In 1972, a young Indian man with an elite education and the promises of the world at his feet moved to a rural place, much to the chagrin of his mother. He said he wanted to dig wells for five years, and that marked the start of a different education for him.

“I was exposed to the most extraordinary knowledge and skills that very poor people have, which are never brought into the mainstream, which is never identified, respected, applied on a large-scale”, said Bunker Roy, in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Education, often entrenched in the idea of expertise and professionalism, recognizes the attainment of a formal qualification from an institute.  Roy’s success with the establishment of an institution now known as Barefoot College, utilized emerging technologies to transform learning and flouted the paradigm of education held by society. And as OpenBrief discovers, he wasn’t the only one.

Photo: Kris Krüg, flickr

Photo: Kris Krüg, flickr

Not just any other school

Around the same time that Roy was recognised at TED for his contributions Green School in Bali Indonesia, founded by former jewellery designer John Hardy, was flourishing.

Earlier on, Hardy’s wife had introduced him to the famous environmental documentary, An Inconvenient Truth by Al Gore, and what followed was an international school by the example of environmental sustainability.

The concept of Green School, according to Hardy, is for children to learn within a natural environment. Walking to the classrooms in the rain drizzle, children shelter themselves with banana leaves to their desks made out of bamboo. We are told that graffiti vandalism on the desks is never a problem. The culprits are made to sand away their damage and wax their bamboo desks.

Green School Bali

Natural Environments

Bamboo, a material commonly seen as construction scaffolding for urban areas, pervades almost all structures from soccer goal posts, bathrooms, and a bridge linking two sides of a river running through the compound. Large quantities of bamboo are harvested within the school’s own plantation, even the central administration building towering at 3 storeys over 20 meters is constructed with the sturdy material using Balinese building techniques in a double helix design.

The central administration building, affectionately named the Heart of School gives you a sense of the ethos surrounding Green School. A group of 12 year olds learn skills in bamboo building to erect a structure as they are taught the importance of taking responsibility for its sustainability; a philosophy applied in a school community of students from over 25 countries worldwide that grows its own food, and generates its own power and electricity. Just last year, it was granted the “2012 Greenest School on Earth” award by the U.S. Green Building Council’s Center for Green Schools.



Catching the attention of a global audience

In Dali, China’s Yunnan province, a group of children begin the day working in the fields. After which, they read a book of their choice and prepare for lunch together, followed by either dancing, music, or crafts. There is no fixed curriculum or homework; and the students are taught by volunteers, local artists, and a woman referred to as “Super Vegetarian Mom” to netizens.

Photo: China Daily

Photo: China Daily

Super Vegetarian Mom (whose real name is Song Xiayan) created this alternative home schooling community, attracting parents intent on fulfilling their child’s development needs.

Many of these children have difficulty in China’s rigid schooling culture and come to Song’s school to explore the nature of creativity where they go fishing and hiking as part of the curriculum.

Roy, Hardy and Song never collaborated, but their unconventional learning methods link them to a common revolution in education. Many subscribe to their respective schools of thought with deep conviction, unseen toward orthodox institutions. While a few are marginalized by a lack of scholastic aptitude, some experts think it could be a failure of the mass education.

Mainstream schooling has not successfully cultivated human tendencies for creativity and skills necessary for personal, economic and societal development according to Ken Robinson, an internationally recognized expert in the field of education.

“People and organizations can see that current systems of education are failing to meet the challenges we now all face and they’re working furiously to create alternatives”, said Robinson.

Grandmothers as Solar Engineers

It is deemed inconceivable for an architect that cannot read and write, or a dentist who has never passed an exam. However, Barefoot College is full of these people who can just about learn anything and pass on their knowledge to enrich their community. The success of the training methods rests largely on the execution of rural technology and knowledge that had never been endorsed by sophisticated expertise.

“And it’s the only college where we don’t give a certificate. You are certified by the community you serve. You don’t need a paper to hang on the wall to show that you are an engineer,” said Roy in his famous TED talk.

Though Barefoot is best known for its alternative energy initiatives, it also trains the least literate of society into becoming pathologists, mid-wives, accountants, amongst others. The solar lamps used in various night schools for children are completed, designed, and built by illiterate solar engineers; and are amongst the many accomplishments of Barefoot College. Within a short span of 6 months, grandmothers trained to operate solar technology, are able to pass on their knowledge to others in the same regard. To date, 410 barefoot trained solar engineers have electrified more than 18,000 homes from inaccessible villages in India.

Tilonia India, Barefoot College - From September 2011 to the following March, women travelled from across Africa, from countries like Uganda Liberia and South Sudan, to take part in training to become solar engineers. Each was selected or nominated by her local community and supported by a variety of local and international organisations, and in some cases, their governments. Their trainers, who mostly speak Hindi, must cut across linguistic and cultural barriers using gestures and signs. Photo Credit: UN Women/Gaganjit Singh

Tilonia India, Barefoot College. Photo: Gaganjit Singh, UN Women

The University of Life

At 6pm in Rajasthan, India, a 13-year-old girl walks into a room after a day of grazing cattle and doing household chores. Only about 40% of children attend school in the day, as most earn a living by working as farmers or factory laborers. Here at a night school founded by Barefoot College, the girl learns how to measure land and what to she should do when her animal is sick. She evens learn the principles of democracy and citizenship with a parliament that elects a child leader as a prime minister every five years. As darkness falls, solar lamps made by solar engineer grandmothers illuminate the chalkboard and the face of her teacher in the night.

A real education for this girl to say the least, with learning that teaches others and enables even more people to keep on learning.

Patan, Rajasthan. Photo:

Patan, Rajasthan. Photo:

Stella Lee

Stella Lee

Business Journalist at CCTV News
Best described to be always on the lookout for a stimulating conversation and loving everything business related.
Stella Lee
Stella Lee

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