Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Homeschool Philosophies

Can I classically unschool Charlotte Mason’s self-paced, traditional unit study?

The short answer is “no,” but of course, unless you are a veteran homeschooler, you haven’t got a clue what I just said, much less why it is impossible (it is gobbledygook). So here goes…

Philosophy definitions.
Unschool- a philosophy of education that teaches that parents should provide an educationally stimulating environment (lots of books, videos, educational software and games) and then allow the children to direct their own educational path with minimum over-site from the parent; let them choose what to do and when. The benefits of such a plan are;

  • A very low stress environment,
  • Very hands-on learning, and
  • Virtually no cost to the parent in prep-time.
The major draw back I see is that since all children are humans and humans are basically lazy, most children will not chose to study any area that they find difficult. They may choose to spend all day playing Nintendo. This may produce a child that can’t read well or do much math. It shortchanges the child, as children can learn immensely more than their interests may initially lead them to. The broadening of horizons does not always come voluntarily or easily but can be thoroughly learned and enjoyed once a start is made.

I believe God gave parents the responsibility to teach their children to the best of their abilities, not just be caretakers. I believe the discipline that is necessary for a more traditional mode of education is necessary to life.

Besides, I believe the purpose of education is not to prepare the child for the workforce (a major goal of many unschoolers) but to prepare them for heaven.

A very talented, energetic parent who is willing to severely limit (or get rid of) TV and electronic games, and discipline in other areas, can accomplish this in an unschool atmosphere, but most of us can’t. 

I do believe, however, in providing an enriching atmosphere in my home and encouraging my children to pursue their own interests. 

So my children have been known to go find answers and study things out for themselves in non-school time. I don't bother teaching those subjects the children engage in voluntarily in their free time. 

For example, my child whose hobby is history and who wants to be a writer when he grows up (having already written his first novel), I don't assign history or writing. He does those in every spare minute without me directing him. The son who is building his own computer for the fun of it isn't assigned science anymore (he completed a basic 9th grade level before tackling the computer). The daughter who is obsessed with farms, horses, and livestock doesn't study science any more formally either.

Unit study- the study of all subjects through one topic. 
For example, while studying the early 1600’s you would cover history (the pilgrims), the scientists (Isaac Newton), artists (Leonardo da Vinci), musicians (Beethoven), and literary works (Pilgrim’s Progress) of the time. 

While studying baseball you could study the history of all stick-ball games, the physics of throwing and hitting, the math (statistics) of the game itself, literary works about the game (Catcher in the Rye, biography of Jackie Robinson, etc.) artistic works of baseball and learn to play “Take me out to the ballgame” on the piano.

Benefits include:

  • A unifying of all subjects (they aren’t really clearly divided anyway. A lot of the divisions we are familiar with were created to make the management of large groups possible),
  • The ability to teach all ages at once (you just ask for a higher level of work from older children),
  • Greater family togetherness,
  • Hands on learning and
  • Less stress.
Drawbacks include: 

  • The amount of time it takes for the parent to prepare, 
  • Having to stretch things to make them all fit (most prepackaged unit studies suggest you add separate, traditional phonics and math programs), and 
  • Maybe the lack of necessary discipline, depending on the parent’s personality.
I have attempted many unit studies with my own children and it simply doesn’t work for us. Too, bad, because I agree with the philosophies, but it doesn’t fit our learning/teaching styles.

Traditional- this is the way you and I were taught in Public School. The teacher presents a lesson, and then the students do the work from a textbook or work book. The teacher grades the work and then moves on to the next thing.

The main advantage here is that we are all familiar with this method. This is what we think of when we think “school.” We don’t have to learn about a new method of education while we are adjusting to a new lifestyle that includes having our children around all the time.

These curricula often come in kits and can be followed from K-12. Because of the research put into them, you can feel confident you will not leave anything out that is being taught in the schools. 

It is also easier to reassure Grandparents that you really are teaching their grandkids by showing them a good quality set of textbooks.

And this method is easier to teach self-discipline and time management with, since each day’s work is clearly outlined.

The disadvantages are:

  • They are less flexible and can take more of a parent’s time than some other methods, though less than others. 
  • They can be expensive. 
  • They also tend to be boring. (There is, however, some advantage to learning how to learn from boring sources since most employee manuals are not exactly exciting reads. There are times in every adult’s life when he needs to be able to extract information from dry reading. and you are limited to what schools are teaching.  (No one can learn everything there is to learn. Everyone has gaps. You, as the parent, must chose what will be taught and what should be left out. Are you going to follow the school’s choices or forge your own path? There is value to both.)
Self-paced-Similar to traditional but with the lessons entirely contained in the workbooks. No constant teaching necessary. No separate textbooks and workbooks to buy.

Each grade includes 10 or 12 (depending on the company) booklets per subject per year. The advantages and disadvantages are the same; they take less involvement from the parent.

