Posts Tagged ‘curriculum’

Depth vs. Breadth

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Buckminster Fuller

Buckminster Fuller


C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis

Eccentric visionary Buckminster Fuller believed that universities spend too much time graduating specialists when what we really need are generalists. Furthermore, he believed that all children are born with the natural instinct to think and learn holistically, and blamed society for interfering with this natural tendency to instead promote specialization (see his “Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth” for more info here).

C.S. Lewis however thought that we did a great disservice to children by trying to teach them about too many things instead of focusing on teaching a few things very well. He wrote:

“In those days a boy on the classical side officially did almost nothing but classics. I think this was wise; the greatest service we can do to education today is to teach fewer subjects. No one has time to do more than a very few things well before he is twenty, and when we force a boy to be a mediocrity in a dozen subjects we destroy his standards, perhaps for life.” (see citation below)

I think they both made good points, but in reality we need both generalists and specialists. We need generalists like Steve Jobs or Leonardo DaVinci who can make the connections between widely disparate subjects such as art and science, in order to see something new. But we also need people who are really, really good at what they do, even if that means they don’t know much about anything else. I don’t need or want my surgeon to be a generalist, I want him or her to be the best specialist I can find.

Fortunately, it seems that people naturally gravitate towards one or the other. Those kids who become fixated on a topic early on and never seem to want to do anything else are future specialists. Alexander Graham Bell, Pierre Curie, Albert Einstein, Walt Whitman and Louis Armstrong were all like that. If they were growing up today, we might have called them “geeks” in the sense that they were obsessed with their personal interests.

Those kids who seem interested in a wide range of topics but have trouble choosing just one might be future generalists. Thomas Edison, Agatha Christie, John Muir and Benjamin Franklin were like that.

So, how should you approach this dilemma as a homeschooling parent?

We don’t want to peg our kids as either specialists or generalists because we might be wrong, and it’s not really fair to label our kids with any preconceived notions that might limit what they believe about themselves.

I will propose two solutions . . . and the first is this: let your kids guide their own studies. If they are interested in a million different things, just roll with it and help them find the books or other resources they need to satisfy their curiosity. The same applies if they are only interested in one topic. Just keep feeding them more complex material as they need it.

This was the case with my son who is obsessed with programming and math. I had no idea what resources might be best for him to learn, but he knew. He researched all the books, tutorials, and online courses available to him and made up Amazon wish lists of bizarre titles, such as 3D Math Primer and Real-Time Collision Detection, for his birthdays. He definitely went into DEPTH with his programming studies.

We also covered other topics, because they were required by college admissions offices and my son wanted to go to college. However, these topics, such as English Composition, never fired him up the way programming did. This doesn’t mean he was completely oblivious to the outside world though. This is because of my second proposed solution: Living Books.

Living books, or those books written by talented authors with a passion for their subject, expose readers to meaningful context and information in a BROAD range of subjects.

One of my son’s favorite books was The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, not because he was particularly interested in serial killers but because of the historical context of the events surrounding the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. This led to an avid interest in Edison, Tesla and other inventors; along with other books set at the turn of the 20th century involving science or the rise of industry. This didn’t make him an expert on any of these subjects, but the books he read pulled together strands of world events, geography, business, science, ethics, history, economics, and others in a way that was enjoyable and memorable for him.

This doesn’t mean that every kid would like these sorts of books, but there are wonderful living books available for every possible interest. It’s just a matter of hunting them down. Here’s a few good online sources of inspiration:

The great thing about reading good books is that they introduce new ideas and topics to the reader or listener in a way that is meaningful, and thus more likely to be remembered than a textbook. Of course, a work of historical fiction will not be as thorough as a textbook, but if it leads your child to new interests or inspires deeper thinking, I’d say that’s a win.

Let your students choose which subjects they want to explore deeply, and rely on well-chosen living books to provide some breadth in their studies. I think Buckminster Fuller and C.S. Lewis would both be satisfied with this compromise.


Citation:  p 112-113, C.S. Lewis. Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life. Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc. New York 1955.

Keeping Teens on Track

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In my last post, I talked about keeping kids on track, which is really more about keeping track of what they do. It’s far more effective to let kids direct their own education than it is to hold them to anyone else’s timetable or curriculum. Planning ahead is OK as long as your kids are involved with the planning process. But for older kids and teens, planning ahead is essential.  Again, your kids must be involved with the planning process. They must own it. Everyone is responsible for his or her own education. You play a vital role as academic adviser, counselor and administrator, but you can’t make anybody learn anything. If you want your kids to learn things, it is really more effective to give them control. That means you will have to give up control. There’s no pretending here. If you say,”It’s up to you what you will study, but you need to include ___, ___, ___, ___, and ___,” then your kids are smart enough to know that it really isn’t up to them. You have to be willing to let them skip math or writing or whatever it is, with no guilt trips, and then they will know you are serious about giving them ownership.

