A homeschooling primer
Though many veteran homeschoolers may disagree, ‘homeschooling’ is a generic umbrella term to represent children growing up without the need to attend a school. And there are many ways to homeschool!
So when I ask someone, “Are you a homeschooler?”, and the person replies, “No, we are unschoolers!” I am dumbstruck. I normally avoid taking the conversation further because there is something fundamentally wrong about that statement. It is almost like saying that I am not eating food, I am eating pizza.
The main problem with the above statement is that it thoroughly confuses the new or prospective homeschoolers. The problem compounds because many homeschoolers evangelise unschooling. And then we have some unschoolers who have entered the guru-zone and compulsively draw comparison between ‘unschoolers’ and ‘homeschoolers’. But from a taxonomy point of view this comparison is grossly wrong.
At this point, I also want to make it pretty clear that there is nothing wrong with unschooling. I know many people who have walked down that path and are extremely pleased about their choice. If the approach excites you, it is a wonderful path to explore.
I also want to state that observations shared in this article are not academic in nature but are based on our decade old homeschooling journey. They are also an outcome of my interactions with homeschoolers of different shades due to my active association with Swashikshan (an informal association of Indian homeschoolers) for many years.
Defining the term ‘Homeschooling’
Homeschooling is a generic term that refers to a choice. Please note, it represents the choice and not the mode of that choice. At times, the choice could be a forced choice.
Homeschooling stands for providing or enabling a child’s ‘learning’ outside the school environment. Here, school means a formal framework designed to ‘educate’ a child, however informal the framework may be. So technically, an alternate school is also a school, no matter how alternate it is.
For most of the parents, sending a child to school comes across as a natural choice though the foundation of modern schooling was laid just over 200 years ago. Somehow we have come to believe that it has always been like this, and that is how it always shall be.
But then, some people decide to go against that natural choice. The reasons for that can be many. But the common thread that binds them all is that school is no longer their first choice to enable their child’s ‘learning’. But that may not always be the case. For some, homeschooling may be an unavoidable option, hence a forced choice. After meeting up with other homeschoolers some parents may end blaming oneself for homeschooling not being their first choice. I think it is perfectly fine to not have homeschooling as the first or natural choice. An acknowledgement of this fact will help optimise the efforts for deriving the best out of the homeschooling journey.
Reasons to homeschool
There are many reasons due to which parents choose to homeschool their children, globally as well as locally. This does not mean that one has to force fit oneself into one of these reasons. There is a high chance that a homeschooler relates to more than one of these reasons. The idea behind this categorisation is not to label a homeschooler but help visualise where one stands.
Some of the main reasons for homeschooling are listed below, in alphabetical order.
Adaptability and socialization issues
While school are regarded as one of the necessary institutions of modern society, many children refuse to accept this construct. There are many reasons for this refusal. While some children may not like being confined to a room, some may be repelled by a strict passive regime and some may have socialisation issues. Many children may feel secure only with their parents around or may want to hang around only with their siblings.
While we like to assume that all children are alike, most children grow up and interact with their surroundings in their own unique ways. Due to this difference some children end up getting bullied, looked down upon or ignored by other children. Such scenarios also adversely affect the mental make-up of a child. As our schools function largely in a factory mode, these issues stand ignored and unaddressed. Moreover, most schools are simply incapable of handling these issues.
Inspite of these complications many parents push their child to ‘adjust’ in the school environment. While many children eventually do seem to adjust, some do not. Due to these complications, some parents opt for homeschooling, so that their child can grow and flourish in a safe environment.
Availability / resource issues
Schools are an expensive proposition. While schools are available to serve all social-economic brackets, some parents are unable to afford a school of their choice. Apart from finances there is also an issue of admissions. As schooling is a ‘sellers’ market, ‘buyers’ hardly have a choice.
Availability issues are also applicable for families who live in remote areas or foreign locations where access to desirable schools is a problem. In many of these cases, parents explore homeschooling as a temporary solution. What is interesting is that some parents simply continue the homeschooling journey even when availability or resource issues cease to exist.
Ideological reasons | Non-religious
There are many parents who do not want to send their child to school due to non-religious ideological reasons. Listed below are the two most important non-religious ideological reasons.
Aversion to the institution called ‘school’
Many parents choose to homeschool because they do not like the idea of modern schools. This aversion could be due to many reasons, some of which are as follows –
- Format and/or mode of learning,
- Latent agenda of schooling system,
- Socio-economic profiling in such institutions,
- Industrial approach towards education,
- Lack of inherent value systems,
- Aloofness from ideas of sustainability and diversity,
- Commercialisation of education, etc.
