When Learning Comes Naturally

Purba Sen Mitra writes about homeschooling and homeschoolers in her article for Good News Tab. The article is being reproduced here with the permission from Good News Tab.

What if learning could be a journey without any beginning or end where children could design their own curriculum and become their own teachers? What if children could bond and learn with their families every day? In a world where, on an average, the first 21 years of our lives are spent running from one institution to another to acquire certificates and degrees, an option to learn away from schools and colleges may sound terrifying or even crazy to most. Even so, a small group of warrior parents are opting for such a life by homeschooling their children.

Homeschooling, in simple terms, means deriving learning from the natural environment. As more and more parents are questioning the homogeneous approach to schooling, they are re-looking their entire lives through the philosophy of attachment parenting and natural living. They firmly believe that living and learning go together and can do well without the insistence of institutionalised learning. Dola Dasgupta, a single parent and an unschooling mother of two children aged 7 and 11, says, “A school does not seem the right environment to learn, although I myself did go to school. According to me, and what I experience with my children, learning happens naturally, depending on the receptivity of each child … forcing anything before time or withholding or postponing till some specified age, as it’s done in schools, hampers the natural learning process of the child. A well-rounded education for me is the alignment of mind, body and spirit, in which the mind is empty of all existing knowledge, and the body is healthy by living in its natural rhythms.”

Navin Pangti adds, “Homeschooling is just a part of child rearing, the way you look after your children or the way a family system has to work.” Pangti, along with his wife Deepti, has homeschooled his children, who are 9 and 10.5 years old.

The homeschooling movement was started in the US three decades ago, mostly by parents who were unhappy with the religious education meted out in schools, and also academicians who were confident of doing a better job teaching their children. While homeschooling has become popular in Australia, Europe has made it illegal to homeschool.

As a concept, there are two commonly understood strands of homeschooling. One strand is about following the school curriculum or a structured curriculum at home, with parents as the teacher or guide; and the other is unschooling, where children are guided by their own inner design to learn and explore. In the latter scenario, the parents’ role is to be a partner in the learning journey, often providing resources and answers to queries, but more as a companion and a co-learner.

So can homeschooling produce the desired results? A case in point is Sahal Kaushik who has been homeschooled by his mother. At the tender age of 14, Kaushik cracked the Indian Institute of Technology Joint Entrance Exam (IIT-JEE) and is now pursuing MSc in physics from IIT Kanpur.

There are also increasingly heard examples of young people taking responsibility for their own education. Aditi Parekh (17) who studied at Rishi Valley School opted out of it after 11 years. She is currently a life learner, following her interest in writing and Bharatnatyam, and is committed to bringing about social change.

Sahya Samson (20) who has been completely unschooled has self-published her first book based on her thoughts and musings from the time she was 14 to 16 years. Presently, she is pursuing a four-year course in Eurythmy at Peredur Centre for the Arts, UK, where she got through on her own without any degrees and certificates to show.

Suhani Shah (23) left schooling when she was seven years old to pursue her passion for magic. Today, she is a magician, orator, psychosomatic counsellor and hypnotherapist, and runs her own clinic in Goa. Sakhi Nitin Anita opted out of school at the age 12. She is presently revisiting her interests and passions as a Khoji (a learner and a seeker) at Swaraj University as part of a two-year innovative learning programme for the youth that focuses on self-designed learning. The university believes in creating portfolios based on one’s own experiences rather than degrees and certificates as a proof of one’s education. It is, therefore, completely unrecognised and does not offer any degrees or diploma. One of the co-founders of Swaraj University, Manish Jain, also co-founded the Shikshantar movement that began in Udaipur, which regularly organises discussions and debates around alternate educational models.

Homeschooling also involves a degree of de-schooling and unlearning for parents, who more often than not have been to school themselves. As Urmila Samson from Pune, who has unschooled her three children aged 20, 16 and 13 years, shares, “During my unschooling journey, I found that my children were fine, they knew what they were doing but it was me who was holding them back with my old concepts and ideas and conditioning. They knew who they were, they knew what they wanted and they knew how to find it.”

Although homeschooling has been prevalent in India for some time, over the last few years, information technology has brought the community closer like never before. Hundreds of families across the nation now talk to each other on the India Homeschoolers forum on facebook. There is also an active Ning online community, with 770 members, and other groups like the Pune Homeschoolers Google group, where families share resources, organise outings, share views, opinions and offer encouragement.

In July 2012, the homeschoolers launched a national body called Swashikshan, which organised the first ever ‘All India Homeschoolers Conference’ under its banner in March this year. Dasgupta shares, “It was a very emotional journey for me. The fact that there was an overwhelming response and participation from 200 people across the nation, not just from the cities but also rural and semi-urban based families; the fact that the conference saw children effortlessly overcoming language and other barriers to interact and play and make new friends; and to watch parents interact with their children with so much love and kindness was a learning in itself.” The conference saw four days of lively interaction through workshops, sharing sessions and activities for children. Swashikshan also has a website that is managed by parent volunteers.

In spite of such successes, the homeschooling journey is not smooth. Friends and family question the decision of pulling children out of school or not putting them in school in the first place. Sometimes, parents face fierce criticism as well. According to Pangti, one of the most commonly asked questions is: “What are you trying to prove?” Priya Desikan, an unschooling mother, says, “The greatest fear and challenge that I face every day is to let go of what my mind and heart are used to clinging on to. The way I deal with both my fears and challenges is to try and look at what is happening without any coloured lens and look deep within myself. Very often, I have found that when I free myself of those old patterns and habits, I free my son.”

While the regular certification systems of ICSE and CBSE have kept homeschooled children out of their ambit, some state boards allow children to appear for the exams as private candidates. Many homeschooled children keep in touch with mainstream requirements by appearing for the likes of Cambridge international exams (IGCSE, O Levels, AS and A levels), or by studying under the National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS) supervised by the ministry of human resource and development. The NIOS is an examining and certifying authority in itself and is preferred because it caters to a diverse population of learners through open and distance learning. It also allows greater flexibility in choice of subjects and a five-year time frame for completing a course from the time of registration.

The recent Right to Education Act (RTE), which has made education between the ages of 6-14 years free and compulsory in a neighbourhood school for all children, has left homeschoolers wondering if it makes their decision illegal in the eyes of the state. However, an affidavit filed by the Government of India on July 18, 2012 in response to a writ petition filed by 14-year-old Shreya Sahay, who opted for homeschooling, and others in the Delhi High Court states that the RTE Act does not make homeschooling illegal. It essentially puts the state as the duty bearer who must ensure that every child is able to access free and compulsory education between the age of 6-14 years.

With an increasing number of families living in nuclear set-ups, couples with full-time jobs and children in demanding school systems, early burnout is hitting hard. In such a situation, can homeschooling be the answer for parents and children who want to embark on a journey of self-discovery, learning and natural living?