Right to Education

After reading Alfie Kohn What does it Mean to be Educated? and Jonathon Kozol On Being a Teacher I am all fired up. Must do something, etc etc.

A few weeks ago I was all fired up when my neighbour told me what happened to her son at school. The English Ma’am wrote something on the board. It contained an error, which the boy noted (aloud). The Ma’am reprimanded him and he remained silent.

Considering all the bad grammar I hear routinely, I guess I should not be too surprised at this. But an English teacher? This boy is an avid reader so I am sure he has an ear for correct English, certainly at the grade school level, and apparently more so than that of his teacher. The word in question was the plural of sheep which the boy correctly pointed out, was sheep. Now in this situation, did the teacher

a – acknowledge her error and appreciate the alert student who cared enough to point it out?
b – say, oh, is that so, let me look it up and confirm?
c – say, “Do you know better than your teacher?”

The correct answer: c. No prizes for guessing and no extra credit for realizing that the tone and volume in which it was asked meant that there was only one acceptable answer to that question. The boy said, “No, Ma’am” but later confided to his mother that he had wanted to say, “Yes, Ma’am.”

Is this not a violation of this boy’s right to education? He may be in school, attending class, doing homework, getting marks. But is his right to education respected? When he speaks is he heard with interest, with patience?  When he asks a question, is he encouraged? Answered? Or told not to ask? Even when he responds correctly he risks being silenced. Is honesty something to be read in the Morals class textbook1 or is one encouraged to speak the truth, even when your voice shakes2? What is the role of the teacher? What power did she hold that caused this boy to back down, even though he believed what he said? Grades? Punishment? I doubt he was thinking so far ahead. Being snarked at by the teacher when he was merely making a grammar correction, as he would expect her to do if he made an error, was no doubt disturbing enough that his only aim at that moment would have been to make it stop.

And what about something more consequential than the correct plural of sheep? What about questions of history or science or social studies where there can indeed be multiple approaches and viewpoints, leave alone errors in the textbook or in the teacher’s lecture? We have even faced ambiguity in the grade 1 math textbook! Do students stand a chance at having their voices heard on such matters?  Are students allowed to try out ideas or methods that they may eventually discard, i.e, make mistakes?  And what would we in fact prefer, that they think and develop a viewpoint, compare with others, examine consequences, test against evidence, revise and refine …. or that they repeat the views provided by a textbook author or a teacher? Doing the latter ostensibly requires less effort and yet most children, given the chance, will do the former unless constrained to do the latter, for the sake of the grade and the teacher’s approval. Such constraint, which is the norm in the vast majority of the schools in India, public, private, elite or international, is a stark violation of children’s right to education.

How do we want to read our history lessons? Ahimsa, satyagraha, are these formulae to be memorized for an exam? Or are they living principles?  Can we too speak truth to power? Can we unearth the lies told in our history books, as James Loewen has done for US History? Can we question authority? Are we willing to risk our comforts for our values? Or vice-versa?

Emphasis on rote learning and standardized testing widens the gap between the haves and have-nots, and not only because it renders students passive consumers of pre-fabricated knowledge.  The haves, after all have opportunities outside of school to explore ideas freely. They may converse daily with family and friends and at some point, usually quite early, recognize that school tests are a game they play and but a thin slice of the wide arc of learning that beckons.  Even if they have little time outside of school,  whatever original observations or experiments they make are duly recognized and valued.  In our neighbourhood the children have buried various objects, planted seeds, made up imaginary games and plays – when children in poorer communities do such things they may get reprimanded for “wasting time.”   In our neighbourhood when parents  come to drag their kids home from the playground, they do so wistfully, and often try to compensate for it during other times.  Even this modicum of awareness of the value of free play is denied to many children.

Standards are not confined to “the basics” of reading, writing and arithmetic but extend to social and economic values, which are increasingly dictated by corporate interests, either through direct intervention in school programming, or through emphasis on ranking and testing. Alfie Kohn talks about this: .

In India, where test-based teaching is unlikely to be dethroned anytime soon, even corporations are making fashionable noises against “rote learning.” They are not against standardized tests, mind you, they just believe they can get better results on those tests through hip means such as independent, innovative and critical thinking.

from The Unschool Bus

I expect you all to be independent, innovative, critical thinkers ….

Thanks to The Unschool Bus  for this apt illustration.

The press drums along with them without questioning the goals of education, appropriately shocked (shocked!) that children can’t keep their Gandhis straight or give liberal minded answers to questions on rights of women and immigrants. See The Hindu, 12 Dec 2011, “Learning by rote prevalent in top schools too.”  In the entire article neither the top-ness of these schools or the validity of the tests are called into question.  Nor are we invited to wonder why the children have “wrong” answers.  For the record I would be open to hearing about how the “shape of a square object would change if it is tilted,” as nearly half the sampled children apparently opined.

If the powers that be in the classroom are not answerable to the students, if the questioning goes only one way, and answers are determined by the questioner, then it is inevitable that the those who succeed in this path would need to keep it that way.

But do students, parents or teachers really believe that it should be that way? I don’t think so. We also believe that education and literacy enable us to go to the source, to look for evidence, to take it apart and see how it works and how it doesn’t, and even make our own models and theories and stories.  Insofar as everyone gains these abilities, no one can cheat another, and therefore we can, together, build a more just society.

Serious change is required for education and literacy to achieve their potential to act as tools of empowerment. Today we see them promoting conformity and consumerism and widening inequality. Right to Education, however, must not only mean right to be admitted in a school and consume the information and ideas dictated, and speak only on command, but right to express ideas, ask questions and actually learn without fear. On not need to be in school to exercise these rights, but certainly no school should infringe upon them. Outside of school, children do ask questions, question the answers, and even question the questions.  Right to education must include the right to make mistakes, not only the right to be right.   Unfortunately in school, the vast majority of students get little time or space to ask or even answer questions in their own words, or ponder questions tangential to what the teacher or test-book has asked.  Their role is to reproduce the answers provided to them. Children who step outside of this expected role will typically be punished by a bad mark, humiliation or even physical punishment. There is no grievance redressal mechanism for children whose right to education is violated in this way.

to be continued…

[1] In the closing scene of Bangaru Papa, Sekhar, regretting his inability to stand by his principles when his family prohibits him from marrying Papa on grounds of her caste and class, says his high status demands that moral values remain confined to the textbook.  See from 6:34 in this .
[2] Gray Panthers founder Maggie Kuhn is noted for saying, “Stand before the people you fear and speak your mind – even if your voice shakes.”

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.