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The first rule of unschooling is that there is no rule at all. “In unschooling, we don’t teach anything. Children learn through the course of living life, or when they are interested in a particular concept or topic,” explains Sharmila Govande. 

When we think about children’s education, we usually categorise it into regular schooling and homeschooling, of which the latter may be radically unconventional for conservative, old-school (no pun intended) parents. But, there also exists a third style of education, which is known as ‘unschooling’. Essentially, it is child-led, meaning the interests and curiosities of the child take precedence over anything else. 

Sharmila Govande, a Mumbai-based educator, writer, and an unschooling mother of three, breaks it down for the uninitiated. 

Schooling versus homeschooling versus unschooling  

Speaking with, Govande explains, “Put simply, homeschooling is where the parents take on the role of the school. They bring in their curriculum and children learn accordingly. I see homeschooling and unschooling as two ends of a spectrum. Most parents are somewhere in the middle. While in regular schooling, the school takes the responsibility, in homeschooling, parents are in-charge. In unschooling, however, it is the child who is in-charge. It is completely child-led and directed. The child follows their passion, interest and curiosities”.

Govande says unschooling follows the principle that all kids are natural learners, and that from birth, they learn everything on their own. “Nobody teaches them to crawl, sit or walk. They even learn their first words based on what they hear. When a child is ready to go to school, suddenly a separate agency — which does not know them at all — takes the responsibility of educating them. And those who aren’t able to adjust to this curriculum are labelled as hyperactive, attention-deficit, or slow learners,” she remarks. 

But, when it comes to unschooling, it is believed that every child has the ability to learn on their own, without being dictated upon. Parents become learning partners, as opposed to being in control. 

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But what about basic learning?

The first rule of unschooling is that there is no rule at all. Govande has three children, aged 5, 12 and 15. And while two of them have been to schools, the youngest one is being unschooled. “My oldest child went to school till he was 12 — regular schools, alternate schools, group learning systems. Finally, we arrived at unschooling. My second child went to school till he was about nine years old. And, my youngest has never been to school. She did, however, go to a playgroup for a few months,” she shares. “In unschooling, we don’t teach anything. Children learn through the course of living life, or when they are interested in a particular concept or topic.” 

Govande’s five-year-old, for instance, was interested in alphabets after looking at the licence plate of cars. “She learnt to recognise alphabets then and it stopped at that. When she saw her friend, who goes to school, writing in an alphabet book, she felt the need to learn to write. She asked for a book for herself, which she used for a bit and then figured out how to write after watching videos and writing on sheets of paper. Currently, she cannot make much sense of sounds, but wants me to spell words for her while she writes them down. Also, she loves to make to-do lists, shopping lists, lists on how to take care of her pets, etc. We tell her the spellings when she asks for them,” she says. 

The notion of childhood

Whereas in schooling or homeschooling, children are viewed as malleable beings who need to be taught and nurtured, unschooling lets the child decide and differentiate between right and wrong, based on their experiences, which in turn, makes them own the consequences, too, says Govande. “The consequences are not looked at as mistakes. It is just a part of living life,” she points out.  

Formal qualifications

Unschooling allows the child to spend as much time as they need with an academic subject or activity of their choice. This is entirely different from school routines, which only allow the child so much time to ponder over a subject, before moving on to the next. Unconventional in nature, the child has the liberty to learn it by means of trying out new things, watching videos, reading books, talking to someone who has ample knowledge on the subject, or using any other resource. 

And is there any stress of procuring degrees, or doing through high school education? “My sons are super satisfied. If you ask them — which we do at times — if they would like to go back to school, they say no. We had asked our elder son if he wants to give his board exams, go to a learning school where there are other children, and he said he does not want that. He wants to simply continue learning and if he ever feels like giving the boards, he said he will come and tell us. Nowadays there are so many options, too, to do things even without giving formal examinations; so we are pretty cool about that. My younger son likes to go to school to meet some of his friends, but he does not want to go there every day. My daughter, however, has shared that she would like to experience schooling, so we are thinking about that,” she says. 

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Disciplinary concern

Many parents may think that in the absence of a rigid system, their child may become indisciplined. How true is that for unschooling? 

“The biggest question to ask is: ‘What is discipline?’ Usually, when you look at it, discipline is for the convenience of adults. It should be something that a child can think for themselves. Suppose they are spending long hours doing something they are interested in, forgetting to eat and use the washroom, it ultimately affects them. Through experience they realise that they need to stop what they are doing, and go and eat when they are hungry; this awareness becomes discipline,” comments Govande, adding that it is a pretty natural way for a child to get more organised. 

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The last word

Govande says that the transition can become a little chaotic in the beginning for both the kid and the parents, but somewhere down the line, the realisation hits that the child is in-charge — and is aware of their needs — and that they can slowly start to think about the needs of others, too. They become more considerate. “They realise that they are not only here to receive, they can also give. And once their needs are met, they can start looking at other people’s needs as well,” she says.

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