In 2004 I was asked these 10 questions about homeschooling for Kairos Research Centre’s magazine, Understanding the Modern World Through Christian Eyes. My response provides an overview of homeschool as it is practised in Malaysia, and offers some reasons why families such as ours choose this route over conventional schooling:
1. Can you explain the concept of homeschooling?
Homeschooling is education that takes place at home. It is not a replication of school in a home environment, but a wholistic lifestyle that strips the trappings of institutional schooling to focus on fundamentals. A homeschooler considers these fundamentals to be character formation, academic excellence, and love for learning.
By homeschooling, parents reduce the number of extenuating factors – and therefore the number of variables – that stand in the way of their objectives (Like juggling, having fewer balls in the air means better control). Additionally, homeschooling provides a child genuine flexibility to learn at his own pace, allowing him to go as fast or as far as he is able without the artificial constraints of class, age or time-table. Flexi-hours also means time for extra-curricular pursuits like music lessons, outdoor games, hobbies, projects, field trips, Bahasa Malaysia tuition, the occasional Homeschool Support Group meet, or whatever the children (or parents) fancy!
Parents take responsibility for the child’s education. Although both parents play complementary roles, Mom is usually the primary teacher or facilitator. Dad is known to take responsibility for a subject if Mom feels inadequate, but by and large, he provides the impetus, discipline, and stability that make homeschool possible. Usually Mom spends time teaching if there is a new concept (in Math, for instance) to learn. Once that sinks in, the child is pretty much on his own.
One of the good things about homeschool is that it promotes independent and self-directed learning. In the beginning when our two boys were younger (now 12 and 14), my wife Sook Ching spent more time one-on-one. But now that they’re older, the children manage more and more on their own, while Sook Ching supervises and reviews the day’s assignments. Beyond academics, homeschool strengthens families, and ‘forces’ parents to learn and grow together with their children.
An ‘ordinary’ homeschool day varies from family to family, so it’s probably correct to say there is no common approach to educating one’s children at home. Depending on the number of children at home and their ages, parents design a timetable that may encompass formal and informal learning. In our home, our two boys start the day with breakfast, do their Bible reading, followed by some household chores (although Saturdays are reserved for major cleaning-up). They then head to the study where each follows a schedule that takes up a minimum of three hours, although it usually stretches if they are too engrossed to stop. It has been said that you first learn to read, and then you read to learn. Reading is an important component of homeschool, so the boys read broadly and relentlessly across the genres.
2. How many students are being homeschooled in Malaysia? At what rate is homeschooling growing in this country?
In the US, some 2 million are homeschooling and the number is growing every year. In Malaysia no real figures exist, so I don’t think anyone can tell for sure how many children are homeschooled and at what rate it is growing. Academician Prof Dr Ibrahim Ahmad Barjunid from the Dept of Humanities, UNITAR once reported that there are about 5,000 homeschoolers in Malaysia.
If this is true, it probably takes into account children undergoing religious education in informal groups outside the mainstream, children in special education, as well as those who are following correspondence/distance learning programmes. But I suspect the number is much smaller: the two homeschooling networks in the country (Christian and multi-faith) have a combined figure of less than 400 members on their lists. Many others who are studying in Learning Centers call themselves homeschoolers, and their numbers are in the hundreds.
3. Are there legal restrictions to homeschooling in Malaysia?
Primary school education became compulsory in 2003 with an amendment to the Education Act, which was passed in late 2002. This provides that all children who reached seven years of age beginning 2003 should be enrolled in a primary school and remain a pupil in a primary school for 6 years. Older children are not affected. However, the Minister of Education is empowered to grant exemptions and some parents have applied for and obtained approval to homeschool. We have heard of some rejections and of some who have had to submit appeals.
While the law appears to be quite vague and guidelines are only now being defined, exemption is granted to parents we know subject to three conditions: (i) They must use the national curriculum – all other materials are supplementary (ii) They must allow for home visits by Ministry officials (iii) Exemption is for 6 years.
Secondary education is not mandatory to date. Homeschoolers are convinced that what they are doing is in keeping with the spirit of the law because they are in fact educating their children and providing the most conducive environment for their children to reach their highest potential.
4. What curriculum options are available? Which curriculum do you follow?
Homeschool is not so new an alternative and parents are literally spoilt for choice where curricula are concerned. Most of these come from the US, and are well-written and extremely parent-friendly. Christian homeschoolers have the most options, but as homeschool becomes more and more acceptable, choices have increased across the board. Because homeschool is still in its infancy in Malaysia, practically all homeschoolers purchase their curriculum abroad through mail-order or the internet.
Generally speaking, homeschoolers use curriculum according to a learning methodology that matches their personal convictions. For example, if you prefer the Textbook Approach, you could opt for Alpha and Omega, Abeka, CLASS (Christian Liberty Academy Satellite School), School of Tomorrow, or Bob Jones. This approach is by far the most popular. If you prefer a Unit Study Approach (which integrates a few subjects in thematic modules), there’s Bill Gothard’s Advanced Training Institute publications, which are often described as “Christ-centred curriculum.”
Less popular here (but growing in the West) is the Classical Approach, (as promoted by author Dorothy Sayers) that includes the study of Latin, Hebrew, Greek classics, rhetoric, and the like. Veritas Press is one such Christian classical approach distributor that is endorsed and supported by R.C Sproul and Doug Wilson.
