Why we do “structured home education”

I feel like I should start by explaining the point of this post. We have home educated for a few years now, and have tried many styles of home education over the years. In the beginning, it was very much all about deschooling and avoiding doing things that smack of school. My eldest was so turned off the idea of school by the time I deregistered her that I felt doing “school at home” was untenable. And if I must admit, I have always been attracted to home education because of what I’d learnt about the unschooling philosophy. I know unschooling would work well with me because despite being hothoused as a child by zealously competitive parents, I always found ways to keep up with my own interests.

I was obsessed with Egyptology at one point when I was 7 to 12 years old, and always found ways to get to local libraries to borrow every single book I could on that subject. I’d sneak in reading sessions between homework sessions and neverending revision sessions my mum forced onto me. I would find time to do what I wanted to, regardless of how my parents wanted me to use my time. I was then obsessed with crime novels, religion, philosophy, languages, music, and fashion throughout the course of my childhood and teenage years. But school commitments always meant I could not spend much time on my interests. I begrudged the school, my parents and the academically-competitive nature of my environment growing up in Singapore. I was always a bit of a strong-willed eccentric. I had friends, and I was sociable and talkative, but I was fiercely independent in my views and would not settle for common obsessions over boys and material items like many of my peers were. I developed a rebellious streak which on hindsight, affected me negatively. On the positive side though, that period of time taught me to be aware of different opinions and philosophies, no matter how non-mainstream they may seem. Because you never know, some day, some of these ideas, which seemed crazy at the time, actually makes sense and applies perfectly for my situation – this is in fact, why I decided to home birth 2 of my children and eventually home educate them as well. When I became a mother, I was determined not to raise my kids in ways that followed the status quo blindly. If I must do that, it has to be a conscientious, reasoned decision on my part, and this is the spirit that I hope to instill in my children.

I used to send my kids to school and although I knew they were kind of different, I hoped they would, unlike me, enjoy their time at school. But just like I was as a child, they did not like school either. They came home looking miserable, grouchy and go to school the next day with dread. If I ask them why they didn’t like school, they would tell me vagaries and fuddled answers – they could not quite put their finger on any one defining reason, but they just didn’t like school. They didn’t make many friends because people weren’t really on the same wavelength. It’s not a language problem, then what? When I observe them in the schoolyard during school start and finish times, I see their differences straight away. They were different. They are observant, sensitive children, with strong tendencies to obsess over certain hobbies. For a while, it was Mario Brothers. Now it is Minecraft and Scratch programming.  The boisterous nature of school – the constant shoutiness of it, the constant culture of one-upmanship prevalent in any school environment – it was something my kids just did not get. You could send a child to school for 10 years of their life to try and beat their natural personalities into submission to fit them in with “the crowd” but ultimately, it will fail. A person who has had to give up vital aspects of their natural personalities to fit in with school as a survival prerequisite will always endure a feeling of loss in their hearts.. I only speak for myself and my children I guess. And to some extent, my husband. But this is what happens to some people. I remain strong in my belief that some people are just too strong inside – too different. School can crush and deform them. What starts out as a beautiful thing – a unique God-given personality – is beaten, molded and shaped into something less beautiful, more jaded, because one doesn’t “fit” with traditional school. I guess maybe – just maybe – if we had the money to send our children to an expensive private school that had tiny classes, lovely supportive and attentive teachers, and could cater to my children’s different personalities and hobbies, then perhaps that would be a good compromise between school and home education. But we don’t, and so home education wins.

But which style of home education? Because of my childhood experiences, I came to the premature conclusion a few years ago that unschooling was the best form of education for all. That was before I had even pulled my kids out of school to home educate them. I did not realise at that time that my kids have not been subject to the same sort of crushing school experiences as a child that I had, and so had no reason to rebel. They also lacked a certain drive like I did as a child. When I was a child, I felt driven to pursue my outside interests from a young age because so much rigour and routine was forced upon me by school, parents and the environment I was in. I felt I would go crazy if I did not insist on being allowed to follow my interests for a small chunk of my life every day, even if it was just for an hour or two. I needed “me” time. But for my children, who have never grown up the way I did, “me” time wasn’t something they had to fight for like I had. They had “me” time aplenty each day, structured or not structured. It just did not bother them at all. They get total “me” time all day 3 days of the week (because we do structured home education 4 days a week), and during those 3 days of the week, they do get pretty bored sometimes. And so it was that over the years, trying different home education styles out of need and a desire to give my children the best form of education possible, we ended up settling on structured home education as a preferred choice.

