How do you go about implementing an Uncertainty Curriculum?

The Innerkern Dialogue with Ryan Chadha

At Innerkern, our Applied Education Research Team regularly engages in deep and enriching conversations with school leaders, teachers, and parents as we explore and analyze their practices within their socio-cultural context. We call such learning conversations the Innerkern Dialogue.


Following are the highlights from The Innerkern Dialogue with Ryan Chadha, a school leader by profession and a teacher at heart. Ryan is the co-founder of a progressive school in Bangalore, which encourages exploration, experimentation and discovery. We decided to speak to Ryan to understand his journey as a teacher. We wanted to learn how he decided he wants to teach in his school rather than spending all his time running the school as a leader. Yes, he spends most of his working hours in the classroom, with his students. The conversation allowed us to explore the need for an 'Uncertainty Curriculum' and how he goes about implementing it in his classrooms. Here are the highlights from that conversation. You can reach out to Ryan here. 


Question: What do you think is the driving force for what people want for their children?


Ryan: I guess there are a lot of factors, like parents' own experiences, and they want their children to have certain kinds of experiences. At our school most parents want the same thing. We have basically attracted parents who definitely want academics to be done in an interesting way. So things like using the internet, exposure to a lot of different ideas, role play, live projects, lots of peer learning and things like that.. Basically, to do things in a way where children have opportunities to go from an idea to actually making things. Parents who migrate from other schools are clear, they want more than just writing for their children. In our school, writing is a part of the output; maybe it is one fifth of the output. We develop in kids abilities like being able to present, draw, paint, create a video, make a podcast etc. Children grow into a world where you can put your ideas and thoughts out there in a variety of formats and we help them develop all of these skills. So typically Home work is interviews or other forms of presentation. So they learn interviewing skills, as in what kind of questions are likely to draw better answers. The kids enjoy these kinds of activities and they bring a different dimension to learning.


Question: Your career was different a few years back and you decided to become a teacher. The world of finance is pretty straight and the world of teaching is complex. How was the transition and how has the journey been thus far?


Ryan: My career pre-education was only three years and I literally quit a career in investing at 25. From Day one, with my work in finance, I had been disillusioned. As a junior employee , you never had the opportunity to express your own ideas. I really felt boxed in. There was this set path. It was pretty boring and you couldn’t deviate. Then when I came into education, it was like a blank canvas and I could do whatever it was, as long as it was within the reasonable expectations of parents and children. Children don’t have much of an expectation. I am the kind of person who gets an idea and then I want to run with that idea and take it to fruition. After a few weeks I decide if this is a great idea or not. So, do I want to keep doing it or if this was a failure and I never want to do anything with it again. There is a lot of creativity and so I enjoy doing what I do. We keep coming up with new stuff and experimenting with things to see what works and what does not.


Question: You said you felt very boxed in and were not able to express ideas at work when you were working in the area of finance. We see the same kind of expectations from our work force largely in our country too. And in many ways the schools are preparing the workforce as expected by the corporations. What is your take on this?


Ryan: One thing we consciously do at our school is to keep educating the parents and as long as they are in the loop of what we are doing and why we are doing it, things run pretty smoothly. But if you are doing stuff at school and parents don’t see what the long term game is then you run into issues. Most parents who chose schools like ours are already wanting alternative ways of teaching.


Most Indian parents are used to thinking in terms of outcomes, not necessarily in terms of processes. Parents like to see if their child can write an essay, can the child do these mathematics problems etc. I feel that is not how we, as educators, should look at it. If you do believe that you are trying to set up children for life then it is important for the child to know there is a certain process to learning and understanding what their own strengths are and how they can move forward in life, irrespective of whether they have a teacher or not. One other thing that we work very hard with is this philosophy that even if a child is not able to do a sum, he is able to understand that there is a process to doing things and to figure out why he is not able to do things and then to go and self correct himself and then get to the other side. This part of learning is far more valuable than actually solving the sum. Children are likely to get stuck at multiple points in their life and if they have not developed this style of thinking, in terms of their own meta-cognition and in terms of how they approach problems, they are just going to be incomplete learners. This is a difficult situation to fix as an adult. If this process is not set in students when they are young, they are going to be very incomplete learners.


Question: Now, your story is really interesting here, because you were into finance and left your job to start a school. After founding the school, you could just stay in the headship role and run the school. Yet, you decided to become a teacher as well. Why did you decide to work with children and teach them?


