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Is homeschooling for everyone?

The Innerkern Dialogue with Sandhya Viswan

At Innerkern, our Applied Education Research Team regularly engages in deep and enriching conversations with school leaders, teachers, and parents as we explore and analyse their practices within their socio-cultural context. We call such learning conversations the Innerkern Dialogue.

Is homeschooling for everyone? Drawing from the ongoing debate about homeschooling vs public schooling, we wanted to ask someone who has experienced both the sides. Then we met Sandhya Viswan. Sandhya is a Montessori and Early Childhood Learning Expert with over two decades of experience. She is the go-to expert for homeschooling and unschooling in Bangalore. We decided to talk to Sandhya when we learned that she had homeschooled both her sons and runs a pre-school. Sandhya is the Cofounder of EdDeeD, India’s first immersive community for education. You can visit EdDeeD here.Following are the highlights from the Innerkern Dialogue with Sandhya Viswan.

Question: One of the major concerns we have about homeschooling is that teaching is not an easy task, considering the time that one needs to spend and the expertise that one needs to have. We are engaging in this conversation with you from a space where we think that homeschooling may not be for everyone. We think one needs to have a certain level of skill and understanding about teaching to homeschool children. You know, when it comes to homeschooling, picking up a pre-packaged curriculum from somewhere and implementing it in your home is what we see happening across the board. So we wanted to talk to you because you are an educator first and also somebody who successfully homeschooled two young people. They have almost crossed their 16s, are past their teenage years and they are becoming adults now, right? So our first question is, what actually made you decide you must homeschool your kids?

Sandhya Viswan: One of my jobs is to help parents identify the right kind of school. I have this online group through which I help parents understand the nuances of schools. However, when we were starting off schooling our children, like any normal person, we also went through the process of consideration early on. In fact, my older son did go to school for a while and it was like a second home for him. It was a good place, he was doing extremely well in that system too. However, by the age of four, we had identified that he is gifted in music. Not only was he good in academics, the school also allowed him to explore and be curious. We did go through the usual ups and downs that any parent would go through but we had the platform in that school to be able to talk about our concerns. However this gift of music was there, which the school also identified when he had reached six or seven years of age and they told us that he needs extra coaching for that. The thing for homeschooling actually came up because I had come up with the concept of alternative schooling and I was just discussing it at home at that point in time. When we started thinking about what we could do about his music, my husband suddenly decided, when he was in the middle of grade four, to explore homeschooling during the vacations. He was good academically at that point. We also had the thought that these subjects, the regular subjects, could be handled at home.

I have an engineering background; my husband is a pharmacologist. Therefore, at that point we considered handling things at home. My elder son was a very diligent boy. Even without us having to remind him, he would study everything and he was curious. We thought we should focus on the music. That is how we started homeschooling - so that he could have more time to do his music, and we could focus on his academics at home. The younger one was only three, so he was going to a toddler program where I was also teaching. It was more about keeping him occupied there while I was working. Those three hours were the only time when he was away from me. The little one just kind of came into homeschooling, because he was only three and we didn't think that there was much focus there to be given to traditional academic learning at that point of time. That's how we started out homeschooling, but over a period of time my thoughts have changed, I have evolved as an individual, and about how learning happens. And what I consider as education has also changed. This was back in 2009, when my oldest son was nine and my younger one was three. So this is how we stepped into it.

Question: So your elder son did go to school for a bit.

Sandhya Viswan: Yes, he went back to school again in his 9th and 10th grade. We had a personal situation that was not a part of the plan, where it was difficult for me to juggle all his activities. We were staying in a place where there was no access to public transport. Since it was Grade 9 and I wanted to set up all of my work too, he went back to school in Grade 9. We asked him if wanted to continue regular school in the 10th grade, when he was sick and he said, “yes” he wanted to go to school as he wanted to prove a point for something. We let him go but that was not the plan and it was very evident, when he went back that he was academically much ahead of his classmates. But at that point, he was an academically oriented boy. He chose to do the IGCSE, we had all those conversations around his decision etc. It wasn't really school for studies that he went back to. In fact probably he wanted the social setting. I think it was a good experience as well, though there were a few glitches here and there, the school was very supportive.

Question: This is what we wanted to understand next. You see, one major argument against homeschooling is the lack of opportunities for kids to interact with the larger society. What is your take on this?

Sandhya Viswan: That's the first question that comes to me too, when parents are exploring homeschooling for their children. Actually, that is not the least of our concerns. Most people, you know, the moment you say homeschooling, they get this image of a child sitting at a table at home and studying by himself. That is not how it happens. Most of us who are in that community have chosen homeschooling due to a conviction and were not forced into it. Actually the opportunities for socialising is the other way around with homeschoolers. I have taught in schools, I have seen how it is even in the best of schools. I feel that children who are homeschooled, actually get more opportunities to engage and interact with the real world than school going students. School going students have limited time at school. You are with one set of peers the whole day. When the teaching is happening there is not much engagement possible during that time. The break times have reduced from when we were at school, even if they are travelling and commuting back and forth, they are monitored. So they don't have that space to explore real conversations. Many times the adults in a school system do not know how to help children through conflicts or other issues that they come up with. The children are expected to figure out socialisation and engagement themselves. Not every child can figure it out. The same time, most of the homeschoolers actively take care of that aspect of socialisation for children.

At the beginning, you mentioned expertise. I agree that homeschooling is not for everybody. However, it is not based on the expertise of whether we are able to teach or not. It is about the mindset. How you are able to let them explore and find what they want to find.Parents and the community are just facilitators. Though we took the step thinking that we have this expertise and that expertise, over a period of time I figured out that your child might have an interest which you are not capable of supporting. It could have been even maths or science. It's not like we don't outsource. We can outsource but we give it a lot of thought. We need to understand how our child is, maybe there's a tutor for one subject and if it doesn't work for the child you will have to shift.

I will tell you an interesting thing that happened to us. When my older son was around 12, we sat down and thought about exams. We discussed what we need to prepare for, which are the exams available for homeschoolers and all of that. Around the same time he was taking the Trinity Exams in music. Like there are academic goals, for music too there are goals and he was also doing other explorations. We used to video tape his songs that we suggested, writing those notes, working backwards etc. He was practising the pieces for the Trinity exam so much that he felt he was not getting time for exploring and growing in his talent. He came back after two years and told us that he didn't want to be writing the exams for music any more.

I am more of a facilitator. My husband was at that time an assistant professor. However my son realised facilitation was not working for his academics. He realised he needed to understand the topic and review it with someone. This is what he wanted. Therefore, at 12 years he was able to figure out in his own way, that he wanted a mentor for music, he wanted a teacher for academics and that was great. So for me, that was a major learning. He probably would not have figured this out in school. Because there are expectations, the authority, the power, you know the kids are supposed to listen to authority. For my younger son, there was absolutely no sitting and learning anything. He learned to read and write very casually. When he was five and a half years old, I was working in a small town in Kerala, so English wasn't his first language. But he spoke only in English. Even when we spoke to him in Malayalam, he would respond in English.

At the school, he was five and a half, he could be either in UKG or 1st Grade. The principal put him in Grade 1. But in Grade 1, the children who came from UKG, could construct sentences. He would answer verbally on his own without being taught the answer. However, when he wrote, he would write a string of letters. Some were in print, some capitals; more because he had no clue how to write words. He hadn't learnt it. But if you read that sentence, it was phonetically correct. So I put two charts of print and cursive separate in front of him, and told him that these two are different groups. You can use either one, and I told him between every word put a finger gap. It took just two months of work support from school as well as me and he picked it up.

I've never had to teach anything, even Math, Algebra per say to my younger boy. He would do things on his own and whenever I noticed something he was doing, I would say, “Oh, you know what? This is how if, in case, you have to write an exam, this is addition and this is subtraction.” He was already using it. I would send him to the shop, he would buy stuff. So there's a lot of education in real life, subtracting things and I could see that he possessed a lot of logical and analytical skills. He is much more street smart than his older brother. My older son would be like a typical school going, good student. If you give him a problem, he will understand the problem, then he will scan all the possible solutions that could be used and then pick one and then apply it. My younger one is the straight opposite. So you give him a problem and he somehow knows what to do, he uses more trial and error methods.

Then one fine day, I noticed that the younger one didn't like to read. But he's getting a lot of information from videos available online. He was also addicted to games at that point, but he was also getting these tidbits of news. He was more of a visual learner, in the sense videos appealed to him much more than reading. Later, we figured it was all a learning disability. However, it didn't hinder him because he didn't go to school, otherwise everybody would have tried to help him in his weak area, without focusing on the strength and he would have gone downhill rather than up. That's where I was coming from.

However, learning in homeschooling, as a philosophy, is more about being observant and just being that support system for them. And even when I was running the preschool, this was one main thing that I used to tell all my staff and I trained them for this.The moment you put goals there, you are limiting and that is all that they will learn. But the moment you just have an activity and leave them to explore it, they learn much more because there are so many other things happening at the same time, which they will connect because they don't have a goal.

