A school is a building, the teachers and students that come to it, or the curriculum it delivers. The intangible school is its ethos, the permeable spirit of a child that learns naturally when offered the right conditions.

Recently, we are experiencing the loss of the school as we know it. Even before COVID-19, the education system has undergone many structural upheavals.

Alternative schooling systems include homeschooling, unschooling, world schooling, democratic schools, Waldorf education, eco-schools, to mention just a few non-traditional pedagogic movements that run outside the conventional learning experiences most children undergo.

I first had a personal glimpse of integrative learning styles through my sister’s project, an early education center called Creative Space, which she owned and used to run many tireless years ago.

My mother owns a small building in Pasig City and my sister thought to use the bulk of this 4-story vertical structure as a very unconventional experiment in holistic education.

In Creative Space, learning spreads across multiple intelligences as in those mandala paintings in India or Tibet where infinite elements of a universe are held in place at the center of the picture.

Officially recognized by the Philippine Department of Education, my sister Asha brought into one school, the many petals of a holistic flower, in ways each part interlinked with all other parts, bringing about learning experiences most adults do not even undergo in a lifetime.

Asha understood the child’s mental capacity for setting big picture mappings as they learned concepts using multi-dimensional modules.

When her students learned math, for example, Asha did not start through one plus one equals two. By journeying through the historical evolution of mathematics itself, the child’s mind perceives numbers through the progression of prehistoric to modern mathematics using very creative means of experiencing The Story of Math.

As toddlers learn progressive contexts in their many subjects, students learned how to think cross-conceptually. Each lesson bore interconnections with all other subjects, through the language of the mind, emotions, body movement, and spiritual awareness.

Asha believed that development happens in slow stages; the young wise mind simultaneously branches out into multiple directions, as would a rhizomatic plant that horizontally spreads underneath the soil in unexpected ways.

As a strong advocate of all things natural, my sister’s small school predates what is presently called Rhizomatic Learning.

The rhizome is a type of plant that shoots out its stems not above but below ground, allowing for the ginger, the turmeric, bermudagrass, or bamboo to propagate itself in a horizontal fashion.

According to the education reformer John Dewey, learning in agricultural societies begins with the student’s many interests, which are intertwined in non-hierarchical networks. As with the rhizome, education happens through continuous dialogue, where meanings are determined by the flow of inquiry hosting many topics, creating the early foundations for continuous life-long learning necessary in adulthood.

Today, rhizomatic learning is increasingly enabled by the internet. Virtual learning is a new style of pedagogy the Philippine’s DepEd is strained to grip strongly at the behest of a pandemic that shifts classroom teaching to home-based, technology-led learning.

Philippine President Duterte and DepEd Secretary Leonor Briones both announced, face-to-face classes are indefinitely canceled until strict conditions are set that ensure the health of students and teachers nationwide.

Do restrictions from traditional classroom systems signify large-scale mental regression for millions of Filipino students?

As with other sectors of government, COVID-19 suspends the normative, bringing about possible openings for alternating the old ways of conducting learning. At this time the school’s proponents may as well learn some of the new and emergent ways of learning.

COVID-19 does not just urge online learning.

In Europe, Finland is celebrated as one of the planet’s most interesting explorations in School.

Though it is regarded by many to be the best education system in the world (since it began to gain the top position on many global assessments), Finland paradoxically breaks the rule book: they have abolished standardized testing, school selection, and any direct competition between students. School starts late and ends early in the day. Less homework is given in an atmosphere that ensures students stay relaxed as do the teachers. Literacy in math and writing are not taught until the age of seven.

The Finnish education system perhaps gives credit to President Duterte’s words, “wala nang aral, laro na lang (mo more study, just play), unless I’m sure that they are really safe,” offering play as an alternative to face-to-face classroom time in the face of COVID’s high human-to-human rates of transmission.

In an important research study called Power of Play, happy and relaxed playtime is seen to benefit cognitive, emotional, social and physical childhood development. Finnish teachers believe children must be engaged in what they’re doing if comprehension is to take place.

Perhaps their applied understanding of joyful playtime is one of the main reasons Finland has remained at the top of the World’s Happiness Index for the third year in a row.

Child-centered education focuses on the careful integration between the poles of thinking and feeling. In many holistic learning systems, the young person’s brain must first be given a chance to integrate both left and right hemispheres, and it’s through alternating play and rest with intensive learning modes that the nervous system is granted the early infrastructure to unite logic and creativity, knowledge and applied wisdom.

Wishing to learn more from her experiences over the years, I have interviewed my sister as to her school’s curriculum. The one hard drive that stored its entirety was lost long ago, bringing frustration to the many known schools and progressive educators that sought to learn from Creative Space’s contributions to Whole Systems Learning.

Perhaps Asha’s gift is merely to listen deeply to what waits in every child’s Creative Space.

In the next years, the schooling system itself rests and plays. In the meantime, parents homeschooling their child are invited to notions, the child is itself, its curriculum, school, its own spirit of learning.