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Has your recent stint teaching your children at home made you reconsider the value of their school system? You have options
Children in a classroom at a government-funded Jewish school in Jerusalem. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Children in a classroom at a government-funded Jewish school in Jerusalem. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

I no longer have school-age children at home, although I now work as a school psychologist and an instructor in a college of education. In my experience, conventional schooling works fairly well most of the time for most of children. However, there was a time many years ago when it was not working for my children, and we made the fairly radical (and desperate) decision to “forget about school” for a period of three years, and see where it would take us.

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A frequent topic of discussion among parents in my social circle lately has been the joys and agonies of being home with children when schools were closed. The current situation has led some families to consider whether home-based education might be in the best interests of their children and their family, even after the current crisis passes.

Some families who once fantasized about homeschooling and had a brief taste of it have now rejected the notion. Others have found that their children have thrived, whereas in the past they felt frustrated in the classroom.

It is important to mention that home-based learning in the current situation (“crisis remote schooling”) differs from homeschooling in several crucial respects – most importantly, the lack of choice involved, and the overall limitations on movement and outside resources. Still, the homeschooling forums on Facebook have been busier than ever lately, with parents asking for help submitting their first application and many experienced homeschoolers offering support.

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My own experience home-educating my three children (the youngest “home-pre-schooled”) was for the most part very positive, and the eventual transition back to conventional schooling (for a variety of reasons) was fairly straight-forward. I am grateful for the opportunities we had to learn together, through reading, playing, asking questions, and creating endless projects. I am also appreciative for the experiences they had in a diverse community of homeschoolers. I watched them become confident, creative, curious children, competent in life skills as well as academic skills. Homeschooling exposed us to a new way of life, and taught us to reflect on the meaning of education itself.

Who are the children being homeschooled?

Homeschooling is a radical movement in which parents decide to educate their children at home instead of sending them to a traditional school. Primarily an American phenomenon, it has been growing in popularity in Israel and around the world in recent years. Homeschooling can take place for all the child’s school years, or for part of them.

Why homeschool?

Although there are many reasons why parents choose to educate at home (note that the majority of the research comes from the US), the choice to homeschool boils down to three main motives: logistics, culture, and anti-establishment beliefs:

  1. Logistical motives – sometimes children are homeschooled because of logistical difficulties with getting the child to a traditional school setting. For example: children who live in rural areas who are unable to travel to school every day, children who work in fields that result in them missing too many days of school to keep up (child actors or athletes), or children who are unable to attend school due to chronic illness. Alternatively, some children are homeschooled because they are gifted or learning disabled, and there is no fitting framework for them to learn at in their area (often the case for Chabad families), leaving their parents to choose Homeschooling as the best option.
  2. Cultural motives – There are families who choose to homeschool their children because they believe that the education in public schools is lacking material regarding their culture, either ethnic or religious. Many fundamentalist religious families in America believe that the school system is too secular, and they want to limit their children’s exposure to that. Recently, there is a small but growing movement of African Americans who believe that the typical education is Euro-centric and damaging to their children.
  3. Anti-establishment motives – Some parents do not want their children to be exposed to government schooling, instead wanting them to remain creative and learn at their own pace. In their opinion, institutionalizing children in a traditional school is not effective because it requires the child to learn according to the pace of the other students and the curriculum, not necessarily the pace of the child. This belief corresponds with the philosophy of “unschooling.” Although there are no exact statistics regarding how many children learn at home for these reasons, the number is believed to be about 10 percent of American homeschoolers.

What does homeschooling entail?

There are two different approaches to home education which are very different ideologically but are generally lumped together under the category of homeschooling: “unschooling” and “curriculum-based school.”

“Curriculum-based school” (known by unschoolers as “school-in-a-box”) is when one or both parents decide to teach their children at home instead of at an established school. Normally it consists purchases a “boxed” curriculum, either workbooks or on the computer, which a parent supervises during set hours. Many states in America require this rigid approach to instruction, and many parents feel more comfortable with this “pre-packaged” approach to learning.

