Unschoolers using Curriculum?

In late Spring 2000, we decided to start using the European version of the formal American Christian ACE curriculum. This left some friends rather stunned. Why would we, who had avoided all formal curriculum up to then, and who still believed strongly in interest-led education, want to use a somewhat rigid work-book based course?

At the time we had been home educating for two and a half years. When we started, we used quite a number of British text-books so that we could follow roughly what the British schools were doing, thinking we might be returning to the UK. We assumed that, if we did, our sons would go back to school.

Intrinsic motivation is the best teacher

But the longer we continued, the more we realised that the most important factor in home education is the children’s intrinsic motivation. When they want to learn about something, that is the time when they will learn best – whether it’s beginning French or web design or advanced geometry. School (and homeschool) curriculums can only offer an average and progressive selection of topics, but can never begin to cover everything a child wants to know, in the most appropriate order for each child.

Nevertheless we continued using – sporadically – maths text books which are used in some UK schools, and a selection of other text-books. Mostly we sat together on the sofa and read together, discussing issues that arose, and thinking about why certain events in history happened, or how other cultures differ from ours. My sons listened to radio news, read widely, and ran their own web-sites. They took music instrument lessons, belonged to a youth group, and took art classes. This is fairly typical for British home educating families, but I believe we would have been called ‘unschoolers’ in the US system. I was confident that my sons were gaining a broad education and that the text-books are only one tool in their education.

So why did we start using ACE?

My sons had reached the ages of 13 and 11, and were beginning to consider some kind of qualifications that could lead in future to university. In the British school system they would take GCSE exams at age 16, and probably stay on a further two years at school to take A-levels – equivalent to first year college courses in the USA. These are generally required for British university entrance. It’s quite possible to take GCSE courses by correspondence, but they’re expensive and have two three-hour exams at the end, which must be taken in a registered building. Many British home educators do this, perhaps in conjunction with a local college, but it’s more difficult for those of us living abroad.

Then we learned that ACE-Europe (or CEE, as it’s called) offers a series of diplomas at the high school level, now known as the International Certificate of Christian Education. The first level of this is equivalent to five GCSE exams, and the final level (including some US college courses) equivalent to 8 GCSEs and 3 A-levels. The whole course can be taken at home, without any formal exams, and has been accepted at several British universities.

I did a great deal of research, wondering if there were any other alternatives which worked this way, but did not find any. No doubt there will be other options in future but we didn’t want to wait. The NCSC diploma requires students to start at the 8th grade level of work(about Year 7-8 in the UK), although ACE has the big advantage over many formal curricula of being generally ability-related rather than age or grade-related. Students take diagnostic tests before starting the courses, and are allocated workbooks depending on their abilities, which may be widely different across different subjects.

So we decided we would try this out. A year later, my older son (then 15) was well over half-way through the first level qualificaiton. But although it was a fairly formal curriculum, we still considered ourselves basically unschoolers or autonomous educators. Perhaps ‘eclectic home educators’ is a more useful description: we used what seemed most appropriate at any stage, taking into account our children’s interests and abilities. We were not going to be curriculum-bound.

ACE did not require any particular schedule, and each workbook (or ‘PACE’) is completed at the child’s own speed. The child sets his own learning targets, and chooses his own elective subjects in addition to the core, which may be taken from curricula other than ACE. So it was simply one tool in our education, not the basis of it. It was my sons who decided that they wanted to use something like this, and have a bit more structure to the day – as well as a diploma at the end of the course. So the motivation to follow it came from them.

Autonomous learning may include curriculum

Autonomous/eclectic education will often include curriculum, or text-books, when appropriate. The big divide in home educators is not between those who use a formal structure and those who do not. The difference lies in how we use any structured courses. Are they used to satisfy the child’s own motivation, after much discussion and research, with plenty of flexibility, or are they used rigidly because the parent believes it’s the best – irrelevant of the child’s feelings?

Do we see education as encompassing the whole of life, or is it simply the ‘workbook’ part of the day? Do our children continue asking questions and researching and learning through weekends, late at night, and in the heat of summer – or do they close their books with a sigh of relief and avoid anything that might be ‘educational’ unless pushed?

For us, the first three years of home education taught us all that the whole of life is educational. Learning never stops, from dawn to dusk, and we never really took breaks, although there were many periods when the boys didn’t do any ACE work. And there were times when they want to know something unrelated to the course, or something which is not covered at this level. That was fine: I always believed that, above all, the boys must follow their interests. Any curriculum is simply a core underlying the education which goes on all day every day.

Further reading:

what is education?
will home education limit achievement?
parenting styles