For many years now, as cofounders of the program Beyond 8, which serves as an alternative to high school in India, we’ve been exploring new avenues in education, attempting to redraw the contours of what an education is meant to impart and achieve. Along the way, we’ve learned an indispensable lesson about preparing young learners for the road ahead, especially in a rapidly changing, globally interconnected, and technologically vibrant world that hardly resembles the one familiar to previous generations and for which traditional models of education were designed.
We came into education more by proximity than because of some inner or higher calling. In 2005, we both returned to India, leaving our jobs on Wall Street in New York to be closer to family and help them run HLC, a pre-K through grade 5 school in Chennai that is inclusive of students with special educational needs. Knowing nothing about managing a school, meeting the expectations of students’ parents, or preparing students for examinations, we were inclined to seek out new ideas and pathways in education as we became curious about learning, how it happens, and what motivates students. Gradually, as we developed and experimented with creative-learning initiatives over some fifteen years, we came to recognize that learning is a highly personal activity and that it is powerful when sought by the learner. If we helped students fuel their learning with their dreams and imagination, we would meet students where they are and be in alignment with their world. We didn’t see this elephant in the room at first. But once we did, it was inescapable to us that learning has to be about the learner and that, to be empowered, the learner must have a sense of agency and autonomy.
These days, among educators and in society at large, it is still a minority that acknowledges that education must lead young people toward fulfilling lives and not just gainful employment, that learning must be enriching and fun, not just stressfully outcome oriented. A liberal education—one that equips individuals with broad knowledge, transferable skills such as communication abilities and teamwork, experiential learning, and a strong sense of values, ethics, and civic engagement—not only encourages this but helps develop a mindset that is skillful, flexible, responsive, and resilient so that young people are prepared to face a world of seismic change and burgeoning—if not unprecedented—crises. It can nurture the next generation of problem solvers and changemakers to drive positive change and social transformation by fostering creativity, empathy, and a deep understanding of societal challenges.
This is what we’ve been working on since establishing Beyond 8, a learner-determined, hybrid liberal education service for high schoolers in Chennai and Bangalore offering data-driven and experiential curricula. (Beyond 8 operates as a private company rather than a “school,” as defined and recognized by India’s Department of Education.) Our programming grew out of our ideas and experiments on learning and education at HLC, which we expanded into a private, K–12 international school and which became one of the first in India to be recognized as an Ashoka Changemaker School, a designation conferred on innovative schools worldwide that help create large-scale social change. One of the key goals of a liberal education is that learners must develop authority and ownership of the knowledge and skills they acquire before learning further. High school, where students are typically fourteen to eighteen years of age, is the ideal time to impart this idea. Up to middle school, children around the world receive a technical education focused on literacy and math, while in college, they often concentrate on studies with the goal of securing a good job after graduation. High school is a key time when learners can develop self-awareness and experience the freedom that comes from knowing the reasons for what they think and what they do.
At Beyond 8,we offer a multitude of opportunities and transformative experiences centered on building the skills laid out in the VALUE rubrics of the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), which help measure student performance across sixteen learning areas—including critical and creative thinking, ethical reasoning, and oral communication—considered essential for work, citizenship, and life (VALUE stands for Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education). The four years at Beyond 8 are driven by goals, choices, and dreams that the young learners (in discussion with their families, facilitators, and mentors) have selected, articulated, tested out, and refined for themselves. This process starts with what we call dream mapping and proceeds with a series of six-week cycles of classes and projects, followed by self-evaluations, that empower students to make choices, readjust, and pursue their passions and hobbies, such as an art project, newsletter editing, or online theater, as they explore who they are as well as what they can do.
In addition to studying a common core equivalent curriculum (from one of two internationally recognized programs, Cambridge Assessment International Education or the National Institute of Open Schooling), students engage in personal learning projects, such as working on a music piece or examining how to overcome procrastination. They do internships in industries ranging from law and engineering to art, architecture, and environmental sciences. They participate in sports such as swimming, tennis, and squash and in entrepreneurship (one learner picked up crocheting and liked it so much that she started a small business and enlisted a peer as her marketing partner). There are also learner-led activities designed to touch on at least three of the sixteen AAC&U VALUE rubrics. Events such as a cook-off for which students prepare a meal for a large group and the annual “Be You” talent show and festival allow our learners to think freely, collaborate, plan, and problem solve as they work together to stage each occasion. They develop practical skills like organization and leadership—all while having fun.
Once an activity is complete, learners assess their own performance using the VALUE rubrics as a way to measure where they are. A visit to a local fishing community, for instance, encourages curiosity, initiative, and reflection (components of the Foundations and Skills for Lifelong Learning rubric) as the students interact with the residents and learn about the ecological and everyday realities of the community. A workshop with a stand-up comedian teaches them creative thinking and oral communication as they engage in exercises to bring out their own inner voice and learn to say “yes and” instead of “no but.” By using the VALUE rubrics to evaluate their experiences, students go beyond more common descriptions—nice, great, we enjoyed it—and build a more specific vocabulary to track their learning and communicate more precisely, an important transferable skill for the future.
