Homeschooling helping Chennai kids pursue their interests

Homeschooling has gained popularity in recent times in Chennai. The system affords flexibility and time to explore options that traditional schools do not.

Eight-year-old Dhrona has keen interest in music. Unlike many of his peers, he does not attend a traditional school. His parents have chosen to nurture his talent by enrolling him in music theory classes and keyboard classes under the ABRSM board which comes under the Royal School of Music. He is one of many children in Chennai taking to homeschooling and unschooling for various reasons

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the landscape of schooling considerably. With consecutive lockdowns, school closures, a larger push to digitise various aspects of learning, new forms of education have started gaining popularity. Homeschooling allows for an individualistic and ‘at-home’ approach where the child often gets to direct the subjects and methods of learning.

Parents who have chosen it attribute their own experiences with schooling, their children’s particular learning style and personality, and the prioritising of ‘creativity’ were key motivations for homeschooling their children.

Reasons for homeschooling

According to many parents who homeschool their children, a key reason for their starting homeschooling was due to their fears of how traditional schooling systems would treat their children.

While the pandemic has changed how parents view schooling, some like Varsha S, a lactation professional, had plans for homeschooling their child for a long time. Varsha mentions how even before her child, Dhrona, was born she had been interested in and learning about homeschooling methods to use in the future. 

Rohini P, a homemaker, mentions how the pace of learning during her school days was impossible to keep up with, and that she felt a sense of self doubt in the process. Her 16-year-old daughter has been home schooled for the past six years.

“I would sit in class, pay attention, and go home to try out whatever I learned. I would take a few days rather than just the ‘after school time’ allotted. I’d come back the next day without the concepts very clear and needing more time, but by that time, the teacher would have moved on to an advanced aspect of that topic. I didn’t want such a rushed experience for my child,” says Rohini. 

Prathiba currently runs an organic store and previously used to teach at a Montessori school. Her 16-year-old daughter is currently registered under the National Institute of Open Studies (NIOS) which administers examinations for Secondary and Senior Secondary examinations similar to the CBSE and the CISCE. She is in the 11th grade and has chosen to specialise in Psychology and Science. She currently studies by splitting up the subjects on her own and studying the content. The Institute provides text books which are received in the mail. 

“My daughter studied in an alternative school for eight years after which she asked if we could try out homeschooling, as she found it very hard to repeatedly study for exams” says Prathiba.

Under the NIOS, public examinations are held twice a year in April–May and October–November on dates fixed by the institute. However, one also eligible to appear through the On-Demand Examinations at Level and Senior Secondary level in those subjects only in which candidates have taken admission in NIOS for subject wise learning. While Prathiba’s daughter doesn’t take these voluntary exams, she completes assignments sent to her by the institution.

Last year, her board exams were cancelled due to the pandemic, and her marks in the assignments were provided as her final mark. NIOS also offers vocational courses after high school.

Read More: Access to schooling: Will 2021 further deepen the divide?

Time for pursuing specific interests

As part of homeschooling many children also attend specific classes aligning with their interests, and these classes are primary sites of their education. Parents mention how homeschooling is a means for children who are interested in creative pursuits to focus on these areas more in an in-depth manner. These classes also become sites for peer and social interaction.

Dhrona has been homeschooled for three years with music and science are his main focus of ‘study’. His father, a film-maker, also teaches him film-making and photography. In addition to this, he attends science classes at an IIT Research Center in Taramani. “Currently he is not registered as part of any open schooling program as we are even open to avoid registering for board exams if he wants to pursue music seriously”, says Varsha.

child playing the veena in Chennai
Dhrona playing the veena. Pic: Varsha S

In Rohini’s situation, she mentions how her daughter is very keen on pursuing a career in Bharatanatyam dance. “She mainly makes her friends through her dance classes. Since her friends are from classes rather than school, her friends form a mixed peer group.”

