Identifying Your Educational Philosophy

Most people have a set of ideas and beliefs that guide their actions on a daily basis. What is right and what is wrong? How should we aspire to live? What is true and what is false? How do we know which is which? These questions may seem abstract, but our answers to them—our philosophies—have real-world consequences. For example, if you value independence, you might encourage your child to visit the library on their own when you think they are old enough. If you value living in a multicultural society, you might encourage your child to befriend children who are different from them.

Some of the ideas and beliefs that guide our actions are educational philosophies, which seek to answer questions like: What is the purpose of education? What should children learn? How should they learn it? What roles do the teacher, the student, and society assume in the learning process? As someone who is considering becoming or has already become a home educator, you are likely to be more attuned to questions of educational philosophy than the average person. After all, you have already stepped off the beaten path by questioning whether the school experience shared by 96% of US children is right for your family. But thankfully you are in good company, because for centuries, educational theorists have studied people’s beliefs about education and have sorted these beliefs into a few major categories. Each of these philosophies has played a major role in the U.S. educational system, and most people’s beliefs can be characterized as a mix of these philosophies.

Perennialism is an educational philosophy based on the idea that human nature is unchanging, and that the teacher’s role is to pass down knowledge and universal truths that have stood the test of time.

Essentialism is an educational philosophy that suggests there is a certain body of common knowledge and skills that is necessary for students to succeed in today’s world, and that teachers should work towards helping students meet this basic standard.

Progressivism is an educational philosophy focused on the development of the student as a whole person. In this philosophy, students should pursue their own interests, connecting them to real-world problems and situations, and should play an active role in the learning process.

Reconstructionism is a philosophy that views education as a key driver of social change. Students educated in this philosophy discuss important social issues and take action in and outside the learning environment to improve their communities.

See this page for how these educational philosophies relate to other schools of thought. You may also want to take this quiz to see which educational philosophies your own beliefs are most closely aligned with.

Homeschooling Philosophies

Educational philosophies affect educators’ real-world choices such as which curricular materials to purchase, which learning activities to plan, how to set up learning environments, and how to manage student-teacher relationships. So it makes sense that home educators would form groups and communities based on shared educational philosophies, since this makes it easier to exchange resources and ideas. In general, home educators divide themselves into groups corresponding to the educational philosophies discussed above, although they often give these philosophies distinctive names and flavors when they are applied to homeschooling, and they often apply educational philosophies differently to the distinct areas of curriculum and instruction. As a home educator, it’s important to know which homeschooling philosophies you align with so that you can select appropriate curricular materials, find a welcoming homeschooling group, and create an education for your child that is consistent with your beliefs and values. All of the homeschooling philosophies described on this page are compatible with state learning standards, although you may need to get creative in their application. Most home educators mix and match these homeschooling philosophies to some degree. 

Classical. Homeschooling based on the classical approach takes a perennialist view of curriculum, focusing on the Latin trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric and relying on literature such as the Bible and other works of classical antiquity. Classical homeschooling was popularized by noted slavery apologist Doug Wilson in the 1980s and is often favored by conservative, religious home educators. By contrast, some of the instructional techniques used in classical homeschooling follow a progressive educational philosophy, and home educators who choose the classical approach typically do so because they believe it effectively prepares students for college, although there is little evidence to support this belief. 

Charlotte Mason. Based on the ideas of English educator Charlotte Mason in the 1880s, this homeschooling philosophy takes a perennialist view of curriculum, emphasizing the arts, nature, play, and the Bible and other so-called “living books” (narrative literature, as opposed to textbooks). While this homeschooling philosophy also takes a largely perennialist approach towards instruction with its focus on dictation and the formation of good habits, Mason’s philosophy also incorporates some progressive elements such as the view of the child as a whole person and the inclusion of hands-on activities.

Traditional / School-at-Home. Home educators who ascribe to the school-at-home or traditional homeschooling philosophy typically use an essentialist instructional approach that relies on lectures, textbooks, memorization, worksheets, tests, and grades. Followers of this philosophy often create home classrooms with a chalkboard, school desks, and a formal approach to daily scheduling, perhaps harkening back to the idealized 1950s public school. Though the most popular boxed curricula (e.g. Bob Jones, A Beka, ACE, Saxon Math) are religious in nature and appeal primarily to conservative evangelical home educators following the traditional homeschooling philosophy (see p. 267-268 here), there are many secular school-at-home curricula available as well. Interestingly, the school-at-home philosophy has a somewhat misleading name, since many modern public schools have moved away from the essentialist approach to instruction.

Waldorf. This educational philosophy, developed by Austrian mystic Rudolf Steiner in the 1910s, has given rise to dedicated schools as well as to a homeschooling philosophy. Progressive in its approach to both curriculum and instruction, Waldorf homeschooling focuses on the arts (particularly those involving bodily movement), mythology, and agriculture, aiming for the physical and spiritual development of the whole child. Home educators who ascribe to Waldorf’s philosophy typically avoid textbooks and electronics and favor portfolio evaluations over tests.

Montessori. Another educational philosophy that has given rise to both dedicated schools and a homeschooling philosophy, this approach is based on the work of Italian physician Maria Montessori in the 1910s. This homeschooling philosophy emphasizes beauty in hands-on curricular materials, bodily movement, scaffolded learning, and collaborative child-led activities. Many home educators following Montessori’s philosophy create activity stations with manipulatives in their homes and favor field trips and a holistic learning approach, avoiding electronics. The Montessori philosophy is progressive in its approach to both curriculum and instruction.

