Author Archive

Hashim Abdulla: Precision Farming to the World

Hashim Abdulla T is currently completing his M.Sc. in Computer Science, specializing in machine intelligence, at IIITMK Trivandrum. He was one of the first Learners to join the thingQbator, working as a volunteer to set-up space even before the programme started.

From the very beginning, Hashim realized and harnessed the potential of the thingQbator as a platform to kick-start and catalyze his career: “my dream is to become a responsible entrepreneur who can help to improve people’s lives. When I got introduced to the thingQbator, I saw that this is the perfect makerspace to experiment with, build and test my own ideas,” the 26-years old student says. 

The unlimited access to important resources such as Raspberry Pi single-board computers which are used for a variety of purposes including experimentation, learning how to program and robotics provided Hashim with practical experience and skills to develop his own ideas: “my baby steps in the world of entrepreneurship started in the thingQbator. When I did my undergraduate degree, I only got one chance to see the Raspberry Pi. But at the thingQbator, I was playing with it and experimenting with it as much as I wanted to. I was also able to familiarise myself with other microcontrollers and devices, use some of the most advanced artificial intelligence-powered devices such as the Jetson Nano, and do 3D designing and printing for my projects,” he says. 

This all enabled Hashim, for example, to learn how to programme, control, and monitor devices using mobile phones. Besides the hard skills he acquired, the student is also benefiting from the open and collaborative atmosphere that is being a part of the thingQbator and brings the students from various backgrounds together: “I built really good relationships with a lot of people who are on the same or similar path. I think that is one of the biggest things I achieved here,” Hashim says.

The thingQbator then also changes the way and understanding of learning for the student. He says that whereas in college everything is pre-given and pre-decided by others, “here I am able to design my own curriculum and take my own time to learn. I learned how to plan and execute a project from scratch by breaking it down into smaller, achievable tasks. While doing lots of experiments I also realized that I can learn a lot through trial and error and looking at how to solve a problem in various different ways,” Hashim adds.

Another important part of Hashim’s journey to becoming an entrepreneur is how the thingQbator helped him to build an idea into a working product. He did exactly this with his precision farming project that emerged in the thingQbator. 

Precision farming refers to everything that makes farming more accurate and controlled. A key component of this approach is the use of information technology and a broad range of items such as GPS guidance, control systems, sensors, robotics, drones, GPS-based soil sampling, automated hardware, telematics, and software. The college student says that “when I came to the thingQbator, it was just an idea that I and my team had worked on. Now we have built a prototype for precision farming which we further develop in cooperation with the Government of Kerala’s Young Innovators Programme.” For this innovation which will help farmers to increase yields and raise their income, Hashim and his team received the 2019 thingQbator Felicitation Award.

Annie Augustus: Age is just but a number

Nook: Fort Kochi
Learner Name: Annie Augustus
Month & Year of Story: January 2020

Annie Augustus is a 53-years old housewife who lives in Fort Kochi. Her family of five is mostly reliant on Annie’s only son and her daughter-in-law. Annie herself never had the chance to study beyond the 10th standard. As the eldest of nine children, she needed to take care of her siblings and support the family’s income from early on. 

Her interest in tailoring and thereby earning her own money is what brought Annie to the Nook initially. Currently, she is learning to stitch different kinds of dresses such as simple Kurtis and does small commissioned works given to her by local community members. Annie says that thanks to this, she is able to save money and she can also meet other needs for her home and the household. Recently, Annie also stitched some baby clothes for her newly born grandson.

Seeing the immediate results of her efforts and realizing the rewards of life-long learning also have a positive influence on Annie’s rather conservative family, especially her husband: “my husband always used to discourage me to go out and learn something, but after learning how to do tailoring from the Nook and seeing me stitch my own dress, he has changed his attitude and supports me now,” Annie explains. 

Moving on, she is also keen to learn embroidery as well as to explore baking, being inspired from some of the other Nook Learners who started cooking and baking in the Fort Kochi Nook: “I’ve tried out baking for the first time when I came here, and the first cake I made turned out to be very good, so this was an exciting project for me,” Annie says.

Moreover, becoming a Nook Learner also had a positive impact on Annie’s personality and social life: “after coming to the Nook, I’ve become more of a social person. Earlier on I was not good at talking to people or making friends with them. After coming here, I think I’ve improved my speaking and communication skills,” she says. 

