By Mindy Harris
“Homeschooling? Why on earth would you want to do THAT? So one homeschooling mum describes her reaction when first introduced to the idea. Six years later and with two years of home-based learning behind her, she cannot imagine any other course for her family.
She is not alone. In Japan, as elsewhere, the ranks of homeschoolers are growing. The umbrella organization for homeschoolers in the US, the National Home Education Network, currently estimates there are 1.5 to 2 million homeschooled children. In Japan, the ranks are much smaller and a lot tougher to estimate, but according to information compiled for the Homeschooling in Japan website, there are at minimum 2000-3000 families who actively identify themselves as homeschoolers and perhaps thousands more who are officially classed as “school-refusers”.
What is it that draws people to homeschooling? Some families start on this path reluctantly. Japanese schools do not meet their children’s and their family’s needs. International schools are too far and, at up to ¥2.5 million/year, too expensive – if you can even get a place. Or it seems that the institution of school, any school, just doesn’t suit some children and their families.
But not all homeschoolers live in the boonies and can’t afford private school or had a bad experience with school. Many live in central Tokyo and even work for companies who will pay for international schools. For these families, home-based learning is their first, and only choice.
“I decided to homeschool when my oldest child was five,” says Jill, an Australian mother who lives in central Tokyo and has been homeschooling for 7 years. “I initially did so because he didn’t fit very well into the classroom style of teaching. I continue to homeschool because I think it is a much better learning environment. I have a closer relationship with my children and they are learning to become independent, self-motivated and be responsible for their studies. “
“Homeschooling would be our choice in any country,” echoes an American mother in Kyushu. “I originally considered homeschooling because I thought school couldn’t meet my son’s needs. At 6, he seemed far too physically active to be confined to a desk for many hours. I thought it would be healthier for him to spend more time in outdoor play, and fit in his studies as was convenient. We continue to homeschool because we enjoy it so much. It’s nice that he doesn’t have to feel hurried to grow up, but can take things at his own pace. We can travel or enjoy museums and parks at times when they are not crowded. And it’s really fun just learning and exploring together.”
Homeschooler, unschooler, deschooler or just plain eclectic?
Within the broad category of homeschooling there may be as many approaches as there are families. And most families find they continue to evolve this as everyone in the family learns and grows.
For children and families who have been involved with a school, a period of “decompression” is usually needed to help make the transition from school to a home-based learning environment. Usually about a month for every year in school, this is also a chance for parents to do some of their own learning and start figuring out how to approach homeschooling.
The Homeschooler or Home-based Learner
Homeschoolers often prefer the term “homelearner” or “home-based learner” since few families are trying to replicate a school in their home. This approach generally puts most of the emphasis on parents to define what it is the children will learn. Some parents closely follow a curriculum from a school board or from one of the many on-line providers with detailed lesson plans for every day or at least every week. Books, supplies or other resources required for the program can normally be purchased together with the syllabus and teacher’s guides. Some offer consultation, evaluation through testing or reviews of student work, and even transcripts or certificates. Fees vary widely but range from about $370 to over $900/year depending upon the grade level and what services are chosen. Used materials are frequently sold and traded on the Internet. Curriculums vary widely but are generally built upon a specific educational philosophy or religious approach (see sidebar).
For some families a very structured approach works beautifully but most will use a curriculum (or even two) as a basic “recipe” and then make adjustments depending upon their children’s interests, their own family background, where they live or just to make it all more fun.
“We use a Christian curriculum by ABeka,” says Cindy, an American mother of 3 children, ages 10, 8 and 5, living in Nagoya. “We use that for guidance to make sure we cover all subject areas adequately. Each child has daily lesson time with me and daily seat work relating to the topics covered in the curriculum. However, we enjoy substituting activities to offer a more fun approach especially for science or math. Every weekend I spend about 4 or 5 hours developing the week’s lesson plans.”
Unschoolers probably would not agree on a single definition of what exactly that means, but most would concur that unschooling is child-led rather than parent-led. Children have an innate curiosity and interest in learning. When children want to do something they WILL do it, and do it joyfully. Parents are there to help guide the exploration, to provide resources and experiences, and to share enthusiasm and curiosity.
Unschooling can sound pretty scary. After all, most people cannot imagine a child asking to learn the times tables. Unschoolers say that children will naturally want to learn skills they need to function as independent adults, but just might not do it on the timetable that a typical school might expect. And that it’s in the way the subject is approached. If math is never made boring in the first place, children will never find it so.
Unschooling doesn’t mean that children just do whatever it is they do – or don’t – want to do at any time and can quit if a project gets bogged down in the middle and isn’t fun anymore. And many parents who consider themselves to be primarily unschoolers will still insist that certain less favored subjects be covered daily or a few times a week.
“I would call myself an unschooler”, says Jill, “but I have required the boys to study a language, music and do some physical exercise.”
“Our approach to learning is always evolving,” says <kyushu mum>. “I think one of the greatest advantages is that learning is actually geared to the individual child. We never really used a complete curriculum. When we first started out, I used various guides to have an idea of what children of a particular age would be doing, but even then my son himself could be more of a guide. We have always tried to do some math, handwriting and spelling practice, and otherwise pursue his particular interests. Science is his favorite subject. He likes spending a lot of time on nature walks, doing experiments, and reading science books.”
