Homeschooling isn’t a solitary journey—it has a vibrant community, with support groups and open learning centres
Bengaluru-based Supriya Narang is inundated with queries these days. Since the lockdown was announced, she has been getting calls from parents in the city about homeschooling and unschooling. “My seven-year-old son has never been to a mainstream educational institution. I have always homeschooled him," says Narang, who runs the blog This Homeschooling Life.
Her experience with this education movement makes her the ideal sounding board for anxious parents looking at alternative systems for their children.
But why the sudden spurt in interest? “I think a lot of them are fear-based, knee-jerk reactions about whether schools will open or not, what the future of classroom education will be like," says Pune-based Dola Dasgupta, who has homeschooled her two children, now aged 18 and 14.
She too has received a host of queries on the two groups she moderates, Unschooling in India and Pune Alternative Learners, but is careful about admitting parents to them. She allows them in only after a set of screening questions and an assessment of how convinced the parents are about the methodology.
For homeschooling is a way of life, not just an education movement. It is a choice that families make to shun tradition and embark on a journey of experiential learning, centred around the belief that children have the ability to be self-aware. “Homeschooling is not dependent on any school methodology or pedagogy. It is self-motivated and student-driven, with lots of inputs and support from parents and chosen mentors," says Dasgupta, making a clear distinction between the online schooling being done by educational institutions in the time of covid-19 and homeschooling.
Homeschoolers do, nevertheless, pursue higher secondary education through the National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS) or the International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE), if they want to.
Unschooling, however, goes further, moving away entirely from a defined curriculum, with children trusted to find their own path to knowledge. So they could be engaged in eclectic and disparate activities in a day—learning Mandarin in the morning, exploring urban farming in the afternoon and taking online jazz classes in the evening. University education isn’t the goal; college is taken up only if a passion demands it, says Dasgupta.
It is a myth that homeschooling and unschooling are solitary journeys for the families. These may not involve the social events associated with mainstream schools, such as parent-teacher meets, sports days and annual days, but there is a strong sense of kinship within this “tribe", as most homeschoolers/unschoolers describe the community—aided by groups on Facebook and WhatsApp, support groups and open learning centres.
Many of these support groups have been started by the homeschoolers themselves—most of them on a pro bono basis—to enable sharing of ideas, anxieties and emotions in a safe space. Though there is no fix on the number of homeschoolers in the country, there are concentrated hubs in certain cities. “Pune is the largest, followed by Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Bengaluru, Delhi and Chennai. Kerala has a growing community as well," says Mumbai-based Sharmila Govande, who started unschooling three years ago. It was support from the groups that helped her make the decision. Today, just like Narang, she too runs a blog, Thegreatkapok.blogspot.com, to share her learnings.
There are also online forums, such as the Homeschoolers’ Nook in Bengaluru, that organize play dates, meet-ups and field trips. It was started in 2015 by Sandhya Viswan, who has been a homeschooler for over a decade. Dasgupta is also part of a larger, pan-India initiative called Swashikshan—Indian Association of Homeschoolers.
“Swashikshan has annual meets, as part of which homeschoolers and unschoolers spend four-five days together. Then there is the Learning Societies UnConference, where people with alternative ways of living—farmers, permaculturists, unschoolers—gather," says Govande. Udaipur-based Shikshantar, an open learning centre co-founded by Vidhi Jain, also hosts a five-day retreat for a group of 20-25 families, called Families Learning Together, to bond and learn from each other.
Yet another open learning centre, Aarohi, offers community unschooling time on its campus in a village 60km from Bengaluru. “The activities are based on what a child wants to do. There is no one tried and tested method to fit all here. Typically, kids come in on Monday and go back on Friday. Parents may or may not live on the campus," say Aditi and Ratnesh Mathur, who co-founded Aarohi in 2008.
A typical day starts with children sitting in an open circle and talking about what they expect from the day, followed by one organized session conducted by volunteers—it could be parents, a child, or anyone who has something to say. “It could be about music today and about rocket fuel tomorrow. The rest of the day is an open page for the kids. Evening is for another circle, a time for reflection to close the day," the Mathurs explain.
Today, of course, all these forums have turned to e-meets and video calls.
But the communities—offline and online—don’t just share learning resources; they do some day-to-day handholding too. “The groups offer a lot of emotional support as well to families who are seen as going against the grain," says Dasgupta.
The forums also respond to the queries of aspiring homeschoolers/unschoolers. Govande talks about the online community The Unschooling Way, which has an empathetic listening circle—conducted on Zoom nowadays—to hear concerns of parents who would like to shift from mainstream to alternative learning.
“The nature of questions in the groups differs when it comes to experienced homeschoolers and aspiring ones. The ones who are already homeschooling have questions about how I should introduce a particular concept to my child. Which resources should I tap into? These keep changing," explains Narang.
Aspiring homeschoolers, however, are more concerned with the future path of their children.
“Say, a child has studied in a mainstream school till the age of 10, will he or she be able to adapt to homeschooling? These are some of the questions asked," Narang adds. There are also queries about whether their child will be accepted by universities across the globe.
Today, however, even companies like Google and IBM are looking beyond college degrees, scouting for candidates with hands-on experience in coding, or other skills. A post-pandemic world may only accentuate the need to reimagine the learning environment. And homeschoolers and unschoolers may even have a slight edge when it comes to adapting to change.