Ryan: So if I have to be very blunt, I mean, all of the aspects of running a school apart from teaching are not all that interesting. So whether that has to do with marketing, whether that's to with the administration, and like, you know, the financial bits, the accounting, these are necessary to run the school, but not where I add the most value. I think, definitely the most interesting part of education is, you know, getting your hands dirty with the children in the classroom. That is where the biggest value add is. If I have to have any impact on education, and on children. For me, it is about just trying to come up with really interesting ways to ignite that passion and we keep getting these surprises.


For example, our Sports Day is coming up, and it is a new campus. So the field is not really levelled. It is a bit bumpy and stuff like that. It has got stones on it etc. We have this thing called a project class. It is a very open-ended class. Every week, we give children the choice of working on something different..


So the previous week, what we did was we made our own mathematics game. I gave the children an idea of how the game would be. Actually I didn't even show them how we play it. I just said, we are going to make a game. And it is going to be a mathematics game using cards. And the cards are basically going to be decimals, percentages and fractions. And once we made the cards we were able to sit together and really figure out what the game will be like, what the objective of the game will be etc. How many players will play, how are you supposed to play it, What are the rules, etc. So we finished that last week. And as we went along, we just sort of made it up. After a few iterations we had a pretty interesting card game.


And then this week, with Sports Day coming up, I asked the children what we could do. I just announced, okay, we are going to the field, and we are going to get ready for sports. The first thing we did was measuring out the race tracks and everything which was interesting to them, because we were converting between feet and meters and stuff like that. And they were interested in Usain Bolt running 100 meters and then they tried running 50 meters, they did it in like 10 seconds, and they were excited to really discover Usain Bolt’s speed etc. Finally I said, okay, now spread out and go to different parts of the field. You can take buckets, and whenever you step on a stone, you pick it up and you put it in the bucket because we can't be sprinting on a field which has stones, isn't it? And I thought most of them will come back saying, ‘Oh, what is this? Why are you making us do this?’ Again, it's pretty hot these days and it was around 12 o'clock. So I was expecting them to complain and say, ‘why are we doing this?’ Yet, it was absolutely mind blowing to me, at the end of the session, they were like, ‘Oh, this was the most fun we have had in a Project class in a long time.’ So, it is about just having your ears to the ground and seeing what is clicking. What are they enjoying? What are they not enjoying? And this was a surprising thing then, since yesterday, they were asking me ‘Okay, when are we doing this next?


I think, just generally, as a country, we need to do more community projects. We are becoming too individualistic. Everyone wants the best college, the best job, to buy this car. And I don’t think that's headed in the right direction.


Question: How do you think our education is preparing our future citizens for the nation to go in a certain direction?


Ryan: So one of the things about education is, it has a very, very lagged effect. Children who are in school now, and developing a certain set of skills will get to work with those skills and make use of those skills after 10 to 15 years. You don't see the benefit immediately. And one thing that worries me immensely, just broadly speaking, is that we are still focused on the wrong skills. We are still teaching children to do things and testing them on skills that will be completely irrelevant 15 years down the line. And that is a very worrying trend, because if you are going to test a child on mathematics questions, which he probably will not even ever need to do on his own because, we are going to have these super awesome AI sort of apps that will just do stuff for us and they are going to end up in 15 years thinking, wow, I just spent my whole life, learning all this and testing myself, and now I can't even use it because the world doesn't need me to. I really should have focused on something else I should have, learned how to build other stuff, or do other things. And I just feel like we are still in that mode of technical skills, and being good at mathematics and being good at science. All of that is great, but it can't be what everyone focuses on. There has to be a broad base, like you develop your analytical skills and your critical thinking skills and communication skills, and a certain base, right. After that, the world is just so broad, you have to let people go into various fields, and allow them to explore and allow them to learn skills that will enable them to contribute to various fields. We are still very much stuck in the mold of, you either do engineering, or you do accountancy or law or medicine. Which is kind of dangerous, because you are gonna have so many people who, firstly don't have the skills to do anything else, and and secondly, because it has a lagged effect, you are going to end up with such a big mismatch in the labor force, in terms of supply and demand that it is just going to be so bad for the country. It is going to be bad for the mental health of our citizens. And very, very few people in education are actually thinking about doing anything concrete in that space.


Question: You have a very progressive vision of what teaching should be, what teachers should focus on, what the process shouldn't be etc. You see these big changes that are happening in the world. You are somebody who understands how we are currently teaching our children, and what we are teaching them is going to be obsolete, let us say in 10 years. So by the time they get out of school, much of what we learned in school is actually almost useless for us. Now, talking about this, and practicing this in the classroom are two different things. How do you go about executing this philosophy in your classroom? What do you do as a teacher?


