What is learning?

What is learning?

A child says, while pointing to objects consecutively, "two, two, two"

Observing this, her parents point out a picture of an octopus in a book and ask her how many arms it has. She obliges, "two, two, two, two, two, two, two, two!" The last "two" is said with a flourish, as if to report the total – or that is how it sounds to us, since we are used to counting in this cadence.

This is precious baby talk and much as her parents might delight in it, she will (all too quickly) grow out of it. The child, in this case, is the daughter of my friends, and she recently turned two. It seems she has been indicating things and saying "two-three, two-three."

The day will come when she abandons her system and counts as we do – 1, 2, 3, 4, 5!

Now what is learning …

When she said "2, 2, 2, 2, 2!" was that learning?

Or when she started saying 2-3 -2-3 was that learning?

Or when she says 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 will that be learning?

And what was she learning, and when? The concept of number? Of quantity?

I think that what she learned first of all was the concept of difference. Of non-one-ness. So in fact the word "two" did not signify the quantity two, so much as it signified "another." Now hear her "count" or point out the arms of the octopus: "Another, another, another, another, another, another, another, another!"

Another, again, more .. such words work magic for the newly verbal. They can serve to name anything, provided one of said thing is there to serve as a reference.

And when finally one replaces "another" with respective names, and two with three and four … what is one learning then? The names of the things, in the prevailing language. In order that others may understand what one has already understood, but has to translate into their language.

Read more: Two, another two and now there is a three

Learning at Home and Beyond: Who does it?

Learning at Home and Beyond: Who does it?

Learning without schooling is in some sense as old as the hills. In the context of the prevailing modern education system, starting from Kindergarten and continuing through high school as a preparation for college and career, those who have the means to enroll their children in school but opt not to do so are considered to be homeschooling. In this sense of the term, homeschooling has a more recent history, and many of the families who identify as homeschooling draw inspiration from American authors of the 1960s and 1970s including Jean Liedloff and John Holt. The United States census estimates that 1.5 – 2 million children, or 3% of those in grades K-12, are educated at home and estimates that number is growing at the rate of 15 to 20 percent per year1.

In India I am not aware of any official or unofficial estimate of the number of children homeschooling in this modern sense. One cannot assume that any child not enrolled in school would, given the opportunity, prefer to be there, but it is fair to say that all children deserve and would like to have the conditions that make that opportunity possible – secure home and family environment, with resources required for life and livelihood, health and leisure.

Although those who are generally recognized as homeschoolers could without much difficulty go to school and pass if they put in reasonable effort, there are others who leave schools because in spite of their efforts, they are not able to follow what is taught or to pass the tests. Often the classroom is overcrowded, poorly lit, the teacher is unable to attend to each student, or may not attend class at all.  The textbook may be dull, difficult to read or not in the student’s native language.  There is no time to ask questions and no one to answer.

A movement is afoot to reject the term “dropout” and recognize these students as “walkouts” – leaving a system that has failed them, and seeking something better. To find and create that something better requires a community effort. The movement of walkouts envisions learning as a social experience taking place in living communities via countless paths, and not in factory-model schools with standard outcomes. In a learning society, all can learn from one another, anywhere and anytime, regardless, ideally, of class, caste, gender, age, or educational background.

Without estimating the number, the Ministry of Human Resource Development Department of School Education and Literacy has acknowledged, in a letter responding to an enquiry concerning homeschooling in India that:

“In India, some parents do opt for home-schooling for their children.”

Why do it?

Again, to quote the Ministry of Human Resource Development Department of School Education and Literacy:

Parents who are otherwise dissatisfied with the curriculum and syllabus followed in schools, or feel that the school schedule does not leave their children with any time to pursue other interests follow the home-schooling approach.

The Ministry has eloquently summarized the broad range of reasons that appeal to families who decide to follow this approach.

How to do it?

There are in a sense, as many methods of homeschooling as there are homeschoolers.  Some methods are organized with ready-to-use curricular resources, support groups, expert guidance, and training sessions for those who follow the chosen method.

