SONAM
WANGCHUK

Engineer and Education Reformer, IN

Published Date: 1st January 2018

Open Windows | In Conversation

SONAM
WANGCHUK
Engineer and Education Reformer, IN

January 1st, 2018

Albert Einstein said: “Try not to become a man of success, but rather try to become a man of value.” I met one such individual of value on the campus of Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL), nestled in the Phey village, Leh. Sonam Wangchuk, a vanguard of sensibility and intellect, along with like-minded creatives, built SECMOL in 1998 with the intention to elevate the status of children who are rejected by the prevailing education system. Decades of investments later, Sonam Wangchuk’s expertise is signalling a transition in education that is momentous.

A world-class educator and leader, Sonam Wangchuk, among other accolades, is the recipient of Governor’s Medal for educational reform in Jammu & Kashmir, Rolex Award for Enterprise, and International Terra Award for best earth building. At SECMOL, Sonam Wangchuk breathes life into a learning-centred framework that nurtures the young mind, and with his impassioned approach to life, Sonam Wangchuk gifts us a transformative experience that inspires to live with value.

 

Why is teaching important to you? And when did you first consider teaching as a profession?

Teaching is a blessing in every possible way. You think teaching helps the person who is learning. It does. But teaching makes you learn much more than perhaps the one who is being taught. Teaching is how I learnt.

My father wanted me to pursue civil engineering, and I was interested in mechanical engineering, which was my passion, my dream. My father said: “If you want to study mechanical, do it at your own expense.” So I had to leave home to pursue my interest; I used teaching as a way to support my education. I got into teaching by accident.

While teaching, I understood how the teaching process could be a plus for both the learner and the teacher. I learnt about the depths and the subtleties of everything I taught, things I would never have learnt from a professor through a lecture. I feel our brain gives us the impression that we have learnt, but it has gaping holes in the structure of the concept that forms in our head. Knowledge comes out only when you have to explain something to someone. When you find out that you don’t have a clear idea on the subject, you figure out how to explain things, how to make it into a great learning process.

Since the course I taught became quite popular—it was teeming with many students (more than I could normally handle)—I devised this system where the students who were quicker to grasp a subject (and each subject has some who are good, while the same might not be so good in another subject) to help the ones who were not so bright in that subject. Through this peer teaching and peer learning system, mentoring, I saw that the weaker students became good and the good ones became stars. I think every school should incorporate this valuable system.

 

So it’s a win-win situation.

Yes. I feel teaching is valuable to any growing child or learning mind. To learn something, at any age, and share it with others is an excellent service, yet it is more of a service to yourself. What business could fall into such a category—where you give, and you become rich? I would advise others’ to teach somebody.

 

Teaching, then, is similar to trees—as they provide nutrition and shade to others, they continue to expand and grow stronger.

Yes. As you teach, so you grow.

How and when did the concept of Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh [SECMOL] originate?

SECMOL was not our primary aim—our main work, before this school, was to bring reforms in the village schools, government schools. I was coaching 10th-grade students during my engineering program, and about 95% of the students failed every year; only 5% used to pass. Initially, I helped students to support my education, and soon I realized that what is needed is education and not another engineer. So, with other like-minded friends, I started teaching more students free of cost.

Then it registered that if you only mend something that is broken you will be doing it for another 50 years, and the system would keep producing more of the same. This mending can get many people thanking you, and you may feel very charitable, but that’s not the way to solve an issue. We decided to sort it out at the source—so no brokenness would come out in the first place. Nobody will be grateful, but that would be the best way to solve the problem. So we stopped the approach of coaching and went to every village aiming to improve the schools. Our aim for SECMOL was to eliminate the need for mending.

 

Did your concept face any resistance in schools?

Not because of the concept, but you have to strive in the process to get results, and many people were used to not working hard. In government schools that produced 95% of the failures, the teachers wouldn’t come to school for days, and when they came, they were not on time. We had to change all those behaviours. The trend was to blame everything on the teachers, and that is not a good solution.

Our approach to this problem was through love and respect. We would not blame the schools for poor results, but we would give the villages everything that they deserved and in return demand quality.

How did you change the landscape of education—from society’s fear imposing one to defining success on your terms?

