This article was compiled after much deliberation on the Swashikshan online e-group, following individual responses to a questionnaire prepared by the author. It reflects the diverse, unique and vibrant flavours of the Indian Homeschooling Community – a community that celebrates learning and growing without school.
Different Flavours of Homeschooling
When P. Aravinda, from Mumbai, Maharashtra (who has a nine year old daughter) was asked what inspired her to homeschool her daughter, this is what she had to say, “My daughter inspired me – she was clearly learning, discovering, surprising us with the connections she made, observing things in ways that we could never have dreamed of teaching. But often, parents who go gaga over their little one’s little explorations may dismiss their responses as biased or indulgent. They may not see or let themselves see that the child’s innate curiosity will lead them to learn. Thinking school is required, parents modify the environment even at home so that it will prepare the child to conform to the expectations of school.
Fortunately when my daughter was young, even though I had not thought about homeschooling, I was not thinking about schooling either and had time to keep the home environment free from timetables, eating and sleeping times, no expectations of keeping clothes clean, no need to recite shapes / colors / English names of vegetables etc.
So after seeing a child grow up this way for 4-5 years, and in the meanwhile also observing the other neighbourhood children who did start school at age 3 or 4 and spent a year before that preparing for the ‘interview’, it was pretty difficult to imagine giving up what we had for what the schools had to offer.”
She also says that books like How Children Learn by John Holt and Continuum Concept, Unconditional Parenting etc., exposed her to new ideas and also helped her to know that she was not alone in the way she interpreted what she was seeing. That emboldened her to protect it from being devalued by prevailing concepts of teaching, learning, living and growing / child-rearing.
And certainly she is right, as she is not alone. Disillusioned by the way schools impart knowledge to pupils all over the country; many parents have chosen to not send their children to school and taken on the sole responsibility of their learning. This group of parents is small in number, compared to the billions who send their children to schools to be taught to behave and learn, by teachers who are trained to instruct young children to join the competitive world and stay ahead of fellow human beings by out-performing each other at the cost of their own inner truth and well being and those of other fellow human beings.
When one asks this handful of parents what inspired them to homeschool their children, each had their own perception and reason. But one common underlying thought was the lack of faith in the assembly line method that is used in schools across the board.
Ann and Ashley Manning of Navi Mumbai have children who are now adults, a daughter aged 24 and a son aged 28. They were both homeschooled from 1994 until they both got certified for the Higher Secondary School Certificate (HSC) from National Institute of Open School (NIOS). They homeschooled for about 12 years or so. Ann and Ashley homeschooled because they believed that children are given to parents, for parents to steward and bring up into mature adults; the home being their best environment and the best method of learning being tutoring one-on-one. “With home schooling, which is school in the home by parents, our philosophy was to give our children the best teachers, in the best environment, using the best method of education. Our vision was to form character over academics and in the process raise children who are secure enough to perform without competing with no one but themselves, growing better each day, and fulfilling their own unique calling in life by discovering their unique strengths and using them to their full potential.”
Ann is satisfied now to see them grow into adults who have the right perspective and focus on education, academics and career. “Seeing them both now as independent business people, financially independent, able to interact with all age groups and wise beyond their years…Seeing them carry themselves with confidence and not threatened by competition…Seeing them plan to homeschool their own children when the time comes, because of the benefit they see it has had for themselves,” says Ann, is so fulfilling and rewarding that if she had to do this all over again, she would homeschool her children all over again.
Dr. Mathew and Vinita, from Mumbai have three children aged 13, 10 and 9 (who they have been homeschooling since eight years now) have their faith in Christianity to inspire them to homeschool. With Ann Manning and the Word of God as an inspiration for them, Dr Mathew says, “giving the best possible education to our child has been our motive. Philosophy is based on the Bible which says that it is the parents’ responsibility to train up their own children. We as parents desire the best for our children, wish for them to succeed in life, and we believe the family is the best place in the world to be for this to happen.”
While there are many who homeschool for religious reasons and their faith, there are many who homeschool because they want their children to have all the time and space to learn whatever they feel inclined to learn without the pressure of term end or grades at school.
Priya Desikan who has a seven year old son, Raghav, lives in Chennai and says, “our greatest inspiration has been our son! He suggested flexibility in going to school when he did not want to go there, and when that did not work, he just said that he wanted to be home! And I just went with my heart. I did not read much or research much on homeschooling before we decided to pull him out of school, simply because he had already decided (and he was less than 5 then). I realised then that he knew exactly what he wanted in life. So we listened to him instead! It was only after that, that I read John Holt and others. John Holt and Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society have been great inspirations to me and once we started this journey, we realised that we were part of an inspiring and loving community of homeschoolers in India.”
