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School & Home: The Differences

There are still very many moms teaching at home that lack confidence in their abilities or continually second-guess themselves. One of the perennial contributing factors is their comparing the way they teach at home and the school way of doing things. They look at the way teachers operate and decide that, because they don't do the same, they are not up to standard. We have discussed the comparison issue before, but in this newsletter I hope to show that school teaching methods are very often management tools used to make it easier to manage the large numbers of children. In doing so, I hope to free some moms from the idea that they have to emulate them in order to succeed.

This article is certainly not applicable to all. There are many who don't give two hoots about the way things are done at school. Others have discovered their own way of managing over the years and found it to be effective, which gives them the confidence to continue. Nor is this article to discuss the pros and cons of school methods, but rather to merely shed some light on the fact that we are free to choose other methods as we have less children to manage.

We need not to throw out the baby with the bath-water - if there is something in the school method that works for us, we should feel free to use it. The point I wish to make is that we should not beat ourselves up because we find ourselves not doing things the school way. We have a huge tendency to follow school methods as this is what we have known all our lives. A school is a large institution, and to effectively teach many in a group, certain methods are used to streamline the process. To illustrate let's consider another institution: the hospital. Suppose your child were very ill in bed. Though you would keep constant watch, you would not feel obliged to do hourly "obs" and keep a chart as they do in hospitals. Nor would you consider yourself an inadequate nurse for not doing so. We recognise that this method of recording temps and blood pressures regularly is to make sure that nothing and no-one is neglected when there are many patients to manage. These methods are not necessary for one patient. However, if your child's illness was so severe that his treatment depended on the rise and fall of his temperature, you are free to keep a chart and take hourly temps if you so wish.

Let's take a look at some of the school management methods in detail so that we are in a position to decide what is worth using and what we can let go.

Time

For the sake of order in schools, everyone arrives before a certain time ready to start school when the bell rings. The children are then kept busy for five or six hours until the final bell gives them the freedom to go home, go to the aftercare centre, take part in extra-murals or to walk the streets. These starting and finishing times are generally inflexible, unless something extraordinary happens at the school, such as elections, or inter-house sports. They need to be so for the sake of managing the many people involved in the system. At home we have neither the need to have these set starting times nor to keep our children busy for these five to six hours. Our starting times can vary and we need only do the hours necessary until the work is done, which makes our finishing times flexible, too.

As early morning chores become part of the child's routine (life skills!), it may be only 8:30 or 9am when formal lessons start. There is no right or wrong starting time. If you are a night nurse who needs to sleep for a few hours in the morning, your starting time may well be midday. If dad teaches the children maths after work or you prefer to do reading in the late afternoon, then the length of your teaching time in the mornings may be shorter than most. Feel free to fix your routine according to your needs and be flexible according to the events in your household. Though we may be flexible, it is right and good to have a general routine - to teach at random times every day leaves the children feeling insecure and does not honour God, who is a God of order.

Academic Starting Age

The law requires all children to start school in the year that they turn seven, but not every child is ready to start at that age. Some are ready to read at age four, but are not yet ready for school. Others look forward to going to school, but are far from ready to read. Still others may be ready to read at age seven, but numbers are a huge mystery to them until much later. One of the biggest advantages of teaching at home is that we can start our children’s formal education when they are ready for it. Yet there are many at home who feel obliged to start all at age seven "because everyone else is". They struggle on even when their children are battling. Well, it may be that the average age that most start reading, writing and 'rithmetic is seven years, but, generally speaking, most pupils start at this age for the convenience of the teacher and the smooth running of the system. Imagine if the teacher were to start each of her 36 pupils at different times in each of the three R's. She would go mad!

We can well understand why everyone has to learn about "Oscar Orange" and "Annie Apple" at the same time. We know that this is not always suitable for individual pupils, but it's an absolute necessity for the sanity of the teacher. Once again, at home we have the opportunity to be flexible. The age that a child starts to read is not a reflection on his intelligence. Rather start at the right time - when he's ready - than start at some random starting age to which the schools conform for convenience. (I say random, because in our day the starting was six years of age, and in England it is age four.)

Busy Work

Another tool a teacher uses to keep herself sane is busy work. There are some children who would simply run riot if they were not kept under strict control. If some such as these finish their work earlier than most, they must be kept occupied at all costs if there is to be order in the classroom. A select few are allowed to read or do another task of their choice because the teacher can trust them to behave. Usually, the choice of occupation, especially at primary school level, is more schoolwork. Thus children are kept busy with more work for the sake of it rather than for the sake of learning.

It may be true that extra work will not do the children any harm, but at home we have the opportunity to make more appropriate choices for our children. If one child has finished his work and you are still busy with another child, the first can be occupied with something more meaningful than just more of the same. You could simply allow the child to play (but sometimes it's hard to get them back into concentration mode again once they have been let loose!), he could do a puzzle, baby-sit the toddler while you are busy, catch up on some chores, do some artwork or a craft, finish off another project or read a book. The choices you make will depend on the child's age, abilities and sense of responsibility. Of course, if your child is in need of some extra practice in a certain area, by all means set him some work to do that will benefit him. He does not necessarily have to be busy with schoolwork simply because he is free during school hours, having completed his assigned tasks.

Worksheets

After completing a lesson, a teacher needs to check that her pupils have understood most of what she tried to convey to them. She cannot ask questions of each of the 30 pupils in her class - it will take too long and after pupil no. 3, the class will be bored to tears. So she designs worksheets for them to complete. These she can mark in her own time and the completed worksheet can be pasted into the relevant book as a summary of information to be learnt for exams (q.v.). When working with two or three individuals at home, we have other more convenient options. A few quick questions or a discussion will soon tell us what they do or don't know. An activity, dramatisation, the older teaching the younger, some research, building models - all these are ways of assessing what your children know.

