Parents looking to homeschool their children during the lockdown can learn many lessons from long-term homeschoolers
The first time I saw a real caterpillar as a child, I was amazed because of its tiny size. I had previously only seen caterpillars in images in my coursebook; they surely looked like big creatures in the book. As I grew up I learnt that reality is sometimes different from how it is portrayed in classrooms.
Nine-year-old Muhammad Maaz Virani has a lot more knowledge about caterpillars than I did at his age. He has not only observed real caterpillars in his homeschool, but has also witnessed them transitioning into beautiful butterflies. He has learned metamorphosis, but not through pictures or books alone. His mother, Sanjeeda Dawood, has provided him with a real-life experience by nurturing a caterpillar from her lemon plant, patiently waiting, until it turned into a chrysalis and then fluttered its wings to escape as a butterfly. Dawood describes the whole thing as “a wonderful experience”.
Maaz has never been to school. Being a proponent of experiential learning, Dawood has given Maaz the freedom to learn, primarily for knowledge, not to chase good grades. Dawood and her son still follow a schedule. Their homeschooling day involves structured learning, book reading, STEM activities, Quran and tarbiyat time, sports and physical activities.
Dawood plans to homeschool her son till O-Levels. A chartered accountant-turned-homemaker, she also runs a Facebook group called Passionate Homeschoolers, where she posts resources for parents who have chosen to homeschool their children. She advises parents to limit screen time of their children so they can explore and experiment more.
Right now, thanks to the Covid-19 threat and lockdowns, many parents find themselves with their children at home without any certainty about when it will end. But unlike Dawood, most of them have not chosen to keep their children away from a traditional classroom setting. In late February, when a handful of Covid-19 cases were first reported in Pakistan, schools across the country started shutting down. Two months in, many parents are worried about their children’s education suffering during this time. Fortunately, they can learn from parents like Dawood who have been homeschooling their children for years.
Emaan Danish Khan is another nine-year-old from Karachi with big dreams. She wants to save the world from climate change. As a five-year-old in kindergarten, Emaan was already making recycling projects. The set curriculum, her mother thought, was not going to be enough for her inquisitive little girl.
Emaan was enrolled at one of the top schools of Karachi at the time, but her mother, Zunaira Danish, was not satisfied with the standard curriculum and teaching methodologies. In 2019, Danish discussed the idea of homeschooling with her daughter. She instantly agreed.
As her mother tells me this story, Emaan jumps in to say the decision to start homeschooling was taken at the airport, while the family was taking a trip to Bhurban. The little girl is not shy like most homeschoolers are perceived to be. She is fiery and outspoken.
Danish and Emaan’s homeschooling session is nothing like a contemporary classroom lesson; it is noticeably more interactive. There is no textbook involved.
But these perceptions exist, around the world, for a reason. “First, homeschooling children leads to lack of peer-to-peer socialisation,” writes Katherine Frediani, a student at the University of Dallas in her university’s student newspaper. “Social interaction is vital in a child’s development, especially during the formative years of elementary and middle school,” Frediani writes in her article ‘In defense of the classroom’. “In the classroom, children learn how to make friends and interact with children that they do not get along with easily.”
For her part, Danish makes every effort to ensure her daughter gets opportunities to socialise and has ample exposure to the world outside her home. The young girl, passionate about climate change, has attended various conferences and even spoken at awareness sessions about the subject in schools and on multiple local and international forums on climate change. During these activities, she meets a lot of new people and her friends’ circle is not restricted to children of her age. But this is only made possible by her mother’s constant efforts to seek out such opportunities.
Those sceptical of homeschooling would point out that Emaan is the exception, not the rule, when it comes to children who have been homeschooled. The young girl certainly is exceptional. And her mother’s careful attention to Emaan’s education clearly contributes to this.
Intrigued by how exactly Danish conducts her lessons, I request her to join them during their geography lesson via a video call; she agrees. Danish and Emaan’s homeschooling session is nothing like a contemporary classroom lesson; it is noticeably more interactive. There is no textbook involved. Instead Danish and Emaan are exploring the continent of North America on the atlas. As the camera zooms in, I can see Mexico and Emaan inquiring about it. What’s interesting is that no one appears to be teaching the other, instead they both are learning about the country together.
