Trigger for the First Step
It happened one August morning 5 years ago when our son, Nihar, came and expressed that he would like to learn at home rather than going to school. He explained that though he liked the school, his friends and teachers, he felt that he wanted to learn by making things and wanted to choose what he learnt. We asked for some time to think over it and he came back promptly after a couple of weeks enquiring if we had made a decision. We had a further conversation where he said that he was not getting enough time during weekdays to work on projects that he was interested in and had to wait till it was a weekend to get a chunk of time at a stretch. He also clarified that he did not want a replica of school at home where there would be a timetable and subjects fitted into slots. Further, he would prefer to call it home-learning rather than homeschooling.
Realising that he had given some serious thoughts to the matter, we gladly decided to support his decision. So he left school after finishing the 4th grade. I quit my job as a teacher at the same time and my husband, Rajesh, who anyway was thinking of moving out of a corporate job, quit too. So by the end of March of 2014, Nihar, Rajesh and I, all three of us had stepped out of our respective “work” systems to walk on this new path together. As we took the first step, we did tell Nihar that at any point in time if he felt that learning at home is not enjoyable and he wished going back to school, that option was always open.
There is, of course, some history to it. Things did not happen at the drop of a hat. Rajesh had been living a different kind of life – questioning the norms and the givens of the society for several years prior to that. In his mind, home-learning was the most natural extension of it. He was probably ready for it, 3 to 4 years prior to Nihar popping the question. He had shared his thoughts with me, but I wasn’t ready then. Having entered the field of education after leaving the Telecom sector just a couple years prior, I was learning a lot about different pedagogies – multiple intelligences, active learning, emergent curriculum, child psychology and more. I believed that Nihar was in the right school where the child is cherished. After all, as a teacher in the same school I did see the efforts that the school made to keep children’s view in mind. All those years, I was not ready to be at home leaving the intellectual stimuli I received through conversations with colleagues and attending different workshops; my psychological needs getting fulfilled through appreciation for my work and being valued as a person, and a feeling that I was touching so many young lives at such a tender age.
A few months before Nihar posed the question, I became psychologically ready to be at home if Nihar felt like homeschooling. After being an educator for 5 years by then, my accumulated wisdom told me that if he wanted to take charge of his own learning, that was what I needed to respect.
You might wonder how a nine and a half-year-old child knew that an option like homeschooling existed. We correlated it to Nihar having interacted with a bunch of homeschoolers when he was in grade 2 at a forum called ‘Learning Societies unConference’. Though at that time, he was very certain that he did not want to consider homeschooling, something changed for him in the subsequent two years.
The Initial Phase
It was June 2014 and all of us, including my in-laws, were learning to be home together all the time. Nihar was grappling with the fact that all his friends from the community had gone back to school after summer holidays and he had to figure out what he wanted to do. There was no one to tell him what to do, as we had made it clear to him that we would be there to support him and facilitate his learning, but we would not be searching for projects to keep him engaged. It took him a couple of months to slowly get out of the mindset of somebody instructing him what to do and when to do. Some bit of travel and getting ideas from there also helped him
There was an unexpected challenge that showed up – an easy access to snacks and food at any time of the day. We noticed him putting on weight as snacking would happen unmindfully to fill some time available. We had several conversations regarding food, physical activity and health. We suggested that he needs to learn to take care of himself and that we did not want to monitor or police him at all. It took several months for him to see what was happening and the relevance of it. Slowly he began participating in cooking and baking and as he got involved in his other projects, it brought the balance in food consumption and the requirement of the body.
He began building a variety of things using Lego Mindstorms. He picked up knitting which he had observed women in Uttarakhand doing in their spare time. A visit to a school of differently abled persons showed him the art of candle making which he experimented with. A walk on Lamington Road in Mumbai intrigued him with electronic circuits. He built a few speakers and microphones and started tinkering with some of the electronic gadgets that he found in the e-waste bin in our community. Triggers for his projects were there all around in the environment, wherever he went.
