From teaching to unteaching

Sharmila Govande

Scene 1: A chubby little girl, about six years old is struggling to complete her test paper. Her eyes briefly gaze into mine before she gets back to staring at her paper. I feel helpless. I know this quiet girl with a beautiful smile. I have been her teacher. I have seen her take baby steps to come out of her timidity and express herself in class. She has always been praised for her beautiful handwriting and neat presentation. I wonder, “What is wrong? Why isn’t she able to answer the questions?”

Scene 2: A 10-year-old boy in my class is having another restless day. He isn’t able to sit quietly in his place. He is constantly disturbing the class. I ignore him but a while later enquire whether something is wrong. He has no answer. But I have a big question in my mind, “Why aren’t some children able to sit through a class without disturbing the class?”

Scene 3: I am with a group of 11 to 14-year-old girls. We are discussing latitudes and longitudes. A seemingly bored 11-year-old asks me, “Miss, am I going to keep learning about this until I am 14? All these textbooks talk about this topic”. She is looking through textbooks of grade 5, 6, 7 and 8. I get anxious, “Why do children have to learn about the same thing year after year? Why can’t they learn about a concept when they are interested in it and up to whatever depth they feel like?”

Many such questions perplexed me and I often felt helpless and lost. These questions gave me sleepless nights. To top it was the ever rebellious nature of my biological children who always wanted to do things their way. My oldest refused to complete homework or take interest in anything taught at school. While everyone in his class was learning about ocean life, he was interested in dinosaurs, while his teachers asked him to read a certain chapter from a book, he would open another book of his choice and refuse to read what he was asked to. His excuse, “Mamma, I already read all the textbooks when you bought them.”

My younger son would always get irritated at having to complete only the worksheets marked by the teacher. He would say, “Why can’t I just do what I want? Why can’t I choose?” He would want to play all the time and wasn’t interested in reading or writing. He would walk away a few minutes after I started reading a book to him or started narrating a story.

Back then, I would get frustrated, blame myself for not being able to spark interest in my children. At times I would use threats and rewards to get them to obey me and would end up feeling miserable. I experienced all this in progressive open-minded learning spaces (the so called alternate schools). I did try working in a conventional setup once, but lasted only a month. While the children grew to love me in that one month for all I did was bring interesting games to class, the other teachers kept reminding me that I had a syllabus to complete. I quit after a month realizing that it was difficult for me to work in such a constrained environment.

My pedagogy was simple – heighten the level of curiosity in the children, let videos, books, experiments and excursions do the talking. Once children were interested in a concept, their learning had no bounds, their curiosity led to them asking questions and engaging in research around it. Once their curiosity level was satisfied and they had made meaning of the concept they were learning, they were ready to write answers and solve worksheets.

However, my learning was that this method worked for many but not all. There were yet a few children, who weren’t interested, didn’t get involved, didn’t cooperate and either disturbed the class, or withdrew from everything. These children became my teachers as they made me question the very purpose and essence of schooling.

I read John Holt books but failed to see what he was trying to say. Read Ken Robinson’s, Schools kill Creativity and yet was blind. I read Kamala Mukunda’s, What did you ask at school today? and felt happy that I did understand children and worked toward making learning meaningful to them. But what I did not consider was whether ‘school was actually helping children learn’. For me, school was a non negotiable. Everyone had to go to school, then college and the more degrees you earned, the better your prospects were in life. I was set in this belief. I was unwilling to look beyond, until my oldest came up to me one day and said, “Mamma I have had enough of school. Why don’t you homeschool me?” He was about 12-years-old then and had been hinting the same ever since the beginning of the academic year. Every time he broached the topic, I would say, “Oh! What will you do sitting at home? You are having so much fun. You are ahead of your class and are well liked by all your teachers”. But this time, I finally heard him. I was also a bit frustrated trying to convince the open learning school, we both were part of (he as a student and me as a facilitator) to not introduce textbooks. I was also tired of cooking up lesson plans and doing everything that was unplanned in my class. I was unhappy that the alternate school was turning into a conventional school.

That’s when I saw a poster on Facebook. It announced a two month camp for ‘free learners, unschoolers, homeschoolers, self-directed learners and school misfits. I let it pass until the poster came flashing back the following week. This time I asked my son whether he wanted to go for the camp. ‘Yes’ he said in excitement. He did come back just after a month, but that was only because he was homesick. This was the first time he was away from me and his siblings. He was full of ideas and was sure that he didn’t want to go to school again.

