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Monday, January 9, 2012

When there is no holiday, everyone is teacher, everything is resource and everywhere is school! Part 2

I never expected such a spate of emails to land in my inbox from parents who read and resonated with my first blog-post on homeschooling! It's been a wonderful journey connecting to so many of them over the past couple of months. Here is another set of FAQs based on questions I have been asked. 

If ‘homeschooling’ is not what you want to do, then do u want to do ‘unschooling’?
Different parents have different philosophies and approaches. In the ‘homeschooling’ approach, parents decide to replace the school by the home, so that subjects can be learnt without the stress of the school. This also gives them time to pursue other things. Specific syllabus is defined and covered in different subjects. The children are prepared to write exams to go to college. And so on. There is a wide spectrum even among these parents. Some are more goal-driven than others. Some are more structured than others. 

‘Unschooling / deschooling’ is a term used to talk about the process of de-conditioning the mind. For those who use this term, ‘schooling’ stands for a process of conditioning of the mind by being told what to believe without questioning. Schooling happens not just in schools, but also in the family and community, where elders (who are themselved conditioned) thrust their ideas and thoughts onto the children’s minds. They could be 'western values', a certain notion of ‘success’, ‘patriotism’ and ‘scientific progress’, a certain idea about our history, etc. without enabling or allowing the mind to go through its own process of exploration and discovery. In this context, the terms 'unschooling' and 'deschooling' are used to denote a process where learning is taken back in one’s own hands, i.e. beginning a whole new process of learning on one’s own terms. This involves reconnecting with our own sense of intuition, listening to our inner voice and then rigorously scrutinizing all that we believe to be ‘our ideas and thoughts’. (For instance, "Dams are temples of modern India." or "Traditional India was backward in Science and Technology".) Ivan Illich, a famous thinker of the mid 20th century, wrote a book called ‘Deschooling Society’ where he says that entire societies have been ‘schooled’ (conditioned to think and act a certain way, and create a certain kind of institutions) and they need to be deschooled collectively. 'Unschooling' and 'deschooling' are more relevant for adults than for children, who haven’t been schooled in the first place.
‘Natural Learning’ best describes what we believe in. Once, a Japanese agricultural scientist named Masanobu Fukuoka surrendered to nature and started farming. After about 40 years of experimenting with ‘natural farming’ he declared that the approach of modern science, which is what he was taught in school and college was fundamentally flawed. He said that it was taking mankind farther and farther away from ‘true knowledge’. He said "Nature, not man, grows plants. Man can merely stand back, watch in awe and assist nature, if and when required." He didn’t merely philosophise about this, but demonstrated it on his two-acre farm. Its magical productivity attracted thousands of visitors from across the world – farmers, students and scientists alike. Interestingly, there is no hidden secret to this. We all see forests and how they have taken care of themselves for thousands of years. Undisturbed and natural forest soil has everything to sustain a rich ecosystem. They don’t need pest control, they don’t need to be watered, weeded, ploughed or fertilized.
I love what Kahlil Gibran had to say about children. “They are the sons and daughters of life’s longing for itself.” Just like plants are life's expression of itself. When children, like plants, are left alone they know what to learn, and when and how to learn it. We just need to trust nature’s way, and create rich, diverse, safe environments for them. Then, they’ll pick up what they need and will ask for help as and when they need it. Or, if we are really tuned in, we will know when they need help.