As homeschoolers, we primarily fall under this category. I have shared a detailed note on that through the article – A bombshell called ‘homeschooling’.
Many families opt for homeschooling in order to follow an unschooling journey. At times the ideological association can be so strong that many unschoolers even dislike an association with the term ‘homeschool’. I somehow do not agree with such futile lookout for definitions.
But this does not mean that I dislike unschooling. In our own homeschooling journey we have adopted quite a few elements of unschooling. For me, it is a format less, expectation less, agenda less experiential journey in which both, the children as well as parents, walk on the path that they carve out for themselves. There are no fixed rules, or curriculum, or learning objectives, or recipes. I know unschoolers who never even forced their children to learn how to write. When the need was felt, children picked up skills on their own and did well with their newly acquired skills. You would find it interesting to know that I am talking about children in their teens!
Following an unschooling approach needs a lot of courage and empathy. I think it is due to this reason that some unschoolers place this approach on a higher pedestal. But I do not subscribe to that assumption because it inherently negates the very philosophy one is trying to imbibe.
My personal recommendation would be – take this path if you like the idea and can live it, but avoid falling in the ‘ism’ trap because that will convert a neo-liberal approach into a fundamentalist thought process. Another point to remember is there are no rules. You can adopt the approach in whichever way you want. So if you find some ‘unschooler’ dishing out recipes – simply ignore!
The next level up is Radical Unschooling. It is when one does not limit the application of unschooling principles to the learning process alone, but extends it to every other aspect of life. This means placing complete trust in the child and letting him or her do whatever he or she wants to do, without judgements. The approach is based on the assumption that a child inherently possesses the requisite wisdom to make valid choices. I will share my own opinions on this aspect through a separate article.
Ideological issues | Religious
Many religious or pious parents believe that education should have a value based soul, which secular education seems to be lacking. In some cases parents want their children to be closely know and experience the faith they were born into. Some religious homeschoolers also feel that some modern scientific theories stand in contradiction with many of their religious beliefs, especially theory of creationism.
One of the key reasons of homeschooling boom in the United States is attributed to religious homeschoolers who contribute about 2/3rd of the total numbers. Based on personal experience I can say that there are significant numbers of Christian homeschoolers in India. The numbers of Muslim and Hindu homeschoolers are also on the rise.
The term religious is not limited to ‘religion’ as it is commonly understood but also includes various spiritual sects and cults. It is also important to know that for many homeschoolers, who primarily come across as religious homeschoolers, religion is an important but not the primary focus.
Life choices made by parents
There are many choices that parents make, or are forced to make, due to which school no longer remains a viable option. In such a situation, parents may settle for or opt to become homeschoolers. Sometimes lifestyle can also lead a family towards homeschooling.
This category of homeschoolers include parents –
- who have moved back to the land,
- are avid travellers,
- who are celebrities,
- who are have to frequently relocate due to their work or lifestyle,
- who have to relocate to a region where schooling is not an option due to availability or language, etc.
Medical reasons and differently-abled children
There can be many medical conditions due to which a child is unable to attend regular school. These medical conditions could be physical, or psychological, or both.
Being differently abled may not classify as a medical condition but I am clubbing the two because these physical reasons can affect the child’s ability to attend a school. Though special schools are an option but availability is a serious concern across India. Many parents do not feel that special schools can provide the same degree of attention as needed by a child to flourish.
Prodigy child & children with keen interest in chosen fields
There are many children who possess exceptional abilities or skills in a chosen field. Some parents choose to nurture these unique qualities which can be in the fields of sports, fine arts, theatre, dance, music, computer programming, etc. As regular schooling comes in the way of such children, parents opt for homeschooling. Many parents may choose this option even when the child is not a prodigy of sorts but has keen interest in a chosen field and wants to fully invest oneself in that area of interest.
Even though I have listed out various categories discretely, it does not mean that a homeschooler would necessarily fit into one of these categories. I take the liberty of classifying all such mixed bags into one category – eclectic homeschoolers. Eclectic homeschoolers derive the best from various homeschooling approaches and custom create their own unique approach. Such customisation helps them align various approaches to their unique worldview.
Sometimes parents are forced to make the choice only to realise that the forced choice has many benefits. They then convert the forced choice into an informed choice. In many cases parents test waters for a while, especially when one of the parents is not very enthusiastic about the choice. They continue the journey only when the willing parent is able to get a buy in from the resisting partner, and a nod from the child.
