John Hardy On Founding The Green School To Create A Global Community Of Young Sustainability Leaders

Written byEmily Fieser
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When sustainability is discussed, it is rarely done so in conjunction with primary and secondary education. Bucking that trend is The Green School, an educational academy whose methodology is focused on just that: bettering the environment.

Operating four schools on three continents, The Green School invites learners, their parents, the community, and the world at large to discover how traditional academic studies can successfully be blended into tackling some of the biggest challenges the world is currently facing. A product of John and Cynthia Hardy, who, at the time, were unsatisfied with their own children’s schooling options, The Green School strives to establish a cohort of leaders, championing and actively making the world more sustainable. Regenerative Travel recently caught up with the Hardys on The Green School’s journey, the community co-evolution, COVID, and their plans for the future.

Let’s start from the beginning: How did The Green School get started? What is the history here? 

John Hardy: Green School was established by myself and my wife, Cynthia Hardy, in September 2008. After we went to see Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, we were moved to act, to find a new way of educating children – one that was green and that would offer possibilities for students that were actually relevant to the future we knew was coming. At the time, we had two school-age kids. I remember looking at various schools around the world and feeling very sad about the idea of sending our kids to them – kids who had up to that point been homeschooled in the beautiful jungles of Bali. So we were motivated by our kids, by the other children of Bali and really children all around the world who needed and wanted a Green School. Our mission then, and still today, is to create a community of learners that will make our world sustainable. 

The Green School’s mission is “to create a global community of learners, making our world sustainable.” How does The Green School do this? What kind of curriculum, core courses, and learning styles are taught?

John Hardy: An education at Green School is co-created between students and their teachers. We believe in developing a new kind of IQ – Intelligent Questioning – and encouraging students to actively pursue the questions they have about the things that interest them the most. This means that as students are introduced to the challenges facing our environment and world – which are introduced at age-appropriate levels – their first inclination is curiosity – Why is this happening? And, What can I do to help? 

Educating for a sustainable future is key at Green School. We go beyond ‘green studies’ or environmental studies as a thematic that stands separated from the rest of the curriculum. Rather, we plan everything through the lens of sustainability, using tools such as the Sustainability Compass which looks at nature, wellbeing, society and economy; as well as integrating the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals and Permaculture principles. 

At Green School, we believe that students learn more from how they are taught than from what they are taught. We also believe students should have the chance to make an impact and be changemakers now – being involved in real-world projects and learning. Our students are free to make choices, and I think what people often don’t realize is that when we empower our young people to make their own choices, they commit to those choices.

In 2008, when The Green School first opened, what was the community response like? Can you describe your co-evolution with the community and landscape over time since you first conceived the idea?

John Hardy: When we initially opened there was a lot of interest primarily due to the unique design and visual impact of our school. If our school had been built out of concrete or looked like any other school, it wouldn’t have had the same level of interest. One thing that really made Green School successful from an early stage was the fact that the visuals represented the mission and the ethic of being green. People saw those pictures and started dreaming about what the world could be. And as we build more schools we continue staying true to our mission through our sustainably-designed campuses made from locally-sourced materials and incorporating a multitude of indigenous flora. 

The way we’ve co-evolved with our community is one of the many things that makes Green School so unique. It says it in our mission – we have a community of learners – and we stick to that. Rather than silos of students and teachers and parents, with parents leaving their children at the curb, we have a living community of learners – meaning both students and parents – who have a lot of interaction with each other and with the local community. In fact, Green School has about 10% of its students from the local community, kids from the local villages. We have the largest local scholarship program of any international school in Indonesia, and we’re very proud of that. We also have a program after school for local kids to come and learn English and computer skills, which has been hugely powerful for them.

The Green School has now expanded to Bali, New Zealand, and South Africa. How did The Green School choose these locations? Who are the key stakeholders that are involved in the process when selecting a new Green School location and how does the local community fit into that process?

