Pursuing a homeschooling curriculum, either in addition to conventional schooling or in its place, carries many benefits. It allows for an education that is precisely tailored for the student(s) in question and their family’s lifestyle and ethos, but also one which doesn’t hinge on any single curriculum or educational philosophy, rather subsuming the best components of each. In this article we outline the key considerations and possibilities when designing a bespoke homeschooling curriculum.
PRIORITIES & OBJECTIVES
There are many reasons a family may choose to homeschool their children: perhaps the family travel around the world or live in a remote location, perhaps the student is simply not sufficiently challenged at school or has special educational needs that are inadequately catered for, or perhaps the family are looking for alternative methods of education that a school cannot provide. These are amongst the most common enquiries for homeschooling we at Witherow Brooke encounter, but this is by no means an exhaustive list.
The context of the family and the educational background of the student are usually the first considerations that will inform the structure of the curriculum and the role of tuition in the student’s life. In some cases the student has previously attended a school but has struggled with one or other aspect of school life, social or academic. A bespoke curriculum of studies presents an opportunity to greatly ameliorate such problems. But the speed with which students learn in one-to-one tuition, especially with the help of an elite and appropriately selected tutor, means that normally such problems are eclipsed by the endless possibilities of a bespoke curriculum.
Next, it is essential to think about the family’s aspirations, which will influence the structure, ethos and subject selection of the curriculum. If eventually admissions to top-tier universities are a priority, adhering at least to a certain degree to established national curricula will be necessary to achieve the required qualifications for entry. If gaining skills for a future uncertain job market is the main objective, then the curriculum may be less subject-focussed and more project-focussed in order to gain abilities that aren’t directly derived from any syllabus such as entrepreneurship, self-learning and critical thinking. Even with very young children, aspirations can be thought of in broad terms, such as an education which prioritises practical skills, creativity, STEM subjects, literacy, The Arts, an awareness of the environment, self-sufficiency and so on.
For many families it is also desirable for the tutor to remain in contact with the teachers at their child’s former, or perhaps future, school. This is particularly relevant for homeschooling terms of 2 years or less where the child is expected to re-enter a traditional school environment and so needs to stay in-step with their peers. Typically homeschooled students, with dedicated one-to-one tuition will cover the same material in far less time, leaving the possibility to apportion part of their studies to a more bespoke curriculum tailored to the student’s own interests and development.
Finally, the lifestyle of the family will present possibilities and limitations for the curriculum that must be considered: for example, living on a remote island will limit the possibility of museum trips, but will provide incredible opportunities for field trips, learning about the environment and Astrology. If the family travel frequently around the world, this presents the possibility of gaining insight into other cultures and going on excursions to lectures, museums and galleries, which can be integrated into the curriculum to support specific subjects and goals.
It can be daunting to be faced with such a blank slate when designing a curriculum, but once the considerations mentioned above are taken into account, it can be easier to start thinking about specific subjects.
For students pre-specialisation, it is of course generally advisable to treat Maths, English and Science as essential. Beyond these core subjects, there are so many to choose from that inevitably it’s impossible to study everything, so choices must be made if one is to study a subject in a non-superficial way. In all cases it is worth considering what will be useful to the student now (both in terms of knowledge and skills), what will be useful to the student in the future, what the student will enjoy, and what will foster curiosity and a love of learning itself. Additionally, a bespoke curriculum presents an opportunity to study subjects that are not typically taught (or taught well) in school, such as coding, business and creative writing. It is this ability and flexibility to combine academic, creative, vocational and even life-skill classes such as how to understand taxes or develop culinary skills which many families find the greatest benefit in homeschooling their children.
In addition to essential subjects, agreed in consultation with the family, one quite successful way to approach subject selection is to give the student a brief introductory course in a number of subjects (say a term for each) to see which appeal the most. Another sensible way to structure subject selection is to require the student to choose one subject from each group, for example one additional Humanities subject, one creative subject, one practical subject and one language.
For older students approaching university it can also be beneficial to supplement their in-person homeschooling with online one-to-one lessons with subject specialist tutors in the areas which they may wish to go on to study in higher education. These types of short-form university level courses can be invaluable in giving a student the opportunity to learn a little about the practicalities of the subject at university level, inform their thinking about which courses to apply to, and subsequently bridge the gap for when they arrive.
A STRUCTURED & NURTURING ENVIRONMENT
Homeschooling does not by any means imply a lack of structure. A good homeschooling curriculum will be highly structured in three core ways:
A long-term structure to the curriculum that sets out milestones in accordance with the family’s aspirations and goals: for example to be on par with GCSE Maths content by the age of 14, to know which subjects the student wishes to specialise in by the age of 15, and to be fluent in 2 foreign languages by the age of 18.
