One of the most stressful decisions we make when we homeschool is choosing curriculum. Luckily, there’s a shortcut you can take that not only makes that decision much easier, but also helps you iron out a lot of homeschooling wrinkles before they even form! That “shortcut” is to align with a homeschool methodology.
A methodology is simply the approach to homeschooling that you decide to take. The methodology you follow provides you with a roadmap and a framework for your homeschool and sets the trajectory of your path so that, when you launch, you’re going in the right direction. Methodologies are formed around educational theories and practices and will not only help you decide what curriculum to purchase but will also influence what homeschooling looks like for your family on the nitty-gritty, day-to-day level. Every family tweaks and customizes the methodology that resonates with them so it’s the perfect fit for their family, but in order to do that you first have to figure out which one best dovetails with your own philosophy, values, and beliefs.
To help you better understand how the various methodologies compare to and differ from each other, I created the chart below which plots them according to two axes: the curriculum used and how structured the approach tends to be. Since many of the methodologies share some important facets, here at GoodSchooling we group methodologies into one of three categories based on those shared facets; I’ve placed overlays on the graph to show how they are grouped:
You’ll see on the chart that there are nine distinct homeschool education methodologies to choose from. Since researching them can be time consuming, I’ve created three shortcuts to help you out:
As important as choosing a methodology is, it’s not the first step you should take before purchasing curriculum. The very, very first – and MOST important – step every homeschooling family should take is to spend some time deschooling. Deschooling not only affects what methodology and curriculum you choose, it actually unlocks your homeschooling potential and sets you up for long-term homeschooling success. To learn more about deschooling and to get my free deschooling guide, check out my deschooling article here and download the free guide or get on the waitlist for the Deschooling Bootcamp!
Luckily, one of the things that helps parents to deschool themselves is to learn about different methodologies, so reading this article can help you start your deschooling journey! Shall we dive in?
Conventional schooling refers to the approach used in public and most private schools. Since that’s the approach you’re probably most familiar with, we’ll start our methodology study with the Conventional Methodology category.
The Conventional category really only has one true methodology in it: the school-at-home approach. This approach is the most structured of all the homeschooling categories and, as its name would suggest, looks the most like conventional school.
Some of the hallmarks of the school-at-home methodology are:
Parents who choose to follow a school-at-home approach with physical curriculum often follow very conventional school approaches to implementing it as well, such as a rigid daily schedule, tracking grades, etc.
These days it’s common for parents to use some kind of online program when they want to follow the school-at-home approach. K12.com* and Connections Academy* are two well-known examples. These programs appeal to many parents because they’re often “open and go:” they send you all the materials and your child simply logs into the program each day to watch the instructional videos and find out what assignments they have to complete. Parents rarely have to provide any instruction, although they may have to do a fair amount of facilitating and hand-holding, particularly for younger children. Parents who are not homeschooling because of religious or philosophical reasons often appreciate programs like these because they don’t have a problem with public school education; their child just, for whatever reason, can’t attend classes at their local school. Programs like these can keep children on the same scope and sequence as their public-schooled peers so they can easily transition back into public school later on.
Students who are enrolled in these online programs usually have specific teachers they can contact for help and may even have a “guidance counselor” of sorts who serves as a point person for the child and parent if they encounter any problems. Attendance is usually tracked and your child is required to spend a certain amount of time in the program each week. Their grades are also recorded and, for those who are using a public school online program like K12, if they fall below a certain GPA or fail to “show up for class” a certain number of times, they can actually be kicked out of the program. There’s rarely any room for negotiation or for parents to customize the schedule or work load, so you’re pretty much at the mercy of the program.
There are some programs, like Monarch* or Time4Learning*, which are more flexible – they’re not tied to the public schools and don’t claim accreditation, so they don’t have to be as firm with deadlines and attendance. You may even be able to choose what grade level your child is enrolled in for each subject, instead of, for example, being enrolled in third grade classes across the board. And in some cases, you’ll even have control over the schedule and which assignments are required. For more information on online programs, check out my article and downloadable comparison chart all about online homeschool options.