Question: Now, this is what I was coming to next. I wanted to ask you this because, you see, most formal schooling has a curriculum as a back bone. I mean, some have a syllabus, some have a list of outcomes that are age appropriate. Of course, there are arguments about when children should learn to write, when should children learn maths, etc. But having said all that, there is a framework, the curriculum as the backbone. So, you are expected to, you know, achieve a few learning goals by, let us say, fifth grade, or sixth grade etc. Right?

Sandhya Viswan: Like I said, if you are a family that reads even if the child is not reading, that is something that they are seeing around and they will pick it up. This is not something that I thought about initially, but it built up as I went along. But now, when I'm advising people,I talk about it. Like I said, probably, because this is a natural part of our family it's a way of life for us, reading and writing was a part of life. So what I usually say is by the age of 11, 12 or 13 ish, which is the fifth or sixth grade, if their basic skills of reading, writing, comprehension and arithmetic are set, they have a hold on all these things, no matter how you do it, you can sit and teach you know once a week, each week, have a curriculum, is also okay. If that's what works for your family, it is fine. But by then, if you have this base, and the child has to do an assessment by the age of 15 or 16, they can start preparing for it at a pace that works for them from there. You can get support from somebody to do it. But then, if you go into reading and writing itself at that time, it is a problem. Then whoever is even trying to mentor or teach is going to have a big challenge.

Question: When a child goes to school, teachers come with their own abilities of teaching and flaws in how they understand learning. They come with misconceptions about what they are teaching too. When a child goes to school these flaws are distributed. A particular child listens to maybe seven or eight teachers and so she gets a larger pool to learn from. When it comes to homeschooling, there are just two people helping them learn. Many parents, in their enthusiasm to teach, might teach a lot of wrong notions and wrong concepts that they feel are right. Now, learning gets limited to this one or two human beings. How do you view this?

Sandhya Viswan: Especially with parents up to primary school or lower primary, I tell them if their goal is to be that phenomenal teacher, who is better than all the school teachers. don't homeschool, it will not work. This happens more for pre primary and lower primary. So , if the parent feels they are a better teacher, and so they want to homeschool, I tell them that is the wrong approach. The reason being it will eventually become a huge pressure on them. In a school, teaching is distributed, the child gets a breathing space while at school. However because the parent is so enthusiastic that their way of teaching is helping the child, they might go overboard with that. Also when the child is going to school, what parents do is supplementing at home, which might work. Though in my opinion when a child is going to school, there is no need to supplement what is done at school. So mostly if they come to me I direct them to a suitable school because the city where we live has a wide range of options. Generally when parents want to teach children because they feel they are ‘ better than teachers’, their expectation will only go on to increase. One rule that homeschoolers need to have is to drop ‘expectations’ for their child.

Question: We've seen the other side of it also. Like we know some people who are running proper tuition centres. Not like one teacher sitting and teaching 20 children kind of a space. They teach the whole topic again in a classroom kind of scenario. So we wonder what is the point of school then?

Sandhya Viswan: Then my question is, why pay money and send your child to that school? Change the school. In a homeschooling space I don't teach, they learn and I just support that . But when they go to school, then you are paying a fee and I do not expect to sit here and teach them anything once they come home. Because I'm paying for that particular service. Most parents follow a herd mentality and send their kids to a school because everybody goes to school. But why are you then sending them to school? If you have to do tuition, do only the tuition then.

Question: The way we understand teaching is that teaching is a science more than an art. What we have found is, there's almost a 40 to 50 year gap, in terms of a theory becoming a practice. From that context how has it been for you? Awareness of it or a lack of awareness of all these theories and approaches and all that, how has it helped you or not helped?

Sandhya Viswan: Oh, okay as far as I am concerned, I am also a psychologist, so I do understand. However, having worked in school spaces I have noticed that teachers take in what can be applied in their immediate space of work and take in only what is the tangible bit. So, even when teachers study bloom's taxonomy, or any theory, they are trying to figure out how to fix their current problem, and what are the steps to solve that problem? That's where I see a problem, not on the theory part per se. And when I am a facilitator, I have noticed that teachers are also rigid about the particular steps that were discussed in the workshop. It doesn't work the same way for every child. If you understand the whole philosophy and then put it into action, you know how to differentiate. Like I said, children are smart in different ways. They are very different individuals. This is where teachers get limited, when it comes to the implementation.

I also realised after I finished training when I was taking classes, that the people who trained us, were not educators. They had not worked in the field, they had learned some theories and they were training us. So if any one of us had asked a very practical question because we have tried this and it hasn't worked for a particular child or something, they had no answer, other than, “ No, this is the way you have to do it”. You have to figure out how to do it. That was the response we mostly got.

