Retired teacher…

As of a few weeks ago, Maryam and Danyal are done with their Physics iGCSE. During the last 2 weeks I took them to cafe after cafe, moving on once getting bored –  I’d do my work and they’d do physics past papers. I wanted to make sure the last few weeks would be as intense as possible, for reasons highlighted in an earlier post.

Towards exam time they were both averaging around 85-90% in their exams – the A* mark is 77-83%, so hopefully they’ll get the grade, but of course anything can happen.

The way the kids learned Physics iGCSE was, from day 1, by doing past paper questions. That was it. For each question when they got stuck, which at the beginning was pretty much all the time, I explained all they needed to know to do the question. They then moved on to the next question, and by doing questions after question they eventually understood all the concepts. In fact that’s essentially how I was taught at university. The benefit of this is that all learning is done with a purpose – which is to answer the question at hand – and that makes one focused and it also sticks in one’s mind. It’s also a bit more like life – you have problems – and you just need to solve them – you don’t need to understand everything around the entire subject.

For their A-levels instead of teaching them I’ve decided to let them start learning things on their own, a skill which is perhaps more important than the knowledge gained from any iGCSE or A-level. I think they’re ready for it. I’ll set them past paper questions every week, they will do the research from a text book and the internet, they will then mark their own work as the exam board provides answers, and when they don’t understand I’ll explain it to them in the evenings and weekends – I doubt it will take more than 10 minutes a day.

I have also adopted the same system for my youngest daughter, Sabeen. She’s just doing foundation level Maths iGCSE past papers, hopefully moving onto higher level in a few weeks. I just set her work which she needs to finish. Whenever she gets stuck she’ll ask either Maryam, Danyal, or her mother, Isabelle.

This is pretty much how it works at my company, LaunchPad. Deliverables or targets are set and I do not care when people come into work or when they leave – I care about those deliverables or targets.

Anyway, so with me no longer teaching, I’m a retired teacher! How am I taking advantage of my free time?

I am focusing my time on business – it’s beginning to take off and I don’t want any distractions – I want my energy and mind to be intensely focused.

The Grand Plan…

A lot of people ask me about university – if my kids get their A-levels done early do they go straight to university (where they would be social misfits as they’d be too young) or wait 5 years (in which case what do they do for those 5 years?).

People make the assumption they’re going to university when they probably won’t.

The thing is, my kids are already passionate about business, which isn’t surprising given they are influenced by me, and they will also have many advantages in business. The following list of people have all had incredible success in their respective fields because they leveraged off their parents’ careers or passions – Andre Agassi, George Bush Jnr, Tiger Woods, Benazir Bhutto, Michael Douglas, Indara Ghadhi, Serena and Venus Williams, Jahangir Khan, J.F. Kennedy, Jaden Smith, Alec Stewart – the list goes on and on. It would be wise for my kids to emulate.

My kids have been watching me run my businesses since they were born, I can help them both financially and in terms of mentoring, and my company LaunchPad works with smart young people with no business experience to launch new tech businesses – so they would be a natural fit there. And the elder two, Maryam and Danyal, are already fascinated by business, how it allows them to just think of an idea and make their own journey. They really want to go for it. In fact one of the reasons they study hard is because I’ve told them only once they get 5 A*s in their iGCSE’s and 4A*s in their A-levels they can then do what they want – i.e. business (or spend the rest of their lives smoking ganja, if that’s their thing).

Further, they are dead set on not getting jobs. They see the freedom their parents have, and have already had a lot of freedom in their own lives, and so it’s natural they want to keep it.

The best way to learn business is by doing business. A university degree could help, but not nearly as much as 3 years of trying business (whether succeeding or failing).

So hopefully Maryam will start running a business late next year, once she has gained a few months’ work experience, and the others would also follow after they’re done with their A-levels.

If they do develop chips on their shoulders, they could do an executive degree later on in life. They’d get a great brand on their resume, they typically only take a few months to complete, and the connections one makes can be many times more valuable than in your average undergrad programme. Also they’d pay for it, not me!

By the time the kids are 21, they could have 8 years of running businesses, managing people, dealing with failure, managing a company’s finances, leading teams, taking responsibility for their own lives, backed up by some hopefully great grades 5+ years ahead of their time, together with an ability to speak 5 or 6 languages, and possibly lots of cash in their bank account that they might have made from their ventures.

