It's the start of a new school year, and while most of us have already chosen our curriculum to use, we are still adjusting as we go along. This article is an excerpt from the chapter "Choosing Your Own Approach to Education" in my book Common Sense Excellence: Faith-Filled Home Education for Preschool to 5th Grade. I've been thinking about it since we are always trying to find the right blend in our home of structured and delight-directed living and learning. What works for you?
SYNTHESIZING YOUR OWN STYLE
Are you boggled after reading about the different approaches to home schooling? Which is right? Which is right for your family? If you think about it, what the people who teach these approaches are trying to describe is how you can most effectively allocate your family’s time, money, space, attention and decision-making capabilities to secure the best education for your children. To that extent, each one is valuable. I doubt that any single approach offers everything you will ever want, and there are so many overlaps that we can’t even say they are mutually exclusive. I use what I call the Eclectic Approach: attempting to combine the interest and organization of unit study, the natural methods and love for beauty of Charlotte Mason, the order and discipline of traditional education, the freedom and imagination of relaxed home schooling, the scholarship of the classical approach, and the convenience and fun of computers. I cherish the freedom to pick and choose from whatever will work with each child. If you ask me what my philosophy of education is, I would say:
“God is the Creator of the Universe, the Author of Life, the Prime Moving Force in History, and the Ultimate Teacher. He has chosen my husband, children and me to be members of one family, to live and learn together. In his grace and wisdom, he has given parents the awesome responsibility to train and educate children so they can know, worship, and serve him in practical ways all of their lives. Our children can learn by being with us, watching us, listening to us, conversing with us, and working with us as we go about our daily lives. Through personal relationships, reading, and writing, they can acquire and share knowledge and skills with others. They can gain direct experience with the world around them through hands-on discovery and projects. They can learn self-discipline as they follow plans that are not all of their own choosing, but they will also enjoy the satisfaction which comes from individually pursuing their own God-given interests and talents.”
DUTY AND DELIGHT
Did you notice that last sentence in my philosophy of education? Here it is again: “They can learn self-discipline as they follow plans that are not all of their own choosing, but they will also enjoy the satisfaction which comes from individually pursuing their own God-given interests and talents.”
The dilemma for many home school moms is: “Do I make my children learn what they need to know, or let them learn about what excites them?” The answer is YES... to both! It’s not an either/or situation. Education needs to be a balance of duty and delight. I think of duties as those things that must be done, the fixed expenses or work in our daily routines. Delights, on the other hand, are the things we naturally want to do, our discretionary activities, our play. “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” the saying goes, but I must add that “All play and no work makes Jack a useless boy.” How do we find the optimum combination between duty and delight?
Realize the value of your work, and take joy in the accomplishment. The ideal is always to love what we do and do what we love, but it just doesn’t always work that way naturally. It takes attitude changes. As we think about the benefits of what we must do, then we can enjoy it more. Colossians 3:23-24 says, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.” He is also our blessed example in this, “who for the joy set before him, endured the cross...” (Hebrews 12:2) Let us be an example to our children!
Make your “delights” more productive. Use them to build relationships, serve other people, learn new skills, and improve health. Examples of “diligent delights” for children include cooking with mom, taking a brisk family walk around the neighborhood, planting flowers, making cards or gifts, or practicing math while keeping score in a game.
Balance the day to make time for duties and delights. Charlotte Mason always recommended doing the more structured lessons in the morning, and then leaving the afternoon free for “purposeful” delights such as pleasure reading, nature walks, art, music, tea time, etc. As I now tell my children: “Get my assignments done in the morning, and the afternoon is yours for anything at least halfway educational!” If they don’t get their morning assignments done, this can eat into their “delight directed” time.
Accept that learning can be fun, but it doesn’t always need to be fun. Yes, our children should have a sense of adventure and imagination in their studies. However, if they demand that school always be “a thrill a minute” without any drudge whatsoever, not only will you burn out trying to be their entertainment director, but they will miss out on some very crucial knowledge and skills that can only be gained by disciplined work. In future years, they will not likely have the perseverance necessary to succeed in higher education, career, and family life. A person who bails out when the going gets rough will not make a worthy disciple of Jesus Christ. He will be like the barren ground littered with rocks and thorns instead of good, fruitful soil that multiplies an abundant crop. (Matthew 13:1-23)
Allow your child to choose some studies, but oversee the results. In the unschooling model of education, the child chooses what to learn and when to learn it. Yes, it works for some people, depending on the motivation level of the child. I think this would be most successful if the child sets a plan for each day, instead of flitting aimlessly from one thing to the next without really finishing anything at all. He should also still be accountable to the parent for progress, especially in weak areas. Gregg Harris has often taught about delight directed studies, where the child chooses assignments based on his own interests. We have done this to a limited extent in our family, especially in the middle and upper grades. Younger children usually require more direct input from their parents with this. Those who have not yet developed self-discipline need intervention. If your child can stay busy doing what needs to be done, that’s great! But if he can’t motivate himself, he’ll need a little pressure from you.
Start a short seatwork time each day. While it is not wise to push massive amounts of written work in the early years, it does not hurt to sit down and write for a little while every day. This could be just five or ten minutes for a preschooler to practice writing a few lines of letters. In early elementary they might have a paragraph of copywork, or a short list of spelling words, in addition to a math workbook. These focused activities will help to lengthen a short attention span. Most children can, with proper discipline, handle at least a brief session of some focused work each day. It says to the child, “I have confidence that you can do this!”
Transition into more structured assignments as needed. In the primary grades, you can let children read just about as much as they want, knowing they will naturally pick up most of their language arts skills this way. However, they still need to be willing and able to complete whatever written assignments you deem necessary for them. This is especially true as they approach fourth grade, which is when many children can be expected to concentrate more on structured materials. Like it or not, you will need some sort of paper trail for their portfolios, including written language arts samples. When I determine that a child needs to make the transition to more formal assignments, I usually find it necessary to plan very specific lessons. I try to target the subjects which they typically neglect, while letting them continue autonomously in the areas where they excel. I might buy a small brightly colored workbook, or assign page numbers in an easy text, or design brief Charlotte Mason style grammar lessons somehow related to their favorite school subjects. Then we work one-on-one for several weeks until they are done. Children who are not accustomed to this will fuss about it for a while. Don’t let this deter you! It takes an adjustment to break into a new routine, but once they get there, it gets a lot more comfortable for both of you. You will need to be right by their side for a while until they can do it themselves. This takes a time commitment on your part, but it will pay off in the months and years to come!
And, a summary from the very end of the chapter...