A structure to the academic year that plans out what content and what modules of study will be undertaken with the student. It is wise to think about the timing, frequency and method of assessment here. Is continuous assessment appropriate, or end-of-term tests? Should there be a degree of self-assessment?
A weekly timetable. This is essential for the student to feel grounded in their studies and be able to plan their homework and non-scholastic activities.
All the same, one of the benefits of homeschooling is a degree of flexibility. The best homeschooling curricula are able to flexibly accommodate the family’s plans even if they or the family’s location change fairly frequently. Improvisation and spontaneity can be highly beneficial for both tutor and student and can still be incorporated in a structured way. For example, if a family travel to Tokyo for a month, the tutor will need to consider the time difference and jet lag to start with before adapting the timetable, but also the possibilities for field trips which could be incorporated into a day of the week designated for excursions, self-study or extra-curricular activities.
In a well-functioning homeschooling setup, the student will feel even more supported in their education than students at school, with both the tutor and parents invested in their progress and educational life. Usually the tutor will become much more than the student’s teacher, acting as a mentor and in some cases an extended part of the family. Of course, communication between the tutor and parents is essential for maintaining this support system and this also presents opportunities for the student to have their parents involved in their education in a way that is not possible for school students.
OPTIMISING FOR THE INDIVIDUAL STUDENT
Students differ in myriad ways and, and since the techniques of classroom teaching are conceived with no individual student in mind, they act more as a leveller between different students. Typically, those at the top and the bottom of the class suffer the most in classroom environments, but also students who are simply wired to learn in different ways.
Whilst teachers do a remarkable job of keeping lessons engaging and multi-sensory, many students would learn a lot more and a lot faster if the lessons were optimised for their learning preferences, for example, some students are especially engaged by the use of technology; others become distracted and focus better with pen, paper and books; for some students sitting still in itself is challenging and learn best through physical activity. Some students learn best through defining concepts with language; others learn best by working on practical examples; some students appreciate multiple different explanations to fully internalise a challenging concept. Some students are not satisfied until they heave learned completely how a theory works; others respond extremely well to sequential instructions and prepared methods; some students learn best through discourse and debate. Most school-age students don’t even know how best they are able to learn because they’ve never had the opportunity to explore it. Once a tutor establishes the best ways that a student learns, they will make very rapid progress in their studies.
Furthermore, school learning, with its historical roots in the industrial revolution and its ever-growing emphasis on exam results and league tables, is not and has never been good at encouraging independent thinking, creativity and project-based inquiry. Alternative educational philosophies such as Montessori and Steiner make valiant efforts to remedy these shortcomings, but have a tendency to become dogmatic in their own educational principles. A homeschooling tutor can take the best elements of our rich history of pedagogical theory and practice to create their own framework that suits the student and their family.
Of course one does not attend school just to learn academic material and develop intellectually. A student also develops invaluable social skills through interacting with their peers and making friends. This must also be addressed within a holistic homeschooling curriculum. Fortunately, there are many excellent and varied solutions to this, some of which are outlined below:
Extracurricular activities. With the dramatically increased efficiency of one-to-one tuition, students can often cover all of their school material in a few hours in the morning, leaving the afternoons free for group activities, sports, play dates and so on. This is a common solution and is especially beneficial for those students who are particular enthusiasts in one or more sport or endeavour.
Homeschooling club. Sometimes, multiple families with homeschooled children are able to combine part or all of their curriculum. In these cases it is important to agree both the scope of the curriculum between families as well as a timetable for group lessons and social activities. Grouped homeschooling programs like this tend to work well with a limited number of days per week, typically one or two. Such a solution can have an additional benefit of involving more than one tutor with different subject specialisations.
Projects that involve socialising. Sometimes students will be able to socialise through their educational projects and this can lead to long-lasting friendships. Such ideas include setting up a business that involves the local community or conducting research in the neighbourhood to learn quantitative and qualitative research methods.
Inviting friends for lessons. A good tutor will be able to accommodate the presence of an extra student for certain lessons. This can be valuable for the student to see how another student learns, but can also provide a distraction so care should be taken when making such arrangements.
Hybrid homeschooling. If it is feasible and permitted by the school, some parents opt to combine school with homeschooling and this can work well, especially for families who relocate frequently.
Written by Roland Witherow, Director of Witherow Brooke