The school-at-home approach has a lot of appeal to new homeschooling parents. It’s familiar. It’s straightforward. And it’s easy to assume that it must be “the standard” to which all other homeschool approaches aspire and against which all other approaches measure themselves – but this is not at all the case. A conventional education is just one of many viable types of education; it is not better than any other type. As a homeschooler you never have to follow a conventional approach or use conventionally-aligned materials, and following a conventional approach does not guarantee things like college enrollment or even a good job in the future. It’s a good fit for some children, but not most, and even though it can be convenient and take a lot of pressure off the parent – particularly if you choose one of the online programs – you lose a lot of flexibility and and customizability in that trade-off.
If you’ve studied the chart above, then you may have noticed there’s another methodology included in the Conventional category: eclectic homeschooling. Technically eclectic homeschooling isn’t a fully-formed methodology, but it is often considered one. When people say they’re eclectic homeschoolers, it usually means they pick and choose curriculum, scheduling approaches, and philosophical points from a variety of other “official” methodologies. Many times parents are referring specifically to their approach to curriculum when they say they’re eclectic homeschoolers – meaning that they choose curriculum from a variety of publishers and “piece together” a program with lots of different resources.
In most cases eclectic homeschoolers fall into one of two camps: they’re school-at-homers who use curriculum from a variety of companies, or they’re Rich and Rigorous homeschoolers who marry values, practices, and curriculum somewhat equally from both of the methodologies in that category. And just what are those methodologies and that category? Let’s take a look!
Rich & Rigorous Methodologies
The classical and Charlotte Mason methodologies are grouped under this philosophical umbrella. These are two of the most popular homeschool methodologies, and while there is a fair amount of overlap between them, there are distinct differences as well.
In these methodologies, students are led through direct instruction in areas beyond the typical academic subjects. For example, the fine arts, rhetoric, personal habits, and character development are often staples of these types of approaches, as is the use of living books to teach not only literature but history, science, the social sciences, and a general love of reading. (“Living books” are works of high quality literature that engage readers on a deep level and teach about life and the world through their stories.) Narration – the practice of having children orally summarize what they have read or what has been read to them – is often used to gauge comprehension instead of workbook pages or comprehension packets. While students may have some say in the materials that are used for particular lessons, the parent is usually the one in control of the curriculum and decides what is covered and when.
So what are the differences between the two?
Classical education has its roots in the education system of ancient Greece. Modern classical homeschooling draws much of its inspiration from a now-famous speech given at Oxford University in 1947 by author Dorothy Sayers called The Lost Tools of Learning. In her talk she advocated for a return to the Trivium approach to education and its goal of equipping students not with mere facts but with the ability to think, to reason, and to discern. The Trivium is a three-phase, spiral-based educational model that takes students deeper into each academic subject as they progress through the levels over the course of their schooling. The emphasis is on teaching students how to think critically while providing them with an education that is both deep and wide. Most classical homeschoolers take a language-centric approach to their children’s education, meaning there is an emphasis on the written and spoken word and very limited use of digital and graphic-based resources.
“Rigor” is a common classical education value. Drill and memorization are a standard part of the typical classical homeschool experience, as are a fairly tight structure and a use of formal academic teaching methods (for example, the parent teaches a concept and the child performs exercises to practice and master the concept). Latin instruction is often a part of this approach as well.
Classical homeschoolers have a unique resource in a program called Classical Conversations*. Classical Conversation groups exist all over the world and provide classical homeschoolers with curriculum, community, and teaching assistance through their weekly community days. While their approach is merely one of the many ways classical homeschooling can be achieved, it is highly popular because of the guidance and support it gives parents, as well as the social connections it provides for both parents and students. (Note that Classical Conversations is a for-profit business and that experiences will vary greatly based on the leadership of each individual community.)
Another excellent classical education resource is the book A Well-Trained Mind, written by Susan Wise Bauer, which many classical homeschoolers use as a guide for their studies. The Well-Trained Mind Forums provide classical homeschoolers with support, encouragement, and curriculum recommendations, as well as being a place where people can “work out” their understanding of classical homeschool education and figure out how to tailor it to their family.
