Sangeetha Sriram and Manasi Karthik
Many young people would go to John Holt and tell him, “I want to work with kids”. Holt would then ask them, “Well, what do you know that is so interesting that kids of their own free-will will come up to you to learn how to do it?” They usually never had any answer to this! And then he would continue, “You don’t want to work with kids, you want to work on kids; do things to them or make them do things that you think would be good for them.”
In our discourse about education reform, we feel that this difference between ‘doing-to’ and ‘working-with’ kids is the most fundamental to understand. All other issues come only secondary to this. We have been interacting and working with a number of parents who have chosen to ‘unschool’ their children because they are not convinced that schools are seriously looking into this question at all.
Schools work ‘on’ kids and not ‘with’ them. What is meant by this is that adults basically approach education with a sense of, ‘We know when children should learn what. We know how they learn.’ They assume that children learn best when they are not doing anything else and that learning predominantly involves the mind. There really isn’t much research to support these approaches to learning. In fact, whatever research has been done goes to show that the best kind of learning happens through doing and experiencing. When the things we learn seem relevant to our lives and contexts, then learning is much more likely to be participatory rather than passive. There is much that can be said about the nature of learning. For now we will leave you with a quote from John Holt’s book ‘How Children Learn’.
What is essential is to realize that children learn independently, not in bunches; that they learn out of interest and curiosity, not to please or appease the adults in power; and that they ought to be in control of their own learning, deciding for themselves what they want to learn and how they want to learn.
Learning begins in the childhood world of curiosity and wonderment. When we look around and notice that the sparrows don’t come to the city anymore, we begin to wonder why. When we see someone dexterously working on a machine, we want to learn how. When we hear the beautiful sounds of a symphony being played, we want to know where it came from. Indeed if we were to appreciate this innate sense of curiosity that children come with, then our approach could be one of trust; one of working with the child’s intelligence instead of replacing it with our own.
The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn. – Alvin Toffler.
Indeed, it is the ability to learn that we must nurture in children, more than the ability to retain information. In that sense, learning how to learn becomes fundamentally important. Then knowledge will not have to be something that we impart to children. Instead, information and resources can simply be made available to children, for them to organize, make sense of and experiment with. But this is not enough. Children have some basic needs. It is only when these needs are met that they retain their natural ability and motivation to learn. But the ‘doing-to’ approach of schools does not respect and meet these needs. Here are some examples.
Need for silence: We know a nine-year old boy who feels quite unsettled when he has to be around a lot of people at the same time. Instead he prefers to work alone, exploring things at his own pace. He often likes to sit silently by himself, and is lucky to have parents who don’t tell him to stop ‘daydreaming’. In school, when a child is not doing anything, he is labelled as lazy and unproductive. This is what happened to him. After his parents decided to unschool him, he has begun to explore the world and learn in interesting ways. He now feels able to flow more freely and creates situations where he is able to interact with others in ways that are not overwhelming for him.
In schools, there is often no space for a child to naturally slip into a silent moment where she is simply listening to the rustle of the breeze in the leaves. When this opportunity is lost the mind often becomes noisy. The child forgets her ability to get in touch with an inner quietness and derive meaning and joy from there. Today, most children we see become easily bored and restless. In order to escape this, they begin to seek entertainment. When children are not pressurized to always be ‘learning’ (and that too learning only the subjects that we deem fit, at the times that we deem fit) they naturally seek out and find such silent moments. Quiet minds are naturally drawn to learning.
Need to feel trusted: The confidence of childhood is a fragile thing. It can be preserved or destroyed in an instant. – Paul Villiard
In a school we are constantly telling children how to spend their time, what and how to learn. The hidden message in all this is, ‘We don’t trust that you are naturally capable of finding meaningful use of your time’. We are always saying things like ‘don’t go there, you will fall down’ or ‘don’t touch that, you will break it’. We could turn this around and tell our children ‘You can do it!’ and trust them with small things. If they mess up, we can assure them by saying ‘It’s ok, we all mess up at times. You can try again’. This way, we can actually help our children become self-confident and self-motivated. These are essential pre-requisites for effective learning.
Need for their time and space: Our friend’s daughter (who is now being unschooled) tends to learn in phases. For a few weeks at a time she picks up something with great enthusiasm and interest. Most recently, she has been fascinated with astronomy. She goes with her mother to the library to find books on stars and spends hours on the computer looking up more information on astronomy. Then after a period of delving deeply into a subject, she usually takes a few weeks to unwind and not do anything in particular.
Children need to have all the time in the world to be engrossed in whatever they are doing without being hurried, or being told, “Enough of that!” This is often not easy to do especially when we are in a hurry to do something or get somewhere. But these should be exceptions rather than the norm! However, the logic of timetables completely contradicts this. Not being allowed to complete a task for no apparent reason can leave children frustrated and unfulfilled.