Ryan: We talk about this amongst the faculty as well and we try to get all the teachers thinking and working along these lines. Most of our focus is on learning how to learn and, you know, having that sort of process in place. But even before you can get to that there is a certain approach or a worldview that you have about what the most important things in the world today are. There is all this uncertainty, there is so much out there, which is beyond our control. So, when you face a new situation and it is uncertain, and you don't really know what to do, do you freeze? Or do you say, ‘Okay, that is interesting, never really experienced this before, never really seen this before, let us try and figure it out.’ So one is a mindset and then there is a process - like let us take it step by step and get to a point where we can forge a path for ourselves. And that is something we try and do quite a lot, not only in the classroom, but generally, as a school. So, I think of it as something like an uncertainty curriculum. It is kind of an oxymoron in itself, because, if it is uncertain how can we develop a curriculum for it ? The point is to expose children to scenarios and projects and generally give them situations where there is no clear answer, they have to really think through things, they have to try, experiment, basically go in without knowing. So a lot of things we do at school are not necessarily classroom based. There are other projects that the children do, where they are exposed to this sort of open ended nature of doing things. Then again, there are many parents, who don't necessarily see why this is important, because parents have gone through an education, which is very structured, and it had very clear outcomes. They have questions like, will my child develop the right skills? Will my child be able to compete? etc.


Question: In the context of the Uncertainty Curriculum, what has changed in your outlook over these years, from when you started being a teacher to now?


Ryan: I think one thing that has definitely changed is like I am a lot less naïve now. So when I got into it, I had all these grand visions of how I am going to change education. That obviously gets beaten out of you as you go through time. Because, you just realize that, you can have a vision, but people look at education differently. So now I have made peace with the fact that it has to be a marriage between what I want and what other people want out of it, and you kind of meet somewhere in the middle. Then slowly over time, as you gain the trust of more and more people, you can slowly bring people more towards what your vision is. That has, to an extent, happened over time. We have had plenty of experiences now, where parents decided to admit their children even though they had doubts about our philosophy and method of working. Once they saw how their children were developing, they were obviously more open to ideas of experimenting etc. So it is sort of a gradual process, but now I see it more as well, I know what I want to do, I don't necessarily want to change anything drastically. I know what I feel is a good way to educate children. And I am just going to go ahead with that. It is sort of one of those things as a parent, if you think that what we do is good, and if it makes sense then you come on board. Not everyone is going to see things the way you do and, that is where I say, I am not as naïve as I used to be. And that is fine. It is people who choose what they want.


Question: To implement the Uncertainty Curriculum, how did you go about learning the craft of being a teacher for uncertainty?


Ryan: So I think, at least early on, I did a lot of reading. So I read lots of books by famous educators, some that are very well known. I have read pretty much everything Dr. Montessori has written and some others that you know, they are not famous, but they have written books, including interesting experiences of how they changed their schools for the better. There is an excellent book called “Change” by Richard Gerver and if you have read it, he was a head teacher and things were just not going in the direction that he wanted. And then how he took this massive journey of turning things around at his school. And it is interesting because my mom did exactly that at her school in Dubai. A lot of my early learning was just reading books like these. However, now, I don't do much reading books by teachers and educators, but a lot of reading about neuroscience and the science of learning and all of the different protocols that aid learning and I spent time on developing programs where we can bring these protocols into the classroom.


So we discuss these things among the other teachers, on how you can make learning active. It is a three step process, right? The first is you prepare things like deep breathing, things like visual focus etc., second you go into the actual teaching and learning. And the various techniques that make learning come alive etc. And finally, of rest and recuperation.


The children also do a lot of teaching, a sort of learning by teaching. So the children are always teaching each other in the classes . If I want to focus on a particular child, I will take that child to a part of the class and I tell one other child, ‘hey, why don't you make sure this activity goes properly, and they sort of just take over, and they do such a great job of, helping each other and explaining things to each other.’ And that is an extremely powerful form of learning. Then just talking amongst the faculty, making sure that everyone is trying things and exchanging ideas, seeing what is working, what is not working. So now, it is more like, getting these ideas, experimenting with them, and then implementing them.


We have a very young team. And younger teachers are just so much more willing to experiment to try new things, and they want to do things differently. Like they want to change things for the better. Whereas if you take someone who has a lot of experience, they have a set way of doing things and their world view doesn’t really change with time. Obviously not all experienced people are like that. But very often the attitude is, ‘I Have always done things this way. Why should I change?