CERES Global in India—Day 09: Un-learning at Swaraj University

From 2nd-12th December 2017 I co-facilitated a CERES Global tour to India, themed around sustainable development, permanent culture and un-learning. My focus for the tour was to collect data for my research project on permaculture as a transnational social movement and to learn more about alternative education models as a teaching and learning professional development immersion. This posting is one of a series of my daily reflections from the tour on what our group encountered.

On day nine of our CERES Global Sustainable Development, Permanent Culture and Un-learning tour to India, our tour party spent the night at Swaraj University, a more structured educational off-shoot of Shikshantar.  The Swaraj University campus sits in a tranquil 15-acre space located in a scenic valley between two mountain ranges, 15 kilometers outside of Udaipur. The site is a zero-waste space and has an organic farm, herb gardens and an Ayurvedic healing centre.

The “Swaraj” concept (self-rule, rule over oneself, or rather, harmony of the self) in the university’s name is inspired by Gandhi-ji’s Hind Swaraj, a call for people to lead and create their own models of development that are holistic, pluralistic, ecologically regenerative, liberating, collaborative, and socially just.  Our engagement here further prompted us to critically examine the structure and purpose of education, and consider different ways of learning deep knowledge.

Peer-to-peer and self-designed learning

“It should be clarified that there are no ‘teachers’ or faculty at Shikshantar. Each of the learning activists is a co-learner. The power dynamic between learning activists is always changing. At times, different people (depending on their knowledge, skills and insights) organically emerge to play the role of ‘guide’—to help facilitate deeper exploration, better communication and new connections. It is important that the guide make his or her role, his commitment to the learner, and his or her expectations, rules, etc. clear. There is not threat or compulsion or use of punishment. Neither are there any financial rewards to look forward to. The guide must also make himself/herself vulnerable to critique from others and to the possibility (and necessity) of his/her own unlearning and new learning.”

Manish Jain, “Re-discovering the co-creators within,” 2002, p. 13.


The Swaraj University model is explicitly structured around collaborative peer-to-peer learning, where learners work with each other through the creative process to develop projects together.  Peer-to-peer learning refers to students learning with and from each other as fellow learners without the implicit or explicit oversight of any authority.  As we discovered earlier at Shikshantar, peer-to-peer learning among co-collaborators is highly valued here, where different perspectives can help to create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Each learner, or “khoji” (“seeker”) at Swaraj University formulates a driving existential question to shape their project and provide the intellectual and emotional fuel for the self-designed learning process.  The focus of this program is to prepare khojis to start their own entrepreneurial ventures in their communities rather than merely “getting a job,” based on principles of ecological sustainability, localization, social justice and social innovation.

Our group was fortunate to be able to engage with a group of khojis and question them about their Swaraj University experience and the practicalities of their self-designed learning projects (see audio below).  The khojis we spoke with were deeply passionate about their projects and fierce proponents of the self-designed learning model.

Open space workshop

The Swaraj Univeristy co-creation and peer-learning model is based on the gift culture, where members of the group share their passion, knowledge, skills and resources with the group in a non-transactional manner, knowing that they’ll get what they need back from the group.  The open space workshop is the specific social technology employed to harness the co-creative power of khojis when they are on campus.

The CERES Global group participated in an open source workshop during our visit to Swaraj University to share our collective expertise and learn from the knowledge of the Swaraj University khojis.  First, we brainstormed individually, musing on these guiding questions…
• What is alive for you right now?
• What interests, gifts and skills do you have to share?
• What do you wish to learn?

Next, those participants who wish to facilitate a workshop to share their specific passions and knowledge come forward.  An agenda and schedule was composed for the group, based on who cames forward to facilitate workshops.

Open space workshops are based on seven basic principles:
1. Whoever comes are always the right people.
2. Whatever happens is for the good.
3. Conditions should be taken for what they are.
4. The composition of the groups is determined by chance.
5. Everyone may start whenever they feel like it.
6. Everyone may stop whenever they think it is time to.
7. Everyone is free to move around as they like.