There are families and times when this is good and families and times when this is bad. It depends on your situation. (Especially good for working parents of well-disciplined teens).

These booklets do have to be rebought for each child, which does increase its cost.

Virtual schools tend to be this type of “school.”

I have used traditional textbooks and other books (that I already had on hand) in this way in years when family illness required more of my time than normal.

Real books, Charlotte Mason-Both terms describe the same method. Ms. Mason was a 19th century educator with innovative ideas. Her method is said to have provided elite, private school quality education to the poorest in England at her time, whether they were taught by their parents or in a school.

This method does not use textbooks. You find “Real Books” that cover whatever subject you wish to learn/teach. (Real Book= a book that is exciting to read, written by someone with a passion for the subject. Something that will hole your interest and make you remember what you read for the rest of your life. Twaddle= books that are boring, dull, and leave you with nothing of value in the long run. i.e. textbooks.)

For example, if you want to teach about Ancient Greece you would check out colorful specialty encyclopedias from the library and hunt out historical fiction and works of information written by people with a passion for Greece. You would avoid committee written, filtered, and sanitized (Miss Mason called them “twaddle”) works that are found in the schools except as supplements.

After all, you do not have to keep from offending a student of a different religion than yours as the schools do, and you are not limited to what can fit in a two page article inside of a textbook. With the addition of smartphone, you have the world of resources to explore and learn about every subject.

You can devote all the time you want to studying each area. After reading a part of a book (paragraph to chapter depending on the age of the child), you have your young child narrate (repeat) to you what it was about (narrations can be spoken, written, acted out, drawn, sculpted, etc).

You also choose sentences from good writing to dictate to your child. You take mistakes from these exercises and create lessons in Spelling, Grammar, and Penmanship.

Early year’s math is taught in the kitchen (doubling, tripling, and halving recipes) and the grocery store (counting and figuring best deals and budgets). Later you add a math textbook (I don’t think anyone can avoid a text of some sort for math eventually).

Add in daily nature walks and nature journals, plus a supportive respectful environment (“Children are humans, too.”)

  • Very relaxed and encourages children to get enthused and involved in the major subject at hand.
  • You can add in more hands-on learning than with traditional methods.
  • You only spend time teaching the child what their writing shows they don’t know, yet you (the parent) control what is taught to make sure all subjects are covered.
I found it hard to pull together. There is no set framework to follow. For some this is an advantage, but for me it was not, though, you will find a strong Charlotte Mason flavor to my recommendations later in this book. (I have recently discovered that a lovely mother is putting together a curriculum guide book for CM. Modern Charlotte Mason tells you what to do each day in each subject for each age using mostly free resources. Of course, you only have to do what you want to, but I am looking forward to using this resource to add back in some studies we have had to let pass over the last couple of years.)

There are now many companies selling Real-Book “curricula.” For a price they will send you all the books you need to teach this method for one year, generally focusing on one area of history (i.e. Middle Ages).

Classical- Founded on three basic ideas originating in ancient Greece (though some say they have found them in older writings of the Bible such as Psalms and Proverbs) and used until this last century. They are;
1.   Children pass through three distinct stages of development.
2.   Children should be taught how to learn, and
3.   Education should be systematic and rigorous in order to teach the virtues of organization, logic and diligence.

The three stages children pass through are referred to as the Trivium and are divided up into “Grammar,” “Logic,” and Rhetoric” stages. (Some call these the “Knowledge,” “Understanding,” and “Wisdom” stages.)

During the Grammar stage, (pre-school through mid or late elementary), children enjoy learning and memorizing (“My bologna has a first name. It’s O-S-C-A-R…” and how do you spell relief? R-O-L-A-I-D-S).

Take advantage of this and teach them the “Grammar” (basic facts) of each subject:
  • Their times tables, 
  • English Grammar lists (i.e. the helping verbs), 
  • History names and dates, 
  • States and capitals, 
  • Science facts, 
  • Poems, 
  • Scripture verses, 
  • Foreign language alphabets and vocabulary, 
  • Etc. 
By using songs and chants this can become fun and very rewarding. This is also the time to teach Latin, before someone tells them it is too hard to learn.

The Logic stage, (late elementary through junior high), is when facts alone begin to not be enough. They want to know why and how. So now you teach them why and how.

You tie all subjects together by showing the cause and effect between them and inside them (why wars are fought, life to the cellular level, why the word “please” has and e at the end [to tell it apart from the plural of plea] etc..) you also teach formal Logic so they can learn to use their brain in an organized manner and figure connections out for themselves.

Rhetoric, (high school), is when children develop a strong desire to express themselves. They become emotional and passionate. Now you teach them how to form a valid opinion, and express that opinion intelligently and appropriately in writing, art, music, debate, and public speaking.

