A Comparison of Different Methods and Approaches to Homeschooling

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In Conjunction with The Trivium Matrix

We will compare some of the different methods and approaches to Homeschooling with which many of us are already familiar. Before doing so, let us review the Trivium Model of Child Development. Children pass through several developmental stages or levels of learning.

So as to avoid confusing the three formal subjects of the Classical Trivium — traditionally called Grammar, Dialectic or Logic, and Rhetoric — from their practical application by analogy, we prefer to refer to the different levels of learning as Knowledge, Understanding, and Wisdom. We hope this convention of terminology will make our discussion more understandable.

Before age ten, children are in the early Knowledge (early Grammar) Level. They are largely learning the language, building their vocabulary, and filling up their basic understanding of the world. These children need more training than they need teaching. They should be trained in self-discipline and filled with useful information. This lays a proper foundation for more formal studies later.

At about age ten, the light bulb goes on, and these youngsters enter the later Knowledge (later Grammar) Level. They develop the capacity for more abstract thinking. They can handle abstract mathematical concepts. They can discern the difference between a noun and a verb. From ages ten through twelve their knowledge begins to grow on the abstract level, but their reasoning and their creative communication skills are not very highly developed yet.

Youths from ages thirteen through fifteen are in the Understanding (Logic) Level. They begin to develop their reasoning skills. They can handle Algebra and Geometry. They should be developing the critical apparatus for thinking. They should be more inquisitive and analytical. Their minds should be trained to correctly reason things out — to logically evaluate presuppositions and conclusions.

Older youths from ages sixteen through eighteen are in the Wisdom (Rhetoric) Level. They begin to develop their skills in communication and application. They want to creatively and effectively express what things they have learned and to put these things into practice.

These ages are only approximate, and your child may be behind or ahead of the model. At the end of this article is a chart of the Trivium Matrix, which lays out the Trivium Model for Child Development and the different methods and approaches to Homeschooling.

1. The Scope and Sequence Method

Most of us who were taught in a graded classroom are familiar with the Scope and Sequence Method. The first assumption of this method is that there is an encyclopedia of information which every child must learn. The second assumption is that we can divide this encyclopedia down into efficient little increments according to twelve grade levels and 180 daily installments. The third assumption is that every child should be able to regularly digest these installments with other children whose age falls within nine months of their own. So, like an automobile assembly plant, as each child goes down the educational conveyor belt, he has various parts attached along the way, and he comes out of the academic assembly plant a completed product at twelfth grade. This is the factory model of education. It neglects a number of things, such as training in proper behavior and moral character. As long as families were supplying the behavioral and moral training, the factory model was still productive. But as more and more products of this system became parents, the family began to break down and therefore supplied less and less of the proper behavior and moral character. Hence the assembly line has begun to turn out products which do not run properly. The factory itself will never be able to supply the necessary behavioral and moral training . It can never replace the family.

There is nothing wrong with the notion that there are certain things each child should learn (the scope), and that there are different levels of learning (the sequence). [Notice, we are not saying we agree with everyone’s notion of what that scope and sequence for each child should be!] But we cannot squeeze every child into the same mold. All other things being equal (and they never are), the program must be adapted to the child, not the child to the program.

Textbook publishers (A Beka, Bob Jones, Rod and Staff, etc.) use the Scope and Sequence Method. These textbook materials were originally written for use in a formal graded classroom. Some of the correspondence schools (Christian Liberty, Seaton, Calvert) assemble textbooks from various sources. The homeschooler will have to adapt his method of teaching to work with the grade-level package with its teacher’s manuals and tests, etc. a different form of the Scope and Sequence Method is the Worktext. (Alpha Omega, Christian Light, World of Tomorrow, etc.) The student’s lessons and tests are not located in separate teaching materials, but they are incorporated into the student’s text. (The teacher still has the answer key.) The text is broken into small units which must be mastered. Because the student can do the work largely on his own, the worktext reduces the need for teacher supervision. A specialized form of the Worktext is the Programmed-Interactive text (Artes Latinae, Homeschool Greek), which takes the student step-by-step through the normal learning process (knowledge of facts, understanding of how the information fits together, wisdom in how to use the information), while continually confirming or correcting the student’s response. The Programmed-Interactive method is primarily used with languages.

The Applied Trivium gives us a general “scope and sequence” of Knowledge, Understanding and Wisdom. For each subject, the facts (knowledge) must first be mastered, then the theory (understanding), and finally the practice (wisdom). Also, each child passes through an early Knowledge Level of development and training (before age ten), an later Knowledge Level (ten through twelve), an Understanding Level (thirteen through fifteen), a Wisdom Level (sixteen through eighteen), and a final level where the conscience is fully developed (nineteen through twenty-one) (ages are approximate). Anyone teaching from a Trivium Approach will of course be using some textbooks and workbooks. He will, however, edit and rearrange materials to fit them into the developmental levels of the Trivium. Scope and Sequence materials are particularly useful for the study of particular subjects.

