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What Happens When Children Are ‘Unschooled’, And Learn Beyond Textbooks

Posted on April 28, 2016 in Education

By Anjana Radhakrishnan:

india-306_960_720According to a country-wide survey conducted in 2012, approximately 68 percent of Indian children under the age of 12 experience stress in school. Some Indian parents have started questioning an education system which induces such stress through the examination-oriented, rote-memorisation method of learning propagated by most schools. Such as when these parents finding formal schooling to be stifling, ineffective, and sometimes harmful for the child, decided instead to foster learning in an unconventional way.

While many are familiar with the concept of homeschooling i.e. teaching kids at home using a personalised curriculum, some parents around the world are opting for ‘unschooling’, instead. Unschooling is an educational philosophy that emphasises natural learning through life experiences rather than through traditional academic structure and curriculum. The practice is predicated on the belief that children reach a deeper comprehension of subjects and retain more information if learning occurs organically.

Unschooled students don’t take tests or memorise facts according to a set curriculum. Instead, unschooling allows children to determine their own interests, set their own agendas, and actively engage with the world around them. Under the unschooling philosophy, everyday activities become springboards for learning opportunities. For instance, watching a cooking show can turn into a discussion on chemical reactions, how our brains process taste, and how different cultures view food. Reading a book by Elif Shafak can trigger an exploration of the Armenian genocide and current political issues in Turkey. An interaction with the neighbourhood dabbawalla provides an example of business entrepreneurship and a study of supply and demand.

In all of this, the parent does not sit by idly. Instead, they engage the child in ongoing dialogues and encourage curiosity. As one ‘unschooling’ parent explains, parents act as facilitators to their children (instead of being a teacher) providing necessary resources for students to accomplish their goals and foster greater engagement with the real world.

A study conducted by Peter Gray found that unschooled students tend to be overwhelmingly self-motivated and self-directed individuals who undertake entrepreneurial careers. Unschooled students also report a relatively seamless transition into adult life, having had a broad range of learning opportunities and a richer, age-mixed social life from a young age. Unschooling, however, demands intensive parental involvement and for many, the choice to unschool may seem too overwhelming and risky.

Vidhi Jain, co-founder of the Shikshantar Resource Center for Homeschooling and Unschooling has been working to shift that risk-aversion since 1998 by creating a support system for unschooling parents and students. The center offers guidance and coaching support to students and parents, unlearning workshops, and internships with working professionals for interested students.

Still, critics have noted that unschooling appears to be a viable option only for households which can afford to spend significant time on non-income-generating activities and may even act as a brain drain from public school systems (if you’re interested in learning more about this issue, check out this debate). Democratic schools – educational institutions in which students have the freedom to organise daily activities through democratic decision-making – have been stepping in to address these issues of accessibility, sprouting up in India as well. Democratic schools provide the flexibility and self-direction of unschooling while also creating spaces for social interactions and diverse experiences which are often cited as downsides of the unschooling model.

Parents deciding between public schools, private schools, homeschooling, unschooling, democratic schools, or between the conflict of liberal ideals and the realities of socio-economic disparities, may feel that these discussions circumvent the real question – “What is best for my child?” Offering some food for thought, Gray’s study concludes, “The findings of our survey suggest that unschooling can work beautifully if the whole family, including the children, buy into it, if the parents are psychologically healthy and happy, and if the parents are socially connected to the broader world and facilitate their children’s involvement with that world. It can even work well when some of these criteria are not fully met.”

But none of these attributes are singular to the unschooling approach – which is to say that regardless of the educational system, what is really best for children is a nurturing environment which encourages learning and curiosity. The structure of the nurturing environment will naturally vary, depending on family, means, and location. For those who are considering it, though, unschooling may provide the right philosophy for you and your little snuggle bunnies.