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Mother knows best

Mother knows best
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First Published: Sat, May 03 2008. 12 12 AM IST

Motwani, an educational consultant, and his family at their south Mumbai home. (Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint)
Motwani, an educational consultant, and his family at their south Mumbai home. (Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint)
Updated: Sat, May 03 2008. 12 12 AM IST
About a year ago, Shalom, now 9, decided she wanted to be like her friends. So, she dug out a chequered pinafore and a T-shirt and slipped them on. Then she solemnly walked across to “school”—a big wooden table in the open-plan kitchen of her home. “On the third day, she declared that wearing the same thing every day was boring,” laughs Shalom’s mother Sangeetha Raj, 39.
But school never gets boring for Shalom. When it’s not at the kitchen table, it’s at the back porch, overlooking a tiny garden. Occasionally, it moves into a room stacked with books and crowned by a cardboard doll’s house, or to Russell Market, where she banters with the vendor and deals with a small amount of money. “Technically, Shalom is being home-educated, but the whole world is her school,” says Bangalore-based Sangeetha.
She could have been speaking for scores of other parents across the country, who have scoped out the conventional education system—very much a part of their own upbringing—and decided to strike out on their own. Like most other parents, those who educate their children at home know that few schools serve the best interests of either the child or of learning. Unlike them, though, this growing breed is willing to act on the premise that mother knows best. Combining Internet tools, real-time resources, recommended syllabuses and mentored e-discussions, they’re looking to create more fulfilled childhoods and enable holistic learning.
Motwani, an educational consultant, and his family at their south Mumbai home. (Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint)
At its very basic, home schooling takes ownership for a child’s education and makes it an individual, responsive, often free-flowing affair that keeps pace with his or her interests and abilities. All plugged-in parents would agree on this—and it may be all they agree on, for there are as many “methods” of home schooling as there are sets of parents.
“While we all undoubtedly want the best for our children, our ways of getting there might not be identical,” confesses Ramji Srinivasan, 40, a software professional who’s taking advantage of a career break to put together a support group for home educators in Bangalore.
Obviously, the decision to educate their kids themselves is not one taken lightly or in a hurry. “Ahead of our move back to India from the US, we began researching possible schools for our twins,” says Anand Bariya, 44, managing director of NetLogic, a Nasdaq-listed semiconductor company, and father of twins Mallika and Mohini, 12. “We narrowed in on a Bangalore school that claimed to be ‘alternative’ and admitted our girls there. But within a few months, we were disappointed with the depth of education the school was offering. We simply thought we could do a better job teaching the kids.”
While in the US Srinivasan did the rounds of the most competitive schools with his daughter Eesha. That is where he encountered a Waldorf school. Based on the philosophy of Rudolf Steiner, Waldorf schools focus on experiential, sensory-based learning in early childhood. “Till then, we’d had no idea of educational methods other than the conventional schools my wife Meena and I had been to. But, after the US experience, I knew we couldn’t admit our daughter to a regular school when we came back to Bangalore in 2003,” says the software consultant. “And, there were no Waldorf institutions in the city.”
Sangeetha didn’t even get that far. “We began teaching Shalom at home, the way any parent does,” she says. “By the time she was of school-going age, my son Ishaan was born and they grew very attached to each other. I didn’t have the heart to send her to school and separate them.” Now, five years later, Sangeetha and her husband Sathish Kumar, a software consultant, can’t conceive of a home where the children aren’t always around. It helps that Sangeetha, a postgraduate in English literature, teaches two days a week at Centre for Learning (CFL), a school on Bangalore’s outskirts that was once part of the pioneering J. Krishnamurti family of schools which were the first to impart “formalized” alternative education. CFL now functions independently but continues to adhere to the “alternative” philosophy. “We don’t home-school because of any ideology,” Sangeetha clarifies at the outset. “We have no issues with the mainstream. True, we don’t see our daughter going to one of those factory-like schools, but Shalom should be able to be part of the mainstream if she wants to. Should she want to go to school, she will—but it will probably be to an institution like CFL.”
