Unschooling is finding more takers in India as parents discover benefits of child-led learning

The radical unschooling method aims to harness the innate curiosity and creativity of children allowing them to carve their own learning path.This self-directed learning broadly means that the child learns what he/she wants to learn when and how he/she wants to learn it.

Aishwarya Sahasrabudhe October 23, 2019 13:57:17 IST
Unschooling is finding more takers in India as parents discover benefits of child-led learning
  • Child-led learning follows a non-linear path. A child takes up a project if it sparks particular interest.

  • Pashwa Jhala and Jim Flynn, parents to two boys view learning as a lifelong journey facilitated by experience and discovery.

  • Binal, another unschooler points out that to choose unschooling is more of a philosophical shift than a class issue

Social theorist Jeremy Bentham devised the panopticon in the mid-18th century to create a prison in which a security guard would be able to monitor every cell without the inmates realising when they were being watched. This would prompt the prisoners to be disciplined at all times simply because someone might be watching. The model was also extended to other institutions, including hospitals, asylums — and schools.

Bentham’s idea was expanded into a symbol of social control by French philosopher Michael Foucault, wherein a person internalises authority such that the expectation of proper behaviour is self-imposed even when the person is not being observed, gradually culminating in self-discipline.

With most mainstream educational institutes in India (as in any part of the world) relying heavily on inculcating this discipline among their pupils, some parents are breaking away from the norm. These parents insist on the practice of self-learning rather than prescribing to prevailing educational standards that aim to inculcate knowledge and self-discipline on the strength of observation, evaluation, punishment and reward. The method they prefer is a learning pattern known as radical unschooling.

“It is a spectrum,” explains Binal, mother of an eight-year-old boy, “at one end of which is homeschooling, and at the other is unschooling.” Binal’s family has opted for the radical unschooling method, which aims to harness the innate curiosity and creativity of children allowing them to carve their own learning path. This ‘self-directed learning’ broadly means that “the child learns what he wants to learn when and how he wants to learn”.

Omkar Nisal, a radical unschooler from Bengaluru suggests that there exists within children the drive to learn — a natural curiosity which is not enforced from outside.

Following this dictum, Nisal’s nine-year-old daughter Niranjani is engaged in studying the coding language Python and also runs her own company, Green Genie, which makes and sells terrariums. Nisal’s six-year-old son Aradhya until a couple of years ago was creating new worlds on Minecraft and is now learning language and mathematics.

A three-time college dropout with a ‘non-standard’ educational background, Nisal firmly states, “Learning in itself is so beautiful and delicate,” that accompanied by an internal drive and the action of finding out more on the subject, it is hard to forget what has been read or understood about a particular concept.

Binal notes: “The premise of unschooling is that the child and adult are treated equal.” This by no means denotes that previously the parents were the authority figure and now it is the child. She adds, “We voice our concerns whenever we feel the child is overstepping and we are sensitive to each other’s needs.”

But what do unschoolers do every day? The routine in an unschooler’s life is that there is no routine. Binal elaborates that the child wakes up in the morning after he has had enough rest, honouring the rhythm of the body instead of the clock. In the household, they function as a democratic family and everyone enjoys their individual space.

Child-led learning follows a non-linear path, Binal explains. A child takes up a project if it sparks his/her interest. There is no such thing as subject-based learning and a concept is analysed from multiple perspectives. For instance, watching an ICC World Cup match taking place in Leeds would mean the geographical study of the location, statistics of the pitch and of course, cricket itself.

According to Pune resident Pallavi Patil, whose older daughter is away on a month-long Mathematics scholarship programme in the US, the skill of the parents lies simply in observing the children’s interests and providing guidance wherever required. This is not a deliberate exercise and this knowledge should ideally be gathered by spending time with the children and observing their involvement in various activities.

Pashwa Jhala and Jim Flynn, parents to two boys — Daniel (14) and Ishan (12) — view learning as a lifelong journey facilitated by experience and discovery. In a ‘semi-nomadic’ existence since the last 12 years, these unschoolers settle in one place for no longer than six months to a year, before they are off on their next adventure. Yearning for a simple, outdoorsy life, they have travelled across India: stayed in Goa and Auroville (Pondicherry), visited family in Mumbai and Gujarat, and for the past year, have taken up residence in a small village near Palampur in Himachal Pradesh.

It was Jean Liedloff’s The Continuum Concept (which describes the way of life of the Yequana tribe in South America) that moved Jhala and Flynn to develop their own philosophy of education. The 1975 work talks about an environment that helps to raise children who are not psychologically damaged by fear or rejection.

Unschooling is finding more takers in India as parents discover benefits of childled learning

Jhala and her husband Flynn currently live in a small village near Palampur, Himachal Pradesh, with their boys Daniel and Ishan. Image courtesy Pashwa Jhala

Daniel and Ishan practise the piano, or play football, Frisbee or chess, spend time with other kids in the village and read, Jhala says. Much of their knowledge is derived from interactions with different people, shopping for food, and preparing meals and “they learn what they find meaningful now”.

Flynn, who freelances for a UK-based organic company, and Jhala, who occasionally edits books, live with their boys on a very small budget. The family travels in non-AC train coaches, Jhala says, experiencing along with dirty toilets, a whole spectrum of society.

Unschooling is finding more takers in India as parents discover benefits of childled learning

For Flynn and Jhala, it was Jean Liedloff's The Continuum Concept that moved them to develop an educational philosophy that was based on mutual trust and respect.

According to Binal, people across several economic backgrounds have chosen this path. It would be presumptuous to think that “only people from a certain background” can opt for unschooling, she says.

“For me it was a process which started with not being satisfied with the status quo,” she says, but it crystallised when she met others — parents with more evolved philosophies and different experiences — through platforms like the annual Swashikshan Meet hosted for homeschooling and unschooling parents by the Indian Association of Homeschoolers.

For his part, Sachin Adhikari, another Pune-based unschooler notes that it is especially children from economically backward sections who need unschooling the most. In the traditional system, they lose out because the syllabus is rarely relevant to their immediate life. In schools, often it is the children fluent in standard literacy and language who tend to profit more, while those whose “worlds in the school and at home are different, fall behind in the system”.

However, not all experts are convinced. In a recent report in The Hindu, Niranjanaradhya VP, fellow at the Centre for Child and the Law, National Law School of India University was quoted as saying, “The very purpose of education is to ensure that children socialise. The school system is very enabling and brings students across castes and creeds together. Besides, various studies have found that learning in a peer group is very effective.”

Unschoolers are stepping up to combat this issue, which is a concern for many parents. In order to enhance the participation of children across social groups and create a community on a day-to-day basis for the child, Binal, along with a group of fellow unschoolers, is engaged in developing a learning centre where children who do not attend school are provided with a space to study what interests them.

Says Binal, “To choose unschooling is more of a philosophical shift than a class issue. Some families have consciously cut down on their needs and have chosen to not opt for a full-time employment, focusing instead on living meaningfully and seeing their child grow.”

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