You’ve probably never thought about homeschooling your kids, have you? But here you are, off work with kids off school for who knows how long. You need to do something to keep them learning while the world waits out a pandemic, while also maintaining your own sanity. This article will show you how I spend an hour or less a day as a sole home schooling parent and how well this approach prepares my kids for adult life. It’s simple and highly effective, even if you’ve never thought your life would come to this. You’ll be surprised how well this unconventional approach to homeschooling works. It’s something you can apply to your real life right now.
I know all this is true because I’ve been refining my homeschooling teaching methods for 11 years. If nothing else, COVID-19 shows us just how fast our world can change, and how we need to be prepared to change with it. And if you have school-age kids (or school-age grandkids somewhere) that won’t be in school for the foreseeable future, you’ve got a new reality to deal with every day. Besides the fact that your kids are probably more troublesome to have around the house because they’re currently just loafing, the lack of a traditional learning environment means they’re not learning what they should, either.
Even before COVID-19, home schooling has been increasing in popularity across North America for years. I’ve done my share of homeschooling over the years, but not in the way you might imagine. My approach is quite different than most homeschooling parents. It has yielded excellent results (I’ll tell you about these later) and it’s something that you can do today in your own home even if you’ve never even thought about a homeschool curriculum before. So here’s how I discovered an unconventional and highly effective approach to homeschooling and why you need to know about this now.
An Easier, Better Way to Homeschool Your Children
It was 1995 when it came time for our oldest child, Robert, to go to public school, and at the time I really wanted to teach him at home. My thinking was simple. Both my wife, Mary, and I are home all day every day, and working together I was sure we could teach Robert in ways that were academically, morally and socially superior to what the public school experience could deliver. Trouble was, Mary didn’t feel up to the job of home schooling and I didn’t think I could fit the role of a homeschooling dad into my work day while also earning all the money to support our family. So Robert ended up going to public school for his whole career, and so did his younger sister, Katherine.
As the years went by, I could see a steady decline in the level of morality and behavior in the classroom. Academic expectations were in steep decline, too. Every long-term teacher I speak with tells me the same thing: kids today are nothing like the kids they taught 30 years ago. Many come to school as only semi-civilized creatures, the unruly products of failed parenting and way too much screen time. This degeneration is disrupting classrooms everywhere in a way that is on the one hand hilarious and on the other hand tragic. But despite my concerns as a dad, I couldn’t figure out how to fit homeschooling into my work day, at least not the way I envisioned homeschooling at the time. If only I knew then what I know now. With you and your kids now on an extended Corona Vacation, what I learned can serve you very well these days.
Quite by accident one day I realized something huge. So many homeschooling parents manage their day the same way professional teachers do in public school classrooms, just on a smaller scale. The parent acts as the teacher, spoon feeding children information, leading them step-by-step through the learning process hand-in-hand. It’s labour intensive when your class size is only one or two pupils. My problem back then was that I didn’t have time to provide spoon fed education, and for years I’d never seen any alternative. Then it hit me. In a world where information is anything but scarce, is spoon feeding information really the best way for any child to learn these days? Perhaps one of the best lessons I could give my kids was the skill of how to teach themselves.
I decided to put this idea into practice in 2009, when my son Joseph was going into grade 7 and my son Jacob was heading into grade 5. They didn’t like the idea of homeschooling, but I explained that we’d try it for two years and see what happened. My plan was simple, it worked beautifully and it has paid off handsomely for them now that they’re both in university. I now use the same approach with our youngest daughter, Ellie, 12, studying at a grade 6 level.
How much better would kids learn to be capable adults if they not only learned, but they also learned to learn on their own? Eleven years experience has shown me the answer. Kids who learn to manage their own time and learn what they need to learn without direct adult assistance are much, much more capable as a result. Back when I was figuring how to be the sole homeschool parent while also earning a living for what peaked out to be a family of 7, I settled on an approach that you can use today for your kids. Here’s how it works:
The Super-Simple, Super-Effective Way to Homeschool
Step#1: Set meaningful daily academic expectations for your kids, but don’t teach.
So, how does this work? While I rarely teach anything, my role as a homeschooling parent is to tell my kids what they need to learn, then leave it to them to teach themselves and follow up on progress. Why do they need a spoon feeding teacher when world class teachers are available by the dozen on the internet, delivering free lessons on everything under the sun?