One can use textbooks corresponding to school subjects, but it is not necessary to do so. What books to use, whether to use them at all, regularly, or just a little, what other paths are out there – once you start exploring these questions you will find people ready to share their experiences and insights with you. By trying things out and seeing what works for your children, you will find your own way.

There are a number of theories about methods – whether to use them, how to choose them, and when to let go of them. To anyone sorting through the question of “how do I do it?” I recommend this article by veteran homeschooling mother Lillian Jones: “Considering Methods & Styles of Homeschooling:”


There are countless websites on homeschooling, learning, living without school.

While these websites can offer reassurance or new ideas, it is not necessary to read them if they are not your cup of tea. What is necessary is to connect with your child, be available so that your child can connect with you, and create an environment where both of you can hear your own thoughts, express them and listen to each other.  Regardless of your method of learning, one precious gift you have given yourself is the gift of time. Your child is now able to do things for as long as he wants rather than being arbitrarily told, time’s up, next subject, or no, you need to finish that before you can do this.   When there are time constraints, one can take the child into confidence and address them together rather than obeying a bell on a daily or even hourly basis.

When people hear about homeschooling for the first time, it is typically around this point in the conversation, just as they are about to get happily lost in this world where we learn at our own time and place and pace, that a looming question arises. What about Board Exams?

What about Board Exams?

According to the Ministry of Human Resource Development Department of School Education and Literacy:

There is no separate syllabus for home-schooling. Most children use the textbooks prescribed for formal schools. On reaching Class 10 a home-schooler can take the board exam privately by registering with the National Institute of Open Schooling or International General Certificate of Secondary Education. This is done at the child’s pace and time….”

The National Institute for Open Schooling offers “On Demand Examination” making exams available each month so that a student can appear for any subject as and when he or she is ready to do so. In India, the British Council offers the IGSCE and related examinations2. Exams are also offered by Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) and the International Baccalaureate (IB) program. More information about these exams is provided in Priya Desikan’s article, Boards and Homeschoolers on the Swashikshan: Indian Association of Homeschoolers.

In India, a growing number of homeschoolers who are now young adults have taken exams through one of these standard Boards. There are qualified tutors and institutions that help out-of-school candidates to prepare for these. Others have been able to demonstrate equivalent readiness for advanced courses or careers without having taken these exams or have chosen paths for livelihood preparation that did not require these exams.

Swaraj University in Udaipur offers students, or khojis (seekers) the opportunity to study and practice in fields of their choice in a two-year program. It has no standard syllabus, requires no entrance exams or diplomas for admission and grants no degrees3. Swaraj students can create a portfolio of the projects they completed that may serve for gaining admission to higher studies or employment. Swaraj supports khojis wishing to set up their own community enterprises, and maintains a database of employers who accept a portfolio in lieu of a degree. Swaraj resists the commodification of community resources and promotes a kind of sharing termed as “gift economy,” which would, if practiced fully, make employment and income redundant. Even small steps in this direction help to control price rise, reduce waste, and incrementally curb the acceleration of the “rat race.”

This would free people’s time and energy for meaningful work and play and improve our collective quality of life and engagement with planet earth. Dreamers may have a natural appetite for this way of thinking, yet it is eminently practical as well. The rapidly changing world offers no guarantees and many reasons to doubt that the educational and employment structures of the past will be relevant in the future. Such is the premise of Ken Robinson’s talk at the 2006 conference of Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED), called “Changing Educational Paradigms.” Robinson narrates, with generous doses of humour, the demise of creativity in the prevailing school system.  So what? one might ask.  Is it not necessary, one might ask, to learn what is already known before one sets about creating?

To that question, I return another:   What is Learning?


1 Kurt J. Bauman, “Home Schooling in the United States: Trends and Characteristics” US Census Bureau, Working Paper Series No. 53, August 2001, retrieved in 2012 from http://www.census.gov/population/www/documentation/twps0053/twps005…

2 Details about the O-Level, A-Level, and IGCSE examinations offered by the British Council in India are available at http://www.britishcouncil.org/india-exams-educational-exams.htm

3 Manish Jain and Shilpla Jain. .Healing Ourselves from the Diploma Disease. Shikshantar: Udaipur, 2005.  http://www.swaraj.org/shikshantar/healingdiplomadisease.pdf

What curriculum are you using?