Listen to your teens, take them places, find them resources, mentors or classes in subjects they are interested in. Help them find and decipher information about careers and college admissions. Let them work and learn to take care of themselves as much as possible. Give them responsibility, and give them the freedom to learn what they will. This sounds crazy to some people, because the teens they know would sleep all day and play video games all night if given the opportunity. But this is only because the teens don’t think of education as something they do for themselves; they think of it as something done to them. It’s a little bit like the difference between starting your own business and going to work at some indifferent job for a paycheck. People often work much harder for their own businesses than they will for someone else, even if they are conscientious workers, because they OWN it.

So, how do you keep teens on track if they own the track?

First, as I’ve said before, let your kids be involved with the planning. Sit down with them and make a list of the things they want to study. Go to some college websites and print out lists of recommended high school courses, extracurricular activities, and testing requirements (pay attention to homeschool requirements in particular because they may be different from public school applicants). Even if your child is not interested in going to college, it’s helpful for them to know what might be required if they change their mind. If they have some other profession in mind, like the military or a trade, help them find out what type of educational attainments would be expected. Together, make a master plan, in pencil, of your child’s remaining homeschool years. If he or she will need to take two or three years of foreign language to be accepted into a college, it’s better to find out early than it is while you’re filling out applications.  You should also make note of what your state homeschool laws require. Armed with this information, your student should be able to see what they would need to do to move forward, even if they are not interested in a particular subject. When kids are younger, education can be mostly interest-driven, but as they get older, they are able to make choices based on necessity. But that doesn’t mean they have to forgo their interests! The great thing about homeschooling is time and flexibility. There are ways to combine personal interests with “required” courses, so be sure to write down personal interests.

After you’ve made up a rough master plan for the long-term, focus on the year ahead. You can use a unit study or literature based approach again, but frankly, if your kids are planning to go to college, it’s so much easier to make up courses the way other schools do. Then, when you are creating high school transcripts for them, colleges will find it much easier to understand what your kids studied. So, take the to-do items on your student’s list and turn them into courses. When my son wanted to learn about forces, vectors and motion for game design, we made a course called, “Physics for Game Design.” When he wanted to learn about banking, personal finance, and our economic crash, we combined all of those topics in a course called, “Economics.”

Once you have the courses figured out, you need to figure out what resources will be needed. My kids were perfectly happy to have me figure this part out. I love researching books and they usually trust me to pick out something they’ll like. But I always talk to them before ordering anything. When picking out math curriculum, I’ll narrow the field to two or three possibilities, and they will take sample lessons from the different companies to decide which style they prefer. Sometimes, my kids already knew which books they wanted to read, and then we made a course out of those books. One of my sons loves computer programming, and since those books are so expensive (yet impossible to find in any library), he keeps a wish list for his birthday and Christmas. There’s no way I could pick these books out because they make no sense to me, but he does his own research to find the best ones. My other son loves theatre, Shakespeare, mythology and writing so it was easy enough to combine these interests into one course called “Language Arts” and let him pick which books and plays he wanted to read anyway.

Once the courses and resources are figured out, it really helps to break everything down into a schedule, either by day or week. How much of each resource/book will you need to cover? If certain courses are required, such as Geometry or American Government, it helps to look at your state curriculum standards (look online) to see what skills or topics students are expected to learn in these courses. If required courses are less defined, such as “Social Studies” or “Fine Arts,” then you can be more flexible when deciding what to include in each course. Figure out what could realistically be accomplished in one week for each course. Or, even better, let your student figure it out. This could be done on notebook paper, any of those downloadable planning forms, or homeschool planning software.

Here’s where the “Keeping Teens on Track” really comes into play. If your students have been involved with planning their own courses, and assigning lessons for each week, it should be up to them to mark off when items are completed. They need to have access to these plans, to be able to see what is ahead and how much more needs to be done. Some courses we did together because it was more fun that way. We would take turns reading aloud, watch documentaries, and have long discussions about the subject at hand. For other courses, like math, they would get in the habit of doing it at a certain time, and then we would all grade their assignments afterward. I made it clear to my kids that I wasn’t going to bug them about getting stuff done, but they asked me to help remind them. Plus we had so many conversations throughout the day about stuff they were reading or doing that it seemed to naturally keep them going.

It seems counterintuitive, but I found that the more I backed off my kids, the more responsible they became. Sometimes, they wouldn’t do math for days because they were more interested in finishing a series of books or a new video game. But then they would do two assignments in a day or work on the weekend to get caught up. When they started taking courses at our local community college, I didn’t help them at all. They would come home and tell me about what they were doing, but they never had trouble adjusting to a classroom environment or more formal homework assignments. In fact, they did very well.

