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A Grand Unified Theory of Homeschooling

I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about different educational philosophies. From the typical public school curriculum and methodologies, or “school-at-home” homeschooling, to Charlotte Mason, Waldorf, Thomas Jefferson, Montessori, lapbooking, notebooking, earth-schooling, unschooling, Classical education… there is so much variety. And in my research and learning over the years, there is something of value in each and every one of them. From the freedom to pursue your own individuality within unschooling, to the security of ensuring that all students have a common foundation within the standardized curriculum of the public school system. But how do we incorporate all these ideals for our own children, when sometimes they are in quite literal opposition to each other? How do you find your balance of freedom versus security, of individuality vs working with society, of practical skills vs academics?

Looking at and pondering what many educational philosophies have in common with each other, I recently achieved a level of clarity and understanding, where everything fell into place for me. I think I may have come up with a Grand Unified Theory of Homeschooling. Actually, you could call it a Grand Unified Theory of Education, because I think this idea could be implemented in public schools as well… But, since I am a homeschooler, and this is a homeschooling blog, and to actually implement this in public schools would require far more change than most would probably be willing to do… let’s just stick with the “Homeschooling” side of it for now.

The fundamental basis of this Grand Unified Theory, upon which everything else rests, is this:

The most important stage of learning for any child is not until after they have started adolescence — usually around 14 years old. There are essential changes that happen to the human brain when it goes through puberty. Children around this age are capable of complex and abstract thought processes, and are able to analyze facts and ideas with great depth and insight. This is almost entirely a function of physical development, and is not based on prior learning.

This is fairly well recognized as true, even if you haven’t specifically noticed it before. This is the age of “high school” in the public schools, which is a very different environment than elementary and middle schools. Classical education calls this stage “Rhetoric,” where students apply advanced logic and analysis to discuss, defend, and persuade myriad ideas. The Waldorf tradition speaks of the “14-year change”, the beginning of the third 7-year-cycle of development. In Waldorf terms, the first stage (up to age 7) is “hands” – primarily active and physical development and learning; the second stage (age 7-14) is “heart,” an age of deep feeling; and 14-21 is “head,” as they move into their intellect.

However you explain it, around age 14 is when our children become truly capable of deep learning. And so my argument now, is that everything learned before age 14 is merely preparatory. Not that it is unimportant, but that it is only skeletal. A framework upon which the real learning that takes place in adolescence can be built. Much as how knowing the letters of the alphabet is preparatory to reading (but is not, in itself, reading), education in the first 13 years of life is merely the setting up of the basic skills that will be needed for in-depth learning later.

So here is the second part of the Grand Unified Theory of Homeschooling. Rather than worrying about “what my 5yo should know” or “what does a 3rd grader need to learn,” all we really need to concern ourselves with is “what should my child be able to do by the time he is 14 years old?

Once you look at it this way, you find an awful lot of freedom. You will quickly see that there are many ways to arrive at this goal. And you will also, hopefully, realize that what any child knows at age 6 or 8 or 10 is, by and large, quite irrelevant. (Not that the knowledge is irrelevant; just the age at which they learned it is irrelevant.) Whether they start to read at 3 or 11, as long as they can read comfortably by the time they’re 14, that’s all that matters. Whether they learn long division when they’re 8 or when they’re 13, as long as they’re okay with it by the time they’re 14, they’ll be fine. Instead of worrying about lists and requirements for each and every year along the way, and whether we’re ahead or behind or what have you… why don’t we take a more long-term view of things?

And so the next piece of the puzzle, therefore, is what are those skills that are needed for the in-depth learning stage of adolescents?

This is my suggested list. A child 14 years old should, by and large, know or know how to:

  • read
  • elementary arithmetic, fractions, patterns, decimals.
  • cook a simple meal
  • write a coherent paragraph
  • look up something they don’t know (online or in books)
  • do the laundry
  • basic concept of historical eras in a broad sense
  • basic concept of the earth, continents, and different cultures
  • speak a few phrases in another language
  • keep their belongings and their personal timetable organized
  • basic understanding of money, budgeting
  • draw, paint, sculpt
  • tell time, understand seasonal cycles (not necessarily the mechanics of why there are cycles, just the fact that there are)
  • brush their teeth, wash their hair, shower
  • basic understanding of physical sciences (hot air goes up, gravity goes down, birds are alive and rocks are not)
  • ride a bike
  • swim
  • cross the street safely
  • talk to other people respectfully
  • type
  • choose nutritious food
  • take public transportation
  • light a match, build a campfire
  • first aid
  • sew on a button
  • read music, play a musical instrument, or sing, at a basic level

You will notice that not all of this list is academic subjects. In fact, most of it is not. Yet all of these topics are, or should be, essential aspects of any child’s education. They are all important skills needed for living life; and life is about much, much more than academic knowledge.

