What is a classroom without teachers? According to Abhijit Sinha and the team at Project DEFY, it’s a space filled with infinite possibilities. Like many others working in the education field, Abhijit has encountered many flaws in the current educational system. However, Project DEFY is unique in that their solution circumvents the system totally. Their ‘nooks’ or maker spaces are community hubs that are entirely separate from schools and traditional classrooms. They are open to people of all ages and educational backgrounds – a unique take on the learning process.

The Industrialisation Of Education

What prompted this practical-based learning venture? The reasoning lies in our history. Abhijit explains, “What we have been seeing so far is the kind of school that has existed for not more than 250 years. This kind of school – one teacher, 50 students in a classroom – has had this kind of lifespan for a specific reason – aiding industrialisation.”

How does industrialisation tie into the way we educate kids today? Abhijit says, “It’s more of an instruction delivery system and not really education as we’d like to imagine it. Creativity, innovation, personal development – all of that was not meant to be in the school system. So, we started thinking – what was there before the school system? Unfortunately, there isn’t much documentation on that period. But it seems like people were learning anyway. For example, Isaac Newton was never schooled in a physics laboratory or classroom. So, people were definitely learning even without the facilities of a present day school.”

The Seeds Of Project Defy

Since modern schools weren’t effectively solving the learning problem, Abhijit and his co-founder, Megha Sharma Bhagat, began exploring alternatives. He says, “It usually takes a long time to explain what DEFY is, but in the shortest possible way, it’s a different way of learning.” Their thought process was simple – what if they took the limitations imposed by rigid learning environments away? No syllabus, no classrooms, no teachers – just information.

Abhijit says, “DEFY started with experiments – just seeing what happens when you leave computers in a village. How do people interact with the internet when they’re not told what to do. These awkward experiments eventually led to a space that was running for some time. What DEFY does is create these self-learning spaces. We call them nooks because this whole story started in a nookar, a tea shop in a village. People are not taught, there’s no teacher in this space. It’s essentially a place where people gather and they express their interest and curiosity or sometimes their needs. Then they just try to find something to do with it. In the beginning, we try to help them understand how to express their interest and what to do with it.”

The hallmarks of these self-taught spaces are that they are driven by practical learning and are self-sustaining. They are essentially schools without teachers or rather spaces where the students educate themselves. An appealing concept that is especially attractive to anyone who has suffered through classes they have little or no interest in. As Abhijit remarks, “The boundaries of your learning shouldn’t depend on somebody’s teaching.”

Creating A Nook

So, how does it all work? The team has a firm rule – they have to be invited to contribute to the community. “We work with a partner – we don’t go to a community because we found it on a map. We go to a community because somebody has asked us to come there. That’s generally a group of people from the community or an organisation that works with the community.”

To get the ball rolling, they check if the community has enough money to sustain the space. If not, they help them figure out how to raise it. Once that’s secured, they begin building relationships with community leaders. These community members act as liaisons between the space and the rest of the residents. The duration of the entire programme is 8 months. However, only one month of eight is actually spent on the ground.

Abhijit gives us the gist, “Month one is us trying to understand the community. We get the representatives to start making a community map and start talking to people. They start finding out which parts of the community that need this the most. It has to always begin with a focussed community – after all, who are we doing this for? Not everyone in the village is in dire circumstances, we have to figure out who is the most isolated or the most oppressed.”

He continues, “Month two – we actually open the space. Someone from the team will go kickstart the space. It’s more than just cutting the ribbon. We have a programme called induction. We get people used to making projects without supervision, without people telling you what to do. We touch upon self-governance – how do you deal with conflicts? How do you deal with issues that come up? How do you manage the money that the space has to spend – all of that. So a self-governance structure has to be created.”

Once the space is up and running, the team exits the area. The next six months are filled with follow up Skype sessions, an effective way to unobtrusively keep tabs on the space. Abhijit says, “We make sure that if there any problems, we help them through it.”