If you have given your teens freedom, but they still don’t seem to be doing anything constructive, try to reconsider what you believe is constructive. If they are playing video games all day, play with them and see what it is all about. Be patient and listen to your kids, without judgement. Expect them to work and take care of themselves as much as possible. Do things with them, get them out of the house, help them find mentors and volunteer opportunities. They won’t be able to resist learning and growing – but it might not look like what you were expecting. It will be better.

Keeping Kids on Track

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I know this sounds like a really strange topic from someone who claims that self-education is the best way to go. “Keeping kids on track” sounds like something a school board would care about, but bear with me, because I’m talking about a completely different approach.

In my last post about getting kids to try hard, I talked about the importance of ownership. Anyone, including kids, will work harder for something that they feel committed to, something that they created or envisioned. It also helps to have a personal stake in the outcome. Good leaders know this. They try to give their people as much creative control and autonomy as possible, because it makes the work more satisfying. The same is true for household work or homeschool work. But kids are still kids, and they don’t have much experience with time management or breaking a large job into manageable bits. So, there are ways for you to help give a little structure to support their vision, without taking over or becoming the typical “boss.”

For kids under the ages of 7-8, I really do not believe there is any reason to impose a formal curriculum. I explain all the research and reasons for this in my book, but the main reason is that children are natural learners, and given a warm, nurturing authentic atmosphere, they will learn a great deal of important stuff all by themselves. Most of the “early learning” topics taught to young children in their first 3 years of school (preschool, kindergarten, 1st), could be taught in about 3 months to a child who is old enough. I believe the real reason children are being pushed into early academics is because of parental anxiety and/or competitiveness, thus the term, “Head start,” which seems to imply some kind of race. Having children fill out worksheets matching the big triangle to the little triangle or the mama duck to the duckling are unnecessary. Elaborate phonics programs are unnecessary. Those things give the illusion of learning, because they represent “school,” something that an outside authority has prescribed and can easily measure.

There are so many more important things kids should be doing at this age, usually those that involve their whole bodies: building, climbing, running, playing, throwing, investigating, rolling, swimming, painting, pouring, hiding, seeking, singing, dancing, stomping, cleaning, laughing, visiting, and helping. When they are tired, that’s a good time to snuggle up on the couch and read aloud. Answer their questions as best you can, listen to them, play games, and take lots of pictures. That’s it. The only “keeping on track” you may want to do for this age is journaling, scrapbooking, and perhaps keep a list of books read, places visited, etc. *Note* If your young kids want to learn how to read or anything else, that’s perfectly fine, but there is no need to push it. If you live in a state that requires some kind of proof of your children’s learning, I believe that you can make up a satisfactory portfolio with just your lists of books, field trips and perhaps a list of skills learned; but do check with your local homeschool group for more advice.

Kids aged 8-12 are much more capable of settling down a bit and thinking abstractly, but they still prefer lots of hands-on learning. If they have not been burned out by school yet, they should still have a healthy sense of curiosity, so let their curiosity guide your curriculum. Make a list of stuff they are interested in. Take them to curriculum fairs, used book sales, or the library and let them pick what appeals to them. For hands-on activities, it’s nice to have an assortment of books available that your kids can flip through and put sticky notes on the things they want to do. This is really my favorite age for homeschooling because it is so diverse and creative.

Unit studies work well for this age, because you can concentrate on the subjects that really interest your kids. Talk to your kids. Let them know that this is their time to explore and that there are no absolute rules. If there is something you really want them to learn, just explain your thoughts to them. Together, come up with a learning plan. Pull out a blank grid calendar with all the months of the year on two pages (6 months on one 8.5X11 paper). Show them where you are now on the calendar and mark down upcoming events and vacations. Let them help you pencil in when to do each unit. The length of the unit will depend on the depth you plan to study each topic; it could be one day or one month or more. I’ve written more about planning a unit study here. Unit studies, whether you buy them pre-made, or design them yourself (my favorite) are nice because you can include math, reading, writing, art, geography, music, social studies, science and life skills all in one nice holistic package. Plus, unit studies can be done with multiple ages at once, so it takes advantage of the group learning dynamic. They do take a bit more time to put together, but I enjoyed it because of the creative challenge. If the thought of preparing a unit study makes you cringe though, there are plenty of free and low-priced resources online.

