Approaches to Home Schooling

by David Crank

From Volume 3 Issue 5 of Unless the Lord ... Magazine

O you have decided to home school your children. Now what? Where do you begin? Your first thought is probably to approach home schooling in much the same way you were schooled (for most of us, that means a typical classroom approach). However, you should consider that there are actually many different ways to approach home schooling. Teaching your own children at home is very different from teaching a classroom of children at a public or private school. Consider your options and what will truly work best for you and your children.

There is no one best way to home school – at least not one that most can agree upon! All the major "ways" are praised highly by some home schooling parents. However, for each approach, there are also those who report that it did not work well for them, or that they found something better. It seems that one size does NOT fit all. If you are home schooling using one approach but having problems, perhaps it is time to look at other options.

Following are a number of the major approaches that home schooling families are using today.

The Traditional Approach

This approach is patterned after most public or private Christian schools. Specific subjects are taught in specific grades, using textbooks, workbooks and tests. The home schooling mother may lecture and lead her children as a normal school teacher would a class.

There are very good Christian textbooks and materials available to teach using this approach. Teachers’ guides and pre-prepared tests are often available. If you prefer, your children can actually be enrolled in a correspondence school, in which a teacher makes assignments through the mail and receives and checks your children’s work.

Another variation on this theme is the use of rented or purchased videos with a professional teacher lecturing on the subject at hand (for a considerable cost). Similarly, lectures and some personal teacher interaction (including with some other students) may be offered over the Internet.

With this one approach there are many variations and options. The traditional approach may be used with some subject matter while also using a very different approach with others.

The Traditional approach offers the advantages of a well thought out scope and sequence, along with assignments and tests designed to measure progress. However, some disadvantages include: the difficulty of teaching many different age levels at once; the amount of preparation and checking of work required by some curriculums; an education geared towards large amounts of time spent in desk work, even from an early age; and content and sequence of material that treats all children the same – not taking into account differences in interests, ability, or learning styles.


At the opposite end of the spectrum is "Unschooling." This is a term coined by the late John Holt, an early secular home schooling advocate. This approach seeks to distance itself from all the traditional structures of schooling. Children learn through everyday life, using their natural curiosity and learning at their own pace. It is child directed learning and parents serve primarily as facilitators. Children are allowed to learn what they want to learn, when they want to learn it. Parents try to provide a stimulating environment to encourage curiosity and learning, but if the child doesn’t want to learn something, he doesn’t.

This approach tries to promote a true love of learning and self motivated learning. Children are allowed to choose what they are interested in learning and how they want to learn it. Generally textbooks and curriculum are not used, except sometimes for reference. The child may be asked to pick goals and parents may coax some to encourage reaching those goals – but not to the point of making learning a chore and damping the child’s motivation.

Though the idea of self directed / delight directed learning is very appealing, this approach seems too unstructured and risky to many parents. Most Christian parents, though they may embrace many of these concepts, operate under a different worldview than John Holt did, and thus are not comfortable with totally child directed learning. When you believe that children are born with a sin nature and that parents have a God given responsibility to train their children and raise them for the Lord – some degree of parental direction is called for.

Relaxed Home Schooling

Mary Hood, author of "The Relaxed Home School," coined this name for an approach with a lot of self directed and unstructured learning, like Unschooling, but with more parental guidance and decision making about what things should be learned. To quote Mary Hood on the heart of relaxed home schooling - it is a belief that: "You are a family, not a school; You are a mother, not a teacher; You are a father and the head of your household, not a principal; You have individual relationships with your children, not a class; and God is in control anyway, not you, so you might as well stop pretending to be!"

Parents direct their children’s learning more through long range goals, not through a set standardized curriculum defining what must be learned by when. Different parents may take somewhat different approaches, but generally a lot of reading and self-directed learning activity is encouraged. This approach is particularly popular with teaching younger children. Young children are often encouraged to read widely and to learn through games, educational materials, and life experiences. Children may be encouraged to write about their experiences and what they have learned. Some will also use more traditional materials to help with learning math. When children are older, the emphasis may be on self directed study and research, as well as practical learning through work experience. The parent’s role becomes primarily one of accountability and participating with the older child in setting educational goals.

How is this style "relaxed?" Many consider it so because "school" is very informal, generally without lectures, much use of textbooks, assigned exercises or tests. They may be no set school "hours" or "days" (note that some state laws may not allow quite this much flexibility), only goals to be achieved.

