I Ditched Conventional Education for One That Supports My Creativity (and it was Worth It)

By Jahnavi Jayanth | Jan 21, 2017

We’re going to play a game. I will say two words and you think of the happiest, most positive things you can associate with them.

School. College.

Those out-of-town road-trips that let you get the exhilarating feeling that you and your pals were away from adult supervision? That sleepover that you managed to convince your parents to let you go to? Next step, think of all the negative associations you can with these words. Classes that had you staring at the ticking clock every nano second, but only if that class hasn’t sapped every last drop of your energy because of the dull-fest that it was? Homework, tuitions and exams that were unnecessary and left you devastated instead of enriched?

Not one of the positive associations that I mentioned or that you thought of perhaps, had anything to do at all with learning. However, all of the negative associations I mentioned and perhaps most of those you thought of were about the education you went to school or college for. This is exactly what you, me and Sharma uncle’s son, all of us have been thinking and experiencing.

There’s something gravely wrong here, isn’t there? We all know there is — but haven’t figured a way out of it. We are in the twenty-first century, arguably in the most innovative era mankind has yet seen — and we are yet to innovate an education fit for this century. An education that isn’t static knowledge that frustrates you, preparing you for no real life skill, an education that you enjoy, dream of and that teaches you how to be a lifelong learner and an adaptive global citizen.

The world is entirely lacking this.

Or is it?

I want to introduce you to my schooling experience. I did what we all did — went to school, mostly hating it until Class 8. When I went to school, I would spend long hours of the day sitting in a class teeming with tens of other people, listening to a teacher drone on about a subject that I mostly didn’t care about. I would spend the rest of my day worrying about and toiling for grades that weren’t actually measuring whether I was learning something. I’d lost the joy of learning, I couldn’t learn what I wanted to and how I wanted to — and all of a sudden, getting that job with the stellar package that make all the aunties go “Haww”, was looming as my priority. A job that I mostly wouldn’t be able to do well either, because I was learning nothing practical about life. The one skill I was getting — if at all, was how to be a par-excellence test-taker.

So, with nervous breakdowns and a whole lot of fright, I decided that I didn’t want to be a part of a schooling institution anymore and decided to take high-school diploma exams on my own as a private candidate (not affiliated with any schooling institution, so obtaining the diploma directly from an education board). While I was at it — and had the extra time saved from what I considered the soul-sucking of regular schools — I trained and performed dance intensively and volunteered in social sector organisations. And there, I rediscovered my joy of learning — I learnt things that I really wanted to, things that I needed to learn to be able to do what I wanted to in life, in ways more incredible than I could imagine and from diverse sets of people. And there it was, my education.

Then came the looming question of college — was I to go back to the education system I’d just gotten free from? Thankfully, the people that contributed to my education — people that I volunteered with, introduced me to a certain special place.

I am a seventeen-year-old currently in my first year of college. I am now living in San Francisco, and will be living in Seoul, Hyderabad, Berlin, Buenos Aires, London and Taipei over the next four years of my course. I am travelling with a cohort of 159 other students from 50 different countries, most of whom are on financial aid — people that have worked on projects in NASA, their own start-ups, written musicals and opened and run restaurants (off the top of my head). We learn in classes that are fewer than 20 strong, that have been designed based on the Science of Active Learning. We engage with organisations, both civil society (for and non-profit) and the government — in each of these cities that we live in, to learn practical skills from the experience and apply what we’ve learnt in class to aid them in contributing to the city’s community. We have no exams, but are instead graded on the different instances of how we display our thinking has evolved — because here, we don’t learn what to think, we learn how.

What is this magical place, you ask? Not Hogwarts, but a close second. The Minerva Schools at KGI (acceptance rate, last at 1.9%), is a San Francisco-based undergraduate program founded by Ben Nelson, Silicon Valley veteran entrepreneur and Stephen Kosslyn, former Dean at Harvard University.

Lectures are an efficient way of teaching, but they have been utterly disproved as efficient ways of learning. At Minerva, we do not have lectures. Before every 90-minute class, we receive learning material (videos, articles, books, movies and exercises) that we thoroughly prepare ourselves with, for in-class discussions (amongst peers, facilitated by the professor) and activities that help us reach the learning outcome for each class, that invariably is a way to think. These classes happen on a computer platform that’s been designed by Minerva in an effort to use technology to further optimise what the Science of Active Learning has to offer us. For example, our classes are all recorded, for us to go to back to when we want to and for our professor to not simply assess what we said on a subject, but how well we said it.

These are complemented by the people we meet and the activities we engage with outside in each city. These include talks, events, workshops, group-activities and projects. In the first year, we focus simply on learning thinking techniques and in the consecutive three years — we explore and delve into one (or more) of the five schools: Arts and Humanities, Social Sciences, Business, Natural Sciences and Computational Sciences, while creating our own path of study, defining its breadth and depth (aided by academic mentors and professors).

I keep saying education — does that word mean the same thing for you and me, and any third person? Yes and no. What my education looks like and needs to look like would be very different from yours. However what needs to be the same, for both you and me — regardless of where we come from, is that we should be able to access the opportunities that’ll allow us to tailor the best education we can for ourselves. However, access to education, like our every action is constrained and contained by centuries of the history of our background — where we belong. This affects what we have today and unfortunately, who we are. Even who we get to be.

If we’re talking 21st century education, we aren’t talking education that we get to choose based on those century old ropes tying us down — we are talking education that you get to choose and attain regardless of where you come from — an education that doesn’t care of who society says you are, but an education that cares about who you truly are, according to yourself.

I’m just another middle-class kid, whose parents laboriously saved money all her life to give her a college education. But that isn’t what Minerva saw. They saw that I was a kid with dreams and passions, and a thirst for learning and doing something. To see it, all they needed from me was a working knowledge of English and access to a computer and the internet. Their free online application, devoid of stringent, immovable mainstream requests — like the SAT or top percentile grades took me four to five hours of talking about what I’m proud of in my life, and taking activities that tested my creativity, passion and curiosity amongst other things. Their need-based financial aid package has my parents paying only the amount they can afford to without changing the status-quo of their lives, the rest covered by the institution and and me earning for my daily sustenance on a job at Minerva, that’s been matched with me so it fits my interests.

I know what you’re thinking — this sounds too good to be true. Let me remind you of something though — it only sounds too good, because we’ve seen so much of the bad so far — and what’s sounding ‘so good’ is actually what we deserve — what is our fundamental right of education.

So now, whether it’s while I’m meeting with an organisation tackling the homelessness issue in San Francisco to discuss solutions, or whether it’s while I’m sitting at the Fisherman’s Wharf taking classes, whether it’s while we talk with the President of SpaceX about mentorship and motivation, or whether it’s when we comment on each other’s start-ups and mismatched socks. Our city is perpetually our campus, and in its nooks and crannies, on computer screens and in the experiences of its people and ourselves, we find ourselves re-discovering the passion and joy of learning, every day.

We’re getting an education, one you and me, we all deserve.