The development of such skills and abilities is part of a liberal education, which is a way of learning rather than the selection of a specific course or field of study or the advancement of a sociopolitical stance. Our philosophy is also embedded in the terminology we use: “learners” for students, “learning facilitators” for teachers, and “progression” for graduation, because graduates are carrying lifelong learning into their next stage of life.
We have found that learners reflect candidly on their experiences in self-evaluations that follow each learning cycle and are presented in front of family members and other adults they have asked to attend. When learners speak about mistakes, what is or isn’t working, or shifts in their interests and then are met with support, they are filled with hope rather than discouragement and become committed to doing better. It is an empowering space to reflect on their own learning.
“Beyond academics, I had the chance to explore my passions, with dedicated time each week to learn something of my choice. I even learned to play the ukulele once,” says one of our first learners, Shreya Balaji, whose aspirations evolved from fashion design to marketing. “This not only made learning fun but also taught me consistency and dedication, irrespective of the outcome.”
The Beyond 8 journey begins with dream mapping, an intimate, three-hour conversation with each learner and their family that captures the learner’s hopes and desires for the future. The conversation itself is a gift, a dedicated time and space in which we encourage learners to share their interests, aspirations, strengths, and values. Through this dialogue, they project a vision of how they see themselves building the future lives they dream of. Dream mapping is a holistic approach driven by the principles of heutagogy, or self-determined learning, and allows educators to listen to the learner’s voice before recommending a curated course of study, activities, and experiences. The process also enables the families of students to better guide their children.
Next, we help learners browse their dream maps. This involves analyzing the learners’ interests, strengths, and needs from the initial conversation and mapping them onto an array of possible learning modules. These are further elucidated to present the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to be developed. There is no judgment of the learner’s current traits and abilities. The actionable points that emerge are authentic and, most important, essential in the learner’s own view. Subject choices, mentor assignments, and a learner-determined personalized schedule are charted out from this process. What learners get is what they have themselves envisioned.
When learners meet their own unpacked dreams, they are wide-eyed. One of them shared with us that the process helped her see the need to learn and grow, not just work her way through exams. Learners describe being encouraged to “dive into a variety of ponds and pursue every spark of curiosity”; to have the space to acknowledge fears (one played piano as a personal learning project, overcoming a fear of performance; another followed his interest in studying economics instead of science, a conventional expectation in his background); and to have agency in being oneself, “empowered in my learning process and my aspirations.” Personalized, flexible schedules—three days a week at the learning center, two days remote—allow room for individual projects so learners can explore their interests and discover new ones. They also attend mentor-mentee meetings and can choose to engage in a “quick game of Uno with friends to de-stress between classes.”
“The value of learning in a space where I am listened to is immeasurable,” says Sana Sood, a grade 12 learner in Bangalore. “I am incredibly grateful to be able to learn, make mistakes, and build relationships in an ecosystem that has been designed to support me.”
Today, young learners around the world are characterized by a strong sense of autonomy, equity, independence, and affinity toward self-determined choices. They’re keen to fill their lives with diverse experiences. Gen Z and Gen Alpha learners have told us they feel that teachers who don’t see their individuality and steer them all the same way often use outdated approaches or even talk down to them, leaving them demotivated in the classroom. These are the same learners who have gravitated, or will eventually be drawn, toward those colleges that focus on providing a mix of autonomy, personalization, modular learning, industry internships, and online learning experiences.
On the other end, we’ve heard some educators declare that learners are different these days—that they don’t have “sitting tolerance,” are disrespectful, and don’t listen to instructions. Teachers also reminisce about the days when learners could be kept inside the classroom—quiet, without asking questions. Much of this divergence in attitude goes back to how education used to be seen, as a way to equip young people for long stints in a single profession. To this end, students might spend their learning years quietly checking off boxes of the implicit expectations their families have of them, as they strive to achieve the most coveted spots in universities or companies. This can be a cruel bridle over a young learner’s dreams and individual voice and, critically, it is completely at odds with the way young people see themselves today.
As part of an evolving industry, institutions of education need to alter with the times, understand the changing nature of learners today, and adapt to learning practices in which the current generation will thrive. At Beyond 8, we feel certain that every approach to education will eventually encounter the learners’ need for agency and autonomy, and we’re excited to be working with that thesis. But it took time to understand that and, even more important, to design the learning pathways that embrace that reality. Until that point, we had done everything in the learners’ interest, but we hadn’t led with a focus on their agency and autonomy.
