Unschoolers

Monday ~ April 04, 2013 by Sangeeta Posted in kids,Parenting

I read an article in the Indian Express about a small band of courageous parents who not just not send their kids to school, they don’t school them at all! I read it with great interest. I knew of course about home schooling, where children are tutored at home. But not schooling at all was a new thought for me.

Like many parents, I have little respect for ‘rote learning’, the ‘no freedom to express yourself in your own creative way’, ‘no scope to learn at one’s pace’ and other annoying features of a regular school. As an alternative, many of my friends have opted for international schools for the obvious upgrade in textbook material(there are plenty of errors in their desi counterparts is what they assure me), the student-teacher ratio, the overall facilities and so on. With better systems, there is more scope for the child to be an individual with specific talent and needs and not just be a roll no. Others have opted for the new breed of non-international schools which boast of an international look and feel. They are typically located away from the city centre with lush green surroundings or at least a decent play ground.

Wherever a parent might enroll their kid, it finally boils down to a disciplined existence. Reminds me of the song from the movie ‘Taare Zameen Par’ – Duniya ka nara lage raho. According to the parents of the unschoolers, the point is to keep the kids free of a regimented life. Remove the discipline of daily lessons from the child’s life. Let their growth be organic, child-led, interest-driven, etc. Is that a good thing? Sounds like. Why should it be a bad thing? Need not be but for a number of ifs and buts.

The idea of not having a discipline in your average day seems so unsettling that I wonder if that is the point. To free your mind and open it up to endless possibilities. What would you do if your schedule was just erased from your life? If you were free to do anything or nothing at all? It sort of reminds me of how I felt after I stopped doing a 9-9 job and started to work for my self. It was very liberating but not easy. Of course I was not free like a child would be – I had always existed within a structure, some structure. So even when I became self-employed,I still believed and behaved like an employee for a long time- tell me what is to be achieved and then I’ll apply my brains as to how to do it. But don’t just let me loose like a balloon in the sky.

I’m drifting. But it is all connected. But I do have problems with unschooling. Because I feel it is fraught with dangers. Primarily because: 1) Children have huge energy reservoirs which should be tapped by giving them constructive activities on a daily basis. 2) Children do not really know ‘Their Calling” till they are at least 30. 3) In India, I don’t think it is possible for unschoolers to take up anything other than art or sports as careers.

I’m not saying that unschooling cannot address any of these points. But I believe it puts a lot of pressure on the parents. I can see with my own son Tej, his energy and curiosity seem endless. Having him attend a regular school does help us get the basics out of the way. Obvious advantages that come to mind – 1) Social interactions with kids of his age and other adults apart from immediate family circle. 2) He is still in kindergarten and hence does not have a school bag full of books or homework to wade through, but he does go through a syllabus appropriate for his age. He enjoys writing words and reading now. He likes the field-visits his school undertakes. He uses his counting skills in everyday chores.

This leaves us parents free to address other aspects of life – sports, music and free unstructured play every evening.

Also, the kids in the Indian Express article I mentioned above, listed their day activities thus: surfing the net, watching movies, swimming or football, playing with friends. This does not sound very radically different from what most kids do anyway.

Also, while I agree there can be disagreeable experiences at a regular school, I don’t think it would apply to the general populace. Most people would not have traumatic memories of school I think.

But there are definitely some things the parents can do to make it easier for a school-going child. While regular school will obviously not provide education in the ideal way – child-led, organic and so on, parents can step in and make it an experience that is as close to the type they like.

1) Not putting pressure on the kid to perform. This is easier said than done. Because most parents feel that their child is capable of doing far better than her marks suggest. Which might be true. But then the parents need to backtrack and check what changes need to be made at a systematic level to help the child do better. Just making either threatening statements of the type “You had better pull up your socks if you want to amount to anything in life” or bribery “I promise you the coveted so and so if you do better than this” are not good long-term strategies.

2) Taking an active interest in what they like. Meaning participating in that activity or subject every day, providing new interesting material and helping them to excel.

3) Taking additional effort with subjects that they do not like. Like vegetables, I feel all subjects can be dealt with without any shudders as long as the material is presented in a palatable form. So never accept statements such as “I hate so and so subject”.”Not a particularly favourite subject” is okay, but no need to loathe. By additional efforts I do not mean tuition. Tuition teachers simply repeat what is in the textbook and assert the rote system. They just help your child to memorise what was done in the school classroom. Ideally the parent should sit down with the child and help to simplify. You know your child best. You know if he is truly comprehending what you are saying. How can you make the subject worthy of his attention? Crack that dreaded topic everyday and ensure there is no dreaded subject.

I was talking about the article with Harshad last night and he brushed it aside as nonsense. I insisted on him reading the article and giving me his thoughts. He scanned through and said “Unschooling will never work as a viable option for society at large. It does not harness the knowledge that mankind has gained over centuries. Schools groom the child in the basics of all subjects which is necessary for the child to mature and gain an overall understanding of the world. Also, mankind has progressed because a schooling system is in place for the scientists, engineers, doctors and so on of tomorrow.”. Hmm. I understand what he means. It is difficult for a parent to provide the basics of all subjects to a child ranging from History, Geography, Science, Maths, Languages and so on, which is done at a school.

Since I believe the article only skimmed the surface of a deep topic, I read up on the topic online and found some very interesting reading material. One of them was a survey on psychologytoday.com which asks the participants to talk about the benefits, challenges and why they took up unschooling. Another article which was very nice reading was in-defense-of-unschooling/.

There is no right answer as each child is different and there are many things to consider. Hopefully none of the unschooled kids will grow up and feel in later life that they missed out on the fun of a regular school. Or worse, that they are lacking in some way because they never sat for any exams. Or wish that they had the wherewithal to become surgeons or architects or scientists ( I am assuming that college is not an option for unschooled kids in India) . Or that they resolve their kids would go to a proper school!

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