2. The Habitual and Environmental Methods

The Habitual Method (Charlotte Mason) of teaching seeks to instill habits of self-discipline in children through daily routine, concentration, truthfulness, self-control, cooperation and unselfishness. Children should be exposed to the best sources of knowledge, and be required to narrate the material back in order to develop attention, concentration and understanding. This method focuses on the early and the later Grammar Levels through age twelve.

The Environmental Method (John Holt) seeks to provide an unstructured and unguided environment of books and resources. Parents 1) provide a model of interest in learning, 2) involve their children in their own adult experiences, 3) surround them with a rich environment of resources, 4) make themselves available to answer questions and suggest things to help the children to explore their own interests.

The Scriptures teach “a child left to himself bringeth his mother to shame.” (Proverbs 29:15) a child must be trained in self-control and self-discipline, and he must have some tools with which to explore. He also needs some academic discipline in order to be able to manipulate these resources to the best advantage. However, once you have instilled such disciplines in your child, then providing an open environment rich with resources may be the best thing you could do for him. This approach best fits the later wisdom or rhetoric period.

3. The Thematic and Interest-Directed Unit Study Approach

Studying a particular topic or theme — examining it from the perspectives of science, art, mathematics, language and literature — this is called a unit study. All subjects are blended together around a common theme. This has been called the Thematic Directed unit study. There are unit studies created around personal character (Konos, Advanced Training Institute), scientific interests (Alta Vista), and history (Weaver). Of course the parent can construct his own unit studies. This approach works well in the early and later Knowledge Level, when the child is soaking up factual information. The mind tends to retain information more accurately and comprehensively when it is not just a collection of isolated facts, but is part of an interrelated whole.

A specialized form of the Unit Study is the Interest Directed Approach (Greg Harris). All subjects are employed in pursuing a particular interest. If a child has an interest in guns, then design studies in the history of guns, the physics and chemistry of guns, the mathematics of guns, the language and literature of guns, the laws regarding guns, etc. This approach will work well in the later Wisdom Level, when one harnesses one’s knowledge and understanding to pursue a particular application.

4. The Classical and Principle Approaches

The Classical Approach encompasses the three formal subjects of the Trivium: Grammar (Latin and Greek), Logic (informal fallacies and formal symbolic logic), and Rhetoric (composition, oratory and debate). These are the three formal tools which students then use to teach themselves. a revived interest in the Trivium is often attributed to the reprinting of Dorothy Sayers’ essay entitled “The Lost Tools of Learning” (reprinted in the June/July 1985 issue of The Teaching Home).

The Principle Approach is represented by the Foundation for American Christian Education, the American Christian History Institute, the Pilgrim Institute, the Mayflower Institute and others. In the Principle Approach a student researches a subject such as history, or government, or literature, focusing upon God’s government in the world. He discovers:

  1. the Providence of God in history
  2. the Principles of self-government that protect liberty
  3. the Persons who preserve, guide, regulate or direct in those areas of life covered by this subject.

This method utilizes what they call the four R’s:

  1. Researching — to identify God’s principles and purposes with regard to a particular subject.
  2. Reasoning — from these truths to determine the significance and importance of the subject in God’s government.
  3. Relating — applying these principles to each student’s character.
  4. Recording — writing individual applications of biblical principles to life.

This can all be understood as an application of the natural Trivium, focusing upon God’s government in the world:

  1. Researching is recognizing the elemental facts — the knowledge or grammar — of God’s Providence.
  2. Reasoning is looking for the theory — the understanding or logic — of self-government.
  3. Relating and Recording is the practical application — the wisdom or rhetoric — of the responsible use and extension of God’s government to all of life.

The Formal Classical Trivium is introduced at different levels — formal grammar at about age 10, formal logic at about age 13, formal rhetoric at about age 16. The Principle Approach must also be adapted to the different levels of the child’s developmental ability.

5. The Earlier versus Later Formal-Academics Debate

There are some who believe we should introduce every child to formal-academic classroom-structured instruction from as early an age as possible, certainly by four years of age. They believe time is wasted if we wait. The early years are academically very important.

Others believe we should delay formal-academic classroom-structured instruction until eight to ten years of age.

Research indicates that if we start formal-academics too early it causes developmental problems. Stress is placed on the child’s systems which are not yet fully developed, such as vision, hearing, nerves and coordination. Early years are better spent in reading to children, doing projects, learning household management chores, doing service to others, in order to train in proper behavior and building moral character. If we lay a good foundation of self-discipline and moral character, the academic instruction of later years will be more productive. The more we read to children, the larger their mind will be — larger vocabulary, larger store of categories of thought, and a greater love of learning.

In the early years, the brain is not yet formed to handle complex abstract thought. It is better adapted to receive lineal instruction. If it is strained to go beyond its development, it will lack proper comprehension, and it will store the information in less accessible places than if it is taught these same things when the brain has properly developed and is prepared to receive it.