This personal growth, increased self-confidence and the development of soft skills is another typical trait associated with self-designed learning at the Nook. Being more than a space for individual education, the Nook evolves into a Community of Learners that inspire each other, help each other and care for each other. Therefore, it is no coincidence that Annie describes the Nook as “a learning space with lots of friends who feel like family. We all support each other. If another Learner faces any difficulties and I know something to help them, I will go and help.”

Musarath: A women’s fight for independence

Nook: Kaggalipura Learner Name: Musarath Month & Year: January 2020 33-year old Musarath lives in Kaggalipura, a small village on the outskirts of Bangalore. After her father tragically died when she attended 9th grade, Musharath left school to help make ends meet and married early. Now as a young mother, she dreams to become financially […]

Nook Fellows Programme

Apply Now for the Project DEFY ‘Nook Fellows Programme’

There are two kinds of changemakers in the world: the first ones are the ‘Fixers’ who perpetually attempt to make existing institutions such as schools and colleges better. And then, there are the ‘Creators’ who try to design and implement alternatives to the existing system because they know you can’t fix a broken system.

If you are a Creator, this fully paid fellowship is for you! Project DEFY – a leading organization in the area of alternative learning and selected three consecutive times as one of the 100 worldwide most inspiring innovations in education – is looking for bold individuals between 22 and 30 years old who want to play an active role in India’s education revolution. We are looking for Nook Fellows that can join our Nooks for a period of 18 months, starting as soon as possible.

The ‘modern’ education system is outdated. Schools and colleges don’t enable their students to create their own meaningful lives according to individual needs and interests, dreams and aspirations. They don’t help us to think out of the box, to develop creative and innovative skills, or to come up with new solutions for the many existing and ever newly emerging challenges and issues we are facing on the local, national and global levels.

Instead of trying to fix this broken system, you can co-create new solutions with us. We offer you the opportunity to join our global team as Nook Fellow for 18 months. Nooks are ‘schools without teachers’ in marginalized communities that provide everyone with free access to technology, tools, resources and information to design and pursue their own education.

As Nook Fellow, you will be co-leading this grassroots-education initiative alongside and with our Learners. You will be working with a community of 40-60 Learners to pursue their own, hands-on projects; help establish the idea of self-designed learning in the local community; facilitate and encourage discussions among the community on a broad variety of topics and issues; and – ultimately – you will enable local community members to run the space on their own and create a truly sustainable, community-led form of education that helps underprivileged individuals to pursue and catch their dreams, and marginalized communities to prosper and grow.    

To become a Nook Fellow, you don’t need to have much experience in self-designed learning (although this could be an added benefit), but you need to be curious, open and willing to learn about it and excited to practice it together with the local community. Everyone can become a self-designed learner! 

Additionally, and besides the in-house training you will receive from our experienced team members, we offer you a vast range of experiential learning opportunities together with our many partner organizations in the field of alternative education. For 60 days of the 18-months fellowship, you will get the chance to visit other alternative education projects, attend workshops and seminars and join their activities. 

After the fellowship, we will together with you explore opportunities for further employment across other roles with Project DEFY and other partners, or provide support to start your own education initiative.  

If this role and opportunity sound exciting to you, then apply now to become a Nook Fellow. We are looking for self-confident, expressive and communicative individuals between 22 and 30 years old who have the commitment to live and grow with a local community for 18 months. Rather than a mere job, you see the fellowship as a community experience and a way to solve a community problem as well as work towards substantial change in the education landscape. You should be interested in project-based learning and have a hands-on attitude to learn with the Nook Community and support Learners in their various projects. MS Office skills are a must, and some experience with self-designed learning projects or any forms of alternative education are an added advantage (but no must!). To apply as Nook fellow , a minimum basic proficiency of English or local languages depending on location is required.