Priya and Srinath do not follow school at home for their son as some homeschoolers do. “We have no real philosophy as such. I like to call what we are doing as ‘living and learning’. That is what we do every day – we live, we are aware of ourselves and what happens and whatever life unfolds for us, we take and learn from it. We learn from everything around us – the people we meet, our own thoughts and emotions, the things we do, places we travel to. I feel that our role as parents is much like the soil that a plant needs to grow. When a seed is planted and germinates, the soil has to give way to allow the shoot to push itself upwards, to come out and grow into a plant,” explains Priya.
Urmila and John Samson from Pune have three children, Sahya a 20-old-year young woman and two boys of 15 and 12. None of her three children ever went to school. “At first I had no idea what I was doing, as there was no internet when we started. Much later I found that what we ended up doing after a whole lot of trial and error, is called radical unschooling. We don’t really like labels, but it helps others to have at least some general idea. Of late I have been using the term ‘whole being learners’, because during our self learning process (learning led by the self, as well as learning more about the self), we have discovered that there is more than just a physical, mental and emotional self, and learning happens through all parts of the being if one understands how to open one’s whole being,” says Urmila. Some years ago, her daughter felt the need for structure and a holistic kind of higher education. She is now doing a 4 year course in Eurythmy, an art of movement created by Rudolf Steiner that engages the being at every level – a course which she got through without any form of formal schooling or school leaving examination. Urmila’s 15 year old son has for a year and a half now created a diet and exercise routine for himself, to train for his passion, which is football. Her 12 year old son does not follow much structure, but has recently introduced some structure that he adheres to, which is gym training, football coaching and squash.
Deepali and Shankar have a daughter Ria who is almost six years old and they are from Mumbai but currently living in Dubai, UAE. They use as a guide, a loosely held Waldorf Education module for their daughter. “I believe that many times people who are new to homeschooling believe that without structure there can be no learning. We are not trying to recreate school at home. We just want to instill in our child, a love for life-long learning, to be creative, to stand up for her rights and for the rights of others and to have a good judgement of right and wrong. I would like to say that it is very important to have a natural rhythm to your life. But not as hard as a cane school structure. Just like the rising/setting of the sun, our days flow easily and our life goes on smoothly,” explains Deepali, with confidence in the choice she made, when she was disillusioned at systems that she felt were violative of her and her child, when she went to give birth to her child in a hospital in India. She was pretty sure that if right from delivery and birth, she and her child had no rights to their well-being and choices, school would be pretty much the same.
When everyone around is clamouring for good schools, good grades, good colleges and good jobs, parents who chose to not send their children to school are obviously going against the tide that is prevalent. This in itself brings many doubts and raises many fears in the parents themselves and also those in extended family and friends. The whole journey of homeschooling is not only path breaking but also extremely challenging at times.
Anne says, “The biggest challenge we faced was from friends and family accusing us of messing with our children’s futures and lives. When our children’s friends accused them of not going to school, we helped our children handle such situations by giving them common sense answers like: We don’t go to school, but we have school at home. Building relationship bonds with them which would never have happened if they had gone the regular school way, spending 6 hours in school, 8 hours asleep, another 4 to 6 hours studying and us left with the dregs of their time, energy and motivation…. Seeing them grow into people of character with right priorities and focus, a vision and dream for their lives and already on the way to fulfilling them, make us want to homeschool all over again.”
Urmila and John had to face even more challenging questions as their children did not even have the readymade answer like “we do school at home.” As for unschoolers, learning is not structured and it is often not easy to pinpoint what the child learnt in one day or in weeks or months. Learning for unschoolers happen very organically and slowly and internally. Often it is not visible or tangible but if observed in continuity, then one can easily observe the blossoming and learning happening uniquely with each child.
“I used to have many fears and doubts to the point where I was getting emotionally off balance! We had no support, there were no others doing what we were doing, and having children home the whole day doing whatever they want whenever they want was driving me crazy. There were times when I would get very argumentative with others, defensive about my decision. Over the years I got over these fears and learned a lot from my children. Now I am experiencing people praising me, turning to me to hear my experiences, and being treated as an inspiration!
