Recently I was able to visit the Green School in Bali, a school that’s been on my list and on my mind since I first watched founder John Hardy’s Ted Talk five years ago. The idea of a school based on green design principles, aiming to be off the grid, made of open air bamboo structures?! I was basically sold before you could say "John Hardy's sarong!" (the man always wears one!)
Hardy was born and raised in Canada, but was not quite satisfied with our schooling or our society. In his TED talk, he explains how he didn’t quite fit in conventional schools; his needs were not addressed by the rigid schooling he experienced. He moved to Bali in the 70s as a young man, and has been there ever since. After spending a good part of his life building a successful jewellery brand, he sold the company in 2007. Motivated partly by Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth, Hardy set out to design and run a school that was based on green principles. The result is a beautiful school sprawling over 20 acres of land, about a half an hour from Ubud, Bali.
In the following post, I’ve tried to capture my overall impressions from one of my visits to the school: what I loved, what intrigued me, and what was disappointing.
Loved: The design
The design of the whole campus is impressive. Walking around really felt like walking through a dream, seeing someone’s grandiose vision come to life. By far the most fascinating part of my school visits was seeing just how many open bamboo structures there are across the campus - beautiful classes, shelters over bridges, the “heart” of the school (made of 2500 bamboo poles), instruments and acoustics from upper levels.
70 bamboo structures are spread across the 20 acres, along with an open field for students to play on, a lake for students to swim in, areas for gardening and hydroponics, school cows (yes you read that right!), a rare bird-rearing facility, a hydroelectric ‘vortex’ (as part of a goal to use more sustainable energies), building structures built by senior students, an open air auditorium to screen films and relevant docs (that day a film about the then current land burning in Indonesia was screening).. and so on.
After spending years studying and teaching in industrial-era, factory-style institutions, all of this was refreshing to say the least. One Australian woman I met on the tour was in awe on my behalf when she found out I was a teacher - “This must be so inspiring for you to see, Wow!!” she exclaimed. And it was! (Have you ever been to the old math building at the University of Waterloo?! That place felt like a windowless prison to me.) Seeing kids openly running around and being able to have their day to day lives so integrated with nature and current, relevant issues, was special.
Intrigued by: The structure of the school day
The school day is split into three “frames”: the experiential (ie. a module on meat production, where students not only learned about the topic but also raised a pig, slaughtered and prepared it for their own meal); the integrated thematic unit (ie. oceans: calculating figures related to the waves, understanding oceanic life forms, etc.); and the instructional (subjects such as math and languages taught more formally).
The grade 12 student who led my tour explained how his first class that morning was surfing (!), followed by more of the formal subjects. He liked the options students had, and loved the experiential units. He conceded that in upper years, it was harder to incorporate as much choice in evaluation, whereas in middle school, students’ had more opportunities to choose how they may be assessed - a formal test, an essay, a presentation.
I love elements of this approach, particularly in the experiential and thematic aspects. I didn’t gain enough detail in the school’s approach to draw more concrete judgments.
One unfortunate piece to this approach though, is that the Green School did not meet IB (International Baccalaureate) qualification requirements for certification in 2012, and so is not recognized by many of the stronger post-secondary institutions. Our student guide countered this by saying that most students going to the Green School “wouldn’t want to go to those schools anyway”, as they would prefer more liberal schools to Ivy league institutions. As an educator, I would still like students to be able to have the options of any post-secondary institution, liberal or not, so this was a downside for me.
Disappointed with: Access Issues
This is where the brakes started to squeal for me, in terms of personal buy-in. Although the school started with targets of scholarships for 20% of the student population to be local, this target has not been attained or maintained; I was told that they are currently at less than 12% local students attending. Various reasons were given for this, both by the founder and the grade 12 student who led my tour. The founder gave a more measured response, explaining that the school was looking into more effective ways of giving back to the community, by having Green School students try and partner with local schools and perhaps work together on certain projects. The student was more direct on our tour (the “real talk” of teenagers!), mentioning that for Balinese students, it was hard to adjust to the culture of the Green School; for a people whose traditions (primarily Hindu) are quite important to their day to day life and beliefs, being part of a mostly expat private school community didn’t fit with their way of life.
Access is not just a matter of the culture fit, but also the costs of tuition; a Balinese woman in Ubud explained that tuition at the Green School (ranging based on age from approx. 121,000,000-195,000,000 Indonesian Rupiah or $12000-$19000 CAD per year) was more than ten times that of other Balinese private schools, way too expensive for her to consider for her young son.
I found this revealing but not surprising; access issues are a common point of critique of the Green School. I do find it unfortunate that the school wasn’t designed in partnership with local leaders in education, to integrate Balinese ways and children into the design of the whole curriculum.
In its essence then, the Green School is a private school, similar to an international school in its make-up of students and teachers (ie. vast majority expats), and in the cost of tuition.
The Green School has a few key areas that I feel can inspire other models: an aesthetically beautiful design based on sustainable principles; more choice in learning; and engagement with relevant experiential projects. The access issue is one that I would really like to see addressed in other models, along with standards that allow students to pursue their higher studies wherever they choose to. I look forward to sharing more from my time at the Green School soon!
A passionate educator.. on a quest for a schooling model to love!