Deciding to homeschool was one of the most exciting times in my life as a parent. I had always loved the idea of homeschooling, but never thought I would be able or willing to take the plunge. When my husband and I finally determined that I should give it a try I immediately became excited about the possibilities of creating a personal educational plan for my little ones.
First on the list of to do’s was to choose a curriculum. I quickly realized though that there were far too many choices available and my excitement quickly turned into trepidation, as I began to fear making the wrong one. After some research and conversations with experienced homeschooling friends, I realized that I needed to first identify my educational philosophy and then choose a curriculum that fit it.
Much has been written about educational philosophy, but a very basic understanding would be that it is a set of guiding principles that consider the following: how individual children learn best, what subjects should be studied, and how and from what perspective should they be a taught. In a nutshell, your philosophy or beliefs about education will help you decide what method you should use, and your method will inform your curriculum choices.
My understanding of educational philosophy was very basic in the early days of my homeschooling career, but even so, learning about the different approaches to home education, helped me narrow down my curriculum choices and make a confident decision about what resources I wanted to use to help me get started educating my children at home.
Here’s a list of some of the most popular homeschooling educational philosophies and methods, the curriculum that fits them, and the pros and cons of each:
The Traditional Method
This is most likely the way you were taught if you attended a traditional public or private school. This approach uses textbooks, workbooks/sheets, quizzes and tests, and teacher’s manuals to methodically master individual subject content.
Abeka, ACE PACEs, BJU Press, Alpha Omega Publications, Christian Liberty Press, Saxon Math, Notgrass
- Easy to follow and implement
- Follows a standard scope and sequence
- Incorporates periodic quizzes and tests to evaluate comprehension and mastery
- Fosters independent learning
- Relatively easy to administrate for the homeschooling mother who has a wide age and grade range of students
- Doesn’t account for student’s different learning styles
- Emphasizes collecting facts as a means of education rather than learning through meaningful experiences
- Different ages are all doing separate things as opposed to learning the same things together as a family
- Can be less engaging for individual students
The Classical Method
A classical approach focuses on the progression of a student’s natural development through three distinct stages known as the trivium: grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric.
The grammar stage includes students in kindergarten through 6th grade, where the basics of reading, writing, spelling, math, and Latin and/or Greek are covered. Additionally, students in this stage will learn listening and observation skills and will spend a significant amount of time memorizing facts that will later serve as a point of reference for deeper study in the subsequent dialectic and rhetoric stages.
The dialectic stage includes students in 7th and 8th grade and can sometimes extend into the 9th grade, where students begin to assert independence and demonstrate the ability for abstract thought, as evidenced through becoming increasingly argumentative or opinionated. The goal of this stage is to focus on the skills of logic, speech, writing, and critical thinking to identify logical fallacies, engage academic content in a more meaningful way, and to understand the why and how behind the subjects that are being studied. A more specific focus on the subject areas of Latin and/or Greek, writing, history, theology, research, science, and higher math characterize this stage.
The rhetoric stage includes students in 9th through 12th grade, where students begin to master subject content and teach back what they have learned. The goal of this stage is for the student to use language effectively both as a persuasive writer and eloquent speaker. Subject areas include continued language study of Latin and/or Greek, essay and analytical writing, history, philosophy, theology, literature, research, science, fine arts, speech and debate, Socratic dialogue, and higher math.
A Well-Trained Mind by Susan Wise Bauer, various subject titles also by Bauer including, The Story of the World, The Complete Writer, and Grammar for the Well-Trained Mind. Also, BiblioPlan for Families, Veritas Press, Memoria Press, Classical Conversations, Classical Academic Press, and Trisms.
