In the US, one of the first questions asked in a homeschool conversation is, “What curriculum do you use?” In the UK, I think I’ve maybe been asked twice if I use a curriculum at all.
A curriculum is essentially a course of study that prescribes specific learning outcomes for a specific-aged child. But is it really necessary for a child’s education?
The curriculum industry is huge and, perhaps due to its massive presence in all things related to education, has misled some homeschool families (especially new ones) into believing that this is the way it’s supposed to be done: We find a curriculum, teach certain objectives to our children when they reach a certain age, they take some tests to show mastery (or not), and we move onto the next objective. Essentially, we bring school into the home. Except that when we do this, we naturally have less time for the things that make home education so attractive in the first place. Not only that, but our relationship with our children often becomes strained because we are constantly trying to “keep up” with a curriculum-dictated calendar. When we fall behind, feelings of failure, guilt, and stress are compounded.
Even with its pitfalls, a set curriculum, for many, is like a life-line. A way of convincing ourselves that if I just tick these boxes then my child will be successful. I feel you. I LOVE to check boxes and I love the thought of my child being successful.
The thing is, though, that we cannot guarantee a child’s success no matter what methods we use (that goes for all of parenting, not just education). Recent studies are showing that we have no idea what sorts of jobs will be available in another 10 years; “that 85 per cent of jobs that will exist in 2030 haven’t been invented yet.”
How can we ensure that our “curriculum” will prepare our kids for those new jobs of the future or for life in general? The short answer is, we can’t. But the good news is that we no longer need a curriculum in the traditional sense.
It sounded like a brilliant idea so I googled it and, finding that so such curriculum existed, I thought I’d give it a shot. Our “Curriculum of Questions” was birthed and the results have been quite encouraging. I used to love having a quick answer for my kids, but I began realizing more and more that I was actually doing my kids a disservice by providing them with answers instead of questions.
Here’s how our Curriculum of Questions works in a nutshell:
Each week or two, a new question is posed to my children. They take the question and think about it, research it, take notes, and compile their findings into a project or presentation of some sort. We discuss our findings and usually follow up with a related trip to to an exhibit, a workshop, or show of some sort.
Some questions we have asked (with follow-up activity):
What makes a good children’s toy? (V&A Museum of Childhood)
Is fashion important to society? (Christian Dior exhibit at V&A)
Is there a connection between farming and power/control? (Farm trip and “Feeding History” exhibit at British Museum)
What makes words powerful? (“Writing: Making Your Mark” Exhibit at British Library)
If you were running for mayor, what would your platform be? (Parliament tour)
Why is it that when you can’t smell, you can’t taste?
What does an “answer” look like?:
My children at the time of this post are ages 12 down to 3 so a finished “product” or answer to their question might include a drawing, a Powerpoint presentation, some notes on a Google doc with with pictures pasted in, or even a simple discussion. They are learning digital platforms faster than I can teach them so in the years to come, I’m excited about watching their finished products turn into multi-media presentations, an animated infographic, Youtube videos, TED talks, essays, or whatever other platform suits them best. It might still be a simple drawing.
How to use your question at the museum:
If your kids are like mine, when we enter a massive room at a museum it’s only minutes before they are over-stimulated by all the sights, sounds, and other children, and ultimately just want to run around or play hide-and-seek. When I try to coral them so that I can “teach” them something by reading a sign next to a display, I am usually met with yawns or fidgeting. How do we get them to engage in these exhibits which are truly amazing contributions to science, art, history, and more?
The key is to 1) prep them with a good question and 2) narrow the focus of the trip. When the kids arrive at a specific exhibit or painting having become mini-experts and having a strong opinion about a question I have posed earlier that week, they are much more prone to engage in the exhibit and ask more questions of their own. Free museums and memberships take the pressure off when you feel like you’ve got to see the whole museum in order to “get your money’s worth”. If you are going to be spending money, though, definitely choose to spend it on authentic experiences like these, not on boat loads of “curriculum” and worksheets.