Getting Down To Business

What makes Project DEFY truly unique is that students, regardless of age, work on projects based on interest and need. These projects are totally self-researched and executed with only basic guidance from the Project DEFY team.

Abhijit elaborates, “We keep the definition of a project very broad, and we don’t mean do only tech projects or only electronic projects or anything like that. Basically, the projects are about setting a goal and a task that you have to finish, and at the end of it, there’s some sort of outcome. Once people are used to this and they’re doing it from day one, they start with small projects and eventually grow into bigger projects. For some it is growing plants, for someone else, it is making a song, for someone else it could be taking photographs, for someone else it could be making a little aircraft. Whatever it is, it has to be something they want to do, that they’re curious about, and it helps them in achieving their next goal.”

What about experts in the field? After all, many of these projects require expertise that might not be available via YouTube videos and manuals. The team has an interesting take on what defines an expert, “There are people who know things better than you. I think the definition of an expert is not someone who is at the top of things, but someone who is better at a certain thing then you are. You come across many experts in many things in your daily life. You just don’t notice them because they’re not in a classroom.”

An Uphill Climb

Though they’ve primarily received warm receptions from rural communities, Abhijit admits that there are problems that have arisen. He says, “After a few months we started realising that the local school really didn’t like us. We had no problem with them – they were a government school like any other- and we never fought with them or anything. But suddenly they felt threatened. They saw that these kids were going and spending 4 hours in the space after school and out of their own interest. Nobody is calling them there and there’s no attendance or anything. But they really weren’t as interested in doing their homework or in their classes.”

He adds, “They failed to realise that they weren’t interested even before! It’s just that now they are interested in something.” Despite the school’s disapproval, the kids continued to come and the space flourished.

Another important issue that the team faced was the blatant misogyny they encountered with regard to their female students. When they initially visited the community and opened up the space, they found that families were very reluctant to allow their daughters to engage. Later, once they began coming to the space, the team noticed that their attendance was erratic. When Abhijit enquired about the issue, the responses stunned him, “I’d ask the boys, ‘why is your sister not coming?’ And then he’d say, ‘she has to clean the house’. I’d say, ‘that’s absurd, you don’t have to clean the house?’ Then he’d say, ‘no, but she’s the woman and she has to clean the house, and wash the utensils and dry the clothes and then if she has time she can come’.” The Project DEFY team found themselves having to draw a firm line in the sand.

Abhijit explains, “We had to make some hard decisions and say, ‘You cannot come until your sister comes’. Sometimes we were down to 5 people in the space. But we had to take a stand and say that half the number of people in the space will be girls. If not, we will not take more boys. It’s that simple. It was the most valuable lesson for the brothers. Because they were suddenly denied something. And those boys don’t know what it means to be denied. It was funny, and depressing in a way, that because they were denied they realised what the girls are facing.”

The lesson appears to have been effective, and Abhijit is proud to recount how one of the Project DEFY graduates recently supported his sister when she wanted to marry a man of her choice despite parental disapproval. Abhijit says, “He was able to say ‘my sister’s life and her choices are important’. I do feel like some of this can be credited to the space and the exposure that he got there. And the number of times he was denied things.”

The Road Ahead

So, what is next for Project DEFY? Abhijit is clear that they aren’t looking to grow in the traditionally linear pattern. After all, it’s not about ticking destinations off a list – it’s about actual social impact. Project DEFY will continue doing what they do best – making safe spaces for young minds to explore, create, and unfold.

The team is also keen to focus on the more marginalised sections of society, and as Abhijit says, “If you are really marginalised, there is motivation to get out of it. Then there is motivation to learn, motivation to change your life. That’s why we say OK, let’s look for these people first.” We’re glad someone is! We can’t wait to see what Project DEFY does next.

Originally published at http://stories.knowyourstar.com/abhijit-sinha-project-defy/