About a year ago, while I was talking with a friend, I suddenly realized — the organizing factor of our homeschooling has always been what creates engagement in my children.
The answer? Whatever engages your child.
Think that’s a bogus answer?
The truth is, no matter how long we’ve been homeschooling, experienced homeschoolers can’t tell a new homeschooler which curriculum to use, or even which approach to homeschooling to use (and some homeschooling approaches do not even use curriculum per say).
That’s because we don’t know which curriculum or approach will engage your child.
We can make recommendations. You can read reviews.
But there are some uncomfortable truths about curriculum selection:
- Your curriculum selection will be a process of trial and error. You need to be willing to change it if it doesn’t work. Having spent money on something is no excuse for continuing to use it when it doesn’t work. Sell it or give it away. It might work for someone else. See my two rules for engaging kids through homeschooling.
- Preschoolers should not be required to do early formal academic lessons from a curriculum. They need opportunities to play and do engaging things with people who are important to them. They need you to read to them and take walks with them. They need to make art, use their imaginations, learn to wonder, use their bodies, go places, and do things. Ditch any curriculum or approach for a young child that doesn’t have you snuggling on the couch together with books, playing outside, building stuff, and looking at the moon.
- More important than curriculum selection for most new homeschoolers* is the process of deschooling — getting used to a non-school normal. Read the Engaged Homeschooling links to deschooling to get started. If you haven’t given attention to deschooling, but you’re picking out curriculum, you’re more likely to make a curriculum choice that will not work. And hey, if your child has never been to school, this still applies to you — there’s a five-part series on Parental Deschooling listed there, because parents need to deschool in order to homeschool well.
- *Some new homeschoolers do have to prioritize picking out curriculum. This includes people who may be homeschooling their son or daughter for a year of high school when there is a strong chance that child may return to high school the next year. That’s because high schools in most states get to decide on placement and credits for work done at home. This also includes people who may be homeschooling a high school age athlete who wants to play a sport in college. That’s because they will need to adhere to NCAA guidelines regarding curriculum.
- Your homeschooling approach trumps your curriculum selection. Meaning, your general philosophy about how you want to approach homeschooling is ultimately more important to your child and ultimately a big factor in any curriculum you will choose. Will you use a projects-based approach? A school-at-home approach? A Charlotte Mason or Montessori or Waldorf-based approach? A unit studies approach? An unschooling approach? An eclectic approach? A Classical approach? A co-op approach? An online approach? If you don’t know what these things are, your homework is to read about each of these approaches to homeschooling.
- Engagement is the most important factor. If your curriculum doesn’t engage your child, it is a waste of time. It doesn’t matter whether the math is spiral- or mastery-based. It doesn’t matter whether the reading is phonics- or whole word-based. It doesn’t matter whether the curriculum is Christian or secular. If your child isn’t engaged, the curriculum will not assist in creating genuine learning.
All this curriculum stuff is somewhat akin to how a kid will get a great toy as a birthday gift that a parent is so glad to have found and managed to afford — but then the child spends more time playing with the really cool box it came in.
That happens with homeschooling. You buy a well-respected curriculum you are excited about and sure of (“and it has everything planned out for me”) — and your kid learns more from working on a bike and reading about gears and ratios.
In fact, I have a whole series over at TheHomeschoolMom on what learning resources you can use Instead of Curriculum, because I’m so excited about the power of these kinds or resources in stimulating engagement.
So what’s a new homeschooler to do?
You can take a shot and choose a curriculum, understanding you’ll probably make major adjustments. Please don’t make your kid miserable with homeschooling before making the changes you realize you need to make. You can still read about deschooling and try the recommended activities, and you can still use the “Instead of Curriculum” type suggestions that experienced homeschoolers will be glad to tell you about.
Or, you can not choose a curriculum right away, emphasizing deschooling and “Instead of Curriculum”-type learning experiences. Then after you understand a little more about the experiences and materials that engage your child, you can hone in on an approach to homeschooling and a curriculum that reflects that approach.
For some people, choosing a curriculum and then adjusting is a valuable part of the journey. Getting a curriculum that turns out not to be engaging helps you determine what will engage your child. “Starting somewhere” is getting started, after all, and that’s ok, as long as you don’t become entrenched and insistent on continuing to use a tool that doesn’t fit the job.
Other people like saving money and exploring learning options without choosing a curriculum right away. They, too, are “starting somewhere.”
The important thing to remember is that while it feels like curriculum choice is going to guide your homeschooling in all the right academic directions, it’s really a child’s engagement that is the critical factor in terms of how much he or she will learn.
