What About Curriculum?

Natural Learning by Kathleen McCurdy

Generally, one of the first questions parents ask when they are considering homeschooling is, What curriculum should we use? This is a bit like asking, What bus should we take? without first deciding what destination is desired. The decision to take charge of the education of one’s child is certainly momentous. The ensuing feelings of responsibility can weigh heavily, and one can almost think that the prospect of shopping for curriculum may be the only fun part of the whole process. But let’s back up a bit and look at some prior considerations.

Some parents feel that they have a God/given responsibility for their children’s education. Others may have seen or experienced some of the devastating results of public education upon their families and have chosen to wrest control back from the system and do for their children what the schools have failed to accomplish. And there are parents who simply want keep their children at home instead of delegating their education to others. In any case, the issue seems to be one of responsibility. Are the children we bring into the world ours to raise and educate, or must we give them up to the arbitrary control of the institutions of state?

But here we notice a curious phenomenon: Parents who solemnly take back the responsibility to educate their children, then seem to start looking for ways to be relieved of at least part of it. If they can locate a really good curriculum or even a long-distance school program, then they feel the education will be adequate and they can relax. For families who are just starting out and ho lack confidence in their competency to raise their children, this may be the way to go in the beginning. Especially when removing an older child from school, this may help provide a gradual transition to the ideal family-oriented natural way of learning. Rarely, we find a child whose mind is organized naturally to learn in the formal way and that one will benefit from such structured learning.

In general, however, all formal curriculum should be considered a temporary expedient, and should not be used as a substitute for regular school. Textbooks are designed for the classroom, and we have already concluded that what happens in the classroom is not natural, normal or necessary. So let’s leave the textbooks, workbooks, and busywork there in the classroom and take our children back to learning in the way their mind was designed to learn—the way babies, toddlers and preschoolers learn—without ‘benefit’ of formal curriculum.

As it turns out, adults learn better that way also. Consider the following extract from an article found in a trade magazine, entitled “Projects, not textbooks, keep engineers current”:

If your mid-career engineers are going stale, don’t waste company money on formal continuing education courses, says Jay Gilbert, president of Professional Development Inc. (Hastings-on-Hudson, NY). Gilbert believes formal study courses waste dollars, eat up valuable company time and effort, and produce little return-on-investment. The reason: The ‘school’ model of continuing education—teaching courses around some professor’s assessment of learning needs—conflicts with everything science knows about how adults learn. …In place of teachers and textbooks, Gilbert counsels, try small, work-related learning projects…. In fact, Gilbert says, because the projects correlate to real and immediate job needs, engineers automatically develop a sense of technological ownership and involvement that tutoring could never accomplish. [Emphasis supplied. In spite of the implied exception, children learn the same way as adults, of course.] [1]

Some of what science knows about how the human mind learns is discussed in an article about the brain by Leslie Hart. This researcher notes that young children when learning to speak may say ‘I felled down’ or ‘the dentist looked at my tooths’, not because they heard anyone speak that way but because “Children extract subtle rules from exposure to talk. They do this without teaching because the human brain is by nature a powerful pattern-extracting device.” [2] Hart goes on to point out that most speech a child hears is not simplified or ‘graded’, but is adult, complex and unplanned. Yet almost all children become expert talkers. The question Hart poses is: “If a four-year-old can ‘sort out’ the patterns of past tense and plurals from random adult talk, why in school do we provide basal readers with tiny, graded vocabularies, and try to break down other subjects into portions of pap in much the same way.”[3]

We would pose yet another question: If children learn to talk, to dress and feed themselves, so as to become effective and successful five-year-olds without any special textbooks or tutoring, other than what comes naturally to most parents, will they not continue to probe, explore, examine, investigate, and test in order to make sense of the world, as Hart says, until and unless they “find themselves captive at a school desk, coerced to sit still and listen, to do only what they are told, and even to start and stop that as ordered”? For, as Hart concludes, “These are brain-antagonistic conditions and under them, learning grinds to a halt.” [4]

Another problem inherent in following the curriculum route is that once you’ve invested all that money, you are inclined to be concerned with getting your dollar’s worth. So there is pressure to ‘get through the book’ and ‘cover all the material’. Never mind that most of it won’t be retained after the review quiz; and that you must shortchange real learning opportunities in order to finish the chapter and ‘stay on schedule’. And so one becomes enslaved again to a system designed by those who never met your child, and are not likely to anticipate what will be most useful for her in the life she chooses to live.