Charlotte Mason homeschooling is based on the teachings of an English educator who lived at the turn of the 20th century and ran a school for British children that focused on her philosophy, “Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life, and is the science of relations.” She wrote her thoughts and philosophy on education in a series of books, and it’s on those books that the Charlotte Mason homeschool approach is based.
Like classical homeschooling, the CM approach focuses on living books and studying both widely and deeply across academic disciplines. Unlike classical schooling, however, living books are the main focus of the approach. Daily read aloud is a cornerstone of the approach, and parents often continue the practice well into their children’s teen years as a way of building family culture and language and deepening familial relationships. It also brings in handicraft work – skills like sewing, woodworking, and drawing – because Ms. Mason was famously against what she called “twaddle,” or pointless crafts and books that take up time and resources without producing or teaching anything truly useful. Another defining aspect of a Charlotte Mason approach is its focus on habit training, which is teaching children good behavior and habits through intentional practice and parental attention.
Where the classical approach focuses on rigor, the CM approach is more focused on a slower daily pace, taking time to observe and reflect, and on short lessons in which children offer their very best. Miss Mason would rather a child spend only five minutes working carefully on producing their best copywork, regardless of how far into the passage they got, than having to fill an entire sheet of paper with handwriting practice. She also greatly valued time spent outdoors and recommended that children be allowed to be outside for a significant portion of each day. Nature study, which is an integral part of Charlotte Mason’s science instruction and is also used to teach art and writing, is a defining characteristic of the CM approach.
Homeschoolers who follow Ms. Mason’s philosophy have the benefit of two very solid online resources. One, called Ambleside Online after Ms. Mason’s English residence, is the closest thing one might find to standardization of Ms. Mason’s approach. They have created a free curriculum guide for both individuals and cottage schools, and also offer support in the form of online forums and a Facebook group. The second is a website called Simply Charlotte Mason, which was started by two homeschooling moms who over the years have managed to create an incredibly comprehensive collection of Charlotte Mason-based homeschooling resources, including what I think is the best list of living books available on the web. (They recently restructured their website and the bookfinder is a bit hidden; activate a free basic membership in order to access it.)
In holistic methodologies, students direct most of their studies themselves in one way or another, pursuing their own specific interests and passions while learning concepts that may not normally be taught through typical curriculum. Skills and knowledge are often learned as the need arises in order to aid the child in learning the things that interest them, rather than being scheduled to be learned at a specific age. These methodologies emphasize the connection between education and real life, and the line between real life and “school” is often blurred or even nonexistent. Conventional academic materials are often used sparingly, and sometimes not at all, with parents opting instead to teach through real-life situations and in the context of what their children want to learn about.
There are five different methods that fall under this philosophical umbrella: unit studies, project based learning, Waldorf, Montessori, and unschooling. The biggest differences between them is in how much latitude is given to children to determine what is covered and the materials which are used to teach.
A unit study approach integrates most, and sometimes all, of the academic subjects by teaching them through one specific topic. This approach is sometimes used in conventional preschools and kindergartens, but can easily be used with all ages. The child or parent selects a topic, and the parent gathers materials that will teach about the different aspects of that topic. There are many websites online that sell or offer for free downloadable unit studies that include parent instructions, worksheets, book lists, etc. You can even purchase books that teach you how to create them yourself, but all it really takes is some outside-the-box, creative thinking to spin out all the different subjects from one unifying topic – things like worksheets and final projects are not necessary unless your children want them or you as the parent feel they help somehow.
Unit studies can provide a good blend of student led and parent led homeschooling for parents who are concerned about making sure specific academic subjects are covered to a certain degree of thoroughness. Students can select the topic they want to learn about, parents can work out all the academic concepts they want to cover and how to do so through that topic, and they can even compile a list of possible materials (books, documentaries, field trips, etc.) for students to select from to give them further control over their own learning. Unit studies can also be a good way to provide a framework in which students who can work independently can direct their own education, since parents can lay out requirements and the student can be left to determine how to meet those requirements.
