If our meme wasn’t clear enough, we can spell it our for you: our education system isn’t teaching material that is particularly relevant to all students, and it may not be preparing them for the kinds of jobs they want either. We don’t need a study to prove this either: how much of the knowledge that you learned in school do you really apply today in your career or everyday life? It’s more likely that Pythagoras and the simple present tense have gone straight out the window. So, how do we make the education system relevant and useful for the millions of school-going (soon to be employed) children out there?

Right now, textbooks, teachers, and policy-makers in Delhi decide what children should study and how they should experience school (boring!) If that’s the root of the issue then one way of making things better would be to simply let children decide what they’re interested in by themselves, and provide them the space and tools to pursue it accordingly. This model, called Self-Designed Learning (SDL) has been pioneered by our first panelist Abhijit Sinha, the founder of Project DEFY. The organisation enables underserved communities to create an education for themselves, through self-learning spaces called Nooks. The result? Curious, engaged, and actively learning children.

However, while school can be formulaic and classroom material can sometimes seem dull, there is some method to the madness. Upasna Sachdeva and Aparna Ramanujam, both teachers with Teach for India, note that while SDL is the goal we should all aim for, right now it might be an unattainable one. After all, which school kid knows themselves well enough to figure out their interests and pursue them accordingly? More importantly, are they capable of designing a whole learning program around them? While ‘old-school’ education might be a standard-issue affair, at least it provides structure. More importantly, an old-school education also provides a collective atmosphere of learning, where children interact with each other. As Hrishikesh Arvikar, a doctoral candidate at the University of Queensland notes, without the classroom and guided instruction from teachers, it is unlikely that students will be fully prepared for the big bad world that lies outside the school gate.

So, is Self-Designed Learning something we can really enact in India, or is it just an ideal our policies should aspire to? Click on an opinion below for some answers. 

“Self-designed learning takes an approach wherein the learner lives and learns in the real world. They question and create their own opinions about it. They imagine a world they wish to see and actively attempt to be change-makers for their society.”

— Abhijit Sinha, Founder of Project Defy 

“Designing one’s own curriculum requires a thorough knowledge of oneself, as well as a somewhat clear direction on what one hopes to achieve through the experience. Both of these are incredibly hard to come by even in fully-grown adults, let alone children and teenagers whose thoughts are still quite amorphous.”

— Upasna Sachdeva and Aparna Ramanujam, Fellows with Teach for India

“Both learning and unlearning take time and the use of one’s intelligence and other skill sets. This requires guidance, if not supervision. Translating knowledge into practice, as is expected in SDL education, would not immediately take place in the student’s life.”

— Hrishikesh Arvikar, Doctoral Candidate at the University of Queensland

“Don’t treat me like a child!”

Adults say this all the time. Angry teenagers use it too, as they near adulthood. What does it mean? Should even children be treated like children?

Let us begin with the very meaning of ‘Self-Designed Learning’, or SDL, which is not to be confused with informal education. The difference between SDL and mainstream, formal education lies in who decides, designs and controls the education or learning journey. So, while Mainstream Education takes the liberty to make all decisions on behalf of the learner, SDL empowers the learner to make decisions themselves. It allows one to control what, when and how they learn.

SDL encourages learners to seek knowledge of their own choice, based on their own needs and interests, and from as many different resources as possible. This could include teachers, parents, community members, distant internet sources, traditional knowledge and so on. 

No More Baby Talk

Children’s opinions matter even today. Their thoughts make a difference right now, and they must be heard equally. A fundamental failure of the existing education model is its misunderstanding of children. It perceives them to be incomplete, as ‘un-ready’ humans that can be readied by structured education. Only after this can they receive the respect of a complete society-contributing human being. This notion must be strongly challenged. Children must be seen as complete human beings, fully deserving of a good life in the present. With the respect accorded to an adequate human and the patient support of an empowering learning model, they can create their own identity. 

A Nook in JP Nagar, Bengaluru. Nooks are schools without teachers, exams or even mandated curricula. They are controlled and managed by the learners themselves, who take complete charge of their own learning | Photograph courtesy of Project DEFY.

Our experience creating SDL across several communities has shown evidence of self-accountability and responsibility in the absence of authoritarianism. So much so, that it would overshadow behaviour expected of ‘educated adults’ who have completed their 20 years of prescribed schooling (dare I say training?). The assumption that children must be shown the path and pushed down them by adults for them to grow into wonderful human beings is discredited not only by the success of SDL but also by the failure of Mainstream Education. 