We were working with government schools, and making teaching-learning process based on grasping the essence of concepts and not fear and mechanical memorizing. And the school results changed in a big way—the pass rate went from 5% to 75%. But for those who still failed, we set up SECMOL.

I don’t believe in starting private parallel schools—that happens when the quality of education is not good. When you bring the quality up, you might not need these private schools. But for children who were rejected by the system, in their conventional outlook, there was a need for a special school—at SECMOL the criteria for admission is failure rather than performance.

If I had my way, I would like everybody—the poorest to the richest, the least powerful to the most powerful person in the country—to go to the same government-run schools that are of respectable standards. That way the most powerful will make the standards so high that even the least powerful will enjoy the results.

At SECMOL we try and make learning a joyful process, a natural process, with all animals, all species on the earth. It’s only humans who cage children in a room for 8 hours a day and 18 years of life and lecture them to death. This way of teaching is not natural.

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To what do you credit your unique mindset?

Honestly, the way I see things is a natural way. I don’t know how people could think that learning could happen in classrooms, lecturing…. That’s unnatural. For example, long back, when I used to hear that a particular school is progressive, that they adopt the play-way method of learning, I started thinking that maybe they are a good school, but wait a minute, play-based is not something unique we humans have invented—you see it in every animal. And we think we humans are so evolved.

Take cats and dogs, their kittens and puppies are not learning in our way; they learn the play way. The mother cat plays with the kitten for a purpose—to prepare the kitten for life. Kittens learn to catch mice, but they start with their mother’s tail as the target, pouncing on it. And by pouching on the tail, they are ready to pounce on a mouse. Cats never make their kittens sit in a corner and memorize: “When you see the mouse, take a position, pounce, and grab. When you see the mouse take a position, pounce, and grab.” No, they would all die the way we humans do.

 

[Laughter]

 

The play way comes naturally. Play is not a joke; play is the most serious programming that nature has packed in the young ones, and that is what sees through their learning process. Little puppies, little kittens, little donkeys, they all have play that gives them all they want in their lives. We, humans, are also packed with all the play instinct of curiosity. Can you see how little children are bubbling and overflowing with curiosity?

Curiosity is the number one ingredient for a good learning mindset.

If you have curiosity, you don’t really need a teacher. A little help would be very good. But what do we do? We kill the curiosity first. We make sure there is nothing left, and this child is dictated: “Stand up, sit down, turn around, sit quietly.” We destroy the most sophisticated program that nature has gifted and then we complain that children don’t learn.

 

[Laughter]

 

Therefore, what I say is most natural.

 

I concur.

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You have designed SECMOL around the framework of ‘Bright head, skilled hands, and kind heart.’ Can you elaborate?

Humans have taken learning or education to be limited to intellectual exercises—some science, some mathematics, some language; it’s all to do with the head alone. But there is much more than that is required of us in life. We are expected to get things done, survive in harsh conditions, help others, and so on. So head alone is not good enough.

In solely developing the head, I see a disfigured body of a child— with a huge head that has a lot of information—going to school. And because of that, these children have a lot of arrogance.

I believe every person should be somewhat intellectually awakened, capable of handling his or her own things and occasionally helping others. Therefore, what is missing in our school system is the hands part. Stunted hands can’t do anything on their own; they can’t last a day or two if they are left in the wilderness. What good is that? Only the most progressive schools talk about hands-on learning, a little bit, which is a pity because every school should be about both head and the hands.

The third part is the heart. Even the best of schools don’t lay any stress beyond the head. I feel that for a happy and vibrant society, you have to have compassionate people who are not about themselves but are about helping others. On the contrary, our schools train us to be competitive, to kill competition and to survive alone above everyone else.

Human beings have this faculty of feeling for others—sensitivity and empathy. But our schools help us shed compassion and trample upon others, which is sad. So, therefore, I often say that you may have a very bright head, but it can be dangerous—it can be arrogant, and it can be helpless when it comes to surviving. And then you might have very skilled hands, even that can be dangerous—the people causing the most significant problems on earth, whether they are terrorist or gangs, they have very skilled hands and very bright heads.