Here’s one example of what this might look like. (Remember that you have a ton of flexibility in how a unit study plays out and what it includes, so this is just one of many ways this could look!) Say your son is really into the ocean and wants to learn more about it. Together you could take a trip to the library and check out as many ocean-related books and DVDs as you can. You might also spend some time on YouTube, online learning platforms, Pinterest, etc. looking for ocean-related activities, videos, games – maybe even some pre-made ocean themed-unit studies. Each day your child (and you, depending on the child’s age) would spend some time reading, watching videos, and engaging in activities related to that ocean theme. You may even visit the ocean or an aquarium in your area.
Over time, his interests might hone in on a subtopic – let’s say ocean exploration. So you start doing a family read aloud of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and watch some videos on different underwater exploration vessels. That might lead to an interest in the kinds of things ocean explorers find – like shipwrecks! Which could lead to learning about the Titanic, or submarine battles, or pirates…
Over the course of the studies, you’d have the opportunity to learn or practice a variety of academic subjects and skills:
Well look at that – we essentially just created a unit study! See how easy that was?
Waldorf & Montessori
Similar to classical and Charlotte Mason, Waldorf and Montessori education have quite a lot in common, so we’ll discuss them both together. Both advocate following the child’s interests and setting up young children to discover and learn things on their own, rather than directly instructing them. Both believe in providing “controlled freedom,” value engagement with the immediate environment, and provide more structure to education as the child matures.
But while they have much in common, their subtle foundational differences create very different frameworks on which a child’s education is built. I once read somewhere (darned if I can figure out where!) that the Waldorf approach can be characterized as a “gentle push,” with the instructor or parent imparting as little intrusion on the developing mind as possible, whereas the Montessori approach is more like a “gentle pull,” with the instructor or parents providing guidance of the child’s developing mind by using the child’s interests as a lead. Waldorf tends towards an artistic view – think of it as embodying a “a more sweeping sense of wonder” – whereas Montessori tends towards a more scientific view and embodies a “more penetrating sense of wonder” (another quote from that same now-lost source I mentioned previously).
Formal academics are incorporated for math and reading in both approaches, but in different ways. Montessori does so much earlier than Waldorf, through games and activities children enjoy. Waldorf education typically uses some textbooks but not until children are around 10 years old. Montessori places more emphasis on order and a controlled environment, whereas Waldorf emphasizes surrounding the child with beauty and emphasizing nature and the arts. (This article is a great comparison of the two methodologies.)
Another difference is that Waldorf education is part of a larger lifestyle philosophy, and many families who embrace it to its fullest incorporate its values throughout their lives and not just in their children’s education. Note also that many Waldorf materials and organizations also promote a specific spiritual view held by Rudolph Steiner (the father of Waldorf education) called anthroposophy.
The unschooling approach is rooted in the fact that children are naturally curious and driven to learn and in the belief that, if left to their own devices, they will seek out knowledge and learn in their own way. It’s basically “learning through life,” and unschooling parents don’t divide their day into “school time” and “the rest of the day” because they see education as being fully integrated into life itself. Parents only give direct instruction when requested by the student, although they frequently “strew” materials in a subtle (or not-so-subtle) effort to introduce their children to new ideas. In its purest form, they allow children to completely take the lead in their own education and provide them with whatever books, materials, and experiences they need or request to learn what they want to learn, and only use curriculum and formal instruction if their children asks for it. There are many families who also employ unschooling for most subjects but not all (providing direct math instruction is common) or who will set basic requirements for the time spent in formal academics or the materials used but will allow significant freedom for study outside those requirements.
While unschooling may sound extreme, it’s essentially the way the majority of the world’s people learned for thousands of years. Children learned through living life alongside their parents and extended family and engaging in their community. It might sound like an archaic approach for our significantly more developed, contemporary times, but unschoolers can and do go to college and get jobs just like other homeschoolers (and conventionally schooled students) do. It does require a certain amount of awareness on the parents’ part so that it doesn’t turn into educational neglect, but it is definitely a valid and often very fruitful approach to education, particularly for students who are very self-driven or have strong personalities or a particular area of passion.
Project-based learning is sort of like a cross between unschooling and unit studies. It marries the unit studies idea of learning being focused around a central theme with the unschooling concept of student-led/parent-facilitated education. Basically, children come up with their own projects, whatever those may be, and the parent facilitates the completion of that project by providing whatever books, materials, and instruction the child might need to complete it. Through these projects, children learn a wide variety of skills as well as chunks of knowledge in many academic subjects.
