Naureen Aqueel

Home is where the school is

Posted on: October 9, 2011

An edited version of this article was published in The Express Tribune Sunday Magazine, October 9, 2011.

While harried moms in her neighbourhood rush to pack off their kids to school every morning, Sadaf Farooqi’s day starts on a relaxed tone. Her six year old daughter A’isha Irfan rises early, makes her own breakfast and starts her day unleashing her creativity using pencils, colours, water colours, scissors and paper. Her four year old brother Abdullah Irfan joins her after a while.

A’isha later switches to reading one of the books from her curriculum set, going to her mother for questions whenever she feels the need. Her younger brother pores over her work, scribbles with pencils and colours randomly on sheets of paper, experiments with lego and paper and returns to his mother with numerous questions throughout the day.

A’isha and Abdullah do not go to school. For them, home is their school – a place where they are free to learn at will in a natural setting. Sadaf, a freelance writer and blogger who has been homeschooling her kids for over a year now, prefers a lack of structure without fixed learning slots for different subjects while educating her children. She does follow the official Oxford University Press curriculum with books for Maths, English, Urdu, Social Studies, General Science and Islamiat along with daily Quran lessons, but prefers to let her children choose when they want to study what. She feels this lack of force helps hone the children’s natural inclination to learn.

The Irfans are part of a community of like-minded parents who are opting out of the mainstream choice of formally schooling their kids. Instead, these highly educated parents who have been through the conventional schooling system themselves are choosing to educate their children at home where they say, the curriculum is flexible and the efforts rewarding.

In a society where the educational rat race is so intense that parents begin registering their kids in the best primary schools even before birth, this group of parents has made the radical choice of going against the norm, deflecting doubts and criticism to do what they find is best for their children.

Sadaf says she always disliked the whole school routine which involves “ironing the uniforms, laying out the clothes, shoes and socks at night; packing the bag according to the timetable; forcing the child to finish off her homework; making and packing the lunch in the mornings, forcing a few mouthfuls down a reluctant mouth, then sending off a sometimes mildly sick, or screaming toddler with a tear-ridden face, to school with a heavy heart and a shackled mind that never ‘dared’ to question the necessity of this so-called ‘must-have’ system of education”. She didn’t seriously consider homeschooling until she met a few mothers who were educating their children at home in Karachi.

Homeschooling is not a new concept. Traditionally, before the advent of compulsory schooling systems, children were educated at home or within the community. In modern parlance, however, homeschooling has come to refer to the method of alternative education that is practiced across the world outside mainstream schools. The approach has been around in the UK and USA for several decades taking the shape of a complete movement that propelled reforms in the laws that once held the practice of not sending children to school to be illegal. Prestigious universities in the West like Harvard, Yale, Cornell, Stanford and MIT are now granting admissions and scholarships to homeschooled candidates.

The philosophy behind the concept is rooted in the works of educationist and social scientist John Holt who coined the term “unschooling” or “deschooling” and pioneered the early homeschooling movement with his works ‘How children learn’ and ‘How children fail’. His books advocating the approach of removing children from school and educating them at home through a method of natural learning based on learning-on-demand, provoked a national controversy in the 1960s and 1970s.

The concept, though relatively new in Pakistan, is gaining popularity among families who are dissatisfied with the traditional schooling system and prefer being more involved in their children’s education. Parents like the Irfans got together and formed the Pakistan Home Education group which consists of an online community with approximately 150 members comprising homeschooling parents and those interested in home education. They also launched a quarterly magazine focusing on their activities and various issues related to home education. The group, comprising roughly 20 homeschooling families, also holds regular social events where moms and children get together for combined social activities and support. Mums and Tots is held every second Monday of the month at someone’s home where kids play with each other and moms discuss problems and solutions, and Bookworm’s Book Club is held weekly and consists of interesting story-telling followed by craft activities and snacks, explains Laila Brence, pioneer of the Pakistan Home Education group and a Latvian revert to Islam residing in Karachi.

Homeschooling families can be categorised into several different types based on the factors that drove them towards home education. Many parents are dissatisfied with the standard of education in local schools, the exorbitant fees and the social environment that schools have to offer (objections like bullying, misbehavior and peer pressure are prime among them). Some have religious objections to the moral framework of what is taught and what generally defines school life, others have ideological objections to the teaching methodologies used and the psychological effects they have on children. Mostly all who opt for homeschooling believe they can provide a better education to their kids by educating them at home.

