Educating eclectically – no decision is forever

In most groups of home educators, one of the early questions is usually, ‘What’s your philosophy?’ or even (in American circles) ‘What curriculum do you use?’ I used to have a hard time answering these question because – as I described in ‘Life is education‘ – I always saw a curriculum as one tool for learning, one small part in the whole.

Moreover in nine years of home education I never quite slotted into any easily-understood home educator mould. Perhaps ‘eclectic’ was the best description of our style – a bit of this and a bit of that, as appropriate. I love the Charlotte Mason theories, but don’t think she ever intended a ‘method’. And some of her ideas are, inevitably, a century out of date. I think John Holt had some great ideas but I don’t believe everything he said. I do think general knowledge and good reading are vital, but I see no point teaching children to do tedious arithmetic in the days of calculators and computers.

Autonomous theory of home educating

I also love the autonomous theory – similar to American ‘unschooling’ – where children learn by themselves, with input from parents only when asked, free to do whatever they feel like. Sometimes when I read about autonomous educating families with children doing wonderful things, I used to wonder why it didn’t seem to work for everyone. And then I realised. Two commonly-used clichés are actually true: (1) every child is different (2) variety is the spice of life.

Some children really do benefit from child-centred or autonomous style learning, perhaps more so when they have never been to school and never lose their questioning, eager enthusiasm. But even amongst those, I’m sure there are some who are far more eager to learn than others. Personalities are different, motivations are different. Because autonomous learning is so wonderful when it does work, it’s easy when reading about families who follow this philosophy, to assume that it’s the only way and that something’s going wrong if the children aren’t learning by osmosis, asking questions, and intrinsically motivated.

But in my own observations, and reading various mailing lists, it became clear that some children – for whatever reason – take the path of least resistance. If given no direction at all, some people will gravitate to spending all day compulsively watching TV, or reading junk fiction, or playing computer games. There’s nothing wrong with these activities when the child is in control, but they can too easily become compulsive, sapping their energy, leaving them with little interest in anything else.

Finding the right balance in your home education

It can be hard for parents to stand back and observe, and get the right balance, because there are times when we do need to let our children spend time with these things. When a child is relaxing after strenuous activity and needs to crash out, for instance. Or perhaps when they’re enjoying a new computer game and spending hours learning about it.

When my sons received one of the Civilisation strategy games as a Christmas present one year, they spent a week, almost solidly, playing it. I kept telling myself this was ‘time off’, and watched to see if it would become compulsive, or if the interest would wane. Sure enough, after about a week, they began doing other things as well. Gradually I realised they were playing the game perhaps once a week. They needed that initial burst of enthusiasm and almost continual playing, before the game became just one part of their lives and learning.

So don’t discourage what seems like extreme enthusiasm for something new, so long as it is clearly enthusiasm and excitement. Trying to limit time spent on something will make it seem like forbidden fruit, and all the more compelling.

Compulsive or addictive?

But there are times when for no apparent reason a game, or the TV, or even reading will become compulsive. The children’s eyes glaze over, and they’re no longer enjoying what they’re doing, but there’s something keeping them going at the same old thing. When that happens, then it’s important to make some guidelines together, to offer alternative activities, perhaps go out to do something completely different.

Discuss the idea of compulsive viewing with your children at a time when they’re not playing the latest game or watching TV. Listen to their viewpoints, and take them seriously – and they will listen to you. Explain your worries, and why you feel they should be doing other things, and ask for ideas, or proposed limits to TV viewing or game-playing. When treated as reasonable human beings, most children respond with plenty of ideas, and will understand parental concern so that some solution can be found to meet everyone’s needs.

Structure and timetables as an option

There are also children who really do like structure and timetables, and want clear goals and tangible achievements such as progressing through workbooks. One of my sons was like that. Some of the things he liked most about school were the timetable, knowing what to expect, seeing progression through various text books, and having work marked. When we went through an autonomous learning experiment, he often found himself at a loose end, sometimes bored and frustrated. He became happier when we started following a curriculum where he could set himself goals and work through workbooks. My article ‘unschoolers using curriculum?‘ explains more fully why we started on this path.

As for variety being the spice of life… one thing my sons enjoyed about being in school was the variation between school days and weekends, the start of holidays where they could be entirely autonomous, the end-of-term activities with school plays and sports days and so on. If they hadn’t had the ordinary school days, I don’t think they’d have appreciated the other days so much.

In home education it can be easy for weeks to run into each other with nothing much happening, and that becomes routine and dull. So a benefit of having some structured time during the week is that weekends become different. Having a break over Christmas can seem more fun – and children can pack more activities in if they know the totally free time is limited. My sons liked the contrast of mornings (with the curriculum) and afternoons where they mostly learned autonomously, but somehow more enthusiastically than when it was the same all day. I found too that the older they get, the more important this was, at least in our home. But that’s only one family!

Eclectic education styles

During the first three years or our home education, we experimented with various styles of learning. We started with the kitchen-table workbooks idea. Then we had some periods of no structure at all.  We tried flexible timetables and informal structure. Eventually we went back to workbooks, with some goals in sight. We also used the dining room table rather than the kitchen one! Even within all that, there was gradual change, which we discussed together. New ways of going about our home education seemed to bring fresh life into us all. But inevitably we became tired of one system and decided on another change.

At one point we were re-making a timetable for ourselves about once a month. We kept discussing together what our aims and objectives were, as they were not static. At another stage we tried having a week of informal structured learning alternating with a week of no structure. That worked quite well for a while too.

Decisions about education can be changed

So, remember that no decision about home education is necessarily forever. If you’re not happy, and you sense that the children aren’t learning or really enjoying life, then try something else. If what you are doing seems to be working well, stay with it. You don’t need to compare yourself with your friends, or with anyone else. If you use a curriculum and you all like it, fine. If you’re following an unschooling or other model and are all happy, great. But if you’re following a philosophy because it seems to make sense and works for other people, but your children don’t like it and you don’t feel that real learning is happening, then step back, examine your priorities, and think about a change.

Don’t spend a fortune on new curriculum materials, unless you’re certain that you will like what you’re about to use, and have all agreed that it’s the right way forward. If you’ve been educating autonomously and aren’t happy about it, try for some more structure. Perhaps you could find some inexpensive workbooks, or raid the library. You could even consider setting up a timetable for a while. If that’s a disaster, you can stop. If it leads on to other things, you can change track, take a tangent, research something else. But it might just be the thing you need.

Further reading on this site:

What is education?
informal history
home educators’ blogs

Other sites with relevant articles:

Eclectic Homeschooling
Unschooling on the Natural Child site
Radical Unschooling