What about ‘alternative schools’? Don’t they enable some sort of natural learning?
Alternative schools today are the next best thing to regular schools that stress our children out and rob them of their dignity. There are schools that we know respect children for who they are, nurture their creativity and leave their dignity fairly intact. But we have a few issues with these schools as well.
* Ideals get diluted: The moment we walk into any school, however radical their founders aspire to be, we see that they are forced to satisfy the demands of parents who want their children to fit into the society. This is where they begin to compromise on their ideals. I can understand this to a certain extent. I am part of a collective that runs an organic store. Though some of us running the store started it and still hold on to some high ideals, we end up compromising here and there to accommodate the needs of a variety of 'customers' who may not buy into them fully. And because we need a certain number of them to keep the store going, there ends up being a dilution of ideals at many levels. So, we end up choosing what we can't afford to compromise on (our core values) over what we can. I guess that that is what many schools are forced to do.
* Children are pressured (however subtly) to do group activities:  The moment we put one person in charge of a bunch of children, it becomes impossible to let each child do his/her own thing. Then, adults tend to structure their time to be better able to manage the herd. I find it insensitive to tell a child, ‘Enough of that, now let’s do this.’ It feels like distrusting their inner guidance. Young children’s learning process is biologically driven, just like a sapling’s growing process is. A sapling knows best which way to turn for sunlight, which way to send its roots for water and minerals, which minerals to absorb at what stage of its growth, etc. doesn’t it? Similarly, children’s bodies lead them to where they need to be, get them naturally interested in activities that are best suited to that phase of their development - physical, mental, spiritual, etc.
A child may want to spend a whole day in the water or the sand. We believe that there should never be ‘enough’ of any activity unless there is a danger lurking around or she needs to be some place else (or doing something else) for some real reasons. There is also a notion among alternative educators that 'structured time' disciplines the child and gets her ready to fit into the world better. We need to go deeper into asking ‘why so?’
* Priorities are already defined: For older children, even alternative schools set the syllabus and decide what they need to be learning. Doesn’t ‘setting a syllabus’ mean deciding for each child what subjects / areas of life are more important than others? For instance, I always wonder why ‘English’ and ‘Maths’ are considered to be the core and essential subjects in all schools! Why not make painting and dancing core subjects? What makes them extra-curricular? And also, why not make Sanskrit or Tamil equally important languages for study along with English? We have such a wealth of essential life knowledge locked up in these scripts. Are we subtly, yet strongly, giving our children messages like ‘Your language (and hence your culture) is not as important as the English / American?’ and ‘Mental ability (solving math problems) is superior to physical ability (dancing) or creative ability (art)?’ Even 'alternative schools' produce far fewer artists than engineers and managers that drive our industrial system.

Materials (like those prepared by Maria Montessori) are definitely very useful for children (and adults like me!) to learn mathematical concepts in a fun way. But the question I'd ask even before that is, who defines that the child should learn specific mathematical concepts? One of the arguments is that 'It is easiest to grasp certain concepts at certain ages'. As parents, we believe that when a child (or an adult) has a real need for a certain specific knowledge, then nothing can stop her from learning it. That is the nature of learning! Without exception. For instance, at the age of 23 when I wanted to become an economist (with absolutely no math background) I devoured workbooks on Calculus and Statistics and fared very well. At 27, when I got curious about the ‘History of Indian Agriculture’, nothing could stop me from reading books on history. While in school, my most hated subject was History! Also, before children turn seven is the time when they have the ability to effortlessly learn five to seven languages simultaneously. Why not allow the child to immerse in various language environments, rather than sit down and learn math concepts? On what basis do we adults decide what our children should learn? This is an open question that we need to really explore and dialogue over.
* Teachers are not necessarily seekers: Children don't learn what they are taught. They imbibe what they experience. If a teacher says 'Be respectful' a child might store that information in her head and use that 'knowledge' to write an essay on 'respect'. But it will not help her to learn to be respectful. A child naturally learns 'humility and respect' by observing a teacher who is truly humble and respectful in her interactions with people, nature and things around her in her day-to-day living. No being is perfect. But I wonder how many teachers in these schools sincerely aspire in that direction!

Are you saying that all our children’s learning can be unstructured all the time? Don’t they ever need a structure?
From whatever I have known and understood, I am taking the liberty to generalize that all young children can do well with unstructured time. By this, I certainly do not mean a lack of routine or a structure to their day. I am convinced that all of us (from the time we are born) can function better with a daily routine. What I mean here is structured activity time, which can be seen even in the most alternative schools in India. 

Young children love to spend their time exploring the world and making sense of it on their own terms, at their own pace. They are learning by absorbing and imbibing everything around them like a sponge. Have you noticed how children look with wide eyes? Nothing around them – sensorial, verbal, energetical - escapes them!

Right now our focus is to help Isha experience a lot of different environments and take the time to have conversations with her; conversations not to dump our interpretations on to her, but to help her connect to her own questions. As she grows up still being able to listen to and follow her inner voice, her intuition, she will be able to understand and articulate her interests that will go towards fulfilling her unique life purpose. Towards this, she will naturally seek more in-depth knowledge and skills in specific areas. Then structured learning becomes more necessary. She may have to join classes scheduled at a certain periodicity for certain durations, with specific home assignments, etc. If she is apprenticing, which is one of the best ways to learn, she will have to structure her learning time around the teacher / mentor’s convenience. This was the spirit of the old ‘Gurukula’ system of learning Science and arts in those days.

Ok, but what is lost if we do structure the time of young children?
By structuring young children’s time, we gradually disconnect them from their own inner guidance. We tell them “Now is not the time to swing. Now is the time to sit down with your blocks.” They initially resist and become frustrated. Frustration leads to aggression or withdrawal. Then, they are bribed with chocolates and ‘good-girl’ titles to silence their inner voice and submit their will to authority, however 'sweet' it might be. The gradually start to internalize the message that ‘adults know better what they should be doing with their time’. They gradually lose self-motivation and self-confidence. Loss of self-confidence also very subtly sows the seeds of arrogance. And they imbibe the ‘arrogance’ of adults that they know what the children should be doing, and perpetuate the cycle of being disconnected with the flow of life!