You will also notice that the academic parts of the list are rather short on details. And that’s precisely the point. The details are merely that — details. All the fine-tuning, all the depth, all the details are easily learned in the adolescent or “high school” years. One child might know a lot about, say, human biology by the time they’re 10, and that’s fine if that’s what interests them. But it’s not necessary. All that is truly necessary in the elementary years in terms of science, is that they keep a love of discovery and an interest in the natural world.

The same is true in pretty much every academic area. Really all that is necessary is a basic framework. The details and the depth come in high school.

So here is the final part of the Grand Unified Theory of Homeschooling. Having recognized this list of skills as the goal for the first 13 years of life, it’s quite easy to recognize that it does not take 7-8 years of intense daily work and study to achieve those skills. Some are best practiced from an early age, so as to develop good habits. Others can be quite easily learned within a month or two by a 12 or 13-year-old child, even if it was completely ignored before. Most homeschooling families will recognize that they will have mastered most (if not all) of these skills, at least the academic ones, long before 14 years old.

And so the point is, whatever style of homeschooling you find works best for your child and your family… in the end, the details don’t matter. You can save yourself a lot of time, and a whole lot of stress, by not worrying about yearly timetables and schedules and curriculum requirements. You can choose to follow a curriculum if you prefer to have that structure, but you don’t have to stress if your child seems “behind” when they’re 8 years old. And even if they’re “ahead”, it’s still only just “details” — the real ‘deep’ learning still is not going to happen until they reach adolescence. Until that time, everything else is just placeholding. It is introductions. It is frameworks. It is exposure. But that’s all it is.

Within this Grand Unified Theory of Homeschooling, there is an awful lot of freedom. There is room for every individual circumstance. Even the age of 14 is somewhat arbitrary… for some children, that stage of brain development comes a year or 2 earlier. For others, it may be a year or 2 later. But as a general goal to keep in mind, 14 is pretty consistent.

The main point I want to get across is this. Grade levels and standard curricula are completely arbitrary, often based on child development science but not always, and are more often about being able to say you “did something” than about that ‘something’ being actually necessary to know at that age or stage. Year-to-year curricula are useful for organization and planning, for learning habits and routines, but should not be taken as ‘rules’ or absolute guidelines for what a child should know at any particular age. Far better, less stressful, less time-consuming, whatever homeschooling methodology or philosophy resonates best with you, is to take a long-range view. Don’t fret about what they retain and what they forget when they’re still young, it’s all merely “details,” the real learning happens later. Focus less on the year-to-year, and instead focus on the day-to-day art of living.

So what are your thoughts? Is there something missing from this basic list of skills? What are your experiences with the adolescent “change,” and how relevant – or not – were your children’s (or your own) learning experiences when younger?



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  • bethany actuallyNo Gravatar

    I love this concept. I’ve been feeling a bit guilty for the past year or so about how little structured homeschooling I’ve been doing with my 7-year-old. My younger daughter is ten months old and although I thought we’d take it easy on school for the first month or two of her life, we’ve ended up taking it easy on formal lessons for, oh, ten months now!

    Even though I’m committed to homeschooling and love that we’re able to do things on our own schedule and as my daughter is ready to learn new things, I still find myself struggling with the feeling that I’m not “on schedule,” which is rather silly. I mean, whose schedule am I trying to conform to? The Grand Unified Theory of Homeschooling, and this list, appeal to me very much.

    Also, I’ve been half-joking that this year as we’re unschooling, my daughter is doing her internship in child development and household management. But it’s kind of true! Since she’s older and more capable, and I’m often needing to feed the baby or put her down for a nap, I’ve been teaching my older daughter how to sweep and mop the kitchen on her own, or how to fully unload and load the dishwasher. And she’s getting a first-hand look at what it’s like to care for a baby, because she’s at home with us all day long, every day, instead of being away at school. So I would suggest that you add something to the list about a basic understanding of how to care for a small child—i.e., knowing that babies need to breastfeed frequently, take naps, have their diapers changed, etc.; I don’t think all 14-year-olds should necessarily have had the chance to care for a baby, and definitely not unsupervised, but I think it’s not a bad idea to expose your kids to babies, since most of them will end up becoming parents at some point, and even if they don’t, they’ll likely be around lots of kids in their lives.

  • Amy AyersNo Gravatar

    I appreciate the overall gist of your post and agree with its spirit. I don’t really like lists of what people “should learn” but I do understand you are probably addressing that list to those who are perhaps new to homeschooling or who are trying to let go of the standard curriculum.