After Emaan and Danish wind up their geography session, the little girl reads me a fiction story, The Abandoned City, which she has just written in the middle of the lockdown. She then gives me a virtual tour of her cosy room. A vertical cupboard touching the ceiling is filled with her books. There is a computer, a whiteboard, her younger brother’s toys and Emaan’s brainchild, Fizza — a Pakistani doll made up of cotton. The idea for an eco-friendly toy popped into Emaan’s head during an incubation programme she attended during the ClimateLaunchpad Pakistan (CLP) boot camp, when the “green business ideas competition” came to Karachi.
Unlike most school-going children, Emaan does not have a fixed routine. Her day usually starts with exercise and reading a story, while the rest of the things are subject to change. Some days she accompanies her mother to her office, on other days she is preparing her presentations on climate change at home. In between all of this, she writes stories, explores something new with her mother every day, helps her in baking and cooking, designs dresses for her doll and plays educational games.
Clearly, Emaan does not miss going to school.
While many people cherish the sweet memories created at their schools, not everyone feels the same way. Javeria Kamil, who is now 21, shares her personal experience of being a student who needed more attention to understand concepts. She was scared of asking questions in her classroom. “Mustering up a lot of courage, I tried asking a question twice, but the class burst out laughing,” recalls Kamil. “The teacher didn’t bother answering the query, she just rolled her eyes.” Since that day, Kamil stopped asking questions during the one-and-a-half years she attended the school.
Kamil had been a homeschooler during the first few years of education, but at the age of nine she expressed interest in attending a school. But her time at school was very bad for her self esteem, she says. She lost her confidence and began doubting herself. When it started to take a toll on her mental health, she left to continue her homeschooling till college. Kamil thinks this was one of the best decisions of her life. “Had I not have left the school, I would have been a completely different person today,” she says.
Kamil regrets that most schools do not understand and address students’ individual learning needs. As a result, an outstanding student remains outstanding and an underperforming student continues to underperform. She notices a lot of differences in conventional and homeschooling. “There is stress, bullying, competition, and pressure of exams and grades,” she says. “Besides this, there is pressure to fit in or achieve a certain level of social status among students.”
Salman estimates there may be nearly 15,000 homeschoolers in Pakistan. But the number may well be larger, he says. Homeschooling has been on the rise in Pakistan since the past five years and, according to Salman, it will gain further momentum once the coronavirus pandemic is over.
Some may say that these are important lessons too. Going to school teaches children how to coexist. It could also be argued that Kamil may have had a harder time at her school because she had been homeschooled before this. Kamil feels otherwise. But her brother, Muhammad Hamadan Khan, says he felt discriminated against because he was homeschooled. During school hours he would hesitate in going out to buy groceries for home. He feared that people would judge him and wonder why he is not at school.
Today, both siblings are studying law. Kamil outshone her peers in academics and extracurricular activities during her college days. She now studies law at one of the finest law universities of Pakistan and secures a high GPA every semester. Her brother Khan also has no regrets about being homeschooled. Besides making him an independent learner, Khan says, homeschooling has made him self-reliant and has taught him essential living skills such as cooking, stitching, laundry, budgeting, negotiating and bargaining. “While I can make delicious pasta and curries,” he says, “I can also repair my phone and fix my shirt button.” The siblings proudly share that they have been financially independent since they were teenagers.
“Homeschooling in the digital age is easier than it was some 20 years ago when people had hardly heard about the concept,” says Ayesha Siddiqui, Kamil and Khan’s mother. “The internet has transformed learning possibilities and homeschoolers now have access to infinite online resources to aid their learning experience,” she tells Eos.
But even before she could enjoy the online facilities some parents today have, Siddiqui chose to homeschool her children. Despite being a highly qualified teacher at a private school at the time, Siddiqui believed that schools do not provide the individual attention students need and, hence, are unable to enhance their unique skills and work on their weaknesses.
She asks that if a teacher leads a class of 35 students with diverse needs and interests, how would she be able to give attention to every child, let alone work on their individual abilities. The World Bank’s data seems to support Siddiqui’s claim. It shows that, in 2018, the pupil-teacher ratio of primary schools in Pakistan was 44:1, which means one teacher for every 44 students.
When Siddiqui used to work, she would assign tasks to her children such as folding laundry or writing essays to keep them busy until she returned from work. “This independent learning encouraged confidence, decision-making and time management in them,” she says.
