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What Self-Directed Learning Can Look Like for Underprivileged Children in Asia

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Children at Moo Baan Dek (Ryan Libre)

This is the second in a two-part conversation with author David Gribble. After teaching in both conventional and democratic schools in England for more than 30 years, he visited nearly 20 other schools around the world that promote self-directed learning and recorded his observations in two books (“Real Education: Varieties of Freedom” and “Lifelines”). This conversation focuses on how underprivileged children fare in such environments.

David Gribble was curious to see how self-directed learning played out in different cultural as well as socio-economic contexts. So in addition to researching self-directed schools in Western societies, he also observed educational institutions in India and Thailand that catered to desperately underserved children, some of them living on the streets. What follows are some of his main takeaways from these visits, as well as his overall conclusions.

A Democratic School with a Buddhist Interpretation

Moo Baan Dek (which means “Children’s Village” in Thai) is a residential learning center located on 60 acres of woodland about three hours’ drive from Bangkok. It takes in slum dwellers as young as four who are unwanted by their families. In many cases, their backgrounds were harshly authoritarian; many were abused and arrived showing signs of defiance and aggression. The founders loosely modeled Moo Baan Dek on the Summerhill democratic school in England, with the belief that freedom, love and warmth would give the children courage to show their emotional scars and engage in therapeutic activities that would facilitate healing.

The faculty and students are considered equals and abide by the same rules, which are jointly decided at weekly meetings. Newcomers are given up to three years to simply play in the natural surroundings, without fixed goals and time limits. After that they are encouraged, but not required, to attend classes. There are adult-directed activities and certain routines (such as meditation and circle time), but a lot of inattention is tolerated. Children move through lessons at their own pace, and there is no disgrace in learning more slowly than one’s peers.

Moo Baan Dek
Moo Baan Dek by Ryan Libre (Ryan Libre)

Unlike at Summerhill, children at Moo Baan Dek have work responsibilities (such as working in the center’s rice fields), but these are freely chosen, and there is a lot of discretion in how they are carried out (e.g., children are encouraged to listen to their bodies if they need a break). Children also collaborate with houseparents on menus and shopping, learning about home economics in the process.


“Once they trust the adults, the adults can help them to do something,” one of the founders, Rajani Dongchai, told Gribble. But after developing this bond, the adults step back so the children can learn to believe in the inherent value of the activities, rather than simply obeying their elders. They step in only when children appear to need help, and then offer it with compassion.

Many of Moo Baan Dek’s students have gone on to higher education and gainful work in occupations that run the gamut from hospital staff to auto mechanics and sales.

Street Children Apply Themselves to Have an “Education for Life”

Children who work and/or live on New Delhi’s streets struggle to survive, picking up small jobs such as collecting rags, carrying bags, or selling food, while coping with police beatings, predatory adults, and motorists that don’t even brake for them, reflecting their extremely low status in that society.

Social worker Rita Panicker was dismayed that most organizations trying to help these children treated them merely as passive recipients of charity and offered them conventional lessons that did little to help them overcome their specific challenges, instead of empowering them with “education for life.” To offer an alternative, she started the Butterflies program in 1989; its name evokes her desire to help these eight- to 15-year-old children develop wings to fly in freedom wherever they chose.

Its core guiding principle is children’s participation. So the Butterflies educators began by spending weeks on the streets, getting to know the children who wanted to talk, asking them what they wanted to do, and in what areas they wanted help. The program’s distinguishing operating elements include a Children’s Council with decision-making power (which extends to the ability to dismiss staff) and a requirement that the children pay a modest fee for services. The educators relate to the children as friends and colleagues and are affectionately called Elder Brother and Elder Sister.

Most of the children have never even held a pencil when they begin interacting with the program, but Gribble notes that literacy should not be confused with education. In some senses, these children are already highly educated and mature, because they manage to survive on their own and handle complicated, real-life situations on a regular basis. Therefore the Butterflies curriculum “can’t be childish,” he says. Moreover, he explains in “Lifelines,” although the program is accredited through the equivalent of eighth grade, and the children have opportunities to learn subjects such as math, science, Hindi and English, “formal education is not the priority. The priority is to make each child feel trusted, secure and precious. Only then can formal learning take place.”

Educators meet the children at popular contact points around the city (such as the railway station) at mutually agreed times. They offer activities that help the children analyze and question and find things out for themselves. They also bring tin trunks with materials such as exercise books, discussion-provoking cards, and games. The children decide how much, or whether, to engage, and can work on whatever they choose. Anyone is welcome to join in, and some 1,500 children have taken up the offer. Older street children often lead the activities, with the staff remaining in the background, offering assistance as needed.

Many choose to study because no one is requiring them to, Gribble says. He observed children working together “enthusiastically and seriously,” he writes, with a “dignity and purposefulness that perhaps is in part a result of not suffering the humiliation of being obliged to accept charity. … It is moving almost to the point of tears to see a twelve-year-old boy totally committing himself to sounding out letters or practising basic addition.”

The educators also cover subjects that “touch the children emotionally, because those are the subjects that children really want to talk and write about,” Gribble explains. For instance, they may present realistic case studies (e.g., a runaway girl confides that she’s been sexually abused, but the police don’t want to file a report) and ask the children to demonstrate possible responses through dramatic arts.

Success isn’t measured in test scores or the attainment of formal qualifications. It’s considered success if the children trust the adults; learn to read and write (about 60 percent of the children who participate for six months learn to read and write within that time); accomplish personal projects; or go on to high school and find sustaining work. It is also considered success if they become aware of their rights and develop skills that enable them to protect themselves from being cheated and to negotiate for better wages.

“The life of the child on the street is made up of individual projects and solutions to problems,” Gribble writes. “Butterflies helps them to be more ambitious in the former, and more collaborative in the latter.” The children plan and carry out street theater, protest marches and press conferences, run a broadcasting service, and publish a small newspaper, assuming responsibility for the projects and consulting with the educators as needed. They have also established a child worker’s union.

“From being an object … I became a citizen who was capable of self-care, self-protection and participation,” one participant told Gribble. Said another: “We learnt that we ourselves have the solutions for all our problems.” (A few years after Gribble’s visit, the Alternative Education Resource Organization produced a video about the Butterflies program.)

“Genuine Respect Implies Freedom And Self-Directedness”

Gribble was struck by the fact that, overall, the children at these schools appeared engaged and eager to learn, without coercion—they were even willing to make great sacrifices for the opportunity to attend the schools, such as risking retaliation from gang members or giving up precious income. Also, considering their starting points, they were making considerable strides to improve their life prospects.

He credits the schools with creating environments that helped students deal with their problems and discover their potential—not just academic potential, as he explains in “Lifelines,” but also “social potential, potential for self-respect, the … potential to assert their own rights and to play a full role in their communities.”

No school can solve every problem, he notes, and some underprivileged children will not be able to overcome their struggles, regardless of what type of learning environment they experience during their formative years. Nevertheless, “most social and academic problems are eased and many are solved … by respect, responsibility, affection and freedom,” he writes.

That’s because the primary lessons children absorb—which then impact all other learning, as well as their lives more broadly—are lessons about themselves, and these stem from how they are treated. Without a supportive learning environment, children who hail from insecure backgrounds and are not academic standouts “have little hope for the future,” Gribble says. “All their lives they have been taught that they are inferior …. They desperately need to experience respect from others in order to gain self-respect and lead dignified lives. And genuine respect implies freedom and self-directedness.”


Part one of this two-part conversation with David Gribble is available here

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