The Fellowship at a Glance

  • 18-months fellowship programme 
  • Fellowship allowance of Rs 20,000/month
  • Placement as Nook Fellow in one of our Nooks and the opportunity to co-create and co-lead your own grassroots education initiatives
  • Lots of freedom and creativity to follow your own interests and design your own way of running the Nook space (in coordination with DEFY)
  • 60 days of experiential training by traveling to some of our partner organizations and joining some of their activities, seminars or trainings
  • In-house training and support by experienced staff of Project DEFY, a leading organization in the area of self-designed learning and selected 3 consecutive times as one of the 100 worldwide most inspiring innovations in education 
  • Meetings (interactive or on-site) with other fellows
  • After the fellowship: exploring further opportunities to work across other roles with Project DEFY or with other partners
  • Supporting marginalized communities in breaking out of the cycle of poverty
  • Being at the forefront of India’s ‘learning revolution’ based on a bottoms-up model of empowering marginalized communities
  • Learning how to practice alternative education approaches in a variety of contexts and being able to start your own project/initiative or join existing ones

2019: End of year Note

Hi Folks,

2019 has come to an end, and it has been an enriching experience for the DEFY team. We hope 2019 brought you joy, learning and strength, just as it did for us. We started 2019 with some hefty goals that we set out for ourselves. Many of those we have been able to achieve, and some that were just slightly beyond our grasp. This year has taught us many things, chief among which have been reliance – trusting each other to do our best, resilience – driving gracefully through all the brick-walls that obstruct our dreams and rebooting – standing up every time we fall down.

The DEFY team expanded rapidly this year, almost like a dream that I personally almost prevented myself from seeing. A growing team had teething challenges, with new dependencies, big learning curves and finding individual identities within the collective one. I feel very proud of how we have been able to help each other find our own individual meaning for working at DEFY. A growing team also meant that we had to choose whether to go by the book or write our own ways of working together. We chose mostly the latter, decided to create our own work culture which, according to the popular opinion in the Team, feels different from all other places they have been a part of. We are proud not only of the work we do, but how we do it.

We also created this year the concept of Nook Hubs. Many of you may have seen updates from our pilot Nook Hub in Rwanda, that we created together with Dream Village. Nook Hubs are our way to decentralise DEFY itself. Each Nook Hub would become capable of running its own show in the geographical region, customised by the needs, interests and challenges locally. The Nooks in Rwanda will be created by people from Rwanda, and with the same hope we are creating new Nook Hubs in some more new geographies. You will hear about them soon.

Of course, it wasn’t all peaches in 2019. We designed a fantastic fellowship program – DARE (Design a Revolutionary Education). However, we underestimated the work it would take to gather resources for it. For those who are unaware of DARE, it is a fellowship for those who are frustrated with their own experiences with education and wish to challenge it by creating new ideas and alternatives. With a growing and learning team, improving processes and existing projects, we simply did not have the bandwidth to make DARE a reality in 2019. We hope however, it will happen in 2020. As aspirational as we are, we also hope to start another new program from DEFY in 2020 – r.a.g.e or Research on Alternative Global Education is an attempt at creating a community based research method and space, where some of the most complicated questions around education will be worked upon.

So much more is happening at DEFY that it is almost impossible to cover in one newsletter. We hope to begin Open Houses for community discussions at our Office in Bangalore. We do this already internally, but we hope to open it up for everyone and convert our Office into a Learning Environment.

Before I end my piece, I have the most important job to do, and that is to thank all of you. DEFY’s journey has not been easy. It has been full of disappointments, failures and mistakes, as one can expect from a founder who had no experience or plans to create an organisation. But we could survive and thrive because of our many advisors, well-wishers and critics. Your suggestions, support and questions have made the difference. We hope we can continue to count on your support and love in the coming years, as make new strides and new mistakes.

We wish you a happy season of rest, rejoice and love.



Unmasking the Myth of Schooling: Part Three

Unmasking the Myth of Schooling: Part Three

What are the consequences of a model of education which, as we have discovered in the first two parts of the blog, ignores most other ways of knowing-thinking-feeling-being? The penultimate part of ‘Unmasking the Myth of Schooling’ looks into how minorities are being further marginalised and students are being actively de-skilled.

