Home education styles

How you decide to go about your home education is between you and your child. Some families like a structured approach, some prefer informal, interest-led home education styles. Many are somewhere in between.

Relaxed education

You will soon find, if you start home educating, that life does not need to be divided into subjects.  Learning experiences come from all kinds of sources, not simply books and computers. Moreover, subjects taught in schools are only a tiny part of the broader concept of ‘education’. For more about this, see the article ‘What is education?’

Many home educators in the UK adopt a fairly eclectic approach, answering questions, following their children’s interests, and encouraging them to develop their strengths. Parents might offer suggestions, or help the children find resources on or offline, and might also suggest text books or workbooks as they seem relevant.

If you want to use school-type text books, at least to start with, there are a wide variety available at local bookshops. We found textbooks published by both Ginn and Heinemann to be good quality, and enjoyable to use. If you are comfortable with flexible structure, and your children are eager to learn, then this home education style may well work for your family, and there’s no particular need to look further.

Don’t forget that your local library is another useful source, with books on most topics, DVDs and sometimes computer CDs to borrow. When reading and conversation are natural parts of daily life, rather than rushed in evenings after school, your child will learn in a relaxed way, at his own pace, when he is ready to learn.

Using the Internet

While some parents are concerned about the well-publicised dangers of the Internet, it’s an invaluable resource, used wisely, in education. A Google search can answer almost any question your child may have, often a great deal more quickly than looking in books or encyclopedias. Moreover, information is regularly updated online. By doing research of this kind with your child, you can help them to check for dates, and also to cross-check things they read. It’s an important skill, nowadays, to be aware of how far any site can be trusted.

Experts suggest that children between the ages of three and seven should have no more than an hour and a half of ‘screen time’ per day. This includes television as well as computers and tablets, and is irrelevant of content.  Children from seven to eighteen should, ideally, have no more than two hours per day. See the BBC article Childhood screentime warning for more information.  These are guidelines, of course, but if your child likes to watch TV in the evenings, or play computer games, it would be worth limiting their educational browsing to a short period once or twice per week.

If your child does not use screens for entertainment, then it’s fine to use the Internet for an hour or two most days. There are thousands of specifically educational sites as well as subject-related. Make sure you use Google’s ‘safe search’ facility to ensure that your children don’t accidentally come across adult or otherwise inappropriate content, in addition to being in the room with them when they’re online.

My sons learned about many things via sites, forums and other Internet resources back in the late 1990s. They researched and studied topics I knew little or nothing about, and learned what they need to know for their interests and activities.  Nearly twenty years later, there are many thousands more sites which can be accessed on phones or tablets as well as the computer, the majority of which are entirely safe to use.

‘School at home’

There are some families where parents and children like structured learning, and feel that there’s value in either a formal curriculum, or by using set text books and workbooks. Sometimes categorised as ‘school at home’, children may get dressed, put resources in backpacks, sit at desks, and even raise their hands to ask questions. They might start at the same time each morning, and take official breaks at set times.

We tried this kind of thing for a while, but were never really structured enough to make it work. For a while one of my sons wanted our home education style to be ‘more like school’ when we opted for a more autonomous style, but we never managed to keep it up for long. However, for some families it works well; the children progress efficiently in a step-by-step way, and the parents may feel more comfortable around other educationalists if they can demonstrate that they are using ‘official’ resources.

Some families follow a curriculum in a more relaxed way, and some use a school-like structure for the day while learning informally. There are no rights or wrongs; each family and each child is different. My Home education resources page looks at ways you can teach some National Curriculum subjects at home, if you want to, with suggestions for books and Internet resources to help. It also gives the details for some more formal ‘homeschool’ curricula that can be bought for home learning.

Unit Studies

Some home educators in the USA – and increasingly in the UK – use an approach called ‘unit studies’, whereby any topic of interest – from soccer World Cup to cats and kittens – is studied extensively over a period of a week or a month. Within the topic you can cover, for instance, geography (countries playing in the world cup / cats around the world), history (origins of soccer / cats in ancient times) – and whatever else appeals!

You can research on the Internet or your library for all information on the topic, perhaps write a relevant story or report, and create art or craft work based on it. This idea is often done informally in home education when a child has a particular interest, or can be followed more formally with a year plan of topics and designed unit study lessons. A useful page which explains the system more fully and gives several ideas is: Multi-level teaching and Unit Studies online.

Educating autonomously

Many British home educators, who start by using structure a bit like a school day, find themselves veering more and more to autonomous child-led learning, exploring new topics together, and following the child’s own need to learn at their own rate. Some families use this approach from the beginning, and never emulate a school model at all.

Even if it does not seem as if you are covering much, your children will remember and understand far more when they are interested in what they are learning, rather than when someone else dictates their curriculum.

For some descriptions of how autonomous education can work in practice, you could check some home educating family blogs, or read the book ‘Free Range Education: How Home Education Works’, edited by Terri Dowty.