Learning can take any form, and can take place at anytime and any place. As for education, it also means different things to different people. Some consider the traditional sources of books and lectures to be the only way proper education can be imparted, while others consider restrictions and rules as obstacles in the path of acquiring knowledge.

For these reasons and many more, there are many unique educational institutions the world over, that defy the conventional definitions of schools or colleges. Yet they are very successful in fulfilling their unique purpose of imparting a set of knowledge and skills not available in regular classrooms.

Some of these institutions are very unusual, so much so that one can only be amazed that they actually exist and teach courses or use teaching methods that are hard to believe. Understandably, many of these places emphasise unstructured, hands-on kind of learning as opposed to the traditional restricted classroom settings.

So let us look at some of these institutes of learning and find out what is so different about them – you never know one of these can be the kind of place you always wanted to go and study at.

A open-air classroom in the Green School
A open-air classroom in the Green School

The Green School

Where else but in the tropical Indonesian island of Bali will you find a school with structures made of bamboo, no walls and open air classrooms, whiteboards made of old recycled car windshields, food in the canteen grown in their own organic garden and power is partly supplied by solar panels and an hydroelectric ‘vortex’. Its interesting curriculum features, among other things, surfing, mud wrestling and graffiti.

Learning is integrated into the natural environment, with three frames of learning: experiential, integral and instructional. The curriculum integrates “all aspects of a child’s nature, multiple intelligences and curiosity for learning, with focus on nature, recycling, love of self and community.”

The brainchild of Canadian John Hardy and his wife Cynthia, the philosophy behind Green School is: “We believe schools should be places of joy, and strive to champion a new model of education that fully ignites the imagination of children so they can engage and learn with optimism, inventiveness and wonder.”

Students from 50 different countries and all backgrounds are enrolled here, with just a handful being boarders. The Green School offers students a chance to discover what they would like to do with their own lives, and in 2013, it had its first graduates. The fees of the school is rather steep by local Balinese standards, probably which is why there are more foreign students than local ones.

University of the Arctic, Longyearbyen, Svalbard (Norway)
University of the Arctic, Longyearbyen, Svalbard (Norway)

University of the Arctic

An interesting institute of higher learning is the University of the Arctic (UArctic), which is not one university but a cooperative network of 143 member institutions, most of which are educational institutions, with just 21 members from non-Arctic states. These institutions span 24 times zones.

UArctic includes a variety both big and small universities and colleges, some big, some small, fostering international education through diverse opportunities of education and research.

Among the universities included in this unique concept are highly regarded Danish universities, such as Aarhus and Aalborg, as well as smaller specialist institutions such as Aurora College and The International Centre for Reindeer Husbandry. The last institute is very unique in its aim as it provides a base for exchanging and developing information and knowledge between different reindeer professionals.

One of the common aspects of all these different institutions in The UArctic is that they are all in very cold places.

International Space University
International Space University

The International Space University

The International Space University in north-eastern France boasts astronauts and space agency leaders as faculty members, and is the go-to place for those interested in a career in outer space.

This not-for-profit interdisciplinary university was founded in 1987, “dedicated to the research and development of outer space exploration for peaceful purposes, through international and multidisciplinary education and research programmes.”

Besides a Master of Science in Space Studies (MSS) programme and the Space Studies Programme (SSP), a Professional Development Programme has convened annually every summer since 1988 at various locations around the world.

Class picture at the Gulu school
Class picture at the Gulu school

Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School

Turning to a small, but still a very interesting place, let’s check out The Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School that offers a more seasonally oriented education. Established in 1937, this oldest Santa school in the world is also referred to as “the Harvard of Santa schools”. The school is dedicated to “upholding the traditions, image and history of Santa Claus,” and offers classes catering to proper dress and makeup, radio and TV experience, live reindeer habits and Santa sign language.

The setting of the school, located in Midland, Michigan, is made to replicate what one would expect from Santa’s home in the North Pole, with gingerbread house exterior and Christmas workshop interior sets. The school is operative from the end of October to Christmas, and offers intensive three-day courses.

An adult helps students walk along the narrow path to the remote ‘school in the clouds’
An adult helps students walk along the narrow path to the remote ‘school in the clouds’

A school in the Clouds

The most astonishing educational institute I have read about has to be ‘School in the Clouds’, or Gulu Village Primary in Gulu Village, of China’s Sichuan Province. Incidentally, the school was closed on November 18, 2011, as it was considered too dangerous and unfit for students.

The only way to reach this school half way up a mountain was by a treacherous route with many sharp bends, one of which was just 40cm wide at its narrowest point and overlooked a drop of a couple thousand feet! The trek would take up to five tough hours of climbing for some of the students of the nearby villages of this remote region.

It was run by Shen Qijun, its principal, who first arrived there in 1982 as a young 18-year-old teacher and had since worked hard to provide some sort of education to the poor children of the surrounding villages isolated from modern facilities.

The school’s structure was very basic, with classrooms made of mud, makeshift roof that leaked in the rain and walls that couldn’t keep out the wind.

When the school was shut down, the teacher and students were relocated to a nearby town that offered a safer and more proper school structure and environment. Gupton-Jones College of Funeral Service

Another unique school is the Gupton-Jones College of Funeral Service and, as the name suggests, the college is dedicated to teaching the art and science of funeral services to its students.

Interested students can enrol after high school and at Gupton-Jones they are offered, besides the regular subjects such as history, English, math, more intensive and funeral-specific courses such as Principles of Embalming, Psychology of Funeral Service, and Mortuary Law/Ethics. The degree offered by the college is that of an Associate of Science.

And for more practical and hands-on knowledge and experience, there are internships and volunteer work available at different funeral homes connected with the college. Students are, however, required to follow a proper dress code that they will later need to follow in their funeral profession.

Would-be santas in classroom
Would-be santas in classroom

The Gladiator School

If you though the last two colleges were peculiar enough, then just wait till you read about the Gladiator School in Rome.

Yes, there is actually a school dedicated to the art, craft and history of gladiator combat and lifestyle that promises to produce warriors upon completion of its course. Founded by the Gruppo Storico Romano (Historic Roman Group), the historic recreationist school conducts camps that recreate the brutal, yet fascinating aspect of Rome’s historic legacy of mortal combats that took place to provide entertainment to both the ruling elite and the masses.

The classes include lectures on the history of gladiators, in addition to offensive and defensive techniques that include proper shield-wielding, sword use and bodily stances.

Next to the training grounds is a museum with original and recreated memorabilia from Rome’s heyday of gladiator fights.

Published in Dawn, Young World, July 6th, 2019