Your old high school and college textbooks may be recycled as reference books where you may look up answers to your child’s questions. While encyclopedias are often useful, they have to cover so many topics that they can’t get into the details as much as one may wish. “What holds the clouds up, Mommy?” “Well let’s see. Somewhere in my earth sciences textbook we studied about the atmosphere.” “What is syntax, Mom?” “I think that has to do with grammar. Maybe my college dictionary will explain it.” And you begin to notice how very little you got out of those textbooks the first time through.

The best way to educate your child is to answer his questions and keep creating opportunities that stimulate more questions. For instance, reading biographies of explorers or inventors may spark discussions on geography or science. Visiting a museum or historical site may suggest topics of special interest to check out at the library. Blowing soap bubbles may lead to a question about surface tension. This kind of learning is effectual, efficient, and practically effortless, and the results are readily evident—the child will indeed show progress on a standardized achievement test, and probably to a surprising degree.

If you are still feeling insecure and in need of a few props to ease the transition process, you might consider putting together your own curriculum. There are many books written by and for homeschoolers that will help you define what is most important to you and what is not. But before you rush out and order several hundred dollars’ worth of texts, workbooks and manuals though, you might ask yourself some serious questions:

  • What do I really want for my child, what are my goals? A high school diploma? They serve those up to any 18-year-old who has spent 11,970 hours in a classroom—whether or not he actually learned anything!
  • Do I dream of providing the most well-rounded, effective education for my child? Why not trust that magnificent brain that was “born motivated to learn” (Hart).
  • Is there a better way than the schools we and our parents received? There’s the old way that was used by families for thousands of years.
  • What system of education produced the geniuses of past generations? They often had to rely on their own ingenuity, but also on a strong family, a lot of hard work, and plenty of time to play.
  • What curriculum was chosen for the education of Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Edison, Mark Twain, Charles Chaplin, John Wesley, Wolfgang Mozart, Leonardo daVinci, Yehudi Menuhin, Agatha Christi, the Wright brothers, and other famous homeschooled personalities? Read their biographies; they did their own thinking.
  • What is the worst thing that could happen if I dispensed with curriculum and just spent more time answering my child’s questions? The beds might not get made sometimes, because they ask so many interesting questions.
  • And what is the best thing that will happen? You will get acquainted with a wonderful person—your child; and you will find yourself getting a wonderful education, as well.

So, if you must spend some money, here is a list of items that would be well to purchase, if you don’t already have them. There is only one item that might be considered essential and that is a good college-level dictionary. The rest is optional.

  • An encyclopedia (second hand is ok)
  • Library card
  • Books on poetry and classic literature *
  • Microscope, telescope, or at least a magnifying lens
  • Maps: local, U.S., world, night sky *
  • World globe
  • Field guides on birds, flowers, rocks, trees, shells *
  • Recorded music and movies *
  • Musical instruments: recorder, guitar, piano, radio
  • Computer, Internet connection, or at least a calculator
  • Compass, ruler, protractor
  • Garden tools and seed
  • Visual math aids, purchased or homemade
  • Educational, homeschool, trade and scientific magazine subscriptions *
  • Physics and/or chemistry set
  • Paints, crayons, glue, pencils and other art and craft supplies
  • Pets (at least a fish bowl!)
  • Building toys such as Lego, Erector, K’Nex, or homemade blocks
  • Small used appliances or an old vehicle to take apart or work on
  • Hammer, pliers, saw, etc.
  • Kitchen tools, office tools
  • Sewing machine, or power tools—depending on child’s age
  • Opportunities to travel, a foreign language course
  • A place in the country… or at least some camping equipment

* Available on the Internet or public library

[1]  Electronics Design, June, 1986, article by Carole Patton
[2]  Educational Leadership, March, 1981, article by Leslie A. Hart
[3]  Ibid.
[4]  Ibid. Emphasis in original