While curriculum continues to be the hot question for new homeschoolers, we do well to be mindful that while curriculum can fill the bucket, engagement will light the fire.
Curious about homeschooling? Want to know facts instead of stereotypes? Need a program for your community group, education organization, university classroom, business forum, political association, or parents meeting?
Homeschooling 101: Homeschooling for Non-Homeschoolers is the perfect introduction to homeschooling for people who would like to get real information about homeschooling in Virginia and the United States.
If you’d like to hear about the new face of homeschooling, let’s work it out so I can speak to your group. We can talk about who is homeschooling, why people homeschool, statistics in Virginia and the U.S., approaches to homeschooling, homeschoolers’ relationships with and attitudes toward schools, and how homeschooling is one of the ways to fully meet the legal requirements for compulsory attendance in Virginia.
We can also talk about how businesses, libraries, community organizations, educational institutions, museums, and others can and do partner with homeschoolers.
Homeschoolers in Virginia, taken together, would amount to the eighth largest school division in The Commonwealth today, according to StatChat, produced by the Demographics Research Group at UVA.
Homeschoolers also tend to be highly engaged in their communities.
That’s a group worth knowing real facts about. The demographics of who is homeschooling, what their families are like, and their main reason for homeschooling are much different than the stereotype. I have crunched the numbers both for Virginia and the U.S., using well-respected sources. I have homeschooled from kindergarten through twelfth grade for 17 years in three states in eight different communities, work as a homeschool evaluator, and speak to many homeschooling families at conferences each year.
If you’d like an orientation to today’s homeschooling — and to understand how homeschooling parents engage their kids in learning — contact me to set up a lively presentation or consultation.
At the VaHomeschoolers Conference yesterday, one of my talks was “Beyond School Daze: The Deschooling Process.”
Deschooling is the transition time between school and homeschooling, a period of adjustment that both parents and kids have to make as they change from school norms to new family norms.
Experienced homeschoolers recommend that families who are new to homeschooling take a period of time to “de-school” before launching into home education. It’s counter-intuitive, but often children need some time to rediscover their interests, their natural rhythm of learning, their sense of curiosity, and what drives them to engage. During a deschooling period, parents can tune in to what is creating a spark in their kids, and use that information to help decide on an approach to homeschooling and what to look for in a curriculum, if they are going to use one.
It’s all part of getting “out of the box” of school. I watched and heard some cognitive dissonance as parents were wrapping their heads around these new ideas. Frequently parents come to homeschooling determined to do it to the utmost so they won’t “mess up the kids.” It can be startling to be told the first thing need to do is . . . not do a formal approach to “school.”
However, I did give them a long list of educational and family-oriented things to do together with their children — read, watch documentaries, go to museums, visit parks and natural areas, tour historical sites, get outside, get moving, create art, make stuff, re-connect with relatives and friends, meet your librarians, and network and find friends.
I also told them to think of whether there is school reason or a good reason to do things with your homeschooling child — noting that there is often overlap (so don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater), but that you don’t have to do things just because those things were done in school. Instead, you can choose to do the things that work effectively for your child.
That’s what results in engagement.
As I promised my audience, I’m providing the links to a lot of deschooling articles I’ve written — which contain links to most of the sources I listed on the thick handout I distributed with the talk. It’s just so much easier to click through, and I know after I attend any kind of conference, I enjoy going home and reading material by the presenters and thinking through things more deliberately.
These articles are over at TheHomeSchoolMom.com blog, where I’ve been given a wonderful space to reach many homeschoolers with my ideas, which frequently lead to my presentations — and vice versa.
“Will Homeschooling Help ADD/ADHD?” (Beginning to Homeschool a Child with ADD/ADHD Diagnosis or Tendencies)
Five Part Series on Parental Deschooling:
And in case all this “deschooling talk” makes you think homeschoolers are anti-school — that’s just not true. It’s just that the two approaches to education are entirely different. For a look at what homeschoolers think about school, read my article “Do Homeschoolers Hate Public School?”
You might also enjoy my Instead of Curriculum series at TheHomeSchoolMom.com, which has a great many very specific ideas of things children learn from at home that are outside the usual idea of “curriculum.” These ideas are for fun and interesting things to do during the deschooling period — and because they are high quality, engaging activities, you’ll begin to see how learning can take place outside of an institutional environment.
Or just browse all the Jeanne Faulconer homeschooling articles over at TheHomeSchoolMom.com. A lot of them fit an aspect of deschooling you may want to explore further.
