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Finding Your Homeschool Style

This article discusses the three basic approaches to homeschooling.

Finding Your Homeschool Style

Isabel Shaw

When I was first thinking about homeschooling, I asked a homeschool mom to describe her typical day. I was puzzled when she replied that there was no such thing as a typical day.

"What type of curriculum do you use?" I asked.

"Well, we're eclectic homechoolers, so we pick and choose our resources as we go along," she replied.

I thought to myself, "Eclectic homeschooling? What is that? How can she gamble with her children's future by being so casual?" I wanted and needed a perfect plan a formula that would guarantee a successful homeschool experience and I set off to find one.

Many years later, I now firmly believe that there is no perfect formula, but there are many different ways to approach homeschooling. Homeschoolers are a very diverse group. We homeschool for different reasons, come from different backgrounds, and have our own perspectives on what constitutes a "good" education. Homeschooling allows us the freedom to teach family values while we meet our children's educational needs. But finding the best method for your family takes time, patience, and — frequently — a bit of experimentation along the way.

Within the homeschool community, three basic approaches to home learning have evolved. (There are more than three ways to homeschool, of course, but each method falls into one of these main categories.) These three philosophies often overlap; for example, I occasionally shift from one to another, depending on my kids' ages and educational needs. Families who are new to homeschooling need to know that these options exist, and that there are pros and cons for each.

Traditional or School-based Learning

In this approach, parents replicate a traditional school environment at home. They often purchase a full curriculum package; students complete a 180-day, school-year schedule; and tests and grades are usually given. Families who are homeschooling for religious reasons often use this approach, in part because they can purchase a curriculum that incorporates the family's religious beliefs into school subjects.

Families who seek a classical education — one that is strong in literature, writing, rhetoric and critical thinking — may choose a variation of the school-based approach that allows for more flexibility. The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to a Classical Education at Home, by Susan Wise Bauer and Jessie Wise, is an excellent resource for parents who follow that path.

Pros: This is a thorough and comprehensive approach to learning school subjects. Parents feel confident that their children are getting academic preparation for college or a professional career. If a child who is homeschooled in this way decides to return to public or private school, he or she is assured of being at or above the appropriate grade level.

Cons: The rigorous and highly structured academic schedule can be overwhelming for parents. Kids may resist the structure and the narrow learning focus. Self-expression may be limited.

Eclectic Homeschooling

In eclectic homeschooling, a customized homeschool plan is designed for each child. The method involves exploring a multitude of educational products and classes, and then incorporating the material that is best for your child into your homeschool plan. Say a curriculum package worked well with your first child, but your second child just can't sit still long enough to finish all of his assignments. You've found the Saxon math is useful, but you hate the literature component. Next year, you just buy the Saxon book and bypass the rest of that particular curriculum. By picking and choosing the most useful products, you create a custom-made learning plan for your child.

Eclectic homeschoolers might take a Latin class at a community college or go to creative writing workshops with other homeschoolers. Families may incorporate unit studies — in-depth explorations of particular subjects — into their eclectic package. "Whatever works" is the motto of families who choose this popular homeschooling methodology.

Pros: Parents provide a solid education for their kids while avoiding the stress of too much structure. Children's different learning styles are accommodated, and families have a lot of choice in what is learned and when it is taught.

Cons: Most families arrive at this method through trial and error, which takes time. Parents may worry that they are not making progress. They may become frustrated and give up before they learn to "use the best and throw away the rest."


The basic premise of Unschooling is that your child has an innate ability to learn what he needs to know, when he needs to know it. Done responsibly, unschooling allows children tremendous freedom to discover their interests and explore their talents. Parents act as facilitators rather than teachers, offering opportunities that stimulate interests and lead to learning, and providing tools to help their children pursue their interests.

Unschoolers believe that learning happens as a part of living, so they eschew curricula and other structured learning modalities. However, in researching and exploring a particular interest, unschoolers may use textbooks, mentors, and even classes. The difference is that the desire to learn that topic came from the child/teen; the learning was not imposed on her by a parent or teacher.

Pros: Children develop a keen sense of their natural abilities and talents. Learning becomes a rewarding, ongoing experience. Passions or hobbies that may last a lifetime or become a career choice are encouraged and developed throughout the child's life.

Cons: Many parents have difficulty believing that children can be enthusiastic learners, given the right environment. They fail to trust in the child's innate ability to learn what she needs to know, when she needs to know it. Other families are uncomfortable with having no definable homeschool structure. Children may be years ahead of their grade level in one subject or area, and behind or uninterested in another. This inconsistency becomes less of an issue as the child grows older, but it may present problems if the child wants to return to school. Parents must be very flexible and willing to devote a lot of time and energy to providing resources that will accommodate their children's interests. And if siblings are not agreeable about exploring each other's passions, conflicts may surface.

Parenting Style Is the Key

The wise parent recognizes when a particular approach isn't working, and then tries to find a better method. Problems can arise when we become "stuck" in one ideology, or demand too much from our children. It's not so much the particular method you use that results in a successful homeschool adventure. It's more about your willingness to learn and grow along with your child. Homeschooling, like parenting, requires a great deal of time, patience, respect, and ability to compromise. If you can offer those gifts to your child, you will be successful, regardless of the homeschooling method you choose.

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