A central element of modern education is that is relegates all experiences, knowledges and ways of life outside the world of mass-consumerism and capitalism to a place of non-existence. This is particularly visible when we look at the depiction of Adivasis and their lifeworlds: “the representation of Adivasi in stereotypical negative terms as ‘backward’ people, outside the pale of progress, has meant that elementary education has only reinforced stereotypes and further marked the Adivasi in discriminatory terms (Veerbhadranaika et al. 2012, quoted in Ramachandran, 2018, p102). As Ramachandran further notes, “another site of alienation is the content of our textbooks, which give primary importance to urban-centred subjects and do not weave in the histories and cultures of the tribal people of India” (ibid.). 

This stereotyping and marginalisation of Adivasis and their lifeworlds in the curriculum and in textbooks then continues in the schools themselves in both physical and psychological forms, where minorities, particularly Adivasis but also Dalits and others are continuously discriminated against by teachers and their upper-caste classmates, thus reinforcing rather than challenging and equalising the unequal societal structures. This results in what Sherpa and Rai (2016, p168) term as an in-built “Academic Brahmanism,” “the indication of a broader systemic discrimination faced by students coming from particular social background in their day-to-day academic life.”  

Another aspect of the marginalisation of lifeworlds outside the consumerist ideology is that ironically, while children are supposed to learn how to become a ‘productive part’ of the world market, they are strongly discouraged and prevented from finding out about what’s going on in their own backyard, leading to an ever bigger disconnect with nature and a careless attitude on the exploitation of local, natural resources. As Manshi Asher (2018) puts it, “we talk highly of how the young today are so ‘aware’ about the environment because they learnt a chapter or even a class on ‘Environment education’ in school. We forget that when the real connections with nature, their own community, stand broken, what will the youth fight for?” What we can see today undoubtedly is that parallel to an ever-increasing access to education, we face ever-more, and not less, issues of environmental degradation. In this sense, turning away from modern education also is “about accepting [that] the ‘educated class’ have been the key promoters of the ‘extractivist’ and ‘utilitarian’ way of life which have harmed nature the most” (Asher, 2018).

Accompanying this alienation from nature is the marginalization of any kind of manual labour in most school curricula as well as the later focus on learning specific, highly specialized tasks rather than whole processes. Instead of seeing and understanding entire processes, and the causes and effects of and between these, children today merely see final products devoid of any inner value and meaning. As Jain (nd) thus argues,

students around the world are actively being de-skilled (particularly those from artisan, healing and farming backgrounds) and are being taught to despise and devalue physical labor – since labor is considered as non-intellectual work. (…) For the first 23 years of their lives, students are not encouraged to be meaningfully involved in productive activities related to their basic needs or their community’s needs which would encourage them to understand deep inter-connections or a sense of right relationship/limits vis a vis their natural resources (Jain, nd).


Schooling is also eroding any deep connections and ties that exist among and between human beings that might be utilised to overcome the hierarchy, injustice and inequality of the existing system in favour of other, new visions of a meaningful life based on cooperation, togetherness, mutual aid and solidarity. By keeping children in their most formative years locked in separate and enclosed concrete buildings and rooms for a good part of the day, five to six days a week (not included in this is preparation/ learning time, going for tuition classes, doing extra work/assignments, detention, homework, etc.), grouped together only with children of their same age, and most often of a similar socio-economic background, against which they need to compete for grades and other rewards by learning about people and things with usually no connection and relevance to their lives whatsoever, “school disconnects, as it was charged to do. (…) Children are divided from their families, their traditions, their communities, their religions, their natural allies – other children – their interests and on ad infinitum. They are (…) disconnected from the experiences of risk-taking and adventure in which the grand discoveries of history have been fashioned; young men and women emerge from school unable to do much of anything (…)” (Gatto, 2012, p149).

Paradoxically, then, the ‘skills’ increasingly taught in schools are not conceptualised as the means or basics required to independently create, build, enhance and expand one’s livelihood options, but they are seen as (and dictated by) current and always changing market demands that ‘help’ an individual to integrate him- or herself in the highly specialised, exploitative and uneven division of labour. Put differently, they contribute to a further de-skilling of people by making them even more dependent on the market and the acquiring of a range of narrow technical skills which might become obsolete again in no time. 

This chasm is also reflected in the sea change from India’s formerly thriving, indigenous and informal education systems (for example the Gurukul education system) in the form of traditional apprenticeships which “often overlaps with socialisation processes” (Singh, 2013, p97) that help the apprentices to become skilled, independent human beings, to the introduction of formal, vocational training by the British colonisers. This new training and education “ceased to be a preparation for life; instead it came to be seen as a means to achieve the necessary qualification to earn a living in white-collar government jobs” (ibid.).

