Methods Explained

When it comes to homeschool methods, there really are just two: traditional and non-traditional.  Traditional is what most of us remember from our own school days with textbooks, workbooks, tests, and a scope and sequence that moved spirally each year, all done at desks from around 9 AM to 3 PM, with additional homework at night.  That’s still a lot like how traditional schooling looks, with the exception of the 9-3 time slot since most homeschoolers learn fairly quickly that school takes far less time when you work one-on-one with a child.  (Oh, sure, there is still dawdling and other problems to overcome, but once you remove the time spent quieting a classroom, moving from room to room, taking attendance, and the other administrative time that has to happen in a classroom even if only for logistical purposes, you will spend far more time on actual learning.)  Some folks who homeschool will still opt for the traditional route, even if not for every single subject area.  By way of contrast, there are also non-traditional ways to educate your children.  Non-traditional methods include things like Unit Studies, Charlotte Mason, Classical, and Principle Approach.  These non-traditional methods can also be an amalgamation of two or more of these types.  In fact, you could even have some traditional methods mixed in as you study something. Non-traditional homeschooling also includes Unschooling, Delight-Direct Learning, Thomas Jefferson Education, and Relaxed Homeschooling, which are variations on the above methods but with varying levels of structure provided by the parent.  Basically, all you really need to know is that traditional homeschooling looks like what you’d find at nearly any regular school and non-traditional homeschooling is pretty much everything else.

Actually, let’s back up a little bit.  There’s an elephant in the room that you may not even be aware of–homeschooling vs cyberschooling.  Cyberschooling, which many families who practice it call “homeschooling,” really is public schooling at home; whereas, homeschooling is, well, homeschooling. Wait a second–if both families have their kids at home doing school work, what’s the difference?  Does this difference even matter?  It’s important to make the distinction that someone who is homeschooling is footing the bill for their children’s education from their own pocket.  Taxpayers are not funding homeschooling like they are with cyberschooling.  In essence, this means that homeschoolers pay school taxes and receive little to no benefit from those monies.  This is the same as when parents send their kids to private schools, or for retirees who no longer have school-aged children, or even childless people.  We all share the tax burden of financing public education.  Cyberschools are simply government-funded schools that use tax dollars to allow families to choose another option for the education of their young.  You might think this is the same as what homeschoolers are doing, but it isn’t, and it is summed up in one word–control.  You see, the person who foots the bill is the person who exerts the control.  If the school district is paying for your child’s curriculum, their computer, and perhaps a portion of the Internet service so that the child can log into the cyberschool’s servers, then the school district is free to make the same sorts of demands on the student as if he or she attended their brick-and-mortar school buildings.  Homeschooling, on the other hand (at least in its purest sense), means that the parents have chosen to take ALL of the expense, and ALL of the responsibility for the education of their children in exchange for also having ALL of the freedom to make ALL choices–about curriculum, about grades, about the timing of when education happens, about pretty much everything that goes on in the homeschool.  This website deals with homeschooling, not cyberschooling.

Let’s get back to talking about methods.  Years ago, I used to sit on a panel of homeschoolers at a homeschool convention with other ladies who educated their children via one of the above main homeschooling methods.  The traditional gal always went first since that’s the most familiar manner to facilitate education for most people.  Abeka and Bob Jones are two very traditional homeschool curricula providers that utilize more traditional texts.  Other very traditional curriculum providers prefer to divide up the work into little booklets, such as Alpha Omega’s Lifepacs, Christian Light, and Paces from Accelerated Christian Education (ACE).  Don’t feel like you have to do EVERYTHING with one curriculum provider though!  (More on this later.)  Most math curricula are also traditional, especially if they use a textbook (or worktext) and you progress from one book to the next, building skills as you go.  There are secular options for homeschooling with a traditional approach, too.  You won’t often find a full grade level package available online because most publishers of these sell to schools, which is where they make their money.  You can expect this to change as more and more homeschoolers crop up around the nation and the face of homeschooling has been changing from its evangelical roots to a more secular demographic.  In fact, years ago, Abeka and BJUP wouldn’t sell to homeschoolers either.

Secular homeschoolers, those from a religious background that is not Christian, and those who simply want some secular materials can find some real treasures by searching Amazon, eBay, and other web sources for textbooks. Getting your hands on the teacher’s manuals can be troublesome sometimes, but it can be done.  In fact, for higher mathematics especially, as well as for other high school subjects, don’t neglect your local community college bookstore.  You can often find some great things in these places–and anyone can purchase things there.  One semester of college is equal to one full school term of high school, so just spread the book out for a full term.  (Sometimes a college text is scheduled for more than one semester, though, so ask and schedule your student’s work accordingly.)  In the mathematics areas, you can often find the accompanying solutions manuals right there on the shelves next to the textbooks. Most of these publishers also make some wonderful web-based helps available to go with their texts.  You usually only need the ISBN or a code from the book to access these helps.  Sometimes, though, you need to purchase extra online access, so do be sure you check this before you buy something that has previously been used by someone else.

During this panel on homeschool methods that I have been reminiscing about, usually the Charlotte Mason (CM) gal went after the traditional homeschooler because most people back then didn’t know who Charlotte Mason was.  It turns out this 19th century English woman had a lot to say about education that was very Classical in nature.  If you want to read more about this, head over to Ambleside to read up on the method.  The best way to understand Charlotte’s philosophy of education is to read her booksQueen Homeschool and Simply Charlotte Mason offer some sweet products to help you homeschool in this manner.  They are not the only ones though.  A web search will yield more options.