- Tailored to a student’s natural stages of development
- Helps students learn how to memorize
- Focuses on thinking, writing, and speaking skills which have application in all areas of life
- Teaches students to learn for themselves
- Connects all subject areas together
- Helps students identify and articulate the ideas and underlying philosophies behind a wide range of subjects
- Emphasis on memorization in the early years can be too rigorous or repetitive for some students
- Emphasis on ancient languages which can be difficult
- Teacher intensive
- Absence of a consistent means of evaluating student comprehension and growth
- Can be weak in the math and sciences
- Very different from the way many homeschooling parents were educated and thus may require a steep learning curve for parent teachers
The Charlotte Mason Method
Charlotte Mason was a distinguished British educator, living in the late 1800s, whose work and educational methods have had a wide and lasting influence. She dared to assert that “school” should be enjoyable for a child and emphasized not only the fundamentals of reading, writing, and arithmetic, but also the formation of a child’s character and the development of good habits. Because her ideas were so practical, and her solutions were well-tested and creative, particularly when it came to identifying common problems in education and child-rearing, it’s no wonder her educational philosophies have become popular amongst homeschoolers.
Key aspects of her philosophy included nature study, shorter lessons, learning the language arts skills of narration and dictation, reading “living books”, as opposed to text books, acquiring knowledge and understanding through experiences and explorations, and not just by reading, the formation of good habits, and fostering and encouraging a lifelong love of learning.
A typical day for a homeschooling parent utilizing a Charlotte Mason approach might include a nature walk, short reading, writing, and math lessons, preferably introduced in gentle ways and incorporated through activities such as household chores, baking, cooking, and shopping, reading aloud “living books” that draw children into a specific time period or circumstance in order to “show” and “experience” history or life through engaging stories, and completing household chores with a focus on forming good habits.
More Charlotte Mason Education: A Home-Schooling How-To Manual by Catherine Levison, The Original Homeschooling Series, six volumes by Charlotte Mason, When Children Love to Learn: A Practical Application of Charlotte Mason’s Philosophy for Today by Elaine Cooper, and For the Children’s Sake by Susan Schaeffer MacCaulay
- Students are active participants in learning
- Offers life experiences and not just traditional school experiences
- Encourages creativity and meaningful time in nature
- Promotes learning through play and discovery
- Minimizes boring busy work
- Is sensitive to the natural development of the student as they mature and are able to comprehend more complex ideas
- Introduces students to quality art and literature.
- Can be overly child centered
- May not provide enough opportunities for children to challenge themselves to accomplish tasks that while necessary may not be enjoyable
- Parents will need to be deliberate about covering each of the subject areas by carefully choosing books and resources
- May create gaps in learning
- Higher level studies in science and math can be neglected in favor of art and literature
The Unit-Study Method
This creative, hands-on method seeks to go deeper into individual subjects or topics or combines several subjects under one-unifying theme.
For instance, if your child is interested in dogs, together you might learn all about dog breeds and how they came to be, how to care for and train a dog, things to consider when buying or adopting a dog, or you might have your child volunteer at a dog shelter or learn how to build a dog house. By indulging your child’s interests in dogs you can create opportunities to learn science, specifically cynology (the zoological approach to the study of dogs) when learning about dog breeds, the practical arts of pet care and training, critical thinking skills when considering what kind of dog to buy or adopt, compassion and service to the community through volunteer work with dogs, and math and architecture when designing and measuring materials to build a dog house.
This type of unit study approach to education can be meaningful for the student who is less of a propositional learner (one who learns best through reading and writing) and more of a kinesthetic learner (one who learns best through engaging and interesting physical experiences).
A unit study approach can also be ideal for large families, with multiple children in different grade levels because a single unit study can be easily modified to meet each child’s needs and capabilities and can also streamline and condense the homeschooling parent’s lesson plans. For example, if the entire family is studying American history, younger students could memorize the order of the presidents and make a poster presentation highlighting their favorite one, while older students could memorize a famous historical speech and write a five-paragraph persuasive essay on the same. Other subjects could be integrated into the history study as well, highlighting what was happening in the scientific world during the founding of America, preparing meals and baking common recipes from that time-period, learning spelling words from the history reading, etc.
