The Trap of Choosing a Homeschooling “Method”

Originally Published on Home Educator’s Family Times sometime in 2009

Have you ever noticed that a lot of seasoned homeschoolers call themselves “eclectic?” What is your reaction when you hear that? Many new homeschoolers say “Oh my goodness, that is complicated,” or “So you’re wishy-washy?” or perhaps “You’re inconsistent, that can’t be a good thing.” Closer to the truth, though, these families have transcended a particular method and are simply doing “what works” for their family.
Many times, new homeschoolers are advised at the start to “choose a curriculum” and then get hit with a barrage of information about each homeschooling program under the sun. As a homeschooling writer, I have been guilty of offering up this easy-to-digest advice. In fact, in an article entitled, “Choosing a Homeschooling Method”, I advised parents to learn about all of the different ways to homeschool before they purchased curriculum. It was my hope that readers wouldn’t get caught up in spending a fortune on curriculum, and would instead focus on the reasons they’re homeschooling, understanding that there are many ways to go about it.
Looking back, though, I can see that advising parents to choose a method may have negative consequences. How many times have you heard homeschooling families identify themselves by their philosophy? “We’re unschoolers” or “We use a classical method.” School-at-home families rarely say “We do school at home,” but you’ll often hear them say “We use the ____ curriculum.” You might be wondering right now “What’s so wrong with that?”
As much as women are stereotyped as perpetual mind-changers and as much as many people pride themselves on independent thinking and flexibility, there’s a cultural belief that parents who “change their minds” are guilty of inconsistency and are likely to completely fail at parenting because they haven’t given their kids a strong foundation. That’s ridiculous.
Are you the same person you were ten years ago? Fifteen? Twenty? One of the amazing and wonderful things about being human is our ability to change and grow. We can take new information, new observations and new ideas, assimilate them into our paradigm and be better off for it. That is the basis of Piaget’s learning theory, that’s so highly respected and utilized by educators because it honors nature’s design. Why are parents denied this evolution of thought? We’re told to embrace and encourage our children’s changing thoughts and ideas as integral parts of “growing up” but, in order to “be a good example” we’re told to “be consistent.”
Just stop.
Instead of picking a method, let me offer up the idea that it’s OK to change your method all the time. Change it every week, or every day. It’s not inconsistent, it’s life. Constantly re-evaluating everyone’s needs is probably the best way to create a happy homeschooling family. Your allegiance, as a parent, shouldn’t be to “the method” but to the family.

Embrace Learning

If you’re drawn to the “security” of a school-at-home method and one day your son decides to take apart the lawnmower, let him. He is learning. You know this. Urging him to put the tools down and come “do math” is really devaluing his personal exploits, teaching him that “doing math” on paper is more important than “living math” in real life, teaching him that he isn’t capable of finding intelligent ways to occupy himself, teaching him that his interests are stupid and causing you quite a bit of unnecessary stress. Your need for every answer to be filled in and graded by June 1st is not more important than his need to actually understand the principles of mathematics by the time he reaches adulthood. Additionally, someone is going to have to reassemble that lawnmower and that will teach him more about mechanics than a diagram in a textbook.

Keep a Journal

Sometimes we accidentally alter things, as we look back at the past. When a loved one dies, we might forget about all the arguments we had with them. When we look back at the early days of parenting, we might forget about the headaches, sleepless nights and even labor pains. I recently read over a journal of my youngest daughter’s earliest days. It’s been less than two years, but I really don’t remember feeling so overwhelmed, in fact, in my memory, all was well.

During my oldest daughter’s kindergarten year, I kept a journal, too. An unschooling friend of mine advised me, instead of pre-writing lesson plans, to please my inner obsessive-compulsive-record-keeper, keep an end-of-the-day journal. She had no idea exactly how obsessive I really was, because I kept the notebook open on the kitchen counter and jotted down little notes all day: “Pattern making with plastic bears, 20 minutes” and “building mud fairy houses, 45 minutes.” Ironically, I laughed at my sister-in-law for recording the details of her son’s every bowel movement for the first three years, but really my obsession was no different. It served a purpose, though. When my husband came home from work, and asked how our day had gone, I had an answer. Math was 20 minutes, social studies and science were 45 minutes and art was 65 minutes. See, in real life, subjects overlap. The boy who takes apart the lawnmower is “doing” math and science. If he’s using a repair manual, he’s also “doing” language arts.

Similarly, a family who has decided to use “The Well Trained Mind” method might not realize that certain aspects of it are identical to the Charlotte Mason method and the Thomas Jefferson method, all of which share commonalities with the Waldorf method. Effective learning techniques involve the whole child, actually the whole family, and a decision to take responsibility for a child’s education means much more than making sure that you meet the state’s standards. If you want to raise kids who grow up to be their best selves, then you need to place the child before the method. Some people benefit from the structure inherent in a systematic approach, others don’t.

This may mean that one year you’re doing “school at home” and you discover that in all his spare time your child has taught himself quite a bit about physics, animal husbandry, botany or impressionism. Don’t feel like a failure if you decide next year to do a little less “school at home.” Flip through those textbooks for lessons you don’t need to teach and skip them, put a big X on the pages, to allow more time for natural learning. Better yet, give your child the textbooks and have HIM flip through them. Give him the opportunity, like college students have, of “testing out” of a course. Is your allegiance to the method or to the child?

Why do we salivate with envy when we hear a veteran homeschooler say “We homeschooled for ___ years, using the ___ method?” I understand the attraction of “sticking to it” Indeed, our culture values diligence, stamina, consistency and stagnation a bit more than the natural world does. In nature, a stagnant puddle becomes a sludgy mess of algae and bugs, then eventually evaporates and disappears. We’re not puddles, though, and our children deserve to have a variety of experiences and learning tools at their disposal. Life as a river would be much more fun than life as a puddle.

The Dangers of “Choosing a Method”

When we choose a method, we become, in a sense, blinded to other ways of learning. So many unschooling families I know eschew workbooks and textbooks altogether. I once heard an unschooling mom proudly proclaim “My son has never seen a single textbook.” I don’t know her son, and I agree that textbook learning is probably the least efficient method of instruction, but like all “tools of learning” they can have their place. In our unschooling house, textbooks can be a general source of reference, giving the reader a quick overview of a topic, with bold-faced keywords they can use to research a topic on their own, using sources that are more intelligent, relevant, or interactive than simple words on a page.

Simply having a textbook in the house won’t make a child dumber, but insisting that they read each chapter individually and answer each question correctly would definitely not align with an unschooling paradigm. A child who enjoys looking things up to learn would hate using textbooks that way because the content is generally all over the place. Basic science textbooks often have a chapter about biology followed by a chapter on astronomy, followed by a chapter on physics. A child who enjoys having “grazing material” might enjoy flipping through the pages of a textbook. After all, an encyclopedia can be quite heavy and alphabetical order is only marginally more asinine than the random compilation of facts that social studies and science textbooks utilize. The only difference would be the pointed and leading questions at the end of each chapter.

This isn’t designed to turn anyone into an “eclectic” or even an “unschooler.” My goal is to encourage new homeschoolers to put more value on the learning than on the method. Flip-flop your perspective, allow your educational philosophy to grow and evolve as you witness and marvel at the way your child learns. When you find yourself stressing out over “not getting things done” look instead at what you DID “get done” and consider what real life lessons were learned. A first year homeschooling journal or even a blog can help you to constantly reevaluate the way that you homeschool. It’s not necessary to choose something and stick with it. Change is a good thing. When you know better you do better.


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