4 assumptions we make when following a curriculum

One of the first questions families tend to ask themselves after deciding to home educate is, “Which curriculum should we use?” 

We whip out Cathy Duffy’s guide, ask around on Facebook, download countless samples and then pull the trigger, spending a small fortune on what promises to be a fabulous year wrapped in cling film.  The package arrives and we are careful not to put too many creases in the spines of the new workbooks.  We plan out our entire year, week by week in pen (because we are that committed!), according to the 800 page teacher’s manual that helpfully accompanies all of the student books.  

2 weeks later…

We are a week and a half behind and are crossing out those plans made in ink, replacing them with light pencil markings and question marks.  The kids are bored to tears (you can’t blame them), and we’re wondering why our shiny new curriculum has failed to give us happy, motivated learners.  It must not have been a good match.  So we start the process over again.  

Not only did I spend hundreds of dollars on various curriculums when we started home educating, but I also spent my university career learning all about curriculum, instruction, lesson planning, learning styles,  and then went on to write out and execute countless lesson plans each week for the classroom based on the prescribed curriculum.  It’s just what has to happen when you want something to be learned.  Right?  

Not necessarily.  

When we buy into a curriculum we are making 4 very big assumptions about the creators of that curriculum:

  1. They know best what my child should learn.
  2. They know best how my child should learn it.
  3. They know best when my child should learn it.  
  4. They know best how to measure my child’s learning.  

Or to sum up: “They” know my child best and can provide him with the best education.

In this post, we will be looking primarily at assumption #1 since it’s the greatest concern for most of us, but let’s look briefly at the others (I will go in depth into each of these assumptions in future posts): 

Assumption #2: They know best how children learn

Children learn in a variety of different ways such as reading, watching, listening, doing, etc.  Following a set of standards puts giant limitations on what children actually absorb, since curriculums rely heavily (if not solely) on learning by reading, writing, and being still for long periods of time.  

The format of a curriculum is almost always a week by week, year by year format which is simply not conducive to deep thought, creativity, discussion, exploration, rabbit trails, etc. 

Jessica Lewis, Unsplash

Assumption #3: They know best when they should they learn certain skills and ideas

Because schools are based on a standardized system with standardized assessment, it’s essential for the institution to be consistent about when they teach certain objectives so that they can efficiently rank both the students in the schools and the schools as a whole.  

Outside of an institutional environment, where there is no such thing as a typical child, it’s no longer essential for kids to learn what a polygon is by age 8. Or for a child to read by age 6.  Or to wait on calculus until high school. Or to know all the common suffixes in year 2, or to learn U.S. history only in grades 5 and 11.   

A major pit-fall in assuming that certain content needs to be learned by a certain age will be the natural tendency to categorize your child as either “gifted”, “behind”, or “average”. None of these labels are helpful (I’ll explain why in a future post). 

Assumption #4: They know best how to measure what they learn 

When following a curriculum, children “learn” (aka memorize) content and then are tested and receive a grade.  In schools, students receive a grade because there is not enough time for everyone in the class to master the skill or concept before having to move on to the next thing.  It always puzzles me when I hear of home educators assigning grades to their children for their work instead of working towards mastery in their learning. There are plenty of other ways for children to authentically demonstrate learning besides taking tests and assigning grades.  

And now for the assumption central to the curriculum debate:  

Assumption #1: They know best what my children should learn

This is the million dollar question (or the multi-billion dollar question for textbook publishing giants like Pearson and McGraw-Hill).

(Let me clarify that by “curriculum” I mean a set of materials that cover a specific content area and usually comes with a student workbook, teacher guide, and tests.  I’m not referring to, say, a photography course that outlines a series of learning modules in order to master certain skills.)

By design, a curriculum sets forth objectives that are easy to test.  Also by design, curriculum contains either an implicit or explicit bias or worldview. In this fascinating study, the history textbooks in California and Texas (same publishers and authors) were compared and shown to have been edited to contain over 500 differences that clearly reinforce the political leanings of either state. 

So, while there may be agreement that children should learn material that will result in them being informed and responsible citizens, the actual content will differ greatly depending on where you live and what publishers believe to be true about the world and how it works.  

To me, a successful or essential education is one where children reach adulthood and are not only publicly responsible but, perhaps more importantly, privately happy.  The only way to guarantee this outcome, is to consider the child himself- What are his interests, talents, desires?  What is his ethnic identity? Where does he live?  What’s going on in his world? Many of these things are in constant flux throughout the course of a childhood, and cannot be explored by following a static curriculum.  

Back when we wrote out our reasons why we home educate, we thought extensively about what we felt was most important for our children to know and be able to do when they leave us and enter the world as adults. We quickly realized that this couldn’t be achieved through a set of textbooks, or a prescribed curriculum. This is what we came up with in a nutshell:  

To be privately happy:

  • They will know themselves (who I am, why I’m here, where I’m headed), discover their purpose, their interests, their gifts, and be given opportunities to develop and pursue them.
  • They will have a spiritual foundation that gives them a sense of security in knowing that they are not an accident, but created for a purpose.
  • They will know how to care for themselves- the body, nutrition, fitness, natural remedies, cooking, cleaning, basic household repairs.
  • They will have a critical understanding of how things work in the world around them (science, nature, math, economy, government).
  • They will have a sense of financial awareness and responsibility.
  • They will have an appreciation and understanding of art and how it benefits our overall well-being.

To be publicly responsible:

  • They will develop a sense of logic/reasoning about what’s going on in the world, why it’s happening, and how they should respond (from Artificial Intelligence to Black Lives Matters,  to Covid-19, to poverty, to climate change, etc.)
  • They will be able to use their gifts to better their community.  
  • They will be able to communicate their ideas with the world (through reading, writing, speaking, and art)
  • They will have an understanding of democracy (as well as other forms of government) and their role and responsibility in it.  

The unfortunate reality is that, too often, we just want someone to tell us what our child is supposed to learn to make them “successful”.  We don’t want to do a whole lot of thinking and planning when it comes to what our kids need to know or want to learn because, frankly, we don’t have the time or energy for that.  But, in doing so, we may be taking the risk that our children grow up knowing how to tick boxes and ace exams, but are neither privately happy nor publicly responsible. 

One of the most exciting things about home educating is that when our children are young, we can create an authentic learning environment where they naturally learn about how things work and develop interests and curiosities about specific ideas/topics.  You can learn more about how to do that in your own home HERE.  As they grow, we can tailor our children’s learning to meet their specific interests and needs without worrying about having to meet arbitrary standards. It’s not necessary for children to follow a chemistry curriculum to understand what elements are, and how they make up the world around them. It’s not necessary to trudge through a Shakespeare “unit” if, instead, you’d rather enjoy live performances or to act in one yourself. There are so many meaningful ways for children to both learn about the world around them, and to learn about their own interests, that don’t require textbooks.

If you do choose to buy into a curriculum, I urge you to go in with your eyes wide open. Know who the “curriculum people” are and what underlying biases may be present. And then become excellent observers of your children. If they are easily “bored” with “school”, are struggling to “keep up” with a prescribed schedule, have interests that they are not able to explore because all their time is taken up by “lessons”, can’t sit still for long periods of time, then it may be time to ditch the textbooks and discover what it will take to allow your child to thrive in their learning.

Feel free to share in the comments how your children learn without using a curriculum!

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