Not that I’d expect them to go for a job, but if they do, possibly because I’ve gone bankrupt and so have they, I think that with that kind of CV, they’d comfortably be ahead of your typical Oxbridge grad in terms of employability – they’d be the purple cow – the ones that stand out. Cutting-edge employers including top investment banks, management consultancies, tech companies would love someone with their kind of CV – the person making the decision would be patting himself or herself on the back for being willing to take the risk, the company would use it to show how their graduate programme challenges conventions.

It is worth noting that ‘business’ might sound narrow, but it’s just as diverse as employment, which is what conventional education sets kids up for. Business could mean tech, education, retail, green tech, F&B, farming, microbiology, property, medicine, or running a vet clinic (both my girls love animals) etc… and it could be very passive or intense depending on one’s ambition.

If the kids, at any point, feel business is not for them, they’ve got plenty of time to change direction and go to university.

As for me, I would have saved about US$400k per child, or US$1.2m for all 3 children in education costs. That’s US$220k per child up to A-levels (a top private education in Malaysia less home school costs), and the annual cost of educating someone at a top UK university as a foreign student, including living expenses, works out to be around US$60k per annum, which is US$180k over a 3 year course. So I won’t be complaining!

The power of intensity…

I have this American friend who learned to speak conversant Malay within a few months of coming to Malaysia. In Malaysia very few expats learn much Malay because everyone speaks English. We’re spoiled.

My friend told me that according to a study he’d read, which I’ve never been able to find on the internet, the pace at which you learn a language is exponentially related to how much time you spend per week. So if you have 2 Malay lessons a week, you’d learn more than twice as fast compared to if you have 1 Malay lesson per week. Have 5 lessons a week, and you wouldn’t just learn 5 times faster than if you have 1 lesson a week, but you’d learn perhaps 15 or 30 times faster. So he said the secret of his learning Malay was by having lots of lessons per week.

Whether such study actually exists, the recommendation he gave makes sense. The longer the gap in between the lessons the more forgetting between lessons and the more you have to spend re-learning what you learned in the previous lesson. And it explains why people learn languages so slowly from regular lessons. I learned French for 10 years, averaging 2 lessons a week yet I did not reach a level where I could comfortably talk to anyone in French. But people who migrate and are forced to speak the local language, who probably speak around 1-2 hours a day, are typically beyond conversant within months.

It occurred to me that the benefits of intensity probably apply outside languages too.

So I decided to try teaching Maryam and Danyal Physics iGCSE with a high intensity. I started teaching physics 3 months ago, one hour every weekday, so had to put Maths A-level on hold. The results have been really surprising. Both recently got just over 50/80, around a D grade, in the basic/core physics paper, Paper 2, the first time they attempted one, without any revision. With even greater intensity I think A*’s in their Physics iGCSE is achievable, in as little as 5 months from the day they started studying physics.

What’s even more interesting is that it’s reasonable to assume that if the kids went on a super-intense course of physics – perhaps 8 hours a day – they’d be ready to go from never having been taught physics before to taking their Physics iGCSE in 3-4 weeks flat. Unfortunately not practical for most, including us, but it certainly does make one wonder how effective the 12 years of physics lessons I had leading to my GCSE Physics really were.

So we’ve now modified our home school once more. We try to make the courses more intense. That means no more 18 months to learn a GCSE or an A-level. It’s more like 5-8 months to go from zero to taking the exam, cranking up the intensity towards exam time. Unfortunately schools are hardwired so school kids would struggle to benefit from this – schools force kids to spread themselves thin – but homeschoolers can take full advantage of the power of intensity.

[An update a month after writing this blog: Over the last month I upped the intensity of physics, so the kids have studied around 3 hours per day. By the way they’re as motivated as I am, in case you think it’s some slave camp at my home. Anyway, as of this weekend Maryam is consistently getting low A*’s while Danyal is averaging A’s, that’s from D’s only a month ago.

I’m impressed but not entirely surprised. It’s taken them around 155 hours from never having studied physics before, 4 months ago, to around A/A* level in their iGCSE!!! Forget 3-4 weeks, the idea of doing an iGCSE in 2 weeks flat seems very plausible!]

