Meet the unschoolers


To the average person, the unschooling life poses a series of red flags - no lessons, no rules, no handy reward-punishment system. But these parents claim that the most important prerequisite for unschooling is embracing its uncertainties, especially when it comes to employment. Not everyone can manage it.

"The prefix 'un' means you have to undo a lot of things," Dasgupta says. "Learning has been so deeply linked with livelihood, specifically money-making. But learning, education and livelihood need to be individualistic. Every citizen needs to have the right to design one's own journey."

For parents who seek reassurance from the outcome of unschooling, there is one example that stands out. In 2016, Malvika Joshi, a partially unschooled student from Mumbai (she dropped out of school in class VII) got admission in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology after winning three medals at the International Olympiad in Informatics (IOI). She didn't have a class XII degree, and wasn't eligible to sit for the IIT entrance exams. Joshi's story is a much-quoted example of an alternative schooler attaining mainstream educational success, though unschoolers themselves function with a wider definition of "success"

The anti-schooling teacher

In his book Deschooling Society (1971), the Austrian philosopher Ivan Illich contested the notion that learning is only possible through instruction: "School is the advertising agency which makes you believe that you need society as it is," he wrote. Around the same time, American educator John Holt - who was somewhat of an outlier himself, losing teaching jobs for his undisciplined classrooms and lenient grading - coined the term "unschooling". His books How Children Fail (1964) and How Children Learn (1967), based on his observations and experiments as a teacher and father, are considered essential handbooks for homeschooling and unschooling parents. Holt himself summarized his findings in two words: "Trust Children". "Nothing could be more simple - or more difficult," he wrote.

Unschooling parents must prepare for unsettling phases of disobedience, laziness and imbalance. In Urmila's case, the most challenging example of this was a spell of five years during which her son Rayn did little apart from playing video games. "I felt like I had completely messed up my children," she says. "I tried the things that normal parents try, but nothing worked. Finally, I moved from focusing on the outer problem to focusing inward."

A day before his 14th birthday, Rayn walked up to her and made an announcement - he was quitting gaming. In what he describes as an overnight transformation, Rayn felt motivated to shift his attention to football, with as much dedication. "I deleted my PlayStation account, which is basically like throwing out your trophy cabinet. My teenage years then involved setting alarms, eating properly and pursuing a highly disciplined physical activity. Not much else," he says.

It is an anecdote that points to an interesting link between freedom and self-motivation, which studies have found to be more present in unschooled children. More than once, Rayn refers to "a strong inner voice", a term often used by unschooling parents. It emerges, they believe, in the absence of a controlling voice of authority, which monitors most of us in our formative years, and when children are trusted to find equilibrium on their own.

Interestingly, this might also explain why unschoolers look quizzical when asked if they felt a need to rebel against their parents. "My childhood was one of extreme freedom - and borderline abuse of that freedom," laughs Rayn. "But understanding what happens when you use those freedoms helped me mature as a person. For instance, I've never had my parents tell me not to smoke or drink, but I've always had a strong sense of never wanting to do it. It seems like an unnecessary expense with no benefits."

How unschooling works

Unschooling parents are typically questioned on three counts. The first query: how will their child attain basic literacy? The answer to this often comes as a surprise to the parents themselves. Many can't pinpoint the exact moment their child learnt how to read or write, and the process is often described as "magical" and "unexpected". They learn from observation, pretend games, interactions with people, sometimes from necessity. But it does demand alertness to the child's interests, and the financial ability to supplement these interests. And since for millions, a formal degree is still a necessary entry point into stable careers, unschooling remains a safer bet for the elite.

If unschoolers decide to opt for degrees through distance learning institutes like the National Institute of Open Schooling and the Indira Gandhi National Open University, they might have to account for knowledge gaps in their learning. For instance, Rayn learnt writing by hand at the age of 18 in preparation for his IGCSE (International General Certificate of Secondary Education) exams. This was also the first time he studied math, a subject he found fascinating and joyous, despite not having previously encountered building blocks of the discipline, like algebra and trigonometry. His results included three A-stars and two As; his lowest score was in math, a decent 83, but a personal disappointment.

