We’ve spent the last two years homeschooling (or maybe unschooling) our oldest daughter. During that time, we’ve had a philosophy but not, strictly speaking, a curriculum. We’ve poked and prodded various resources (Common Core, Home Learning Year by Year), but I wanted to stay as far away from a traditional curriculum as possible. After all, what’s the point of schooling at home if you just do the same things you would be doing at school anyway?

Before we began teaching Abby at home, I outlined a few principles I believed should guide whatever methodology and material we chose:

  1. It is not necessary to have “class” every day. Every day, however, is an opportunity to learn.
  2. Encourage curiosity, problem-solving, and self-directed learning.
  3. Reading, writing, and math are the only essential subjects.
  4. Allow for creativity and non-traditional subjects: drawing, cooking, music, nature, programming, economics.
  5. Two hours per student per day is more than enough to cover all necessary subjects.
  6. iPad and iPhone apps can be used to provide additional practice.
  7. The Khan Academy app and website can be used for math practice. Videos can be watched on the app, the computer, or the TV.
  8. Notes should be taken each day tracking the student’s progress.

In summary, schooling ought to emphasize the acquisition of fundamental tools and the joy of learning. While it may sometimes be difficult, it should not be onerous. Resources are plentiful and often cheap or free. Tracking progress allows the student and the instructor to be confident their time has been well spent.

This list has served us well. I might make a few modifications, but, generally speaking, the experience of teaching kindergarten and first grade concepts has only reinforced my belief that teaching a child does not require a advanced education or training.

Abby is at grade-level (at least) in reading, writing, and arithmetic. She’s been able to spend her time as she sees fit. We discuss anything and everything. We pull in resources on an as-needed basis. We’ve played games, borrowed books from the library, watched documentaries and YouTube videos on dozens of subjects (we love The Kid Should See This), dug into educational iPad apps (my favorite iPad apps and other resources for homeschoolers), watched more PBS Kids content than you would believe possible, read books together, built things, drew things, cooked things, observed things, and generally blurred the line as much as possible between parenting and teaching.

Truthfully, this approach has not been entirely by design. Having younger children around makes the traditional stationary, repetitive classroom experience a bit difficult to pull off. Combine that with my skepticism around finding a perfect curriculum and you get a family closer to unschooling than homeschooling. While this free-form approach appeals to me, I have to confess that a) I’m not our children’s primary educator and b) it does leave a little something to be desired in terms of rigor. Unless I happened across the perfect curriculum, however, I wasn’t just going to abandon my ideas about what at-home education should look like.

And then I saw The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home. Oh, what’s that? I think it might just be the perfect curriculum.

The Wise/Bauer homeschooling approach (the book is co-written by Susan and her mom, Jessie) introduces several components that were not on my list but immmediately appealed to me and confirmed many deep-seated convictions. First, schooling is broken up into three distinct stages—Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric—each encompassing four years. Each stage logically builds on the previous stage and provides a structure to guide the entire schooling experience. Students acquire fundamentals in the grammar stage, begin to apply them in the logic stage, and bring them to fruition in the rhetoric stage. These stages were not invented by the authors. They correspond to a classical understanding of education used for thousands of years.

The second appealing aspect of The Well-Trained Mind is the cohesion, harmony, and reinforcement of all subjects. Each stage covers the same material but in greater depth. Each year within a stage corresponds to a specific period of history: ancient history, medieval history, renaissance history, and modern history. Reading, writing, history, science, and art each revolve around these historical periods. First grade, for example, focuses on the years 5000 B.C. through 400 A.D. Second grade moves on to the A.D. 400–1600 period. When the student reaches the fifth grade level, the sequence resets to ancient history but jumps a degree of difficulty. Biology, chemistry, physics, reading, math, etc. all move beyond basic understanding to a more intermediate stage, but the trip through time remains the same, allowing for familiarity and excitement as students get to revisit previously studied material.

The third and clinching concept is Wise and Bauer’s emphasis on original sources and an ecclectic, comprehensive reading list. Rather than prescribe a pedestrian string of textbooks, Wise and Bauer recommend compelling books full of experiments, narrative, and substance. They consistently exhort parents to expect the most from their children rather than the least, to provide material that is above grade level, but above all to remain flexible, patient, and to nurture children’s fundamental appetite to discover and make sense of the world around them.

The Well-Trained Mind is a fantastic, possibly indispensable resource for anyone considering or actively homeschooling children. It provides a complete educational plan built on classical principles while preserving and celebrating the fundamental ideals of homeschooling: freedom, flexibility, and love of learning.