The Express Tribune / Sunday Magazine Feature
By Naureen Aqueel
Published: October 9, 2011
In a society where the educational rat race is so intense that parents begin registering their kids in the best primary schools before they’re even born, some trailblazing parents have taken the road less travelled.
While harried moms in her neighbourhood rush to pack off their kids to school every morning, Sadaf Farooqi’s day starts on a relaxed note. Her six-year-old daughter A’isha Irfan rises early, makes her own breakfast and starts the day by unleashing her creativity using pencils, colours, water colours, scissors and paper. 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 four-year-old brother Abdullah Irfan soon joins her; he scribbles with colour pencils, experiments with Lego and peppers his mother with numerous questions throughout the day.
A’isha and Abdullah do not go to school, for them their home is their school — a place where they are free to learn in a natural setting. But that’s not because they have special needs or couldn’t get into a ‘normal’ school. Sadaf, a freelance writer and blogger, has been homeschooling her kids for over a year now and says she prefers this unconventional approach to schooling.
She follows 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 what they want to study. She says this approach hones the children’s natural inclination to learn.
Sadaf’s not the only one who has decided to opt out of the system. The Irfans are part of a community of like-minded parents who are choosing to homeschool their children. 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 of roughly 20 homeschooling families, also holds regular social events where moms and children get together for combined social activities and support. Such meetings are 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 story-telling followed by craft activities and snacks.
Laila Brence, a Latvian convert to Islam and a former teacher herself, was the pioneer of the Pakistan Home Education group. “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, who is currently in her seventh year of homeschooling two kids with a third baby in line. “The schooling experience has greatly changed since I myself went to school. These days, kids don’t have the time to be kids any more. Society puts so much pressure on them to become high-achievers that their own life gets lost somewhere in the rat race.” Laila says that she is glad her kids are getting plenty of time 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.”
For Sadaf, one of the big motivations of opting for homeschooling was the whole school routine, which involves, “ironing the uniforms and laying them out along with shoes and socks at night; packing the bag according to the timetable; forcing the child to finish 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”.
Despite these misgivings (which other parents might share as well), she didn’t seriously consider homeschooling until she met a few mothers who were educating their children at home in Karachi.
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 do get a lot of flak. 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. Homeschooled kids experience 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.” Laila finds that homeschooling gives her children an advantage as she 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 core values. When they 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,” she explains.
Atefa Jamal, a homeschooling mother of seven, says her kids get a fair share of interaction with the outside world. The four boys are attending Taekwondo classes thrice a week, the elder two also participate in scrabble competitions and 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 bakers, butchers, the driver or the man down the street who comes for groceries at the same time they do. It’s a misconception that you are isolating them, that you will choose their friends. That doesn’t happen; you can’t control your children’s 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.”
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 is a misconception that homeschooling means you have to do it all by yourself and that you have to do it all at home,” says Atefa. “There are so many books available and it’s not like tuitions are not an option. Homeschooling merely means that the parents are more actively involved in their children’s education. If you feel you can’t do something you can always try to learn it yourself and search on the internet or you can get tuitions for your child for a particular subject.”
Every few days, Atefa sits down and draws up a plan of what she and her husband want to achieve with the children. Atefa is quick to say that the learning is flexible and that 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, souls and the hereafter.”
As the children grow older, some parents prefer making the routine more structured with fixed slots for studying different subjects as in school. Many homeschooled children appear as private candidates to get the required certifications of O and A levels or matriculation after which they choose a college for formal degrees. 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 Class 6 after which she was 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 Class 7, 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 nurtures the natural genius and focuses on passion over requirement as 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 other distractions. Our home is crawling with children’s books, materials and toys, so my children get to unleash their creativity without restraint.”
Anila Omer, Zahra Omer’s mother, 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.”
However, the idea of homeschooling is still unfathomable to a majority of parents. Kamila, mother of four-year-old Orhan and a teacher herself, expressed surprise when told that families were opting to educate their children at home 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.”
Although mothers are more involved in the homeschooling process (with many moms having given up full-time jobs 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”. His 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 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 one. “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 everyone, 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 disappointed. Researching 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.”
If all parents homeschooling their kids in the country possess the same spirit and vision as these families, we might just be witnessing the beginnings of a new movement in education in Pakistan.