“Don’t worry, the crayon won’t smudge,” Nirmal Prajapati, 28, tells seven-year-old Reema when a glass of water tips over and wets the paper she is colouring.
An intense discussion on why wax and water don't mix follows. To the distant observer, this seems like an art class whose participants are talking a little too much. But Reema is learning science. Better still, there's no teacher in the room. Prajapati is a former student who likes returning to the place that changed his life.
“Isn't this a better approach to learn the concepts of science than sitting in a class writing notes?” asks Vidhi Jain, who is busy helping a batch of giggly children in another part of the room tightly roll up newspapers that they will weave into baskets later.
Welcome to the brave world of unschooling.
The birth of an idea
Vidhi and her husband Manish gave up traditional careers to start Shikshantar, an Udaipur-based NGO devoted to unschooling, 15 years ago.
The seed of the idea was planted during the time Manish spent with his grandmother in the family’s ancestral home in Rajasthan. “She’d never seen the insides of a school. Yet life and its experiences left her far more educated than one can ever imagine... Hers was a dynamic and organic knowledge system,” says Manish.
Once a successful Wall Street investment banker, Manish jumped off the gravy train when he realised the ethics of the global financial system bothered him. “The greed-is-good motto got to me," he says. After a postgraduate programme in International Education from Harvard University, he worked with UNESCO in South Africa, the erstwhile USSR and Pakistan but eventually realised that “vested interests in the system do not want it to change.”
Practice what you preach
Vidhi, a product of Delhi University, admits her conventional education often made her wonder whether there was only one correct way to think.
No wonder then that the Jains practice what they preach. Their daughter Avanika, 10, is unschooled because the Jains did not want "propaganda systems to inhibit her interactions or manipulate her thinking."
Unsurprisingly Avanika, fondly called Kankoo who accompanies her parents to workshops in formal schools, doesn't have a very high opinion of such institutions. “I feel they are like zoos with children kept in cages.”
Unschooling a child is a leap of faith for most parents.
“While many parents have begun home schooling, not many want to try unschooling since it is still an idea not much is known about. It's easier abroad since there are support groups of parents who are unschooling their children together. Here, people still feel to be reassured that they are not getting it wrong,” says Pune-based sociology of education expert Shweta Deshpande.
So it took the community some time to accept an idea that flew in the face of convention. While the problems with the existing system are aplenty, some felt till a more more holistically acceptable alternative is in place, throwing away the template may not be the best thing to do and wanted to explore other options which have been tested already.
Manish however insists says schools opened on the teachings of Sri Aurobindo, J Krishnamurthy and Rudolph Steiner which try to do that leave a lot to be desired in their current avatar. “Over a period of time these institutions have diluted the teachings of their founders in the name of practicality and convenience. While they are definitely still better, one can only say while regular schools are like zoos, these are at best sanctuaries.”
In the first few years, children brought to Shikshantar were mainly from lower income groups that the traditional school system had failed.
But there's been a change in the past five years with more middle and upper middle class families opting for this unconventional form of learning. Over 500 students have been through its portals so far. At present, the youngest child at the NGO is 3 and the oldest is 17. Students who want to visit even after they leave are encouraged to do so.
Local businessman Nalin Shah's son joined Shikshantar two years ago. Shah was very unhappy at the way Anmol was singled out and ridiculed at his old school because he couldn't keep up with his classmates. Once Anmol joined Shikshantar, "his reading and writing improved and he is a more confident and happy child,” says Shah who is also very pleased with the way Anmol interacts with people, at home or in his shop. “He sees the dignity attached to manual work and does not look down on staff like most of his peer-group do.”
It's not an assembly line
The champions of unschooling believe that all knowledge needs to have a context relevant to the individual. This is why learning is child led, at a pace dictated by them and at a time they are ready for it.
But are these skills enough to make a living in this very competitive world?
Manish certainly feels so. There is enough research to show the poor employability of the swathes of graduates being churned out by institutional education because of their inability to apply their minds. "Unschooled children may not have an exhaustive list of degrees from premier institutions but the skills they pick up are theirs to own fully," he says.
This helps them negotiate a constantly changing job market, something specialised graduates cannot do. “If such graduates don't make it, they simply have no other skills to peddle. It can be a difficult space to be in. Self-esteem takes a beating and depression sets in."
But because it is next to impossible to get white collar job in India without some kind of formal certification, the Jains encourage students who want a formal degree to go through the National Institute of Open Schooling or the India Gandhi National Open University. "Unschooled children are finding acceptance premier international universities in India and abroad," says Manish.
They even have an informal placement system and have over 500 entrepreneurs and corporate firms registered with their NGO to hire their students as part of an innovatively titled programme — Freedom From The Diploma Disease.
Not all educationists are enthralled by unschooling.
"The existing system has plenty of problems. But throwing away the template may not be the best thing to do,” says Pune-based sociology of education expert Shweta Deshpande. She feels unschooling is an experiment that runs the risk of being seen as the other extreme. “An attempt could be made to develop a more more holistically acceptable alternative."
However, the Jains are confident that the number of parents choosing to unschool their wards will only grow. "Over 4 million families in the US alone have already embraced the concept. It is only a matter of time before it becomes the rage here too.
What is "unschooling"?
Unschooling is a practice that allows children to learn from their natural life experiences. This includes interactions at home, play with friends and other social interactions. The learning is child oriented and driven by his or her interests. It is distinct from home schooling as there is no syllabus.
1970s educator John Holt is considered the 'father of unschooling'.
The concept is still in a nascent stage in India though there are several such NGO-led initiatives in cities including Delhi, Pune, Kolkata, Hyderabad, Chandigarh, Gandhinagar and Bengaluru.
The National Institute of Open Schooling figures show that over 18 per cent of the 2 lakh plus students who enroll with them for the Class X exam come from an unschooling background.
Nirmal Prajapati, 28, dropped out of formal school in Class V. “Except drawing and craft nothing seemed interesting,” says this potter’s son who is now a successful organic restaurateur as well as one of the region’s most celebrated painters.
A year after he left school, he was introduced to Shikshantar at a basti workshop and became a regular there. It was one place where he could dabble with colour as much as he wanted to. Around the same time, he became interested in organic farming and got attached to that project too.
He has now begun an organic restaurant — Millets of Mewar — on the banks of Lake Pichola. “I’m earning decently and do not have to put up with anyone as boss.”
He admits that many of his friends and classmates from his old school feel caught in a rut. “I tell them to give it all up and pursue what their heart wants. But they feel scared. I feel happy I dropped out of school. At least I have no such worries. I can give it all up and still start afresh when I want.”
Rohit Jhingiad, 24 works at one of Bangkok’s top spas as a masseur. A resident of the lower-caste basti in Udaipur, he would often be at the receiving end of his father’s wrath because he always played truant from school when he was in Class VI. His father brought him to Shikshantar hoping he’d be counselled to take studies more seriously.
While being introduced to the fun activities there, he opened up about his love of massage therapy. It was a family occupation that his father had abandoned but since he’d been exposed to it from a young age, he was drawn to the profession, says Vidhi.
Vidhi and her husband introduced him to professional accupressurists and massage therapists. “He mastered it, but the moment he became comfortable, his father put him back in school which he hated. After several such cycles of ‘rehabilitation and abuse’ he refused to go to school and ran away. When he came back he was sent to Auroville, where he honed his massage skills, English and French,” says Vidhi. “The transformation was amazing.”
After a a few high-end jobs in India, he then moved to Bangkok and is now looked up to by his family and neighbours.