Our Journey Living Without School - Discover or get introduced to Unschooling
Blog by Muzaffar Shaikh, Pune India
In society certain things are done religiously without questioning, for many schooling is one of them. School is education, but what is education? If we ask question to different people why we use school, I am sure we definitely will get different answers depending on what education means to them and what their aspirations or lifestyle is like.
Homeschooling is merely an act of not using school. When people decide to live without school we can expect different answers for not using school and homeschooling is practiced differently depending on what education means to people, what their aspirations are or how they along with their children want to live this existence.
We live with questions and curiosity. I too was curious for understanding What life is and What this existence is all about? What can be meaning for life or how to create meaning for life? We all assign different meanings to our living and live our lives accordingly.
For me having a child was opportunity to observe life right from its rawness, so I started observing. I was observing how a child learns to turn over, to sit, to walk, to talk. Do they need any school or teacher to learn that? Who teach children their first language? Very complex skills, but they learn it themselves. So an idea emerged, what will happen if I allow this learning to continue naturally? What else is a child capable of learning naturally? I wanted to see.
There can't be definite answers to how to live nor they are needed but I had my ideas about how I want to live this existence mindfully individually, as a family and collectively. Question was schooling as it exists really needed for that kind living and answer was 'No'.
Learning is integrated with living. I was observing that learning is natural, constant process and will happen and children will learn their environment naturally. We need not necessarily put this learning and living into boxes of school subjects which is done for convenience but many time people get trapped in these boxes and labels of language.
Even when children need to learn what is delivered in schools, I thought it is possible even without schools. So it was not like that I had grudges against schools, I didn't really see need for school.
So now I was merely observing how a child is learning and growing and through dialog with child, through play, through everyday chores I was trying to pass learning. One thing came to my notice that while my son learns and enjoy learning, he did not prefer to be taught in schooling ways. So I learned to simply back off where my son showed disinterest. Most of the time I would just step out and observe. Was he missing on learning where I was backing off? No, he would learn it later at more appropriate time.
Learning happens all the time and children keep learning their environment and what they get exposed too. I was not teaching much but my son was anyway learning basic maths, reading, writing, speaking non native language like english.
When my son was 2, I tried communicating with him using Hindi, English, Marathi so that he should learn other languages too. Hindi being our native language he had picked it fast and as he found communication through other languages inconvenient he requested me to use Hindi only. I stopped using other languages with faith that he would learn them at more appropriate time.
We have picture story books inherited from cousins. At age 3 as he was looking into book with attention I asked 'Are you reading story?', he said 'I am only reading story through pictures'. At age 5 when I found him engaged in same activity I said 'You are reading story though pictures, right?', he said 'No, I am reading text.' I asked him to read it aloud and he was reading with 90% accuracy and was putting other complex words in the context to fill sentences.
Magical ?? .. No. He had been handling gadgets, playing games, so had needs to read, calculate, manage resources and had learned to read text and 5+ digit numbers, calculate them, manage or budget resources.
He was very reluctant English speaker till age 6, but by then he was watching youtube videos. I did think that playing game is interactive, but is just watching videos good use of time? Anyway I wanted to see. 3 months later he had become fluent english speaker like natives and now English has become kind of his first language.
If these learnings can happen naturally then putting stress, resources or efforts in these learnings as it happens in schools was unnecessary. Observing all this was reaffirming that we can't predict or know from where a child is going to get learning and so we should be open to possibilities. Children are not only learning things, but more importantly what they are learning is that they are capable of learning and they need not wait for fixed external sources like teachers, books, courses, schools for their learning.
This approach where parents do not try to teach children forcibly, trust that children are capable, are open to possibilities and multiple ways of being and doing things is called 'Unschooling'. Personally I only call our journey 'Living without school' for not wanting to stick rigidly to one philosophy and to be flexible to respond to different circumstances.
Where people get confused with this philosophy is unschooling is not leaving children to fend for themselves. It is about being sensitive to when to step into learning of child and when to step out. We do have vision about the abilities our children should have. We see that journey of life itself keeps providing opportunities to learn and we patiently wait for right time and context to emerge for learning to happen instead of trying stuff it before its time or out of context.