Written by Dr. Christoph Neusiedl

Unmasking the Myth of Schooling: Part Two

Unmasking the Myth of Schooling: Part Two

How did the broad idea of education get reduced to a tool – as argued in the first part of this blog series – to ‘produce’ consumer-citizens that keep the market economy going, and what exactly does this look like? The second part of the blog illustrates this by looking in more detail into the now widely promoted and pushed ‘human capital’ approach to education.

The World Bank provides one of the most evident, but by far not the only, examples of the global agenda of Development actors to establish Education programmes as serving almost exclusively the (consumption) needs of the global market. Accordingly, the World Bank’s Education Strategy 2020, adopted in 2011 as one of the most recent and influential education policy-shaping tools, reflects the Bank’s “obsessive attachment to human capital theory” (Fine and Rose, 2003, p156), which “stresses education as a cause of economic growth and increased income” (Spring, 2018, p305):

Investments in quality education lead to more rapid and sustainable economic growth and development. Educated individuals are more employable, able to earn higher wages, cope better with economic shocks, and produce healthier children. (…) Learning for All means ensuring that all children and youth – not just the most privileged or the smartest – not only can go to school but also acquire the knowledge and skills they need to lead healthy, productive lives and secure meaningful employment” (World Bank, 2011, foreword). 

This obsession with human capital finds its continuation in the current World Bank’s ‘Human Capital Project’ (HCP), which ultimately “should deliver progress toward a world in which all children (…) are able to enter the job market as healthy, skilled, and productive adults” (World Bank, 2018). Dr. Nandini Chatterjee of Delhi-based UNESCO MGIEP further describes the World Bank’s human capital approach as follows: “You acquire skills so that you can enhance the abilities of the human being in improving or contributing to financial capital. So technology, technical skills, which will allow you to make more money, catering to whatever the different requirements of the world are, is what has been the focus” (2017, own interview; emphasis added). 

This shows that the human capital approach to education has a very particular idea of what makes a meaningful life, rooted firmly within the consumerist model of market society: “Human capital education promises students higher incomes that can be used to purchase more and more products” (Spring, 2018, p305). Schooling aims to transform independent, capable human beings into incapable, (market-)dependent consumers who keep the consumerist market economy going while, at the same time, reinforcing a consumerist way of life that is destroying nature and life on earth. 

Put succinctly, a meaningful life is reduced to and equated with being able to perpetually consume goods and products. Today, people are more and more deprived of their skills to produce things on their own on one side, while on the other side they are more and more pressured and exploited in the workplace, assigned to complete meaningless, repetitive and often useless tasks. This is what anthropologist David Graeber calls ‘bullshit jobs’:

Bullshit jobs are ones where the person doing them secretly believes that if the job (or even sometimes the entire industry) were to disappear, it would make no difference — or perhaps, as in the case of say telemarketers, lobbyists, or many corporate law firms, the world would be a better place. And that’s not all: think of all the people doing real work in support of bullshit jobs, cleaning their office buildings, doing security or pest control for them, looking after the psychological and social damage done to human beings by people all working too hard on nothing. I’m sure we could easily eliminate half the work we’re doing and that would have major positive effects on everything from art and culture to climate change (Graeber, 2018).

In a world full of bullshit jobs, it is therefore the task of the media-education-advertising complex to establish consumerism as a way of life which “captures the fantasy world of people with brand names and fashions that promise personal transformation, the vicarious thrill of imagining the glamorous lives of media celebrities, and the promise of escape from hard work through packaged travel and cruises to an envisioned paradise” (Spring, 2018, p306). 

Ultimately, at the centre of schooling stands the belief that there is only one, the modern, individualist, consumerist, capitalist, way of life that is worthwhile and meaningful – just have a look at any school textbook, no matter in which country you are, and see which jobs and ways of life they feature and portray as desirable.  This belief is of course what keeps the neoliberal-capitalist economy and, overall, the hierarchical order of ‘democratic’ market society, running. Accordingly, “we live in a culture that is based on the illusion – and schooling is central to the creation and perpetuation of this illusion – that happiness lies outside of us, and specifically in the hands of those who have power [i.e., money]” (Jensen, 2004, p6). 

