An Answer to Innovative Education “Beyond the Forest”

Beyond the Forest
Photo by Shane Rounce on Unsplash

Transylvania: Literally “beyond the forest,” from Medieval Latin, from trans “beyond” (see trans-) + sylva (see sylvan). So-called in reference to the wooded mountains that surround it.  (Online Etymology Dictionary)

Though the world increasingly becomes more interconnected and technologically dependent, are we ultimately leading more purposeful lives?  Andreia Mitrea, edupreneur and CEO of Colina Learning Center (CLC), is committed to the design of an educational model to do exactly this. Wholeheartedly believing that the best learning for children happens when surrounded by thriving adults, Mitrea is targeting how to “make the most of your one great-tiny beautiful life.”

The pandemic highlighted many needs, amongst these, the importance of stronger intergenerational connections. We are beginning to see intergenerational career centers popping up, however at CLC, their integrated approach supersedes a binary notion of simply career and connection. The objectives go far wider, deeper, and longer; inclusive of body, mind, heart, and spirit.

In the Heart of Transylvania

CLC is located in northwestern Romania, in the city of Cluj-Napoca; the largest city in Transylvania. This burgeoning hub of IT and academic universities and institutions is equal distance between Bucharest and Budapest. Less than a six-hour drive. Dating back to the second century, Cluj was a Roman settlement. The city has since arrived on the international contemporary art stage and its opulent Baroque architecture, Bohemian cafes, and 30,000-strong student population all attest to being the perfect petri dish for a new design of education.

Set apart not only for its abundance of opportunity, Cluj is a city of openness and purity. Openness because in a survey of the European Commission published in the Eurostat Yearbook Statistics 2014, Cluj recorded 91% of its locals having a positive perspective concerning foreigners coming to make the city their home. And purity, because according to research published by the French magazine “We Demain,” Cluj ranked first for air quality among 100 large cities in the European Union.

Furthermore, CLC’s location allows for children and adults to be immersed in nature through hands-on learning. Their vision of a sustainable campus has many green features already in place. For example, gardens for learning and growing food on campus, a recycling center, solar energy, and is part of one of the first zero-waste communities in Romania. Further, a network of bicycling and walking trails attest to the community’s interest in minimizing its carbon footprint.  “Our learners will learn to be always aware of their impact on the planet and our environment.”

Gothic St. Michaels Church / Cluj-Napoca, Photo by Emilia Morariu on Unsplash
Outskirts of Cluj-Napoca / Barajul Drăgan-Floroiu, Photo by Paul Mocan on Unsplash

Shaping a Better Society

Many schools are beginning to give credence to the importance of place-based education and sustainability. However, how many are committed 100% to develop an integrated adult-child curriculum and that is experientially based? CLC aims to be the first school in the world to do this. Kept at the epicenter is a focus on maintaining or in some cases creating, learning cultures throughout every home.

Traditionally schools are steeped in compliance and knowledge; in that order. Break students and fill them with facts. Romanian schools were not spared. If anything, the country’s communist past set the roots of pacifism even deeper. Mitrea, the learning and impact enthusiast behind CLC, does not mince words. With no pretense, nor claims of how CLC is the panacea she concedes,

“We don’t believe we are for everyone. We are for dynamic, enlightened families who want to thrive in a connected world. The families of innovators and early adopters. The ones who are ok with bringing the future by actively co-creating it with us.”  And it sounds like an initial group of families is already in place, fully behind the mission and ready to co-create. “We actually call them ‘Founding Fathers and Mothers,’” said Mitrea. Big dreams but with small steps, as she likes to say.  In the initial pilot year, the focus is on developing a learning model for children and adults; both of equal importance.  This is because, at Colina, learning is not something that happens only at school. Instead, the undertaking is to support every member in the community on their own personal journey. One where learning has no endpoint.

Cluj has experienced remarkable growth in the IT sector during the last decade. According to Culture Trip, the city has more IT engineers per capita than the USA, China, India, or Russia. Cluj IT, founded in 2012, reports that Cluj “is on its way to becoming a major digital hub in Eastern Europe, as a city driven by innovation in which creativity, professionalism, resources, and opportunities come together for the ultimate goal: shaping a better society.” This is perfectly in line with an undertaking of making “the most of your one great-tiny beautiful life.”

As the world of work allows for greater autonomy, employees/learners will require more complex problem solving and intellectual tasks. As well as a need to continually be re-tooling, in effect to always be learning. So it is only sensible for schools to make a shift and design for a more integrated, social, and experientially-based approach. Where community, connection, sustainability, and purpose are all at the bedrock.

Firmly fixed in a belief that learning should make a difference now, not later; CLC students will learn experientially through highly personalized projects. Monday, September 6th is the official opening of CLC. Like all new schools, CLC will follow a similar process of accreditation and is registered to be accredited through New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC); an organization recognized by the Romanian Ministry of Education. New York State Learning Standards will be integrated into CLC’s customized Expeditionary Learning Methodology of education.

But “Exactly How?” Remains The Elephant in the Room

Project Censored, “The News That Didn’t Make the News” reported, “The definition of ‘smart cities’ is evolving to support cities being truly smart – with an integration of healthy technology, community-based institutions, and nature-based design.” So clearly, it is more than an Education 2.0 or a 5G smart city approach. CLC gets this!

For CLC, it is not about an educational “scheme.” Because it is not about scheming! It is about life and thriving. About “being truly smart.” Not simply about encouraging interaction between people at all ends of the lifespan, but intentionally building this into the design and then allowing for it to be organic. What if the internet’s underwater cables were not the only invisible force driving our connectivity? They are not. Mysterious, dynamic, and connected pathways similarly connect plants. Kate Kellaway elaborates upon this in a recent Guardian article titled, “Secrets of a Tree Whisperer: ‘They get along, they listen – they’re attuned.’” Might our communities endeavor to become more like the forests, diverse but also connected?  “Mycorrhizal networks,” of learners, organically connected across all ages and walks of life. Families and schools actively co-creating as one.

The optimism embedded in CLC’s vision is evident in their plan to scale to multiple locations. However, a realistic approach is to focus on today and establishing a fully integrated curriculum for children and adults.” This will take some time. “We are opening only for early ages, Preschool and Early Primary and we anticipate around 20 to 30 students initially. We will have exponential development later,” says a confident Mitrea.

As could be expected of this IT and start-up-rich city, a myriad of resources is available in Cluj. Driven by innovation and creativity, CLC is in a perfect position to let learners and life ultimately be the curriculum.

A look at Colina Learning Center’s temporary campus

For more, see:

Matt Piercy works at the International School Bangkok. You can follow him on Twitter @mpiercy35.   

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Matt Piercy

Matt Piercy works at the International School Bangkok.

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1 Comment

Dagan Bernstein

Great read, thank you you so much for this window into a fabulous educational design.

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