Learning Designed for the Future

The K-12 system was originally designed to satisfy capitalist needs: workers were recruited en masse to do menial, repetitive and reductive factory jobs. This work environment has been creatively destroyed over the last century by globalization, innovation and technology. Yet, modern schooling has been inertial. It continues to encourage learners to aspire towards a templated job in an office, instead of helping them create a good life where their profession is also a passion. 

“Study hard now for a better future!”

This is a narrative typical for an Indian student, but it inherently creates an unhealthy present state that is rife with competition, depression and societal pressures. In this process, learners tend to lose their sense of individuality and personality. When will this future ever come to fruition, if after 20 years of education, a student does not even know what a better life is supposed to be? They have never seen it. It really shouldn’t surprise us that so many people we know are unhappy with their professional lives and work environments. 

Self-designed learning takes an approach wherein the learner lives and learns in the real world. They question and create their own opinions about it. They imagine a world they wish to see and actively attempt to be changemakers for their society.

Learners become comfortable with being critical as well as on receiving criticism. Especially in times of discord, as we are seeing today, this is a central tenet for a democratic citizenry to move forward. 

Bigger Commitment, More Meaningful Learning

A nook in Bengaluru’s J.P. Nagar | Photograph courtesy of Project DEFY.

Finally, a predictable argument against self-learning or alternative learning systems is their limitations of scale, in that ‘such systems could never reach the masses’. This argument probably holds true only in the frame of a centralized scaling approach. There is also a genuine paucity of quality learning environments for the non-elite, economically challenged and ‘educationally un-woke’. Given that SDL is a community approach, ‘scale’ takes a different meaning altogether. Instead of large-scale infrastructure creation, the government would be entrusted to empower and support communities to create their own localized learning environments. For that to happen, many more innovators and alternative-educators need to create models for the non-elite and foster possibilities for new learning approaches for the masses.By treating children like human beings with a functioning and inspiring intellect, self-designed learning can foster empathy and connection within communities. 

“Don’t treat me like a child!”

The statement is an indictment of what our society has come to think of children as simple-minded and thoughtless minors. SDL is a meaningful way to learn, not because it is easy. One should certainly not assume so. It is quite the opposite, in fact, being far more challenging than spoon-fed schooling. Yet, these challenges are meaningful and constructive in enabling individual learners to develop a critical and creative thought process. 

Abhijit Sinha Author

Abhijit is the creator of Project DEFY, that enables underserved communities to create an education for themselves, through self-learning spaces called Nooks. DEFY has set up Nooks in 3 countries --- India, Uganda, and Rwanda and is now looking at setting up a Nook Hub in Zimbabwe.

In today’s world, we all have a tendency to pick up philosophies and take them to their most extreme forms. For decades we have studied in and criticized our top-down, rote-based, standardized education system, so much so, that perhaps now we are moving towards its polar opposite: a fully customized & personalized, autonomous education system. What happened to Goldilocks?

Before we begin, let’s get the obvious out of the way. Yes, there is definitely a need to empower our learners, make curriculum relevant to real-life, and multi-dimensionalize education. But, is a fully self-designed education system the way to do this?

The Paradox of Choice

A philosophical issue with a complete SDL has to do with the paradox of choice. As Barry Schwartz, who came up with the term pointed out, too much autonomy and choice can lead to stress and anxiety and slower decision making. Our learners need to be able to exercise choice in their education, but perhaps only between subjects instead of curricula. Too much choice at an early stage of life, where information on the self and the world outside is scant, may lead to analysis paralysis and a constant buyer’s remorse. 

SDL makes a large assumption: that individuals know about education, and that they know themselves well enough to design an entire curriculum for their own benefit.

These assumptions are rendered largely untrue: research on self-perception reveals that our impressions of ourselves are often more fluid than we think. Most young children are not fully aware of, or able to articulate, what they enjoy, why they enjoy it, and how they think it’s relevant to any of their aspirations.

Photography courtesy of Nithi Anand (CC BY 2.0)

In the case of adolescents, this fluidity is taken to a new level. Adolescents experiment with preferences, character traits, and social behaviors so frequently that it seems like they’re trying on new personalities the way they try on new clothes! Designing one’s own curriculum requires a thorough knowledge of oneself, as well as a somewhat clear direction on what one hopes to achieve through the experience. Both of these are incredibly hard to come by even in fully-grown adults, let alone children and teenagers whose thoughts are still quite amorphous.

Furthermore, as any teacher worth their salt would vouch, students get bored easily especially when performing tedious tasks. However, one cannot escape the monotony of regular, repetitive tasks in any profession, a reality that students must be trained for throughout their growth. High levels of autonomy at early ages may make our learners give up quickly when faced with the slightest boredom, just because the option to quit exists. In light of recent discoveries about grit and its influence on human success, it appears that SDL-like systems may fail to develop grit in learners. 

Can an SDL Education Bridge Social Inequality Effectively?

An SDL that operates at a community level works on the premise of a high quality, positive learning environment where a child gets constant exposure, inspiration, and access to knowledge and knowledgeable people. But, how many of our homes currently provide such environments?

In our experience, many of our students (especially in lower income schools) come from families and communities that are overburdened and strapped for time. Furthermore, given that ~80% of schools in India are only till Primary or Upper Primary levels (MHRD report), most of our students are first generation learners who get little support from families. 

The existing pool of teachers are themselves motivated not by learning, but by money – an economy of effort seems to be the mantra. Plunging such a culture into complete autonomy may lead to confusion and a lack of structure and vision. Yes, there could definitely be “islands” that achieve remarkable growth in this system – but they would probably be restricted to the fringes where the base conditions for such a system to thrive are already met.

Consequently, this may only exacerbate the already-vast gulf of economic and social inequalities between students and schools that we are fighting. 

Why Structured Curricula and Education Policies Matter

Photograph courtesy of Captain Oates (CC BY 2.0)

Children are born “tabula rasa” – or, as a clean slate. Their curiosity and interests are engendered through experience. However, choosing interests is a result of exposure – how can you choose your interest if you don’t even know what’s available? That “aha moment of “wow, this is so interesting” or “I want to know more about this” often comes later on in school for several students. Exposure across a variety of fields can generate greater, more sustainable interests and preferences – a requirement which is met fairly well by a formalized education system that encourages students to learn broadly. However, SDL-like systems of learning may focus too sharply on linear education, thus robbing students of the chance to appreciate the interdisciplinary nature of education and discover their love for learning by themselves. 

Worse still, too much autonomy in choice of content and sources could be dangerous in an era of misinformation where alternative truths are peddled scientifically (like the Flat Earth theory!) and different versions of history may be found online.

A complete SDL may also be extremely difficult to track and assess academic outcomes. While we can continue to romanticize the idea of ‘no assessments’, how else can we monitor the effectiveness of an SDL education? The government, parents, and educators have a responsibility to track students’ learning to assess system-effectiveness and offer solutions as needed. In short, a fully customized system is likely to become a nightmare to monitor, assess and remediate. 

A related issue is standardization. We may not be the industrial society imagined a century ago when our education system was first adopted, our economy is still structured more around standard manufacturing/service firms than entrepreneurial opportunities. Thus, one of the main purposes of education continues to be the provision of employment opportunities in these standard firms, serving as a mechanism to lift people out of poverty by providing them with regular incomes. However, these jobs expect very specific skill sets – an expectation which fails to be met in an SDL education system, since its extreme personalization ensures that standardized skill sets are impossible to develop. 

Photograph courtesy of Guilherme Cunha on Unsplash

As we are well aware, our current work culture is driven by the human tendency to shirk work – people are always looking to minimise effort and maximise gain, even if it doesn’t lead to great results. A system like SDL places a great deal of responsibility on the student to ensure their own engagement. By allowing complete, unmonitored independence in SDL systems, individuals may end up working very little: leaving students on their own with very few boundaries may lead to unexpectedly low results. 

However, the levels of standardization in education we see in India are rigid and uninspired, and may not actually be fully helping students seeking good jobs and skills. A better alternative might be to incorporate some concepts from SDL setups into our current education system, while still retaining the effective parts of a standardized curriculum. Instead of radically overhauling the entire education system, gradually bringing in more autonomy to motivated teachers to customize curricula, and reducing pressures on students to ace in all subjects (via constructs like “Best 4 percentage”) may prove to be a better approach to education policies. Our students may not need to be master of all trades, but perhaps should instead be the jack of some. Additionally, introducing real-life learning via projects that use 21st-century skills of collaboration and problem solving, will help students learn to not only choose their own areas of competence, but also to learn from others’ interests and skills too.

The idea of a community-led SDL brings to mind Aldous Huxley’s Island. In it, students are bred in large communities by several families together who themselves are well-read, wise and mature, almost savants. This educational model, like SDL, sounds noble, inspiring, and utopian. Yet, for India’s students right now, it might just be that: a utopia for a country like ours to achieve in the distant future. 

Upasna Sachdeva is an engineer-turned-banker-turned-teacher–and currently, a Teach for India Fellow teaching in Pune. 