Some benefits of homeschool…

Some benefits you may not have thought of…

  • You decide exactly what the kids learn, and if you have any complaints about the syllabus or their progress you address them. Not enough drama lessons? No problem, arrange them! Want your kids to excel in public speaking? Find some courses!
  • No school entrance exams or end-of-term assessments, so life is a lot less stressful. You just have to get the kids to pass their public exams, and that’s it.
  • If you have a late night, the following day the kids can get up late.
  • No school run and stress in the morning to get out of the house by a certain time.
  • You can go on holiday when you want. And when you have visitors staying over the kids can take as much time off as needed.
  • Teachers you hire are personally selected for the kids, and you can ensure every minute of the lesson is being used effectively.
  • No class projects which are a waste of time, and the parents do half of it anyway. And if you think class projects are important, you can find homeschool groups that do them.
  • Kids have so much time it’s ridiculous. It means they can do whatever they’re passionate about. Reading, sports, technology, rock climbing, horse-riding.
  • Kids learn to socialise with people of different ages. I’ve noticed my kids are able to get on with kids both older and younger than them, and enjoy chatting with adults. My own view is that modern day school, where a bunch of, say, 10 year olds constantly spend all day with each other, is not good.
  • It can be great fun for the parent that stays at home. Ensuring the kids socialise can be by having a coffee with friends that also homeschool. Not exactly hard work!
  • The kids stay away from negative influences at school. We choose the kids our kids spend time with, and they’re all decent kids we think ours can learn from.
  • No bullying. Being bullied kills a child’s confidence. If my kids went to university and were bullied, I doubt they’d just shrivel up and die on the spot. It might be a little more difficult for them, but they would manage, especially if they’ve been made aware of it in advance. Humans adapt fast.
  • The family unit becomes very strong. I feel our family is a lot more closely knit than most. We feel like one team with a common goal, and homeschool makes us feel different and special. I guess if everyone did it, it’d no longer be the case!
  • Healthier diet. Schools, like restaurants, mass produce food with focus on keeping costs down. That means processed food, high in salt and refined sugar – a diet that studies show causes development problems and shortens life expectancy. Homeschool can address that. And it also means that if your child has special needs, such as being overweight or underweight, it’s easier to provide a customised diet.
  • Compared to a private education, you save a lot of money.  I’ll break down our costs in another post, but we are spending around US$4k per child per year without making any effort to save costs. A good private school in Malaysia costs around US$20k per annum. Hopefully we will take 5 years to do what schools do in 12 years, so we’d be saving US$220k per child.
  • And let’s not omit the obvious, homeschool kids do way better academically than school kids. See this, which comes from a major US study.

So these are the key reasons we like homeschool so much.

The ingredients of a successful homeschool…

I reckon the more of the following you have, the greater the chances homeschool will work.

More than 1 child – It certainly makes it more challenging if you only have one child. You’ll have to work a lot harder to make sure the child spends time with other kids.

Children of a similar age – Too big an age gap and it means the kids will not be able to do things together as well as if they’re a similar age.

One parent stays at home – Given how easy homeschool is, that parent would ideally be able to work from home. Homeschool without one parent staying at home is not viable, in my opinion.

One parent, ideally the one that stays at home, is fairly educated – Any degree would do. They need to have the confidence to build and monitor a program.

The parent that stays at home needs to be motivated and have a high standard – He or she needs to drive the kids and the teachers. The more ambitious the parent, the better the kids will do. The parent also needs to ensure he or she takes the kids out almost every day else the kids will go nuts, so can’t be lazy. One of the main reasons homeschool has worked so far for us has been Isabelle’s high standards, something she has in everything she does. An A* in a practice paper is not good enough, it needs to be a high A*. I guess it was the same for me in maths.

A strong local community with plenty of kids – so the kids can play with other kids that live next door.

A good relationship with the children – if there is already some friction between the parents and the child, it’d probably only get worse if you homeschool.

The financial means to homeschool – it’s very cheap compared to a private school, but if the government is paying your kids’ school fees then homeschool is the expensive option. Just bear in mind my kids should have finished their high school exams at around 13 (hopefully), so we’re only paying for 5 years of teaching.

A spacious home – being cramped up in a small space wouldn’t be fun, but you can work around it. For example, near exam time when I spend time over the weekends teaching the kids, I often take the kids to coffee shops for a change of environment, often jumping from coffee shop to coffee shop so we change the environment, and I often get a lot of my own work done at the same time on my laptop.

A few essentials things that schools miss out…

Every few weeks Isabelle gets the kids to cook us some food. Cooking is an essential skill that schools don’t teach.

The kids grab raw ingredients and make some fantastic dishes. I’m always impressed. With all the crap they put in restaurant and ready-to-eat meals it’s a skill worth having.

There are a number of other things I can think of from the top of my head that most schools do not teach that every child really should know about:

  • Current affairs
  • Domestic skills including laundry and ironing
  • A balanced diet and understanding food labels
  • Personal finance including investing, debt and mortgages, whether to buy or rent, negotiation 
  • Some basic understanding of the law and their rights

I feel home school, if done right, prepares kids better for the real world. The fact that the kids have so much time with us, we pass a lot more of our knowledge and experience to them than if they went to school, and frankly no-one will do it with as much passion as us…

Homeschool 2.0

Since starting homeschool our original plans for our kids have been tweaked.