If you want kindergartners to lose engagement, just cancel their annual end-of-year show in the name of getting them “College and Career Ready.”
Really, you can’t make this stuff up.
Read the Washington Post article by Valerie Strauss, in which she shows the letter from the New York school administrators, explaining that the five-year-olds’ play has been cancelled. According to the school’s letter:
Although the movement toward more rigorous learning standards has been in the national news for more than a decade, the changing face of education is beginning to feel unsettling for some people. What and how we teach is changing to meet the demands of a changing world.
This is staggeringly sad, that educators must rationalize away the childhoods of children and promote the false notion that more early formal academics will somehow be of greater benefit to them than working together to create and perform a play.
On the other hand, when some wonder why “regular people” are choosing to homeschool their children, just send them a link to the article. If they don’t mistake it for a satirical piece from The Onion, they’ll probably get the point.
By that, I mean their interests motivate them to learn both how to do things and information they should know.
Here’s an example, a kind of hypothetical case study similar to what I have seen happen over and over in my years of homeschooling my own sons and in my work as a homeschool evaluator:
An early years child who is interested in birds might have his interests supported by his parents, who help him put up a bird feeder and keep it stocked with food. Together, they observe the birds and possibly think of more ideas to create a better habitat — adding water, shelter, or nesting materials.
With parent and child learning at the same time, they can use field guides and binoculars to learn to identify the different species that come to the feeder. The parents can model keeping a “life list” of bird species they see and help a child create his own list.
They can sketch the birds with colored pencils or take photographs for a scrapbook/notebook or upload them to a personal blog. Young children might dictate notes, original poems, or short stories they write about birds, which their parents add to the blog or notebook; slightly older children might put these writings in their own handwriting for a notebook, or work on keyboarding in order to update their blog with text all on their own.
They can watch documentaries and read library books about bird migration, mating and nesting habits, and the types of environments that different species need to thrive.
They can also explore humans’ fascination with the possibility of winged flight for people, talking about various inventions that failed and how the Wright Brothers invention ultimately succeeded — though with far from bird-like flight.
They might study homing pigeons and their role in carrying messages during World Wars I and II.
Depending on where the child’s interest goes as he gets older, the parents may find themselves supporting further and ongoing interest in birds — their role in the food chain, how birds of prey can be trained to hunt (falconry), how scientists theorize about their evolution from dinosaurs. The family may support parrot rescue/adoption, build bluebird nesting boxes, and take field trips to watch bald eagles or ospreys or hummingbirds.
Parents may help the child participate in an Audubon bird count and review the national results, comparing trends to previous years.
Over time, this interest may wane and another may take its place. The new interest might be related — such as another biology or nature interest, or it may be something entirely new, or the child may delve ever more deeply into ornithology.
What did this child learn?
- Handwriting. Learning to copy Mom or Dad’s printed bird names for his own life list (just like a grownup’s!), the child learned to recognize and print letters, and was motivated to learn them because he saw them as useful to managing his interest in birds.
- Composition. Nature and science notes added to a notebook or blog began the process of how to write nonfiction; poems and short stories inspired by bird study provided an imaginative roost for learning to write creatively.
- Observation. Sketching and photographing the birds helped to hone the ability to pick out detail and see the birds’ distinguishing characteristics and mannerisms.
- Research. Looking in a field guide to determine a bird’s species is a basic research skill. In my role as a homeschool evaluator, I recently worked with an elementary age boy who confidently used the index of his bird field guide to help him locate the pages with information about a bird he wanted to show me.
- Library skills. Picking out bird books from library shelves or using the online catalog is something that begins at Mom or Dad’s side, but becomes second nature as a child figures out how library books are grouped and classified.
- Reading. Reading those library books and field guides, as well as stories about birds, improves vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension.
- Construction. Building those bluebird boxes and bird feeders provides motivation for a hands-on project that involves planning and/or following directions, measuring, sourcing materials, and assembling.
- Statistics. Analyzing the trends present in the bird count numbers is an introduction to the usefulness of statistics and how to interpret data.
- Art. The child practiced sketching birds and using art media.
- Technology. The child practiced keyboarding, learned internet search skills, and learned how to blog.
Guess what? Allowing students to follow their interests creates engaged learning.
The power of interest-based learning is one of those things that is so intuitive, so obvious, soooo clear — that in most of today’s public education system — we ignore it.
We used to ignore interest-based learning less in schools, but now that we know more about it, we ignore it more in schools.