The second concern is of employability. Can unschoolers be absorbed into the workforce? There are no clear answers here, but you get the sense that an anti-capitalist world view threads through the community. These parents are aware that their children might never obtain six-figure incomes, and are more likely to find a calling in the arts or in fields relating to sustainability. This is a frequent area of discussion at unschooler meetings. On the other hand, companies like Google, Apple and Intel have made announcements about hiring candidates without college degrees. In 2016, IBM revealed that 10-15% of new hires in the company did not have formal education.

In terms of employment, 53% of the respondents were entrepreneurs, 48% of the participants were pursuing a career in the arts and 29% were pursuing STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) careers. Most found themselves in professions beyond the mainstream: there was an orientation and mobility specialist, a circus performer, a wildlife photographer, and an assistant to a film director.

Which brings us to the third and most common question. What about socialization? There is an emphasis on forming relationships outside of classrooms. Children interact with people of diverse ages and class backgrounds. John Holt's view was that qualities like kindness, patience, and generosity were better learnt in intimate relationships and smaller groups. "By and large, human beings tend to behave worse in large groups, like you find in school. There they learn something quite different-popularity, conformity, bullying, teasing," he wrote.

The unschoolers I met reported their social circle consisted of friends made in their housing societies, hobby classes, and meet-ups with other unschoolers. Qudrat says he's formed intergenerational connections over the years, like when he travelled to Nashik to study Warli art at the age of 10. While Rayn also reports an ease in socializing with people of all ages, he does admit to a feeling of social exclusion. "I'm not good at things like small talk and banter...but this could partially be a result of my own personality," he says.

The Radical Parenting Network

"Unschooling is like religion, no two families adopt it exactly the same way," says one parent. "To be honest, there are times when I also get confused about what exactly radical unschooling is, and I don't know how many of them are actually following it. Since there is no central authority, there will be some differences." These differences can include encouraging their children to learn from the outdoors, limiting gadget use or packaging educational lessons as games (which is a contravention of the self-learning principle).

Aparajita Kumar, a stay-at-home parent and blogger in New Delhi stopped radical unschooling for her children, aged 2 K and 4, after experimenting with it for two years. "It was too loose and scary for me. I've heard stories of unschoolers who couldn't sign their names at 18 and I didn't want to take a risk with (my children's) future," she says. Now, she favours a more relaxed form of home education. "While I don't follow a pre-prescribed curriculum, I draw from philosophies like the Charlotte Mason method and project-based learning."

To help new entrants negotiate such fears, several unschooling parents endeavour to be seen: they post frequently on blogs, participate in studies, let journalists into their homes, share email addresses on online forums. On a national level, the annual Learning Societies UnConference and the Swashikshan Association of Homeschoolers have emerged as platforms for alternative education seekers to network.

Dola Dasgupta manages the Unschooling in India group on Facebook, where parents seek each other out for support. It currently has 441 members. "By deciding to unschool them (her children), I have created an unknown path as a parent. That's why we have forums to share our doubts," she says. "But it's important to mention we're not anti-education activists."

The future of unschooling

"Unschooling" is not a universally accepted term, though it is the catchiest. Some believe its negative prefix shifts focus from what the movement embraces (child-led learning) to what it rejects (traditional schools).

As a concept, self-directed learning has found vocal proponents like Sugata Mitra, a professor of educational technology at Newcastle University, who conducted the famous Hole In The Wall experiments in 1999. By placing a public computer in a slum in Delhi, Mitra found that groups of children with access to the internet have the capacity to learn by themselves.

More recently, former engineer Abhijit Sinha has developed a similar self-directed learning model called Project DEFY (Design Education For Yourself). In Banjarapalya village, 100km from Bengaluru, Sinha created a "nook", a self-learning makerspace, in 2014. He has since set up another in Mangaluru and one in a refugee camp in Uganda.

But self-directed learning can involve extensive screen use, which is a divisive subject for all parents. Last month, Beyond Millennials: The Next Generation of Learners, a survey of 2,587 14 - to 40-year-olds by the market research firm Harris Poll, found that nearly 60% of Gen Z respondents prefer YouTube for learning, while 47% prefer printed books. For the older cohort of millennials, the numbers were 60% for printed books, and 55% for YouTube.

Most unschoolers credited YouTube as their primary learning resource, whether it involved Korean lessons, film-making courses or smartly-produced explainer videos.

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