Till then, Sangeetha and Sathish are happy engaging with their children in the deepest possible sense. “Home schooling leaves us with very little time to do other things,” she says. “But parenthood was a conscious decision for us. We see no reason why we should entrust others with the most important part of their growing up.” In the two-and-a-half hours set aside informally every morning as “work-time”, Shalom studies English, math, science and history; she also goes for classes in Kannada and Hindi, languages that her parents aren’t confident of teaching. “But all the cues come from her,” emphasizes Sangeetha. “Last year, she came across a little historical story in a local newspaper. She came to me and said, ‘I want to do more of this.’ That’s how we started history.”
Gardening is part of Eesha’s education. (Kiran / Mint)
Ditto with geometry. Though she isn’t yet 10, Shalom knows all about the 180 degrees in a triangle and the properties of a straight line. “One of her friends was doing geometry in school and she became curious about it,” says Sangeetha. “So, we took it up. And, remarkably, we’ve noted that the subjects—for lack of another word—that she is most comfortable with are the ones she has initiated.”
Mallika and Mohini second that. “We like studying because we can do things at our own pace,” says Mallika. “If I want to spend the whole day studying math and Mohini wants to do history, there’s nothing to stop us.”
Mumbai-based businessman Hemant Chhabra, 46, has a simple mantra: “Stop talking, listen to the kids. Human beings don’t need to be taught, they need to be stimulated.”
With their first child Anicca, who’s now 16, Sangeeta Chhabra began by reading aloud to her stories and rhymes. “By the time she was two-and-a-half, she knew 200 poems by heart. We didn’t teach her A for apple, B for bat, she learnt phonetically,” Hemant says. “I still remember how she stunned us by reading aloud ‘utterly butterly’ from an Amul hoarding by the highway.”
In a little village in Tamil Nadu, Sunder and Sonati are trying their hand at sustenance farming. “It’s just us and our two boys, Badri and Varun, who are 10 and 6, respectively. There is no time when they must study, yet there’s no time when they aren’t studying in some sense or the other,” says Sunder, 42. “The older one spent a lot of time reading, writing stories and illustrating them. Since we got the computer, he has become more savvy than us on a lot of counts. But the greatest resource is the wilderness. The boys just spend time running about, climbing trees, chasing dragons.”
An IIT-ian like Sunder, Jogesh Motwani is an educational consultant who lives with his family in south Mumbai. But the what-will-people-say syndrome hasn’t forced him to admit four-and-a-half-year-old Mahuli to school. “I want my kids to think for themselves,” he says. “Most of my daughter’s peers have already spent half their lives in school. I want her to discover the world as it is.” To help her do it, the Motwanis walk down to the Gateway of India every day. Whatever catches Mahuli’s fancy becomes a lesson. A question on why the rocks are visible at certain times of the day and go underwater at others leads to a discussion on tides; an observation of various kinds of animal poop on the Colaba pavements triggers a conversation on scatology.
While home education is about hands-on parenting, it doesn’t call for 24x7 parental presence. Those with very young children prefer to rejig their schedules so that one of them is around the kids most of the time. The Motwanis, for instance, work out of home, while Sathish makes sure he is available on the two days Sangeetha is at CFL. But, with their daughters turning 12, the Bariyas have no issue working regular hours from their respective offices.
As ideal and idealistic as home education sounds, it is still far from gathering enough critical mass to be hailed as the anti-school. “The rise in home-educating, globally as well as in India, mostly reflects people’s extreme dissatisfaction with conventional education,” says Clive Elwell, a New Zealander who, after a teaching stint in India, has been anointed mentor of an e-group on home schooling. “People see their children suffering in various ways, bored with school, being bullied, insulted and demeaned by teachers. My feeling, based on my interaction with the online group over the past seven years, is that probably more people are turning to home education. I do know that about six people have joined the group every week—mostly those who are home-educating their children or are seeking the courage to do so.”
Notwithstanding the presence of the National Institute of Open Schooling (Nios), set up in 1989 as an autonomous organization under the ministry of human resource development, it is educators such as Elwell to whom the inexperienced turn for advice. Elwell, 60, however, is careful not to fall into the trap of being the evangelist: “I would not advise anyone how they should educate their children,” he says in an email interview. “Rather, I would encourage them to embark on a voyage of discovery with their children.”
Perhaps the most delightful part of home-educating is that it can be anything you want it to be. “Home schooling is not just for the hippies,” says Bariya. “I do want my daughters to pass their exams at the X standard and the XII, and Nios allows them to do so. We went in for home schooling so that they could optimize their potential, not to limit their options.”
