If Mohammed can’t reach the mountain, can the mountain be brought to Mohammed? That was the principal thought in the mind of Snehdeep Agarwal, founder of the upcoming Chaman Bhartiya School (CBS) in Bengaluru when he started looking for innovative schools around the world to model his proposed new school on. Soon enough, he came across Orestad in Copenhagen, considered one of the most innovative and unique schools in the world. Scandinavian countries were as it is known the world over for their superior education systems and outcomes. So taken up was Agarwal by what Orestad stood for, he visited the school, met its principal and even visited the architect based in Denmark.
Allan Kjaer’ Andersen had spent his career as an academician in Copenhagen, was pre-retirement at his last assignment as principal at Orestad, a public high school with 1200 students aged 16 to 19 years and had no intention of rocking his steady boat, about to dock safely into a comfortable retirement surrounded by family and grandchildren. India and what it represented seemed like another planet, many worlds away from the calm of Copenhagen. In fact, when the Indian head hunting firm first contacted him in 2016-17, Andersen, now 66, completely failed to comprehend what exactly they were seeking. He nonetheless agreed to come on board as an outside advisor and consultant to the project, albeit from a distance.
It was after a few visits and conversations with the founder that Andersen finally understood Agarwal and Co.wanted him to relocate to India and firmly take over the reins of their grand plan. They were willing to give him a “freer hand’ than he’d had in Denmark, a chance to convert all his dreams as an educationist into reality. After many discussions and encouragement from his wife, in May 2018 Andersen decided to bite the bullet. He soon found himself plucked out of his comfort zone, in crowded, chaotic but exciting Bengaluru, bag, baggage but sans wife.
Around 20 kilometer from the city center in Thannisandra, North Bengaluru, from the periphery it would be hard to tell that the structure coming up was any kind of school. Enter and it seems even more doubtful, so unconventional and out of the box is the design and contours of CBS. Students are not confined in classrooms and in many spots one feels nature has walked right in to study. Sunlight invades almost all corners and a golden hue seems in-built.
Although Covid has led to a temporary halt of sorts - the school’s marketing was affected and only 70 children are enrolled in Classes 1 to 5 as of now - CBS has started its session online this year. As and when the campus opens, the parents and all involved will get a better sense of the journey their wards are likely to go on, one that promises to be significantly different from what the parents went on themselves or what their peers in other schools will experience. Along with the ICSE or IB curriculum, the CBS school will attempt to instill leadership qualities in its students while instilling a set of 21st century skills, encapsulated in the 4Cs - communication, critical thinking, creativity and collaboration.
But you could be forgiven for asking how will things be different ? Doesn’t every school today claim to be nurturing the next generation of leaders, all of them with skills ready to face the next century. How many truly manage ?
To this end, there are three strands of thought that Andersen is working to bring into the Indian ethos and culture, all of which he experimented with back home with reasonable success. So to begin with the fundamental relationship between the teacher and student will undergo a transformation. Teachers at CBS will not “talk down to or lecture students” but will engage with the students in a manner that takes the subject forward. To cite an instance, a study of the solar system will be based on the teacher guiding students to resource materials prior to the class and asking them in small groups to prepare a video or a presentation on their learnings. These will be examined and discussed in detail in class and the groups of students will learn from each other’s work. Each group may present his work and everyone learns how to improve what they’ve produced guided by the teacher. “There is no blackboard, no possibility in the open space classroom for a teacher to start lecturing the students without disturbing the whole lot”, explains Andersen. So, the very design of the building will discourage some of the established practices of Indian schools.
CBS open class room view with kids.
Secondly, the school will at all stages interact with the world outside with students working to solve everyday practical problems. So for instance if cycling tracks need to be introduced across the city or public parks need to be made safer or more youth friendly, students of the school will come up with suggestions and ideas. These will in turn be shared with the local authorities, whom the school will work to build a relationship with. “This way students will not be divorced with the world around them but will be more engaged and aware”, he explains. A similar exercise at Orestad had resulted in the local authorities using the students inputs in one of their public improvement projects.
Third - and perhaps the most ambitious goal - will be to introduce a “passion project” for every student that helps him or her find her real mojo and then further examine if this can be turned into a future career opportunity for the child. Indian parents focus excessively on the economic returns of a child’s future choices, rather than what makes him or her tick. But if a student finds what really makes him tick, turning it into a reasonably comfortable living should follow. In the way things currently work, the country produces many average and demotivated doctors, engineers and architects with no real passion or interest in the profession. Instead, it could help produce many gifted musicians, actors and chefs. “We will mentor students and in particular parents as I am aware parents have a bigger fear about unconventional choices - and help students identify their true calling”, adds Andersen, who also now realises that he’s likely to spend many more years in India than he first anticipated..
What Andersen and the founders who are wholly supportive so far are attempting is highly ambitious. In a country mired in tradition and conventionality, many may even dismiss the project as impossible. But if any of the CBS plans and ideas fructify and become a reality, schooling may for the first time in India’s history become an experience worth repeating.