Four Questions to Ask Yourself Before You Buy Curriculum

Buying curriculum is a commitment of money, time, and resources. It is the biggest decision you will make after deciding to homeschool.

How to buy the right curriculum for your family is often overlooked. When I was homeschooling Bridget, I bought a number of curriculums. Each was not quite right for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, it was a matter of the amount of preparation time, or it didn’t suit my daughter’s learning style, or I thought it too low level. There were always reasons.

Here is the rub; it took money, time and resources to discover what I didn’t want. I was often spinning my wheels trying to find the perfect curriculum. After much trial and error I learned I was asking the wrong questions. I was asking questions like: how many hours does it take to do, or, what level is the reading, or, what is their refund policy.

Now, as a seasoned homeschooler, I see the problem was I had not yet formed my own philosophy of education. If you want to make sure you get the maximum value from homeschooling, you need a philosophy of education. If you think you just reading a book on home educating is enough—it isn’t. You will need to drill down and ask: How does this curriculum align with my own deeply held values about learning, the child, the purpose of education, and my worldview?

I have developed the following four questions aimed at helping you develop your personal view of education and to get a curriculum that meets your needs. Likely there are more than four questions to ask but these cover the foundational issues.

You will note I offer Charlotte Mason’s views as the better part of the answer to challenges facing a homeschool family. I can think of no beter philosophy of education than hers, but you must decide for yourself.

  1. What is their view of the child?

There are two views of children in education; others are variations on these two. The first sees the child as a product of his environment. I call it the “child as bucket” approach, from the quote by W.B. Yeats:

 Education is not the filling of a bucket, but the lighting of a fire.

In this view the child is a tabula rasa (blank slate) on which to write or a bucket to fill. Put another way, the child is born with no built-in mental content, in a word, “blank.” His fund of knowledge is built up gradually through delivery of information via the educational process. In this view, content from the academic disciplines is divided into twelve parts called grades. Each grade is added to the bucket. At the end of twelve years, ideally, the bucket is full and the child is finished with basic education.

You can see this view in operation when doing worksheets. Complete all the answers correctly and you have added a little bit more to your bucket. The problem with this view is that most workbooks ask you to memorize facts which are usually out of context. The facts go into short-term memory and are retained long enough to “get the grade” and seldom longer.

The second view is “the child as person.” In this view the child is seen as coming into the world complete and full of endless possibilities. Your duty as parent is to respect the personality of the child and call forth the inborn possibilities. This view is central to the teachings of Charlotte Mason. Just as viewing the “child as bucket” affects every aspect of learning, so too the “child as person” changes everything.

Children become adults through the process of taking up knowledge that is proper to them through the effort of self-will. What they lack is not maturity but guidance, nurture, and opportunity. Your role as their teacher is to provide those things. How is this done? Miss Mason in her twenty principles made it clear: We are limited to three educational instruments—the atmosphere of environment, the discipline of habit, and the presentation of living ideas.

Miss Mason was the quintessential homeschooling mother even though she had no children herself. She saw the home as the natural environment for the child.  Rather than an artificial classroom with a great deal of glitzy teaching aides, she felt a child thrived on a few, high quality books, time in the out of doors and “hands-on” learning. When she spoke of “education as an atmosphere” she meant that a child not only learns from book but in an environment where his learning is

  1. What do they see as the purpose of education?

The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (it’s where principals and superintendants hang out) wrote recently:

For years educators based the purpose of education on the definition by John Dewey—that the general purpose of school is to transfer knowledge and prepare young people to participate in America’s democratic society.” But, says Carter, that definition is insular and inadequate in the 21st century. Instead he’d rather that “purpose of schools must be preparing children to compete in the global environment.”

This definition of the purpose of education shows what is called a utilitarian view. Education is to make sure your child can compete in the global community. Many homeschool curriculums subscribe to this idea and focus on “skill building.”

The other view of education is that the learning prepares a child for a full, ample life. Charlotte Mason, in School Education, said it this way:

The question is not, — how much does the youth know? when he has finished his education — but how much does he care? and about how many orders of things does he care? In fact, how large is the room in which he finds his feet set? and, therefore, how full is the life he has before him?

