Why We Don’t Do “History Cycles” in our Homeschool

One of the books that helped launch the modern classical homeschool movement was The Well Trained Mind. Among other suggestions, TWTM made a careful case for covering world history in a four-year cycle, doing it three times over the course of the twelve grades. One year for ancient history, one for medieval, one for early modern period, and one for modern. As a result, many people now define classical history as done in this four-year-cycle.

Charlotte Mason homeschooling is enjoying a resurgence the last few years. CM also prescribed history cycles, but included additional “streams” as students grew older. So by the time children hit fifth grade, they were doing three different histories every year!

I have borrowed heavily from both the Charlotte Mason and classical philosophies. And yet I depart from both when it comes to studying history. Here’s why I don’t teach history through “history cycles.”

I did the 4yr cycle with my firstborn son. We covered lots and lots of history. However by the time we finished the second cycle, I began to notice some things;

*We weren’t getting much American history in

*There was no time for civics/gov’t

*It seemed to take FOREVER

*I was getting overwhelmed with the number and cost of books when taking a living-book approach to the 4yr cycle

*and most alarmingly, there was little to no retention of any of the material

And for further context, these years were spent faithfully doing a pre-packaged classical/CM-inspired curriculum. We did all the narrations, copywork, drawing, timelines, craft projects, mapwork, and living books. My son was an eager reader and learner. And yet, after years of hard work (and lots of money), he remembered almost nothing.

I was reevaluating a lot of things in our homeschool at this point and I was ready to reconsider history too. Daniel Willingham’s book Why Don’t Students like School? had been recommended to me and I found it a fascinating read on how the brain learns. It was affirming that much of what scientists found concurred with the classical/traditional modes of education.

One of those findings was the importance of repetition. “Repetition is the mother of all learning,” my mother used to frequently quote. Maybe you’ve heard it in Latin: Repetitio est mater studiorum or Repetitio mater memoriae. Sadly, today this great and simple truth is stigmatized with pejoratives like “drill and kill.”

But I began to see why our vast history survey was disappearing into oblivion. We were going over a ton of information with basically no review. You only heard about a historical event three times over your entire K-12 education (at the most). We were a mile wide and an inch deep.

Taking my cue from another home-educating mom, I began to restructure our history into yearly surveys, one American and one world. Going over the whole span of history necessitates a focus on just the most significant events. My hope was that hearing about these same events year after year would create a familiarity with the basic flow of history.

Those who love history see much value in delving deep into individual biographies or time periods and will probably be appalled at limiting oneself to broad surveys. Because of this value, I reserve some time each schoolyear for my students to select a history topic (or two, or three) of interest to dive into. Maybe it’s WWII or Dolly Madison or the ancient Greeks. Then we go to the library (or pick off our own shelves) and spend a couple weeks learning about that topic in detail.

Doing this combination of surveys and in-depth studies gives us the best of both worlds.

I’m sure the question will arise, “What history surveys does a Charlotte-Mason or classical schooler use?” (Many CM and “classical” histories are split up into four big volumes to accommodate the 4yr cycle.) Here are some ideas. You will find there are generally more options in the American category, but do not be afraid to use a book more than once, perhaps separated by a year with a different volume. Keep in mind that each book can be used for quite a span of grade levels regardless of how it is billed.


A First Book in American History

The Complete Book of United States History

Our Star-Spangled Story

America the Beautiful

A Child’s First Book of American History 

The Landmark History of the American People

Guerber’s 13 Colonies & Great Republic

Exploring America

A History of the American People


A Child’s History of the World

Builders of the Old World

A Little History of the World

From Adam to Us

Exploring World History

What in the World? (audios)

Also don’t be afraid to look at histories from more traditional textbook publishers.

(My caveat is that all histories are written with biases. Some of these books are Christian, some are secular. Some are older publications, and may contain bigotry that was considered acceptable at the time. Please keep this in mind and consider how you want to use your history books.)

Once I switched to this approach I found that it streamlined history and I had time to add in some civics and geography here and there.

I also dropped most of the “busywork” that can come with history. I now rely on repetition, and an occasional narration, to create retention. When we do busywork, it is just for fun.

“Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.”

“The greatest service we can do to education is to teach fewer subjects. No one has time to do more than a very few things well before he is twenty. . .”

“The best curriculum is the one that gets done.”


Repetitio Mater Memoriae

10 Responses

  1. Brittany
    Brittany November 18, 2019 at 6:55 pm |

    Hi! I found this article while searching for a history curriculum that spans ancient through modern every year. I just discovered that the Good and the Beautiful history does that, so I thought I would let you know. Until I’ve purchased it, I still look into it. Thank you for this list of resources to check out!

  2. Emily
    Emily January 26, 2020 at 3:11 pm |

    Could you give a more detailed description of this type of rotation? Is there any type of method or pattern for determining what to study?

  3. Shawna
    Shawna October 10, 2021 at 11:31 am |


    I came across your article when looking at using Notgrass From Adam to Us as a history spine. Do you have experience with this history curriculum and do you think it would be a good spine to grab from for history for doing multiple ages, and then supplementing with picture books for younger than 5th grade? Most people seem to use Mystery of History or Story of the World as a spine (those are my other options), but I want to do a similar rotation to yours (or two years World History and one American). I am having a hard time finding anyone who uses Notgrass as a base and then expands as they see fit. Any advice? Thank you so much, your article encouraged me that it can be done!

    1. Amanda Robertson
      Amanda Robertson January 18, 2022 at 2:48 pm |

      I love this comment – did you ever try it? I’m in the same boat

  4. Elizabeth
    Elizabeth December 17, 2021 at 2:55 am |

    Clarification: do you read world history half the year and American history the other half or do you both at the same time like CM? If at the same time, how do you approach it: different days?

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