Scott Barry Kaufman, writing for Scientific American’s Beautiful Minds blog last month, has one of the best umbrella-type articles I’ve read explaining the current research on the power of interests, in which he concludes:
. . . for educators and business managers who value deep, meaningful productivity, emphasis should be placed on cultivating emotional interest among students and employees, and increasing the personal relevance of learning and projects. (Read more)
Kaufman traces the educational approach of taking interests into consideration back to John Dewey, and follows interest-based learning forward to the findings of current researchers, who find that:
. . . interest is characterized by deep processing of information, effective learning strategies, academic and professional career choices and achievement, positive emotions, and a sense of being energized and invigorated. Also, when students are allowed to explore their interests and engage their natural curiosity, they expend more effort as an automatic consequence of their engagement. (Read more)
Read Kaufman’s entire article, “Interest Fuels Effortless Engagement,” and click through on the links to read the details for yourself. My summarizing them here can’t improve on Kaufman’s synthesis of the evidence about the effectiveness of interest-based learning.
However, despite the evidence, despite Dewey’s convictions, only a small percentage of educators today have the autonomy to infuse an interest-based approach into their teaching, because political and corporate stakeholders have dictated otherwise. This has resulted in a pervasive teach-to-the-test mentality in public education that serves other purposes, but certainly does not take students’ interests — or their best interests — into consideration.
Among those educators who can use an interest-based approach?
Homeschoolers. Specifically, families using an Engaged Homeschooling approach.
We can take what the research says and live it — facilitating engagement by allowing our children to develop and follow their interests, using interest-based learning as a tool of engagement.
Are you making the most of your autonomy as a homeschool parent? Have you explored how interest-based learning can work in your children’s education?
If you’re not a homeschooling parent yet, have you considered what it would be like to use your children’s interests to help them learn — what Kaufman calls “fuel” for effortless engagement?
Kaufman points out that this fuel, interest, trumps persistence (defined as “time spent on task”), which is a welcome notion to those of us who have witnessed fourth graders labor over far too many ill-designed homework exercises, until the will to learn anything is pretty much wrung out of them and they wilt over the kitchen table.
So, how? How do homeschoolers harness the horsepower of interests?
That’s the subject of my next post.
Sometimes school doesn’t work out like people expect.
And sometimes homeschooling doesn’t work out like people expect.
When I talk to parents at conferences and workshops, I realize that for some of them, homeschooling seems to be a way to create “a sure thing” — a kid who will be happy, or a kid who will be successful — according to the parents’ particular definition of success.
While homeschooling for engagement can create a lot of learning, it cannot create “a sure thing,” any more than any other approach to education can.
That’s because children are people.
As Adrienne Jones writes in the most recent issue of Brain,Child:
. . . a child is a person, not a soufflé, and ultimately we come to the place where we can’t control everything. Or anything. (read more at the April 4, 2014 issue of Brain,Child)
Jones is not, in fact, writing about homeschooling, but her observations are apt regardless of how children are educated. Our children are autonomous beings, and they will create their own lives, which we parents may or may not be happy about.
As I’ve written previously, there is no homeschooling guarantee.
In homeschooling, I’m particularly grieved for the parents who’ve been instructed by leaders of their “brand” of homeschooling that if they do homeschooling right, their children will turn out right.
In some religious circles, we hear the Biblical scripture from Proverbs, “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.”
In some natural parenting circles, we hear the dogma that meeting a child’s needs sensitively and without coercion will result in a successful, well-adjusted child.
Among some of today’s mainstream homeschoolers, we hear that committed parents can create a homeschool program that will get any kid to college.
I’ve got news for you. These “sure thing” statements will result in disappointment and even grief for some parents.
How unfair to set the standard that doing everything right or following a homeschooling approach completely enough will have a magical effect. Sure, nurturing makes a difference, but kids come with their own individual hard wiring, and kids intersect with thousands of variables that will affect the course of their lives.
This is not only unfair to the parents, but unfair to the kids.
Homeschooled kids should not have the burden of proving an approach to religious training or parenting or education to be “right” in addition to the challenges of growing up, becoming independent, and being themselves.
Engagement is a powerful attribute, but I guess I’m not cut out to be a guru — because I can’t bring myself to say engaged homeschooling will prevent tooth decay, guarantee religious conviction, stimulate the acquisition of advanced degrees, or create enormous earning potential.
You’ll need to supply your own toothpaste, holy water, GRE scores, and entrepreneurial skills.
I can just tell you that Engaged Homeschooling seems to harness in one model a lot of what makes homeschooling work when it works — and it’s a great way to spend time with your kids.