We also have conviction that board exams is not necessity to meet needs of a content life. Exams are way down on our list of priorities. High on our list of priorities are mental health, physical health, emotional health. relationships and knowing, understanding and building self. While we see that these priorities are being served, things like typical academic learning can wait for a while and they can be acquired when needed or on demand .. just like adults after finishing their formal education acquire knowledge or skills as needed for their life or work.
Unschooling families do not depend on or need fixed syllabus. For us just living is source of syllabus. And in this age information is so easily accessible. While syllabus based schooling is like reading a book where you progress in linear fashion to the next chapter, unschooling is like browsing web pages, you open the pages you need to or want to and can go to the depths needed. We also notice that compared to force fed learning 'On Demand' learning happens more efficiently, is relevant and stays when children get it themselves in the context of their needs.
'How does chicken pox spread?' my son wanted to know when he got mild chicken pox symptoms, I answered 'From one person to another', 'Any other way?' he asked, 'Not in my knowledge' I replied, 'But then how did the first human to get it got it?'. He already knew theories of evolution of life and species and now we were discussing replication of DNA/RNA, mutations etc. The 7 year old listened all this with great curiosity and after he heard mutations he exclaimed 'Oh, the virus might have got evolved'. Additionally, he could understand that what we were considering are theories and possibilities and not an absolute truth.
Syllabus emerges naturally even when we don't seek it.
Many people ask, What if child grows and asks you what rights you had to spoil my life through your decisions? Well, when child is very young decisions are made for the child by parents, the decision can be school or without school, but as child grows s/he can be provided with elements needed for making decision and they themselves can make decisions with help from family and such decisions can be respected and supported. Now if the child wants to join school, or appear for board exam or pursue higher education then child can do so and provisions are available.
Childhood is not merely preparation for life, childhood is life itself. We need to be mindful that by focusing merely on destination we do not forget to live the journey. If children are learning while playing then let them play.
We do not consider different entities in family, parents and children as separate entities, but connected ones having collective goals.. For ex, do we want to give our children gift of our good health or we want to burden our children with our ill health or chronic diseases? We may think - my body, my life, nobody else need to care, ... really? So, instead of only thinking what is best choice for child, I think what is best for well-being of family as a whole, and even further what are best choices for the well-being of planet.
There is so much talk about the challenges the planet face today. If we look carefully then deep down we may see that many of them emerge from present day ideas of education. Everything is connected. Many of the existing models of schooling could be providing unconscious conditioning to compare or compete with each other. Many get trapped and forget to live mindfully in the pursuit of exams, degrees and subsequent jobs or vague ideas of success and trying to get ahead of each other and creating mindless consumption through exploitation of planet.
Unschooling can reduce burden on the planet. Waste produced through the materials, chores and processes of schooling, time and resources wasted on commute are saved. Parents have to earn extra income needed for schooling. More often than not it is the planet which is exploited to earn that extra. Efforts to earn extra and chores of schooling may stress health of parents. Family may not get enough time to bond. What effects waking and eating at unnatural times, sitting for long hours have on health of children is a separate question worth exploring. While traditional education primarily focus on information, many times working on emotions and feelings get neglected.
Unschooling for us is not merely replacement system for learning or schooling or it is only for child. It is a philosophy of being, learning, growing, emotions, feelings, bonding, relationship of entire family and communities. It is a way of living mindfully for well-being of entire family, communities and planet.
I am not against schools and have respect for committed educators and their intentions and efforts, but do feel that instead of 'One size fits all' model, we need different models to support individuality of children, to address different circumstances, to address challenges planet and humanity faces. Schooling, alternative schools, unschooling, homeschooling are different options we can have. All have their pros and cons in context of different family circumstances, peoples needs and individuality of children. I won't say unschooling is perfect, I do see some short term disadvantages too. For us pros of unschooling far outweigh cons. My son is 8 now and we continue to learn and grow without school.
If we have to assume that direction of humanity in the current world is misplaced, it did not happen overnight from the actions of handful of individuals. It has become so from small unaware unintended collective actions from individual homes over years. And the small collective mindful actions from individual homes and individuals also have potential to turn it around. Unschooling is one of the things that has potential to change that direction for humanity and planet.