Anicca, taught to read phonetically, remembers having some problems with spellings. “But, that’s something I overcame with time. Now, I’ve set my heart on joining Xavier’s in Mumbai to study Arts,” she says.
There’s no reason why she shouldn’t get there. Ask Nadisha Coelho, 22. The first-born of Goa-based Ana and Valentine Coelho, she was home-educated after her parents found her school slipping up on religious education. In 2006, she won a Mumbai University gold medal for topping her BSc batch in home science.
“I think it was the proudest moment of my life,” says Nadisha. “After clearing my XII standard under Nios, I joined a Goa college. Because I was in a class with others after such a long spell, I wasn’t sure what to expect. So, I put in extra effort and topped the class in the first term. But nothing gave me as much pleasure as my father’s presence when I got my medal.”
It might seem ironical that a home-educated child would find it thrilling to top a competition—antithetical to the very concept of home schooling—but Nadisha is quick to point out her priority wasn’t so much to beat 175 others, as it was to give her best.
The transition isn’t as easy for everyone. After years in the alternative rural sector in Maharashtra, Yashodara and Kanwarjit, both in their 40s, moved to Goa for health reasons in 2005. “In the city, it suddenly dawned on us that we were a nuclear family,” says Yashodara. “So, we put in a lot of energy in ensuring Anant, our 8-year-old, had opportunities to meet other kids in his age group—be it through swimming, gym, summer camp or libraries. Butthree months ago, he announced he wanted to go to school. We believe he should make his own decisions, so he joined a school of his own choice—not one of those factory schools, but a small place, offering classes I-IV, with about 30-32 students to a class. It’s not what we’d have chosen:Since he’s now in class II, it means looking for a school again in two years. I also feel his 9am-4pm absence deeply—his day was so much a part of myday that I’m still recovering.”
Dissatisfied with an alternative school, Bariya began home-educating his twins, Mallika and Mohini. (Kiran / Mint)
A very social child, Anant didn’t have a problem picking up the school’s rhythm and fell in with the other children and team games. On the academic front, he has been slowly finding his feet. “At home, he printed his letters, in school, he has to use cursive writing,” explains Yashodara. “Also, conceptually, he’s far ahead of his class. A school is geared to deal with the average child, so others get left behind or have to wait for others to catch up.”
As Anant’s parents found out, there is no bar to a home-schooled child joining a mainstream school at any stage. “In fact, the Nios curriculum is exceptionally good,” says Shyama Chona, principal of Delhi Public School, RK Puram, and a big votary of the open school system. “While the economically weaker sections have special provisions for school admissions under Nios, other students would need to clear the entrance test—just the same as any child educated in any other school.”
Equally, there are those who would say a child is not meant to grow up in a universe limited to his or her parents. “The success of home schooling depends on how well it’s managed,” points out educationist Tara Kini, who has a special interest in alternative education. “Children need a sense of belonging. So, unless it becomes common enough in India, parents need to focus hard on peer interaction. In fact, I think the plus points of regular schools are the break-time or the bus journeys. Without adequate interaction with the outside world, there may be too much of the parents, even a danger of claustrophobia.”
Those are very real dangers, acknowledges Srinivasan. “Meena and I are not very social creatures and I think Eesha’s picked up that trait from us. Like us, she’d rather invest in a few deep relationships than many superficial ones. Home schooling can get lonely.”
It’s not for every child. Nor is it, obviously, for every parent. But for those for whom it works, it is the most meaningful thing in the world.
A lifelong edge
Schools are a waste of time and resources, says economist Ashok Desai, who was home-schooled
Ashok Desai didn’t go to school till he was 12 years old because his father Valji Desai lacked the means to send him to one. Valji himself was born into a family of modest means, but he always stood first in class and, with the help of scholarships, educated himself. In 1916, he earned Rs400 a month as a college professor. “A princely sum in those days,” recalls his son. But Valji came under the spell of Mahatma Gandhi, quit his job and went to jail a number of times. When Ashok and his brothers were growing up in the 1940s, there was little money in the house, so the boys were taught at home.
“My father taught me for 1-2 hours a day and he taught me only two things—English and mathematics,” says Ashok. “When I finally went to school, I was admitted to class VIII. I realized that I was way ahead of my classmates. I never had to study much and always stood first in class, except in class XI.”