Or just plain eclectic?
When a family decides to homeschool, the choice often triggers a revisiting of what education is really all about. Parents find themselves asking not only what knowledge and skills they want their children to have from an academic perspective but looking at all aspects of their children’s development and what will serve them well in their lives, not only academically but also emotionally and spiritually. It’s not unusual for parents to find they are learning as much in the process as are their children.
At the beginning, this can make for a steep learning curve and some rough ground, but as the mother of an 8-year old in Kanagawa, comments, “ultimately, we all have to create our own path”. And ultimately, every homeschooling family will tell you they have found their own rhythms and balance. “By being homeschoolers,” says Elizabeth, an American mother in western Japan, “everything becomes our responsibility. That seemed a little scary at first, but now we love it.”
Over time, most families will evolve their own eclectic approach, one that incorporates their values, addresses their children’s learning styles and suits their personal style. Those who start off with a fixed curriculum often relax the program as they discover their children are learning fractions through baking bread and discovering how the states are connected by planning a summer road trip. Meanwhile, as children get older unschooling parents will take note if certain things are not up to speed and find ways to bring these to their children (like brushing up fractions by baking Christmas presents).
“I would say we are eclectic-style homeschoolers”, says Aileen, the Singaporean mother of two who has lived in several Japanese cities. “We have worked out our own set of goals and sequences. And we use a variety of materials to cover those goals as we go along. Our home has an emphasis on very visual books since our kids our young and our family is a visually oriented lot. On any topic, we also emphasize the “making” or creating of something. Plus we like the outdoors, travel and exploration. I see myself as a facilitator with a bag of teaching tricks or principles (culled from many homeschooling philosophies) that I use to encourage learning and understanding.”
Japanese homeschoolers may be a geographically scattered group, but if you meet them in cyberspace it’s clear this is a close community. Through online discussion groups, parents share resources and ideas, ask and answer questions, and provide emotional support.
Apart from the Japan-based discussion groups, there are groups geared to a specific educational philosophy, to a specific curriculum, to a particular religious group and to every combination of these. “I am always in awe,” says Tricia, a homeschooler in Zushi, “that strangers across the world will take the time to write lengthy replies to my questions. And of course I do the same, even if it means staying up a little later than I really want to. “
The Internet is not only a key place to meet like-minded homeschoolers but also has a wealth of information on just about any subject a child takes an interest in. Need to know how to feed your son’s tadpoles? Or how to make a kite? Forgot why the ocean is salty or the story of Rapunzel? It’s all there at your fingertips, just as it is for any schoolteacher. Apart from the hundreds of sites specifically devoted to home-based learning, there are weekly newsletters that offer science experiments, crafts or bedtime stories. And of course just about any book, CD, craft supply or other needed item can be ordered from a supplier on the Internet, often with a special discount for homeschoolers.
But how will your children learn to get along with others?
Inevitably, this is one of the first questions any parent who does not send their child to school is asked. But homeschooling does not mean living in isolation. Homeschoolers in the Tokyo area meet at least once a week and sometimes more often. Homeschoolers get together to put on plays, do crafts, visit retirement homes, or play baseball. Children take classes in ballet, swimming, aikido, Japanese or wherever their interests lie. Friends are invited to their homes and vice-versa. Parents often say their homeschooled children get along well with other children of all ages and are equally comfortable in social situations where they may be the only child. Social skills are learned wherever there is interaction with others.
Is it for you?
Homeschooling doesn’t suit all families. And even dedicated homeschoolers have their bad days where nothing seems to go right. But if you’re a family in Japan struggling with the question of how to educate your children, you may be surprised to find that homeschooling is a more practical option than you may have imagined and what’s more, there is a whole community out there waiting to welcome you.
Mindy Harris is a Certified Financial Planner who lived and worked in Tokyo from 1985-1993. She returned to Japan last year with her husband and two children and is enjoying living and homeschooling in the wilds of Boso-hanto.
An unschooling morning
“Today was a typical day. Before breakfast Noa, 7, and Maya, 4, came in dressed in their jungle safari shirts sporting binoculars around their necks, a tape measure at their side, litmus paper in their pockets, and magnifying glass in hand. They went about measuring the height of all the doors in the house. At my suggestion they wrote down the information, Maya drawing pictures of doors and Noa beaming proudly as he knew how to spell “door”. He also learned that 203 is not written 2003 and recognized that 2003 looks more like the way we write the year.
The morning continued with them using the magnifying glass to pick up crumbs they had subsequently dropped during breakfast. Then I showed them what the litmus paper was used for since they had simply ‘found’ it in their science drawer. After having tasted, guessed which color would appear, and then tested out their guesses for about 10 different items we had in the kitchen they asked to make a concoction out of the stuff we had used so they were left to experiment further with a couple more pieces of litmus paper.
-from Brett, in Tokyo
A sampling of sites on the Internet
Free Homeschool Resources from The Homeschool Mom.com
Ambleside Online (Charlotte Mason)
Calvert School (traditional)
Laurel Springs (secular, many options) Live Education
Live Education (Waldorf)
Oak Meadow (Waldorf)
Veritas Press(Classical Christian)
published in the ACCJ Journal January 2003
Made available here with permission from the ACCJ Journal and Mindy Harris