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Homeschooling Methods and Content Based Learning, Part 1

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Imagine trying to follow any significant modern conversation, whether in person, online, or in print, without sharing a common knowledge base.  Imagine how lost you would often feel if you did not know anything at all about fairy tales, the Civil War, John F. Kennedy, the cell, Queen Victoria, Greek mythology, E=mc2, Buddhism, apartheid, the two world wars, jazz, DNA, football, or dinosaurs.

Part of our job as home educators is to teach our children this common knowledge base.  We do not need in-depth knowledge of any of these things, but we all do need some familiarity with them.  Many of them (such as those detailed in Hirsch’s Dictionary of Cultural Literacy) are a natural consequence of a high-quality, organized education.  Although very few of us can catch every allusion and reference of those around us, missing most of them can be a serious handicap, and is an inevitable result of a disorganized curriculum, a content-poor education, or being new to the culture.

Furthermore, missing many of them also makes it difficult to learn more.  It is like trying to read a passage that contains vocabulary you don’t know—you will need to work very hard to understand and, what’s more, you will most likely lose interest in the topic.  So it makes sense that many kids give up when confronted with something that is totally unintelligible to them.  And that, according to Hirsch in The Knowledge Deficit, is why many disadvantaged kids can never get ahead.

That is also something to keep in mind when we educate our children.  We do really need to provide a content-rich education as well as a skills-based one.  In other words, our children need to learn facts and information as well as skills.  That is also why, when our children are very young, we need to read to them, to have conversations, to expose them to many things, and to minimize empty screen time.  Children with such early backgrounds apparently start doing better than others around grade 5, when the basic skills have been mastered and basic cultural literacy becomes a factor.

So, what kind of content is important?  As the debate over the US Common Core Standards shows, there is no universal agreement on that.  However, most homeschoolers would agree that it includes at least the basic skills in reading, writing, and arithmetic as well as a solid knowledge of the Bible, history, basic science, and basic world culture (literature, worldviews, art, music).

The concept of learning facts and information is not necessarily fashionable in the world of public schooling, but we are not tied into that system.  Instead we can consider certain things as we teach our children.  With that in mind, I will discuss four broad styles of homeschooling: complete curriculum, scope and sequence guides, eclectic education, and unschooling/delight-direct learning. (The first two are addressed in this article, and the second two, along with our personal experience, in next week’s.)

One method of homeschooling is to buy a curriculum and use it through the homeschool years.  There are several written for homeschoolers and others written for classroom use.   An extreme version of this is online learning.

Advantages:  Parents need to make very few decisions once they have decided on a curriculum.  Teacher’s manuals are usually available and give both answers and background knowledge, allowing parents to teach subjects they originally knew very little about.  Most formal curricula, especially those designed for schools, cover the subject matter thoroughly, leaving very few gaps in subject matter.  Curricula designed by homeschooling parents often give detailed guidelines to enhance flexibility.  Formal grade assignment is usually quite straightforward.

Disadvantages:  This is one of the most expensive ways of homeschooling.  It is also very inflexible.  Curricula designed for classrooms are often full of busy-work and often contain too much material for each year.  Full curricula designed by homeschooling parents are not always authoritative.  Home educators outside the US will find it difficult to adapt some of these curricula to their country’s history, culture, and literature.  And children may feel stifled and lose their love of learning if they have no opportunity to pursue their own interests.  Furthermore, content gaps will most likely occur if one switches between curriculum providers.

We can also follow scope and sequence outlines as our main curriculumAmbleside Online has outlined a beautiful free K-12 curriculum guide based on Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education.  The Well Trained Mind does something similar for families interested in Classical Education, although its schedule and scope could be considered too intense for most children.  There are many other scopes and sequences available, from curriculum suppliers, from some encyclopaedias, and from many educational organizations.  In my experience, most government scope and sequence documents are too vague to be of much practical use, although the US Core Standards are supposed to overcome this problem.

Advantages:  There is a broad and complete outline of all that a student should learn, often with connections between subjects in each grade.  This encourages organized and systematic learning and minimizes gaps in learning.

Disadvantages:  In many of these cases, parents need to know enough about the material to discuss it with their students, and few of us have the background to do that.  Many of the prepared curricula mentioned above contain these elements in their teacher’s guides; outlines rarely do.  Formal grade assignment is often difficult.

Next week I plan to discuss the second two broad styles of homeschooling, along with our personal experience and discoveries.

For more homeschooling encouragement see Raising Homemakers, Titus 2 Tuesday, Tell it to Me Tuesday, Finishing Strong, and Trivium Tuesdays.

Disclosure: Although I mention several resources in this discussion, I am not compensated for doing so nor do I endorse them wholeheartedly.

One Comment

  1. Sara says:

    It’s amazing what a difference knowing these common references make, even sitting down to enjoy children’s movies. I prefer a systematic approach to covering these content studies, but I’ve seen other families use a more random approach with great success.

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