“The freedom without, and from within. The letting go of conditioning and old ways of thinking and being. The tremendous increase in health and happiness. The feeling of ease rather than fear. The opening up to unbelievable possibilities. The closeness in the family. My own personal growth, continued learning and increased self knowledge which helps me understand others and the world more deeply,” is what Urmila had to say about her journey through challenges.
Most homeschoolers will tell you how the very people who criticize them when they started with homeschooling, end up praising and appreciating the decision. Deepali says, “When we initially started off on this path, we were met with lots of criticism. But over time, people have realized that we are serious about homeschooling and our child is a very happy, social, kind, loving girl who is equally at ease with children of her own age as well as adults.”
“The amount of time that we spend together as a family is a huge bonus. The bond that I and my husband share with our daughter is so powerful and strong, it can’t be explained in words. I have seen children as young as two and three years old, who are begging for affection from their parents/caregivers and this is misconstrued to be dependence. When in fact what they are craving for is attachment, which is a primal need as a human being. Being abandoned and neglected from early on, these children then hang on to their friends (peers) for this attachment and they become peer-oriented. The same kids who then grow up to rebellious teenagers have parents who seem to be wondering what went wrong!! The parents pushing them away to make them independent from a young age is what went wrong!! As a homeschooling family we get to go on holidays as we please, we go to the parks, museums, beaches on weekdays and avoid the mad rush of weekends! Having a child who is healthy, loved and content is the best part about homeschooling,” says Deepali, and is what keep her and husband rooted in when challenges come their way.
Padma and Rajappa from Chennai have a son who is six and a daughter who is four, and they find that the most fulfilling aspect of homeschooling are that the whole family is in love with learning; learning is not limited by time, place, activity etc..it goes on wherever they are and whatever they do. They also feel that this way they are able to focus on values needed for life and appreciating finer aspects of life like appreciating the tiny caterpillar chewing on the leaf or how spring has come etc. They also feel they are able to nurture their bodies, spirit and mind as there is no rush to achieve or reach any place.
For Priya the journey of usnchooling has been more of an exercise is self awareness and self knowledge. She says, “every day poses a new challenge – the challenge of understanding oneself a little more, the challenge of being there with my child the way he wants me to, the challenge of getting out of my child’s way so that he can blossom the way he wants to, the challenge of unlearning what one has been conditioned to learn and conform to ever since one was born. To me, that is what this journey of “living and learning” with my child is about. The greatest fear and challenge that I face every day is to let go of what my mind and heart are so 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.”
Aravinda’s challenges are closer home as she feels that “the main challenge is that we don’t have enough other kids around to do things with; but I am often amazed to see the way the thoughts flow according to their own course and inner curriculum.”
Curriculum and Homeschooling
Speaking of curriculum, most homeschoolers use a mix of structured studies and unstructured studies. Some follow standard curriculums like NCERT, CBSE, IGCSE or Accelerated Christian Curriculum. Some do only those subjects in which the child has shown more interest. Some focus on the basic reading, writing and arithmetic and some other extra-curricular activity and leave the child free to make her own curriculum. Some do not adhere to any structure at all. Unschoolers like Urmila Samson and Dola Dasgupta, have never taught their children to read or write or do math.
“My son learnt to count and recognise numbers simply by observing his surroundings which include books, internet, TV, films, drawing, painting, outings with me and by asking questions and having conversations with me and other adults and children,” says Dola Dasgupta, a radical unschooler who lives in Pune with her daughter Gourika who is 11 and son Ishaan who is six. “When I am reading a book, my son comes up to me and asks me to see how many pages are there in the book. He is happy when there are more than 500 pages. He asks me number related questions like, how old is the earth, how many years ago did dinosaurs walk the earth, how old is India as a country, how many floors are there in our building, how many floors does the Empire State Building have, etc. Gourika reads fluently online as she plays a lot of online games and looks up YouTube videos of films and music. She is not yet writing with pen so much, but when she needs to she manages pretty well with simple words. If she is stuck with a spelling she asks me and I tell her matter-of-factly,” explains Dola on how her children learn and that though she never taught them any of it, she never stopped answering when they asked.
Aravinda has a lovely take on following a curriculum. She says, “The curriculum is that which flows from our minds, through our conversations, leading us hither and yon, back and forth to various experiences, resources, projects, ideas. With respect to specific books or websites that reflect a curriculum that someone else has developed, we may interact with some of those as well as everything else that we find along the way. Our own inner curriculum remains the primary driver. We are following a curriculum but I don’t know if you would call it ‘fixed’. I can observe that there is a structure. For example, my child often makes interesting connections and observations at some times / places, like in the bathroom, in the middle of the night, just before sleeping, soon after getting up, while playing with clay or blocks or water or sand, en route, while in a train or bus. So as a family we like to allow for the conversations that spring forth at such times.”
