A common route in education for many of us starts with kindergarten before attending primary school, followed by secondary school.
Another route gaining popularity is homeschooling, which is seen as going against the grain.
In Malaysia, a growing number of parents have taken their children out of the public school system and opted for homeschooling.
Prior to 2003, parents in the country who wanted to homeschool their children can do so without restrictions. However, the Compulsory Education Act that was implemented in 2003 requires homeschoolers to apply for permission from the Education Ministry.
Parents who choose homeschooling as the education path for their children are those in favour of taking responsibility for their education. Taking charge can be liberating but how far can homeschoolers go in the next phase of life after homeschooling?
Four homeschoolers, who believe education is a journey and not a destination, share their stories on charting their paths towards adulthood at a Growing without Schooling forum recently.
HAJAR ONN, 20
In the last six years, Hajar’s learning experience has been a good mix of liberal arts education. She has also spent a considerable amount of time working for the community.
Hajar started homeschooling after completing Form One and went on to work, gaining experience in fields ranging from theatre and coding to fashion design over the years.
“When I was asked if I wanted to homeschool because my sister was already doing so, I thought ‘why not?’, initially thinking that it meant I do not have to do homework.”
When she first left school, she was so disillusioned with the concept of learning.
“Every time I thought of learning, it was ‘Oh, I have to sit down in a boring classroom and listen to a teacher talk.’
“But homeschooling requires a lot of patience and exploration besides dealing with the fear of making a mistake.
“There were a lot of times when I questioned what I was doing. Should I just stay in school?”
Homeschooled children have the chance to learn in a real-life context, which could be one reason for their advantageous outcomes. Hajar said her experiences in exploring her interest during her homeschool days have helped her today.
“I started with theatre because it was something I was interested in when I was younger but did not have enough confidence to get on stage. I also learnt coding out of interest and ended up joining a competition with my friends, and won second place competing against university students.”
The skills and traits learnt through all these experiences help her in her everyday life now.
“I apply the patience I learnt from coding to learning accounting now. When the accounts don’t balance, it can make you lose your mind. It tries your patience as you have to go through everything and identify where you went wrong.
“I hated public speaking when I was in school. But it’s not as scary to me now because I’ve sung and danced in public.”
While homeschooled students may not join clubs for co-curriculum activities, many of them, like Hajar, take up volunteerism which can boost their chances for admission into university, as long as they fulfil academic requirements.
It was while volunteering in Kelantan to train underprivileged women when Hajar realised that she likes fashion design.
Hajar came to a point where she wanted to learn more.
“I took online courses and read textbooks on my own because I was genuinely curious.”
Having decided to sit the International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE), Hajar started studying two months before the exams.
Last year, Hajar was accepted into Kalamazoo College in the United States and received a scholarship worth US$102,000 (RM427,650) covering half the total cost. However, she decided to pursue accountancy at Sunway College instead.
“One may wonder why I study accounting when I like fashion. But fashion is a high-risk industry and I do not see it as a safe path.
“I want an ACCA (Association of Chartered Certified Accountants) qualification as a safety net so that one day I can start earning money and support my interest in fashion.”
SHIREEN ALYSSA AZMIR, 15
The homeschool experience was an opportunity for Shireen Alyssa to be flexible and self-driven in pursuing her interests and education.
She is 15 but has been accepted for a three-year residential programme towards an International Baccalaureate Diploma in Japan. Homeschooled by choice, Shireen Alyssa, the second of four siblings convinced her parents to do so when she was 10.
Although a straight A pupil in school, she felt the stress of attending school when she turned 11. “I felt that school was doing more harm than good. School was just feeding me facts for exams and then I forgot them later on.
“It took me a month to gather courage and ask my mom if I could quit school. She asked me to share the reasons for my request.
“I put up Post-it Notes with my reasons on the wall. On one of the notes, I wrote ‘I am not a robot. I can’t memorise 50,000 facts’. I also commented on the fact that we were not allowed to talk to friends even during recess.”
Her mother agreed to her request on condition that she was not going to be her teacher as Shireen Alisa has one older brother and two younger siblings. The first year became a trial year and a “detox period” for Shireen Alisa.
“I was so used to having everything handed to me with instructions but there was no one to do that anymore. Initially, I felt so lost but I had to discard my school mindset that I needed a teacher to learn.”
So Khan Academy, an online learning platform, became her best friend.
“Being self-taught is liberating but it is also challenging. Sometimes you feel like you are doing nothing and going nowhere.
“When you feel like this, it is time to seek outside help such as online courses by Stanford University.
“People are surprised how I got into the writing course but it is free. You only need the courage to enrol in it.”
On finding one’s passion, Shireen Alisa said: “Try everything and see what sticks. Find something as a way for you to escape.
“I joined a coding challenge with three friends and created an app from scratch which we named Autism Connects, a platform to help autistic entrepreneurs to find buyers.”
It was from that experience she realised that coding was not for her. “But it resulted in a part-time internship to build a website for an independent software company . And that’s still ongoing until today. Even though I don’t like coding, the pay is good and it looks good in my resume.”
It was also through homeschooling that she tried different activities and discovered her passion for language.