The Homeschool Daily Planner for Unit Studies, by Aaron Publishing, The Prairie Primer: A Literature Based Unit Study Utilizing the Little House Series, by Margie Gray, the Weaver Curriculum, and Notgrass
- Keeps students engaged in topics they are interested in
- Individualized education
- Encourages creativity and independent thinking
- Presents a more natural way to learn
- Provides a broad view of subjects
- Can save money on curriculum by making good use of the local library
- Keeps the family together in learning while at the same time levels specific content to the individual grade levels
- Placing all subjects in context
- Easy to leave gaps in learning if not deliberate enough in covering a typical educational scope and sequence
- Some subjects may not get enough time and attention
- Requires planning and creativity
- Can be hard to assess learning and mastery of skills
- Makes record keeping difficult
- Might exhaust a student who is a propositional learner
The Literature Based Method
The literature-based method of homeschooling teaches core subjects using high-quality literature and interesting books written by experts. Learning through biographies, autobiographies, ancient texts, original documents, and historical fiction is central. Science may be explored through children’s books, online magazines, journal articles, or chapter books. The idea is to include books that are characterized by literary excellence and whose authors are respected, with knowledge in and passion for their subject matter.
Learning Language Arts Through Literature, Progeny Press, Total Language Plus, Institute for Excellence in Writing, Beautiful Feet Books, Sonlight
- Exposes students to well written literature
- Students learn the nuance of language in context
- Develops higher level thinking and communication skills
- Helps students consider and critique varying viewpoints
- Frustrating for students who are not strong readers or who learn better with a more hands-on approach
- May be difficult to assess achievement in specific subjects
- Requires more planning on the part of the homeschooling parent
- Provides less structure
- Finding literature selections that address certain skills may be difficult
- Could be difficult to keep pace with a large amount of reading
The Unschooling Method
Also referred to as delight-direct learning or natural learning, this method does not follow any particular curriculum or scheduled plan. Children are encouraged to pursue their own interests with the support and guidance of their parents. The thinking behind this relaxed approach to education is that children are naturally curious and typically love to learn new things; therefore, education should not be a laboratory experience, but rather a way of life. In this type of approach there is no difference between living and learning. The whole world is a classroom.
How Children Learn by John Holt, The Unschooling Handbook by Mary Griffith, Home Grown: Adventures in Parenting by Ben Hewitt, Weapons of Mass Destruction by John Taylor Gatto
Requires little planning, children are given plenty of time to explore, discover, and interact in the real world, children are more likely to love learning and may experience less academic frustration, fosters curiosity, encourages children and families to enjoy experiencing life together, encourages a discipleship dynamic between children and parents.
Lacks structure and security, very child-centered, may create learning gaps, difficult to assess progress, very counter-cultural and may invite criticism from family and friends, may assume too much regarding what children will naturally want to accomplish on their own.
As you can see from the list above that there are advantages and disadvantages to each method. There is no one size fits all when it comes to home education. The beauty of schooling at home is that it allows you to forge your children’s educational path as you consider their individual needs, interests, strengths, and weaknesses. Homeschooling truly allows you to custom make an education for your children.
Maybe there are things about several approaches that appeal to you. It’s okay to combine methods. This is what we like to call in the homeschooling community as an eclectic approach. For instance, for math and science you may use more traditional curriculum, but for the humanities you may decide to follow a classical model.
I hope that by gaining a basic understanding of the most popular approaches that you feel better equipped to choose a curriculum. A dear friend and homeschooling mentor of mine once wisely told me, “Curriculum is your servant, not your master.” Thinking about curriculum in that way can be very freeing.
In conclusion, don’t worry if you are not sure which method resonates most with you. You will figure it out as you go and become more confident as you observe how your children learn best. Charlotte Mason summed it up well when she said, “Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life.” The quality of the education that you provide your children is about much more than choosing the “right” approach or curriculum. So, take a deep breath, with the help of the Lord, you’ve got this!
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