I think it is important to mention here that in a significant number of cases both the parents are not in agreement about homeschooling a child. If that is the case with you then sit back and relax. There is nothing abnormal about it. What is abnormal is to go on a warpath for that choice. After all, the primary need of the child is a happy family.
While converting the forced or temporary choice into a commitment, many parents end up making multiple secondary choices to ensure a fruitful journey.
Approach towards learning
Whatever be the trigger, homeschoolers choose different approaches to enable a learning environment. While some strictly follow a structure, others abstain from following any structure whatsoever. And then we have a class of mixed bags who create their own custom approach.
There are fairly large numbers of people who want to follow a structure. The reasons can be many. One of the key reasons is to remain in touch with the schooling mode so that if need be, the child can make a relatively hassle-free transition to the schooling environment. Another reason is college readiness as not all homeschoolers are willing to homecollege or uncollege or grow without college.
For sake of clarity, I have classified the learning approaches into three categories
- Classical homeschooling approach – A structure or curriculum is strictly followed
- Unschooling approach – There is not structure or curriculum
- Eclectic approach – When the above two approaches are mixed in various proportions
Many parents follow an unschooling approach to start with and the transition to classical homeschooling or eclectic approach when the child needs to start preparing for the board examinations.
In the classical approach, the child routinely spends time learning from age appropriate textbooks. Some parents may even employ tutors to meet the learning goals. As these goals can be accomplished in far less time than the time one spends in school, the child is free to explore other interests. I intend to write a separate article to discuss this approach in greater detail.
Talking about curriculum, the easiest and most common format to follow is the NCERT curriculum, which is based on the National Curriculum Framework (NCF). There are many other formats as well. If one wants the child to sit for IGCSE exams as private candidate for class 10th then following Cambridge curriculum from the beginning would be helpful. We also have curriculums based on Waldorf system, Montessori, etc. Some organisations also offer online curriculum for homeschoolers. Options of virtual schools are also available.
Homeschoolers are also free to design their own curriculum. Such a curriculum could be something totally new, could be a customisation of an existing curriculum based on the child’s unique needs, or it could be an aggregation of useful elements from various available formats.
Such customisations also help parents introduce various ideas and concepts which they feel are necessary. Through this method a child can be exposed to important issues like social justice, climate change, sustainability, gender issues, class and caste, gandhian economics, politics, etc. at an early stage.
And the exams?
A lot of new homeschoolers have queries about yearly examination to check the child’s progress. Frankly, it is not needed. Personally, I find it completely unnecessary.
But if you find it hard to ignore examinations then the best option is to source question papers from school going children. You can then ask your child to solve it in the stipulated time and check the answer sheet to review the progress. It would be highly desirable to refrain from marking or grading the answer sheet. There is an option called OBE (Open Basic Education) from NIOS (National Institute of Open Schooling) stable. It’s best to ignore it as it is almost a dysfunctional entity.
If a homeschooler wants to pursue higher education in India then 10+2 is unavoidable. CBSE and ICSE do not allow private candidates. So the only options left are IGCSE (Cambridge), NIOS or the state boards which allow private candidates. IGCSE is good but the only problem with it is that its 12th class certificate has not been awarded a certificate of equivalence by the Association of Indian Universities (AIU) so many public universities in India may not acknowledge it. Please do cross check with IGCSE to confirm as this information may get dated.
NIOS and state boards have no problems on that front. They are well accepted across India. The only problem is that they may not dish out marks in the fashion CBSE or ICSE does, so it is better to not look forward for overwhelming scores. Due to this reason, admission of a child to colleges which create a merit list based on 12th class marks could be a problem.
For more information on all these boards please check their respective websites. All of them provide fairly detailed information. For state boards one can also visit the nearest government school which follows state boards and talk to the teachers to get first-hand information. The information shared on state board websites may be dated.
Some US universities may admit students who do not hold valid school certificates. Such admissions are based on exceptional essays and/or portfolios, or some other major achievements like Olympiads, etc. Most of them may still need good SAT scores. Private Indian universities, even the franchisee of US universities, do not offer such options.
I end this note with a suggestion to not waste time worrying about board examinations if they are, say five years away. The realities of those times may be quite different hence all the data collected today may no longer be applicable. So it is best to start thinking about the boards and the exams only when the time is ripe. Till that time, focussing and living in the present is the best option.