If teachers need to be able to provide that kind of an environment for children to be as individualistic as possible, I realised I need to give the teachers that space. Now, that sort of training doesn't happen in India. So I think where our teachers or where our system fails is that teachers look at these as different boxes. They use this method, or the other method. They don't use strategies according to the children and alter the methods as required.

Question: We are sure the background you had as an educator has helped you in terms of deciding what to do, what not to do and what to look for. Where to pay attention and learn accordingly. How has that journey been for you? What do you think parents who are aspiring to be homeschoolers need to pay attention to?

Sandhya Viswan: I think I usually work backwards, so I do think that I did have a natural knack for it. So when I started homeschooling, I used to feel that everybody could homeschool. Like I said, my thoughts from 2009, over a period of time, have changed due to my experience. Also when I stepped into homeschooling, I was montessori trained and so that did play a role in the observations. I also used to do a lot of learning and reading where a lot of my thoughts were validated.

Question: In recent times we are noticing that people are aggressively advocating for homeschooling. We think they have a business agenda behind it and that business interest is to sell a pre-packaged curriculum. They have a prepackaged set of digital contents like, the videos and games and stuff. All that parents need to do is to read their manual. What do you think about this?

Sandhya Viswan: Yes! I had spoken to a major company doing this recently and actually runs an online school. I told them, please don't market saying that you are supporting homeschoolers. I told them that we don't think that is appropriate and that is not the way homeschooling is done and actually they took their advertisement down. Most times companies do this also out of ignorance. What I have seen is people are either one extreme or the other. Even homeschoolers think schools are ruining their children's lives. I tell parents to find what suits their child and family situations. The child has to be the main focus. I know that there are great school options in the city where we live. I might not say the same thing for other places. I help parents find what is the right fit for their child and their situation.

Regarding the homeschooling kit for parents, I'm not in favour of that at all. Some parents may find it useful because they may actually have been good at homeschooling and they were not aware of it themselves. Hence they may also recommend it to others. But I feel homeschoolers are still a small community and the act of learning per se is not just content driven. We see that the city where we live has better options. Parents who have travelled all over the world and have come back are looking for developing skills in their children. They're not looking at content at all. Parents are a lot more aware so there is demand which leads to the supply for the alternative spaces that are working because of their passion. The companies which are driving this are working on the FOMO of the parents.

It is essential for everyone to understand that starting with the current generation of children it is essential for us to recognise that each child is has a different kind of personality, genetics, life experiences, interest and only when we start looking at each child as a different kind of a package can we start building a society that is treating them as individuals that have different needs. We don't need terms like ‘inclusive’ etc if we start looking at each child as individuals. Therefore the companies that manufacture homeschooler kits saying that every parent can use it is something I don't identify with.

Question: There are a lot of parents who are confused about what is right? Should I send my child to school? Should I not and could I start homeschooling? How can a parent decide that? Also tell us how do people approach you? Because you're somebody who sort of helps parents decide what suits them better.

Sandhya Viswan: I'm on Facebook and that is where I started helping people. More than helping, I share my experiences and over a period of time people start looking up to me and that is how consulting started off. Decision about families is a case to case decision. I cannot generalise and state that a homeschooling family needs to meet these parameters to be able to start the process etc., because there are multiple factors that can be a deterrent or the right choice for this decision and many parents are just confused. When parents who approach me are asking the question and I probe a little more, I realise some of the factors are not even about their mindset. Some factors would be that they are living in a joint family. Nobody else would be supportive of this. In a nuclear family, you can make any decision on what the children do in the space of schooling. But in a joint family set up, the larger family members may create an environment that is not conducive for homeschooling.

In another scenario, parents may be focused only on the academics part. In situations like this also probably, I would say no, because their focus is not right. There are other parents who wonder how to take care of the socialisation and enquire about groups that are available if they want to homeschool their child. They are doing their homework. But the larger public might be seeing these ads and are influenced by them. You will find people going and buying a learning package, and these materials could actually be factually incorrect. The parent is not even able to gauge that.

I feel the awareness is low and poor, but as far as homeschooling goes, I don't have a set of parameters that parents can go by. I have also noticed that each one of us who have successfully homeschooled for more than a decade or so, are very different from each other, yet friends mostly. But their way might not even work for my family, but we appreciate that we are all very different. My children have friends who are school going children. When it comes to alternative spaces, I also have to educate the parents that each alternative space is different. Some of these philosophies may not match their thoughts, but one thing, which is common for alternative spaces is that if you are choosing an alternative space, you need to extend the philosophy back home as well. Unlike normal schools because school is only content driven or knowledge driven. But for an alternative space, it does not work that way.

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