Our experiments in unschooling

Ramgopal K

“….. human violence, greed, laziness, and all the other sins are not an ugly human nature breaking through the safeguards of moral training and self-control, but the opposite. They are the result of denying human nature, which is essentially loving, creative, empathetic, caring… in a word, divine.”Charles Eisenstien

Since the time we decided to ‘unschool’ (which is what we choose to call what we do) our kids, we have had a myriad reactions to our decision. Ranging from outright shock and anger with us combined with pity for our kids, puzzlement, and diplomatic rejection to genuine concern and eager curiosity. There have been a variety of questions around this move. So I thought it is perhaps best to organize this article as a response to the questions we get asked.

First, I think it’s best to start with what we mean by unschooling – like many other terms connected with ‘education’ (oops, that itself is such a contested word!) ‘unschooling’ means different things to different people.

What is unschooling to us?
Unschooling for us has meant a learning that is self-driven and self-chosen that comes from active participation in natural living experiences. We try to leave the children largely to themselves to choose what they want to pursue and how they wish to pursue it. There is very little in terms of a predetermined structure or curriculum that is imposed. The ‘learning’ happens as part of the day-to-day living. They actively participate in the household chores – cooking, fixing stuff at home, working on farms, whenever we are on one, and making decisions to the extent that they are able to. When they have questions around something that comes up during the course of the day, we discuss them, refer to books or research on the Internet to study it further. Whenever we think there is a need to regulate or make a choice for them, we suggest it to them and attempt to arrive at a certain agreed norm collectively. For example, the regulation of screen time (movie, computer time) or learning of Telugu and mathematics. Besides this they pursue music and various hand crafts.

Why unschooling?
The understanding of how we want to raise our children and the choices around their education has evolved along with our own process of seeking a more meaningful and fulfilling life. It started with my quitting my corporate career, because I was frustrated with it and never really enjoyed it. I found my calling in teaching and working with kids. I was involved in teaching at and running a small alternative learning centre, founded and run by Gurveen Kaur, called Centre for Learning (CFL) in Hyderabad. CFL was a place that nurtured active reflective thinking and experimentation in learning, teaching. There was an ongoing engagement to think about how education could be fun and personally meaningful. And this question was always posed in the larger context of a more sustainable, fairer, and freer society. Our children went to CFL until last year and us parents have been involved with CFL as teachers, volunteers, and parents since 2007.

It was during this time that I was also exposed to work around human rights, social movements, and the impact of what we have come to see as “development” on the lives of other people and the environment. We had also come to spend a lot of time living and working with a friend who lived with very basic amenities on a small farm away from the city.

These experiences dismantled a lot of learning and assumptions that I had come to have and gave me a fresh perspective on work, learning and living, and the idea of a good life. Some of which I summarize below.

I realized from my teaching experience with children that one of the most preposterous and tragic myths of modern schooling is that a child needs to be in a closed space five days a week, nine months a year for ten years packed together with other children of the same age, being told all the time what to learn, and how to learn and being monitored constantly to learn all that they learn at school!

Even granting that what they learn is worthwhile (which is highly contestable), whatever is learnt can easily be learnt in far less stressful ways with a lot of fun, in far less time and without all the control and threat mechanisms that a schooling process uses.

This environment that pushes things down on children firstly kills any joy for learning. It utterly disregards the child as an active learner, who has his/her own questions to pursue, in his/her own way and pace. Since all that is to be learnt is decided from afar by a set of adults and administered at a pre scheduled time and pace, studying becomes a chore that is clearly demarcated from play. Very early, we are conditioned to think of play as being wasteful and that learning cannot be playful or that there is even any learning in play. After a few years in school, learners seldom study because of their own motivation, they study for exams, for certificates or when coerced to do so with threats or rewards. Do you remember reading a science textbook in your free time? Have you ever seen a school going child do that? Given the choice, children would watch TV or go out and play.