  1. What worldview do they promote with their materials?

A “worldview” refers to a comprehensive conception of the world from a specific standpoint. A “Christian worldview,” then, is a comprehensive conception of the world from a Christian standpoint. Usually the worldview answers three big questions: Who are we, where did we come from, and where are we going?

A person’s worldview is his “big picture,” a harmony of all his beliefs about the world. It is her way of understanding reality. One’s worldview is the basis for making day-to-day decisions and is therefore extremely important.

Many homeschool curriculums call themselves “Christian” meaning they have books that explicatively teach biblical concepts. That is not a Christian curriculum; it is a secular curriculum which adds in Christian content. Often the curriculum is a mix of worldviews.

A Christian worldview will answer the question of who are we, where did we come from and where are we going as a story of Creation, Redemption, and Return. The company’s view should be apparent in the book choices. The books do not have to have religious sounding titles…actually that should steer you off. The books should be high-quality classic works, for the most part.

Charlotte Mason’s idea is that all knowledge comes from God, whether it is labeled secular or religious. It is also a matter of how the books are presented. That’s where the scope and sequence comes in. Have a look. Does history begin with Creation? Do the biographies include moral people who may or may not be Christian but are present in the curriculum because they support an idea such as God’s hatred of slavery? Generally, book choices should be made based on whether they are “living” and nourish the mind, regardless of whether they use Christian terminology.

  1. What do they see as the best way to learn?

Learning is not the same as remembering. They are closely linked—but they are not the same thing. A person can recall facts of a topic, but that doesn’t mean he have learned it. True he possesses something; but how far can these facts take him? Can he create a new thought with the facts, assess the truth of them, or generalize to grasp underlying principles?

Memorizing facts is a relatively low-level of learning and there is little real thinking going on. Yet this is primary activity in a workbook/ textbook education.  In a Charlotte Mason education children are always working towards higher levels of the thought, yet at the same time are making regular use of memory.

One helpful way to understand differing types and levels of thinking is to look at Bloom’s Taxonomy of Thought. Benjamin Bloom and several colleagues studied learning and identified six types of thought that go from the simplest to the most complex. The categories can be thought of as degrees of difficulties. That is, the first one must be mastered before the next one can take place: Here the six levels with action verbs to describe them:

  1. Knowledge—name, list, define, copy
  2. Comprehension—associate, compare, distinguish, extend
  3. Application—apply, classify, change, illustrate, solve, demonstrate, calculate
  4. Analysis—analyze, arrange, connect, divide, infer
  5. Synthesis—combine, compose, generalize, modify, invent, create, integrate
  6. Evaluation—assess, decide, discriminate, measure, rank, conclude, judge

Levels 1 to 3 are called “lower-level thinking” and Levels 4 to 6 are called “higher-level thinking”. Because typical education must be able to measure results in quantitative terms, using standardized tests, the first three levels are used almost exclusively. A child earning an A or 100% at the first three levels has demonstrated that they can recall and use facts.

A child who can create an original work from the facts or assess the truth or worth of the facts is said to use “higher-level thinking skills”. Because it is difficult to quantitatively measure higher-level thinking skills, they are often ignored in the workbook/textbook method.

How can a homeschooling parent move their child from the lower three levels to the upper three of thinking? The most effective means is narration. Again, Charlotte Mason shows us the way.

Narration is retelling in one’s own words what has been read (either aloud or silently). It is a natural way to demonstrate and organize learning, and it uses all levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy.

 “Narrating is an art, like poetry-making or painting…it is there in every child’s mind, waiting to be discovered, and is not the process of disciplinary education.” (Home Education, p. 231)

Charlotte Mason’s idea of narration as a tool for self-education and assessment is far broader in intent than mere “parroting back” of information. Narration involves really attending to the reading and restating it in one’s own words. Children are capable of absorbing and recalling an enormous amount of information, as long as it is in context. This is the key to learning. Give a child great literature and the ideas he takes up will be great and, it follows, that the narration of these ideas will be of equal quality.

If you would like to read more that will give you insight into developing a philosophy of education for yourself, I recommend Susan Schaeffer Macaulay’s For the Children’s Sake and John Gatto’s  Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling.