Radical unschooling and the lessons of OWW Education
Many unschooling parents who took part in the survey I conducted based a part of the decision-making process to unschool their children on their own mainstream schooling experiences. Importantly, this was usually seen as the basis for offering and discussing unschooling with their children, and being open to and trying out the possibility of unschooling, rather than already making the decision for and on behalf of their children. As one unschooling parent states,
it was my children who decided to unschool and I followed. They all did attend school (oldest till he turned 12 years, second for 10 years and my daughter was turning four when she decided that she didn’t want to go to school). I would say, it was more of my children’s experiences at school and my experiences as a teacher that took me towards unschooling.
Meghna, an unschooler parent from Hyderabad, further emphasises how unschooling lets the child make their own decisions, and as such the child needs to have a choice of going or not going to school - ‘it’s not like we’re saying you’re never going to school. That’s not unschooling’ (personal interview, January 2019).
Other parents who took part in the survey often describe how they decided together with their children to unschool after they saw how OWW Education made their erstwhile curious children into passive, often sad and frustrated students with low levels of self-esteem and self-confidence.
These cases also show how unschooler parents indeed act out of the presupposition of equality and take their children’s opinions, feelings, thoughts, considerations and decisions seriously. More than this, they take their children as equals. As one survey participant puts it,
unschooling is letting your child explore his interests in his own time and pace, with guidance from the parent when asked for it, also considering the child as a whole person and treating him with the love and respect which you would give to any adult.
This is in stark contrast to the OWW where children are part of the part that has no part. Indeed, to see children as irrational, unreasonable, immature, ignorant and less intelligent is one of the main legitimisations for schools to exist in the OWW - these ‘deficiencies’ are made into a ‘natural condition’ of the child that schools are supposed to address and improve by ‘educating’ and ‘schooling’ children to become equal consumer-citizens of OWW society.12 Instead, unschooling creates the space and freedom for children to emancipate themselves and become subjects of their own lives.
As the survey with 16 unschooling parents from across India has further shown, all of them have gone through the entire mainstream education process, ranging from a college graduate to 8 out of 16 parents who stated that they completed their post-graduation. While four parents stated that their own schooling did not play any role in the decision-making process to unschool their children and two parents said it played only a minor role, nine parents stated that their own experience played a significant part in being open to and considering the unschooling path for their children in the first place.
Importantly, the negative experiences and critique of the modem education system were mostly related to the anarchistic postdevelopmental stance against OWW Education, rather than expressed through the idea that schooling does not adequately prepare children for the job market or their future role in a global economy. These themes did not feature in any of the parents’ answers in the survey, which shows that unschooling is not seen and pursued as another means to provide children a ‘competitive advantage’ in the OWW by helping them to better acquire the kind of creative and innovative skills increasingly sought after by various OWW Development actors.
Instead, many parents emphasised how schooling erodes self-awareness and self-confidence. One parent describes how ‘an average/low performance at school did lower my confidence levels’, while another shares how
I was always unhappy with the school atmosphere. It was very stressful, and I waited for it to get over every day. I thought things would change in college, but it didn’t... just stress and bullying and depression ... I hardly learnt anything other than crushing my self-worth.
Another unschooling parent also drew on the ingrained presupposition of inequality as a key characteristic of modern education:
I don’t like the concept of comparison and competition in schools. With my schooling experience, it has become so ingrained in me that to this day I compare myself with others and feel I am not good enough. Another thing is with all the schooling, with others always telling me what to think, do, like etc., I am still struggling to get an idea of who I really am, what my likes and dislikes are.
One parent also relates the schooling experience to a ‘lack of independence of decision-making and judgement’, while another describes how OWW Education is based on stress and a grade-based, competitive education system rather than on real knowledge. Yet another parent states how ‘the whole [education] system is just a business’.
Accordingly, the goals of and motivation behind unschooling were described by parents in coherent terms and ideas, including ‘being a good human being’; ‘being happy’; acquiring ‘healthy self-confidence’; developing skills for ‘self-reflection’ and ‘self-realisation’, and abilities for ‘caring for each other’, ‘self-directed learning’ and being ‘responsible’. As one survey participant further expounds,
when we started we decided to pick our key values. We thought that if our kid hits the spot on those, then we are doing fine. Each family can have their own values that suit them. Ours were ‘kind’, ‘happy’, ‘curious’, ‘loving’ and ‘loved’. We use these as our guiding thoughts and if our kid is fine on these core things, we are happy.
This demonstrates how unschooler parents emphasise more abstract values and ideas that give autonomy and freedom to the child instead of imposing concrete ideas, goals and related predefined learnings. In this line, one parent also answers that ‘it is the child’s journey and not mine to define goals. I am just the caretaker’, while another survey participant finds that
the main requirement [for unschooling parents] is a willingness to be open, acknowledging that each child is unique, and they are here not to fulfil parent’s unfulfilled wishes, but to pursue their own growth. It requires some consciousness to understand this.
The most important benefits and positive characteristics of unschooling were described in a likewise manner and included spending more meaningful, quality time together and improving relationships between children and parents; seeing the child flourish in a context based on freedom and autonomy; reconnecting with nature; children becoming more and more independent and in charge of their own lives; abilities and skills for self-reflection, critical thinking and clearly commu-nicating/articulating needs, issues, thoughts and ideas; discovering new skills, talents and passions; and more meaningfill learning that is taking place (as opposed to OWW Education).
On the latter, one parent, for example, states that ‘the most impactful experience so far is that he [the child] gets to understand the world and society through real intersections and experiences rather than through books. In simple words, learning by doing and through concrete experiences’. Similarly, another survey participant shares that one of the biggest advantages of unschooling is to ‘learn without any pressure, whatever she [the child] learns she could understand the purpose of it and she could learn whenever it is required at the right time and learn at her own pace’.
Another parent emphasises how unschooling enables the family to ‘work together as a unit. Spending so much time together - and more importantly meaningful time. Traveling together, experiencing new skills together, having a daily routine that doesn’t involve dancing to the “wake up, rush, eat, sleep, homework, classes” routine’. Likewise, another survey participant highlights how
we get a lot of time with each other, understanding how we function, we have time to explore so many areas of interest to both of us, we are mostly unhurried and under no external pressures to perform, submit, prove. It is an enriching way of life, we have even got connected with nature and animals and plants, growing our own food, making recipes from scratch, upcycling projects, DIYs [‘do-it-yourselves’], we have gone a lot away from consumerism and status symbols for the sake of it.