His excitement was contagious and I started reading about homeschooling, listening to podcasts and meeting other homeschooling families. I re-read John Holt, Ken Robinson, Ivan Illich and John Taylor Gatto and books on self-directed learning. Later I started reading about democratic schools – Summer Hill, Sudbury Valley experiences, Democratic Schools, The beginning of a story by Yaacov Hecht and this time everything began to make sense. Soon we all opted out of school. I resigned from my teaching position and my children from their student positions.

Some of the major insights I had after reflecting on my work with children over the past 20 years, me as a parent and the books I read so far were:
Children are natural learners. No one teaches them to crawl, walk and talk. Until the age of about three they learn everything by themselves mainly through observation and trial and error. But then, they are enrolled in school where someone else decides what they learn and how they learn. Every child is put through the same drill. Teachers are aware that every child is unique and different and work very hard to address the different intelligences in a class. However, their freedom is limited. Their boundaries are set by syllabus, annual plans, schedules and timetables, learning outcomes and examinations. Most often they give up on the school misfits. These are those children who cause disturbance in the classroom and often send them for psychological testing and counselling. On the other side of the pendulum are children who withdraw and often go unnoticed in class. Then there are the slow learners who are sent for remedial classes.

Children learn only when they want to learn and what they want to learn. No one can force an infant to walk or talk. But later, we enforce a syllabus on them and make them learn. We even have textbooks to tell us what they should learn. We fail to understand that a child is constantly staring out of the window, because something outside has caught his attention and made him curious. We not only close the window or change his place, but we shut his curiosity. We do not let the child explore it further. We kill curiosity.

Most of what is taught is also out of context. A child is a meaning making machine and would want to make sense of everything in his vicinity before he goes beyond to the things that are not visible. However, we enforce the unseen, unheard, untouched, untasted and unspoken on him and expect him to learn. We focus on neatness and presentation and give little importance to understanding their expression. We are not okay with their answers and insist on them giving answers that cover all the expected points. Whether those points make sense to the child or not doesn’t matter.

Alternate schools do put in efforts to ensure that they make learning lively and try to cater to different kinds of intelligences, but fail to check whether the child wants to learn that particular concept or not. Children aren’t allowed to go beyond what the syllabus demands and teachers aren’t happy when they aren’t able to catch up with what is expected from the syllabus. Thus they are then judged as poor, fair, good, very good and excellent. Schools rely on a set of question papers, assignments and sometimes projects to judge a child on preset answers.

The common excuse given is, “This is how things are”. Children better get used to this or else they will suffer. Little do we realize that we are getting children ready to accept a lifetime of suffering and all children want is to end this suffering. No wonder suicide rates and rates of depression, failed relationships, violence and crime are on the rise. Most youth I meet are lost about their identity and don’t know who they are or what they are passionate about.

On the contrary, imagine a space, where children are free and in charge of deciding what they want to learn. Imagine the wonders it would create if we do not insist on time-bound learning. Imagine a space where the children make use of all their senses and intelligences to learn. Imagine a space where teachers do not come prepared and preplanned, but facilitate the quest and passion for learning in the child, by simply being there – listening to their expression of thoughts and ideas, by supporting them to explore and experiment, rejoice in their failures and celebrate their achievements. Support children to complete each other rather than compete with each other. Such spaces though small in number, exist. We have practicing examples of such self-directed free learning spaces. Summerhill in the UK is the oldest such school which completes a century next year. In India too we have such spaces running successfully – Creativity Adda in Delhi, Aarohi and BeMe in Bangalore, Puvidham in Tamilnadu, Jignyasa Learning Centre in Pune, The Learning centre in Goa, and Shikshantar in Udaipur.

These are my insights. I nowhere say that everyone has to feel the same. I also do not say that schools have to shut down and that everyone should homeschool. I shudder at the thought of the chaos it would create if all children decided to opt out of school. What I suggest is changing our current schooling pedagogy where we have standardized everything. The need of the hour is to bring in more self-directed learning, where the child decides and is in charge of his learning and the role of the teacher transforms into the role of an ‘unteacher’ who refrains from any kind of teaching or telling and only mentors the child in learning and achieving newer heights.

The author, a mother of three, has been involved in the field of education and development for the past 23 years. She has joined the unschooling movement recently. She writes, facilitates and hosts workshops on learning and development and focuses her energies on unschooling herself and her children. She can be reached at

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