Aparna Ramanujam, currently a Teach For India Fellow in Chennai, is passionate about bridging the gap between science and education policy.


It may be true that the mainstream education system does have an extremely narrow sense of ‘knowledge’, which is often qualified as Western, universally applicable, or rational. However, firstly, learning should not be categorised in terms of identity because it divides knowledge into the binaries of Indigenous/International, Western/Eastern, and Traditional/Modern. This takes away from the value of the knowledge itself.

More importantly, at a tender age, the choice to decide on what to learn cannot be purely left to the child (although they should be encouraged to hone some individual skills on their own). The mainstream education system can also open up a child’s intelligence, abilities, skills, and creativity. In a formal education with adequate infrastructure and learning resources, windows to diverse and interdisciplinary worlds of thought can be opened up.

And so, formalising self-learning needn’t come into play to ensure the well-rounded development of a child (although of course, there is the argument that all learning is essentially self-learning!) 

Is There Such a Thing as an ‘Education for the Future’?

Photo by Yogendra Singh on Unsplash

Learning doesn’t just end once one learns a lesson. Learning and its application in one’s life is only a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. Thus, using an argument of a temporal frame results in creating a false binary between learning for a future that may never come, vis-a-vis learning for the present. 

Besides, both learning and unlearning take time and the use of one’s intelligence and other skill sets. This requires guidance, if not supervision. Translating knowledge into practice, as is expected in SDL education, would not immediately take place in the student’s life. Only when intelligence meets guided experience and insight, will it translate into practical knowledge. 

It’s also quite evident then, that the mainstream education system possesses the potential to encourage the same habits that a self-designed education aspires towards. While neither system is faultless, to say that the mainstream education system is devoid of any tangible educational or knowledge-based benefits cannot be true. Many of us reading this are privileged to do so because of the school system we were fortunate to be enrolled in and guided through.

Collective Education as a Form of Social Knowledge

As Foucault would put it, knowledge can be coloured by the system in place. One of my teachers made me imbibe the idea that while access to knowledge can be restricted according to caste, class, gender, sexuality, and physical abilities, raw intelligence in and of itself cannot be stopped. It is our role as educators to encourage intelligence within students to ask questions about the world they live in, temper their curiosities, and insist on social interaction and collective learning by meeting other students from diverse backgrounds in the classroom. These formal spaces of social interaction are an invaluable part of a child’s education, and may not be available in a self-designed education model.

Self-learning may also end up defeating these purposes of collective social education, because it becomes personally customised to the extent that it becomes an enclosed system of learning. 

Children have imaginations more vivid than we realise, so viewing them as incomplete human beings who need to have information ‘delivered’ to them is wrong. But, for them to realise and exercise their full potential as citizens in a diverse democracy, educators should first initiate dynamic lessons on freedom, equality, liberty, and other such principles, to make them understand their existing privilege or lack thereof. This could be done through fun games, tasks, and physical sports apart from the widening the horizon of their emotional and mental intelligence inside the classroom. Again, such values may not be intrinsically developed by the child, as they develop and design their own education.

Are Children ‘Problems’, or is the Education System?

The  ‘problem solving’ approach that a self-designed education proposes makes each individual student a ‘problem’. This language of problem solving is problematic itself. Individual students are not just problems — they individually make up a much wider social fabric, and try to understand the world with a sense of wonder. They do this not on their own, but through comparing or contrasting diverse social experiences in the classroom, as well as outside of it. 

Thus, formal school is a space of experiential learning and social preparation. Sooner or later, when they have to face the world out there, an individualized, echo chamber style of learning will not be as effective in helping students prepare themselves for the world they occupy. | Photograph courtesy of Philippe Bout on Unsplash.

So, while it may be presumptuous of the mainstream education system to dictate to students what and how they should learn, at the same time, it is equally problematic to devise learning material for students in an individualised, customised form, as this evades social realities at large. How would this individualised learning practice be implemented in rural areas where it is already so difficult to find both teachers and students? These values look like they only apply to an elite form of education in metropolis. 

At the end of it, at the heart of this problem of how to teach children is one question: why is an education important? What value can a formalised educational experience add to a students’ life? SDL is right about one thing: students should be encouraged to dream, care, desire, and hope. It’s just that this should happen through guided instruction. Only then can we evoke emotions with our learning methods, instead of just teaching subjects, which is the real reform the mainstream education sector needs right now. For all of this to happen, we need to educate collectively, not in silos.

Hrishikesh Arvikar is a doctoral candidate at the University of Queensland who writes about cinema, political economy, and everything in between.


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