It’s only when you develop a kind, compassionate heart in a child that the head and the hand are put to good use and never to destruction. And therefore, we should develop empathy and kindness in the children so that they are good for all of all the living beings, not just humans. And that’s what is missing in our education system.

How do you create learning material that is relevant to the children of Ladakh?

Our first challenge was to get rid of textbooks that had nothing relevant to the life of children and then to make textbooks that reflect lives of people they could identify with and which had examples of villages like their own.

The next was accessing local material–using mud from the earth; taking them out to see, touch, and engage with things rather than always bringing replicas to the classroom. And rather than being taught by only the history teacher, introduce people from outside. For instance, get people who are 80 years old to share vivid recollections of how the roads opened around 60 years ago. Resources that are in our society, in our environment must come into the classroom to make it alive. And our classrooms must go out, rather than sticking to one room.

 

How does the system you have created for children enhance the quality of thinking?

We try to make the children think, feel, and make decisions themselves. For example, this school operates as a small country, with a little government that changes every two months, and the children have responsibilities, which makes them think rather than just hear or read examples. This participation makes the children feel that their responsibilities affect others. So each time the children do something important—whether it is managing the newspaper or dinner—they learn to take charge of themselves and others, making a system run, which prepares them for real life.

 

I got a clear sense of ownership when I spent time with the children. The earnestness with which they engage speaks of the trust and freedom invested in them.

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What languages do the children learn in and why?

Since the students have had rough schooling, we want them to feel comfortable in their mother tongue and thus, try to use Ladakhi as the first communication medium. And then we teach English, not in a strict classroom setting but through conversations. You might have seen this when you participated with them?

 

I did. Thank you for the experience. It’s heartwarming to have the children shyly express their desire to communicate in English. I switched from Hindi to English, encouraging them to dive in unabashedly, reassuring them that it was entirely okay to make mistakes, to have people laugh at your expense. I then gave them examples of my embarrassment—of male actors in the south of India, playing lead roles, laughing at my attempts to speak Tamil, Telugu, and Malayalam.

 

Do children bring in their experiences into the classroom? If yes, how does it contribute to your teaching?

Not always, but occasionally. For example, after dinner, children share their childhood, talk about their villages and the life that is closest and dearest to them. This sharing helps learn about each other while building public speaking confidence.

For us, it is learning about the individuals—their backgrounds, their hardships in villages, and the specific problems they faced in their previous schools. On their part, some of these children, during vacations, go back to teach in one of their schools.

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What’s the difference between memorising and learning? And what type of atmosphere and curriculum facilitates learning?

Memorising is useful for remembering facts and figures, but the problem arises when it extends to everything. Whereas, learning is to do something naturally—rather than merely talk about it—with confidence.

The current system, wherein you have, say, a chapter on how to make tea will read: Boil the water, put tea leaves, add sugar and milk. The children will repeat the same—boil the water, put tea leaves, add sugar and milk—30 to 40 times and might write it well in their paper, but they would have never prepared tea.

On the other hand, someone who makes the best of tea without memorising and writing would be considered a failure. That’s a problem. Maybe a person who makes excellent tea should learn to write, but he should not be discarded because he or she cannot put it down on a piece of paper, in English. And this is an example that epitomises most things. People can read about a lot of things but have no experiences doing all those things.

Education should be about preparing for life, not learning chapter by chapter.

Learning should be about the wisdom of handling various aspects of life…those things do not come in textbooks. At SECMOL we teach children how to lead, how to plan, how to execute. Therefore, students run the school. And I feel most schools should implement this system.

By having staff members attend to children’s every need, it makes it very expensive, therefore not accessible to everybody. Whereas if you let the students deal with handling problems, finding solutions, etc., they get the opportunity to be hands on. They will make mistakes, but that is part of life.

SECMOL is self-reliant—we don’t take any government or non-governmental grants to run the day-to-day operations. So the education is free thanks to students investing in themselves, growing food, and managing with solar energy. And because of this involvement, we don’t have to charge fees from the students, except for their food.

We charge for the food because we think they should value the experience of SECMOL.