The second idea of Classical Education is teaching children how to learn. Throughout the Trivium you emphasize research and discovery skills thus allowing them, when they reach adulthood, to seek out and learn anything they will need or want to know. They will not be dependent on others to spoon-feed them. They will know how to find the truth and form their own opinions.

The third idea is that education should be systematic and rigorous. Most Classical educators form their teaching around one unifying theme, such as History or Geography.

For example, if studies are formed around World History, you begin at “Beginning Theories,” (evolution and creation), and progress chronologically until you come to today. You teach scientists, artists, musicians, statesmen, inventors etc. as you come to them. This would allow you to see what effect the Arts, Religion, and Science had on the political world and vise versa. Everything proceeds in an orderly, logical manner.

Most traditional curricula cover subjects in a spiral method (you study a little of everything every year at a little deeper level) or scatter shot method (i.e. US History this year, all World History next year, Government the next). This is confusing to say the least (Quick, did Mozart live before or after the pilgrims? Was the French Revolution before or after the American Civil War?)

By studying everything together in a logical orderly manner we can get a better perspective on things. After all, can you really understand America’s involvement in WWII and its effect on us if you don’t know the European and Asian causes of the war?

You can work other subjects into this also. For instance, my daughters and I love horses and I happen to own a book detailing the history of man’s relationship with horses. We can read the relative portions of this book as we come to the corresponding time periods in our general history “spine.”

You probably notice the similarities to Unit Study or the “Real Books” methods. Most Classicalists use a traditional method to teach skill subjects (Math, Grammar, Piano, etc.) and fit the information subjects (Music, Science, Bible, etc.) into a unit study, usually of History, relying heavily on lots of Real Books.

The advantages of Classical are the knowledge that you are giving your child the most thorough academic education possible and it gives you an all around goal to aim for and aids organization.

Disadvantages to classical include that it tends to be easier to stress out or push the child harder then necessary. It can seem very overwhelming, especially at first. It does take longer per day and uses more of the parent’s time than unschooling or self-pace.

Eclectic- You pick a little of this and a little of that to make something that resembles nothing else out there.(And seriously, didn't you kind of get a feel that all of these philosophies are a bit eclectic?)

An example would be if you used a self-paced curriculum for math, a traditional textbook for Grammar, Charlotte Mason for the other language arts, Classical materials for Art, music and Geography, Unit Study for History and Science, and unschooled a foreign language by having your children spend the night with your Russian parents once a week.

Examine the various options. 
Spend sometime in prayer and decide what your goals are for your children.
Think about how you like to learn. Do you like to learn by reading as I do, or do you prefer a more hands on approach? Find out how the child’s other parent learns best. Learning methods do tend to run in families and this may give you a clue to your child’s best way to learn. This will help you know what direction to go in.

How do you know what method to use?
What would thrill you to the tips of your toes?
Think about those bags your child is carrying out of your home. Is it more important that he is a self-motivated, independent worker or that he has family unity (self- paced vs. unit study)? No method can give you everything in every area. No method, no curriculum, is perfect.They all have their flaws.

What is most important to you?

If there is no stay-at-home parent to do the teaching, the self-paced or traditional texts (used as self paced) might be best.

If you are new to teaching, pulling older children out of public school, and unsure of yourself, or just too overwhelmed, one of the more traditional methods might be best to start with.

However, if you hated school, learn best with your hands, and have active children (ever meet any that weren’t?) then you may want unit study or a semi-unschool.

If you are broke, Real Books and unit studies can be done inexpensively with the help of the library (more on this later) and Google.

Classical ideas can be bent to fit most any other method if academic excellence is a priority or most methods can be tweaked to fit some sort of unschool atmosphere if a “Tom Sawyer” style childhood is more important.

I have even heard of “Classical Unschooling”!

What works for you this year may not work next year (the year my Mom died from cancer, for example, we did a lot of unschooling and self paced school. Most of the time though I lean towards more traditional methods.) and most homeschoolers go through an “evolution” as they gain more experience and refine or change priorities, relaxing into less formal methods and often putting together their own “curriculum” from many different sources (grammar from one company, math from another, spelling from their own head, etc.) 

I guess many of us end up being best described as “eclectic” in the final analysis. 

How I actually do my planning now that I've been at this a while, is to see where each child is in each subject, decide where they need to go next, and see what method and resources will best accomplish that. I now pretty much ignore divisions of philosophies and just use what will work. It might be a whole book, one chapter of a book, a web site, Wikipedia article, lunch with a fellow church member, YouTube video, etc.  We have some personal unit studies going, lots of real books being read, and several traditional textbooks in use all at once. Umm, actually, its a lot less confusing than it sounds.

Children are given far too little intellectual credit in our world today. Many don’t learn much simply because it is not expected of them. 

If we begin to expect more, we will see more. 

I, of course, don’t advocate pushing children beyond their abilities, but I honestly think that given the right environment, most children will astound us with what they are capable of. And my children certainly deserve the very best. What about yours?

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