Unschooling is an educational philosophy which believes that children are natural learners when given the opportunity, and that conventional schooling is often harmful to a child’s development, academically and socially. The philosophy claims that learning is only effective when it is self-directed. Unschooling does not have set hours, a curriculum or grades, rather it allows the child to learn through playing, personal interests, books, online classes, family outings and more. Unschooling has a number of branches, one which is “world schooling,” where families travel around the world and learn about other cultures. Another type is project-based learning, where students learn through projects based on real-world challenges and their interests.

John Holt is credited with pioneering the Unschooling approach. After working for six years as an elementary school teacher, he wrote two books in which he described the problems he saw in the American school system. In the 1970s he began to advocate homeschooling (and later unschooling) because he claimed that the school system could not be rehabilitated. In his opinion, children would learn how to read on their own with no coercion if they were given the freedom to follow their interests, and provided with a rich and stimulating learning environment.

The drawbacks of homeschooling:

Although homeschooling appeals to many families in theory, it has drawbacks. In most cases, at least one parent needs to supervise the children, and some families cannot afford to maintain a non-working parent. (The cost of school and associated expenses nay somewhat offset this loss, especially if there are many children in the family.) Critics point out that staying at home doesn’t allow children proper socialization and leads to isolation from other cultures and worldviews. Proponents counter that exposure to the same group of same-age children each day is actually a limited form of socialization, and most homeschoolers have greater access than most children to a wide scope of diverse people.

Other opponents say that homeschooling leaves children with gaps in their knowledge, because the parents may not be qualified to teach their children, leading the child to be unable to develop the skills they require to function as adults. While this can be true, dedicated parents are generally motivated and capable of learning with their children and may also have a support network of other families learning in the same style or access to paid professional tutors (including on-line tutoring).

Homeschooling in Israel

Although homeschooling used to be a rarity in Israel, it is slowly gaining support, with hundreds of families choosing to educate their children at home. According to the Ministry of Education website, in 2013-2014, 448 pupils were given permission to homeschool, a rise of 220 percent from 10 years prior. There are an estimated 700-800 homeschoolers in Israel today. In order to get permission to homeschool in Israel, it is necessary to receive official authorization (although many families skip this step, with no apparent consequences). The Israeli education system believes that the proper place for children to be educated is within official educational institutions; however they claim to give consent to 95% of families looking to homeschool so long as there is an “educational atmosphere” in the home. Parents are required to supply a detailed program which will expose the child to various fields of knowledge (at least 55% of the knowledge in the educational system’s foundation program) including language skills, mathematics and social skills, provide opportunities for the child to interact with his or her age group, enable the child to develop skills in problem solving and technology, and enable to child to develop values relating to life in society. However, there doesn’t seem to be any agreement or consistency in standards or level of supervision at the current time. (The official regulations can be found here.

There are multiple groups of homeschoolers around Israel who meet on a regular basis to provide support for one another. A cursory search on Facebook displays groups in Hebrew and English, including an established group in Hebrew with 3,702 members, with over 220 new members in the last month. A newer group was created three years ago, with more than 1370 members, including almost 500 new members in the last month. A homeschooling group for Jewish observant English speakers in Israel was created eight years ago and boasts 240 members, while a more inclusive group of 340 members bills itself as discussion group for all homeschoolers in Israel, allowing posts in either in Hebrew or English.

Homeschooling as a movement reflects the dissatisfaction with the current educational system and allows parents to break away from the traditionally acceptable concept of school and educate their children in the way they believe to be fitting. In today’s Corona reality — it is good for parents to know that there are options.

The above was co-authored by Rena Kainan, BA student in Sociology and Anthropology at Hebrew University, and former homeschooler.

About the Author
Dr. Lisa Kainan is a psycho-educational consultant.
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