Imagine a school where education is not just about rote learning formulae and long passages of text to pass an exam. A school where students learn eco-friendly innovation and engineer sustainable infrastructure. A school with the educational philosophy of learning by doing. A school where the admission criteria is that you have “failed” your class 10 exams. Sounds like a movie plot, doesn’t it?! This might remind you of Phunsuk Wangdu’s school from the popular Hindi film 3 Idiots. Aamir Khan played a character named Phunsuk Wangdu who loved learning for the sake of learning and ended up starting a school in the hills where he taught children innovation and invention. But this is no fiction. It’s the life and work of an out-of-the-box educator, Sonam Wangchuk.

Sonam Wangchuk is a man who didn’t go to school till the age of nine. There were no schools around him, after all. When he did go to school, he struggled with language barriers and was often dismissed as a ‘stupid’ student. His father was a renowned politician in the region, but Sonam went against the well-laid path of political life to pursue Mechanical Engineering and financed his education himself. Then he realized that his true passion and calling was in innovation and educational reform.

Wangchuk believes that the true purpose of education is to learn skills that help us live a life in harmony with nature. He believes education should teach one how to solve challenging problems, and to find simple and sustainable solutions to real-life problems.

“Paper knowledge, paper evaluations, paper degrees all too papery and all too theoretical…has very little that prepares us for real life in the real world.” —Sonam Wangchuk

Wangchuk believes that humans have naturally evolved to find joy in solving puzzles and problems. And when the education system is designed around this idea, it can lead to great creativity and fulfillment in the learning process. With this vision, he and a group of young Ladakhis founded a school in 1988 that can only be described as a Shangri La human excellence. His school SECMOL was designed and built by students, runs entirely on solar power, and is operated with the help of the local community. 

Over the years the students of this school have developed dozens of innovative solutions to real-life complex problems like irrigation, flooding, carbon footprint reduction and so on. For example, their award-winning Ice Stupa innovation solved the problem of both drought and flash floods in the cold desert of Ladakh. This cone-shaped artificial glacier requires minimal infrastructure and no energy input and simply uses gravity in an innovative manner to work. Harappa’s Unleashing Creativity course helps you learn the principles of design thinking that you can use to solve real-world problems.

If there is one thing we can learn from Wangchuk and his ‘school of failures’, it’s that learning with purpose and by practice is key to creativity and joy.

“Don't blame the child for forgetting lessons; make the lessons unforgettable.” —Sonam Wangchuk

We live in a world where technology might be available in plenty, but the intelligence, creativity, and empathy required to make these skills work for human betterment seems to be in short supply. Visionaries like Wangchuk provide a guiding light to developing the 21st-century skills and habits of problem-solving, community leadership and agile thinking with their revolutionary educational methods.

If I could build a time machine to go back and fail 10th grade just to apply for a place at SECMOL, I would do it in a heartbeat.

Ramon Magsaysay Awardee and Rolex Award for Enterprise winner Sonam Wangchuk is a true Harappa Habit Hero. He not only understands the importance of Harappa Habits like Think, Solve, and Lead, but also helps ensure people learn them when they are young. 

(Image credit: TEDxBITSGoa2018 on Flickr, via Wikimedia Commons)

Ragini Thakur is Manager, Curriculum at Harappa Education. She is a postgraduate in International Relations from Jawaharlal Nehru University. She enjoys old Hindi songs, books meant for kids, and all things food.

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