How to choose an educational approach

Many people don’t realise it, but home education rarely resembles “school at home”. When you first consider home educating, you may think that there is a prescribed way in which you must educate your child at home, but as you can read here:

“There is no legal definition of “full-time” in terms of education at home, or at school. Children attending school normally have about five hours tuition a day for 190 days a year, spread over about 38 weeks. However, home education does not have to mirror this. In any case, in elective home education there is often almost continuous one-to-one contact and education may sometimes take place outside normal “school hours”.

Home-educating parents are not required to:
• have a timetable
• set hours during which education will take place
• observe school hours, days or terms” 

Because of the freedom which we enjoy in the UK, you have options as to how you approach your child’s education. The approach you choose will depend on your own philosophy on childhood and education, your family’s lifestyle, your child’s personality, temperament and needs, and other factors. Some parents may start out with one approach, and then adapt and change as they become more comfortable or find a way that works better for their family. It is important to find something that works for you. The following are five popular approaches that parents might choose to follow in the UK – however, there are a great many other variations and combinations of these. 

 

TRADITIONAL / STRUCTURED APPROACH

This approach generally entails using graded textbooks or workbooks which follow a scope and sequence in each subject in progressive increments. They may include teacher’s manuals, tests, and record-keeping materials, and assume that education will resemble that of a school classroom.

The student will follow a set program of learning lessons, completing assignments, and testing before moving on to the next section. A set program allows for minimal preparation and supervision on the part of the parent, and is based on a lot of independent study.

Strengths:

  • Everything is laid out for ease of use
  • Follows a standardised scope and sequence
  • Has definite milestones of accomplishment
  • Testing and grading is easy to do

Weaknesses:

  • Is geared to the “generic” child, not taking into account individual learning styles, strengths and weaknesses or interests
  • Assumes that there is a body of information that comprises an education and that this information can be broken down into daily increments
  • Treats children’s minds like containers to be filled with information
  • Focuses on transmitting information through artificial learning experiences
  • Is teacher-directed and blackboard oriented
  • Different aged students study different materials
  • Expensive when teaching multiple children
  • Discourages original, independent thinking
  • Has a high “burnout” rate

There are a lot of companies currently offering structured programmes online, such as Wolsey Hall, or Oxford Homeschooling. It is best to ask on groups and forums what the experience of these has been by others before committing, as signing up can be quite expensive. Read more about Wolsey Hall here.

THE CLASSICAL APPROACH

This approach to education has produced great minds throughout history. The modern proponent of the Classical Approach was British writer and medieval scholar Dorothy Sayers. As the Nazis rose to power in the 1930’s, Sayers warned that schools were teaching children everything except how to think. Because young adults could no longer think for themselves, Sayers felt they could be easily influenced by whatever tyrant came along. To remedy this, Sayers proposed reinstating the classical form of education used in the Middle Ages.

In the Classical Approach, children under age 18 are taught tools of learning collectively known as The Trivium. The Trivium has three parts, each part corresponding to a childhood developmental stage.

The first stage of The Trivium, the Grammar Stage, covers early elementary ages and focuses on reading , writing, and spelling; the study of Latin; and developing observation, listening and memorisation skills. The goal of this stage is to master the element of language and develop a general framework of knowledge.

The next stage, the Dialectic Stage, is introduced when children begin to demonstrate independent or abstract though (usually by becoming argumentative or opinionated). The child’s tendency to argue is moulded and shaped by teaching logical discussion, debate, and how to draw correct conclusions and support them with facts. The goal of this stage is to equip the child with language and thinking skills capable of detecting fallacies in an argument. Latin study is continued, with the possible addition of Greek. The student reads essays, arguments and criticisms instead of literature, as in the Grammar Stage. History study leans toward interpreting events. Higher maths might be introduced as well

The final phase of the Trivium, the Rhetoric Stage, seeks to produce a student who can use language, bot written and spoken, eloquently and persuasively. Students are usually ready for this stage by age 15.

Strengths:

  • Is tailored to stages of mental development
  • Teaches thinking skills and verbal/written expression
  • Creates self-learners
  • Has produced great minds throughout history

Weaknesses:

  • Very little prepared curriculum available
  • Requires a scholarly teacher and student
  • May overemphasise ancient disciplines and classics

For more, read

Dorothy L. Sayers: The Lost Tools of Learning

Susan Wise Bauer and Jessie Wise: The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home

THE UNIT STUDY APPROACH

A Unit Study is taking a theme or topic (a unit of study) and delving into it deeply over a period of time integrating language, science, geography, history, maths, and arts as they apply. Instead of studying eight or ten separate, unrelated subjects, all subjects are blended together and studied around a common theme or project. For example, a unit study on birds could include reading and writing about birds, and about famous ornithologists (language), studying the parts, functions and life cycles of birds, and perhaps even the aerodynamics of flight (science and maths), determining the migration paths, habitats, and ecological/sociological impact of birds (geography, environmental studies), sketching familiar birds (art), building bird houses or feeders (“hands-on” activities) and so forth. This is similar to project-based learning, and tools such as lapbooking work well with unit studies.

