If you’re newer to homeschooling and haven’t found your groove yet, you might be overwhelmed by all the styles out there. How the heck do you choose one to use in your own homeschool? In this post, I want to outline the various styles and explain how to arrive at what is best for your family. As you read through each method, take note of the ones that seem up your alley.
I’ve tried to give unbiased details of each, but of course, I’m only human. The pros and cons are my own and you might feel differently! What is a pro for me might be a con for you, or you may take a neutral position on that aspect. Also – I do not have direct experience with all of these so if you want to add a comment to further clarify what a method looks like in daily life, I welcome it!
This article originally appeared on my old blog, Townsley Times. If you came here looking for this particular article but thought you were going to a different site, never fear, you’re actually in the right place. 🙂
Note: Online public school is NOT homeschooling. This article does not cover that. You’re not in control of the actual education, only the time and place. If you are doing public school at home in any form, I would encourage you to fully remove your children from the system and explore the following methods to do it yourself! Feel free to reach out if you have any questions.
Section 1: Homeschool Styles
In practice, this is school at home. You use a pre-made curriculum and stick to a schedule each day. You might be sitting around the kitchen table and use a white board for teaching and have posters and maps on the walls. Not that those things are bad, but for most homeschoolers, the point is to get away from the drudgery of the school room. Still, there are many, MANY publishers that offer an inclusive curriculum so that tells me there are plenty of people still interested.
All-in-one curricula typically include a text, workbook, and/or student book EACH for language arts, math, a history, and a science, and often something for teaching the Bible, if it’s a Christian company. Some companies exclude math and advertise “just add math.” Examples include Abeka, Heart of Dakota, and Rod and Staff. Some of these are available to purchase in parts; for example, we use Rod and Staff for my older child’s math and another child’s preschool activity books. But they have full complete sets you can buy for each grade also.
Additional resources that may be offered are penmanship workbooks, kits for science labs, fiction book sets (“readers”), books for life skills like home ec or gardening, and art kits.
- often described as “open and go” with very little or no prep work for Mom
- can choose one with no need to add anything else unless you want to
- some brands also offer video or online courses
- not always good for kids on different grade levels for different subjects or 2e kids
- can be very expensive
- some cannot be reused with other children, especially those with consumables like workbooks
- not always a good fit as it can’t really be tailored to each student’s interests
There are actually varying methods within this style. You may have heard of the book, The Well-Trained Mind, or the group Classical Conversations (similar to a co-op). These are examples of the classical education. Classical education says that learning should happen in stages called the Trivium: Grammar (grades 1 to 4), Logic/Dialect (grades 5 to 8), and Rhetoric (grades 9 to 12). There is a progression of skills here: memorization of knowledge, reasoning, then wisdom. There is an emphasis on whole “living books” and not using textbooks that are dry and boring, or “readers” which are shorter and feature less of a nuanced storyline.
PIN THIS FOR LATER! Continued below….
- a set progression of learning can be helpful for some parents
- can include a religious basis or not
- popular amongst the gifted (my observation)
- leaves room for exploring culture
- concepts can be confusing and each person can have a different interpretation of the method
- usually calls for learning Latin, which not everyone wants to do
- doesn’t necessarily make the full connection for kids during the beginning stage (Veritas Press explains that they first learn the who, what, where and when, then move on to the why and how – in my opinion, some kids do not learn rote facts without a little logic to connect the dots)
- Classical Conversations is relatively expensive and requires a parent to be highly involved, which may not be a good fit for a mom with a new baby, etc.
Charlotte Mason was an educator in the late 1800s and early 1900s in England, who emphasized experiential education. This included learning using literature, nature, memorization and narration, Bible, music, art, and handicrafts, among other things. Many homeschoolers nowadays love this style of learning and the freedom to expose their children to the outdoors and to culture and the arts. It is a broad education and parents are to “spread a feast” before the child and they can take what they want when they want it. The point is to create lifelong learners.
CM referred to some books as “twaddle,” which she found to be useless in terms of developing the mind of a child. Many pop culture books fall into this category. She emphasized “living books,” instead of texts and twaddle, so historical fiction, literary classics, and the Bible are recommended as a means of learning almost every subject, with the exception of math.
- child-led, somewhat (I imagine some kids will balk at the less active portions, like dictation)
- includes lots of outdoor time, especially at the early ages, when kids need play time most
- the library can be used for living books instead of pricey texts and sets of curriculum
- lessons are meant to be short
- her books outline how to fully implement this style, including 20 principles that explain everything in a nutshell, but this can seem overwhelming to those new to the method (see more at Ambleside Online)
- not necessarily suited to all learning styles (e.g., narration, memorization, and copywork may each be suited to different ways a child can learn best, but not all children can learn well in all those ways)
- some parents might prefer to teach certain topics using textbooks, which are eschewed by the CM method
- might be expensive to “spread a feast”
Maria Montessori was a doctor who lived in Italy at around the same time as Charlotte Mason. She practiced psychiatry and then later focused on education and critiquing the current methods of teaching. She opened a daycare and noticed that the children basically taught themselves, soaking up everything around them. There are typically multiple ages in groups (e.g., a classroom might have ages 2-5 in it) — the older children naturally master the work through teaching the younger kids and acting as role models. Younger children are shown what to do and then allowed to do it themselves. The teacher makes certain activities available and the children are allowed to pick what they want to participate in at any given time.
