Without the hierarchy of teacher and taught

Divya Tate is homeschooling her two boys, now teenagers, in Pune. She is a passionate cyclist, grows a beautiful edible garden on her apartment terrace and hand crafts beaded jewellery… just a few of the many things she loves… besides being a homeschooling mother! She is also the founding member of the online group of Pune Homeschoolers. Presented below is the transcript of her talk at the Swashikshan launch.

I would like to start with a brief introduction first. I have been a single mom for the last twelve years, raising two boys who are now in their teens. Our personal style, which is eclectic at best, may be described as Home-Learning in which we all, adults and children, learn together from every activity and experience that we engage in. Unlike schooling this process is more interactive and organic and involves everyone as a learner. Without the hierarchy of teacher and taught, it has the potential to be much more dynamic. This is why I like to say that “WE have been out of school for five years”, as my learning curve sky rocketed the moment the boys pulled out of school.

For me it would be very difficult to pinpoint where and how our journey began. I don’t think there was any one moment of epiphany. Rather it has been a slow awakening. Questioning conventional dictates, and finally rejecting an institutional way of thinking towards anything that has a significant effect on the quality of our lives. In retrospect I think it is easy to see a connection between choosing an alternate learning path and alternate healing, organic food, sustainable living, alternate means of transport and even barefoot running! And in fact a lot of us homeschoolers share similar perspectives on these.

When the boys were very young, I did continuously question the amount of time they wasted just by being in school. For sure I did not think that school was going to take care of all their learning needs so I spent a lot of time reading with them, working on hands-on projects, being outdoors and in the countryside to try and compensate for the time spent in school. The way I think I looked at it was that I did not have a choice. For me it was a necessary evil and one had to work around it! Also I was newly single and we were all in a transition phase, adjusting to many new things. It was during this time that I first heard about homeschooling from friends, who knew others or had met homeschoolers, and frankly I was quite impressed with what was to me a very novel idea!

But while I may have questioned whether school was a healthy learning environment, I did continue to send my kids to school and spent years of my life attempting to change the system from within. I was continuously addressing issues related to the well-being of the children before I finally had to accept that the ‘well-being’ of the children was not a consideration at all for anybody in the institution of education. A familiar disdain that is visible if one was to consider the health of a community or the planet though it is also fallout of a schooled society.

Anyhow, conditioning runs so deep that it still took over a year and two more school changes before we were all finally ready to get out of the system. During that time talking to other homeschoolers, Urmila, Swati and advocates of alternate learning and thinking like Jinan, was very reassuring and played a critical role in helping make the decision. I don’t think I could have done it without knowing that we were not alone in this entirely new and exciting territory!

The feeling of relief and freedom the moment we took the decision was amazing, even though it wasn’t an easy phase, challenging our own conventional thinking and perspectives. We also had to get used to being around each other all day, deal with the lack of the old comfortable routines and the boys faced periods of feeling lonesome. After all they had been used to spending a lot of time with their peers and I had been used to having a lot of time to myself. That period was like a roller coaster, a lot of ups and downs until we found our respective rhythms, set up new social networks and found things of our own interest to engage us.

All of us enjoy sports, physical activities, being outdoors, spending time in the countryside, camping etc. tremendously and that has always taken up the large chunk of our time. Besides trekking and cycling with me regularly from the ages of 3-4, they have taken up various sports at different times, Rohit playing cricket and table tennis competitively and Pankaj playing table tennis and cycling competitively. We all run, cycle, swim and do yoga regularly to stay in form. This has formed the framework around which the rest of our activities are scheduled. We are continuously exploring many different avenues of learning, through hands on projects like carpentry, solar cookers and other sustainable energy devices, art and craft, music, voluntary labour on organic farms and forests, travel etc.

In addition we continued to use friends, family, resource people, local facilities and tutors to attend to scholastic learning. We had started in the first year with unit studies, IB style, taking up topics of interest and exploring them together in every respect. For example one our early ones was ‘The Universe’ and we learnt maths, science, history and literature with respect to it, using films, books, the internet, stargazing outings, a visit to the planetarium and creating tools and models as needed.

I really loved this method of learning, but frankly given how much time our other interests were taking up it was just easier for me to outsource the kids’ learning to others who had a passion for their respective areas of interest… and focus on my own!

Of course within that, I soon realized that the duration any tutor lasted was inversely proportional to how conventional their mind-set was. Initially at least, even if they were following a syllabus, the agenda was to use that as a skeleton only, the focus being to develop an interest in the subject.

For example they have been doing English lessons with a friend, who basically loves the written word. What I asked of her was simply to ensure that they continued to enjoy reading, got exposed to different genre and learnt to enjoy writing. The experience was challenging for her too, as there are no well beaten paths to follow, no conventional material to use, which meant that she had to be creative continuously and I think she has enjoyed the journey too. Sometimes they just don’t take to an interest area even when they have had wonderful people to guide and engage them.

With regard to their academic path, as long as it does not interfere with their learning and their other primary interests we have no problems with taking exams and getting a certificate! It helps in getting visas so one can travel! As long as we understand that doing well in an exam is just that….

A reflection of how well you do exams, and not a measure of your entire existence, we can live with it. The reason why I bring this up is because my older son just did very well in the 10 standard Cambridge board exams and we have had to deal with a lot of new, often conflicting thoughts in relation to that. For me, I was just glad that he did well in subjects of his choosing, that he enjoyed the process of learning, which ran much deeper than the exams can measure, and all this while continuing to play his sports, spending 5-6 hours a day on that right upto his exams.

For him, after six months of discussions, soul searching, laying out all the options of what he continues to do, including taking a break year etc., he learnt that he does in fact enjoy an academic challenge in his fields. Without any agenda he has been studying maths online, through books of higher and higher levels, not necessarily curriculum related in the six months after finishing his exams. So we finally had to recognize that at least for now this, and academic path, is what he wants and have now embarked on a fresh new journey, and I had to go through all the fun of every other parent in my city, attempting to take admission at the most competitive level in junior college! But we were able to keep our sense of humour, mainly because we both understand that he is ‘choosing’ this path, and therefore has the choice of opting out anytime he wants.

Phew! Who would have thought that I, with all my advocating of alternate learning etc. would be doing this? Why couldn’t he just play the guitar of something?!

2 thoughts on “Without the hierarchy of teacher and taught”

  1. Nice article, pls explain this, Divya…With regard to their academic path, as long as it does not interfere with their learning and their other primary interests we have no problems with taking exams and getting a certificate! It helps in getting visas so one can travel!
    What is the relation between visa’s and exams?

  2. Hi,
    I am Sujanitha, a parent of a 5-year old from Chennai. I am planning to unschool my son this year. My objective of home-schooling is to give the best to my child and let him choose whatever that he wants to do freely.. He seems to be interested in academics also so I was searching for a good curriculum to base-on. Can you give me more details on Cambridge curriculum and the procedures?

    Thanks in advance.

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