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. We thought of ourselves as unschoolers, on the whole. Up to that point we had avoided all formal curriculum. Moreover, we still believed strongly in interest-led education. So why would we 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 some British text-books so that we could follow roughly what the British schools were doing. We thought initially that we might be returning to the UK and 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. This is true whether it’s beginning French, or web design or advanced geometry. School (and homeschool) curriculums can offer a progressive selection of topics. But they can never cover everything a child wants to know, in the most appropriate way 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. We believed in the principle of unschooling, but never entirely reached the level of true unschoolers. Still, we discussed extensively what we were going to do each day. When using text books, we mostly sat on the sofa and read together, discussing issues that arose. We might think about why certain events in history happened, or how other cultures differed 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. I was confident that my sons were gaining a broad education and that the text-books were only one tool in their education.

Starting to think of the future

My sons had reached the ages of 13 and 11, and were beginning to consider qualifications that could lead in future to university. In the British school system they would take GCSE exams at age 16. They would probably stay on a further two years at school or sixth form college to take A-levels. These are roughly equivalent to first year college courses in the USA. British universities often expect A-levels, although as we learned, they are not always necessary. It is possible to take GCSE courses by correspondence, but they are expensive and have two three-hour exams at the end. These must be taken in a registered building. Some 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 was called) offered a series of diplomas at the high school level, now known as the International Certificate of Christian Education. The first level of this was roughly equivalent to five GCSE exams, and the final level (including some US college courses) equivalent to eight GCSEs and three A-levels. The whole course could be taken at home, without any formal exams, and has been accepted at several British universities.

Experimenting with ACE

I did a great deal of research, wondering if there were alternatives which worked this way, but did not find any. No doubt there would be other options in future but we didn’t want to wait. The NCSC diploma (as it was then) required students to start at the 8th grade level of work (about Year 7-8 in the UK). However ACE had an advantage over many formal curricula in that it was generally ability-related rather than age or grade-related. Students took diagnostic tests before starting the courses, and were allocated workbooks depending on their abilities. These could be widely different across the subjects.

So we decided we would try this out. A year later, my older son (then 15) was over half-way through the first level qualification. But although it was a fairly formal curriculum, we still considered ourselves, broadly speaking, 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 elective subjects in addition to the core. Some of those could be taken from curricula other than ACE. So the curriculum was one tool in our education, not the basis of it. It was my sons who decided that they wanted to use something like this. They wanted 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.

Unschoolers 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. Do we use them to satisfy the child’s own motivation, after much discussion and research, with flexibility? Or do we use them rigidly because the parent believes it’s right, 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?

In the first three years of home education we learned that all that the whole of life is educational. Learning never stops, from dawn to dusk. We never really took breaks in education, although there were many periods when the boys didn’t do any ACE work. And there were times when they wanted to know something unrelated to the course, or something which was 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