Need for uninhibited expression: Expression can be in the form of dancing, singing, speaking, drawing, writing and painting. Children are often ‘taught’ how to do these things. Rules are given to them. When they want to express outside of this rule box they are ‘corrected’. Once, a little girl was dancing with beautiful body movements, while her parents constantly kept commenting, ‘That’s not how it is done! Can you please change your movement!’ and on and on. Very soon, she lost her interest in dancing and stopped. This voice that keeps correcting and instructing children soon grows loud in their heads killing their innate creativity, which then gets trained to do only what is ‘accepted’ and ‘validated’.
We recently saw a nine-year old boy’s original comic book. It had been made with a lot of creativity but had a fair number of spelling errors. In the world of such young creative minds, ‘Dor’ is a valid spelling for ‘door’, and ‘mather’ is a valid spelling for ‘mother’! Once they have been given the opportunity to express themselves freely, grammar and spellings can easily fall in place with some facilitation.
Need for participating in adults’ world and contributing: Children know only one world – a meaningful world of exploring, creating, celebrating and collaborating. They know only one life, where work and play, living, doing and learning are one and the same.
We live in a society where the adult world of work is neatly separated from the childhood world of play. The adult world is very unsafe for children and is full of signs saying ‘Children are not allowed’. When access to real learning environments is denied to children, they feel bored and frustrated; the notion that education is separate from the rest of life gets reinforced.
When a child sees a woodworker perfecting his craft assiduously day after day, he is naturally inspired and aspires to work like that one day. One of us, when working as a teacher, would find a quiet corner to practice writing in school. The children would always notice and be drawn to this. They would come up and ask, “Are you a poet? What are you writing about? Why do you write?” Innumerable beautiful explorations into the world of writing have stemmed from such interactions.
When children get to live and interact with active doers and learners of all age groups, their spontaneous ability to learn gets nurtured.
Need to commune with nature: Have you noticed something in you come alive when you watch the sun setting on the horizon, flocks of birds flying across the pink sky, or a pipal tree rooting through the building crack? Children too feel this way, and can relate uninhibitedly to all creatures, whether it is a beetle crawling across the floor or a bird flying in the sky. The wilderness of nature is consciously separated from modern schools and urban areas. Urban gardens are too tamed (too neatly manicured, boxed and disciplined in rows) for us to draw any inspiration from. We feel that any meaningful learning environment would need to bridge this gap between man and nature.
Need for inspiration: Perhaps the first major assumption that we make in schools (even alternative ones) is that we can bring children up to be sensitive, caring and intelligent in a society that is otherwise greedy, cunning and divisive. Children imbibe a lot from their environment. They are often the first ones to spot contradictions and point them out. When one of us was having an argument with a friend recently, the child in the room asked, “Why aren’t you speaking in a ‘calm voice’ like you ask me to?”
Surely, we are never going to find a perfect environment where everything is done correctly. Everyone makes mistakes and then tries harder the next time. However, we truly believe that the only way to impart values to children is for them to be living with adults who constantly strive to live those values themselves. Otherwise, we are only sending them conflicting messages and soon enough they learn to rationalize and suppress their conscience.
When the above needs are met, children retain their ability to be intrinsically motivated learners. Such learners would be capable of self-organizing to create learning environments for themselves throughout their lives. We can then substitute the question, ‘what should children learn’ (and consequently how can we best teach it to them) with the question ‘how do we make sufficient resources available to self-directed learners’?
There is an old African saying that goes: “It takes a village to raise a child.” This simple statement bodes a lot of hope, as it points us towards a different educational paradigm in these times of drudgery.
So many aspects of our urban lives today, from food-preparation and house-cleaning to meaningful engagement are outsourced to cooks, maids, toys and the TV. Choosing to unschool our children in the city would involve restructuring our lives in order to reclaim these wonderful learning opportunities. However, owing to the inherent limitations of its design (where roads are unsafe, most places are not child-friendly) and the lack of a real community of conscious adults being able to share their resources effortlessly (it usually involves a long ride for a play-date or permission to do a nature walk), the city is limited in its scope to nurture natural learning.
This is why we feel that the best alternative to schooling is a healthy and thriving land-based community; a place where the natural ability to learn is nurtured by the presence of active doers and learners; a place where adults sincerely practice what they believe in; a place which is safe and welcoming for children. In order to create such a space, we adults will need to first unlearn a lot of things ourselves. Most importantly, we need to let go of the notion that ‘we know how life works’. Adults can then interact with children as co-learners, facilitators and collaborators instead of as ‘teachers’.
Like John Holt said: “The most important thing any teacher has to learn, not to be learned in any school of education I ever heard of, can be expressed in seven words: Learning is not the product of teaching. Learning is the product of the activity of learners.”
Sangeetha Sriram lives with her husband and three-year old daughter in Chennai. She has researched about different approaches to parenting and education over the past twelve years by observing children in various environments, reading, engaging with parents and visiting different education initiatives in India and the US. She regularly writes about natural learning and conscious parenting on her blog www.sangeethasriram.blogspot.com
Manasi Karthik has been writing about and exploring alternatives to education in the last few years. She herself chose to opt out of her last year of schooling and since then has been pursuing an unconventional and self-directed learning path. She also loves to write poetry and works with children’s literature. She shares some of her observations on learning on her blog: