9 April 2008

Kenya: The Home-Schooling Option

Nairobi — Do you know that your child does not have to go to school to get an education? Not only is it possible but a growing number of parents are opting to 'home school' their children.

Home-schooling is the education of children at home, typically by parents or guardians, rather than in a school.

In the West, prior to the introduction of compulsory school attendance laws, most childhood education occurred within the family or community, with only a small portion of the population attending schools or employing tutors.

Today, those who home-school do so to provide their children with a different learning environment than is available schools or because they are dissatisfied with their academic standards. Others opt for home-schooling because their children are bullied and abused by schoolmates and teachers, are disabled or for religious reasons. It is also an alternative for families living in isolated rural locations.

One of the home-schooling advocates in the 20th Century, John Holt, a graduate of Yale University and a teacher, was convinced that formal schooling violates an individual's civil rights. He equated keeping children locked up in school for 12 years to imprisonment, saying as it denies them an opportunity to socialise with people in the 'real world'. He believed formal methods of teaching suppress a child's natural curiosity as it insists on the use of a one-size-fits-all curriculum. After many years of teaching and observing children, he came to the conclusion that home-based education develops children more holistically.

A disciple of Holt, Ms Shirley Maina, a single mother, home-schools her seven-year old daughter, Savannah. She settled on the option after watching her first born Brian, 26, struggle to cope with formal schooling.

"When he started going to school, Brian was not happy and it took some time to figure out why. It was only when I moved him to a more relaxed school that he became interested in learning," he says.

Today, he is an accounts student at Strathmore University.

She believes the 8-4-4 system of education is too stressful, does not offer holistic education and relies too much on rote learning.

She withdrew Savannah from school after the eager, confident and curious girl became aloof and timid. Apparently, Savannah's teachers ignored her when she raised her hand in class because they felt she asked too many questions.

She teaches Savannah theoretical subjects such as English, Kiswahili and mathematics from Monday to Thursday. Friday is a project day. The most recent project they worked on is a model of a farm with trees, animals and a pond. Maina uses it to teach her daughter about vertebrates and their habitat.

But the sports instructor does not stay home all day with Savannah. Since her job is not the typical job, her lesson plan fits her work schedule.

Maina however caution parents to way out the benefits of home-schooling against their children's needs before making a decision.

For instance, her last born attends play school. "Maisha is very energetic so I decided to take her to playschool for a while. It's difficult watching her while attending to Savannah's lessons," she says.

Likewise, John and Monica Muthiora have embraced home-schooling. The couple has two children, Tiffany, 5, and Muchai , 2.

"I didn't make the decision lightly as I am a very conservative person. I did it after a lot of research," says Monica, a stay-at-home mum.

During the week, she wakes up early to make breakfast for her family ahead of the lessons at 9 am. They consist of reading, writing and arithmetic. She has allotted time for nature walk in which they discuss what they see. While Tiffany does mathematics and writing, Muchai mostly plays with toys.

The sessions are flexible as long as what is supposed to be done in a given day is completed.

Her husband, John , supports her. In his free time, he researches on home learning and shares the information with her.

In places where this mode of learning is popular, like the United States, homeschoolers often take advantage of educational opportunities at museums, community centres, athletic clubs, after-school programmes, churches, science preserves, parks, and other community resources.

Families often join together to create family-centred support groups whose members seek to pool their talents and resources in an effort to broaden the scope of their children's education. Most meet at least once a week to create a classroom environment where students can do hands-on and group activities, such a, science experiments, art projects, spelling competitions and discussions. Parents volunteer to make the program a success.

The Mathioras and Maina developed their curricula and lesson plans by customizing syllabuses sourced from abroad.

Their research on home-schooling took them to the East Africa Educational Resource Centre, situated along Thika Road. It is a home-school resource center started in 2002 by Ms Debbie Stephens, a volunteer who home-schools her children.

The centre has a small but growing library that includes reading material, curricula guides and educative toys. There are also toys for younger children to play with.

After a slow start, demand for the centre's services from Kenyans and foreigners has grown and membership is about 100 families.

Stephens says some members are considering starting other centres.

Home-schooling has some challenges. Being an alien concept in Kenya, say the Mathioras and Maina, friends, relatives and neighbours find their decision strange and often accuse them of ruining their children's life. Parents and guardians must dedicate enough time and attention to home schooling.

But the benefits, says Maina and Monica are worth it. They say their children learn faster and topics that take weeks only take a few days. The one-on-one student-teacher relationship ensures that queries are dealt with and the child gets enough attention.

The bond between the parents and their children boosts their confidence and intellect. A child is free to explore and come up with solutions. The parent may not know all the answers but the search is most times more important than finding a solution.

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