Some of the advantages of this approach include: encourages self motivated learning, children learn at their own pace and in a sequence more in line with their interests, children are allowed to learn in the ways that they learn best, a lot of needless repetition and wasted time in typical curriculum course work is eliminated, and the burden for mom of preparing lessons and checking work is greatly reduced or eliminated.

Nevertheless, many are uncomfortable with this much flexibility and, particularly at the upper grade levels, see a need for more structure and working with conventional course books. Some are also concerned with the year to year progress and at least keeping up with the public schools in most subject areas. Though your children may be learning much more than their public school counterparts, they may be learning different things at different times. It can sometimes be uncomfortable when others see your child is considerably behind in an area like reading or basic math.

Relaxed Home Schooling and Unschooling are considered the same by some, but they truly are not. The key difference is in the underlying philosophy about whether the child needs any parental direction. Most Relaxed Home Schoolers are Christians who choose to play a role in training their children in the things of God and in deciding what things should be learned by the time their child is grown.

Unit Studies

The unit study approach attempts to bridge the separate subjects. Instead of studying math, science, history, geography, English, etc. as separate subjects, all or nearly all subjects are combined together focused around varying common themes. Often, historical periods are used as a theme and other subjects are related to the chosen period (i.e. ancient Egypt & the Near East, the ancient Greeks, the Middle Ages, etc.). Others have built unit studies around Bible passages (i.e. ATI Wisdom Booklets) or around studying nature, etc.

Unit studies enable almost the entire family to study together. Older children simply study the topic in more depth or are given more demanding assignments in the topic area. This approach can be a great help to those trying to teach a number of different ages / grade levels. Unit studies may also arouse more interest and allow more participation by the whole family in discussing what is being learned. The bridging of separate subjects into a single topic offers the advantage of a more integrated education – seeing the relationships between subject areas. Unit studies can often incorporate a variety of projects and activities allowing more hands on learning.

Curriculums can be purchased that are entirely built around unit studies. Parents can develop their own unit studies to teach to their children. Some parents will choose to combine unit studies with other approaches. Some mothers love the unit study approach, and some love creating their own unit studies. Others lack either the creativity or time to create their own studies and prefer more packaged curriculums.

A potential drawback to unit studies is the risk of educational gaps – important things in some subject areas that may be omitted in the unit studies or whole subjects that may receive too little attention because of being harder to integrate. Sometimes unit studies are designed to be very activity oriented with much time required of the teacher (both preparing and leading/teaching). This can become too much for some mothers.

Classical Approach

The Classical Approach in education, as advocated by Dorothy Sayers in her 1947 essay ("The Lost Tools of Learning"), has become very popular with home schoolers. Miss Sayers warned that schools were no longer teaching children how to think and learn for themselves. She urged a return to the classical education approach used in earlier times.

This approach to education is patterned after the medieval approach to education (which was related to the ancient Greek and Roman approach and continued to be used in most schools, to some degree, through the 1700s). Many of the great scholars, theologians, and political leaders of previous centuries were educated in this way. Certain elite private schools have always used this approach in their efforts to educate the supposed future elite of society.

During the primary and secondary education period, learning is organized around the Trivium. The Trivium is made up of three parts: Grammar, Dialectic and Rhetoric. The Grammar stage focuses on concrete thinking and large amounts of memorization. Many recommend the learning of Latin or Greek and possible a modern foreign language during this period. This stage lasts until approximately what we term middle school. Next is Dialectic, during which children are taught analytical thinking and logic. They are taught to reason, question and validate what they know. They are encouraged to ask and investigate the "why" questions. This roughly corresponds to the middle grades. This is followed by Rhetoric (approximately high school years), which focuses on the ability to organize one’s thoughts and to communicate effectively and persuasively.

How does this approach practically work? In the Grammar stage much focus is on memorizing phonics rules, learning spelling, learning to read well, memorizing math facts, learning foreign languages (including one or more of the classical languages: Greek or Latin), and learning as many facts in other areas of knowledge (such as history, geography, science, etc.) as possible.

Great literature is read and studied especially in the Dialectic and Rhetoric stages (in earlier times the Greek and Roman literature classics were read in the original languages). Often history and literature are studied together, reading the great books written during the time period studied.

During the Rhetoric stage, writing and speaking are emphasized, along with specialization in various areas of knowledge. Much of the writing and speaking may be centered around the great books read. This is also the stage for "hard" science, abstract mathematics and Biblical apologetics.