We also realized that what is recognized as knowledge or worth knowing is extremely narrow in school. The best of schools probably teach academics well, but anything beyond it is either “extra curricular” or given token symbolism, with the occasional workshop or two – handicrafts, tailoring, maintenance and repair of your cycle – does any school put the child who is interested and does this with great skill and interest above one who does well in a written academic test? Does any school nurture a student who wants to be a gardener or a farmer?

children-with-father Children, when left to themselves, enjoy the ‘extra curricular’ activities and will even perhaps choose to pursue these more seriously if they are not subtly (through the grade system, segregation) and explicitly (through admonishments) discouraged from doing them.

We felt that staying out of school would in fact give our kids the opportunity of a wider exposure to things beyond academics. It leaves children with more time to experiment, have far more diverse real life experiences and social interactions.

So when we decided to move out of the city to live on a farm, it was a natural decision for us to stay out of school. However this was not an arbitrary decision that we took. We spent time discussing this with the children and they know that if at any point they want to go to a school, they have the freedom to make that choice.

How do they spend their time?
The experiment with unschooling began with our attempt to move out of the city to a village to live there and work on a farm. Our children had the company of two other kids who were also around their age and didn’t go to school. A large part of their time was spent in play. They would spend time coming up with games, formulate their own rules and then improvize them as they went along. They would accompany us to the farm. Sometimes choosing to help us in our work, sometimes doing something on their own.

Over the four months that we stayed there they would from time to time help us in the construction of the mud house that we were involved in – mixing mud, plastering walls, sieving sand. Besides this they would sometimes lend us a hand with harvesting, sowing seeds, planting trees, watering plants, etc. Being on a farm they frequently encountered snakes, scorpions, lizards, and birds. That would prompt them to read about these creatures using field guides to identify snakes, tell the venomous ones from the non-venomous ones. etc.

As a practice, we never deliberately kept the kids out of any of our real life issues, unless we felt it would be disturbing for them to handle. In the course of our time there, we had issues with the neighbouring farmers for access, for which we had to engage with government departments. The children would be part of the brainstorming we had, accompany us to the collectorate office, be part of our conversations. On another occasion we had to engage with illegal granite mining on a hill close to the farm. So they would listen to our conversations about the impact of the mining, hear us discuss possible ways to handle it, see us meet people in the village, talk about petitioning, etc. If I had to slot these experiences into different subjects it would be social studies (understanding village social setups, government bureaucracy functions), ecology and environment science (food chain, diversity, natural farming, use of solar energy, impact of mining on environment), biology (plants, animals, anatomy, reproduction) …as you can see, the list of subjects is endless and the learning was seamless.

Since we moved back to Hyderabad from the village, they spend three days at an informal resource centre to which a few other home schooled children go. There they get to take up self-initiated projects, pursue study on chosen themes, and take up group projects. Depending on the resource people coming in they get to choose to learn dance, art, craft, theater, etc.

On the other days in the week they are home. Sometimes when we go to work on a friend’s farm they accompany us and spend time there, else they use the time in reading, visiting a library, or pursuing practical projects around tailoring, crochet, craft using Internet to research and learn. When we travel to conduct workshops or work on a farm, they travel with us and are participating in ways that make sense to them.

The only scheduled learning that we do is mathematics once in a couple of weeks and some reading practice in Telugu. Mathematics because, while some of it gets handled during the course of the work we do, some of it doesn’t and they have enjoyed doing math when they went to Centre for Learning. Telugu because, while they are fluent in English and read it, there is never an opportunity to engage with too much Telugu literature in the normal course and we feel if they are at least equipped with the reading skills they can later always take off from there if they want to.