What curriculum are you using?

The question of curriculum often gives rise to unnecessary confusion, perhaps because those often called upon the answer the question, rarely have a direct answer like “CBSE,” or “Waldorf,” or “Khan.”  It ends up as “We are a little Waldorfy” or “We mix and match,” or “Life is our curriculum” or “Why put knowledge into boxes and give your kids worksheets when you can give them the world?” This leaves a beatific smile on the face of the one who answered, but a blank and almost apologetic look on the one who asked the (apparently silly) question.

A prevailing misconception among homeschoolers is that there are those who follow curriculum and those who don’t. And those who sometimes kind of do. And that these two directions towards and away from curriculum, worksheets and structured educational activity define a linear spectrum of those on the one hand who follow curriculum and conventional educational goals, called “homeschoolers,” and “unschoolers” on the other, dismissing them in the name of free thinking.

Let me take this opportunity to step up to the soapbox and say that this is not a meaningful distinction between homeschooling and unschooling. Learning without textbooks and planned lessons will not automatically throw you into the weird wild world of “unschooling” unless you choose to go there. Dissing curriculum (e.g. saying “I don’t use curriculum”) will not automatically make you an unschooler charting brave new paths. Nor will using a worksheet or textbook (or – gasp – bedtime) demote you from the coolness that is unschooling.

When I think of curriculum, I think of currents – roaring ocean currents and also whispering currents as the rain drops through the soil and seeks out other drops through capillary action.  I think of thoughts sailing along rivers and tributaries, or lighting along ever branching out networks in the brain.  I think of roots, rooting deep into the ground, seeking moisture and and drawing nutrients towards themselves.

When we apply fertilizer to a plant, then the roots need not extend as far for us to see results.  The plant grows, the fruit or vegetable gains weight.  Fertilizer can only give a plant the nutrients it contains.  When we nourish the soil, the numerous organisms living in it make not only six or seven micronutrients but hundreds of them and the plant works within that ecosystem.  The fruit or vegetable may gain less weight, but its nutrients come from deep within the soil where the roots have taken time to reach.

Jonathan Kozol writes about a student who was failing tests in school (“The Road to Rome,” in Shame of the Nation, pg . 130.):

He often misses what most others think to be the “main point” of an essay he has read or lecture he has heard, which may be one reason why the comprehension questions on a standardized exam sometimes befuddled him. Instead, he often tends to fasten on a piece of what he’s read or heard that corresponds to something he already cares about and finds his own unusual back-channel to the essence of the work or to the meaning of the man, which leaves him with a sense of intimate association.

Those channels, taking the student from one idea to another, are the student’s own curriculum.  They may lead him to people, places, books, even textbooks, but it is his own inner curriculum that is leading him.  The books may also open up further channels, provoking further paths of inquiry.

Of this approach to learning, that I am calling the inner curriculum, Jonathan Kozol writes,

One result of this, I think, is that his memories of these encounters with a person, or a passage of prose writing, or a poem, linger in his mind …

This inner curriculum is so strong that even if one must go through a program dictated by others, it will still find ways to express itself, just as a river finds its way around a dam or grass still grows through paved roads, and the memories of meaningful encounters linger.  This is the curriculum that you are already using, and will always use.  If you are at the same time following a Standardized Curriculum from a Board of Education, your inner guide will help you latch on to what nourishes you and it will also help you to forget what is useless and keep the mind free to learn, discover and rediscover.

Letter from Department of School Education & Literacy

Here is a letter that P.K. Tiwari in the Department of School Education and Literacy, Ministry of Human Resource Development wrote in response to Mike Donnelly of the US-based Home School Legal Defense Association.  The date on the letter is 10 January 2011.  Dr. Mathew Peedikayil shared this letter with the homeschool group in Mumbai and later at the Learning Societies Conference in Jhadpoli.

I am posting the letter here for reference.

Dept of School Education & Literacy_Jan 2011.pdf