Unschooling. Originated by educator John Holt (considered to be the founder of the homeschooling movement) in the 1970s, unschooling is a homeschooling philosophy centered around allowing a child to direct their own education. Unschooled children take a leadership role in selecting their own curricular materials and learning activities, with varying degrees of support provided by their home educator. In its focus on the child as a whole person and the use of real-world learning activities, unschooling draws largely from the progressive educational philosophy. Some unschooling also incorporates ideas of existentialism (which is associated with the reconstructionist educational philosophy) in that home educators reject the societal structures associated with school (such as capitalism and meritocracy) and encourage children to actively dismantle them. See the discussion on p. 269 here for more information on unschooling.

Roadschooling / Worldschooling. This homeschooling philosophy is primarily reconstructionist in that it conceives of travel and the encounters that occur while traveling as the essential context where learning takes place. Often linked to the unschooling philosophy, the worldschooling approach favors holistic and experiential learning that happens in real-world situations and focuses on social issues and cross-cultural interactions. Families who follow this philosophy may live in an RV or on a boat, or otherwise travel frequently from place to place.

Relaxed / Eclectic. Home educators who identify as relaxed and/or eclectic tend to reject rigid adherence to any one of the homeschooling philosophies listed above. Instead, they are inspired to follow whatever educational methods work best for a given child at a given time and for a given subject area. In this way they are largely aligned with the progressive educational philosophy in that they are most focused on the child as a whole person. Relaxed and eclectic home educators may be the largest group of home educators in that few families manage perfect adherence to any one homeschooling philosophy, but the relaxed/eclectic style is most frequently contrasted with the traditional or school-at-home approach.

Other terminology you may encounter in discussions of homeschooling philosophy includes Unit Studies, Multiple Intelligences, and Technology-Based Education (e.g. virtual school), all of which are best considered instructional approaches that can be combined with the philosophies above, rather than fully-fledged educational philosophies themselves.

See the work of scholar Carolyn McKeon for a discussion of how the four main educational philosophies have influenced homeschooling philosophies.

Homeschooling Motivations

Many home educators’ educational philosophies are closely linked to their motivations for homeschooling. For example, families who pull a child from school due to bullying may prefer to create a homeschooling experience that closely mirrors the school they left, whereas parents who are motivated to homeschool due to concerns about standardized testing may prefer an alternative approach. Your motivations for homeschooling are likely to change over time, so it’s important to take time each year to reflect on your educational philosophy. You may find it helpful to write up a document that describes your educational philosophy—both to remind yourself of your guiding principles as you design your Individualized Home Education Plan for each child, and to demonstrate your seriousness to other people who may be interested in your child’s wellbeing.

Taking time to consider and reflect on your own educational philosophy will also help you avoid one of the major pitfalls of being a home educator: allowing your role as a home educator to become your identity. Dr. Jennifer Lois, a sociology professor at Western Washington University, noted in her book Home Is Where The School Is that many mothers, influenced by the practice of ‘intensive mothering’, conflate their sense of themselves as ‘good mothers’ with their identity as homeschooling parents. In some cases, this makes it impossible for home educators to recognize when they need to make a change for their child’s educational wellbeing, even when they experience burnout, which is a common experience.

Lois’s research findings suggest several tips for getting the most out of your homeschooling experience, regardless of your motivations for homeschooling:

  • Rely on your community. Homeschooling requires you to be not merely parent and teacher but also principal, secretary, guidance counselor, school nurse, cafeteria worker, athletic coach, college counselor, etc. If it seems impossible to you to serve all of these roles, you don’t have to! Seek out the help of other caring and trustworthy adults to educate your child wherever and whenever you can. This could mean seeking greater support from your school district, from your local homeschooling community, or from family and friends. Seeking help when you need it benefits both you and your child!
  • Remember that being a good mother is not inherently linked to homeschooling. You can probably think of several people among your own family and friends who are or were good mothers but who did not homeschool their children. If you find that homeschooling is not the best educational method for your child or that it’s not working for your family, it does not mean that you’ve failed as a mother. In fact, making a change means you’ve prioritized your child’s needs!
  • Recognize when you are experiencing burnout and have a plan to respond. If you feel like you’re being forced to choose between your identity as a homeschooling parent and your child’s educational success, err on the side of giving your child the best education possible, whatever that looks like for your family. Your child’s education should not be about you!

Understanding your educational philosophy can play an important role in grounding your motivations for homeschooling. Understanding the reasons why you choose to homeschool—and having a clear sense of your beliefs about education—will help center the decisions you make for your child in something more lasting than a single curriculum, or how you feel on a given day. It will give you confidence to interact with fellow home educators who may not share your beliefs. And it will also remind you to think of yourself as a professional with an obligation to create the best possible learning experience for your child. Being able to articulate your own educational philosophy is considered a prerequisite for successful teaching—certified teachers are typically required to maintain a statement of educational philosophy, which they anticipate will mature over time as they gain teaching experience. 

Remember, keeping your identity as a parent separate from your practice of homeschooling will enable your ideas about educational philosophy to evolve as you observe what works best for your child and make choices to prioritize their educational wellbeing.

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