As far as utilizing this method in your homeschool, the above tends to happen naturally since you have multiple ages together and if you sit back and give them space, you will see that the olders tend to help the youngers learn new things, and ALL of them are soaking it all up into their sponge brains! Montessori emphasized independence and intrinsic motivation from a young age, and again, if you have a larger family or kids close in age, they are more or less exposed to that from the very beginning since Mom can’t be in five places at once. The American Montessori Society has more info on employing this method at home.
What about high school? Brick and mortar Montessori schools typically end when a child reaches the pre-teen or teen years. But Maria Montessori did extensive work with teens also, with the goal of finding their career path of interest and learning life skills. She actually believed that teens should live together in sort of a commune, so while this is not a popular method for this age group in the US, it could fit perfectly for a homeschool family.
- child-led, within boundaries
- can be used with multiple ages
- allows kids to master practical and academic work
- very hands-on
- lots of special supplies, which you don’t NEED but are recommended amongst the Montessori community
- may not be ideal for kids with learning disabilities or who are are not self-motivated
Some categorize this on its own but to me, this is just one activity from an arsenal full of learning methods, not a homeschool style in and of itself. Some of the methods described above utilize what are essentially unit studies, even if they are not called that. A unit study in the broadest sense is just a topic to study, with multiple ways to study it to cover different subjects. Here is an example of a dairy unit study we did.
We use this for almost everything other than math and language arts (which can be included in a unit study also!). You or your kids pick a topic and choose resources to teach it in a variety of ways. You can use fiction books, texts, worksheets, lap books and notebooking, science projects, learning in the kitchen, field trips, art projects, videos…anything goes, really. It is all focused around the one subject so the hope is that the children will retain the information since it was presented in a variety of ways over a longer time period (a few days to a few weeks, usually).
- covers multiple subjects at once
- can be exactly what you make of it, based on how your children learn best
- practical applications can be worked into daily life in many cases
- can be inexpensive
- can be time consuming to create lesson plans and gather materials (here’s my method for planning)
- can be expensive if you can’t use what you have on hand or need to pay for costly admission for a field trip
This is definitely more of a style and less of a method. It sort of means different things depending who you ask, but to me, it involves less structure and more going with the flow. Planning looks like this: Here is what we need to start with on Monday, go till week is done. Boom. There is no planning exactly what to do for each day unless there is a field trip or hands-on activity that needs preparation. This has worked well for us because my daughter, for example, might do four math lessons in one day (of her own volition) and then skip the next couple days and do other stuff.
You may want to keep track of what is done, perhaps in a log book like my 365 Learning Record, in order to have the proper documentation for the state if you have to turn in attendance or hours or keep logs of what you’ve done (it’s a good idea to have this anyway, even if only for your records so you know what each child has accomplished). It’s simple to just jot down what you did that day and approximately how long the kids did each activity.
If I could give a tip here: Try to reserve library books that are available at that library at that time! Renew as necessary. That way, you’re not hunting down specific books and waiting weeks for them after doing an inter-library transfer request. The best part about relaxed homeschooling is that you can stay away from more stressful activities. Hunting down books is stressful for me anyway, maybe not for you. The library is immensely helpful for most homeschoolers, but not worrying about reserving THE PERFECT BOOK will be helpful for those who take the relaxed approach. If there is a particular book I’m wanting, I get it on Amazon Prime.
- allows for the child to pace himself without constraints put on him to finish x amount of work each day
- creates a flexible schedule, which is needed in families with say, a dad with crazy work hours or a child with a lot of appointments or extracurriculars
- the child’s curiosity is satisfied and then he moves to the next topic
- does not work well if you or your kids thrive on structure
- can be harder to track hours for state reporting
- does not necessarily lead to mastery of subjects
This style really works on a sliding scale, ranging from the more extreme “radical unschooling,” where the child does no work unless he wants to (the argument is that children actually DO want to learn and will ask and show interest when ready), to a more guided approach where the parent encourages the child to learn certain things and makes available the resources to do so.
In the middle is a practice called strewing, which is a new term for me, but essentially the parent will strategically have learning materials strewn about so the child will be somewhat forced into learning since those are the things available to him. Almost all unschoolers are averse to textbooks and formal curricula, unless the child specifically asks for it. To quote Christian Unschooling, “There is no set curriculum, and learning happens organically from living life and following interests.”