Involving children in house chores such as cooking, cleaning and washing is extremely important as it makes them responsible, and improves family engagement while giving children a hands-on learning experience, says Salman Asif Siddiqui, an educational psychologist and founder and director of Educational Resource Development Centre (ERDC), an institute of training and material development in Pakistan. Cooking involves a lot of science and math, he says. “The mathematics and science of cooking is often disregarded but, in reality, it teaches a child basic concepts such as measurement, ratios and conversions,” he explains.
A staunch critic of conventional schooling, Salman has homeschooled all his children, now aged 19, 16 and 13. For him, quality education is “insult-free education”, which cannot be provided in schools where there is stress and fear of failure. “A successful experience is based on three cornerstones of homeschooling: real-life experiences, family engagement and nature,” he tells Eos.
Having over 25 years of experience in the education sector, Salman classifies parents who reject conventional schooling into two groups. The first group is of those who reject schools because of problems with curriculum, distance, health, adjustment or fees. When they opt to homeschool, they try to replicate a school within their homes; they follow a curriculum, have fixed study hours and even take exams through organisations.
The other group is of parents who reject conventional schools because they have fundamental differences with their approach, Salman says. They put children in charge of their own learning and don’t follow a structured curriculum. Their children set their own targets and hunt for knowledge on their own, while the parents act as facilitators.
Being an advocate of natural learning, Salman reckons that early academic training produces long-term harm for children. “Before seven years of age, a child should be chasing butterflies, running after cats, playing in the sand and picking up leaves,” he believes. “By the age of 10, he is able to set his own targets based on his interests and chase them.”
Salman estimates there may be nearly 15,000 homeschoolers in Pakistan. But the number may well be larger, he says. Homeschooling has been on the rise in Pakistan since the past five years and, according to Salman, it will gain further momentum once the coronavirus pandemic is over. “Pandemic homeschooling might change parents’ approach towards our conventional education system,” he says.
One reason for this could be that homeschooling their children is not an option for every parent. At households where both parents work, or at single-parent households, even giving children undivided attention while they do their homework can be a challenge. While parents like Salman, Danish and Siddiqui continue to work and homeschool their children, not everyone is able to do the same.
Then there is the class question. Of course, homeschooling is not an option in households where the parents are not highly educated.
One reason for this could be that homeschooling their children is not an option for every parent. At households where both parents work, or at single-parent households, even giving children undivided attention while they do their homework can be a challenge.
“The concept of homeschooling as perceived in the West is also seen in Pakistan, but in very small numbers,” says Umbreen Arif, a technical adviser at the Ministry of Federal Education and Professional Training (MoFEPT). The expansion of online programmes by reputable international organisations is a factor that has encouraged some people to opt for online certification programmes for their children as well, she adds while addressing the query over email.
There are no official records or estimations of homeschooled children in the country. “It would be very difficult to even do a rough estimate,” Arif adds.
The decision to take this more hands-on approach is not an easy one. Some parents considering homeschooling fear that their children will be “left behind”, says Salman who also conducts workshops to address such parents’ concerns. Salman says it is important for both parents to be on the same page about homeschooling.
Salman advises that parents considering homeschooling their children must be able to trust their child and also earn the child’s trust. They must be able to harness their child’s unique qualities and spend quality time with them. He also suggests the parents be patient and tolerant, and avoid comparing their child to any other child. If the parents have the right reason to reject school, along with all these qualities, they are ready to homeschool their children. Homeschooling can be overwhelming for parents working full time, but they can excel in it if they divide responsibilities and share the load with each other, Salman says.
Once parents have made the decision to homeschool, comes the time to get their home ready for a homeschooler. “The need to create an environment where a child can thrive cannot be overstated,” says Salman while pointing out a few things that may help parents create an environment that’s perfect for learning.
Setting up a small library or a reading corner in homes with a variety of books — both fiction and nonfiction — gives children the ability to browse different topics on their own, he says. Children should have access to autobiographies of inspirational people. Besides a diverse collection of books, there should ideally be a study area with a computer (if the parents can afford one) and a whiteboard where a child can sit and study.
If possible, a space inside the house should be designated as an experimentation centre, Salman adds. This area can have things like magnets, a globe, a microscope, a camera, a mobile phone or any machine that is not needed in the house anymore. To nurture a child’s creativity, there should also be an art corner with canvases, brushes, paints and colours, and a small nursery of plants where the child can spend time and observe.
