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Meet the unschoolers

A small but growing number of families is rejecting traditional education models in favour of 'unschooling' with no lessons, no grades and no rules. Could the ideas of this fringe movement grow to inform the future of education?

Unschooler Rayn Samson at his home in Pune. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Unschooler Rayn Samson at his home in Pune. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

Twelve-year-old Ishaan Banerji emerges from his bedroom at 1pm on a balmy Pune afternoon and shuffles towards his drum kit. Soon the careful rhythm of his drumming fills the apartment he shares with his mother and elder sister. Banerji certainly looks the part: his lopsided bangs fall on to one side of his forehead, a look inspired by the popular American YouTuber and gamer Markiplier.

Unlike most children his age, whose lives are regimented by timetables at school and parenting rule books at home, Ishaan enjoys total autonomy. He has never attended school, has no fixed bedtime or screen-time restrictions, and is free to make what he likes of his unstructured days. His routine, for the past few weeks, has been to “wake up, brush, play video games". He cites Minecraft, a strategy game he’s played for over five years, and newer games like Overwatch as his most influential teachers. “Video games are the reason I learnt how to read," he says. By age 9, Ishaan could read and write, largely propelled by a need to engage on gaming chats and enter Google search words.

Ishaan is part of a small but growing community of “unschoolers", children who live on their own terms, and learn at their own pace. While it is considered a subset of homeschooling, there is a vital difference between the two. Unschoolers receive no formal lessons, not even in reading, writing or basic arithmetic. Instead, unschooling parents believe that we underestimate, and at times suppress, a child’s natural ability to learn by supplying them with regimented doses of information. When instruction is supplanted by natural curiosity, learning can be impassioned and significantly more enjoyable. Unschooling parents take on the role of learning facilitators, supplying information and resources—books, DVDs, even private tutors and formal classes—based on their child’s interests and choices. This can include normal schooling, if the child demands it.

Then there are those who take this thinking to its farthest end: a subset that calls themselves “radical unschoolers". In these families, parents completely surrender their role as authority figures and instead treat the child as an equal member of the household. When frustrated by their child’s behaviour, radical unschooling parents negotiate with reason and vulnerability, presenting choices wherever possible. “This is upsetting me, can you stop?" rather than “Don’t do this". If reasoning is ineffective, parents communicate their anger or frustration, but still don’t enforce discipline.

“The main principle of radical unschooling is to encourage children to be self-disciplined and self-motivated," says Ishaan’s mother Dola Dasgupta, who hosts story-telling workshops in the city, and is an active member of the country’s alternative learning community, largely concentrated in Bengaluru and Pune. “They figure out for themselves...they stretch their limits. The more self-aware a person is, the more empowered they become."

Govande’s daughter Tara spray-paints an ice-cream truck. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Govande’s daughter Tara spray-paints an ice-cream truck. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

Fear and learning

To the average person, the unschooling life poses a series of red flags—no lessons, no rules, no handy reward-punishment system. But these parents claim that the most important prerequisite for unschooling is embracing its uncertainties, especially when it comes to employment. Not everyone can manage it. “The prefix ‘un’ means you have to undo a lot of things," Dasgupta says. “Learning has been so deeply linked with livelihood, specifically money-making. But learning, education and livelihood need to be individualistic. Every citizen needs to have the right to design one’s own journey."

For parents who seek reassurance from the outcome of unschooling, there is one example that stands out. In 2016, Malvika Joshi, a partially unschooled student from Mumbai (she dropped out of school in class VII) got admission in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology after winning three medals at the International Olympiad in Informatics (IOI). She didn’t have a class XII degree, and wasn’t eligible to sit for the IIT entrance exams. Joshi’s story is a much-quoted example of an alternative schooler attaining mainstream educational success, though unschoolers themselves function with a wider definition of “success".

Despite its uncertainties, unschooling is a philosophy that’s finding more takers in India and around the world and, in many cases, by those with a background in education. Dasgupta also worked as a teacher at a reputed private school in New Delhi, where she was troubled by the schooling “monoculture", and by the nature of complaints about her daughter Gaurika at parent-teacher meetings (“she stares outside the window a lot"). At the age of 6, she pulled Gaurika out of school.

Now 16, Gaurika is preparing for Trinity College London’s music certificate exams, which is available in over 60 countries worldwide, and teaching herself Korean online. At the music school she attends, Gaurika is the only unschooler, and most of her peer group is presently navigating concerns about board exams and making choices about subject streams. But is the pressure of competitive exams actually a shade lighter than the anxieties of being the only one without a three-year plan? “That feeling does get to her at times," admits Dasgupta. “These kids actually don’t have anyone (to look towards), because there are very few grown unschoolers in India. If there are others, they’re not really visible. So this group of 16-20year-olds is setting the precedent. And that’s hard. In some ways it’s so much easier to follow the herd."

Unschoolers Gaurika and Ishaan Banerji. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Unschoolers Gaurika and Ishaan Banerji. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

The anti-schooling teacher

In his book Deschooling Society (1971), the Austrian philosopher Ivan Illich contested the notion that learning is only possible through instruction: “School is the advertising agency which makes you believe that you need society as it is," he wrote. Around the same time, American educator John Holt—who was somewhat of an outlier himself, losing teaching jobs for his undisciplined classrooms and lenient grading – coined the term “unschooling". His books How Children Fail (1964) and How Children Learn (1967), based on his observations and experiments as a teacher and father, are considered essential handbooks for homeschooling and unschooling parents. Holt himself summarized his findings in two words: “Trust Children". “Nothing could be more simple—or more difficult," he wrote.

Pune-based Urmila and John Samson decided against sending their children to school in the early 1990s, well before the internet made it possible to find other parents who thought similarly, or even to learn that there was such a thing as an “unschooling movement". Their eldest daughter, Sahya, 26, has completed a four-year diploma in eurythmy, which she teaches in Pune, from the Peredur Centre in the UK. Their son Rayn, 21, is preparing for his A-levels with a private tutor, and plans to apply for an undergraduate degree in the US. Their youngest, Niom, 16, has just graduated from Swaraj University, a two-year self-designed learning (SDL) programme on the outskirts of Udaipur.

Unschooling parents must prepare for unsettling phases of disobedience, laziness and imbalance. In Urmila’s case, the most challenging example of this was a spell of five years during which her son Rayn did little apart from playing video games. “I felt like I had completely messed up my children," she says. “I tried the things that normal parents try, but nothing worked. Finally, I moved from focusing on the outer problem to focusing inward."

A day before his 14th birthday, Rayn walked up to her and made an announcement—he was quitting gaming. In what he describes as an overnight transformation, Rayn felt motivated to shift his attention to football, with as much dedication. “I deleted my PlayStation account, which is basically like throwing out your trophy cabinet. My teenage years then involved setting alarms, eating properly and pursuing a highly disciplined physical activity. Not much else," he says.

It is an anecdote that points to an interesting link between freedom and self-motivation, which studies have found to be more present in unschooled children. More than once, Rayn refers to “a strong inner voice", a term often used by unschooling parents. It emerges, they believe, in the absence of a controlling voice of authority, which monitors most of us in our formative years, and when children are trusted to find equilibrium on their own.

Interestingly, this might also explain why unschoolers look quizzical when asked if they felt a need to rebel against their parents. “My childhood was one of extreme freedom—and borderline abuse of that freedom," laughs Rayn. “But understanding what happens when you use those freedoms helped me mature as a person. For instance, I’ve never had my parents tell me not to smoke or drink, but I’ve always had a strong sense of never wanting to do it. It seems like an unnecessary expense with no benefits."

Children at a play session at Sharmila Govande’s self-learning space in Pune. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Children at a play session at Sharmila Govande’s self-learning space in Pune. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

How unschooling works

Unschooling parents are typically questioned on three counts. The first query: how will their child attain basic literacy? The answer to this often comes as a surprise to the parents themselves. Many can’t pinpoint the exact moment their child learnt how to read or write, and the process is often described as “magical" and “unexpected". They learn from observation, pretend games, interactions with people, sometimes from necessity. But it does demand alertness to the child’s interests, and the financial ability to supplement these interests. And since for millions, a formal degree is still a necessary entry point into stable careers, unschooling remains a safer bet for the elite.

If unschoolers decide to opt for degrees through distance learning institutes like the National Institute of Open Schooling and the Indira Gandhi National Open University, they might have to account for knowledge gaps in their learning. For instance, Rayn learnt writing by hand at the age of 18 in preparation for his IGCSE (International General Certificate of Secondary Education) exams. This was also the first time he studied math, a subject he found fascinating and joyous, despite not having previously encountered building blocks of the discipline, like algebra and trigonometry. His results included three A-stars and two As; his lowest score was in math, a decent 83, but a personal disappointment.

Muzaffar Shaikh, a former IT professional in Pune, who is currently a stay-at-home unschooling dad, was surprised at his 10-year-old son Kindo’s ability with language. “My education was not in English, it is my second language, so we do not speak it at home. But he speaks English like a native by watching videos and playing games," he says.

The second concern is of employability. Can unschoolers be absorbed into the workforce? There are no clear answers here, but you get the sense that an anti-capitalist world view threads through the community. These parents are aware that their children might never obtain six-figure incomes, and are more likely to find a calling in the arts or in fields relating to sustainability. This is a frequent area of discussion at unschooler meetings. “There are challenges, like when my son goes to meet someone for an internship, he feels like he will not get a certain kind of job," says Sumi Chandresh, an Ahmedabad -based unschooling parent whose 18-year-old son, Qudrat, wants to pursue film-making. “There are pros and cons in both the system and in unschooling. But the system has brainwashed us so we can’t see anything beyond a degree."

On the other hand, companies like Google, Apple and Intel have made announcements about hiring candidates without college degrees. In 2016, IBM revealed that 10-15% of new hires in the company did not have formal education.

Unschoolers who have never attended school often rely on accounts from friends and relatives to make up their minds about it. One parent was even bemused by the ways in which his sceptical relatives presented school as a tempting wonderland to his 10-year-old son. He was not buying it, having played enough student-teacher pretend games to know better. Qudrat, on the other hand, was curious enough to find out for himself. “At the age of 7, I knew I was slightly different from the others. So I went to school for a day," he says. The verdict? “I just couldn’t bear to sit in that classroom."

While there are no in-depth studies on how unschoolers feel about their education, in 2013, American psychologists Peter Gray and Gina Riley surveyed 75 grown unschoolers (of which 65 were from the US, and 10 from the UK, Canada and Germany). Three of the 75 reported that they were unhappy with their unschooling, citing reasons of social isolation or dysfunctional families. A majority said the biggest disadvantage of unschooling was the judgement and criticism of others—over the course of their childhood, unschoolers are met with surprise, envy, scrutiny and, in some cases, ridicule.

In terms of employment, 53% of the respondents were entrepreneurs, 48% of the participants were pursuing a career in the arts and 29% were pursuing STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) careers. Most found themselves in professions beyond the mainstream: there was an orientation and mobility specialist, a circus performer, a wildlife photographer, and an assistant to a film director.

Which brings us to the third and most common question. What about socialization? There is an emphasis on forming relationships outside of classrooms. Children interact with people of diverse ages and class backgrounds. John Holt’s view was that qualities like kindness, patience, and generosity were better learnt in intimate relationships and smaller groups. “By and large, human beings tend to behave worse in large groups, like you find in school. There they learn something quite different—popularity, conformity, bullying, teasing," he wrote.

The unschoolers I met reported their social circle consisted of friends made in their housing societies, hobby classes, and meet-ups with other unschoolers. Qudrat says he’s formed intergenerational connections over the years, like when he travelled to Nashik to study Warli art at the age of 10. While Rayn also reports an ease in socializing with people of all ages, he does admit to a feeling of social exclusion. “I’m not good at things like small talk and banter...but this could partially be a result of my own personality," he says.