Here’s an example of what this might look like. Say your child really enjoys The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, like my younger daughter does. She also really enjoys drawing and painting, so she decides to create her own series of drawings and paintings based on the books. After those are done, she decides she’d like to make a book out of them as a Christmas gift for her grandparents – and you point out that some captions would be helpful because they aren’t familiar with Tolkein’s works. She wants to just copy out the passages from the books, but you encourage her to add why she enjoys those passages so much. After she finishes writing the text (and editing it, with your help), together you research binding options and help her learn how to mount and bind her work into a book. (I can guarantee that will require some math!)
As you might have already deduced, project-based learning can easily lend itself to developing an entrepreneurial mindset in children and is a great approach for kids who are very creative and goal-oriented. When a child is in between projects, their education looks much like unschooling, which allows them to seek out and learn about things that inspire them and spark their creativity. But, as with unschooling, parents need to be observant and pay attention to what their children are learning and working on and what areas of their education may need some rounding out.
Simplified Homeschooling could be described as “structured unschooling with a twist.” I created this methodology myself after years of trying to find just the right balance of unschooling that I know works well for most children and parent-led instruction that I felt children needed. When I was done formalizing it I realized that what I’d actually created wasn’t so much a homeschool approach but a full life approach for families to follow in order to strengthen their relationships with each other and prepare children for life in the 21st Century.
Simplified Homeschooling is built on a foundation of prioritizing family. Family relationships are (or should be) the most important relationships a child has. I firmly believe parents ought to be the main influence in their child’s life – not the state, not other people who may not share their values and beliefs. Parents may choose to outsource certain subjects, but they should always have the right to decide who that person is. And sibling relationships (when there are siblings in the picture) should be set up for success by providing copious opportunities for children to work, learn, and play together. Thus, Simplified Homeschooling brings families together to work, play, and learn as a unit rather than as individuals.
There are seven pillars to the Simplified Homeschooling philosophy:
These seven pillars represent the seven “content areas” that guide every day’s activities. Not every pillar is covered every day, and not ever pillar gets equal time, nor is there a specific amount of time that parents should allot to activities for each pillar. This framework merely guides parents as they plan out their time each day so they are not hyper focusing on one area and neglecting another.
The overarching concept of relevance tops off the whole philosophy. Simplified Homeschooling doesn’t teach anything on the basis of “that’s just what you’re supposed to teach.” The child’s interest is the guide, and the parent facilitates that while supplementing it with direct instruction in content that is relevant but not necessarily fully connected to what the child is currently interested in (life skills are a great example).
For more information on Simplified Homeschooling, check out the Simplified Homeschooling Framework here!
So how are you supposed to figure out which methodology is going to be the best for your family? I recommend starting with deschooling before trying to align with a particular methodology. Deschooling, which is the act of detoxing yourself and your children from the conventional schooling methodology, helps you form a clearer picture of what your own philosophy of education is. You can learn more about what deschooling is, why I consider it the single most important step a family can take in their homeschool journey, and how exactly to do it in my article here.
After you’ve spent some time deschooling, you can take our methodology quiz! (And who doesn’t love a good quiz??) This quiz will help you figure out which of the three categories – conventional, rich and rigorous, or holistic – you fall into, which can help you narrow your choices.
Once you you have an idea of what category you fall into, it’s just a matter of researching the methodologies it contains and deciding which one sounds like the best fit. To save you time and effort, I’ve created a methodology research pack, which contains a fact sheet on each methodology and links to websites and book suggestions to help you learn more about the ones you’re really interested in. And since most families tend to like the looks of a handful of methodologies, I’ve also included my guide on how to combine multiple methodologies into a customized methodology that is completely tailored to your family and your educational goals and philosophy!
Does it take some time and effort to figure out which methodology is going to work best for your family? Yes, it will. But it will SAVE you time and effort (and money!) down the road, as well as making your homeschool journey go much more smoothly. After deschooling, choosing a methodology is definitely the most important decision you can make for long-term homeschooling success.