A visit to an activity arcade introduced him to a Segway – a self-balancing two-wheeled vehicle – which he wanted to make at home. It was about the same time when he also wanted a new bicycle. We had a discussion with him that he could choose either to buy a bicycle or to make a self-balancing cycle from scratch, which would involve designing, implementing, and all of us working on it together. To help him make an informed choice, he was told that it would be a long project, and was guaranteed to have several hurdles but a great learning opportunity. He chose to make a self-balancing Unicycle. It was quite a project for all three of us that took us close to a year to complete. Nihar had to start right from decimal arithmetic, concepts like force, torque, power, a 3D modelling tool so that he could visualise how it would look, programming Arduino and many more things. It involved procuring a bicycle wheel and tyre, scooter footrests, a frame and getting it all welded. The most important thing that happened in this project was that there were multiple failures and he learnt to persist. It was not easy. There were several times when he felt that he was not interested in it any more. It was valuable for him to understand if this was what happened when tasks got challenging. We had a lot of conversations and were with him when he felt like giving up. Eventually he realised that any field/topic looks interesting on the surface and initially seems very simple and exciting, but truly lasting joy lies in creating something significant from scratch which invariably leads to challenges that require patience, persistence and hard work. Finally, the unicycle was ready which he named as UnoWheel. He learnt to ride it after falling from it several times and he was so filled with joy! I think the memory of that feeling has motivated Nihar to keep on making more things.
In this initial phase, just when I started out as a homeschooling mom, I knew that I did not want to teach Nihar but be there as a facilitator so that he can learn on his own. This was because, we as parents, believed that in the long run, if a person can be a self-learner then he/she can pick up anything that they are interested in at any age and it would be a life-skill to be able to figure things out for oneself. But after staying home for a couple of months, I started to itch to teach Nihar some Math convincing myself that it is the fundamental subject that he needed for anything that he would want to make. The underlying fact was that it was my need to do something, that I could evaluate and feel good about, that I could measure and tell myself that I was doing a good job. More than his learning, it was about me wanting to boost my self-worth. It was easy to say that practising Math is proven to be a good thing and I was doing good by insisting on regular Math lessons. It was also about feeling that I had done something useful with myself, now that I had quit my job and decided to be at home. It was hard to accept that I was actually causing a hindrance in his learning.
The motivation that he would have to work on his project would completely disappear when I would insist on teaching him. So it was tough to carry out that kind of introspection about what I was doing, why I was doing and what was the consequence that Nihar was facing because of it. I learnt that I needed to back off in order for his learning to blossom. What helped bring in the awareness was that we would regularly sit together as a family and provide reflections about what each one felt and thought about the other person’s behaviour. This helped us tremendously to be open about any topic with each other. It helped me recalibrate my approach.
Getting Comfortable on the New Path
A friend of his introduced Nihar to visual programming language called Scratch which he was learning at school. Beginning with writing a few games, Nihar moved on to using another visual platform called App Inventor designed by MIT to enable programmers to write simple Android applications (apps) . Ideas for these apps came from some news, our need to store useful information at the click of a mobile phone or a suggestion from a relative to improvise an existing app.
As the complexity of the apps increased, Nihar felt the need to learn different programming platforms. Using online tutorials and courses, he taught himself the tools he needed for building what he wanted to. We were there with him, to support him where he needed, to clarify concepts where required.
To diversify his explorations, we travelled to different places camping, trekking, visiting some cities, learning about history, geography and culture, experiencing people through our interactions. We always found it meaningful to be in a place for a few days and interact with local people, observe their life and be a part of it where possible.
There were quite a few things that we learnt along with him. It dawned upon us that as he entered his teen age, we too became teen-aged parents. As he learnt to assert his views and became more of an individual, we became aware of his changing needs. We realised that what we perceived as arguments was a way of him coming of age. Of course, it did not happen overnight. It was a long process that involved going through those arguments, not feeling good about them, reflecting on what was happening to actually get the insight. Looking back, it was beautiful to have had those conversations which led all three of us understand each other and continue dialoguing with each other on all kinds of topics.