Ashok credits his initial years of home-schooling for giving him a lifelong edge. “My father taught me something that no school teaches you,” he says. “He taught me how to learn. I was equipped with the instruments of learning.” And, as a result, “I have never had to work as much as my peers,” he says. “Even today, all I have to do is write 3,000-4,000 words a week—about 5-6 hours of work—and I am fine.”
A noted economist, who “strayed into journalism”, Ashok has written two books and served as economic adviser to Manmohan Singh when he, as the finance minister in the Narasimha Rao government, set India on the path of economic reforms in the early 1990s.
He points out that both his brothers were extremely bright and went on to have successful careers. Ashok doesn’t have a very high opinion of the state of education in India, whether in schools or universities. “I never felt that I was challenged intellectually till I went to Cambridge for my postgraduate studies,” he says. “There is no culture of fostering independent thinking in India.”
He would recommend home-schooling any day, but a good teacher is essential. “If you don’t have a good teacher at home, then it defeats the purpose,” he says. But now there is a way out of that. “The Internet and television channels make home-schooling possible for everyone,” he adds. “I believe that those initial years spent at home saved me a lot of misery and unpleasantness. Perhaps it made me a bit of an introvert. But I really don’t mind it.”
(Himanshu Bhagat)
Modus Operandi
The complete FAQ sheet on home-schooling
How one approaches home schooling can be as subjective and individualistic as one’s approach towards parenting. It’s not necessary for the mother or the father to be a trained teacher, but it is necessary for both to be in complete agreement over the basic principles of education. Parents will need to invest time and energy in researching resources and they should have a clear idea of their and their children’s goals.
Is home schooling legal in India?
Yes, it is—if only because no form of schooling is illegal. Some states do require parents to send their children to school but, as we know, that regulation is rarely enforced. The National Institute of Open Schooling (’www.nios.ac.in’) was set up to provide learn-and-earn options for children from economically weaker sections, but it is an umbrella policy that anyone can take advantage of.
What about curriculum?
Since the basic idea behind home schooling goes against the structure and conventions of school, most parents prefer a freewheeling method in the early years. Reading aloud, storytelling, rhymes and songs—all become ways of learning. With slightly older children, peer group course books are a good guide. The National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) curriculum was revamped in 2005 and has come in for praise from all quarters. Visit ‘www.ncert.nic.in’ for details. NCERT textbooks are downloadable from the Net.
The Nios syllabus, broken up into secondary and senior secondary courses, too, is an enlightened one. Course material can be ordered online; the cost of the course material is included in the admission fee.
A wealth of information on age-appropriate study materials sourced from foreign countries is also available online. The Singapore government site, ‘www.moe.gov.sg/education/syllabuses/’ details curricula for almost all core subjects a typical home-schooled child would study, including math, science, geography, English and computers. The syllabuses can be used almost as is for a home-school programme. Science, math and English curricula available from the California department of education site ‘www.cde.ca.gov/ci/cr/cf/allfwks.asp’ are particularly good and detailed.
How do I assess my child’s progress?
For parents so inclined, education departments in various US states have excellent tests available for free download for all classes. These tests can be used effectively to track and assess the progress of a home-schooled child. The following sites are particularly good:
u California tests: ‘www.cde.ca.gov/ta/tg/sr/css05rtq.asp’
u Texas tests: ‘www.tea.state.tx.us/student.assessment/resources/release’
u Florida tests: ‘fcat.fldoe.org/fcatit02.asp’
u Massachusetts tests: ‘www.doe.mass.edu/mcas/testitems.html’
Under Nios, students are required to clear a minimum of five subjects (including two languages) at the secondary and higher secondary level for certification. Certificates have the same level of acceptance as state or central boards.
Besides academics, are there other factors to keep in mind?
Certainly. It’s essential for home-schooling parents to help their children integrate with society and their peer group, whether among their friends’ circles or a support group. The website ‘www.alternativeeducationindia.net’ has an active Yahoo group. There has been some effort in individual cities, too, to develop support groups that meet at periodic intervals to discuss ideas and issues.
(Sumana Mukherjee, with inputs from Anand Bariya)
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First Published: Sat, May 03 2008. 12 12 AM IST
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