We’ve decided to get their GCSE’s and A-levels out of the way as soon as possible, so the kids can focus on their passions. Exams are a stressful part of childhood, for many the worst part of childhood. The hard laborious work, constant pressure, expectations, competition, and public shaming and condescending advice if you get bad grades isn’t exactly pleasant, and nearly all the stuff learned is useless. To this day I occasionally wake up, in a cold sweat, worried that my university finals are around the corner and I’ve forgotten to prepare for them – that’s how stressful they were.

Hopefully Maryam, 11, will have finished her A-levels when she’s 13, Danyal, 9, will be done by the time he’s 12, and Sabeen, 7, should finish when she’s 12. The reason Maryam finishes later is because she started home school the oldest. They’ll only take exams if we feel they’ll get A*s, so if they don’t look like they’ll get the A* they’ll wait until the next exam date.

A significant benefit of doing the exams early is it sounds way more impressive on a CV, so everyone will assume they’re hyper-intelligent, when they’re not.

For those that haven’t read my earlier blogs the odd thing about this all is that my kids aren’t working hard, unless it’s the period leading to public exams. They do work intensively 7am until noon, five days a week, but that is pretty much it – they have very little homework – and so the weekends completely off. The effectiveness of 1-to-1 teaching is what is driving things. Isabelle and myself, for that matter, aren’t working hard either.

Most good schools make 9 or 10 GCSE’s and 3 A-levels standard. We’ve decided on 5 GCSE’s, and 4 A-levels.

We’ve reduced the GCSE’s because when one has A-levels, the GCSE’s become fairly irrelevant. Students do an impressive number of GCSE’s because when they are applying to universities they do not yet have their A-level grades, so universities base their offers on the GCSE grades, but if our kids apply to university, they will have already finished some A-levels.

Another thing that we’re doing different is staggering the exams. Schools make their students do all their GCSE’s at one time, like over a summer. This is just plain stupid. That’s the best way of making students do as badly as possible.

So Maryam recently completed 3 IGCSE’s – Maths, Biology, French. She’ll do Physics in 3 months time, in November 2016, and two months later she’ll do an IGCSE in Accounting (taught by Isabelle, a Chartered Accountant). Getting an A* when she’s going to be spending the prior few weeks focusing on that subject suddenly doesn’t sound so stellar. So after her Accounting IGCSE, she’ll do 2 A-levels in the middle of next year, and a final 2 the following year.

Note Maryam is not doing an English GCSE – compulsory in schools in the UK. I checked up with the top universities and none have it as a requirement.

For Danyal the plan is for him to start his maths A-level after he’s done his Physics iGCSE which he’s hoping to do in November 2016. So he might have finished an A-level or two before he’s done with all his GCSE’s. He’s good at maths (like his father before him!).

We don’t yet have much of a plan for Sabeen but I’m hoping she might be ready for her IGCSE maths next year, in June 2017. We’re kind of assessing her aptitude and interests.

Finally, the kids are continuing to learn their languages and play their sports, as per Homeschool 1.0, but once they start going for the GCSE’s and A-levels the hours are somewhat reduced, with exams the clear focus. We just want to get the exams out of the way…

iGCSE results!

So Maryam, 11, got A*s in Maths, Biology and French, and Danyal, 9 got an A* in Maths.

We’re obviously really pleased!

We don’t know the grade boundaries but going on the average of past papers, all 4 A*s were comfortable – around 7-10% above the minimum required.

It’s interesting that most UK school children will study biology for around 9 years (in the early years as part of science) before they take a Biology GCSE – and Maryam took 1/6 of that. In my estimation around 30% of kids doing what we’re doing could too, with another 50% taking less than 30 months to get an A*. The remainder 20% probably wouldn’t be bright enough to get an A*, but I think most of them would end up getting A’s. Just my guess – I don’t have any stats to prove it.

Anyway, glad to get this hurdle out of the way…

From 75% to 95% in 12 weeks…

Constantly measuring progress and having clearly defined targets are crucial for high achievement. I use it extensively in many aspects of my life, including business, my weight, running, etc…

In iGCSE maths (Edexcel board) the % boundary varies from paper to paper but it’s ball park 60% for an A and 80% for an A*.

