My Advice to New Homeschoolers: Think about Your Philosophy of Education

Dear Reader,

I really regret not having thought about my philosophy of education earlier in our homeschooling journey. I have heard it said that it doesn’t matter so much in the early years — after all, they are all just learning to read and do basic math, right? You are busy; save those deep thoughts for later on when it makes a difference.

But I disagree. Not only does it make a difference early on, but what you do early on also sets up what you have later. It’s like aiming an arrow — at short distances you think a little variation in the trajectory will not make a difference but as time goes on that little variation becomes more and more significant till before you know it you are not where you want to be. Now, to not be too discouraging before I start, if you do get off track or you come to homeschooling later on, after your kids have had some education somewhere else, all hope is not lost, but it will be harder. You may have to undo what has already been done. Your kids may need to learn that education can be fun again. They may be resistant or have bad habits. So if you are one of those who is so blessed as to have decided to homeschool your kids from an early age, take advantage of that by putting some thought into what you are doing.

But why do you even need to have a philosophy of education? Why can’t you just buy a curriculum that works with your child’s learning style and your personality and leave it at that?

The short answer is that you are going to end up somewhere, or perhaps I had better say your child will end up someone. Even if you don’t think about where you are going and why and how, you are going somewhere. And this is a pretty important journey; isn’t is better to decide what you are aiming for rather than to default into it?

The truth is there are some pretty big issues at stake here. When we throw around words like “a Charlotte Mason education,” “classical education,” “Montessori,” “Waldorf,” and “unschooling,” those are all educational philosophies that have some big ideas behind them — ideas about human nature, who children are, how they learn, and what they should become. You may buy a curriculum without considering these issues. It is quite possible the publisher you buy from is not even considering these issues. But somewhere in the distant past, the people that developed these approaches were thinking pretty hard about them. And they came to some conclusions about what they believed about humanity and built a whole approach to education on them. If you buy and use the materials that their philosophies generated, wouldn’t you like to now what the idea behind them are?

I have done a long series of blog posts on the different approaches to education; you can find all those links here. I am not going to rehash it all now, but let me give you a few examples of what I mean. Let’s take a little issue like, say, oh, human nature. Are people basically good? Are they inherently sinful? Are they some mix of the two? Unschooling says that our children are basically good — they will instinctively learn and acquire what they need to know and our main job is to not get too much in their way. Classical education, at the other end of the spectrum, seeks to impart a large body of established knowledge to children. The implicit assumption is that they do not know what is best for them and that we must shape who they will be. If you read Dorothy Sayers’ article “The Lost Tools of Learning,” which is the cornerstone of modern classical education (see my review here), her statements about children are actually  a bit shocking; she doesn’t seem very fond of them. Of course, I myself follow the Charlotte Mason approach because I think she has the right balance of viewing children as made in the image of Gd and yet being prone to sin and not always choosing the best of their own accord.

These are big issues and I hope you can see that our answers to them will affect not only whether we use workbooks in our homeschools but who our children will grow up to be. So my advice for new homeschoolers (or really any parents, if the truth be known)? Ask yourself these questions:

  • What do I think human nature is? Are we inherently good or evil or some mix of the two? Is sinfulness inborn or does it develop over time? If the latter, how? Do I even believe in sin?
  • How do children learn? Is it instinctive or do they need to be taught? Is there a fixed body of knowledge that they should be taught? This is one that you might not have much idea about yet if you are just starting out but keep it in the back of your mind and ponder it once in a while.
  • What is my goal for my child? Is it a good college, a good job, enough money, a lot of money? Is it being kind? Is it being godly? Is it happiness? Is it being tough and not being taken in by anyone? Is it salvation? Is it more about what they will do or who they will be?

And then once you have some provisional answers, look at what is behind the major philosophies of education (shameless self-promotion again: my blog series is a great place to start). Find out which ones fit best with what you already think. Pick one or two that jibe with you and delve more deeply into them. Read summaries of them; read the original authors if you can make your way through them. And then think some more; what can you take away? What do you agree with? What do you disagree with? You may find that you like bits from one writer and bits from another; that’s okay. This is about creating your own philosophy of education; it doesn’t have to be identical to anyone else’s. Lastly, come back to the practical details: if this is what I believe, how do I live it out in practice? How do I educate my children in a  way that is consistent with my principles and aims for the right target?

I know this can all sound huge, but the point is to start early and think a little bit about it over time so that you develop a philosophy and know where you are going and why. Developing your own philosophy of education will not guarantee that you end up where you want to be. It won’t solve all your homeschooling problems. But you are a lot more likely to end up somewhere near where you want to go and to have the motivation to make it through the bad days if you know why and how you are homeschooling.



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