Human-Scale Education

The following is adapted from a conversation with author and
educator Satish Kumar, founder of the Small School in Hartland,
England, director of programs at Schumacher College, and co-editor
of
Resurgence, a magazine that promotes spiritual
well-being, holistic science, and creative living.
Green
Teacher editor Tim Grant asked Kumar to talk about how he went
about starting a school that reflects his educational
philosophy.

When I started the Small School in 1982, my son was nearing the
age when he’d have to face a journey of more than an hour each way
to a state secondary school 15 miles from our village — a
commuter’s life at age 11. I had left an urban community in order
to live in a rural community, and sending my child back into urban
culture was not what I wanted. Nor did I want his education to be
overly academic and exam-oriented.

About 30 of us from the village gathered to talk about education
in general and that school in particular. The school had 2,000
children and a minimum of 30 students in each class. Apart from the
problem of size, there was a lot of bullying and smoking there. By
the end of our discussion, the parents of nine children were
courageous enough to start a school of our own. Over the next six
weeks, I raised the money we needed to buy a Methodist chapel that
was for sale in the village at a good price. Seven months later, we
opened the smallest school in the U.K.

We designed the Small School curriculum to have three parts. One
third would be academic and intellectual, including science,
mathematics, English, and French. One third would focus on
imaginative themes such as art, culture, music, and painting. And
the last third would be more practical and ecological, including
physical training, environmental education, and manual work such as
gardening, cooking, and woodwork.

We decided to teach about three basic things that every person
needs but few schools address: food, clothes, and housing. In my
view, a school that does not teach children how to do the dishes is
not a good school. If children can cook and serve food and do
dishes with respect, love, and care, they can look after trees and
animals with love and care, they can look after their parents with
love and care, they can treat their neighbors with love and care.
So our teachers and children turned a kitchen into a classroom.

We also decided to teach the practical skills of spinning,
weaving, mending, designing, and making clothes. A number of our
children have since turned out to be great dressmakers and
designers. As for housing, hardly any schools teach children how to
make a foundation, build a roof, install plumbing and electrical
wiring. At the Small School, we do teach these skills. Many of the
ideas that we implemented I learned from Mahatma Gandhi, who
introduced cleaning, gardening, and cooking to basic education in
India.

Mainstream education is based almost entirely on classroom
learning. We wanted children to learn not only about
nature but from nature, and to learn from nature,
one must be in nature. We decided that at least once a
week our classroom would be outdoors. The nearby river, woodlands,
and birds would teach us how nature does things. We soon realized
that when you learn from nature, you can learn anything. You can
learn music by listening to birds singing. You can learn how to
paint by studying the colors of butterflies. Georgia O’Keeffe
learned to paint by closely observing flowers.

A school shouldn’t be just a knowledge factory; it should be a
community of children, parents, and teachers who work, celebrate,
and develop ideas together. But for that to happen, the school must
be modest in size. We grew from 9 students to 15, 20, and then 40,
the maximum number we could handle. For every 8 children, we have
one full-time teacher. We also have many local people — craftsmen,
musicians, artists, writers, poets, painters, and gardeners — who
volunteer to teach classes lasting from two hours to a full day
each week. To cover tuition, we ask parents for a small donation
rather than charging a fee. If someone wants to contribute produce
instead of making a financial donation, or help on school repair or
gardening, that’s fine.

Since 1982, about 300 children have gone through our school. We
find that they are very self-confident and have many practical
skills. For my son and daughter, it is no sweat to cook a meal for
10 or 20 people, or to mind the house, tend the garden, and manage
the compost heap. Our aim has been to equip children not only
intellectually, but also spiritually, physically, emotionally, and
practically.

They have no problem getting into universities — they can
handle exams as well as other students. My daughter got a degree in
philosophy at the University of Durham and then worked to save
enough money for an 18-month trip to India. Now she’s in Spain,
teaching English and translating Spanish literature. My son went to
university in London, where he earned a degree in communication
studies. Afterwards, he wanted to travel the world. But having
learned about greenhouse gases and climate change at the Small
School, he didn’t want to fly. So he got a job on a yacht and
sailed to the Caribbean, hitchhiked around Central and South
America, and later sailed to New York City and back home. He later
built a boat.

Many children who went through the Small School are doing
similar things. They work in organic farming, woodland management,
or dress designing. They work for nonprofit organizations or they
work overseas on sustainable development projects. or McDonald’s or
Mitsubishi or other big companies. You can work for the United
Nations. You can work for nongovernmental organizations. You can
create your own nonprofit group or start your own business. Green
job opportunities are emerging in renewable energy, organic
farming, ecodesign, and other fields. I think we need to overcome
this fear — which many parents have — that if we send our
children into environmental alternative education, they are going
to lose out. They are not! They will be happier and more
fulfilled.

Conventional education assumes that children start not knowing
anything and that we must use books filled with knowledge to put
information into them. We view a child as like an acorn. Just as an
acorn can become an oak tree, a child is very capable of becoming a
fully developed human being. The job of a teacher and parent is
like that of a forester or gardener, to support, encourage,
protect, inspire, and provide.

Tell Me More

Human Scale Education is a grassroots English
organization devoted to restructuring large schools into smaller
ones, gaining public funds for small alternative schools, and
encouraging parental participation. Its 3 times yearly newsletter,
Human Scale Education News, reports on the activities of
its members, from ‘eco-kitchen’ building to schoolwide theatrical
productions. For more information:
www.hse.org.uk

In the United States, the Alternative Education Resource
Organization
(AERO) offers resources to support
‘self-determination in learning and the natural genius in
everyone,’ whether in small schools, home schooling, or higher
education. AERO publishes the quarterly Education
Revolution
magazine, maintains a useful Web site, organizes
conferences, and offers summer programs centered around farming,
astronomy, and peace-making. For more information:
www.edrev.org

For those ready to go a step further,
Unschooling.com,
a Web site published by Home Education magazine, presents
articles and networking tools for people interested in
self-determined education, encouraging children’s independent and
critical thinking, but not at the expense of following others’
agendas. — Chris Dodge

Reprinted from Green Teacher (Spring 2004).
Sub-scriptions: $26/yr. (4 issues) from 2045 Niagara Falls Blvd.,
U-7, Niagara Falls, NY 14304;
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