    We call ourselves “unschoolers” but aren’t completely that way – we do use a math curriculum – but my kids love math so it doesn’t smack of forced learning. I’ll have to save my comments about the age 14 timeline until after mine have gotten there – I’d say they are already thinking incredibly deeply at 12 and 10 but you used the age 14 as an average, not a rule/absolute measure.

    My driving homeschooling/unschooling philosophy is that I want to help my offspring achieve psychological “wholeness” – details of learning matter much less than their development as people – they have plenty of intelligence to learn whatever they need to do what they want to do – but so many people suffer childhood trauma that inhibits their development. I am making that a priority – and it’s working well – I have wonderfully respectful relationships with them and they feel free to pursue whatever their interests happen to be. I think my philosophy and yours are quite compatible. Don’t fret the details – focus on the big picture. Mine just has more of a psychological slant.

    • heatherNo Gravatar

      Thanks, Amy! Yes, I think we’re on very much the same wavelength. I used 14 as a general average, the “change” happens more or less with puberty and of course the timing of puberty can vary significantly from one kid to the next.

      The list is not really intended to be legalistic, or comprehensive. It’s meant to be thought-provoking — what is *really* important for a child to learn? And when must they learn it? Like you said, for those who are trying to ‘let go’ of the standard curriculum. All the little details that are the scope and sequence of most curricula are just details; if your child is missing a few ‘details’ but has the bigger picture then everything will likely be fine. Many parents fret about the details of all the little things they think their kids need to know, and it’s helpful to step back and look at not only the academic big picture, but also at the life skills which are just as important for a real education. For many people, making a concrete list is more helpful than a more abstract idea of “they’ll learn what they need”.

      The other main intent of the list is to show that, if this is what your goal is to have by age 14, then it’s really not all that much time and work and effort to get there. Sometimes when kids are very young, we’re already starting to panic about teaching them ENOUGH. Knowing what your more long-term goals are helps to not worry as much about the short-term goals. Again, writing it down into a physical list helps bring clarity, and security.

      This is also, of course, a very generalized list. I think it would apply very well to the vast majority of kids. But other parents might have other priorities. And that’s one of the benefits of homeschooling, of course! I love your idea of “psychological wholeness” being an essential part of their development… perhaps I’ll add that to the list. ;)

  • MaryeNo Gravatar

    You make some wonderful, well researched points. I am enjoying your blog immensely.
    As for myself, in the early years, my philosophy was a sort of unschooled/give the child the thirst for knowledge and the tools and they will achieve view point, but now that my children are in junior high and high school we are operating on a more structured ideology.
    Both of my children are dyslexic. The oldest has difficulty with spelling and math whereas the youngest has obstacles in reading and writing, but excels in math and science. I don’t think they would be receiving a beneficial education if they had ever been place in a class room that spoon fed them with no regard for their individual needs. I feel like any parent who chooses to homeschool for the sole purpose of giving their children the tools they need will be pleasantly surprised at their child’s the growth and development through out the years.

  • aejohnsonNo Gravatar

    it’s been mentioned, but worth reiterating…

    I would definitely add they should know how to grow something and/or understand the basic origins of food.

    Growing and cooking education covers all your bases; science, chemistry, math, history, economics, social studies (culture)…even art.

  • HeatherNo Gravatar

    I was going to comment, but then Ms. Clement said it all! She is one smart & sassy lady :) Studies from french immersion school in Canada shows that children who begin the foreign language around 11-13 years old do better than children who begin in Kinder.

    Cool article :)

    • heatherNo Gravatar

      Hm, I’d be very curious to see those studies, because that certainly does not match my experiences! I grew up in “early immersion”, we were in full french language education right from grade 1. Others started in grade 7 for “late immersion.”

      When we were all mixed together in high school, you could, in general, *very* easily tell who had been in early and who was late immersion. Both had similar skills in comprehension, but the early immersion kids had MUCH stronger conversation skills and FAR better pronunciation. Late immersion kids sounded like english people speaking french (ie, a heavy english accent) whereas early immersion kids sounded almost francophone.

      A few years ago, our provincial education minister at the time (who is now, ironically, a friend of mine) was pushing to change early immersion from K-entry to a grade 3 or 4 entry. But to my understanding, the reasoning was never about improving french skills – it was all about english. There was a notion that students in french immersion from K ended up with poorer english skills. But again, our experience as students going through the immersion system did not support this — there was no noticeable difference in english skills once we were all mixed together in high school, and in fact, on occasion the french immersion students sometimes were even better off since we had done more formal grammar studies than the english students typically had done. (That can vary a lot, of course). But even if we were no better off, we were certainly no worse.

