Seetha Murty Director Education Silver Oaks International Schools
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A trace of Gandhiji’s ‘beautiful trees’ in Sweden

Mahatma Gandhi once spoke of schools as beautiful trees where local ecology, agriculture, culture and traditions was a part of the curriculum. Schools in Sweden reflect these ethos

A refreshing change! A reassuring experience! A promising possibility! That’s how I would describe my visit to Sweden. An invitation from Professor Helene Elvstrand of Linkoping University to visit and interact with University faculty and schools took me on a 10-day tour of Norrkoping, Linkoping and Stockholm.

For the last three years, B Ed students of Linkoping University have been interning Silver Oaks International Schools. I always used to wonder why teacher trainees from Europe are coming all the way to India and that too, to our school. Although their Professors said that there are many takeaways from Silver Oaks, I was still looking for more answers which I got when I interacted with people and faculty in Sweden.

With all the technological innovation & advancement, governance based on welfare, sustainable infrastructure, idyllic landscapes, interesting history, present & future, Sweden still believes that they want to learn from different continents, cultures and people. Their culture of sharing is evident in their hospitality and what is more heartwarming is in the way they accommodate immigrants and refugees.

Conversation with academics led me to believe that the destiny of their country indeed begins in their classrooms.

Competition is a consciously avoided word and ranks and scores are not considered as the only essentials for education. Schooling is for raising happy children with emotional intelligence.

Howard Gardner’s once said, “The quality of education can be seen in the way people behave in public places.”  And I could see it not just in public places but in their homes too.

Children go to school from the age of 1. Until 6, they learn to share, care, socialize and self manage. And most of all they learn to be responsible for themselves and others.

Temperature may be -30° or + 20°, rain or snow, children have to play outdoor every day with appropriate clothing. Growing up in the natural environment is the most important part of learning.

They have exams but not hyper schools or parents creating paranoia around them. What is worth exploring in their system is how they focus on individualistic education.

To each, their own! Students are not expected to compete with others nor are they expected to do the same things as others. Schools are ecosystems for children to explore themselves and their role in the society. Intense focus on child welfare measures is to enable and support them.

So, with all this ‘let children be’ approach, “What did you gain?” was my repeated question to all those I met.

And I would get the same reply- ‘it’s a developed country with happy people, what else does one want from its education system?’

If Sweden is one of the happiest countries in the world, guess it comes from their beautiful philosophy of life, Lagom, which means “Not too little, not too much. Just right!”

This single word encapsulates the entire Swedish socially democratic philosophy on life: that everyone should have enough but not too much.

With a healthy work-life balance and high standards of living, Swedes certainly found the secret to happy life.

Sweden is a welfare state and this is a collective choice of its people. People respect the high taxes because they know how the taxes are spent for the welfare of people.

Culturally and emotionally, they are far more evolved as a society. I may have personally found answers in ‘lagom’ but returned with some thoughts in my mind.

When we go visiting other countries to understand their education system, we cannot possibly ignore their culture, societal structure and past. Scandinavian countries are known for Lagom, which underpins all that they do.

Their lack of fussiness and pretentiousness, plenty of contentment and quiet confidence, functional architecture, modesty and wholesomeness and an emphasis on the communal over the individual, everything is different from the way we Indians are as a society.

They say, there is virtue in moderation. Their schools reflect their culture.

When Finland started topping in PISA, there is a new kind of tourism. Just like the gold rush of 19th century, there is a rank rush to Finland.  Particularly from India, where the words like toppers, first rank and high scores are national obsessions. In spite of the thriving coaching factories and the churning of assembly line products, groups of educators from India too, rushed to Finland and went to the extent of calling it ‘Mecca of learning’.

Two years ago, the Head of curriculum development in Finland was visiting India and I happened to spend some quality time with her. The most obvious points are the way they give emotional comfort and space to their learners and their focus on approaches to learning.

When all the factors come together to make something right, it’s called ‘Goldilocks conditions’.  For an education system to be right, many factors have to come together to make it right.

Once again I remember Gandhiji’s term ‘beautiful trees’ which he used to refer to the schools, which existed in every village in pre-colonial India. Village elders would appoint the wise man of the village to teach their children to sustain, promote and preserve the local ecology, agriculture, culture and traditions. And the children of the village knew the goals of their schooling.

As opposed to the current trend where one thinks that education is about high scores in examinations, great job and buy a big house and live a luxurious life. Needless to say that as a society we created these ideas of materialistic race.

In the land of Buddha, Gandhi and Swami Vivekananda we are yet to make peace, truth and wisdom as the main goals of education.

While working in that direction of reinventing and reimagining schools, we also need goldilocks conditions. Where parents, students, teachers, society, policy makers, employers and the country as a whole have to debate on what is education, what is worth teaching and learning and what is worth testing! Meanwhile, the well-meaning schools can continue to create ‘beautiful trees’.  India was full of them. We just need to rekindle the sprit and nurture them back to life.

– Seetha Murty

Director Education

Silver Oaks International Schools

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