Once the CM lady spoke during this conference session on methods, the Unit Study gal usually took her turn.  Unit studies are a lot of fun because you can approach any topic under the sun by studying it with an eye toward any of the core and non-core subject areas.  It’s a more wholistic method of education because by its very nature it doesn’t artificially divide the topic into those subject areas.  If you have heard of the term “mind mapping” that’s a very accurate way of looking at how to plan a unit study.  For more information, take a look at Valerie Bendt’s work, the Weaver Curriculum (from AOP), or Ray and Dorothy Moore’s writings.  (The Weaver Curriculum links to a ten day sample, the AOP one links to the website itself. Many of the suggested resources in the original Weaver Volumes are rather dated, but the ideas for the lessons themselves are wonderful.)  Another great unit study that is very Principle Approach/Classical in feel is by Inge Cannon.  Unfortunately, she only wrote two courses, both using the book of Genesis for her overarching topic and which are now long out of print, but they are goldmines of information if you can score a copy.  Her transcript information is well worth a visit to her site, though, so that’s why her website is listed.

Finally, back then, I usually took care of both the Classical and the Principle Approach methods because they are very similar, but there are differences. Think of it this way: A Classical homeschooler will not usually be a Principle Approach person because PA-ers are few and far between, but a Principle Approach person will almost always have Classical leanings.  Another reason why I took care of these two types is that the classical movement was in its infancy and not many folks were doing it yet–and there were no other Principle Approach people within a few hundred miles of me.  As a PA-er, I was doing classical homeschooling simply by virtue of using the PA as my overarching methodology and mindset, so it worked to have me take care of both of these methods.

A Classical homeschooler usually doesn’t think of grade levels like most folks in the United States do.  Instead, she sees only three or four “grades” or levels: the early grammar stage where kids are just learning to read, the later grammar stage when kids begin reading to learn and really snowbanking lots of information for later, the logic or dialectic stage when kids start wanting to know why things are as they are (this goes beyond the “why” of your average 4 year old), and the rhetoric stage when kids can really synthesize all that great learning and put forth some great ideas about how the world works and why.  Dorothy Sayers is credited with reimagining the classical movement and there are now several curricula that help parents facilitate it, but at its heart, the classical homeschooler wants to teach the kids how to think rather than what to think.  Veritas Press, Memoria Press, Tapestry of Grace, Trivium Pursuit, The Well Trained Mind , and Christine Miller’s pages all contain wonderful information on the Classical approach to education.  Classical Conversations also has a number of ideas.  If you are interested in joining one of their groups, you will find that they operate more like a hybrid school, which is kind of like a part-time private school in that most of the choices for the curriculum are already set in place. Wherever possible, I linked you to the main article page for each of these websites.  There are tons of them to read!

Following right on the heels of the pure Classical homeschooler is the Principle Approach person, who usually takes the best ideas from the other methods and synthesizes them into one method.  This is not for the faint of heart though!  I’m not saying you can’t do it.  What I am saying is that you shouldn’t try to do every academic subject area like this right from the start or you will quickly burn out.  The people to talk to about Principle Approach methods are the people who knew the ladies who first figured out the concept.  Check out the FACE website for more information.  I’m warning you now, there is very little prepared curriculum for folks who lean this way, and that’s partly due to the underlying presuppositions of the method, but it can be very rewarding, especially if you are the type of person who really likes to dig deeply into a topic.  You can find a few printed things, though, and even if you just use them to learn how to wrap your head around the method, that’s well worth your time and money if you really want to go in this direction.  The books written by Ruth Smith from the Pilgrim Institute are for history; Considering God’s Creation by Eagle’s Wings is for science.  Both are geared toward elementary aged students and you really need the teacher and student materials for these things since they are not like a regular teacher’s guide that just contains answers or a schedule. No, they are much more encompassing than that.  In addition, you will still need to do some digging into the subject matter on your own to utilize them to their maximum effectiveness, but that’s part of what makes the Principle Approach so different from other methods.  Another option is the Judah Bible Curriculum, which is for all ages.  Robin Sampson of Heart of Wisdom has some wonderful studies outlined for history, science, and general studies that embody the Principle Approach mindset. Although she uses E’s instead of R’s to explain her steps and she considers what she creates to be unit studies, her lessons are great.  She only sells through Etsy now, but you may be able to find some of her items still in print.

The following documents are from a meeting done at my local support group a few years ago:  Classical Approach Meeting Notes and Principle Approach Meeting Notes  Enjoy!  (The PA Mtg Notes doc includes a few of the pages from my Helps page in one document and has information on how to 4R a subject.)

When you first start homeschooling, you really don’t have to decide about any of these methods–at least not right away.  It’s OK to take some time to learn what you like and why.  While you are doing that, take note of the things your child most likes too.  While learning is hard work, it shouldn’t cause fights and tears every single day.  If it is, there’s something more going on there.  Even though much of the research about learning styles is under attack or being debunked outright in educational circles these days, there is still no doubt that we each have our preferred styles of learning.  Taking notes about what you notice about these preferences will help you as you develop your philosophy of education.