Most expat families who are new to Beijing are faced with two options when it comes to enrolling their children in schools: international schools with tuitions that they might not able to afford or local Chinese schools taught exclusively in Mandarin with a curriculum completely foreign to their children. These limited options led Americans Geoff and Wendy Lewis, who moved to Beijing five months ago with their three children, Garrett, 10, Brendan, 9, and Aubrianne, 7, to a third alternative – home-schooling. Home-schooling suits many families for a variety of reasons: flexibility to accommodate children that learn at a faster (or slower) pace, a lack of an intimidating classroom environment, and the luxury of being able to spend more time with their children.
When the Lewis family arrived in Beijing, they enrolled their children in a local Chinese school, but their kids couldn’t speak or understand Chinese. Although the children enjoyed the social atmosphere, the situation simply didn’t work for them.
The Lewis family have been home-schooling since January, and by their own admission, Geoff and Wendy are learning about it as they go – with online support and guidance from the Utah-based MAESAR Academy. Although the MAESAR academy curriculum provides most of the structure for the Lewis children’s curriculum, making learning fun – or even better, making fun an educational experience – is paramount to ensuring that Garrett, Brendan and Aubrianne are not held back. “Garrett is really interested in archaeology and paleontology, so for the science part of his curriculum, we go to the Museum of Natural History. If a kid is interested in the subject, they’re going to retain more information and learn more,” says Wendy.
Although concerns are often raised during a discussion about home-schooling, it’s more likely that the children will move further ahead of their peers with a tailored curriculum suited to their interests and progress at a pace that suits their abilities. “This way they don’t have to wait for the other kids to catch up. If they get it, they get it, and we move on,” says Wendy.
Studies show that home-schooled kids often outperform regular students despite claims of setbacks in their social skills. Over 1.5 million kids are home-schooled in the US, and a home-schooling experience also makes the transition to a new country smoother – the teachers and curriculum remain the same.
Even before Deborah Lukic and her husband Rad moved from Los Angeles to Beijing five years ago, their two children – daughter Adishakti, 9, and son Div, 7 – were home-schooled (and had been since pre-school age). This decision was a no-brainer for Lukic, who due to her six years in teaching 2- to 8-year-olds and training teachers back in LA, felt she could teach in a more effective way – she felt that schools deliver glorified “obedience training” and she wanted to shape her children’s curriculum to their interests.
Deborah was able to apply some of the best practices that she’d been privy to during her years in the profession and has devised her own “thematic, interdisciplinary” curriculum that she herself administers to her children. “This approach means we explore a given theme through all areas – starting with a topic like immigration for instance, and weaving together all the relevant areas of history, language, science, etc., so it’s not just a breakdown of subjects in a void.” Deborah places a lot of emphasis on the real-world application of the learning that goes on in her “classroom,” supplementing book-based study with outings to museums and field trips for a hands-on appreciation of whatever it is the kids are learning about. The idea is that they develop an understanding – and an appreciation – of how the world works in a practical, not just a theoretical sense.
But while Deborah has her own definitive views when it comes to implementing her children’s academic learning structures, she remains cognizant of the importance of peer interaction. To ensure that Adishakti and Div don’t miss out on those formative lessons in socialization that most children absorb during their schooldays, she brings Adishakti and Div to kung fu class every Thursday evening. These extracurricular activities are very much a part of their curriculum – lessons in self-discipline, creativity and enjoyment , as well as socialization with other children.
There’s also the added factor of meeting an individual child’s specific needs. Geoff and Wendy have had to contend with the fact that Brendan is mildly autistic. After having mixed experiences with the handling of Brendan’s autism by public schools in Texas, Hawaii and California, and after experiencing emotional difficulties with Garrett, who had suffered from bullying, Geoff admits, “We might have moved to home-schooling anyway.” Their move to China proved to be the catalyst for change, and the Lewis family now joins a growing number of parents in the Beijing expat community who choose to teach their children at home. There are currently over 50 members of the Beijing Home-Schoolers’ Yahoo Group, which provides a social network and forum for home-schooling parents.
However, the isolation of a home-schooling environment can present several pitfalls: a lack of diversity, an absence of peer support, a lack of resources such as science and technology labs, teacher expertise and excursion opportunities.
Some argue that special-needs children, or children who experience emotional problems at school, are worthy candidates for home-schooling. Hannah Brunton, Lower School Music Specialist and Year 7 Tutor at Harrow International School, believes that schools should be catering for those at a disadvantage and argues that every effort should be made to ensure that an orthodox, classroom-based learning environment is accessible – and preferable – for all children, irrespective of circumstance. “If the child is having problems, or if something isn’t working, it’s the school’s responsibility to make things better. We, as educators should do everything in our power to overcome any difficulties a schoolchild faces; it’s part of our ‘duty of care.’ After all, school is where we learn to interact, and accept differences between ourselves and others,” Brunton adds.
Alasdair MacRae, Senior Tutor at Harrow International School, believes the accusation that schools adopt a catch-all approach to learning is too simplistic. “Sometimes there can be emotional or psychological reasons for home-schooling, but I still think there are things that [children]miss out on – school teaches children how to become members of society,” MacRae says.
But some families find the opposite is true. American Julie Johnson is often approached by strangers who comment on her home-schooled daughter’s mature confidence level. “Home-schooled kids, like Kaylen, are at peace with themselves – they skip the source of stress in their childhood that they’d get at school,” says Johnson.
American Bill Moody has also found that his two sons are more, not less, outgoing and adventurous. “My oldest son, Matthew, is backpacking through Europe now,” he says. Moody also believes that his family’s home-schooling methods are one of the reasons his family could make the move to China. “Home-schooling frees you up to do something like this. We weren’t tied down. This is a hands-on education experience – the best you can get.” Ian Cook