But structured home education, or “school at home” as some might call it, has been demonised by many an unschooling home educator. Like unschooling, structured home education isn’t for everyone nor every family. As parents, our job is to ensure we give our children the best possible form of education most suited to their temperaments and interests, be it regular school, unschooling, classical education, structured home education, or any of the myriad of home educating styles out there.

I still am a member of all these Unschooling/Autonomous Ed groups that I’ve always been a member of, since before I even decided to home educate. I like reading their posts on the forums and on Facebook. It gives me perspective and helps me to keep an eye out on what I am doing with my children. It’s all too easy for me to fall into a routine and not notice that something needs changing. I don’t want to take a chance on my kids. It is a great responsibility (and privilege) to be able to home educate them. So I am always keeping an eye out on how things are going. Is it time to let go and unschool today? Or would we be better off keeping to some structure? These are questions that are always on my mind every single day. I will say that most days we end up falling on some kind of structure (unless we decided to just ditch the structure and have a day out somewhere – be it with friends or not). The bottomline is that our brains are always learning. This much is clear – and that marks me out as someone who unschools, or at least have had my life touched by the beauty of unschooling. So whether we choose to unschool or not on a particular day, my children are still learning something new.

For me, the decision to become more structured is partially pragmatic, mostly because of our situation, which many other home educators may not be undergoing. I’ll list the following reasons I can think of at the moment :

  • We have a government welfare system that does not provide enough to survive and leaves our family at great risk of homelessness if we were both unemployed – sadly this is a reality living in England now. We had our first taste of the British welfare system after my husband lost his job and we had to rely on state handouts to survive. We were told there was going to be little to no handouts for us depending on how he lost his job (apparently, people who resigned from their jobs voluntarily or are sacked can be banned from receiving state handouts for months to years) It was a most stressful time – something I hope will never be repeated, or if it does, I hope we’d be better prepared to handle it.
  • My husband could lose his job suddenly in these troubling economic times, and I may have to find work – in those circumstances, there was no way my husband would feel confident or happy home educating our children on his own, so if I had to work, we would strongly consider putting the children back in school.
  • No family support close to us. I was born here when my Dad was a PR. He has since then moved Asia to raise me, and he stayed put there, so when I came back to London to live as a young adult, I had no kith nor kin here to connect with. My husband is a naturalised British citizen (he was a permanent resident before), and his family live more than 9000 miles away on another continent. With our families at least a 15 hour journey away by plane, there is no stability with regards to place of abode. If we lose our home, we have no family home to put up at for the time being, until our situation improves. We would quite possibly end up in a homeless shelter or given emergency accomodation if that happens, and if that’s the case, there would be no way we can continue to provide our children a good home education and it would be highly likely my kids would be put back in school at that point.
  • If my kids ever have to be put back into school, I don’t want them to be behind their peers. This would have an even more adverse effect on their school life, and they already dislike regular school as it is. I don’t want to make things worse.

I also decided to become more structured because I feel, deep down, and this is the feeling I get from my kids as well, that they are happier and more fulfilled having part of their day scheduled – for someone else to introduce new knowledge to them. And they were lacking in some basic skills which hampered them from pursuing their interests. My kids are not really self-starters. If they come across something they don’t know, oftentimes they’d just leave it at that and just keep doing the same old things they do know, looking kind of bored. My kids aren’t keen readers and a lot of the stuff they can find out on the internet to answer their questions, they were completely fazed by the standard required to read, understand and digest that level of knowledge and language.

My son is brutally honest. He says it to me “I’m bored. Play with me.” a hundred times a day. But he’d have little idea what he’d like to play. My many suggestions get turned down, and then we decide on Monopoly, his favourite game so far. He couldn’t read. The Reading Eggs subscription and the accompanying apps, which he used to play almost daily, did not teach him how to read at all. He has a natural aptitude for numbers but sometimes he comes across situations where a deeper level of understanding would help him understand what he wanted to understand.

So I decided to introduce some structure to our home education, to help them along and enhance their functional skills so they will be more able to seek out any new knowledge that is most relevant to them. We started off doing Charlotte Mason-inspired home ed. We did copywork, narration, all of that every day. With my son, as he was still young and learning to hold a pencil properly and write his name, I mainly only just worked on him with phonics-based reading instruction and handwriting, but I’d also read some classic Winnie The Pooh stories to him. He loves it. He has the ability to comprehend the stories and get a lot of enjoyment out of hearing them, even though the language in those stories are simple but of a certain depth that goes far beyond the preschool readers kids of his age would be reading in school.