Strengths:

  • All ages can learn together
  • Children can delve as deeply into a subject as they like
  • The family’s interests can be pursued
  • Students get the whole picture
  • Curiosity and independent thinking are generated
  • Intense study of one topic is the more natural way to learn
  • Knowledge is interrelated so is learned easily and remembered longer
  • Unit studies are fairly easy to create

Weaknesses:

  • It is easy to leave educational “gaps”
  • Hard to assess the level of learning occurring
  • Record keeping may be difficult
  • Prepared unit study curricula are expensive
  • Do-it-yourself activities require planning
  • Too many activity-oriented unit studies may cause burnout for the parent and child
  • Subjects that are hard to integrate into the unit may be neglected

The US-based “Konos” curriculum would be an example of a unit study approach, but unit studies lend themselves readily to a do-it-yourself approach. Click here for more on lapbooking

Twinkl is a great source of resources for unit studies and lapbooks.

THE LIVING BOOKS APPROACH

The Living Books Approach is based on the writings of Charlotte Mason, who was a British educator at the turn of the 20th  Century. Miss Mason was appalled by several tendencies she noticed in modern education:

  1. The tendency to treat children as containers to be filled with pre-digested information, instead of as human beings
  2. The tendency to break down knowledge into thousand of isolated bits of information to be fed into “container” children
  3. The tendency to engineer artificial learning experiences

She believed in respecting children as persons, in involving them in real-life situations, and in allowing them to read really good books, instead of what she called “twaddle” – worthless, inferior teaching material. She considered education a failure when it produced children able to “do harder sums and read harder books” who lacked “moral and intellectual power”. Children were to be taught good habits, involved in a broad spectrum of real-life situations and given ample time to play and create.

Mason’s approach to academics was to teach basic reading, writing and maths skills, then expose children to the best sources of knowledge for all other subjects. This meant giving children experiences like nature walks, observing and collecting wildlife, visiting art museums, and reading real books with “living ideas”. She called such books “living books” because they made the subject “come alive” unlike books that tend to be dry and dull and assume the reader cannot think for him/herself.

Strengths:

  • Treats children as active participants in the learning process
  • Exposes children to the best sources of knowledge – real objects and books instead of second-hand interactions with distilled information
  • Encourages curiosity, creative thinking and a love of learning
  • Eliminates meaningless tasks or busywork
  • Stresses formation of good character and habits

Weaknesses:

  • Tends to be very child-centred
  • Very little prepared curriculum
  • May neglect higher level studies because of its emphasis on art, literature and nature study
  • May become too eclectic

For more information, Charlotte Mason’s writings are readily available online. You can also check out Ambleside Online , and Modern Miss Mason

THE UNSCHOOLING APPROACH

This approach was defined by John Holt, a 20th century educator who concluded that children had an innate desire to learn and a curiosity that drives them to learn what they need to know when they need to know it. Holt believed that both desire and curiosity are destroyed by the usual methods of teaching. In his book “Teach your Own”, Holt wrote: “What children need is not new and better curricula but access to more and more of the real world; plenty of time and space to think over their experiences and to use fantasy and play to make meaning out of them; and advice, road maps, guidebooks to make it easier for them to get where they want to go (not where we think they ought to go, and to find out what they want to find out.”

On the other hand, unschooling refers to any less structured learning approach that allows children to pursue their own interest with parental support and guidance, and lets children learn by being included in the life of adults. The child is surrounded by a rich environment of books, learning resources, and adults who model a lifestyle of learning and are willing to interact with him/her. Formal academics, if pursued at all, are pursued when the need arises, and normally as desired by the child in their personal learning journey. In this approach children are “apprenticed” by adults who include them in what they are doing. In the process, the child learns everything the adult knows and possibly a good deal more. Parents may facilitate by connecting the child to resources that allow them to progress in subjects that interest them.

Strengths:

  • Takes little planning
  • Captures the child’s “teachable moments”
  • Children have access to the real world, plenty of time and space to figure things out on their own
  • Children are less likely to become academically frustrated or “burnt out”
  • Child can delve into a subject as deeply as desired
  • Creates self-learners with a love of learning

Weaknesses:

  • Very unstructured
  • May neglect some subjects
  • Hard to assess level of learning
  • Lacks the security of a clearly laid-out curriculum
  • Is extremely child-centred
  • Difficult to explain to others

To find out more about unschooling, read Teach Your Own: The John Holt Book Of Homeschooling by John Holt and Pat Farenga

For all of these approaches, there are many books, blogs, groups, forums and websites with more information. It pays to speak to as many experienced home educators as you can to form an idea of the approach you want to take before spending a lot of money on something which potentially will not work for you.