At first, when I began homeschooling Joe and Jake, I followed our provincial Ontario school curriculum to tel me what the boys should be learning from day to day. After several months of pouring over the curriculum documents and coming to know them well, I came to an unsettling conclusion. The people who write the curriculum where I live, in Ontario, Canada (and probably elsewhere), have no clue what young people really need to know. The curriculum does cover a few important basics, but by-and-large it misses the academic boat almost entirely as far as teaching useful essentials goes. I now know why so many of the young adults I work with professionally these days can’t string a sentence together, they can’t do math, and they can’t communicate a single thought without using the word”like” unnecessarily at least several times in each sentence. Even so-called journalism graduates are often surprisingly poor writers – much worse than the young journalists and editors that I worked with 30 years ago. Solid reading, writing and math skills take a back seat to too many silly, pointless wastes of time in classrooms everywhere these days. Look up the curriculum documents for your school district and you’ll probably see what I mean, but brace yourself. The amount of morally, medically and politically questionable material embedded right into the curriculum would shock most parents if they knew it was there. Ignorance is not bliss when it comes to the state of public school classrooms. This is not the fault of teachers so much as it is the fault of school boards for creating weak and irrelevant curricula, and those parents who fail to raise respectful children with a half-decent attention span and logical thinking skills.
Over the years I’ve asked teachers how they deal with the fluffy language and wishy-washy concepts of curriculum documents. “What are the curriculum writers even trying to say”, I asked one veteran high school teacher of 25 years. “Well, let me fill you in on a secret”, she explained. “We teachers don’t really understand the curriculum either. All curricula is written by people who used to be teachers but probably didn’t like the work. That’s why they moved to bureaucracy. We do our best to figure out what the curriculum writers want us to teach, but in the end, we just teach what we feel we should.”
So how does all this “setting expectations” thing work in day-to-day homeschooling life at our place? Operating on the assumption that first and foremost children need to know how to read well, write well, do math well and think clearly, I made up my own curriculum. On a day-to-day level, every morning I update a Google Doc for Ellie’s school work that day. She works at a different computer than I do, but we can both log into her Google Doc in real time as needed. Working in the cloud like this also means we can still work together on the rare occasion when she travels away from home or I do. A typical daily home schooling assignment for Ellie might look something like this (grade 6):
Typical Daily Homeschooling Assignment
1. Do the next lesson in Saxon math – 30 questions.
2. Look up 8 words by hand in a physical dictionary, then write the definitions by hand in a notebook.
3. Write a 500 word essay on the hydrological cycle and how it works.
4. Research the life of Ella Fitzgerald and tell me when she was born, what she’s famous for, when she died and what you as a young singer might learn from her life.
4. Singing practice. (Ellie’s main talent is singing. She has won awards and you can see her in action on her website: elliemaxwellmusic.com
5. Walk outdoors for a mile.
6. House chores and kitchen cleanup
A few words of explanation of this sample daily assignment . . . Saxon Math is the only curriculum material I buy. Saxon is widely recognized as the most rigorous math curriculum in the world, and boy does it work. Even a thoroughly non-math person like Ellie has learned to multiply and divide fractions, she knows multiplication tables to 12 by heart, she can add, subtract, multiply and divide decimals. In fact, for the most part, she teaches herself these concepts based on the Saxon Math textbook and online videos. It has been months since I had to teach Ellie anything math-wise. Saxon is an amazing curriculum written by people who really want kids to know math properly.
None of this costs very much, either. Everything other than Saxon Math we learn from books I already own, but more often simply from free resources online. Like I said before, the world as awash in high-quality information and high quality teachers willing to share their expertise for free. These days public schools are still based very much on concepts that go back to the earliest days of public education several hundred years ago. Back then teachers were probably the only people in town who could read, and the books in the school were the only source of academic information for hundreds of miles. Fast-forward to today and teachers have no special academic skills beyond the rest of us, and schools themselves have no particular monopoly on knowledge. So if we were designing the most effective school system from scratch today, without all the baggage of tradition and teachers unions, would we really required students to travel to a building, sit in rows, received information handed to them verbally or on some board at the front of the room? Sure, digital things have entered the classroom, but they’re all still framed in a situation that isn’t a lot different from the days of Little House on the Prairie. So as far as I can tell, the short answer is “no”. We’d certainly never design schools the way we do now if we didn’t have all the baggage of the past.
How Long Does This Homeschooling Take?
It takes me 15 to 20 minutes to write a daily assignment, then I turn it over to Ellie. It’s her responsibility to teach herself anything she doesn’t know to complete every item assigned for the day. She has her math text book to look up concepts, she can go online to find more information and very occasionally (once a month, perhaps), she’ll have to resort to asking me to explain something. I’m happy to help, but I don’t have to often.
At the end of the day we mark the 30 math questions she’s done, we mark and correct the essay she wrote, I examine her hand-written work and Ellie explains to me the things she has learned online based on her own interests and research. My total time taken as a home schooling “teacher” is about an hour a day at the most. My role is to make sure my kids do all their work and understand their mistakes, but not to spoon feed them knowledge in the first place. In a world awash with knowledge, the only thing that stops any kid from teaching themselves is the fact that they’ve never done it before. As it turned out, the academic results we’re achieving are even better than I’d hoped for.
The first thing I noticed about Joe and Jake when they started home schooling back in 2009 was that neither could write properly. Not even close. They were both at the top of their classes in all subjects, yet neither of them knew how to use capitals, commas, periods and paragraphs. Each of their “sentences” had at least two spelling errors. Hand writing was almost illegible all the time. Math skills were extremely weak, too. Neither boy knew their multiplication tables by heart (a milestone that everyone in my school had mastered by the end of grade 3, no matter how slow of a learner the student was). More importantly, neither boy understood how to manage their time independently at all.
One of the first home schooling approaches I put into practice back in 2009 had to do with time and productivity. I didn’t care how fast or slow the boys worked, as long as they got their day’s work done before sun down. At first, if the boys wasted time, it might take them from 8am to 6pm to finish their day’s work. But once they realized that working efficiently got them away from their desks and down to the lake fishing for the afternoon or riding their dirt bikes, they could complete their day’s work by 11am, having done it well, too. It’s amazing what happens when a child feels the rewards of personal productivity. That’s a valuable lesson in itself.
By the end of our two years home schooling at an elementary level, things had improved a lot. Both Joe and Jake could write better than most adults that I know, they could teach themselves just about anything, and they were covering chemistry and history and geography at a high school level even though they were both at elementary school grade levels. Let me show you how all this has worked out over the years . . .
Joseph (22 years old now) went on to teach himself all through homeschooling high school (no help from me nor teachers) and earned an SAT score high enough to win an academic scholarship at the University of Tennessee (UT) as a foreign student. Joseph is not a genius and he does not enjoy school work. He’s just a regular guy operating differently than most people his age. Joe’s big thing was to use his free afternoons to teach himself to throw shot put and discus on some concrete pads we poured together in our pasture as part of his customized home schooling program. Home schooling gave Joe the time necessary to train athletically for hours as part of his work day, and this let him go on to set Canadian national records in shot put and discus. He also earned himself an additional academic scholarship to UT based on his SAT score. He’s pulling down great marks in the business program right now and as of this writing he is in the top 10 shot put throwers in all of US collegiate sports.
Interesting story: After two years of home schooling, Joe decided that he want to go to high school in grade 9. “You probably won’t do as well athletically, Joe”, I warned him. “You won’t have the same amount of training time.” Come September, Joe went to high school grade 9 as he wanted. By January of that same year he decided to come back and homeschool for the rest of his high school time, precisely because his athletic progress had stagnated while attending high school. Eventually, after a few years of high school homeschooling of the sort we’d been doing, we decided to sign Joseph up for correspondence high school courses, rather than me writing daily assignments. This meant Joe was 100% on his own, and I no longer had teaching responsibilities at all with him. These correspondence courses would only be sent to Joe if he was connected with a high school in some way, even if it was only on paper. That’s why his university page at UT lists Manitoulin Secondary School as Joe’s high school even though he only attended for 4 months in grade 9. You can see his page at the University of Tennessee website here.
Jacob (now 20 years old) has grown into an accomplished horseman and is on his way to becoming a veterinarian at the best university for this in Canada. He’s also maintaining a 90%+ average in his science courses, he holds down a paying job at an agricultural research facility and he can change tires and oil on the car he takes care of on his own while he’s away from home for school. Jacob did opt to go to conventional high school because I didn’t want to be draconian about the whole thing. I can see areas where Jacob could have been taught better at home, but he has no regrets about his choice.
Ellie (the only one I’m homeschooling right now) is quite a different person than the boys and this shows up in her very different learning style. But despite the differences in personality and interests, it’s amazing how well she’s learning what matters, plus learning to teach herself and develop her personal talents. One of the things I do as a dad is to watch my kids to discover their personal talents and interests, then do everything I can to create an environment within which those talents can develop. Ellie’s special talent is singing. She has won a number of singing competitions – a thing that would be much more difficult to do without the time and flexibility that home schooling offers. You can learn about Ellie and her singing career right here on her personal website (built by her oldest brother, Robert).
None of this is to brag. My kids are not perfect and neither am I. By point here is to show you how effectively the self-directed approach to education can work. I believe the majority of young people in the world could achieve similar results if they were presented with expectations and situations for learning that were entirely different than what’s common in public schools today. Will this kind of home schooling work for every family? No, but then again there’s nothing in the world that works for everyone. Not even public school “works” for all students. That said, I’m sure many more young people would develop more fully if they were taught to teach themselves as well as taught specific subjects. Your current Corona Vacation is a great time to try.
Homeschooling has the power to help your kids develop better and enjoy life more. The crazy thing is, for the time being, it’s homeschooling or no schooling for hundreds of millions of children around the world. If you’re anything like me, you might just find that home schooling during the COVID-19 event is something you’ll want to continue when the issue has passed. And even if you don’t, it’s still worthwhile discovering that you do have what it takes to teach your own kids well. Or rather, they have what it takes to teach themselves. None of this is rocket science.
Want to learn more? Check out the FAQs below.
Frequently Asked Homeschooling Questions:
My Kids Won’t Do the Work
Q: My kids would never sit still and teach themselves like yours do. They’re just not that obedient and focussed. Is it possible that self-taught home schooling won’t work for us?
A: The inability of a child to manage their own time is normal at first. Any child educated in a public school environment will have difficulties like these initially because they have no experience teaching themselves nor have they ever functioned without an authority figure constantly guiding them along. It took several months before my boys learned the value of completing their work on their own in an efficient way. Ellie has gotten to the point where I can leave her alone all day and she’ll finish all her work to a high standard without any prompting. It wasn’t always like this, though!
What About University?
Q: Doesn’t home schooling mean you can’t get into university? You need an official diploma to get in, right?
A: I worried about this too, but couldn’t find a definitive answer to what universities wanted from home schooled kids. In the end, I discovered something quite refreshing. None of the top US universities we visited for Joseph cared two hoots about high school marks or a high school diploma. In the end, I made up a high school diploma for Joseph myself and printed it out. The university accepted the marks I awarded him as a homeschooling parent and my homemade diploma. Why?
The reason for this seemingly lax approach is because none of the significant universities we talked with put much stock in high school marks because they know that different high schools award marks very differently from one to the other. A 90% average in one high school, for instance, might only be a 75% in another school. This is where the SAT test comes in. Administered around the world, if your homeschooled child can do well on the SAT, everything else falls into place.
What About Socialization?
Q: I don’t want my kids to become introverted social misfits because they’re not going to school. Kids need other kids.
A: Well, first off, school is simply not an option for your kids right now. It might not be an option for anyone any time soon, either. It’s entirely possible that school won’t even be back in session by September 2020. We simply don’t know, but a quick resolution to COVID-19 doesn’t seem to be in the cards. That said, gone are the days when the kind of organic socialization that happens in schoolyards is a good thing on balance. One reason is the internet. Every schoolyard has children of all ages with cell phones, no moral training, and full video access to the worst that the world has to offer. This leads to some interesting “experiences” most parents don’t want their kids to have. A true story that you probably don’t want to read: A friend of mine, a freelance editor, lives in an upscale neighbourhood in the suburbs of Toronto, Canada and his grade one daughter came home from school one day with news:
“Daddy, I saw a man kissing another man’s penis today,”, the little girl explained with a smile. My friend almost fell off his chair, but remained calm.
“What do you mean honey?” he asked, trying to smile.
“Marsha had her phone at school today” the little girl explained, “and at recess we watched a video where a man was kissing another man’s penis.”
Do you think that grade one girls being exposed to gay pornography in the schoolyard at recess like this is a rare thing? Many of my friends are teachers and they have similar stories to tell. Do kids need to socialize? Of course they do, but you and your kids are probably getting way more than you bargained for with what passes for undirected “socialization” at public school these days. When one of my own kids was attending school in grade one, she saw two grade 8 boys copulating like dogs in the aisle of the school bus one morning. The boys were scolded by the principle, but the toothpaste was already out of the tube. Ellie cannot unsee what she has seen. These two copulating clowns went on to do other morally degenerate things together in plain view at public school, things that no reasonable parent would want their children to see.