The beautiful thing, in this case, is that only when you do things you learn things. And when you do things you become automatically self-sustaining. So the best of the two meet. In the university we say that the students will be running things—not just to sustain themselves like in this school—but they will be running enterprises that manufacture things and manage tourism and so on. The income for the university to sustain itself will be the outcome of students efforts rather than huge fees that colleges charge now, fees that many can’t afford.

 

How do fear and shame stunt learning and growth?

When our minds are filled with fear and shame, we are occupied with insecurity and are overwhelmed by negative emotions, which leave very little room to focus on learning. On the other hand, when you are entirely at ease, your mental resources are available for the new concepts to be grasped.

You can see this with English language learning in India. So much shame and stigma are attached to English that when you want to say: “How are you?” your cheeks turn red, and instead, you say: “Are you how?” You are shaking and trembling.

 

[Laughter]

 

But when the same person meets a Gujarati, he smilingly greets: “Kema cho?” or in Nepali, “Kasto che?” They don’t make a mistake; they don’t turn red, and therefore they learn best. In Ladakh and anywhere in the colonised world, English is given such a high status that it is similar to honour or shame.

We have mothers, who are entirely unschooled, and after six months of working with other workers from Nepal, in some road project or something similar, they speak fluent Nepali. Whereas, their daughters and sons who have been in these so-called English medium schools for 16 years still tremble to speak a few words of English. In natures eyes, it is just another language. It is our warped mind that tells us it is easy to speak Nepali, but one must fear speaking English.

 

I would like to share an incident that speaks to what you have just shared. Eager to experience the Dal and Nagin lakes [in Srinagar], I arranged for a shikara [a flat-bottomed canoe] ride at 4:00 am. On the way back, the young man paddling the shikara requested for a brief stop indicating he had to speak with a family member. So submerged was I reminiscing swimming in these lakes as a child it didn’t occur to me that another person had stepped into the shikara! A few minutes into the ride a voice greeted me: “Excuse me, Madam, are you having a good time?” On hearing his polished English, I wondered if someone from the Buckingham Palace had accidentally stepped into the shikara! It turns out this man with crinkles accumulated over 75 to 80 years was the young man’s grandfather. His striking blue eyes lit up as he responded cheerfully to my curiosity about his English fluency: “Madam, I am illiterate. But there was a time when life was good, and I paddled many a Britisher. I picked up words as I went along, and that is how I learnt to speak English.” So, what you say about learning naturally, without shame, is right.

So the old man picked up English like one would Nepali or Gujarati, not as the English language. Whereas our college and university graduates put English on a high pedestal, struggling to grasp and master the English language.

 

SECMOL celebrates traditional building methods while incorporating new technology. Can you elaborate?

Unfortunately, there is a trend, in Ladakh and other parts of India, of branding things as old-fashioned and backward. But here, we value what our ancestors developed and continue to learn from what they mastered. At SECMOL all the buildings are built of earth, which is not at all fashionable.

Twenty-five years ago, when we started SECMOL, people were enthusiastic about concrete and cement as the modern materials, and we asked: “What is wrong with our earth buildings?” Some forts and palaces are standing for nearly thousand years even when left to elements. And when you research further, you find out that concrete and cement have a life of just 60 years, and still, we think they are stronger than materials that have lasted for hundreds of years.

You also learn that materials like concrete cause more pollution and emissions than the automobile industry. The building industry does half the damage to the world. Just because some people in New Delhi or New York are saying that concrete is fashionable why should we be swept away? So we started resurrecting old traditions. If our structures have some shortcomings, we can make up for them; that’s what science and modernity should be doing rather than throwing the baby with the bath water.

So we took all the ancient building techniques and edited them with the modern science of solar heating. For example, our ancestors did not use glass, without which you could not trap heat from the sun. In the 21st century, we have glass, and that will be our contribution. Likewise, if it is gardening, we try to learn from our ancestral practices. What is good should be preserved and what is better should be introduced, weighing advantages and disadvantages.

 

It’s similar to what you have done with the cold storage room (on the SECMOL campus) used for preserving vegetables and fruits.

Yes. People customarily used to dig a pit. But why throw away an ancient technique and get refrigerators that guzzle gas and electricity. We have converted the pit into an underground room.

