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 (www.khanacademy.org)  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…

Homeschool 1.0

Our initial vision for homeschool is essentially something we have stuck with.

Academia

We wanted to teach the kids maths and 6 languages up until around the age they could start preparing for high school exams and once their English, logic and maturity was at a level they could prepare for the exams they would start doing them.

Note that meant no sciences, history, geography, etc… up until essentially 9 or 10.

Here is how we taught the languages and maths:

Maths – I taught my kids maths using Khan Academy for 1 hour every weekday. It wasn’t a case of letting the kids get on with it – I was very much involved in explaining all the concepts to them.

English – my wife, Isabelle, just gave the kids exercises from various books and marked them. The kids started reading so much, as they had so much time, that we did not need much beyond that.

French – Isabelle is French. So she spoke to the kids in French from an early age. And then she started giving them written exercises. All she’d do is give the exercises and mark them, explaining what they got wrong.

Arabic, Chinese – tutors came in twice a week and taught each kid separately. We realised that the kids weren’t improving their conversational skills nearly quickly enough in either languages. So then we hired native speakers to just chat with them over Skype for 20 mins each twice a week, and this worked wonders in terms of their ability to converse.

Urdu/Hindi, Malay – these languages we decided to focus on the spoken only. So it’s just chatting over Skype for 30 mins twice a week.

After they reached a certain maturity, we would then started going for high school exams.

They work 7am until 12pm flat out, and then they’re done. No homework, no work on the weekends.

Sports

The kids chose a few sports and they’ve stuck with them, and become good at them. We didn’t want them to become jack of all, masters of none.

For Danyal it’s middle-distance running, football and squash. Maryam and Sabeen haven’t been too keen on sports and they’ve just done rock climbing and they often join Danyal on his runs.

Socialising

Most days my wife would take them out just so they meet other kids. For sports, to meet friends or for other group activities – often with other home schooled kids.

So all of this has been our plan from the beginning and we have stuck with it. We think it’s worked – Maryam could speak 5 languages well (Urdu/Hindi got left behind) by the time she was 10, all 3 kids are around 5 years ahead in their maths, they play their chosen sports regularly and to a high level, and have a great social life. They’re confident, cheeky yet well behaved when they need to be. And they have plenty of time to do what they want (read, cook, etc…), and are among the happiest, if not happiest, kids I know. I call that a result.

It’s the post 9-10 age where we have somewhat changed our vision, but I’ll discuss that in another post…

Isn’t homeschool for losers?

Prior to mid 2013 if you had told me that you homeschooled your children I would have thought you were nuts and you and  your children were losers.

By year end 2013 we had given notice to our kids’ schools that we were done with school.

What happened?

Well, a few things came together from mid 2013:

  1. One to one teaching. I realised my kids’ schools weren’t really challenging my kids in maths, so I started to teach my kids maths on the 15 minute drive to school. No structure, no whiteboard, no textbooks but they learned far more during the 15 minutes drive than the school was teaching them throughout the day together with all their homework. So I hired a teacher on Skype for US$5 per hour to teach them maths on the weekends instead of teaching them in the car, and within weeks their maths had progressed way beyond their colleagues. The benefits of one to one teaching were becoming clear.
  2. School too hectic. We wanted our kids to play sports, learn Mandarin, Urdu, French, and Arabic (all outside school as their school didn’t offer those languages), do their extra maths lessons. Lessons after school, lessons during the weekend, collecting the kids, dropping them off, it all become a bit much, for us and the kids.
  3. A great example. One of my friends from the UK had visited us in Malaysia, and his 4 kids were homeschooled. I asked myself which kids were the best brought up kids I knew and I realised that they stood head and shoulders above any other kids I’d seen. They were academically years ahead of their peers, social, cheeky, polite, and unlike most other kids were able and interested in talking to adults, and they were great with other kids too.
  4. US study. I saw a nationwide US study that showed that homeschool kids massively outperformed school kids academically, in social activities, and at college, if that is where they went on to.

In late 2013 I discussed the idea with Isabelle, who is more risk averse than I am on radical ideas like homeschooling, and to my surprise she agreed that we should give it a go over the Christmas vacations and if it worked well we’d try it for a year. She too felt that the kids could learn so much faster if they were constantly challenged and had 1 to 1 tuition. She also felt we could customise every aspect of their education to what the kids wanted and what we wanted for our kids.

We asked the kids. The two younger kids, Danyal, 7,  and Sabeen, 5, were all for it. They loved the idea of doing lessons in their pyjamas, and seemed to hate the routine of school. They didn’t seem to care about missing their school friends (rather worrying) despite both being fairly popular and social. The eldest, Maryam, was marginally in favour of homeschool only because we agreed with her that she wouldn’t get homework, she’d no longer have weekend classes, and we assured her that she’d still see friends regularly. That mattered to her more.

The Christmas trial went very well, and so we gave their schools notice and a one year homeschooling trial it was. And since the one year trial started we haven’t even once considered sending them back to school.

Homeschooling was not just good. It was far better in so many aspects than we had even hoped…