earths for the entire world to consume at Western levels rendering much of the “promises” of formal mass education merely an illusion.[2]

What make these realities particularly disheartening are a few facts that the documentary stresses.  First, that governments are acutely aware that education can serve as a tool of control.  For example, in the 19th century, Native American children were forced into government boarding schools, and a founder of one of these schools quoted its mission as being “to civilize the Indians…immerse them in our civilization, and when we get them under…hold them there until they are thoroughly soaked. [1][2] A commencement speaker for this school proclaimed “let all that is Indian within you die.”[2] Further, the filmmakers cite the hierarchy of values that is imposed by formal education.  They talk about an experience common today of traveling into indigenous communities to talk to elders about traditional knowledge and practices, only to have these elders refuse to provide their insight on the grounds that they are not “educated,” or they defer to their children who have now completed formal education to some level. [4]

Not far in the past there were approximately six thousand languages spoken on earth, but today half of these languages are not being taught to children as English is strictly enforced in many schools as the language that rules so many facets of the world.[5] On the grounds of being economically competitive, a particular type of student and subsequently human being is cultivated within the walls of formal mass schooling that destroys human individuality in the process of training students for scarce jobs in an urban consumer environment.[2][3]  Parents cite heartache over the breaking up of their families as they send their children away or see their children moving away with their own children in search of better schooling. [1][2]

Given that my program of study is Comparative and International Education, my classmates are from very diverse backgrounds.  Some are from the United States or of Western origins and are teaching abroad in various settings such as international schools, others are interested in education policy or international development, while others still are teachers within their country of origin.  Regardless of background, each student had a very similar reaction of both being saddened, overwhelmed, and angry at the ways in which formal mass schooling is impacting so many people all over the world.  Further it really led everyone to question and to think about his or her role in this process.

The most common criticism of this documentary by my classmates was that it brings to light many alarming and important points regarding how formal schooling is impacting people, communities, and our relationship with our planet, but it does very little by way of offering any points for action or change.  I personally feel that while the film grounds its argument from the very beginning in an imperialistic view of education, giving the example of Native Americans in the United States, this dynamic is much less overt and much more complicated today.  Formal mass education has become a deeply institutionalized part of daily life all over the world.  It is no longer explicitly imposed on others as a means of control but, rather, is much more frequently willingly agreed to and accepted by those in indigenous or developing communities.  Many of my classmates questioned why these people do not refuse or fight back, why they adhere to this model of formal mass schooling at the expense of their culture, traditions, family units, and their relationships with the environment.  Why do they sacrifice their sustainable ways of life, their independence, for promises that largely continue to go unmet?

One of the central questions to the course for which this documentary was mandatory was “what gets taught in schools and who gets to decide.”  I think the reason that so many people all over the world acquiesce to the idea of mass schooling as it has come to be known is because they do believe that on some level education can be used as a tool for good.  The questions just posed of what gets taught and who gets to decide become of ever greater importance as we think of not whether we should rid the world of mass schooling completely, but of how we can allow it to exist and to grow in a way that is in harmony with the people that it serves, not in a way that destroys them.  The first step, I believe, is for us to engage in a dialogue about how to disrupt the current conceptions and value systems regarding knowledge, learning, and the goals of education to allow for more inclusive definitions.

[1] Schooling the World. (2010). The film. Retrieved from http://schoolingtheworld.org/film/

[2] Schooling the World Part 1/7 [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XLSIgZWNR9M

[3] Schooling the World Part 2/7 [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jeZSQTE8RrE

[4] Schooling the World Part 3/7 [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=arzoZqTceic

[5] Schooling the World Part 5/7 [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V5mm2YtiO0A

USAID –Politics of Aid and Education in Afghanistan

Aid agencies’ involvement in education have often been touted as commendable and a noble cause but when we take a closer look at the motives behind aid we can see its complex implications and its consequences. USAID’s involvement in Afghanistan was minimal in 1950’s, and it was mostly to help build infrastructure such as dams. The shift came in the 1980’s after the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union. After that billions of dollars were used by USAID and other agencies to continue the cold war efforts in various forms of aid such as schooling Afghan children.

Between 1979-1989, CIA and the US government funded USAID with millions of dollars to hire the University of Nebraska’s Center for Afghanistan Studies (CAS) to design a propaganda campaign to to instill the “spirit of jihad into the hearts and minds of Afghan children and teenagers alike.” This was done through the primary and middle school curricula and books printed in both Dari and Pashto and implemented in the refugee camps mostly in Pakistan and some in Iran. Over fifteen million textbooks along with madrasahs that taught extremist views, and some basic elements such as tents for shelter and food were provided by USAID and other aid agencies (Abbas, 2010).

With funding from USAID, and design by the CIA, centers were established with offices in Pakistan “to train and educate Afghan refugees, who had formed seven mujahedeen resistance groups…against the soviet occupation” (Williams, 2008). Some of the examples of the books distributed by USAID clearly show the US policy agenda: “If out of 10 atheists, 5 are killed by 1 Muslim, 5 would be left. 5 guns + 5 guns = 10 guns; 15 bullets – 10 bullets = 5 bullets, etc.” (Stephens and Ottoway, 2002). These books educated generations of Afghan refugee children to know nothing but war and violence.

This strategy to fight the cold war by the US government, translated by USAID as education, did not take into consideration the interest of the children who were receiving this aid. Stephen and Ottoway state “children were taught to count with illustrations showing tanks, missiles and land mines…at the time it also suited U.S. interests to stoke hatred of foreign invaders.” According to Kolhatkar and Ingalls (2006), Thomas Goutierre, who served as the head of Afghanistan Center at the University of Nebraska was not at all apologetic for promoting the US anti-Soviet propaganda through violent content in elementary school education to Afghan children. He stated “I was interested in being of any type of assistance that I could to help the Afghans get out of their mess and to be frank also anything that would help the United States in order to advance its interests” (Kolhatkar and Ingalls, 2006). This clearly shows that educating the Afghan children was not a priority, but rather serving the US agenda was the primary goal of USAID.

Politicizing aid has had grave consequences for the Afghan people. USAID and the University of Nebraska’s cynical and immoral militarization of education was a direct factor in indoctrinating a new generation of fanatical terrorists. They looked for help and we gave them hate instead, because it served our purposes—or more importantly, because someone profited.