In addition to the one question that I ask them, there are many more posed by the children themselves:
Personal notebook of questions– Have kids keep track of things they would like to know or learn. Teach them what it means to ask a good question (see below). When they do, have them write it down. My 9 year-old son recently asked “Why do wars exist?” which led him down a pretty heavy study on the reasons why people have declared war throughout history. He was especially interested in learning about nuclear warfare (that’s one way to learn your history, geography and science!).
I also keep a family notebook that we’ve titled our “Little Book of Big Questions”. When we are out and about I keep my eyes (and ears) open for tidbits that might make a good question and, when we come home, I write it in our notebook. The other day when we were out, I saw a McDonald’s ad at a bus stop. That reminded me of a recent campaign launched by the mayor of London in which he had banned junk-food advertising saying there was a link between the ads and the obesity epidemic. Then, in scoping out upcoming exhibitions, I found one at the Brand Museum called, “Can Marketing Save Lives?” How about that? The exhibit itself will actually be one of the questions that we will be using in the upcoming weeks. Flyers of upcoming events can also be tucked into your “Little Book”.
So what exactly makes a good “Curriculum Question”?
It can’t be googled. Think of the difference between: “What is the capital of France?” and “Why is Paris the capital of France?” True, the question can technically still be googled, but it would take a bit more digging and compiling for a satisfactory answer.
It fosters discussion (even a debate) almost immediately. For example: Is fashion important to society? “Yes, fashion is definitely important to society.” “What? No way! Fashion is a total waste of money!” Bingo. That’s a good question.
It will take multiple disciplines to answer. Ideally, a child will have to do some research in two or more of the following disciplines: history, science, social science, art, geography, etc. in order to find an answer to the question.
It will take even more questions to answer the big question. My kids are used to the mantra that I pose often, “What questions are we going to need to ask in order to answer that question?”
Here’s an example:
Question: “Would you have enjoyed living under the rule of Ashurbanipal”?
- It can’t be googled. It’s a matter of opinion.
- In this case, there was no initial debate since they had no idea who he was. The debate came afterwards, when some thought that it would actually being fine living under his rule (as long as you weren’t a lion or a family member).
- The kids dug into history (biblical and secular), geography, and literature
- When asked, “What questions are we going to need to ask in order to answer that question?” The kids immediately responded, “Who is he?!” Other questions included, Where did he rule? When did he rule? Did he do anything special? Was he a good king?
We followed-up our question with a trip to the Ashurbanipal exhibit at the British Museum. Ironically, next to a display of the world’s first library (which belonged to Ashurbanipal) was a description with the heading “Knowledge is Power”. Back in the days of the Assyrian Empire, I imagine that was true. But today, knowledge is everywhere and the thing that will truly empower is being able to know what to do with the knowledge that we have. That takes being able to ask good questions.
How do you decide when to ask which question? How can I plan ahead?
Look at local events. If you are on any kind of social media for home ed you know it can be overwhelming. Also look at libraries, art galleries, museums, theaters, festivals, community events, etc. Based on the exhibitions you would like to visit, craft a question to be delivered 1-2 weeks before you are scheduled to go on that outing.
You know your children best, you know what would pique their interests, you know your local area and can look into upcoming events, exhibits, etc. There are also some really good resources out there to help us learn how to frame our questions well (I’m still working on it myself).
Ideas for big questions: SOLE
PBL- Driving Questions and how to form them
The “What If…“ Youtube channel
The bottom line is even though it may be “easier”, more “clear-cut” and less “risky” to follow a curriculum, maybe it’s time to ditch it in favor of your own “Curriculum of Questions”, which will always be engaging and relevant to your children both now and in the future.
Be on the lookout for posts in my “Curriculum of Questions” series which may help you formulate some of your own questions. I am looking forward to hearing how you use enquiry in your home to foster life-long learning!
What do you think? Is a curriculum essential for a “good” education?