Then as a few weeks went by, I realised that maybe my daughters weren’t really enjoying some aspects of the Charlotte Mason-inspired style. They really didn’t like narration that much, and copywork they would do but it seemed almost as if they were understimulated and a bit bored. In my search for an Art curriculum for my kids (as I realise I don’t do a whole lot of Arty stuff with my kids, partly because they aren’t very into craft) I was looking at Homeschool Buyers Co Op deals for an Art curriculum. Actually I found 2 there that I quite liked, but one was so expensive to ship to UK, and the other was just expensive, period. So I decided to put that on hold and tried looking closer to home for Art resources. I found out about Toucan Box and subscribed. For a while, my younger kids did those boxes, and we did learn quite a few craft ideas and styles from doing those craft boxes, but eventually, our enthusiasm fizzled out as my kids were starting to look at the crafts as “same old, same old”. I digress. Anyway, when I was looking at Homeschool Buyers Co Op for Art curriculum deals before, I noticed they had a sale on Teacherfilebox – Teacherfilebox contains pdf printouts of many of the Evan Moor publications. Now I was keen on using Evan Moor publications for Geography in particular, as I heard good things about them. There is a dearth of Geography texts, workbooks or worksheets for kids below the age of 11 in England, and Evan Moor – a US brand – has published excellent activity books that teach Geography concepts in a fun way. Even English home educators use Evan Moor books for Geography – which is how I heard about Evan Moor publications. And when I further researched Evan Moor publications, I found out that they also publish a range of workbooks in all US state school subjects, and some of these were good too IMO – like the English and History stuff. So I bought a Teacherfilebox subscription from Homeschool Buyers Co Op. Very cheap price for all those workbooks and subjects you get – though it’s a purely online subscription so I’d need a robust printer and cheap ink and paper to continue using them, and I did. I could actually home educate with just that subscription alone actually. But no curriculum is perfect. I eventually realised that some of the Evan Moor stuff doesn’t go into as much detail as the English state curriculum does, and I found that workbooks produced for the English National Curriculum like the ones from CGP or Schofield & Sims did a better job in certain aspects.

So I ended up picking and mixing a load of different things. One thing I found out from all this trialling is that my kids definitely prefer workbooks and worksheets versus the old-fashioned Charlotte Mason/Well-Trained Mind style of dictation and narration to learn things. I found out too that my kids are workbook learners. It’s something I had to learn for myself with experience. When I first started out home educating, I was very much inspired by John Holt’s books, and I thought my kids would be much better learners being unschooled. They weren’t actually. Actually, they seem so much more energised and… I don’t know if that’s the right word, but they certainly look more stimulated now that they are using workbooks and texts as an aid to learning than they used to when they didn’t use these things regularly. Also my kids’ literacy and numeracy skills have improved a lot more and it shows in the pursuits they do in their free time. My 2 girls have really taken to learning computer programming. In fact, can I say they are obsessed? They spend a lot of time researching and going on online courses and experimenting with programming different things. At the moment my eldest is learning to make her own Mods for Minecraft with Java, and my younger daughter is learning Scratch programming and creating a lot of new games and videos on her own – really is quite amazing to see.

My 5 year old son is trying to read every single word he comes across and one can just see how his face has a look of recognition, like something in his head just “clicked”, when he reads a word on a crisp packet, on a box, etc. and he realises it’s something he understands. Before I started out doing structured home education with him, I never taught him to read explicitly. He wasn’t very keen either. His interest in learning to read was mild, but not intense. But after teaching him to read, he is so enthusiastic to read everything. He enjoys reading stories so much that I have had to buy Oxford Reading Tree books for him to read and he loves those books – some kids find them boring, but not my boy.

It’s really quite something. I guess at this point, I can say hand on heart that my kids really benefitted from structured home education. They are truly worksheet/textbook learners. But the way that we do it is still rather different from school. My daughter tells me that when she used to go to school, her school teachers would give lots of worksheets too, but the worksheets “were not as interesting as the ones you give us – they were just really boring.”