“The future belongs to entrepreneurs,” Salman believes, but schools respond to the labour market needs and train students to become professionals who can successfully enter the labour market. Homeschoolers are self-learners, innovators, and risk-takers, he says. They are not followers; they forge their own paths, he tells Eos.
Hafsa Naeem, a mother who homeschools two daughters, agrees. “You have to be rebellious to homeschool your child,” she says. “People ask me if your child has never been bullied how she would be able to cope with it, and I wonder why should a parent put their child in a situation of abuse in order to make him learn to stop abuse.”
Naeem believes homeschooling is a learning experience not only for the child, but for a parent too. Like any part of parenting, it comes with its own set of challenges. It has uncertainties, disturbances and times where kids do not want to study. But the parents and children come up with solutions together.
Some homeschooling families in Karachi are closely connected with each other. They organise field trips, sports days, melas and science fairs where each family makes a project. Some even meet at book clubs every week where they read a story and engage children in different arts and craft activities.
“These story sessions are organised to encourage reading habits among children and to foster the love for books in them,” says Atefa Jamal, an organiser and host of the Bookworms Book Club, and a mother of nine homeschoolers. The two-hour-long interactive story sessions are informal and provide homeschooling families an opportunity to socialise, she adds.
There is no single definite way of homeschooling, so the right approach depends on the parents’ goals. While some parents opt for natural learning, others seek help from tutors and local co-ops during their homeschooling journey. Co-ops provide homeschoolers an opportunity to learn in a group atmosphere and socialise simultaneously, says Dr Mehreen Raza Khan, who manages Dynamic Developers Club, a co-op for girls aged between seven and nine years. A co-op is made up of like-minded mothers who bring in their expertise of educating their children and are actively involved in planning, organising and teaching the courses. They are neither formal like classrooms nor focused on academics alone.
A mother of four homeschoolers, Dr Khan plans to introduce skills such as embroidery, painting and applying mehndi, which may interest the girls. There are at least five homeschool co-ops in different localities of Karachi including Defence Housing Authority, Gulshan, North Nazimabad and F.B. Area, she says.
Critics argue that homeschooling deprives children of their right to meaningful education, increases risk for unreported cases of physical abuse, isolates the children from the outside world and makes them socially and academically impaired. These are serious concerns that cannot be ignored.
Not being associated with a registered institution can have other problems too. Recently, Cambridge Assessment International Education, the examining body that conducts the O-Levels and A-levels exams, announced that for the upcoming May/June 2020 examinations sessions, students will be assessed by combining evidence of past performance of students provided by their schools. The decision has raised many questions and especially left ‘private’ candidates, not associated with a school, uncertain about their options.
At this time there are also no government programmes that can fully measure the accountability of homeschool programmes, says MoFEPT’s Arif. Furthermore, there is no official or legal document allowing or barring homeschooling in Pakistan. However, the ministry is planning to structure a teleschool initiative to address out-of-school children’s education, as well as offer an accelerated learning programme for children (ages 5-16) who are unable to access formal schools. The programmes to offer distance learning opportunities (home-based or institutionalised) are under preparation and will be structured to offer maximum benefit to children who are out of school.
Dr Khan says homeschooling and homeschoolers are often ignored by policymakers. She points out that schooling is a big business in Pakistan. “[Homeschooling] can never be officially legalised in Pakistan because the school mafia will never let it happen,” she believes.
But with social distancing becoming the new normal, perhaps more attention will be paid to homeschooling by policymakers after all.
As schools across the country close their doors due to the coronavirus pandemic, many parents struggle with the challenge of unexpected, unchosen homeschooling. But Misha Tahzeen is growing quite fond of homeschooling her five-year-old son. She is considering not sending her son back even when schools reopen. “My plans are to make him a hafiz, during which he will be exclusively homeschooled for at least two to three years or maybe more,” she says. Many Pakistani children temporarily stay out of school as they focus on learning and memorising the Quran.
Different forms of homeschooling have existed and flourished in Pakistan for years. If there is one thing parents looking to homeschool their children during the pandemic, even temporarily, can learn from parents of long-term homeschoolers, it is that each child is different and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. “People believe that a parent needs to act like a teacher and should be highly qualified to homeschool their child...This is all untrue” says Salman. The key is recognising the child’s individual needs and catering to those. And while homeschooling their children may not be an option for every parent, during these uncertain times it may be an option worth exploring.
The writer is a member of staff.
She tweets @Tanzeel09
Published in Dawn, EOS, May 3rd, 2020