Learning should not be oppressive. It should not be exclusive. And it should not be fashioned after business models based on top-down performance evaluations that are more concerned with rankings than with learning. In a global educational environment that’s becoming more reliant on standardized testing, alternative forms of education are increasingly necessary.

At the EarthRights Schools, we practice student-centered learning. We believe our role as teachers is to create a space where our young adult learners can draw on their wealth of experiences and the diversity of the group’s knowledge to analyze issues of development, human rights, and the environment critically.

Why wouldn’t we?

Our students are from communities directly affected by earth rights abuses. They come to our training program from all different parts of the Mekong region with experience as grassroots campaigners, documentary filmmakers, teachers, lawyers, community fact finders, farmers, and so on, with the most profound understanding of the relationship between human well-being and a healthy environment.

We work hard to find a balance between giving our students necessary input from expert lawyers, seasoned campaigners, academics, and community researchers, with securing a safe and open platform for the articulation of their own expertise in their understanding of their communities’ needs and local contexts.

As facilitators of this space, one of the challenges is to constantly introduce creative and participatory ways to engage learners with new and often arduous concepts relating to law and campaigning.

After a carefully structured 10-day orientation and peace-building course, designed to build the foundation for an effective and supportive learning environment that acknowledges the diversity and power dynamics in the group, the EarthRights School Myanmar students began their first content course. The introductory Globalization, Development, and Human Rights module reflected our student-centered learning methodology in the activities we used to engage students with the more conceptual material.

The first class begins with a couple dozen images – photographs, cartoons – that reflect the economic, political, cultural and social manifestations of globalization. The group is given the task of creating captions. Through this process of contemplation, a rich discussion – rather than a top-down lecture – emerged. Ideas circulated on the impacts of these processes in the context of Myanmar, including student perspectives on the opportunities brought by technological advances, fears of the disappearance of local cultures, and the environmental harms proliferated by neoliberalism.

The following day, an experiential learning method was used to explore the influence of broader economic forces on transnational corporations’ pursuit of capital-friendly investment climates and the accompanying impacts on human rights and environmental protections in host countries. The students simulate this ‘race to the bottom’ concept through a Transnational Capital Auction activity where pairs represent developing countries seeking to lure ‘capital’ by bidding each other down in terms of minimum wages, labor organizing, child labor laws, environmental regulations, and corporate taxation.

We champion education that focuses on addressing learners’ needs and recognizing the richness of ideas and knowledge inherent within each individual. As educators we concern ourselves with honing these capabilities inside and outside the classroom; a two-pronged approach that is crucial to our training programs and reflected through our field study trips to affected communities in the region.

An inspiring movement to demand more participatory and learner-focused education is emerging around the world. From teacher boycotts of over-testing, to the progressive methodology of a 2015 winner of the Global Teaching Prize, to social justice curriculum projects like this one.

Even the students in Myanmar recently battling for a say in reforming their education system is an expression of a desire for self-determined learning. Individuals and groups are speaking out against the prevailing hegemonic pedagogy; against education that has administrators, status, funding, or anything else at its core other than the ‘full development of the human personality’, the central element of the human right to education.

Encouraging this collaborative, analytical, and above all empowering learning environment doesn’t just strengthen our students’ capacity as earth rights defenders in their own communities. In its own small way, it also contributes to the broader movement of re-shaping education to meet the needs of the people; and consequently, to be better equipped to rethink the world we live in and how to make that world a more just and sustainable place.