The Most Helpful Thing I’ve Learned About Education

I still remember those early days of homeschooling; the piles of curriculum catalogs (pre-internet), the books on various philosophies, the feelings of intimidation on the huge task I was taking on, the confusion on what to buy and teach and how. Several years into my journey, I learned something about education that really helped clarify things. As a result, I had confidence in what to select, what to prioritize, and whether or not I had reason to panic about being behind.

Here it is: Education consists of basically two things. (Actually, since things often come in threes, I think there’s a third thing; but for purposes of this discussion, we’ll keep it to two.)

Education is

1. Content

2. Skills

Those are the two things you need to worry about teaching. That’s a lot better than ten subjects spread over 12 years, isn’t it?

Content: this basically means information. Columbus sailed in 1492; the transformation of a caterpillar is called metamorphosis; Monet was a famous painter; the American congress has two houses. Frankly, this is the easy part of education! Information is often passively absorbed. Homeschoolers were traditionally good at this part of education because they loved books. The content subjects would include history, science (until you get to labs), literature, Bible, etc.

Skills: this is the output part of education. They take explicit instruction, and work! (Practice.) Not always so fun. The skills are the 3R’s – Reading, Writing, Math. They would also include typing, computer skills, foreign language, art (or any handwork) skills, and learning a musical instrument. (As opposed to art or music appreciation; these would fall on the “content” side. Do you see the difference?)

Both are important. You need both to be truly well-educated. Just because your child likes to read (or watch/listen to multimedia) and can spout off information does not mean she is actually educated. On the other hand, a child who can breeze through math algorithms, spit out essays, and run the computer like a pro (skills) can be woefully ignorant about history, literature, and how cream turns into butter.

Once I understood these two categories, I immediately realized I was spending way too much time and energy on content subjects, to the neglect of skills. I also realized that the content subjects did not need to be complicated or labor-intensive or teacher-intensive since we were basically moving information from the source to the mind. A book may work as well or better than a multi-faceted curriculum with a lot of busywork.

I realized that the content curricula I was using (history, science, Bible, literature) contained a lot of skill work. Mainly writing, which is labor-intensive for younger children. One of the reasons I went to book-based or “lit-based” education (as opposed to workbooks and textbooks) was to remove writing from our content subjects; this made it simpler, easier, and more enjoyable for the students. The skill of writing is extremely important, but we work on it separately. It has its own block of time. I don’t try to weave writing into every single subject until high school, where is it more appropriate.

Other helpful clarifications:

  • I began to understand why/how/when children could enjoy learning. There is plenty of enjoyment potential in the content subjects; not so much in the skill subjects (although some kids do!) because they require work and that is totally okay. Like I mentioned in my math post, most of the enjoyment potential–or at least toleration potential–in the skills is reached after proficiency. This is human nature. And this point was so freeing for me, since I really wanted my children to enjoy learning.
  • I realized that there was no end to learning information (Ecc. 12:12). There’s no way we were going to “cover it all.” (Which I was trying to do!) Gaps are okay. We have our entire lives to learn.
  • It’s okay if they forget content. (Although I try to avoid this by some repetition and review.) They should not be forgetting skills. Slow and steady wins the race here. Content is easy to catch up on. Skills are harder.
  • This categorization makes it possible to structure school simply: around the 3R’s; with all the content subjects contained within the reading R. That’s basically what the Robinson Curriculum does. So if you’re looking for a minimalist approach to homeschool, consider that framework.

I hope this makes sense. It really helped me. Oh and if you’re curious as to what the third piece of education could be: I think it’s values.