“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.





Public -Private Partnerships, the Pebble Mine, Propaganda, and Profits


As education systems struggle to keep meet internal commitments and international goals, many are turning towards the private sector for assistance. These public-private partnerships, or PPPs, are designed to address low levels of educational access and poor quality. Patrinos et al (2009) place PPPs on a continuum that stretches from private management of school systems to the private sector developing curriculum with state actors.

It is this last aspect of PPPs that I would like to focus on for this post, specifically the curriculum developed by Alaska Resource Education. This organization operates as a PPP connecting the oil & gas industry, the mining industry, and the Alaska Department of Education & Early Development. AK Resource Ed. came to my attention when I was researching the Pebble Partnership, a group devoted to mining in the Bristol Bay watershed. Located in the Lake and Peninsula census region, the proposed mine would be over two miles wide and require damns larger than the Three Gorges Dam in China to store waste chemicals associated with the project (Kelty & Kelty, 2011). The mine has met with mixed reactions from local citizens, with community schools acting as one source of information on the scope of the mine.

The Pebble Mine partnership is one of the groups funding and supporting AK Resource Ed., which provides curriculum and geology kits to schools, including those in the Lake and Peninsula School District. The K-8 curriculum is divided into three sections: energy, forestry, and mining. While the curriculum is linked to the Alaska state standards, the lessons themselves are sympathetic to the goals of the organization’s funders. For example, as early as first grade students are being shown the benefits of mining, but there is little discussion of environmental or social impacts.

In one fifth grade lesson students are asked to develop a cost-benefit analysis of a fictional mine on land near their school. Students are broken up into groups that include foresters, hydrologists, and topographers that study the natural features of the land. They perform their rudimentary study and then determine how the mine can best be developed in regard to the natural landscape. For example, hydrologists may decide if a stream on the property should be avoided, or if that water should be used in the refining process.

In fairness, not developing the mine is an option, but one the lesson shies away from throughout the provided materials. The focus of the lesson is designing a mine with minimal environmental impact. While environmental degradation is obviously an important consideration, the lesson fails to examine the cultural or social impacts of mine development. In addition, there is no discussion of involving stakeholders or local citizens in the decision to develop the mine. The decision rests only with the mock scientists that serve as outside experts, representing a strictly modernist view of resource management. I worry that this will condition students to believe they have no say in the development of their land. Shouldn’t we be teaching students to think critically about development issues, instead of training them to blindly trust so-called experts?

The lesson describe above is especially problematic when you consider that of the forty-one mining lessons supplied by AK Resource Education, this is the only lesson that makes any mention of ecological services or non-extraction values of land. All other lessons focus on the benefits of mining and how mining can provide resources and jobs for communities. While employment in rural Alaska is important, the environmental and cultural risks associated with open pit mining in Alaska are significant and need to be addressed in any discussion of mining in the classroom.

In reflecting the values of the organization’s funders, AK Resource Ed. is typical among PPPs (Ball, 2007). Rather than teaching students to become active participants in the management of local natural resources, this curriculum seems designed to provide eight years of pro-development propaganda. While PPPs can provide much needed funding and support for struggling schools, educators have to careful that they’re not providing private-sector firmswith a captive audience for advertising.

(For more on PPPs, Olga Mun discussed their use in Kazakhstan here)