For example, one parent, Bhupinder Singh, explains that his daughter might not have an affinity for the traditionally sought-after professions in India of engineer, lawyer, or doctor, particularly as different kinds of professions gain popularity in a digital world, such as YouTubers and game and app developers. “Seeing the enthusiasm in her says things are going in the right direction,” Singh says about his daughter’s experience at Beyond 8. “I have dreams for our daughter, and my wife has other dreams, but the bottom line is what the child wants and what the child is capable of.”
Some educators, both in K–12 and at colleges and universities—and lots of parents—worry that learning "differently" may be useful for the future but may not be suitable for the more imminent challenge of doing well in exams and succeeding in college. Our experience at Beyond 8, validated by students, is the opposite. When we ask students to reflect on their learning, many of them say that the tools introduced to them during the “Learning How to Learn” sessions were extremely useful for their exam preparation. This module, which forms a core part of the program design at Beyond 8, teaches youngsters how the brain uses different modes to learn and process information, enabling students to see that it is possible for them to train their minds and develop new skills and ways to tackle challenges—a growth mindset. In a world where things change rapidly, it is essential to possess the ability to acquire new skills and knowledge quickly and continuously.
Learners also experience a series of focused activities geared toward choosing the right courses, shortlisting colleges, and staying on track with the application process. They receive input for college counseling from their dream mapping and mentoring sessions. And as part of our efforts to create relevant and impactful pathways for our high-school learners, we work closely with universities and curate events such as “Voyaging with Beyond 8” to meet with experts in higher education to stay informed and to cultivate best practices so that our learners will thrive in university.
Our alumni have gone on to attend top universities in India with a liberal education focus, such as Ashoka, Krea, and Manipal Academy of Higher Education, and to study abroad at Oregon State University. They’ve joined professions in the culinary arts, sports management, architecture, physiology, engineering, and law. This reflects a growing recognition and interest on the part of colleges and universities that they need to rethink admissions. Institutions of higher education are interested in admitting good students and have commonly thought of conventional schools as the places to find those applicants. But if really strong high school age learners—students with an active desire to learn—have chosen to pursue alternate pathways to education like Beyond 8, with its liberal education emphasis, then colleges will be forced to recognize these as their new feeders for admissions.
Any new model of education should give learners agency, autonomy, flexibility, a wide variety of experiences, and sound preparation for engaged and fulfilling lives, not only careers. Designing educational programs for state or institutional convenience won’t do anymore, now that we live in a time when we can learn anything, from anyone, at any time, in any place, over any medium, for any length of time. Instead, the high school years must be filled with experiences and activities that are driven by learner-determined goals and offer learners strong values and transferable skills—the essence of a liberal education. Schools must adapt and prioritize such approaches and offerings to remain relevant and effectively serve their original purpose, and to be responsive to each student’s growth toward a successful college education and fulfilling life. Beyond 8 is proof that it can be done.
Creative Learning Approaches
Before we founded Beyond 8, certain programs and an app we developed at HLC, an early-years school, helped us rethink the purpose and capabilities of a learning institution. Each of these programs has received recognition for its impact, from educators at Harvard University and the Indian Institutes of Management, nongovernmental organizations looking to have greater effect, or governments in Delhi and Bhutan seeking systemic transformation. (Translations of Sanskrit titles are in italics.)
→ Elina (ray of light and hope): Provides integration services for persons who are differently abled, including students who have learning disabilities or are on the autism spectrum.
→ Explorers: Provides students with fun and physical development through basketball.
→ Militvaa (coming together for a good cause): Teaches students to be entrepreneurial and that social improvement should be a metric for success.
→ Karthavyam (doing duty selflessly): A program in public problem-solving, funded by the Ashoka Foundation.
→ Kognify: An AI-driven web app used to develop an understanding of a learner’s learning gaps.
A Closer Look at Karthavyam
One of our key initiatives at HLC and Beyond 8 is Karthavyam, a certificate program that trains students to become changemakers by learning to be socially and publicly minded, with the skills and confidence to drive meaningful change for the good of all. Learners gain insights into social issues such as child labor and gender inequality, develop problem-solving skills, and become compelling storytellers about these challenges. They go through the following stages in design thinking to learn to create innovative solutions for real-world problems.
1—Observe: Build observational skills for problem-solving
2—Explore: Improve understanding of public problems
3—Problem-solve: Choose a problem and plan a solution
4—Storytelling: Build skills to share stories
Under this initiative, learners at HLC have produced more than ninety books, created more than ten board games (showcased at the 2019 Games for Change Festival in New York), and developed experimental devices to tackle the public problems they identified around them. One learner recognized the problem of mosquitoes breeding in areas with stagnant water and created a prototype device that makes ripples in water to dissuade mosquito breeding and the deposition of eggs. In another project, learners at Beyond 8 researched and wrote There’s Room for Everyone, a handbook for high schoolers on understanding and better integrating members of the LGBTQIA+ community.
All photos courtesy Beyond 8