Unschooling among methods adopted

In terms of the methods of learning taken up by parents, many parents who opt to homeschool pointed to unschooling. Unschooling is a newer form of learning that is often associated with alternative education. Many homeschoolers often take the unschooling approach for their child. This was either facilitated by parents or was more self taught but involved scheduled learnings throughout the day.

The term unschooling was coined in the 1970s by John Holt. Unschooling is characterised by a ‘learner-driven approach’. This implies that the child gets to choose their areas of interest, set their timelines, and work towards milestones at their own pace. This structure is usually very different from what we see in traditional school settings. 

Varsha follows the unschooling method for her child. For basic subjects taught in school, the child was put in a Montessori school for three years after which the parents decided homeschool him.

“With the unschooling method, he studies topics based on his particular interests in each large subject division whether it be Maths or English. He uses books we buy, writes small fictional stories (6 pages each) to practice basic subjects”, says Varsha.

Unschooling also prioritises learnings from household activities, curiosity, work experience and internships, mentors from family or professional fields. 

The approach clearly challenges a number of things we often associate with education and learning. One of these is fixed timings and intervals of learning. Another is fixed curricula and standardised testing. The position of authority of the ‘teacher’ as a primary knowledge base is also not present in unschooling. Instead the child is supposed to reach various conclusions through their own research and practice. This process is merely facilitated by parents,  mentors or helpers present.

Ruhi J, a software engineer, homeschools her child Gautam. He is nine years old. She emphasises being hands-on with his learnings in various topics. This method is one that is fundamental to the unschooling process – discussion. 

“His father and I split up the subject matter between us. I take History and Geography in the evening. His father takes up Music and English in the mornings when he is free. We combine normal discussions with travel schooling. If we go somewhere, he naturally asks us questions and we discuss these questions in an interdisciplinary manner, where one topic leads to the other”, says Ruhi.

According to Ruhi, “Homeschooling very much depends on the child as well. Our son is used to learning in a more secluded, individualistic way through reading. In this way when we shifted him to homeschooling at the age of four, we didn’t find the transition too difficult.”

Read More: When parents are involved: What we saw in a Chennai government school

Resources for homeschooling parents

In order to share resources many parents are part of homeschooling WhatsApp and Facebook groups. Here they share textbooks, exercise books, reading materials, worksheets, information on unschooling, and more. In addition, parents get to connect with one another, share experiences of homeschooling and even plan group trips. 

Ruhi says that parents also organise group activities with other homeschooling parents and their children, to ensure interactions with other children. Recently a trip was organised to take the children to the Birla Planetarium.

Both Varsha and Ruhi use Oxford Picture dictionaries to read up and prepare information for these discussions. They also use regular Google search for their information.

There are even some unschooling centers or schools for those seeking alternative methods of education. For some of these unschooling settings, classifying children based on the ‘level of learning’ and age are also questioned, with many of these learning centres dividing students based on their interests. As a result, mixed peer groups are something we often see in these institutions. 

The Learning Community at Quest in Besant Nagar is one such space. Founder Srikanth C emphasised that what Quest offers is different from school. “School is a place of standardisation. Ours is a place of customisation,” says Srikanth.

As part of their Individualized Engagement Program (IEP), children come to the center to pick certain interest areas, set milestones and a trajectory of learning within these areas; they then work towards these milestones or projects at their own pace with the help of mentors. 

Accessibility of alternative methods

Digital access is increasingly become a key component of alternative education. Even homeschooling requires that both parents and child are constantly researching via the internet. This makes it hard for those who don’t have access to gadgets to try out these methods though they are often dubbed as democratic learning. 

The option of unschooling centers too may not hold appeal to all as they are often quite expensive, with fees running into lakhs. “I don’t think it is worth a lakh to send a child to a center to get a few resources and some mentorship. Often because it is an institution, the might yet again be thrown into a competitive environment, learning at a pace they might not be comfortable with”, says Varsha.

Time and resource constraints are the key reasons that might hold back parents from exploring homeschooling and various unschooling options even as the curiosity around these methods continues to grow in light of the pandemic.

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