Beginning Homeschool

How do you make kids sit down to learn at home? How do parents teach the higher grades? Won’t homeschoolers miss out on socialization? Will it affect their character and social skills? What if I start homeschooling my child after primary school?

Homeschoolers are asked these questions all the time.

I wish I could offer a cut-and-dried response to these common queries put to homeschoolers. There isn’t (simply because every home is different) although it’s probably safe to say that there are some commonalities across the board. Also, there are no perfect situations, only opportunities. Parents who educate their own children at home hope and pray their kids will turn out well. The truth is the journey has only just begun. Our homeschooling kids are at different points and milestones along the way, and who they are or what they will become is just unfolding. So we’re all a work-in-progress -parents as well as their children – counted as `saints’ by our heavenly Father, yet saints in the making.

I think one of the biggest misconceptions about homeschool is that it is schooling’ that is carried out at home. The image therefore, is of a conventional classroom now scaled down but imported or adapted to the living room or kitchen table. Some parents have the idea that the one-on-one situation with mom as tutor and junior as student is an attractive proposition because, a) there’s going to be a lot of attention given to the student b) there’s going to be a lot more Junior will absorb in the personal tutoring process, and c) obviously, the potential for academic excellence is going to be greatly advanced.

Speaking as a former teen, that’s as much fun as a torture chamber. Why bother with homeschool then? Might as well stay in a conventional school.

It is possible that some families may homeschool this way (to each his/her own I say) but that’s not how I understand homeschooling to be, nor is this how it is practiced in the homes of most if not all homeschoolers I know. My own home would certainly be dismissed as a slacker’s paradise; parents who imagine homeschools to be a miniature academe peopled by diligent children sitting ramrod at their desks studying, will be sorely disappointed if they drop in our home for a visit!

In the first place, homeschooling is more than academic learning or formal scheduled study. It is providing a child a secure home to realize her potential holistically. It is equipping her for self-directed learning, training her to be resourceful and independent.

Seen this way, the homeschooling parent does not consider herself as a tutor but a facilitator. We’re seeking a balance. Life itself is one big classroom or a laboratory for creativity, discovery, a safe place for learning from one’s mistakes. Conventional schools with their over-emphasis on exams and books and tuition offer little time or space for self-discovery and imagination. The difference between a happy pre-school kid of 4 years and an anxious, bored, schooled kid of 7 years is staggering. Which is tragic considering how many great minds, inventors, and writers, owe their greatness not to hours of mugging but to playing and tinkering about while in their formative years as young children.

Certainly there are sit-down periods, but informal learning constitutes a significant part of a homeschooler’s education. Eventually the role of parents as their child’s facilitator is diminished until personal involvement is no longer necessary or a primary concern. Inculcating this attitude and outlook in a child when she is younger pays off when she grows older. Parents will quickly find that their initial fear of being unable to teach the ‘hard’ subjects becomes irrelevant because the homeschooled child will and often does surpass her tutor.

Taking a child out of school at 13 years to homeschool is not uncommon, but some parents admit to struggling with weaning the teen from an entrenched and usually peer-dependent lifestyle. A lot of families do succeed at ‘deschooling’ a child for home education but it entails more effort since you’re developing a new circle of friends at the same time as picking up a new learning culture.

Then there is the whole issue of learning styles and gender. Different children learn differently according to Howard Gardner’s (among others) multiple intelligences theory (Frames of Mind, 1983). Again, boys are psychologically and developmentally different from girls. Given these variables, parents do their children a great disservice when their idea of education is one-size-fits-all. It isn’t and it doesn’t. The good thing about homeschool is, a child gets to learn at her own pace and in her own style.

It should become clear by now that homeschooling is a radically different way of looking at learning. I often tell friends it is a whole new lifestyle requiring some drastic makeover in my expectations and value system. But what about socialization, people ask? Simple observation confirms that socialization in all its negative modes is precisely why our present schools and society are having so many problems. The right question ought to be, what kind of socialization do I want?

Homeschooling promotes positive socialization. It’s insulation (as opposed to isolation) during a child’s most impressionable years. And contrary to popular myths about homeschool, it takes place in a real world instead of the artificial one that is merely made up of children of the same age. In that unreal walled-up world called ‘school’ with its sterile classrooms, children wear the same uniform, read the same books, pick up the same bad habits and prejudices, conditioned by a system that rates their self-worth against exam marks, and discourages anything but conformity. Urgh. Then there’s that persistent interrupting bell that only Pavlov’s dog could love!

While this is going on, our homeschooling kids are reading a variety of books, getting involved with community service, interacting with people of different ages, building rafts and swimming in the river, traveling, hiking up Maxwell Hill by themselves, helping in the zoo, and participating in debates and mock trials. Sure, we families have to do it ourselves to make all this happen. But that’s where the pleasure lies! Above all as parents we have the time to provide a steadying influence, adult modeling, moderating and interpreting the challenges of life against an agenda set by other parties, institutions, and vested interests.

Finally, I wish I could conclude that homeschool is the answer to our educational and institutional ills. It is not. And it will not be for everybody. It may be that other families and children are doing well following conventional routes – national schools or private, international schools or learning centers.

But those of us who have chosen to educate our children at home believe it is the better way. It is more worthwhile embracing a radical alternative that matches the values we hold – including our love for God – which we hope to pass on to our children. We do this in the process of equipping them with skills to engage the world with more than paper credentials. It appears research is on our side, because homeschoolers are by and large academically above the national average, assimilate well into society, and are unafraid to march to the beat of a different drum.

Homeschool is a long way from becoming mainstream, at least not in Malaysia where I come from. But things are changing, and opportunities for tertiary education are already opening up. Technology and community resources are making education at home more and more viable and accessible. So should you homeschool? Can you homeschool? The question our family would ask is, why won’t you?