- completely child-led
- can be inexpensive due to lack of formal resources
- can be less stressful for parents and kids due to lack of formality
- doesn’t require a lot of preparation, unless you practice strewing
- allows kids to explore their interests as much or as little as they desire
- can be difficult to track hours or days for state-mandated record-keeping
- some parents give up because they fear their child isn’t learning enough
- strewing can be expensive and time-consuming, since you don’t know what they will end up partaking in
- not necessarily good for those who prefer set schedules
Waldorf/Steiner – Follows a set curriculum but doesn’t begin formal learning till around age 7. It’s defined as a liberal arts education where kids will learn everything and not only what they are interested in (opposite to what many homeschoolers prefer). There is a focus on humanities and arts and outdoor time, but these things are learned alongside science and other subjects, sort of like a unit study but more in-depth. Feelings and creativity are emphasized. They create “good books” with what they are learning and lessons tend to be long. The Waldorf method does not utilize technology much, if at all. It seems like there are a lot of supplies needed for teaching, including art materials, dolls, and toys (at least for the younger ages). Anthroposophy is a central part of this; it’s a spirituality that teaches knowing about “the universe.” As a Christian, I am not comfortable diving any deeper into it than that, and I only know one person who follows this style, but there may be elements in line with your beliefs and teaching style.
Thomas Jefferson Eductation (TJEd) – This is based on the life of Thomas Jefferson (obviously) and is supposed to prepare children to be leaders through the Seven Keys of Great Teaching. These include reading the classics, having mentors, inspiring them to do their work so they enjoy it, structuring their time but not micromanaging what they are studying, giving feedback to improve their quality, using simple curriculum, and setting a good example yourself. I think most people would agree with most of these. TJEd strives for a middle ground between permissive and authoritarian, so similar to parenting styles, the parent as teacher must be authoritative yet put the ball in the child’s court. Not necessarily an easy feat. This method is probably the least popular among homeschoolers, and I’m not really sure why. There is a whole blog dedicated to the issues with TJEd, so that would be a good starting place if you want to read a perspective detailing why it DOESN’T work.
Section 2: What will work best for your family?
Ultimately, there are three major considerations, which can be broken down further. I would start with answering a few questions on a sheet of paper. These are not either/or type of questions, but rather to guide your thinking.
1. Consider your family dynamic.
- How old are your children, and how many do you have?
- Are you dealing with a lot of unwanted behaviors or can your kids handle independent work?
- Are your kids self-motivated or do they need more handholding?
- Does Dad work a lot or will he be helping with the teaching? What does he think about everything?
2. What’s your ideal schedule?
- Do you want to have a set schedule for school time each day or are you more of a “go with the flow” type of mom?
- Are your kids active in sports or extracurriculars, and do you want to take lots of field trips?
- Do you end up staying inside often due to the weather in your area?
- Do you desire to be part of a co-op? Do you want the co-op to be more for social events, or just for certain subjects like science lab, or for a lot of subjects so your child experiences other teachers?
- How often are you okay with taking the time to clean up messes from art projects or science or dirty outdoor play?
3. How do your children learn best?
- Do your kids need a lot of hands-on activities or do they do well with videos or books only?
- Do they enjoy reading and writing?
- Do your children work well in a group setting, or does that throw off their concentration or give them anxiety?
- Do they like doing projects?
- Will they connect the dots better if you teach multiple subjects around a given topic? Or would that only confuse them or set them back in other areas?
Putting It All Together
Now, compare your original preferences from the first section with your answers to the second section. Do they seem to fit together? Are there multiple methods that could work for your family? What do you LOVE about the methods – things you would really like to incorporate into your homeschool?
It’s okay to try different styles and see if they’re a good fit. It’s a lot of trial and error, and you also don’t have to be a purist on these things. You can pull from any or even all of the styles and use what works best for your homeschool! This is known as eclectic homeschooling. I’d venture a guess that most are not using only one method.
I’ll use my homeschool as an example to help you figure things out. The things that appeal to me include:
- not having to sit down for hours on end with each child (or even as a group)
- learning should be practical and the point is to ultimately use it for life skills
- child-led, mostly (they are required to learn math and reading)
- play-based, as they are young, but not messy
- not a ton of extra work for me with things to buy and prepare for each day
Here’s how that looks in real life:
- We use unit studies for everything but math and learning to read.
- We have a bit of a Montessori thing going on since we have had four kids in less than six years. They usually learn things together, with the older ones having a firmer understanding of what is being taught, and the youngers learning from me and also the olders.
- We aren’t really unschoolers but when I’m considering what toys or supplies to buy for our home, I think about how they might be used as an educational resource that I can just leave out for them to explore, so I sort of practice strewing in that sense.
- When the weather is nice, we try to get outside and be with nature and go exploring, so in that regard, we are incorporating a bit of Charlotte Mason.
- We do use textbooks and workbooks, and I have seen no detriment to our homeschool due to that — that’s pretty traditional.
My point is that it does not have to be all of one and none of the others. A lot of it is based on your lifestyle and parenting rather than your educational choices. Homeschooling is not just an educational philosophy! Your preferences will also change as your children get older and as you gain more experience and confidence with homeschooling.
You might find one style that you absolutely love, that is a great fit for all of your children. It would be so much simpler if that was the case for everyone! But it’s usually not and you have to do some experimenting. I hope this article has given you a jumping off point and some insight into what might work for your family. There’s no shame in trying something one year and switching it up the next, or even mid-year. Just be careful of trying to fix something that’s not broken, and stick with your choices long enough to give them a real shot.