In April the kids were averaging around 75%, so a high A. In the next 12 weeks I made them do one past paper a day, nothing else. You’ll note that in the graph it doesn’t show a past paper every day – during those days the kids did a paper they had already done – and the marks were not included. You can see that the lowest mark in the 8 papers in June was 91%. Let’s hope they didn’t mess up the actual exams!

So if anyone out there wants to improve their maths grades, the lesson is clear – do past papers! Both my kids went from around 75% to 95% in just 12 weeks.

BTW both kids were highly motivated throughout. They wanted to outdo each other – but they were also interested in seeing all the stats I’d give them – the graph above, last 5 exams average, etc… and if they hit their targets they didn’t have to do a paper the next day. They also loved the fact that they were doing the exams 5 and 7 years early – gives a great feel good factor. And finally they knew that if they didn’t get an A* they’d be resitting it in 6 months…

Phase 2 – beyond age 10

In early 2015, when Maryam was nearly 10, we started to sense that Maryam’s reading, writing and reasoning were at the point she could kind of get things. So we thought it might be a good time for her to start preparing for a few of her GCSE exams.

GCSE’s are taken by all 16 year olds in the UK, who typically take between 5 and 10 subjects, with the exams taken in the space of two or three months.

I felt that by Maryam doing only 3 GCSE’s in one year it would give her an advantage compared to other kids who would be taking 9 or 10. She could spend around 3 times as much time per GCSE.

So, we decided she’d do the following GCSE’s:

i) Maths – she was already around 4 years ahead through doing 1 hour’s Khan Academy (  every weekday, so a GCSE seemed achievable.

ii) French – she was conversant as Isabelle made her speak French to her if Maryam wanted her dessert in the evening.

iii) Biology – seemed to be a subject that was standalone and involved a lot of memorisation, which Maryam was good at. Maryam also had an interest in it over chemistry, the other memorisation subject.

Notice how individual this was. No school in the UK allows students to decide which subjects to do when. I had to do 9 GCSE’s all in the same year. Why? If I was strong at maths and physics shouldn’t I have done them earlier, and my weaker subjects later? Even if to stagger things so to avoid exam cram. Shouldn’t kids being doing the exams when it’s right for them, not right for the school? It’s not possible at school because there needs to be set classes that all do the work at the same pace. The idea of doing GCSE’s based on my kids’ personal circumstances was liberating.

Now the GCSE’s are a two year course. But given the focus and one to one teaching we thought we’d hopefully need 18 months to get these 3 GCSE’s done.

Isabelle took charged of French and biology – she works from home which made that possible. I took charge of maths – 1 hour in the morning before I rush off to work. Just like in my businesses, responsibilities were clearly defined as were timelines and targets – 18 months to get the top grade (A*’s) in each subject (around 7% of GCSE’s taken are awarded A*’s).

Biology: I was surprised by Isabelle’s decision to teach biology herself given that she’d only studied biology to around GCSE level around two decades ago and following the French syllabus. But she said she’d learn it with Maryam. Bear in mind that Maryam had never studied biology before, unlike most school kids. Isabelle used textbooks, workbooks, and past papers. I should point out that Isabelle is one of the most intelligent people I know so this isn’t for everyone.

French: French was easy for Isabelle to teach, as she’s French. I think Isabelle used an exercise book, vocab lists and past papers.

Maths: For maths we just did past papers, that’s it. No textbook, no exercise book, no notes. That’s my way. So while Khan Academy had taught them around 60% of what they needed to know, the remainder 40% they’d learn through doing questions, and me helping or teaching when she got stuck. I tried to get Maryam to Google things so she’d learn the art of teaching herself, but that didn’t work. She gave up too easily. I’ll leave that for later. When we started going for the GCSE Danyal was almost at Maryam’s level in maths, despite him being 2 years younger, so I decided to teach them maths together. You see that flexibility of home school again?

So during the next year Maryam spent around 4 hours a week on biology, 2 hours a week on French, and 5 hours a week on maths (where Danyal joined in). 2 to 3 months prior to the exams that doubled, and 2 weeks prior almost trebled.

So that brings me to today, 18 months from when they started. A few weeks ago they finished their respective GCSE exams. They actually did international GCSE’s, not GCSE’s but they’re basically the same thing.

We don’t know the result of their GCSE’s yet as they haven’t been released, but Maryam was getting high A*’s in all 3 of her subjects in most past papers before the exams. And Danyal was getting high A*’s in most of his maths papers.

The entire experience was learning for us too, and by going through the process we decided to make some changes for future years and for our littlest one, Sabeen. But that will be in another post…