Classical Education and Unschooling

When we made the decision to start homeschooling our kids five years ago, the first thing friends encouraged us to figure out was what our homeschooling style would be. We learned about Classical education, Charlotte Mason, Unit Studies, Curriculum based, Unschooling, Online, Eclectic, and Montessori styles to name a few. It was a bit overwhelming. I was drawn to an aspect of each one of these.

But one of the most helpful pieces of advice that I received was to understand that there would be gaps in our kids’ education. We couldn’t possibly teach them the breadth and width of all knowledge. There is too much information out there and as it is constantly changing, we needed to let go of the expectation that we could teach them all the things.

This realization was freeing for me and it solidified my deepest held belief about education. I needed to teach my kids how to learn for themselves and help them to discover that learning is a life long endeavor, one in which they can find great delight. Yes, I needed to teach them a wide range of subjects, but more importantly, I needed to instill in them a desire to pursue knowledge and education for themselves.

In our first year of homeschooling, I discovered that I am an eclectic homeschool teacher, meaning that I like taking aspects of all different styles and combining them to form a cohesive whole. But we learned a lot in that first year about how things that were exciting for me as the teacher did not necessarily work for my four unique learners. They enjoyed family activities to a point, but it became obvious pretty quickly that they needed their peers to spur them on. We knew that we would need to join together with other homeschool families.

Friends in our church were involved in a Classical Cooperative and as I was drawn to many aspects of classical education, we began to explore the possibility of joining the co-op. I was cautious, because I loved the flexibility of developing our own schedule and choosing the curriculums that were appealing to me and to my kids. I didn’t want to have our lives dictated by someone else’s schedule again. (This was one of the main reasons why we decided to homeschool in the first place. I didn’t want to take a step backwards!)

We dipped our toes in the waters of co-op that first year. It helped that the co-op had moved locations and was now meeting in our church building. The kids took a few classes and I worked with the pre-school. Since the co-op only meets one day a week and then students complete assignments throughout the rest of the week, it was a smooth transition for us. The kids were getting the class structure they needed and the friendships they craved. The sciences, my least favorite subject, were taken off of my plate and my kids were being instructed by parents who were far more equipped to teach them. I was still able to have the creative flexibility I needed and I was able to link arms with other like minded homeschooling parents.

Over time, I began to see the benefits of a classical education. I watched my kids come alive as they studied logic or learned a concept in history and then read about it in one of their “Great Books”, their literature classes which have consistently been their favorite classes in the four years that we have been a part of co-op. My youngest will memorize the names of the planets in her Rote Memory class and then my third born will help her to imagine the rings around planets, the moons, the asteroid belt and the vastness of space as he studies astronomy. My teenagers have an educational foundation that is solid. They are able to clearly identify what they believe and why they believe it, but they are simultaneously being challenged to be respectful and humble.

I love sitting back and watching all of this unfold. I can now say that I love classical education and the way it has affected my children’s growth and knowledge. But there is an aspect of unschooling that also creeps into our homeschooling and I believe it always will. Unschooling is an informal model of education that allows the student to choose the primary focus of learning based on activities of interest. To many, this sounds frivolous and unwise. How can a child know what they want to learn? And aren’t parents abdicating their role of authority by allowing this?

I understand these questions and I don’t think that a completely unschooled model of education will ultimately benefit a student (they need structure, they need to learn things they don’t want to learn, they need to submit to authority), BUT if our goal as educators is to create life-long learners, we need to give students an opportunity to explore their own interests. And I would submit that we shouldn’t just give them opportunities, we should unabashedly encourage their intellectual and creative pursuits!

We have structures and schedules in place, but we also allow time to explore interests. If it’s a beautiful day, we take the time to explore new places. When there isn’t a global pandemic, we seek out hands on learning environments. We pursue singing and songwriting, drone photography and adventure biking, middle of the day SpaceX launches and computer languages, drawing and reading in trees.

To give you an idea of what this looks like- yesterday in history, we learned about the Pharos lighthouse, one of the seven ancient wonders of the world. And then we went on Google Earth to look at modern day Alexandria, Egypt. We have a history curriculum that I am working through with my youngest two (ages 12 and 7), so we have a structure in place. But unschooling creeps in, because they are free to learn in the way that excites and inspires them. The 12 year old builds with KEVA blocks while I share information. The 7 year old draws pictures. They will also take age appropriate notes in their notebooks.

This is how we homeschool and I love it! There is no “one size fits all” way of doing homeschooling, but when you find the way that works well for your family, it is an amazing adventure.

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