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:
- 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
- cross the street safely
- talk to other people respectfully
- 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?