A friend in NJ has decided to start homeschooling her children this fall (yay!) and emailed me with a plethora of questions. It was such a joy to answer those questions for her! I remember when I started out, how foreign it all seemed and how unsure I was . . . to now have the experience to help others feels so good.
One of her questions was, “How do you know what you should be teaching?” It's kind of a funny question, really. I mean, we all went through school, right? We all know what we were taught, right? We all know what we adults know that our kids don't know, right? It's understandable that we'd be concerned with how to teach something, but it seems like the what should be obvious to us. But honestly, I am asked this question all the time.
I think most people that ask this are concerned with making sure kids are “on grade level”. Everyone learns about birds in second grade, so I need to make sure I teach them about birds in second grade. Everyone learns their multiplication tables in third grade, so I need to teach multiplication in third grade. And so on and so forth.
But the whole concept of being “on grade level” is silly. Educational research is quite clear: kids pick up different skills at different ages. Some kids learn to read at age 3 or 4; for some, reading never clicks until age 10 or 11. And all of those kids are normal. No learning disabilities involved here – just natural differences. Those kids who start reading later usually catch up to the others within a year or so and can be quite successful in their education . . . as long as they haven't been made to feel stupid by that point and given up on learning altogether.
This is one of the biggest problems with schooling as we know it: it requires teaching kids in large groups and therefore requires that everyone learn the same thing at the same time in the same way. And that's not a criticism of teachers! MANY teachers make valiant efforts to individualize the learning that happens in their classrooms. It's just too hard to do.
But back to the original question: "How do you know what you should be teaching?" There were two resources I used a lot. The Well-Trained Mind by Susan Wise Bauer is a huge tome about doing classical education at home, and if you followed her advice down to the word, you would make you and your children insane. But it is a great overview of what kind of learning tends to happen at each developmental stage (grammar, logic, and rhetoric), and if you will take the time to pay attention to what stage your child is actually in, whatever their age, it can be very helpful. It was invaluable to me.
There's also a series of books by Kathryn Stout called Design-A-Study. As I recall, she examined curriculums used around the country in various subject areas and boiled down their "scope and sequences" to these master lists. So, for example, Science Scope lists every topic taught around the country in science and divides it up into what is generally covered in elementary, middle school, etc. Again, invaluable. I could flip through that book and see "Magnetism" . . . oh, we haven't ever talked about magnetism. That'll be our next science unit -- and here are the specific details about magnetism that I should try to cover with my youngest and a few deeper ones for the eldest.
In general, I would take these books over the summer, skim them again for the umpteenth time, and ask myself, What is the next thing in this subject that my kid is ready for? That's it. What's the next thing. Considering the big picture, which these books lay out, what piece of the puzzle does my kid need to have now to move forward.
Those who ask me this question seem so stressed about the idea. Are you kidding? I LOVE this part of homeschooling! I LOVE studying my kids this closely. I LOVE watching them progress. I LOVE figuring out how God made my particular child and nurturing that. I'm so excited for my friend to experience this, too!