Unschooler Rayn Samson (left) with his parents Urmila and John in Pune. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

The radical parenting network

“Unschooling is like religion, no two families adopt it exactly the same way," says one parent. “To be honest, there are times when I also get confused about what exactly radical unschooling is, and I don’t know how many of them are actually following it. Since there is no central authority, there will be some differences." These differences can include encouraging their children to learn from the outdoors, limiting gadget use or packaging educational lessons as games (which is a contravention of the self-learning principle).

Aparajita Kumar, a stay-at-home parent and blogger in New Delhi stopped radical unschooling for her children, aged 2 K and 4, after experimenting with it for two years. “It was too loose and scary for me. I’ve heard stories of unschoolers who couldn’t sign their names at 18 and I didn’t want to take a risk with (my children's) future," she says. Now, she favours a more relaxed form of home education. “While I don’t follow a pre-prescribed curriculum, I draw from philosophies like the Charlotte Mason method and project-based learning."

To help new entrants negotiate such fears, several unschooling parents endeavour to be seen: they post frequently on blogs, participate in studies, let journalists into their homes, share email addresses on online forums. On a national level, the annual Learning Societies UnConference and the Swashikshan Association of Homeschoolers have emerged as platforms for alternative education seekers to network.

Dola Dasgupta manages the Unschooling in India group on Facebook, where parents seek each other out for support. It currently has 441 members. “By deciding to unschool them (her children), I have created an unknown path as a parent. That’s why we have forums to share our doubts," she says. “But it’s important to mention we’re not anti-education activists."

Self-directed learning centres

There is one name that frequently comes up in conversations with unschoolers: Shikshantar, an organization in Udaipur that welcomes everyone, from homeschoolers and unschoolers to gap-year professionals and dropouts (they prefer the term “walk-outs"). Co-founded by unschooling parents Vidhi and Manish Jain (who “unlearnt" his master’s degree in education from Harvard University), Shikshantar aims to bring the Gandhian principle of swaraj, or self-rule, into education. “We want to put more power in the hands of learners. I think eventually the ‘mainstream’ will have no choice but to catch up," says Manish.

Unschooler Niom Samson, 16, recently completed a two-year degreeless programme at Shikshantar’s Swaraj University, where “khojis" (knowledge seekers) from various socio-economic backgrounds design their own learning projects (fees are voluntary). Niom’s project is based on the use of creative games for problem solving and “learned helplessness", when one is conditioned to believe that a situation is unchangeable. “People are usually stuck in patterns," explains Niom. “I’ve noticed when even you try to introduce a new thing in games, like three-sided football, there’s a reluctance to see the benefits and also explore its problems."

Courses are created according to the needs of each khoji, which can range from an urgent need to earn a livelihood, to a desire for self-healing. Niom says he felt an unconscious need for the latter. “I was learning football at Pune Football Club and I faced a lot of bullying from the students and verbal abuse from the coach," he says. “People didn’t accept me because I didn’t go to school. They thought I was dumb. Ever since I left, I had to deal with a huge feeling of meaninglessness. Eventually (at Swaraj), I found acceptance, an appreciation for who I am, and constructive criticism, in terms of what I need to improve."

Pune-based Sharmila Govande, a former teacher, sent her son Aditya to one of Shikshantar’s camps last year hoping to cure his prolonged discomfort with schools. Instead, he returned with excited narrations about “unschoolers", and tried to convince her to pull him out of school. She didn’t buy it; good grades were optional but a formal education, she felt, was non-negotiable. But after poring over books by Ivan Illich and John Dewy, and consulting a wide network of parents, she gradually decided to unschool her two sons, aged 13 and 10. Govande says she’s still in the process of “deschooling", or undoing the conditioning of normal schools. “It’s much more difficult for parents. I won’t say I’m fully there yet." Recently, on the suggestion of her son who missed interacting with his peer group, she converted part of her home into a self-learning space for the city’s unschooling children to come together.