Another option is a literature based curriculum, similar to Charlotte Mason or the program offered by Sonlight. The idea is to focus more on quality literature and use that as inspiration for writing, social studies (map work), and other supporting projects. Math is generally supplemented with a dedicated curriculum. Science topics are also taught through literature or “living books,” as Charlotte Mason called great books. There is the danger here of imposing so much curriculum that your kids might start to rebel. I still believe it is important to give your kids a lot of control over their own learning. If they don’t like the books you have picked out, pick something they might like better. If they hate the math curriculum, look for options. Include them in the decision-making. You may have to do the initial research, to find out what is available and offer suggestions, but let them have input. Then, when you have chosen your resources, take the time to break down each resource into manageable chunks and assign to the days or weeks you have available. It doesn’t have to be fancy – a simple list on notebook paper will work – or you may want to use computer software (like mine) or downloadable planning forms. Your kids will think this is boring and have no interest in helping you. That’s OK. In fact, you may find this boring too. It really helps though to have the year laid out before you. Be careful not to overschedule. Remember that it’s far more important for kids to explore their own interests, for however long it takes, than it is to cover everything. There are no rules, especially for this age. The only reason to make these plans now is to help give you a direction to follow, even when you can’t remember what you did yesterday. It’s OK to skip stuff, or move things around. If your kids start to dislike the idea of “homeschool”, you may want to reconsider what you are doing. If they begin to think that education is something done to them, instead of something they pursue for their own reasons, then they have lost ownership of the process. And it is tough to get that back once it is lost.

Another approach you may consider is a Montessori style environment, where a wide variety of self-correcting learning materials are prepared ahead of time and available within reach of the children. The children are then free to choose whatever interests them and work until they are satisfied. However, the amount of preparation and work space you would need for something like this is intensive, so I would only recommend this is as cooperative effort among a group of like-minded families.  You could also decide to use Montessori type materials for just some of the subjects you hope your child will take an interest in, such as math and science. There are a lot of wonderful hands-on materials for math and science that can be made or purchased. Again, these will take some effort, but if you have a spouse or other family member willing to help you, these items can be a lot more fun than typical textbooks. One resource to check out is TOPS for science. The difference here in using hands-on materials vs. a unit study or literature approach is that instead of planning lessons, you are preparing materials. There is no schedule for when your child will use the materials, you just show them how to use something when they are ready. Perhaps you could have a check-off sheet to show when they have mastered a certain skill. In this situation, there is no need to “keep” the kids on track, only to keep notes of what they worked on each day.

If you have a child who is particularly left-brained and wants to have a more formal curriculum, that’s fine. You can research the possibilities and let him or her choose the most appealing. This alternative is probably the easiest for most parents, because it involves the least amount of preparation. All you will need to do is check their work and make sure they stay on schedule. But in my experience, there’s not many kids who love this approach, at least not for very long. You may have to resort to external motivation to keep them going, which will only yield short term results.

This post is already longer than I intended, so I will wait for the next one to talk about keeping preteens and teens on track. As always, I welcome your comments and suggestions. How do you keep your kids on track?

Homeschool Plans for 12th Grade

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The only child I’m homeschooling at the moment is my second son Aengus. He is in 12th grade this year and getting together his college applications so we have a lot to do.

Here’s what we have planned so far:

He’s taking Spanish II and Physics for dual credit this semester at our local community college (not sure yet what he will be taking next semester)

AP Calculus at home – probably using Thinkwell’s online course but we’re still reviewing

English/Language Arts at home  – Aengus will select a list of “living books” to read, plus “Reading Like a Writer” by Francine Prose; and he’ll go through assignments from Julie Bogart’s “Help for High School” Brave Writer program.

Computer Science at home – this takes up the most time because Aengus has been feverishly programming a new homeschooling recordkeeping/planning application for Mac (for more info see: He has been programming with Windows languages for years but only started learning Mac about a year ago.

We still need to work out something for social studies/history so he’ll have enough appropriate credits for college applications. Aengus isn’t really interested in another general American or World History course. He’s more interested in specific subjects that may or may not relate to one another, so we’ll have to be creative. Here’s what we are thinking:

  • Fall Semester: Understanding events in the Middle East (this would take several lifetimes to learn, so we can only cover a tiny bit):  “Innocents Abroad” by Mark Twain, “Islam – A Short History” by Karen Armstrong, “The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East” by Sandy Tolan; and maybe “The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power” by Daniel Yergan.
  • Spring Semester: History mixed with science: “The Human Web: A Bird’s Eye view of World History” by Robert McNeill and William McNeill and “A Short History of Nearly Everything” by Bill Bryson

On the side, Aengus and his brother are learning how to do online video tutorials. They want to make a series of how to build/reproduce ancient architecture in the Minecraft game. This will involve a certain amount of research into the landscape and architecture of ancient Greece, Babylon, Egypt and other places. With any luck, they’ll become rich and famous YouTube stars!

Aengus also takes regular drumming lessons and is looking for a band to play with (in all his free time!).

If anyone has suggestions for our history/social studies books – I’d love to hear them!