We are born curious.
With an infinite source of observations and experience from the world around us, we are capable of learning a magnificent amount of information that we process and evaluate every second of our lives. We are sent to school to develop tools that allow us to analyze and communicate the variety of our human experience to others and build on knowledge collectively gleaned from the entirety of humanity. Education allows us to progress and develop and schools are where we recognize this potentiality of humankind.
I’ve recently met some folks who believe quite differently.
I had visited the Shikshantar Resource Center for Unschooling several times while staying in Udaipur, India, and though my skepticism wasn’t fading, I couldn’t seem to stay away. I was in the area to visit some of the government schools offering new vocational programs and had found out about this place for “walkouts and self-designed learners” the way one usually does in India- talking to strangers while drinking chai.
There was a young man with advanced studies in commerce who had just finished a trip leading a group of people on bikes around Rajasthan. I love asking people about their jobs, not because I give a flip about what people do for a living, but because, as a vocational teacher, I am enamored with stories about how people find their professions. Long, winding tales with unexpected detours and endings are my favorite. His was a good one, and it included this strange “unschool” which encouraged people to drop out of formal education and become “seekers” of knowledge within their own community. On their website, they railed against the “factory-schooling” approach towards education and, despite being founded by highly-educated, degreed and dedicated people, basically ran on the principle that schools in their current form crush our innate sense of curiosity and will one day be regarded as “a crime against humanity.” The number of quotation marks I’ve used so far probably hints at the struggle I had swallowing all this. I had to go.
Lucky for me, they had an open café night where students (called “seekers”) cooked an amazing meal. I spent the evening talking to those “enrolled” in the affiliated Swaraj University, which has no classes, no professors, and no degrees. Instead, these individuals meet together to discuss personal interests and aptitudes and questions they had about the world and then go out and find members of the community to serve as their teachers. All well and good for these highly motivated, creative-type teenagers and young adults, but how could this possibly work for all types of students?
“It’s not supposed to,” answered Vidhi Jain, one of the co-founders of the organization. She and her husband, Manish Jain, come from an impressive background in the education and development sector, which includes a degree from Harvard and stints in projects funded by UNESCO, the World Bank, and the United Nations Development Programme. These organizations laud the efforts of education to pull people out of poverty and I couldn’t get my head around how these otherwise worldly folks would advocate against the idea that education leads to improved lives and livelihoods.
Schooling in the traditional sense may work for some kids, Vidhi admitted, but it doesn’t for all kids, or even the majority, when it comes to providing opportunities to direct their own learning and become engaged, curious lifelong learners. The push in both India and the US for students to attend college and earn higher degrees has provided both countries with data of those “lost” along the way as well as those who graduate with a degree only to find themselves adrift in the realm of unemployment or underemployment. As a vocational teacher from the US, I was in India to explore this exact conundrum. I was looking for best practices in programming that helped students develop skills to support their success in the workforce or post-secondary education. I believed (and still believe) that vocational education is the key not only for livelihood generation in developing countries but for student success and economic growth in all countries. This went on for awhile.
“It isn’t just about the hierarchies in society, but a hierarchy of knowledge,” Manish brings up, as I explain why the negative stigma associated with vocational education needs to change. It’s true, we value certain knowledge more than others. What a lawyer knows is valued more highly than what a farmer knows, yet this is turned upside down when one considers the direct impact of their knowledge on our daily lives. This very concept has lead Vidhi to become involved in movements like Grandmother’s University which values traditional knowledge particularly around how we manage our natural resources and food supply.
All fine and good, thought this former agriculture teacher. Of course, this type of learning is valuable, but not every kid growing up in a rural village wants to remain on the farm, eeking out a living while at the mercy of climate change and unscrupulous middlemen. Surely the only way to provide these students options and opportunities was to put them in a classroom and teach them the basics, so that they could participate in the economic development happening elsewhere in the country.
Here’s where things get tricky.
I started looking around at all the economic “development” in the country observable since my first visit to India in 1998 and the poster child of development goals everywhere. The number of cars choking the city streets has gone up exponentially. There are now more than 20 million vehicles on the road in India, with very little infrastructure to support them or combat the pollution they cause. People leaving villages and flocking to the cities to make more aspirational incomes has lead to a wave of urbanization that sees 60%- more than HALF– of Mumbai residents living in “informal” housing (i.e. slums). The plastic trash generated from products now in the price range of most citizens lines every street.
“When you go to the village,” Vidhi relates, as she often did as part of her own “unschooling” process, “you don’t starve and you don’t need money.” Villagers have the knowledge and skills needed to provide some form of sustenance and the sense of community to provide it. “Try living for one day in Mumbai without money.”
By sending students to schools here in India with centralized curriculum based on what a country considers “necessary” learning for all students who represent an incredible spectrum of the human experience and then assessing them with a standardized test that determines whether they move forward in their education and what type of careers they can have in the future- are we developing learners or are we developing workers?
Neither answer makes me entirely comfortable.
The main point that both founders and seekers of this idea behind “unschooling” got through the chink in my skepticism was that we need to let students self-direct what their own learning priorities are and simply provide facilitation that connects them with knowledge and skills. This! This is exactly why I love teaching vocational education in all its skill-based, hands-on glory. In the US, I cheerfully admonished, career and technical education is the vanguard of this kind of participatory learning.
To whom do we market these types of courses? Are the parents of “AP students” comfortable with their child enrolling in an automotive class because they’ve always been curious about how cars work? Are students learning construction trades there because of a passion for fine woodwork, or because they weren’t really considering the “college track.” How much autonomous enrollment to we see in vocational programming in the US, and how much freedom are students given within a chosen program to pursue the types of individual projects that the “unschools” were advocating?
I don’t really know.
What’s more, I have no idea how to measure this. My own traditional schooling as an educator makes me cling to the cannon of “essential” curriculum that all kids need to know in order to have the tools necessary to function in our world. Our world. (“Third world” and “first world” are terms this line of thinking also has me struggling with). We assess how well they are able to demonstrate what we want them to learn. How do we assess what they want to learn? If we want to encourage curious, lifelong learning, which is more important?
As I prepare to leave India and return to my own classroom in Colorado, I’ve gleaned a few ideas for making more room for student-driven learning in my own curriculum, though I doubt I’ll ever be able to get out of their way. I hope to bring more of the community into our learning and I hope to send students out into the community more to seek out additional teachers. On a more personal level, I hope I am brave enough to be a “seeker” myself and not continue to jump through the hoops of what I’ve called learning and development so far in my own life. I hope I can learn to be more satisfied with hard questions than “right” answers and brave enough to take the quotation marks away from ideas that challenge me. India has been an exceptional teacher.