“I feel that I am more in control of what is going on in the lives of my kids than I would be by sending them to school,” says Laila, a former teacher herself who is currently in her seventh year of homeschooling two kids with a third baby in line. “Even from the time I myself went to school till nowadays, the schooling experience of children has greatly changed. Today kids don’t have time to be kids any more. Society puts so much pressure on them for becoming high-achievers that their own life gets lost somewhere in this rat race of school-homework-sleep routine. And not only their own life – the life of the entire family gets set according to the schooling needs of children: fathers have the headache of high-fees, mothers have the perpetual rush of sending kids off in the morning, getting them to do the homework in the evenings and packing them off to bed early. I am glad my kids are getting plenty of time for themselves to do the things they want to do and enjoy doing. Even boredom is a great opportunity for creativity and spontaneity – they always invent new games to play and come up with endless art projects of their own.”

Homeschooling does not come without its fair share of critics. From the incredulous stares that these parents get every time they say their children are being educated at home to the reasonable arguments in favour of formal schooling, homeschooling families seem to be up against a storm.

Critics fault the system for isolating children, reducing confidence levels and limiting their interaction to only like-minded people and groups.

“Homeschooling does not set them apart from the real world – schools do,” rebuts Laila. “In schools, kids are grouped into unnatural age-wise segregated situations, which never occur in the real world. They are made to sit, listen and follow directions for extended periods of time, which never occurs like that in real world. Rarely are they allowed to express their own opinions. And they get the chance to interact with peers only for short minutes between the lessons. I think schools handicap children, especially young children, much more in social life than homeschooling. Homeschooled kids live in the reality of this world – they deal with their family members, household issues, relatives and friends of different ages. And, of course, as kids grow older, we will look for opportunities for them to do more things outside of home – sports activities, workshops, etc. I see it as an advantage for my kids that I can choose the people they interact with. In the formative years, it is of utmost importance to have good role models around, which would help to strengthen their forming values. When they will get older, I don’t mind that they face difficult situations and people on their own – I hope by that time their own internal values will be developed enough to withstand peer-pressure, bullying and other negatives of our society.”

Atefa Jamal, the mother of seven kids of the Pirani family – the oldest 13 years old and the youngest one and a half – says her kids also get a fair share of interactions with the outside world. The four boys are attending Taekwondo classes thrice a week. The elder two also participate in scrabble competitions. During the summers, the kids get to choose from a wide variety of summer camp activities. This summer, they chose to take Arabic classes and swimming classes. “I also send my older kids out to buy groceries,” says Atefa. “They meet a lot of different people and learn to deal with different relations like the baker, the butcher, the driver or the man down the street who comes for groceries at the same time. It’s a misconception that you are isolating them, that you will choose their friends. That doesn’t happen, you can’t control your kids’ lives. My kids go out to bike and play in the park, they are attending swimming, Quran and Taekwondo classes. I think they actually end up meeting more real people in everyday roles and interact more realistically.”

The Pakistan Home Education group has also made attempts to have combined social and educational activities and trips like picnics and a field trip to the organic store Necos, in addition to the book club.

But what about the absence of a formal curriculum? Do institutes not know what they are doing when they invest great amounts of money and time in designing a curriculum? And are parents skilled in all subjects that are required to be taught?

There are various methods that are adopted by families while homeschooling. While some may prefer following a strict curriculum like conventional schools, others may prefer the method of unschooling or natural learning that lets children decide what they want to learn. For parents who choose to follow a curriculum like school or feel they are inexperienced to teach a particular subject, tuitions are always an option, says Atefa.

“There is a misconception that homeschooling means you have to do it all by yourself and that you have to do it at home,” says Atefa. “There so many books available, tuitions are also an option. It’s not that everything has to be done by the parents all the time but it just means that parents are more actively involved. If you feel you can’t do something you can always try to learn yourself and search on the internet or you can get tuitions for your child for a particular subject. It’s just that parents give the cues, they guide the process. The beauty of homeschooling is that children can do what they like. That way it’s genuine. We try not to push the kids to do the things they choose to do.”

Every few days, Atefa sits down and tries to make a plan of what she and her husband want to achieve with the children. They try to keep a time framework without imposing anything on them. Atefa is quick to say that the learning is flexible and there isn’t any fixed schedule. “The learning is more need and situation-based,” she says. “For example, when we got a kitten, we researched how to take care of it. When the kitten died which was a traumatic experience for the kids, we discussed death and souls and the Hereafter.”