  • Linda ClementNo Gravatar

    I disagree with the premise of ‘starting young to form good habits.’

    I have witnessed far too many people who have habitually (or rather, enforced by others, routinely) done thus-and-such for the whole 14 years of their lives up to 14, and still never adopted it as ‘habit’ as teens –or adults.

    Personally, one example is that for my entire childhood, teens included, I ate dessert after lunch and dinner. As an adult, I have never made nor served dessert routinely -or habitually- or even ever remembered it existed as a possibility the vast majority of the year.

    While there is a lot of ‘science’ that suggests that anything that is done diligently for 3 weeks will become ‘habit’ there is rather more real life evidence undermining the idea… consider, for example, how incredibly easy it is for someone to ‘fall off the wagon’ of exercising or healthy eating after months or even years. It takes a single day to get into the habit of turning on the tv instead of going for a walk, run, bike ride or swim.

    Otherwise, while I’ll disagree with a lot of the specifics on the list –even the idea that there needs to be a list, rather than an active, engaging and interest-driven childhood– prior to 14, I agree that almost 100% of what is drilled, taught or presented to children under that age is a waste of energy, which would be much better spent connecting with them as people.

    The idea of an ideal time to ‘learn languages’ only applies to the first one. After that, there is no magical time when learning a second or fifth is harder than it was before… people just forget what it’s like to struggle in frustration as a child. It really is identical –embarrassing to make mistakes, frustrating to not already know, humiliating to lack facility and ease– at any age.

    As adults, second-language learners bring ‘already comfortable with mastering one’ that young children don’t have, and the same goes for nearly anything else they’d like to learn at 14: experience in learning other things helps to learn new things faster –it doesn’t matter what the subjects are.

    I can name 6 people from my own life who knew a second (even third) language as children who utterly lost the ability to understand it, or speak it, long before they were 40 –other languages really are a use-it-or-lose-it prospect, and effect that is amplified by brain structure changes in childhood. A child who only speaks French at 3 may have only an extremely simplistic and limited vocabulary at 14, if the environment needing that language disappears before they’re 7.

  • Jane at TymeAgainNo Gravatar

    Hello Heather,
    So glad I found your blog! What a well thought-out, well written post. This came to me at the perfect time (from my home learning network in Victoria, BC)as I start to plan my 12 year old daughter’s school year. I’m feeling the pressure (and I’m sure it’s more internal)to be doing more academic ‘stuff’ now that she’s older. We belong to a TJEd group and we try to follow her interests if we possibly can – we spent last sememster studying everything we could about chocolate (who knew it was an inexhaustible subject)! So reading your post made me take a deep breath and realize that if she’s not ready for algebra (and I know she isn’t) then what am I doing?
    I love your list and knowing that I can put a tick beside most of them already, eases my mind (okay, she hasn’t done laundry yet). The one I would add is
    - to be able to give a short presentation in front of a small group of people. Or maybe that, too, is something that could wait til 14 and I’m getting ahead of myself again…

  • heatherNo Gravatar

    Hm. I don’t know if I would include fishing as an essential life skill, although perhaps caring for animals should be on the list. I agree about agriculture, I actually did think about including something about gardening.

    As for languages, I didn’t actually say anything about when hardwiring for language happens. My suggestion of knowing a few phrases in another language is absolutely just a minimum that everyone should have. Everybody should have a basic grasp of the concept of another language, and many families include no language learning at all, which I think is very unfortunate.

    If you want to be *fluent* in another language, you absolutely need to start early and practice often. This falls within the ‘freedom’ of ‘individual circumstance’ that I describe. Not every person needs to be fluent in another language. You can argue for its importance, but you can argue for the importance of being fluent on a musical instrument as well. Fluency is wonderful, but is not actually required for all people. But a grasp of the basics (whether the language is french, german, or Baroque harpsichord) should be on the “essentials” for everyone.

    I’m glad you mentioned this, because I did want to explain why I didn’t put it on the list even though language learning should generally be started quite young – but I didn’t want to digress too much from the main gist of the article. If your goal is fluency in a language then you will indeed start early and get as much immersion experience as you can.

    Still, the general point remains valid. If along the way, your 8yo student is struggling with the subjunctive in their second language — it’s just a detail. It’s not UNimportant, but in the larger picture, it’s most likely that they will figure it out at some point along the way by the time they’re teenagers, so it’s not worth STRESSING over while they’re young.

  • RobinNo Gravatar

    You didn’t say anything about fishing or agriculture, which I would include on the essential list. Also, hardwiring for language happens much earlier than you suggest. If you wish for children to have other languages, you must begin earlier.

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