Homeschooling: Hacking Malaysia’s education system

The Malaysian education system is in dire straits for a long time, with little signs of improvement in the near future. Chong Wai Leng, book author of “Learning Beyond Schooling: Bringing Out Children’s True Potentials”, remarks that our school system has seen almost no improvement in the past three decades.

“Learning Beyond Schooling” by Chong Wai Leng (photo from kosmo.com.my)

Our education system is still talking in circles about the same problems and the lack of effective solutions even after three decades. New education policies are introduced, only to be rescinded years later. The latest example of such flip-flop policies is the reversion from English to Malay language as a medium of instruction in schools.

As a university lecturer at a local university here, I have the opportunity to examine the final product of our national schools. My observations are grim. University students generally lack ambition and self-learning ability. In addition, their command of English ranges from poor to atrocious.

Local public universities, however, cannot stand faultless. In the past few years, local universities have shifted their focus from teaching excellence to research excellence. Anxieties over university rankings mean that university lecturers today are valued more for their contribution to research than to teaching. Lecturers’ time spent on students is sometimes seen as an obstacle to important research work.

Seeing the ominous condition of our education system have caused some parents to try homeschooling, where parents educate their children at home. I picked up the book “Learning Beyond Schooling” by Chong Wai Leng because I was curious about this alternative but very much low-key route to education.

Author Wai Leng complains about the state of our schools that resort too much on academic performance and less on character building that includes the ability to find answers and to learn independently. Where public schools fail because of ineffective, stopgap government policies, Chinese schools fail too because of their heavy-handed approach on academic achievement through rote-learning and excessive homework and pressure on students to succeed. Other school types such as religious schools and Tamil schools fail as well for several reasons such as lack of funding and political will. Private schools are not different, remarks Wai Leng. These schools may have impressive facilities and infrastructure, but they too face pressure to push their students to achieve academic success.

Homeschooling means freedom to cater to your children’s interests, strengths, and pace in learning (photo from thestar.com.my)

Learning, says Wai Leng, should be a culture that encourages curiosity and inquisitiveness in children. Such a culture is missing in today’s schools. Instead, children are told to sit still and be quiet in class, and learning success is only gauged via test scores. School has become a pressure cooker: too much homework, over reliance on examination success, and too much “head” knowledge and too little “heart” knowledge.

Wai Leng believes that children should have the skills to think creatively, analyze, and adapt to situations quickly. Children should also be given the freedom to create their future rather than having a herd mentality. Parents are the best educators for their children, says Wai Leng, because they understand their children the best: how their children learn, their weaknesses and strengths, and their interests. Wai Leng also believes that children should be given the freedom to learn what they want and how they want to learn. Children should not be made to feel helpless but instead taught to believe that they can make an impact on this world in their own way.

Homeschooling does not have to be fully indoors. Children can be brought outdoors to fortify and enhance the learning experience (photo from nst.com.my)

Although Wai Leng writes much to support homeschooling, she writes very little on how parents can prepare themselves to homeschool, the resources they would need, and problems they would face during homeschooling and the solutions they might find useful.

It is clear from the book, however, that homeschooling is not for everyone. Decision to homeschool our children requires a change in priorities and lifestyle. Not everyone would have the time or flexibility to change their life or work style to educate their children at home.

Wai Leng’s family: KV Soon with daughters Amrita (left) and Samanta in a homeschool session (photo from thenutgraph.com)

Convincing people about homeschooling would require more than reading just this book. There are plenty of resources out there, but it would require some effort to collect these information and to ponder about the benefits and drawbacks of homeschooling. Wai Leng has a site about homeschooling but that too, like her book, lacks depth in discussion about homeschooling.

Consequently, I found Wai Leng’s book frustrating. Her book contains many anecdotes or people’s testimonies supporting homeschooling. While I agree with the importance of these testimonies, I felt the book should have covered many more important details for parents to consider. Homeschooling is a big, life-changing decision for parents.

One of the important information lacking in Wai Leng’s book is: “What is the Malaysian government’s stance on homeschooling?” I managed to find a site that says that the government does have a provision for homeschooling provided the child either has learning difficulties or is extremely gifted to make the child unsuited for conventional schools. The parents can also homeschool if they are constantly traveling abroad. Nonetheless, homeschooling syllabus must also follow the national curriculum.

Most importantly, however, parents must seek written permission to homeschool their children from the government. But from my reading in local homeschooling sites, it appears that some (if not most) parents do not follow the law.

Another important information not covered in-depth in Wai Leng’s book is: “How long can we homeschool our children?” While it would be easy for most parents to teach the fundamentals, teaching more advanced topics like chemistry, biology, or calculus might be daunting and beyond the capabilities for some parents. Wai Leng’s book merely brushes off this question by saying that it is left to the children to seek out the information for themselves. Hmm….

Ultimately, the key message about homeschooling in Wai Leng’s book is freedom – freedom to hack or customize the school education system to suit our children the best. Homeschooling can be very structured (where parents purchase and follow overseas homeschooling curriculum) or unstructured. The decision of how to educate rests on the parents and children so that learning becomes a pleasant experience to both parents and children.

But as for my wife and I, homeschooling is not the right path for us and for Zachary, our only son.


Update (27 Sept. 2012): Read Chong Wai Leng’s (author of “Learning Beyond Schooling”) response to my comments about her book and homeschooling. Also read Homefrontier’s comments on this blog.

From these homeschoolers, I’ve been called a “socialist” (though I am unsure how that applies in this case), and I was even called “stuck within the system”. Wow, talk about being defensive…you might think I have just insulted their bible…

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