Lessons in Learning

Batool Haydar gets schooled in the little-charted area of unschooling

The month of Ramadan is a time of reflection and I’ve had plenty of that to do in the past four weeks! Those of you who follow my articles may be aware that my major concern as a parent revolves around providing my daughter with the necessary experiences she requires to develop a stable, positive character.
We’ve been quite firm with the ‘no-technology’ policy and don’t regret that one bit. However, since she passed her third birthday, I’ve found myself having to answer the same question every single time I share her age: “So, is she in school yet?” (No, she’s not.)
I was never really a ‘motherly’ kind of person, but one thing I have always known is that if I ever had children, they would be homeschooled. And this was from way back when the term was barely known, let alone understood. Coming from a strong academic background, I knew I loved education, but having been forced through a secular, structured system of learning, I also know how much I disliked the way I was taught.
My best learning came from out-of-school hours and there is very little I remember taking away from my actual classes. In recent years, as I have worked with children and youth, I have witnessed the huge changes that social media and the internet have brought to our lives. The impact an online presence has on the mind and heart of a young person leave indelible marks that literally last a lifetime.
Do I really want my child to have to deal with cyber-bullying, peer pressure, fashion brainwashing and all the other marketing tripe she will be bombarded with, more so because she is a female? I’ve been having discussions around the same issues over and over again during this month (because Ramadan is when we all manage to catch up for the whole year’s lack of real life interaction, isn’t it?). All of them in some way or another accused me of being over-protective, told me I was stunting my daughter’s social skills and doomed her to be at best a literary recluse if I continued down the path of homeschooling.
The question that floored me over and over again, obsessing my conversations with God, was ‘How will she know what real life is if you don’t send her out into the world?’ There was an element of truth in this sincerely concerned query. How indeed? Did I really think I could provide every experience she needed all by myself?
That was when I began to search for the genuine answers. The ones that would keep me firm on my decision, because if I didn’t have those, then, in all honesty, I would have to put her in a school before the end of the year. Ramadan is only just over, so I don’t have any comprehensive theories, but I have decided on a couple of things. For those of you considering keeping or taking your children out of school, I’m hoping this might help provide a few more thinking points on which to base your decision, God willing.
What is real life? This was the first thing to tackle. I want my daughter to first and foremost be genuine. I want her to experience life and understand the good and the bad in it. I want her to be fully aware, especially as a Muslim, that the state of affairs in the world is far from ideal and that her responsibility – from birth – is to do something about that. I want her to know that she can get the best grades and be an honours student, if she wants to focus her energies on that, but that those letters and numbers will not count for one bit in the Hereafter if they do not involve and are not aimed at gaining nearness to God. Because that is the reality of life: we are here to succeed for the aakhira) the afterlife) and the success of this world is a mere bonus for those who get it.
I recently watched a BBC documentary on how the 11+ exams impact schoolchildren and their idea of whether they will be successes or failures in life based on their marks. Whether it is the academic pressure or the social impact, I don’t think that any school system really prepares a child for the real world as we consider it.
Personally I want an integrated education for my child where there is no need to separate what you learn in school from what you learn at home/madrasa/mosque. The conflict between these different ideologies are a challenge for us as adults and I would rather she have a solid foundation that seamlessly incorporates God into everything (as He truly is) until she is old enough to explore concepts and ideas on her own.
Having figured out the answer to that, I found myself better equipped to then deal with the next issue: What does she need to learn about real life as I have understood it? Well, Islam tells us to let a child play for the first seven years, so really, that’s all she needs! There are plenty of theories about unschooling – radical or otherwise – as well as child-led or delight-directed education. I doubted every one of them, because how does a child learn without being taught? Are they expected to receive inspiration?
With an independent-minded child on my hands, this has been my biggest worry. How will I teach her if she doesn’t want to sit down and learn from me? Then three things happened. She attended four one-hour toddler sessions and went from knowing only her mother-tongue to now being almost equally fluent in English. She – who has been rebelling every encouragement to pick up a pen and make a mark on a piece of paper – watched me write a four-word sentence on her whiteboard, erased it and then copied it out from memory while I gawped like a goldfish.
So if there is one lesson I have taken away this Ramadan, it is that if you decide to do something within the boundaries of Islam and solely with the intention of seeking nearness to God, then no matter how controversial it may seem compared to the normal framework in place, He will support and help you, step-by-step until you reach Him. And that is the true education of real life!

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