Our family uses Sonlight, a literature-based curriculum initially designed for missionaries that is sometimes called the Living Books Approach (after English educator Charlotte Mason). The curriculum packages a wide range of real age-appropriate literature (fiction, non-fiction, biographies, historical, etc) to match essential school subjects such as language, history, geography and Bible. We find Sonlight appealing because we all love reading, and the breadth of material is really excellent.
5. Do homeschooled children sit for local, public exams? How do they make the transition to university?
If you are homeschooling, your curriculum and medium of instruction (English) would make local exams next to impossible to sit. There is a very small number however who have registered as private students and are preparing for public exams, but that’s not an option for most homeschoolers. Seeing how times have changed, many families are of the opinion that local institutions of higher learning are no longer the sole repositories of knowledge, and are confident opportunities abound elsewhere.
A borderless world allows homeschoolers to bypass the local system and settle for alternative tertiary education and professional courses without losing out. Homeschoolers may choose to sit for the GSCE ‘O’ Levels or SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) – by far the favoured route – and upon qualification apply to private colleges in the country. If the child so desires and if his parents are able, high scores will open doors to scholarships and university admissions abroad, as have happened to some of our local homeschoolers.
6. Critics of homeschooling often claim that local element is missing from the curriculum. What would you say to that?
A major criticism of the present school curriculum is that it is too narrow and restricted to the local. I have not met any parent who have not had reservations or expressed dismay that their children are learning too much about peripherals, and too little about the rest of the world in their classrooms. For example, there is an increasing proportion of Islamic history to the exclusion of the history of other major world civilizations in the new Form Four history curriculum, with 50% (5 out of 10 chapters) reputedly devoted to its history, growth, and practice.
In contrast, a homeschool curriculum, even if it originates from the US or Australia, tends to be broader in world history and geography. Adding on the local elements would be no problem as we live and work in Malaysia. Besides, homeschooling provides enough flexibility for parents to do any amount of supplementary work, topical studies or museum trips without worrying about restrictions in time and schedule. Resourceful parents know their children can learn about Malaysia not just from reading textbooks, but from traveling, reading the newspapers, reading historical novels, watching the news on TV, interviewing Grandpa and Grandma, interacting with neighbours, and of course, from their own Dad and Mom.
7. The other major concern is that the children who are homeschooled lack opportunities to interact and socialize with their peers. Is this a real concern?
I suspect the question behind the socialization question is really, “How are homeschoolers going to learn to get along with others if they do not spend time in large age-segregated peer groups most of the day?” Simple observation tells us all that interacting 6 to 8 hours a day, 5 days a week hasn’t taught our children significant social skills.
Although some families report little or no problems, many, many, more people in our churches and our neighbourhoods are lamenting negative peer influence, moral degradation, and the loss of their children’s affection towards their parents as a result of such excessive peer socialization.
Homeschoolers on the other hand have more opportunities to interact with young and old in a variety of real-life situations everyday, as opposed to uniformed same-age peers sharing a classroom. But they’re regulated: Homeschool insulates, and not isolate. Those of us who educate our children at home believe social skills are birthed in an environment where respect, love, discipline, and healthy self-esteem are nurtured. This seems to have been borne out by numerous studies in the west that reveal that homeschooled children have done remarkably well socially, psychologically and emotionally. While there is no guarantee, when parents who love the Lord model these values conscientiously, supervise socialization in their children’s growing years, there is every reason to believe that, “he who walks with the wise grows wise.” (Prov 13:20)
8. Why did you choose to homeschool your children?
I chose homeschool because I wanted to give my children their childhood. I wanted them to have hobbies, space to grow, time to reflect. I question if we are not already conforming to the world when our families place a premium on trophies, exams, keeping up with the Joneses, and stressing ourselves out with the fears and anxieties of unquestioned existence. My wife and I both wanted a lifestyle that builds values that matter in my children while they are still with us. We are also convinced that the Biblical mandate to bring up godly children is best met in a homeschooling environment. It is so much easier to do bad than learn good, and therefore it is never too early to start. This is not to say that conventionally schooled children cannot learn good values; but there are far too many variables, and lost opportunities are too high a price to pay for the little time we are given.
9. Would you recommend homeschooling? Is it for everyone?
Yes, I would recommend every parent to consider homeschool as an option. I would want them to ask why they shouldn’t educate their children at home, in the same way we all should be asking how God wants us to be better fathers or mothers. Is it for everyone? Unless you are medically unfit, or have an unsupportive spouse. Certainly some situations make homeschooling more demanding, but more people have succeeded with less than we would like to admit.
At the end of the day, whatever we choose – homeschool or conventional school – each family will have to answer what cost they are prepared to pay to put God’s kingdom and His righteousness first. It’s not so much the method, but the goal.
10. What are some of the challenges?
One challenge a homeschooler faces is sustained conviction. We have all been thoroughly and conventionally schooled ourselves, and it is easy to confuse schooling with education, achievement with fulfillment. In the early years, one tends to fret but you get over it quickly when the fruits start showing.
Another challenge is, we live in a society that does not take kindly to people with a different point of view. Assumptions about what constitute the ‘normal’ way of life is deeply ingrained and some homeschoolers have spoken of strong opposition from their family, neighbours, friends and even church leaders. Helping them see that there’s so much to gain than to lose when families homeschool is an ongoing task. The challenge is to assuage the suspicion of our friends and the authorities in power that homeschool is a tried and tested way to build strong families. And strong families build strong churches, and a strong nation.