At an older age, some parents prefer making the routine more structured with fixed slots for studying different subjects as done in school. Zahra Omer, who is currently in the second year of her textile design degree at Indus Valley, has passed successfully through a homeschooling experience and is in no way behind her peers. Zahra, along her with her two brothers, was homeschooled till grade 6 after which she enrolled in a mainstream school. During her homeschooling years, Zahra developed a reading habit that kept her well ahead of her peers. She ended up with seven As and three Bs in her O levels and straight As in her A levels. Asked if she had any problem adjusting with conventional schooling when she joined in grade seven, Zahra says “I didn’t have a problem adjusting. Everyone was very nice and cooperative. In fact, when I went to school it was a step back from the level I was at. Even when I gave the entrance test I faced no problem. I never felt my base was weak in any subject except for Urdu which we weren’t taught at home regularly. But I was given extra attention at school for Urdu and I caught up by the next grade. The only difference I encountered at school was the competition among students. At home, there was no competition.”

Homeschoolers say home education believes in nurturing the natural genius and prefers passion over requirement. Children aren’t forced to study subjects they have no interest in, nor are they made to feel dumb if they can’t achieve certain targets.

Maintaining discipline may be a challenge at times, but parents like Sadaf view the naughty “pranks” as disguised learning through “experimentation” with different materials. “I do not have a TV at home and I do not live in a joint family, so I have no problem in “controlling” the amount of television viewing or distractions my kids get into. Our home is crawling with children’s books, paper, materials, and toys and having neither a TV in it nor any other relatives with traditional schooling ideas to scold them (or demonize them by telling them for example that they don’t study enough, or write enough, or read enough), means that my children get to unleash their creativity with great abandon.”

Anila Omer, the mother of Zahra Omer, however, says she never had a problem maintaining discipline at home despite having a television. “I would choose which movies or cartoons to show to my children and we would watch those,” she says. “Since they were homeschooled from the beginning, there was no outside influence that would make them disobedient or naughty. They learned what I taught them.”

However, the idea of homeschooling is still unfathomable to a majority of parents. Kamila, mother of four year old Orhan and a teacher of Art and Music herself, expressed surprise when told that families were opting to home educate their children in Pakistan. “I wouldn’t choose to homeschool my child, not in this country,” she says. “Schools offer children a routine and exposure that they don’t get at home. You can’t keep your kids in a bubble. I want my kid to get the kind of exposure that school gives because life isn’t easy. When you are at school, you get different perspectives through different teachers. When you are studying from only one person your mind is stuck in a rut. I don’t want that for my child.”

Many parents that send their children to conventional schools also say they like the fact that the child goes out and that it gives them a break. Homeschooling parents say having the children at home means you have more helpers in the household chores.

Although mothers are more involved in homeschooling their kids (with many moms having given up full time careers to homeschool their children), support from fathers is considered a necessity. Atefa’s husband Azeem Pirani says his focus is to give time to his children whom he calls his “team”. The time is utilised in discussions about current affairs at meal times, regular visits to the swimming pool with them, involvement in matters relating to vacations, events etc, guidance and coaching in academic matters requiring further support and being part of the audience or judges for any presentations they may be working on.

Azeem feels the fact that homeschooling is less expensive too allows the family to spend on more beneficial things like family vacations, getting books or materials from abroad and getting memberships for clubs allowing better access to sports facilities etc. “The educational value of visiting new places is many times greater than sitting in a classroom and listening to a teacher who is there just because she needs a job and not due to any desire to impart knowledge to our children,” he says.

Azeem feels the decision to homeschool his seven children has been a very positive move. “We have been able to interact more as a family.  The children are able to have their lives revolve around their family rather than around their schools.  This in and of itself means a strong and close knit unit.”

However, homeschooling is not for every family, warns Laila. “Schools are very much necessary for families that for various reasons cannot homeschool. I always advise new families not to take this step, unless they are sure they are ready for it. Excitement over the advantages of homeschooling may push families to go for it when they are not ready – this way, they may end up in disappointment. Reading about home education and evaluating the situation of your family is necessary before taking this step. It is also important that both spouses agree on this mission – if only one is for it, the tasks may prove to be very difficult. The support of the extended family is great to have. But even if it’s not there initially, once the family starts homeschooling and the extended family sees it working well and producing good results, they may change their views.”

Homeschooling families in Pakistan say their kids will be able to get the required certifications of O and A levels or matriculation by appearing for the exams as private candidates after which they will choose college for formal degrees.

If all parents homeschooling their kids in the country possess the same spirit and vision, we might just be witnessing the underpinnings of a new movement in education in Pakistan.



1 Response to "Home is where the school is"

i would like more info on the home schooling group as i am planning to home school my two daughters

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