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!]

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…

Home school 2.0

Since starting home school 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, possibly 11. 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 Home School 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…

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, possibly 11. 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…

Isn’t home school for losers?

Prior to mid 2013 if you had told me that you home schooled 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 10 minute drive to school. No structure, no whiteboard, no textbooks but they learned far more during the 10 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, Hindi/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 home schooled. 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 home school 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 home schooling, 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 home school 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 home schooling trial it was. And since the one year trial started we haven’t even once considered sending them back to school.

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

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…