For those that believe that all has to be on paper for the record, try photography, tape or video recording for your records. This variety of activities has the added bonus of making learning fun and interesting. Worksheets are always just more of the same - not easy to remember the details on them unless an effort is made to study them. Being involved in an activity related to the topic being learnt creates a memory. Your children will associate their memories with what they have learnt, thus creating an effective way of remembering what they need. Test yourself - do you remember what was written in your notebooks or what you did at school?

Exams

This is issue on which there are varied opinions and you must decide for yourself what is right for your family. It is my opinion that exams are unnecessary with, perhaps, the exception of a school-leaving exam and depending on the vocation chosen, even that may not be necessary. Notice that it is exams that I consider to be non-essentials, but ongoing assessments are a vital part of our teaching. Teachers use exams as a means of assessing everyone at the same time, writing reports to let parents at home know how their children at school are faring. As home educators we are present with our children and can continually assess what they do and do not understand or know.

Exams test short-term memory: soon after an exam, most of the material is forgotten anyway. Although we may have memorised many facts for all the exams we have written in our lifetimes, it is the research skills we learnt along the way that are of more use to us today. If we have forgotten some details, we know where and how to look them up. I think that time is better spent training our children to think and to research instead of memorising the year's facts for an exam. This is not to say that memorisation is not important. There is great advantage to committing facts to memory - knowledge gained at an early age can be used to reason with at a later stage. Memorisation can be part of your daily or weekly schedule and may include rhymes, maths facts, poetry, Bible verses, information learnt for an oral presentation or anything else that you consider it necessary for your children to know. Such facts committed to memory over a period of time will stand a child in far better stead than those learnt on a short-term basis for exams.

Textbooks

Texts are a convenient and inexpensive means to get some core facts to the masses. Not every school has an excellent reference library, and even if they do, it is not possible to have books available to every pupil for every subject. Hence the need for textbooks. But in a textbook, the core facts are not very satisfying. A whole year's syllabus is usually contained in one book, so there is little space to develop a theme. It is much more desirable to have a real book on one subject, with interesting and full-colour pictures for the younger set, to get as much information as possible.

Of course, texts have their uses. A maths or physics textbook in which someone else has worked out all the practice problems and their answers is very useful. Texts are useful guides if you wish to follow the school syllabus, but there is a whole world of info in real books. Besides non-fiction, children’s novels may be very educational, especially historical novels. Don't sell your children short by limiting them to textbooks, even if they are good ones.

Choice of Subjects & Content

To satisfy all needs and tastes, schools teach a multitude of subjects to an adequate level (?), whereas at home we are able to teach what we consider the most important things to an excellent level! We have the opportunity to raise custom-built children and avoid producing the factory model. Thus, fit in what you consider to be useful, but don't feel obliged to imitate the school selection of subjects and content. Life skills come to mind here. Schools are obliged to spend time teaching it as a separate subject. For us at home it is part of our everyday instruction, so we need not spend extra time on it as a "school" subject. You may also wish to consider simplifying your life by doing a year of one subject, e.g. science followed by a year of another, e.g. biology, instead of trying to get it all done in the same year. This may help you to focus more on one subject and to do it well. Of course, there is no need at a junior level to even consider separate subjects, but rather incorporate them all in theme studies.

Homework

We know a Grade 6 pupil who was assigned the project of building a model house. The class was granted a week's extension as it was June exam time. The parents were very relieved about this extension as they could only work at nights when they came home from work! They completed the model house while their son studied for exams and he was awarded 70% for their efforts. Such is homework nowadays! My understanding of homework is that it is work the student finishes at home because there was not enough time in class. This will include memory work or studying for exams. It is also a tool for the teacher to check that a student understands the concepts or has adequate knowledge of the work covered.

If the pupil does an exercise at home by himself, the teacher is able to check the work the following day to see what he did or did not understand. The concept of homework really does not exist for the home educated as all work is done at home anyway. Perhaps the equivalent of homework for homeschoolers is independent work. This independent work can be fitted in at any appropriate time, not necessarily afternoons. Definitely for younger ones we can incorporate memory work, finishing work off, working alone on an exercise or projects into their school day. Because of the volume of work, older ones may have to work longer hours. Whatever the situation, let us ensure that independent work is just that, encouraging our children to achieve more and more by themselves according to their ages and abilities. Let's not follow the school model on this and award our children credit for something we have done for them.

Single Focus

Can you imagine a classroom in which there are children quietly drawing, doing puzzles, knitting, crocheting, cross-stitching, cutting out or making experimental patterns with a pair of compasses, all while the teacher is reading aloud to them? This would be a rare scene indeed. Generally, it is too much for a teacher to manage a variety of tasks with so many children; it is much easier for her to do one task as a single focus. But at home we don't have to limit ourselves single focus. It is a fairly easy task for us to organise two or three children to occupy themselves while we read aloud. It would be rather rude for a child to run the sewing machine or the fret-saw at the same time as mom is reading, but there are many quiet activities that can be accomplished during read-aloud time. It takes some forethought and planning, but it is well worth the effort - it is time well used.

I trust that those who need to can see that the teaching methods necessary for classes are not necessarily of use to us with only a few to teach. I hope that these few thoughts will set free those who have felt themselves bound by school methods Home and school are different. Even when we are teaching, we are managing a home, not a school. We surely need routine, discipline and organization, but feel free to find your own way and do so with confidence. By all means use some school methods if they work for you, but you decide what is best for your family. Whatever you do, do it to the glory and honour of our great and glorious God, whose grace is sufficient for all we undertake.

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