Some persons have somehow speculated that because some do not advocate “early classroom-structured formal-academics,” that they therefore must recommend an indulgent, non-demanding, even negligent approach to schooling before age ten. Would anyone say that reading and narrating Charles Dickens, memorizing Greek and Hebrew Alphabets, memorizing and reciting passages of Biblical and Classical literature, and doing other such things before age ten fits into the category of indulgent or non-demanding? Definitely not! Yet these are all things done by those who take a later formal-academics approach. We agree wholeheartedly that early instruction is important. We disagree only with the notion that it is necessary to follow the modern methodology of early formal-academics. Instead, we advocate the Classical method of instruction which prevailed until the twentieth century, which emphasized informal instruction until an age when formal instruction is developmentally comprehendible. Why attempt to stuff things into a child’s mind at a time or in a manner which renders the material less digestible? a century of continually multiplying “learning disabilities” and such things formerly unheard of — all arising soon after the experiment in early formal-academics began — should warrant at least some caution regarding this modern methodology. Again, we recommend something closer to the classical methodology of delayed formal-academics as a general rule, but there are many and varied exceptions, and the parent is most qualified to discern what is best for his own child.

Imagine these two extremes: On the one hand we have a strict, constrained, starched, rigid, formal military academy classroom setting. On the other hand we have the casual, loose, offhand, perfunctory come-as-you-are-and-do-as-you-please-and-go-as-you-may hippy-dippy setting. Now I tell you that you must choose between these two settings. What have I done? I have fallen prey to the Either/Or Fallacy. It is like saying, “if you are not a fascist, then you must be an anarchist.” I have left out numerous other possibilities. The early formal-academics people are not necessarily like the military academy, and the later formal-academics people are not necessarily like the hippy-dippy setting. We believe forcing young children into too rigid a structure is counter-productive, but too little structure is also counter-productive. We are not talking about rigid opposites, but different points on a scale, and the best point is different for different families and different children at different ages and in different circumstances.

Chris Davis of Elijah Company is fond of quoting W. B. Yeats, “Education is not the filling of a bucket, but the lighting of a fire.” The light bulb for academic learning does not go on until about age ten. Before this time we can waste much time teaching simple things, often to the exasperation of both pupil and parent. Instead of teaching a five year old to count by fives — and take five days to do it, we can wait until the child is age nine or ten and teach him in ten seconds — if he has not already figured it out on his own.

Pushing formal-academics at an early age may destroy more promise than it creates. Those who have been pushed in very early years often experience a jet lag of academic burnout in later years. Of course we should never discourage a child from learning, but neither should we over press academics to the point of strain or exasperation. We should stretch and challenge our child in order to strengthen him. When your child is ready to learn something, then teach him. When he has a question, then answer it. Encourage questions — well, to a point. Teach them the proper manners for asking questions.

Every child is different, and there are precocious little prodigies who take to academics and go farther and faster than others. But children still need more training than teaching in their early years. A bright young child who is undisciplined, ill-mannered and amoral can be a genuine grief, especially if he is also academically learned. Formal academic teaching is not the same thing as child training. What we most want to do with children during their early years is to train them to function in the Christian culture of our own home. The goal of the government schools is much the same — to socialize children to function in a government controlled collectivistic humanist culture. They train children to look to the government to care for them, provide for them, educate them, solve their problems for them. And they do a good job of training children for humanist culture. They have taught a whole generation to think that the solution to every problem is a new government program and never to consider whether a government program may have created or exaggerated the problem to begin with. The government is not seriously concerned about early academics, but only about early socialization. Modern Education has invented early education: Kindergarten, then Head Start, then Preschool, then Daycare. The newest fad is Educational Preparedness — for six month-olds! Their ultimate goal seems to be prenatal indoctrination of the fetus!

God invented the family to train up and enculturate the child with godly principles, values and goals. There is no legitimate substitute for the family. The early child training and development of the physical and mental faculties are preparation for more formal-academics. At about age ten, after the child has learned to read, and his vocabulary and categories of thought have been well-developed through informal academics, the formal subjects of the Trivium can easily and readily be taught, and academic progress is a joy to the child.

Each Method and Approach Has Its Place

Trivium Matrix
Early Development birth to age 9 Knowledge ages 10-12 Understanding ages 13-15 Wisdom ages 16-18 Maturing Conscience ages 19 & up
Principle Approach
Thematic Directed Unit Studies Interest Directed Unit Studies
Habitual Method Environmental Method
Traditional Textbook Method

As you can see, all of these methods and approaches are not mutually exclusive, but can be incorporated into appropriate places within the matrix of the Applied Trivium. The Trivium should be the matrix upon which we build our own curriculum according to each child’s style of learning and the constraints of our life as a family.

Our point is this: Teaching the Formal Trivium — Grammar, Logic and Rhetoric — could be considered a separate approach — the Classical Approach. But we must not confuse the Formal Trivium with the Applied Trivium. The Applied Trivium should be the framework or matrix upon which we build our whole system of education, simply because this is the way we learn — even if we never actually teach the Formal Trivium.


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