Nihar was interested in learning pottery and when we took him to a pottery studio, we ourselves became mesmerised with the lump of mud getting transformed on a wheel with a gentle touch of hands. We signed up for classes along with him and it was a great equaliser for us. All three of us were on the common grounds as learners, nobody “already” possessed this skill. He saw us failing to make a decent pot several times while he also saw us working on it again and again. So he too worked on his clay relentlessly to develop a feel for it in his fingers. For him to be a learner, we need to be learners ourselves. If I do not know about something, it is easy to tell Nihar that I do not know and that allows for a collaborative learning to take place. It also tells him that we, though adults, do not have answers to everything all the time and it allows us to remove notions of hierarchy.
We had to nudge him to try out a theatre camp to see if he liked it. One summer, we suggested but he refused to consider it at all. The next summer, we proposed it to him again, with the option that he had the choice to not pursue it further if he did not want to after the camp, and we meant it. He trusted us to try out the camp for a week and at the end of it, he came back asking for more!
Past couple of Years
It was a couple of years ago when he started going for his theatre class by public transport – BMTC buses – on his own. He tried using the official BMTC app to reduce his waiting time at the bus stop but discovered some challenges there. He then decided to build his own app that would provide real-time information about the buses with a trip planner so that people could plan their trip. He worked very hard, long hours for several months. There was no external motivation required. The basic version of the app ‘Bengaluru Buses’ was launched in June 2017 and the subsequent one in October 2017 on Google Play store. In the second version Rajesh supported him when it came to optimizing the database queries to improve response time, but close to 95% of the development of the app has been done by Nihar. I was primarily involved in testing and spreading the word about the app through friends and family. So far there are more than 90,000 downloads and more than 20,000 active users of the app. Nihar feels very satisfied that his app helps out so many Bangalore commuters daily.
For the past six months, Nihar has been interning with a French startup involved in developing a privacy focussed Android-based operating system for mobiles. He has also recently started an internship at IISc and is working on an autonomous drone project.
He continues exploring theatre and contemporary dance and attends classes for the same. He has done a basic skiing certification course in the Himalayas. He has also picked up crochet and is currently crocheting a sweater.In the last five years, Nihar has explored a variety of things in different ways – sometimes he needed a nudge like going for a short theatre camp to see if he liked it, some other times he learnt things intuitively, sometimes from the context where he was and sometimes from his YouTube gurus.
Since his projects required him to spend good amount of time per day in front of a screen, initially it was challenging for us as parents to see that much of screen time per day. Reading articles regarding children losing touch with reality by getting addicted to gadgets troubled us. Nihar’s excitement and temptation with new phones and technology was very visible. We were anxious for a few months – what if in the process of using screen as a learning tool, he gets consumed by it? We shared our concern with him. He also observed how his friend who was completely into playing video games behaved with him when Nihar was there to play with him in person. That made him see that getting excessively involved in gadgets can threaten friendship. Along with this experience we also discussed with him what we knew referring to research articles about gadgets. Together, we have made a distinction between screen usage for learning and for entertainment. After dwelling over this for some time, Nihar has come up with how much time he wants to spend per day and per week for entertainment. He monitors it himself and that has lifted off any burden that we ever felt regarding this topic. We trust him completely and if he relaxes his own time boundaries, he feels free to talk to us about it. He does take intermittent breaks to step away from his work to take care of his posture and eyesight.
Our friends, family and acquaintances have contributed to our home learning processes in many different ways. Some have taught us skills like storyboarding, filmmaking, video editing; some have provided interesting triggers for new project ideas; some have suggested attending specific workshops to broaden Nihar’s exposure and some have connected us to their contacts to explore internship opportunities. This has helped me question my insecurities regarding Nihar’s future.
I started walking the home-learning path thinking that eventually, he would appear for the board exams. Where I stand today, with Nihar soon turning 15, I don’t feel the need to disrupt his learning process and ask him to prepare for the boards. There seem to be so many opportunities out there. It is more about moving away from my fears from the past and anxieties of the future to allow something to emerge in Nihar’s life.
Looking back, there were times when I judged myself as a facilitator in the learning process, felt like doing more than required, tried to apply benchmarks that did not belong to this kind of organic and natural learning. But it was important for me to realise that it has been a huge learning process for me as a parent. Beginning with a tentative step, my experience of the past five years has given me the confidence to walk ahead believing that a person who has learned to learn will figure things out for oneself. The beauty on this road less travelled is what emerges at any moment as you and your family journey to discover life!