I wrote this article during my final semester of studying journalism at the University of Technology, Sydney.
A rise of online resources has encouraged a DIY-teaching attitude for parents. Thanks to the internet, home school parents have transformed into “education experts”. But, is this a good thing?
On this Friday morning, eight-year-old Asharli walks over to the dining table and hands her mother, Fiona, a piece of paper which reads:
Why I like home school:
- Home school is fun
- Lets you spend time with your family
- Is really quick because there is less people
- Favourite things are science, maths, art and cocking
“Cooking,” Fiona laughs. “We need to work on her spelling.”
For less than one school-term, Fiona Collins has been teaching children in her home. But she is not a qualified teacher.
Asharli is being home educated along with her thirteen-year-old brother Josh and nine-year-old sister Tishara. Fiona never considered home education until Josh asked her to. “I didn’t like school at all,” Josh explains. “My class was very loud and half the time I had to wait for the teacher to tell them to calm down. I was always the first to finish and I never felt like I learnt anything. I asked for harder homework and asked if they had work to do that was new to me. But they didn’t give me anything.”
I notice that the three freckled siblings each have hair in differing shades of red, but their mother has noticed a much more significant difference between them: “Asharli is a kinaesthetic learner, so she needs movement and action. Tishara is a visual learner, so she works better with diagrams and documentaries. Josh is numerical and he learns best if he’s looking and hearing at the same time.”
Previously a stay-at-home mum, Fiona has clearly learnt what’s necessary in order for her kids to be educated in the comfort of their home. But this hasn’t always been the case. “I was concerned with my ability to teach them. I second-guessed myself the whole way through the registration process, thinking ‘can I really do this?’ Josh’s dad, who is not my husband, is still really not happy with the situation. His big thing is, ‘You’ve never been to uni, you’re not a teacher, so how can you teach them these things?’”
But her confidence grew quickly, all thanks to one thing: the internet.
“I Googled ‘home school’ and started sifting through different articles.” And with 19,900,000 different webpages that currently make up this virtual library, there was a lot to sift through! “The more I researched, I realised that in a home school environment, it’s not really up to me to teach my kids, it’s up to me to help them learn – I help them figure how to find the answer to their questions. So that made me think, ‘OK, I can do that. I don’t have to know everything’,” she shares. “I’ve never taught before and don’t know how to write a curriculum, but I looked through samples online of what other people have done and I got ideas. It made it much less overwhelming.”
Affiliated with the Home Education Association (HEA), home school parent Karleen Gribble says, “I think that part of the reason why more people are home educating is because there are lots of websites now which make it so much easier to get information. It’s a way for people to get support that they couldn’t get in the past.”
But not everyone is happy with the array of resources and information available online.
David Zyngier, senior education lecturer at Monash University and former state school teacher and principal, believes that teaching children is a difficult process, with teachers needing to complete four years at university, be mentored by experienced teachers during internships where their teaching is put into context, and then face stringent registration controls.
“Education, like every other profession, requires serious qualifications and registration with official boards for entry,” he says. “No one allows people to practise medicine, law or dentistry, or do ones’ own electrical or plumbing in Australia. It is illegal. People go to jail for fraud if they get caught. So why should education be any different? Just because one can read and write or went to school does not make a parent expert enough to teach their children.”
Additionally, the Department of Education introduced a framework earlier this year that caters for the continual development of professional teachers. Home educators do not have this opportunity to strengthen their teaching skills.
But there remain two particular Australian home school websites that Fiona, and many others, believes are well-informed and containing copious amounts of advice: Homeschooling Downunder and The Educating Parent.
Homeschooling Downunder is run by Michelle Morrow. According to The Conversation, the number of registered home schooled students in Australia rises annually –100% over six years in Victoria, 50% over two years in the ACT, 50% over eight years in South Australia, and 40% over four years in NSW – and Morrow says that her site’s popularity simultaneously grows each year. It currently averages on 83,000 page views and 1500 hits each month. The Educating Parent is run by Beverley Paine. She began home educating her children thirty years ago.
Morrow has been home schooling for fourteen years. In 2006, the idea for her website was born. “A friend and I were home schooling our kids, looking at American resources and wishing that they existed for Australians. So we thought, ‘Oh whatever, we’ll just do it ourselves’.” Today her desire is to provide home schooling families with “quality home schooling resources”, and each of these resources has been trialled on her own children.
Paine has been a prolific home education writer and supporter since 1989. “I needed to become more efficient at delivering information to families. So I learned how to build a website and start my own online support groups. It’s very humbling to receive comments that I have helped to positively change the way that people educate and parent their children.”
Countless parents have made Homeschooling Downunder and The Educating Parent their home school bibles despite the fact that Morrow comes from a nursing background, and ill-health prevented Paine from completing an early childhood education degree. Between them, there’s no teaching qualification in sight.