In turn, all other ways of life that diverge from the consumerist ideology are portrayed as an aberration, a deficiency that needs to be corrected and obliterated. This is why in today’s common-sense logic of schooling, farmers, peasants, indigenous people, forest dwellers, and anyone and everyone else pursuing other ways of life outside market society, usually the ones which are closer connected to nature and based on living in harmony with rather than exploiting nature, are seen as ‘uneducated’ and in need of education to finally be able to live their lives in meaningful ways as consumer-citizens. 

In the third part of the blog series, we will look more closely into how modern education marginalises these alternative ways of life and what the consequences of this are.

Written by Dr. Christoph Neusiedl

Unmasking the Myth of Schooling

Unmasking the Myth of Schooling: Part One

This three-part blog series offers a critical introduction to the current education system and demonstrates how what we understand today as ‘education’ is a very subjective concept and practice that serves to uphold the unjust and exploitative capitalist system rather than providing everyone and anyone with equal opportunities.    

The idea of compulsory schooling and modern education as the ultimate and most effective instrument for empowerment of the masses is deeply ingrained in society. As politicians, business leaders, Development actors, members of civil society, and ‘educators’ themselves keep repeating, the education that is imparted in schools, colleges and universities across the globe almost magically transforms what they often call ignorant, poor, backward people into ‘active citizens’ and ‘full human beings.’ This claim, however, is nothing more than a myth based on the idea that human beings are incapable of creating meaningful lives on their own, in solidarity alongside and with each other. Instead, they are seen to need the guidance of ‘enlightened elites’ in the form of teachers, politicians, economists, businessmen and -women, and other ‘experts’ who know better (and indeed best) what’s good for the masses.

At the root of this ideology is the imagination of human nature as being inherently dumb, savage and irrational. The idea that human beings are purely driven by mostly suppressed yet innate irrational, wild and violent instincts and desires has found much attention and followers through the work of Sigmund Freud and the spread of his views in the U.S. by Freud’s nephew, Edward Barnays. It implies that a nation built on democracy in which, at least on paper, every person has the same decision-making power, is highly susceptible to fall into violent chaos as soon as the brutish human nature of the masses comes to the forefront. Therefore, according to Freud’s logic and the ones who are following it, “it was necessary to re-think democracy. What was needed was a new elite that could manage (…) the bewildered herd” (Walter Lippman in the documentary The Century of the Self).

Having such a conception of human nature (in which an enlightened elite is, mysteriously, less violent and wiser than everyone else around them) is of course also an extremely convenient way to not only preserve but perpetuate the status quo which exactly benefits those elites and legitimises their rule that otherwise has no justification whatsoever. Everything that exceeds the visions and ideas of the elites of what makes a meaningful life, particularly of course what would challenge their superior status and privileges, then can also be declared and waved aside as irrational and dangerous fantasies of the barbaric masses that don’t know what’s good for them. 

Out of this imagination of human nature and the fear of the rule of the masses, there was born the idea to inextricably link ‘democracy’ with the capitalist  market economy and its key feature of consumerism in order to ‘tame’ the violent nature of human beings and divert the efforts of this ‘dangerous crowd’ into the pursuit of status symbols in the form of the amassment of mass-consumer products: “What was beginning to emerge in the 1920s was a new idea of how to run mass democracy. At its heart was the consuming self which not only made the economy work but was also happy and docile and so created a stable society” (from The Century of the Self).

The introduction of modern, compulsory education then stands at the heart of the venture of producing the ‘consuming self.’ As such, modern education has become reduced to a tool that serves the interests of political and business elites to reinforce the unequal, unjust neoliberal-capitalist economy and the hierarchical order of market society. It actively creates consumers by taking away people’s capacity to create their own livelihoods in solidarity with others and by making them dependent on and addicted to a certain kind of ‘modern’ lifestyle while devaluing any other ways of life. 

The second part of the series will look in more detail how the so-called human capital approach to education is used to perpetuate the status quo and actively prevents the emergence of a broader, more holistic idea of education.

Written by Dr. Christoph Neusiedl