To me, what is simplest and effective is the symbol of sophistication and development.

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What are the distinctive geographical challenges in Ladakh?

I don’t see them as challenges. I don’t want to think of us as remote or challenged. Remote from where? Remote is New Delhi; remote is New York. We are close to ourselves.

 

You are right; it can be a challenge for me but not for you.

 

[Laughs] These are the conditions of nature, so why look at them as challenges? Ladakh is a cold place, so we adapt.

Place with hot climates, like New Delhi or Mumbai, would be very challenging for me but not for the local people. All you have to do is use your faculties to play with resources around you, to make it suitable for your needs. If our ancestors built beautiful houses from earth—yes, indoors, the temperature would be around 5 degrees—that’s not comfortable for human beings, so we use the science learnt in schools to bring that 5 degrees up to 15 degrees.

Now somebody from New York will say: “No, 22 degrees is the International standard for comfort.” I don’t believe in that; I believe raising the temperature from 5 to 15 degrees is creativity, but after that, you don’t want to be spoilt to keep it at 22 degrees in minus 30 degrees. You have to lower your desires from 22 degrees to 15 degrees, where the two meet without destroying the earth. You can make it a 22-degrees international standard, but the amount of effort and resources that will go to reach the last 7 degrees will cause much harm to the birds, animals, and human beings. Human beings also have to adapt—come down half way and raise the conditions half way and meet at a sustainable, say 15-degree standard, and live happily ever after.

 

What are you working on at the moment? And how are you diversifying?

I have a weakness of wanting to do almost everything—I want to find solutions to water problems and green the deserts; I want to find entrepreneurial ideas for farmers to do better and reform education.

The other part is that we have addressed schooling through SECMOL, but Ladakh still does not have a university. And even if Ladakh gets one it will be the same type where the young people will be made to sit in a classroom and repeatedly lectured, to finally be handed a piece of paper—a degree.

I am currently working on a university—with different schools— school of business, education, agriculture, tourism, and architecture—where all my weakness or strengths can precipitate. Here, we will work on finding solutions for water, agriculture, desertification, greening, and so on, and engage not just with the area of Ladakh, but with the mountains of the world.

To study the mountain peoples’ problems and find solutions together with young people is like a dream.

If you have a raw answer to a problem, it can be taken up as a study, and if it shows definite possibilities, it can be implemented. I look forward to a time when all such solutions of mine and many people, who may have some reasonable answers, could be analysed for their value and then taken forward.

Young people in their twenties can be productive and imaginative, engaging in finding solutions to all the problems around them. For example, the ice stupa [Conical artificial glaciers constructed to address water shortage in cold desert regions.] was a solution for water and many people like it. But it should not be left for an engineer to discover such a thing; young people should be exposed to such ideas so they can find hundreds more of local creative solutions to problems.

 

With the innovation of ice stupas you tackle water crisis in the Ladakh region. How can we appreciate and effectively protect our water resources?

Elements like water, air, and salt are undervalued because they are abundant. Personally, I believe that gold is unnecessarily valued so high. You don’t need gold, but if you need salt, you will give all the gold for a handful of salt.

Similarly, we don’t value air because it is kindly abundant in our environment. Our schooling and education system should educate us to value these resources. If I had my way, I would make each individual feel the gratitude, for water, for air, for such essential resources that help us survive. And especially air and water, as it is so difficult to even breathe in big cities.

First, we have to learn the situation—with population growth, human interventions are eroding the water system in the mountains, leading to climate change. And second, we must grow empathy—to understand how our actions can change life for others. Once you have values, you will educate yourself on how difficult it is for people to get a bucket of water and you will do all you can to not waste natural resources.

Often people say: “What can I do? I am just one person.” The irony is that seven billion people say: “What can I do? I am just one person.” And I say: “Imagine if seven billion people thought a little could help?” If people start taking action rather than feeling helpless, it will be huge and impactful. And while being mindful, influence ten others’.

People content with the status quo often attempt to dissuade individuals who do differently: “You think you are going to change the world? Don’t try to fight corruption. You can’t stop criminals.” I find this negative attitude demonstrates the lack of intrinsic power. Sure, a decisive action takes effort, but anything worthwhile requires effort. And the power of one is powerful.