According to research compiled by Talina Drabsch for the NSW Parliamentary Research Service website, a common concern about home schooling is that teaching is underrated in the community – there is a lack of understanding of what it takes to be a really effective teacher, and parents may lack the necessary skills. People are grounded in the idea that teaching is done by formally-educated, official teachers.
But Paine says that a teaching degree is not what qualifies her to create online resources: “I’m passionate about learning and home education, and I believe that this is what people recognise when they make contact with me and is also what creates and maintains my ‘credibility’.”
Morrow agrees: “The beauty of home schooling is choice,” she says. “Everybody has a choice to buy my resources if they want to, so I don’t have to be ‘credible’ in everyone’s eyes. You as the teacher can choose how my ideas are presented to your student.”
Fiona describes her first encounter with these popular Australian websites: “It connected and resonated with me. It just made sense to me, so I trusted that it was right for my children. There have been opinions that I’ve read online where I’ve thought, ‘Hmm…That’s not how I would do it’, but once I started teaching I understood how different things work for different families – there’s no two home schools that are the same.”
And perhaps the greatest reason why a home education writer with no teaching background appeals to so many people is because, according to a study conducted by the Australian Home Education Advisory Service Director Glenda Jackson (who also has a PhD in home schooling in Australia), few home school parents in Australia have formal teaching qualifications themselves.
For many parents, the internet has enabled and encouraged a ‘Do It Yourself’ credo when it comes to educating children, and confidence can be found in Jackson’s research which concludes that an absence of teaching qualification has been found not to affect the learning outcomes of students. And in terms of outcomes, she points to studies which prove that Australian home educated children have achieved an equal or higher than average result to their formally educated peers.
However, Jackson’s research shows that home school parents are not exempt from seeing any positive aspects of traditional teaching. Fiona says, “I wouldn’t trust a stranger to teach my children for twelve years if they weren’t qualified.” She reflects on how unique her own three children are. “If I had to deal with twenty children with different backgrounds and learning styles, then I’d be wanting some sort of skill-set. I take my hat off to teachers for teaching and dealing with so many different kids at the same time, but the present system means that a lot of kids do fall through the cracks.”
Now a home education parent, ex-teacher Vivienne Fox says, “Having school experience doesn’t help you home educate because being a teacher is mostly about behaviour management. At home, you don’t have large numbers of children to control. In fact sometimes it’s a hindrance because it takes a brain shift to realise that learning actually happens all the time, from the moment kids get up to the moment they go to bed – not just in a classroom.”
The ability to well-educate ones children has been further enhanced by the rise of social media platforms across the internet. Morrow says that there is a vibrant online home schooling community, and Fiona found it easily: “I joined the local Facebook group straight away. When I was freaking out during the registration process, I was able to ask questions on there. You get five or six different people who give you advice, so that was really handy. It’s also where the different activities that home school kids do are organised.”
Currently, Facebook page Australian Homeschool Network has 4,122 likes, Facebook group Homeschool Australia has 3,357 members, and Paine’s Facebook group The Educating Parents Homeschooling and Unschooling has 2,807 members.
Paine explains that when she first started home schooling, it was very hard for home educators to contact each other in order to swap ideas, encourage political support, and share reviews and opinions about the different resources that they were using. “There has been an explosion of support groups since the arrival of Facebook: getting help or information has never been easier. People exchange information much faster and if a resource isn’t trustworthy, that information quickly does the round of the online support groups.”
Today, Josh is in love with his home education. “I love how I can experiment with things and focus on learning what I like – I’ve learnt how to create my own app. I’ve made a few now and I’m planning on publishing some to the app store and making some money from it.”
Gribble says that being a home educator “can be really daunting for parents, particularly if they’re taking a child out of school.” I asked Fiona where she’d be if she didn’t have access to the internet. “I genuinely don’t think I’d be home schooling,” she said. “I don’t think that I would’ve felt at all capable.
“The resources on the internet are just amazing, and the ability to connect – Facebook has been invaluable! Without the internet, it would be that much harder! When I look at people’s websites, it gives me confidence to know that I can do it too. And that’s also where I find a lot of ideas that I probably wouldn’t have thought of myself.”
She says that anyone who is unsatisfied with how their children are going at school should research home schooling. “There are so many places online where you can find information. If you have the ability to be at home with your children, it’s actually not as hard as you think it would be.”
We’re in the lounge and she points out a laundry basket that contains the kid’s old school uniforms. Josh is doing maths on the computer while Asharli and Tishara read books, their legs sprawled across the couch. Fiona turns to them: “Do any of you want to go back to school?” They shake their heads vigorously.