The open space workshop format can be challenging for people who haven’t participated in one before.  There is an internal battle to be fought in having confidence in your knowledge, skills and abilities and being comfortable that they are worth sharing.  It can also be a challenge to ask yourself exactly what it is that you want to learn, and why.  I have come across similar reactions when leading a gift circle activity during my sessions in the CERES permaculture design course.  Gifting requires a different attitude to oneself and others that our competitive, transactional culture does not adequately prepare us for.

What is the “right” path to deep knowledge?

“Learning activists are not awarded grades. They do not graduate. They do not even have attendance records. We make no attempt to quantify or rank the learning or growth that occurs among the learning activists. We simply observe each other as we grow and try to encourage ourselves to engage in continual self- and peer-assessment. As John Holt describes, ‘The student, the do-er, can only learn a difficult action insofar as he can put the teacher inside of him. He must be a student and teacher at the same time. He must, more and more, grade his own tasks, get his own feedback, make his own corrections, and develop his own criteria, standards, for doing these things.”

Manish Jain, “Re-discovering the co-creators within,” 2002, p. 13.


The question “what is the ‘right’ path to deep knowledge” in the sub-heading above is a trick question because knowledge acquisition is a continual process without end (every answer births more questions) and because the direction of that path can vary for each individual learner.  It depends on what kind of “deep knowledge” the learner is seeking.

Another recurring question for members of the CERES Global group related to who the un-learning and self-designed learning models of Shikshantar and Swaraj University are most appropriate for?  What Swaraj University comes across as in practice is a very effective social enterprise incubator for creative, entrepreneurial individuals who were unable to find the right spark for their genius in conventional mass education institutions.  The self-designed learning model well suits the kind of community-building enterprises that the khojis are working to create.  Co-learning from other novices is perhaps not so appropriate for the development of deep knowledge and specialist skills in other professions.  The medical profession was raised as an example in the group discussion with the khoji’s, where some CERES Global group members expressed the logical view that one would rather be treated by a doctor who trained in a medical school under senior doctors with clinical experience.

We did discover that one-on-one mentorship is an important component of a khoji’s project.  So while co-learning on campus is the preferred learning model, individual khoji’s are still acquiring knowledge and skills from someone more experienced through mentor-mentee knowledge transmission.  This is the key point for me; for all the talk about co-learning vs mentorship vs mass education, there still needs to be people involved who have deep knowledge and skills to share with the learners who don’t.  This relates to a concept I have written about in relation to my teaching in environmental politics called pedagogical content knowledge, which refers to the different representations of disciplinary knowledge that be presented to students in ways which they are most likely to comprehend.  There are many different ways that a body of knowledge can be represented to learners, ranging on a spectrum from theoretical research to practical experience.  The trick is to find the most appropriate way to convey that knowledge for those who want to learn it.

As a lecturer in a conventional university, I came away from Swaraj University and Shikshantar with a critical eye cast on the limitations of institutions like my own as centres of learning.  I came away with new ideas for refining how I design my subjects to maximise the autonomy and the well-being of my students, within the institutional limitations of the conventional university model.  I also came away with a new-found understanding of my role in mediating the difficult tension between institutional logic and the needs of the students, which is an often awkward position to inhabit.


Manish Jain, “Re-discovering the co-creators within,” in Vimukt Shiksha, special issue on Unfolding Learning Societies, June 2002, pp. 1-15.

Habib, B. (forthcoming) ‘Pedagogical Content Knowledge for Global Environmental Politics.’ International Studies Perspectives.

Habib, B., Miles, R., & Pawsey, N. (2016). “Online Learning and the Infinite Replicability of Digitised Knowledge.” Fusion Journal.

Habib, B. (2007). “Breaking the Ritual: Getting Students to Participate in Discussion-based Tutorials in the Social Sciences.” Paper presented at the 30th HERDSA Annual Conference, Adelaide, Australia.


* The views expressed in this posting are my own and don’t reflect the institutional position of CERES Global or La Trobe University.