Yes. And if many such one’s started acting, the world will benefit. I have observed that human beings choose the path of least resistance than make an effort.

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A trend that is almost as damaging as the damage to the environment is appointing celebrities as Environmental/Earth Day ambassadors. With their high environmental impact lifestyles—taking multi-week flights (usually private), driving gas-guzzling cars, swimming in private pools, while insatiably consuming everything from electricity to electronics (while simultaneously dumping), they live diametrically different lives compared to the one they project. How can avaricious consumerism and reckless discarding go hand-in-hand with activism?

I definitely agree with you that people who champion something have to first live by example as that is what people look up to, not just a statement or talk.

And therefore, the famous ambassadors have to be passionate, live an honest life and then be a brand ambassador, which would be the most powerful. Or a more difficult attempt would be to choose people who are not so famous, but who live genuine conscientious lives and make them ambassadors; make it part of the mission to change peoples way of seeing, of looking at the world.

If they continue to look at these so-called glittering celebrities alone and then think of Earth Day, then they haven’t done much. If they also change how they celebrate the celebrities—value somebody of lesser fame, but who lives conscientiously, impacting people around them, thus celebrated—then they have achieved much more.

For example, it’s unfortunate that in India, cricket overshadows everything. People have to mature to understand the joy of games; they must learn to celebrate other sports like Gulli-danda, for the joy it brings. Sports should not be all about money and power. Of things like games, we should not make into war. It is almost like that—cricket becomes a para war.

And similarly, the irony is that people celebrate an actor who enacts the life of somebody who did something great and in doing so they forget the individual who has actually achieved. When the person who does something great becomes less interesting than somebody who plays that part, it’s a sad state.

I think films can be powerful in moulding how the society thinks. Unfortunately, producers and storytellers mould themselves to the culture that they see; it is all about selling tickets and economic benefits. Films are such a powerful tool they should be taken with a sense of responsibility–films can burn or save a generation, or a nation.

 

Why do you think our conscientiousness is falling deep and hard? And why are we willing to settle for a superficial existence?

Good question. I think it has to do with our values and upbringing, at home, in school, and in the society. Our children will grow if there is more depth in society’s way of valuing or not valuing things. So our whole social thinking ecosystem has to mature.

Apart from schools, colleges, and universities, it is individuals and personalities who influence society. If there were a Gandhi or a Tagore, there would have been universities of sorts, of those times. Having opinion leaders influence others to maturity is essential. Similar to what you are doing—interviewing people who think and do things differently. There need to be many fora of such people who connect the masses to other ways of thinking, other than all that they see in general society and films.

Thank you for your encouraging words. For monetary gains, children and youth are strategically and systematically poisoned with the lowest quality material, which further restricts their thinking and traps them. We owe them better.

 

How would you describe your style of leadership?

I want to respect and trust others even though I know that they might not do something exactly the way I would. But beyond a point, to achieve a significant goal, many people have to take little pieces of connection among them and continuously support these parts to grow.

 

What do you hope to achieve in the future?

I don’t have any big goals, big ambitions. I want to help young people to learn in the best possible way and for learning to have a multiplying effect on them—for them to teach more people.

 

Do you get time to rest your mind?

No. I wake up every morning and find it very hard to go to bed again because some idea starts taking shape and it starts spurring around. I am always trying to solve problems—think of how simple ideas can solve a big problem. I live in this world most of the time, only to come out and talk to you now.

 

How do you stay humble with success and accolades?

I don’t take life seriously.

 

From where do you draw inspiration?

At an early age, my mother was an inspiration for empathy and sensitivity to other peoples needs.

The compassion my mother developed in me for others made me start solving others’ problems. And when you do something that has an impact it inspires you. I feel if someone has empathy and sensitivity for others pains and challenges, and therefore takes the initiative, that initiative leads to experiences. That experience leads to confidence, which leads to even more compassion.

Julay, Jigmet Padma, for capturing Sonam and me in conversation. I wish you growth with your interest in photography.

 

Continued…

To learn more about Sonam Wangchuk please visit his website.

 

 

 

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