‘Natural Learning’ might work for children who have a natural drive to learn and achieve. My daughter is not the kind who can do that on her own. She never gets to do anything without being pushed. 
This is something I’ve heard time and again. I can’t imagine that there can be any child on this earth who doesn’t have the drive to learn. This is just a story that many parents have made up in their heads about their own children. And worse still, narrate this false story to others in front of their own children, without realizing how humiliating and hurting it can be!  
A ‘natural learning’ mother once wrote in her email, “fish swim, birds fly, children learn…. you bet” I just loved this line and since, been quoting her a lot. Yes, children’s learning is as natural as birds flying. If your child does not have the ‘drive’ to learn, then there is nothing wrong with her. There is something really very wrong with the environment she is in. She is 'shutting down' as a way to cope with her trauma.
Rajeev and I had spent an entire day in a ‘free school’ in the US once (The New School in Newark, Delaware), about ten years ago. In these Free Schools, children are not told what to do. They are really free to come and go, as they like. They resolve conflicts among themselves in a beautiful way. We watched one such session. They even manage the funds of the schools. They make their own rules and put them together in a ‘Rule Book’ and follow them because they are theirs. They sign their own attendance as they come and go. Older kids step out of the school (during school hours) into the community and come back. They even ask to just be left alone! To us Indians, who’ve been told that children can never be trusted with this kind of a freedom, and that if they are, then they will most certainly misuse it and become lazy and irresponsible, this might sound stupid or even scary. But, the experience of parents, teachers and psychologists across the world, time and again, has been that when children are left alone (and are not instructed unnecessarily) is when they become more intelligent, lively, responsible and self-driven. This is because their own intuitive intelligence and joy of living and learning take over. This is nature's law. A child being an exception to this is only as rare as a bird that cannot fly or a fish that cannot swim.

Melanie, the founder of the New School, narrated many stories to us during our visit. She told us that many children who ‘shut down’ in other schools were brought to hers. When they join, they have absolutely no interest in anything at all. They have been through such an assault that they simply look to be left alone when they come. These kids want to be outdoors and play all day and not do anything else. They have been denied such time so much, that that is all they want to do. This ‘lack-of-interest-in-anything’ (as it is perceived and labeled by us adults) goes on from a week to a few months. After they have wound down and are saturated with their outdoor-play time (which is when they have recovered from all the mental assault of continuous instruction and being kept indoors), they come inside the building. They then simply pick up other specific things like books or musical instruments. They slowly begin to get very curious and interested in a variety of things.

Even Albert Einstein, a critic of the schooling system, said “I had to cram all this stuff into my mind for the examinations, whether I liked it or not. This coercion had such a deterring effect on me that, after I had passed the final examination, I found the consideration of any scientific problem distasteful to me for an entire year.” So if Einstein went through a whole year of ‘distaste for scientific problems’, you can now relax if your daughter wants to simply laze around when left free. Acknowledge and respect this ‘lazing around aimlessly’. When we are sick, we rest in order to heal, don’t we? We don’t call that time ‘unproductive’ or ‘a waste of time’, do we? We’ve got to have faith in life’s processes, tune in and wait, for months if need be. Something magical will unfold after that!

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Q: At home, she gets very bored with nothing to do. How do I keep her sufficiently engaged?

Q: How about educational toys, books, CDs and TV programs?

Q: Doesn’t all this mean that one parent needs to sacrifice his/her time for the child?

Stay tuned for answers to these questions and more...





4 comments:

vidhyasagari said...

Sangeetha, your post is awesome. Simple, clear and very honest.

Here is today's post in The Hindu about how people are adopting homeschooling in a big way

http://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/chennai/article2829415.ece?homepage=true

vickya said...

All Post are nice Good Keep it up. By Overnight Prints with Brochure Printing

Hazaron Khwahishein said...

Why didn't you meet me earlier...? My son is already a teenager...!!! :-)

Poornima Ravi said...

Amazing read on the power of children's natural ability to learn. As an art teacher, I totally agree with your approach - children learn and excel, if left undisturbed..! we jus need to b available to offer support if at al they need..

As a mother of a 2-yr old toddler, looking for an answer to the question "At home, she gets very bored with nothing to do. How do I keep her sufficiently engaged?". would be glad to see your reply.