John Hardy: Our first expansions to the Green School New Zealand campus in Taranaki was initiated by entrepreneurial parents of former Green School students. After seeing their children develop a real love of learning and appreciation for Green School values, they felt deeply motivated to expand the reach of Green School’s mission and take the model to their home countries. 

Whenever we expand to a new location, it is critical to us that we do so with utmost respect and consideration for the local community. A Green School will never stand separate from the community, it will always be woven into the fabric of its geography. We actually chose the location of Taranaki in New Zealand because it is the heartland of the country’s indigenous Maori people, and we want our students to be connected to the native people of New Zealand and learn their histories and culture. 

What are you most proud of in terms of the social or environmental impact The Green School has had?

John Hardy: Of course what we’re most proud of is our incredible students and alumni who inspire us everyday. Our students have literally gone all over the world. We’ve had admissions to universities in 18 different countries, we’ve had rock stars who’ve toured across India, a sailor who sailed around the world raising awareness on ocean conservation, we’ve had individuals who’ve gone on to start their own NGOs, present at TED talks and UN conferences, individuals who’ve gone on to be advocates and activists, individuals who’ve gone on to become artists and open art galleries, it really runs the gambit. When we say we’re educating young changemakers, the idea of being a changemaker is really just about instilling this responsibility to make our world a better place, and that can be in ways big or small by the world’s standards, but they’re ALL big. Our students and alumni know that as long as they’re doing something, as long as they’re trying to be a part of the solution and not resigning themselves to be part of the problem, they are a success. I mean we had several nurses who chose to enter the field this year in the midst of COVID! And we’re incredibly proud of them for that.

What lessons have you learned and, if you were going to do it again, what would you do differently?

John Hardy: There’s not much I would change. Our schools and curriculum are living things, nothing is set in stone here. That’s the beautiful thing. As we grow and evolve, we can make changes. As our world grows and evolves, we can make changes. I wouldn’t change much because it’s been such an incredible learning journey for us and for our Green School community, and the journey is what life is all about.

When your students graduate, what do you hope they take away from The Green School experience?

John Hardy: This goes back to your earlier question, but when we say we’re educating changemakers what we mean is we’re teaching our students (and, frankly, their parents and our whole community) that we should always seek to leave the world a little better than you found it.

Much of the curriculum is hands-on. What has the experience with COVID been like? How has The Green School had to pivot during this, should we say, unprecedented time?

John Hardy: We are valuing the community and relational aspect of our learning so much more in light of COVID. We’re very lucky because we learn outside ALL the time. What it has taught us is that this type of education is very hard, if not impossible in a world that can ONLY educate via technology. It is very difficult to equate any kind of online education meaningfully with a Green School education. You use two senses online, you use five senses every second of every day at Green School. So, while we did add extra safety measures with masks and social distancing, for the most part we were able to continue in our outdoor classrooms.

This time also served as an important reminder about the need to consider student health and well-being in any approach to education. We teach our students tools like meditation, yoga and journaling that can be very helpful for them in trying times like these. Our food is also grown in our campus gardens and provides good quality nutrition for them.

In The Green School journey, what has been the most unexpected difficulty to overcome, and what has been the most uplifting?

John Hardy: I think one challenge we faced early on was also the most uplifting. We realized pretty quickly that the success of our school and learning environment was related to how successful we were in cultivating a strong sense of community. Initially, we had the option of boarding at Green School but eventually we decided it was essential for parents to be part of the learning journey along with their students. The more we’ve come together in what we believe is a real movement in education, the more we felt enriched by our community. If our campus is the beating heart of Green School our community is the lifeblood. 

Where do you see The Green School in 5, 10 years?

John Hardy: After seeing the profound impact of our education system on the students at Green School Bali, we were keen to bring that opportunity to as many learners as possible around the world. To that end, the hope is to open new Green School campuses everywhere, with the same local-to-global approach to community and curriculum, but based on their specific geography and local culture and history.

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