Padma follows the principles of Thomas Jefferson Education (www.tjed.org ) as it suits their family. According to this educational philosophy, children of ages 0-8 are in Core Phase and are in their prime to learn the core values necessary for life. “With this in mind, we have been unschooling while applying principles from Montessori, Waldorf, Charlotte Mason etc.,” explains Padma.
Many parents also follow the Waldorf Homeschooling Principles and curriculum at home for their children.
Some of the learning is also outsourced to tutors and mentors. Especially the children who take exams spend a few hours each day with tutor mentors. Shailaja Karanam and her son Tarun Maudgalya run an IGCSE mentorship center in Hyderabad for homeschooled children who wish to take the O Level and A Level exams. They also prepare them for the certification and do all the needful paper work for the children. There are also a few international schools in Bangalore and Pune which allow candidates to take exams as private candidates.
For homeschooled children who wish to take Indian examinations, the NIOS is the best options and many have passed exams through this mode and also taken admission into colleges in India. NIOS centers can be found in all cities of India and also all the information is available online. However, with the implementations of the Right to Education Act, the possibility of NIOS being phased out in a stepped manner is being discussed. But there is still some ambiguity on this front and till the final decision is taken, one can continue with NIOS.
Unschoolers like Urmila Samson, Dola Dasgupta, P.Aravinda, Priya Desikan and many more are not worried about exams and certifications. They say they will cross the bridge if they need to or when their children wish to go that way. But for most unschoolers, life and learning is about tuning in with new and not known creative livelihoods, that are perhaps yet to be found. Some unschoolers do get into colleges and institutes when they themselves set their minds to it, like Sahya, Urmila’s daughter. Most unschoolers have a trust that their children, since not so externally driven, often dive deep into whatever they wish to pursue and often find a way out.
Drawing Inspiration to Homeschool
The inspiration to homeschool their children for different parents came from different sources – for some like Mathew and Anne it was their deep faith in their religion and the Bible; for some it was their own poor experiences with school and with some others it was a soul calling for walking new and creative paths and opening up new horizons.
For Sejal, her own father was her inspiration to homeschool. “Having a father with whose support I myself had learned not to depend too much on school, never worried about curriculum, exams etc. until I myself realized need for more marks. So, today’s schools are not the place where I would like to send my kids. Reading Gijubhai Badheka, Jay Vasavada (who was himself homeschooled and has often written about his homeschooling and his mother’s contribution) and Kavishree Rajendra Shukla’s interview on TV who took the unschooling decision for their sons around 40 years ago”, she says inspired her with her own decision to homeschool her two children.
For Urmila also, her father was the inspiration, “my father’s criticism of the education system, books by AS Neill, John Holt, Ivan Illich, Paolo Freire, Maria Montessori, Sylvia Ashton Warner…my brother’s bad experiences in school, my own teaching experiences in several schools, inspired me to unschool.”
Anne says her faith inspired her, “Our Bible based spiritual values inspired us, which are to honor God and place Him first in our lives; but we were not able to live out our convictions, because our lives revolved around our children’s school schedule and demands. The pressure to perform and be boxed into a group of the same age, with no role model to follow to learn life. The non-personal touch of the school system. The wrong use of authority by teachers and school authorities, which were giving our children a wrong idea of authority. The many illogical teachings of science and the compromising of morals, all contributed to our decision. But the main inspiration came from the Bible and its teachings to train up a child in the way he should go, based on his temperamental make-up, natural talents and spiritual requirements, and then parents are assured from the authority of the Bible, that when the child grows up, they will stay in that way. It was tough going, but well worth it.”
Mathew and Vineeta who also are called by the Bible to homeschool say, “Our motive has always been based out of love for our children. The challenges have been basically related to the time and energy needed by us as parents to ensure that our children get a learning environment. Getting to know each child in an intimate way, building a relationship with them that is life-long, seeing them grow and learn the most important things in life.”
Whether parents homeschool by following ‘school at home’ or a standard curriculum or are radical unschoolers, the underlying motive and intentions is almost always increasing intimacy and bonding among family members and making learning in partnership with children the pivot. It is about increased self awareness and trusting in one’s own inner voice above all.
When asked about challenges and fears, most parents across the board say that despite the challenges, which are but natural, when one breaks free from the norms, it is a journey worth taking, every part of the way.