What about the company of other kids?
This is a very frequent concern that people express. That if children do not go to school, they are going to miss out on socializing with other kids their age. We found that while children do like to have other children to interact with, this can easily be organized outside school. Meeting kids over play in the evening, visiting friends, meeting other home schooling kids and during travel to other places. However, we feel that the need to be with other kids of the same age is rather over estimated. Children can very comfortably relate to people of varied age groups. It’s only when adults treat a child condescendingly or when they talk down to them that the relationship doesn’t become a meaningful one. Otherwise they can have quite an active, stimulating friendship going with older people. In any case in a school the children are all grouped according to age and so a child is almost always spending time with children of only her/his age, which is rather restricting. And this interaction too is very strongly mediated by adults most times. Not having to be in school every day for 5-7 hours frees up a lot of time for interactions with people in other forums like art and dance classes, workshops, common interest groups, etc.

What about academic subjects like science, mathematics, social studies?
While we plan time for the children to do mathematics and practice Telugu reading, we don’t really see the need to do the others as structured subjects as yet, since ideas, concepts around these subjects come up anyway during the course of our work. Whenever they have a question around a certain topic, we pick up books to refer to or research on the Internet.

For example, when we had a snake in our backyard, they got quite interested in knowing how to identify snakes, recognizing venomous snakes, responding to snake bites, etc. They picked up a Field Guide by Romulus Whitaker and read it with great interest and excitement. When they wanted to know how a petrol engine works, we talked about chemical reactions and from there went on to talking about elements, atoms, and molecules since they needed this to understand chemical reactions.

So in short, topics from science, social studies are learnt when questions around them come up organically during the course of their exploring life. And this way they have never treated them as boring subjects with boundaries.

What are the challenges of unschooling?
For one, we had to acknowledge and accept that we (the parents) ourselves are schooled in many ways. So there are times when there is insecurity and anxiety. This cannot be a ‘method’ that we choose to impose on our kids. This is a process where the parents have to be collectively involved with the kids, constantly engaging in a dialogue in what we are doing with them, so that they are not just being handed down decisions but are a part of the choices we make.

Many a times we instinctively talk down to them, or don’t trust them enough to leave them to themselves to pursue their paths on some issues. So we realize it is as much a journey for us as parents where we need to reflect on our own conditioning constantly and attempt to do that transparently with the kids.

And given that there are not very many precedents around you, sometimes we are uncertain and hence anxious. However, there is a big enough community of people spread across the country who are taking to this path and building connections with them gives a sense of solidarity.

What reassures us is the active engagement the kids have in what they do and learn and since they choose to do it, there are no hard lines between play and learning. And they are doing it with joy, not with the burden of an external assessment.

What’s the future? What will they do without certificates?
At this point we haven’t really thought about or chartered a clear plan for the future. It is possible that they might want to go to a school when they grow up a little and we will find them a school at that point. If we feel that getting a certification is needed there is NIOS (National Institute of Open Schooling) where one can register for 10th class certificate examination. There are other options too like IGCSE, which offers certification options for self-learners.

However at this point we are not very anxious about certification, since we have seen a lot of people pursue their passions, find work without the need for certifications.

Unschooling is a path, where the parents need to be open to unlearn, reflect and submit themselves and their long held beliefs to examination. This also means that we examine fundamentally our own work, lifestyle, learning and values. There is no clear manual for going ahead, we need to, along with our children, figure our way as we go along, which means that we cannot use authority to impose things and must be open to acknowledging mistakes to the children and correcting ourselves.

Some interesting resources from which we have drawn understanding and inspiration for our journey.

  1. How children fail – John Holt
  2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k0fgtvbMT7k – This movie of around 20 minutes explores possibilities for learning and living with a paradigm of Trust.
  3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZUoYAj7Nosg – A short movie, critically examining the levels of institutionalization of our lives and its implications.

The author is primarily a home maker. He also spends his time participating in initiatives towards ‘Degrowth’, working on permaculture/natural farming based farms, documenting health impacts of nuclear power, campaigns for sustainability, and workshops on ecology. He also engages in theatre with children. He can be reached at knramgopal@gmail.com.

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