With the nation in lockdown and schools closed, many parents will be looking for ways to keep educating their children. Amee Parker is in her final year of a PhD looking at homeschooling, and she has some advice.
As a nation we are now forced, out of necessity, to stay in our homes. For those with children now out of school this will be an unusual and perhaps daunting experience. For parents who homeschool their children, however, being with them for most of the day is par for the course. There are approximately 6,500 New Zealand children and young people being officially homeschooled, from around 3,500 families across the country.
Through my PhD research I have met and interviewed a number of New Zealand homeschooling families and read countless academic studies on the topic. I have come to realise there are two misconceptions about homeschooling – that it happens only at home and only with family. In reality, homeschoolers are social (sometimes very social); they learn in and out of their home, and often engage in learning with their friends and wider homeschool community.
So, while homeschool families are used to being together on a daily basis, like the rest of us they are not used to being isolated from their social network. These families will be feeling the negative effects of self-isolation too. Their normal activities (sports, dance, music class, lego club, etc.) have ceased and they are no longer able to meet in person with their homeschool community and their extended families. What we are doing now is not homeschooling as experienced by the vast majority of those who do it. However, as we embark on our own home-bound version of homeschooling, there remains plenty we can learn from Kiwi homeschoolers.
The insights that follow are not intended to replace any advice you have received from your children’s schools. Rather, they are intended to support what instructions you have received and to guide time outside of any required schoolwork. The insights are based on my own research on homeschooling in New Zealand, but also reflect research conducted abroad.
Every homeschool family in New Zealand does things differently. Some may use similar resources or approach things in similar ways, but no two families are identical in their educational journeys. Further, the children within the family are not treated the same. Homeschoolers are often very passionate about individualised learning, with children encouraged to work at their own pace and in their own way, generally focussing on topics and projects that interest them.
Your family and children are also unique and there is no need to try to fit yourselves or your children into a particular box. There are thousands of homeschool resources that offer very specific methods of instruction or lesson content, however, a number of homeschool families I met suggested that sticking tightly to a prescribed curriculum proved to be unnecessarily difficult.
Some started out this way, grinding through structured lessons but modified their approach once they realised that both parents and children were not enjoying the process and it was causing unnecessary stress and anguish. A homeschooling mother of two in my study, said “we started off with me being the teacher recreating the classroom, 9-3…and then I could just see I was dragging the kids through and…that it was really for my own sake…for me to feel good about my role.”
As a parent in this new situation we find ourselves in, you do not need to fulfil the role of teacher. Homeschool parents rarely see themselves as their children’s teacher, nor do their children. I asked one homeschooled eight year old who his teacher was and he said, with confidence, “me!” Parents were more likely to describe their role as something akin to a facilitator, where they help their children access the resources they need in order to explore their interests and complete a project; they suggest interesting activities to their children, or get stuck into something themselves, which may inspire their children.
If a strict, structured, teacher-centred approach works for your family, by all means, crack on. However, what is most likely to work is a more pragmatic and gentle approach. Most of the families I spent time with had some scheduled events or listed tasks for the day, which were decided upon by both parents and children. Some also spent a few hours a day (usually in the morning) doing some kind of book work or online lessons. Outside of this time, however, flexibility reigned. In fact, flexibility was mentioned as a positive homeschooling feature by every family I met.
Another commonality among Kiwi homeschoolers is children’s involvement with running the household. All children I met did cleaning and cooking, and some were involved with financial budgeting for groceries or other purchases. Such involvement allows children to meaningfully engage with real-life matters; to learn skills that will help them (and you) now and later in life. Being at home all day presents a great opportunity to get your children regularly involved in household operations.
A key point I wish to make is that homeschoolers are adept at harnessing teachable moments. If your child expresses interest in something, help them explore this interest. Do you have books on the topic? What internet searches can they do to find out more? Can you call someone who knows about the topic? Make use of art supplies, writing resources and digital documentation to compile some of their learning. While this is by no means necessary, it may help your children keep track of what they’re doing and seeing some evidence of their learning may ease your own concerns. However, it’s important to also allow your children to simply relax, to dabble in projects, to read and play games, to bake, dance, sleep, play music, and to chat with their friends online or on the phone. All of this is learning.
This period of self-isolation may be long and expecting highly regulated learning practices from your children is not necessary. In fact, very little learning happens when children are disengaged or stressed. You, like every homeschool parent I have met, will at times worry that you’re not doing enough or not doing it right, but in the words of one very experienced homeschool mother, just “relax and enjoy being with your kids because out of that education will happen, whatever it looks like for your family”.
Don’t panic, don’t try to replicate school, don’t be the teacher. Be the parent, be a facilitator, be gentle to yourselves and to your children. Enjoy your time together. This is a unique experience that will involve lots of learning for everyone involved.