Meanwhile, in an attempt to extend the freedoms of self-directed learning to children from less privileged backgrounds, Manish Jain co-founded Creativity Adda, a self-learning space in Delhi in 2015. Set in an all-boys government school in Delhi, the “adda" is open from 2-5pm every day, and students and children from neighbouring areas are free to explore its five learning hubs, including a chef’s academy, a makerspace (a space for tinkering with access to technology or building tools) and a sports centre. “These children lack two things—a social network and capital. Our theory is if you give them freedom and resources, these children can change the school culture. Change doesn’t have to be top-down,"says Jain.

The future of unschooling

“Unschooling" is not a universally accepted term, though it is the catchiest. Some believe its negative prefix shifts focus from what the movement embraces (child-led learning) to what it rejects (traditional schools).

As a concept, self-directed learning has found vocal proponents like Sugata Mitra, a professor of educational technology at Newcastle University, who conducted the famous Hole In The Wall experiments in 1999. By placing a public computer in a slum in Delhi, Mitra found that groups of children with access to the internet have the capacity to learn by themselves.

More recently, former engineer Abhijit Sinha has developed a similar self-directed learning model called Project DEFY (Design Education For Yourself). In Banjarapalya village, 100km from Bengaluru, Sinha created a “nook", a self-learning makerspace, in 2014. He has since set up another in Mangaluru and one in a refugee camp in Uganda.

But self-directed learning can involve extensive screen use, which is a divisive subject for all parents. Last month, Beyond Millennials: The Next Generation of Learners, a survey of 2,587 14- to 40-year-olds by the market research firm Harris Poll, found that nearly 60% of Gen Z respondents prefer YouTube for learning, while 47% prefer printed books. For the older cohort of millennials, the numbers were 60% for printed books, and 55% for YouTube.

Most unschoolers I met also credited YouTube as their primary learning resource, whether it involved Korean lessons, film-making courses or smartly-produced explainer videos.

For some time, the conversation around unschooling has largely been dominated by parents, but now, grown unschoolers are actively speaking for themselves on social media groups, blogs, and Facebook communities. As one of the oldest unschoolers in the community, Rayn says he’s found his own views on the subject evolve over the years: “I was in the camp of strong unschooling advocates, but now I don’t feel as strongly as I used to. I believe the majority of the ones that feel strongly do so because they can’t really envision a good public education system. And the pedagogy of many alternative schools has been a little wishy-washy. They still rely on traditional teaching but just make it more fun."

Rayn is optimistic about an exciting middle ground that retains the principles of unschooling and the community spirit of schools. “I’m fairly certain I want to work in education myself," he says, citing Summerhill, a democratic British school that rose to prominence in the 1970s, as an example of the ideal he envisions. As self-directed learning enlists more advocates, and gathers scientific attention, it is plausible that the seemingly radical idea of child-driven learning might move out of homes, and into schools.

Course material

Read your way to the basics of unschooling

Free to Learn, by Peter Gray

Developmental psychologist Peter Gray makes a powerful case for giving children the freedom to steer their own learning. He advocates for the benefits of free play, using evidence and anecdotes from anthropology, psychology and history.

Deschooling Society, by Ivan Illich

The Croatian-Australian philosopher’s best-known work is a sharp critique of institutionalized education. An early proponent of self-directed learning, Illich challenged the role of modern schools, which he saw as training centres to fuel a capitalist society.

How Children Learn, by John Holt

This classic from the father of unschooling outlines how natural learning takes place outside of classrooms. Using anecdotes from his own experiences as a teacher, Holt challenges the instruction-led approach to education.

Dumbing Us Down, by John Taylor Gatto

Gatto earned the moniker “world’s most courageous teacher" for speaking out against public schools after serving as a teacher for more than 30 years. “School is a twelve-year jail sentence where bad habits are the only curriculum truly learned. I teach school and win awards doing it. I should know," he wrote.

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