“I started off learning Japanese, German, Italian and Spanish. It was over ambitious so I dropped Italian and Spanish to focus on Japanese and German.”
Last year, she went to a summer school at United World College (UWC) in Japan for two weeks.
“It was like a leap of faith as I had to put my trust in school again. It was absolutely terrifying to go back to school for even just two days.”
The experience turned out so well that she joined the Cambridge Creative Writing programme for two weeks.
“I also applied for a three-year International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme which is equivalent to A Levels. I got in the second round and attended an interview on Skype. UWC College has awarded me a scholarship but I need to spend a significant amount on air travel and pocket money.
“My mom and I wrote and published a memoir. We are on a book tour to raise funds for my studies.” For details, visit bit.ly/GrowingWithoutSchoolingTour
LUQMAN AVICENNA, 22
Luqman went through a diverse integrated learning experience and spent a considerable amount of time working for the community. His spirit of curiosity and independence helped to shape his education.
His homeschool journey started after sitting the Penilaian Menengah Rendah (PMR) exam in Form Three at a public school.
After scoring straight As in PMR, Luqman decided on homeschooling as he felt that he spent his time memorising for exams when at school.
“I scored 7Bs and 1E in my trial exam. After getting the not-so-encouraging results, I decided to study intensively for the real exam.”
But he felt that the hours spent preparing to score in the exam was a poor use of his time.
“I should have focused on other more beneficial experiences,” he said.
He believes empowering one to educate oneself can be done through exposure to different experiences.
Last year, Luqman was offered a US$120,000 scholarship to pursue a liberal arts degree at Warren Wilson College, US. However, he decided to continue working full-time as a graphic designer for EcoKnights, one of the leading non-governmental organisations for environment in Malaysia.
“I studied for college admission tests, received a scholarship offer but we had to decline it because it was still beyond our financial capability. So I decided to join the workforce, applied for a multitude of jobs before I got an offer as a graphic designer.
“A degree is not the only path to a successful career. There are many opportunities for anyone who wants to find them. You just need perseverance to look for them and have the courage to ask,” said Luqman who has travelled to Bali and San Francisco on cultural exchange programmes.
“I have rubbed shoulders with corporate figures in swanky hotel ballrooms and dirtied my hands building houses for the Orang Asli and fed the urban poor on the streets of Kuala Lumpur.”
The perception of homeschooling is that it is very difficult to get employment.
“I know what it’s like to be a homeschooler trying to get a job without a degree. I am not going to lie. It’s not easy.”
But Luqman managed to secure a job by challenging himself in the belief that it can create value, in addition to paper qualification.
“When you go into the workforce, it doesn’t matter how smart you are if you can’t sell your idea. Of course, it does not work for certain professions such as architects and doctors. But most industries will value the ability to get the job done.
“For my job interview, I went to the next level by preparing in advance. I went to the firm’s Facebook page, scrapped it and downloaded Adobe Illustrator, which I learnt in a free trial, to create rudimentary infographics for the firm in three days.
“I said ‘Here’s what I see impacting your company and here’s what you can do with the infographics.’
“At the end of the day, if you can secure the interview, and you can show, you can demonstrate, you can provide value to your employer on a consistent basis, most of them will have no problems with your lack of a degree.”
He thinks that “following your passion” may not be the best advice.
“You don’t know your passion until you really do it as a job. At times when I tell people I’m a graphic designer, they go like ‘wow, you must be so passionate’ but I’ll be like ‘um... ‘.
“When you wake up to go to work in the morning knowing that this is the third bunting you have to design in a week and tomorrow is the deadline, it won’t be your passion.”
KARLSON TAY, 18
Homeschooled since the age of 13, it offered Tay ample free time to pursue various interests. He self-studied and obtained 8As and 1B in the IGCSE exam. He took a gap year before deciding on his next adventure.
“I first heard about homeschooling when I was 12. The year I was supposed to enter secondary school, I started homeschooling.
“My initial homeschooling days involved reading books, doing math following the Singapore syllabus, cleaning the floor, cooking, washing the dishes, and doing my laundry which I believe is a diverse and balanced schedule.
“I read history, geography, science, literature and Malay books. I listened to music, played video games and watched hours of anime. I joined co-op (homeschooling families who come together to learn from and with one another) with two families and we gathered once a week to learn and study together. We started with Malaysian history, expanding to world history and eventually to French.”
Although he procrastinated, motivation played a crucial role for him to study and sit the exams.
“Fear also played a part. My father threatened to send my siblings back to school if I didn’t do well in my exams.”
It took him two years to prepare and study for IGCSE on his own.
“I spent three months reading half of a biology textbook. I picked it up again after half a year and had to start from the first page again. It took me a month to learn biology again and I took notes this time.
“I attended tuition for English and additional mathematics, each taking three to four hours a week for half a year.
“During that time, I also studied physics and chemistry textbooks. With six months to spare before the exam, I watched Khan Academy chemistry videos because I found the subject difficult.
“I answered past exam questions to gauge my skills.”
He is now working as a technician at a company that installs access cards, CCTVs and alarm systems.
“I wanted to wait as long as possible before I go to university but it will be harder if I delayed my studies. I will start my tertiary education in July.”