Teaching through the Classical Approach can sometimes be difficult for parents who have not themselves been at least partly educated in this way. It is much easier to teach the great classical books when you have read and studied them yourself. It is easier to teach logic and dialectic argumentation and rhetorical methods, when you yourself learned these things. For this reason, many parents look for further guidance and helps with teaching using the Classical Approach.

The Classical Approach appeals strongly to parents desiring to train their children to be influential in politics, academia, the media, and among the intellectual elite. Those with very different goals may find this approach to be too focused on academics with too little emphasis on developing practical life skills and a trade. Others may think there is too much emphasis on Greek and Roman culture and philosophy and too little emphasis on the Bible and seeing the world from God’s perspective. Actually it is truly what you make of it. Some parents may choose to use this method while adapting it to cover whatever shortcomings they perceive in the method as a whole.

Charlotte Mason / Whole Book Approach

This approach draws upon the teachings of Charlotte Mason (1842-1923), a teacher who had a great influence upon British education of her time. At that time, schools relied almost exclusively on dull textbooks and emphasized the memorization of dry facts. Miss Mason taught primarily from whole books, that she termed "living books" - in lieu of textbooks. By this she meant books usually written by a single author, who took a personal interest in the subject matter and communicated it with personality and enthusiasm. She also emphasized learning as much as possible from reading original sources. She believed students should be exposed to the best in literature and the fine arts and that much learning should be through real life experiences.

Miss Mason also employed narration as an alternative to tests and fill-in-the-blank exercises. Students narrated (verbal or written) what they had learned from the books (or portions of books) read. She believed in keeping lessons short and in finishing academic work by early afternoon, allowing time for nature walks, fine arts, and learning from first hand observation. She made no use of grades or reward systems.

The goal of her approach was to keep learning interesting and to allow students to learn to think for themselves. Methods such as the Clarksons’ WholeHearted Child /Home Centered Learning Approach, borrow heavily from Mason’s teachings.

How does this approach differ from the Classical Approach which also emphasizes the reading of great books? Mason does not have the same emphasis on either the early absorption of many facts, or the later instruction in rhetoric. The Mason approach is also typically less structured and more child directed - a bit closer to the Relaxed Home Schooling style.


There are many different approaches or ways to teach your children at home. Discussed above are just some of the major ones. There are many other variations as differing combinations of these approaches. Which one is right for you and your family? How do you decide?

I suggest you begin with considering your goals for your children. Prayerfully consider what sort of preparation and training you believe God would have you provide for your children.

We can sometimes make the mistake of establishing goals and hopes for our children based more on our own ambitions and dreams rather than upon God’s purposes for our children. As parents, we observe our children carefully and earnestly pray for wisdom and guidance with which to see God’s purposes for them – at least enough so that we may prepare them appropriately.

Some of our children will be meant to be statesmen, scholars, scientist or theologians. Others will be chosen to be lawyers, doctors, engineers, missionaries, pastors, builders, entrepreneurs, salesmen, even tax collectors. Most of our daughters will be intended to be wives and mothers, but wives to men in many differing professions and circumstances, coming alongside as their helpmates. Different callings call for differing training. God has prepared good works for each of us to do, but they are not all the same good works (Eph 2:10). He has likewise gifted each of us somewhat differently, with His own purposes in mind. As parents, we need to get on board with God’s plan for our children, as much as possible.

Next consider your abilities and limitations. You may be more gifted than others in creating your own unit studies and developing your own curriculum. You may have been blessed with an unusually good education in a certain area or may have received some portion of a classical education yourself. Different giftedness or lack thereof among parents is a significant factor in choosing approaches. There are ways to compensate for many of your shortcomings, but it may not be worthwhile when there is another method that plays better to your strengths.

No one can do everything well, especially not all at the same time! Some mothers have large families with ages spread over a wide spectrum. Others have only a few children, close together in age. Some mothers face challenges with one or more special needs children. Others face ongoing health problems that are limiting. Some wives need to work closely alongside their husbands in a home business or in maintaining a farm, while others have no such responsibilities. Still others are burdened with much responsibility in caring for an aged parent or grandparent.

Consider your available time and what will be required of you with each method. No one method is easiest or hardest for everyone. Look for a method that will support your goals while working best for you in your situation.


In Conclusion …

Don’t be quick to change from method to method. But neither be too slow to change when one method is really not working well for you and your children. Home Schooling offers tremendous flexibility and gives you many choices for how to approach the education of your children. Choose wisely your approach and your priorities. V