Garima Mishra : New Delhi, Sat Mar 23 2013, 21:46 hrs
No homework, no exams, no lessons, no syllabus and no timetable — that's how Niom's life has been for the past several years. This 13-year-old is an "unschooler" and has never been to school, by his and his parents' choice. "Unschooling is basically following your heart and interest. There is life beyond certificates and degrees," says Pune-based Urmila Samson, Niom's mother.
American author and educator John Holt introduced the term "unschooled" in 1977. In his book Teach Your Own, he wrote, "Unschooling is also known as interest-driven, child-led, natural, organic, eclectic or self-directed learning. Lately, the term 'unschooling' has come to be associated with the type of homeschooling that doesn't use a fixed curriculum. It is about allowing children as much freedom to learn in the world, as their parents can comfortably bear."
The idea of homeschooling and unschooling has found many takers in India over the last decade, perhaps due to the dissatisfaction with the existing education system and a conviction that children do not flourish in a regimented life. At the first All India Homeschoolers' Conference held in Khandala, Maharashtra, from February 28 to March 4, around 180 people from Delhi, Chennai, Coimbatore and various parts of Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra gathered to share stories, exchange information, and discuss their fears and doubts. While homeschooled children follow a syllabus, take their Class X and XII examinations through the Open Board, and are guided by parents and private tutors, parents who choose to unschool their children are brave enough to let them be entirely. Both are recognised under the Right To Education Act. A statement issued by the then human resource development (HRD) minister Kapil Sibal in 2009, says, "The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act, 2009, wants every child to be in school but if somebody decides not to send his/her children to school, we are not going to interfere. The compulsion is on the state, not on the parents. Parents are free not to send their children to school, but teach them at home."
The idea of holding a conference in India struck Samson in 2009, when she attended two unschooling conferences in the US. "At that time, apart from a discussion group on Google, there were no online groups. I had an urge to meet other families and know about their journeys," says the homemaker, whose husband is a retired dental surgeon. She sent a mail to everyone in the group. A few willing people, mainly homeschoolers and unschoolers, came forward to organise the event.
Dola Dasgupta, a Pune-based single parent, was among those who attended the conference. "Radical unschoolers and travellers of life," is how this 40-year-old mother of two children, Gourika (11) and Ishaan (7), describes herself and her family. "My kids have no daily routine, each day is unique and different. We learn together as a family from life and from each other. School is like a factory and for factories one needs the horn to blow for the day to start and finish," she says.
Dasgupta pulled Gourika out of school when she was six. The pressure to get better at things didn't interest Gourika and disheartened her mother. "I was seeing a bright spark getting dimmer and dimmer due to constant demands to perform. I decided to homeschool first but found that the standard curriculum was also limited. Repeating school at home was not the solution for us," she says. So after some online research and speaking to a few experienced unschoolers, she opted for unschooling. Her son Ishaan has never been to school. While Gourika listens to music, watches movies, surfs the internet, swims and plays with friends, Ishaan enjoys building 3D models with Lego blocks, cracking puzzles, painting, watching Discovery Kids on TV and swimming. "Besides, we all engage in discussions and conversations," says the mother. How do they pick up reading and writing skills? "When children grow up in an environment which has words and sounds, they learn to read and write at their own pace, and when they feel the need to use these skills," says Dasgupta. Her son learnt to recognise numbers on his own and can manage basic calculation, including handling money.
Over 20 years ago, when Samson decided to unschool her children, she was a nervous mother. Today, she is proud to share that her elder daughter Saahya is pursuing eurythmy, an expressive movement art, in the UK. "When Saahya was 11, she attended a school in Pune for three days but wasn't happy. Later, I admitted her in another school, which according to me was good, but she didn't like that either. Saahya realised that she wasn't meant for schools and chose to pursue art, theatre and music, purely as a hobby," says Samson. The lives of her sons — Rain (16) and Niom — revolve around football.
P Aravinda and K Ravi, a Mumbai-based couple working for a non-profit organisation, vouch that their nine-year-old daughter learns all that she needs to know by observing others. Khiyali, who is being brought up in a joint family, was never made to sit and learn reading or writing but learnt it gradually through trying out things and observing her parents and grandparents, all of whom are voracious readers. "Schools divide the process of learning into subjects. We feel that everything is interconnected. Since Khiyali does not go to school, she has ample time to explore the things she is interested in," says 43-year-old Aravinda.
Parents who choose to unschool are not worried about career prospects. Dasgupta says, "If I were to plan their career paths, then I might as well put them in school, shouldn't I? Unschooling is all about children figuring out on their own what calls them in life. As a parent my task is to support this process."
Unlike in the US, Europe or Australia, there aren't enough public resources for unschoolers. "There aren't enough public libraries. Because of the e-book culture, so many bookstores have closed. At other stores too, you don't have the scope of sitting and browsing. You have to buy the book to read it," says Aravinda. Agrees Dasgupta: "The parent and family have to be more innovative as nothing is available on a platter. That is the challenge and also the exciting part of unschooling."
Samson admits that though the initial few years in the world of unschooling did bring in fear, uncertainty, and concern about her children's future, over the past few years, she has become confident of her decision. "I don't worry about their future and have a firm faith that as there is something for everybody in this world, there will be something for my children too," she says.
Her son Niom has his eyes set on his goal. Sitting in his room, plastered with posters of Robin Van Persie and Arjen Robben, he says, "I want to be a footballer. Definitely, absolutely."