December 16, 2018

Exploring, Sharing the Niswarth Model

Raj Mundra shares an effective framework for global learning and invites educators to join in a March 2019 workshop.
by Rajesh R. Mundra

As our world becomes increasingly divisive and pressures mount on students and professionals to ‘perform’ and ‘achieve,’ mental health is deteriorating and it is becoming increasingly evident that educators need to rethink how they are teaching students about human connection and collaboration. In his Blog post Raj Mundra, director of Niswarth, a Learning in the World program at Phillips Academy Andover, explores what it takes to develop a framework for a global education model that sheds expectations to produce a final ‘product’ and instead invites participants on a journey focused on the core values of empathy, humility, and gratitude. Read on as Mundra explains Niswarth's Design for Change pedagogy, shares resources for developing high quality programmatic framework which supports truly inclusive collaboration and intentional reflection, and provides best practices and lessons learned with this unique approach of valuing process over product. There is also an exciting opportunity for educators throughout the country to convene at Phillips Academy this March.

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In today’s world, experiences are dominated by checklists. Teachers are instructed to list expected outcomes prior to each lesson and students are taught to create lists of accomplishments in order to strengthen their college applications. Travelers are moving through the world with a list of “must see” places and “must do” experiences. Professionals are focused on their computers for hours, ticking away at to do lists and emails. The goals? Achievement. Productivity. A curated resume of accomplishments. A final ‘product.’ The cost? Stress. Burnout. Poor mental health. A loss of human connection and compassion.

It is becoming increasingly evident that now, more than ever, we need to rethink how we are approaching human connection and collaboration. As our understanding of social and emotional learning is increasing, the need to design a curriculum focused on building skills in empathy, compassion, and mindfulness is becoming apparent in the classroom. Education leaders are working to build students’ skills in connecting with others while living in a world that is becoming increasingly divisive. Simultaneously, pressure continues to mount on students, teachers, and professionals to perform with tangible objectives. It is imperative that global education models turn a lens on their own frameworks to ensure that, as a whole, global education is not defaulting to becoming just another step on the checklist to ‘achievement.’

Since 2004, the Niswarth (Hindi for “not for self”) model has focused on building empathy, practicing humility, and developing skills focused on intentional reflection and gratitude expression as a means of helping students and teachers gain a sense of purpose and meaningful connection with others on a global scale. The program brings together students from two different communities to connect on a genuine level utilizing Design for Change methodology and then allows them to identify a community need and respond with a framework to address it collaboratively on the spot. For 15 years, the Niswarth model has created true transformation in students and faculty alike, helping participants align their head, heart, and hands through moral introspection and analytical thinking as a means of exploring the ways in which all of our stories are interconnected.

Although all experiential education models require careful attention to logistical detail, in order to build a successful values-based program like Niswarth, a significant investment must be made in building solid program infrastructure in advance of the program in order to remove potential process roadblocks and create a space in which design learning can flourish. One key aspect that allows Niswarth to be a successful model is deep relationship building before the program begins. It can be challenging to find the appropriate community partner who understands Niswarthian values, can articulate their own goals, trust that through inclusive collaboration and shared humanity a project will emerge, and support their participants prior to and post-program. A continuous dialogue and deep respect for the local community helps to build cross-cultural trust and confidence that emergent projects will respond to local needs.

Niswarth Model: Overview of Elements

Our approach includes these elements:

  • A commitment to core values of humility, empathy and gratitude in designing every aspect of the program
  • Meaningful collaboration based on understanding and responding to community needs
  • Development of design-thinking and project management skills
  • Innovative reflection activities that include meditations and a comprehensive writing curriculum
  • Post-program structure that continues reflection, sharing and integration into school community

Curriculum: Orientation, Reflection, Connection

The Niswarth curriculum includes a series of orientation sessions, a comprehensive writing program, and post-program reflections, discussions and actions that can extend for years. The orientation helps students focus on being a sharp observer while being mindful of judgements, develop keen listening skills, be vulnerable with trust-building exercises, practice with design thinking, write in various ways, critique certain TED talks, and read a booklet of articles and excerpts about service, hope and love.

During the program, all participants keep a travel journal taking observational notes and jotting down thoughts and emotions. Students then review their journal, connect ideas or identify a moment to describe, write poetry or other types of reflections, share in a blog post and then sometimes write short stories. Teachers, college counselors, parents and friends have noted that this depth of writing is exceptional and evokes emotions even for the readers.

Post-program, all students also write a paper connecting the dots of their various experiences and sifting through their emotions and reentry back into their community. There are also ways in which Niswarth students continue their learning during the school year after the program on the ground. Monthly meetings, meditation sessions and special projects all extend and connect the programmatic goals to their life back at home.

This pre- and post-work is essential if want students to extend the Niswarth values and connect to their behavior and habits. This is a part of the big process which will extend for the next many decades. Students begin to understand that the project they thought they were doing was not in fact on the ground in India. Instead, the long term project is themselves.

The Niswarth Effect

Many years after the program Niswarth alums report that they still carry Niswarth values in their personal lives and in their workplace, and report on how service and being actively involved with social justice issues are woven into their mindsets and actions.

Brandon Wong '11

Brandon Wong, Niswarth ‘11

"I felt alive during Niswarth unlike any traditional classroom environment. Without grades or a singular teacher to dictate success, I read through texts like Pedagogy of the Oppressed with a new voraciousness--driven to make sense of the realities around me. To this day, I remember vivid discussions with classmates and teachers alike on the purpose of education, the material conditions necessary for a happy life, and reflections on our individual agency in the world.

As a result of Niswarth, my interest in social entrepreneurship spiraled into an internship with Ashoka that following summer and throughout college. I sought similarly immersive learning adventures around the world. I don't know whether I would have pursued these types of learning opportunities for myself had Niswarth not first captured my imagination in high school.

Since graduation, I've worked in entrepreneurial environments--first at an early-stage technology startup and now on a venture of my own. In day-to-day tasks and high-level strategy, there is rarely one right answer--a reality that Niswarth, with its emphasis on appreciating a multiplicity of perspectives and combining reflection and action, helped to prepare me for."

Register Now: "Niswarth Process Is the Product"

Educators at Andover and schools throughout the country are invited to join us on the Phillips Academy Andover campus from Friday, March 15, to Saturday, March 16, 2019, for a workshop that will focus on the Niswarth Model as a framework for designing effective global learning opportunities for students. Please contact r[email protected] with questions.

Workshop Goals

1. Through the lens of its three core values (humility, empathy, and gratitude), workshop participants will explore the benefits of Niswarth’s “process-over-product” approach to global education.

2. Participants will have access to resources to understand and implement a Niswarth framework that will address the logistics, relationships, and curricular elements necessary to support a community-based, service-learning program.

3. Through reflection and guided dialogue, participants will explore their own global education models and plan future steps needed to strengthen existing programs or design new, values-based programs.

This workshop is supported by the Tang Institute.

Categories: Learning in the World, Featured

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