The American philosopher John Dewey once said that ‘education is not preparation for life, education is life itself.’
Most of us start our relationship with education at school, but for some learners this isn’t necessarily a case of blackboards and long division. During this article, we’ll explore 10 of the world’s most unusual schools, from unique and innovative settings to unexpected curriculum content.
1. Dongzhong Mid-Cave Primary School
Modern western schools are typically built in an open-plan format with cave-like high ceilings above wide, open-plan spaces. Classrooms are often sided with partially transparent glass walls, giving them an open and airy feel. But one school took this to its logical extreme — the Dongzhong Mid-Cave Primary School in Mao village, Ziyun County in China was literally situated inside an actual cave.
This wasn’t a design choice, though. Dongzhong’s story is one of determination in the face of deprivation, rather than design and abundance. The Guizhou region where Mao is found is among the poorest provinces in China. A lack of even the most basic living standards meant schooling simply wasn’t an option — that was until the locals took matters into their own hands and founded Dongzhong. The school closed in 2011 after the intervention of Chinese authorities.
2. Trabajo Ya School
The Trabajo Ya School in Valencia, Spain is unique thanks to its €100 course which offers students a ‘basic course in professional prostitution with maximum discretion’. Termed the oldest trade in existence, the sex work profession of prostitution has different levels of legislative and moral acceptance around the globe. The privately run Trabajo Ya School found itself in the spotlight of scrutiny as the Valencian government set about a legal challenge in the hope of closing the school’s doors in 2012.
Prosecutors rejected the challenge soon after it was lodged, however — and Trabajo Ya was given the green light to continue admitting students.
3. Bangladesh’s floating schools
A break in the format of the rest of the article, here we’re talking about a category of schools rather than an individual institution. As the country is so prone to flooding Bangladesh’s education system has had to overcome and adapt. Suffering severe and disruptive floods at least twice annually, local non-profit Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha has built a series of schools that float — on boats! These schools bring all the usual features of the classroom together under one roof, but unusually on top of a hull.
These innovative learning centers function all-year-round. When the country isn’t marred by flooding, they collect their learners from riverbanks and pontoons before docking to start the school day. When class is over, the boats return their students home before preparing for a new group of learners to climb aboard.
4. Karachi’s mobile school bus
Keeping up the theme of blurring the lines between classroom and commute, a non-profit in Karachi has given new meaning to the phrase ‘school bus’. What do you see when you think of a school bus? Probably a big yellow vehicle picking up kids in suburban North America and ferrying them into town for a day of classes. Well, think again.
Since 1993, the Citizens Education Development Foundation has used innovative means to achieve its core objective of functional literacy for all. The bus tours neighborhoods in shifts, delivering four sessions of two hours each to around 160 students per day. Designed to create a lasting legacy for its learners, the CEDF mobile school bus offers tuition to learners between the ages of five and 14 and aims to support students as they apply for mainstream academic institutions.
A noble concept in principle, the mobile school bus relies almost entirely on volunteer contributions, with only their teachers drawing a salary. With a lack of manpower and an absence of key supporting roles, the project has struggled to stay afloat, let alone expand. Its electricity and water supplies are donated free of charge enabling the project to stay running and reach more learners.
5. Abo Elementary School
We’ve had classrooms in a cave and blackboards on a boat, but this next instalment takes thing up a level, or perhaps we should say down a level… into an underground bunker! Based in Artesia, New Mexico in the United States, Abo Elementary was designed at the height of the Cold War and completed in 1962. The school’s initial design featured many of the elements that would be expected of a modern school, but also included a decontamination center and ration stores suitable for up to 2,000 people to take refuge underground.
Given its placement beneath ground, Abo Elementary relied heavily on its ventilation system. As the building aged, so too did the mechanical equipment required to keep it running. The rising maintenance costs and heightening criticism of this windowless approach to education saw the school close its doors in 1995 with an above-ground alternative built next door. Today, Abo Elementary’s legacy is as a storage facility.
6. Salem’s Witch School
This entry is unique not just because of its format, but also for its curriculum. The Witch School, based in Salem, Essex County, Massachusetts, offers students the opportunity to study witchcraft and magic. Yes, really! With more than 240,000 students passing through this course, the school has had considerable uptake, but a long way short of Hogwarts, you’ll be pleased to know that the majority of its students have been part-time learners, studying online on a distance-learning basis.
Based on the Ancient Germanic principle of wisdom and knowledge of folklore. Witch School ties deeply into religious education touching on the relationship between witchcraft and the rise of Christianity with inexplicable links to paganism.
7. Ruchika platform schools
We’ve seen a quite a few examples so far of the innovative use of otherwise useless space to deliver sustainable education opportunities for otherwise disadvantaged children. Bhubaneswar Railway Station is another great example of this.
Operated by the Ruchika Social Services Organisation in India, Ruchika’s aim was to offer underprivileged children access to education across major railway station in Odisha. The schools also provide supplementary nutrition and medical care to their students, advocacy for their remaining families and mentorship to access mainstream education.
8. Gulu Elementary School
Xin Hua News
The Gulu Elementary School was ran by only one teacher, Shen Qijun. Located in a mountainous region, students had to climb for five hours just to get to the school. Every day, they took the Luoma way, overcoming sharp turns and very narrow passages on their way there.
The school was shut down in November 2011 and students, as well as their teacher, were relocated to a local school below the mountains.
9. Harvey Milk High School
Built to create a safe learning space for LGBTQ+ students, the Harvey Milk High School welcomes people regardless of their sexual orientation and gender identity.
The school itself took its name from the California politician who helped promote the gay rights movement in the 70s and the first openly gay man to be elected to a public office in the US.
Throughout the years, many anti-LGBTQ hate groups have tried to literally burn the building to the ground, but the school is still in operation today, continuing to offer an educational environment to its students that is free of harassment, threats and violence.
10. Forest kindergartens
Based on the German model of waldkindergartens or ‘forest preschool’, these outdoor schools educate children between the ages of three and six entirely outdoors, all year round.
Just like any other kindergarten, these schools help children interact better with their surroundings. They manage to achieve this by having students get in touch with nature and build things using materials found in the forest.
While all schools are focused on education, teaching and learning, each of these examples outline a slightly different facet of the function of the education system.
From enabling students to access educational opportunities by learning on a converted school bus to helping prospective young witches reconnect with their spirituality at Salem, these unusual schools each provide unique opportunities for their students to develop lifelong skills and enhance their future prospects.
Join the discussion! Do you know of any other unusual schools around the world? Let us know in the comments section below?
This article is an updated version of an earlier article originally published on 20 July 2015 and contains contributions by Kyriaki Raouna.