I do print off free worksheets from the internet too sometimes, and I believe they were created by school teachers, and yet my kids have no problems with doing them and don’t find them “boring”! So I don’t know what’s going on here… I have no idea what sort of worksheets school gave my daughter, as her ex-school seem to keep children’s work and never let them take their work home to keep.  It’s really odd but I often envision the school having to have this massive underground cellar to store all the children’s used worksheets – like my lovely dentist here, who once told me he has to keep all of the ridiculous amounts of paperwork that the government requires, in order to continue practicing – and his underground cellar is full of patients’ paperwork. When I went to school in Singapore, we all had, from the first year of Primary School onwards, stacks of textbooks, workbooks and exercise books to take to and from school every day. Our schoolbags used to be so huge that kids looked a bit like tiny tortoises with a huge shell (their schoolbags/haversacks) on their backs, hunched over from the weight of carrying all those books every day. I’m not advocating for a return to those days of course, but I think textbooks or workbooks to take home daily can be good in that they help parents keep track of what kids are being taught at school and how well they are doing. Over here many parents have to purchase revision books from the shops (or good old Amazon) for their kids to do at home so they can mark the work themselves and gauge how well their children are coping with the demands of the syllabus.

Now that we are home educating, we don’t need to carry all these books with us to and from school everyday, hunched over like tortoises, etc. We can pick and choose the books we want to use. I love that aspect of home educating. It is so flexible and can be so tailored to the child. Because sometimes, the textbooks a school chooses may suck. I know when I was in Singapore studying as a child, I hated certain school-mandated textbooks – they were really rubbish at explaining things. Right now I really feel we have the best of both worlds in structured home education.

In fact, workbooks and worksheets, question books and answer books, textbooks, etc. have worked so well for my kids that we have ended up doing something similar to “school at home” in that we ended up covering a lot of school subjects using a variety of texts and workbooks. We spend about 4 hours each day for all of them to do their home education. Then the hours for the rest of the day are completely freed up – I usually let my children do whatever they want during that time. If it’s computer time, screen time, etc. they get it. We also often go out to the shops or the library or the park, or to meets or extracurricular activities like Girl Guides, swimming, etc. We can also do extra “school” stuff like science projects and music and art, if my kids want to.

4 hours a day to cover what school covers – and a lot more – and the rest of the time to be utilsed however we wish.

I still think home education is great. I wouldn’t trade it for the alternatives, unless that’s what my kids want.

I still ask them time and again if they want to go back to school but so far, they have always said no. Their reason?

School takes too much freedom away from them. They like it the way it is now, with just a few hours a day doing “school at home”, and then being free the rest of the day to do what they want. They also like the perks that come with home education – being able to go to sleep and wake up whenever they like. Being able to do their “school at home” whenever is suitable for them – sometimes we go out for the morning/afternoon and then come home in the late afternoon to commence “school at home”.

Such flexibility can never be achieved in a school. Even in an online state school like Wey Ecademy, which I am incidentally rather keen for my eldest daughter to attend next year, should it be successful in it’s bid for government funding next year. I do have an objective to my home education. After many years, having ummed and ahhed about this issue, I have come to realise that I really would prefer my children to “graduate” from home education with a string of GCSEs (or their equivalents), just so they can have something to fall back on should they ever need to complete a Higher Education course to achieve whatever their ambitions might require. Because many Universities ask for GCSEs in addition to A Levels, and I would like for my childrens’ future options to be as numerous as possible.

It’s not that I am not confident of helping my children prepare for their GCSEs, but because of recent events, I have decided it would be better for me to upgrade my qualifications to improve career prospects, by studying in Uni again (by distance learning this time, as with 3 kids, going to a bricks-and-mortar Uni is out of the question). The only way for me to be able to juggle that with the home education of my children is to “outsource” the education of my eldest daughter to an external institution while still allowing her to remain home educated – because it is her choice to want to remain home educated. She likes it more than school. Her workload is going to get heavier and heavier as time goes on and I can only foresee having to spend ever more time on her studies if I had to tutor her myself. My younger kids are fine and I have no problem with tutoring them myself as they have far fewer formal subjects to study at their ages.

So as long as my children want to continue home education, I will always try to find the best way. So we do structured home education. But I would say, unlike school, my kids actually like this.

 

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One thought on “Why we do “structured home education”

  1. This is really interesting stuff. Thanks for going into so much detail, I’ll be taking a look at some of those curriculum links shortly. I’m also looking at wey academy for my eldest daughter, so we may end up with children in school together 🙂

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