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Thinking Outside the Textbook

Homeschooling not working? Try thinking outside the textbook.Homeschooling not working?

I’m a member of several homeschooling groups and email loops, and the most common questions are all related to, “It’s a battle to get my child to do her work. I thought homeschooling would be better for my child, but it’s all tears and yelling. For both of us. I may have to put her back in school.”

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The specifics vary, but many parents new to homeschooling are trying to recreate a public school environment in their home and finding that it doesn’t work. It’s not their fault. Most of us went to public school; it’s what we know. We’re taught that this is the only way to get an education. That children won’t learn if we don’t tell them what to learn and force them do so. We shouldn’t be surprised when we find homeschooling not working under these circumstances.

The truth is humans come into this world curious and craving new experiences and knowledge. If you doubt that, spend twenty minutes with your favorite three-year-old, and count how many questions he asks. (Okay, you can stop counting at 100.) At the age of forty, I still love to learn, but I always felt that school was getting in the way of my education. (Apparently Mark Twain agreed with me.) I made excellent grades in school, because my learning style and memory happened to align with the way public school functions. Not everyone is so fortunate. Many parents realize this and bring their children home for homeschooling.

But what do these parents do once they get home? The same things that didn’t work in the school. Sitting at the kitchen table with text books, pencils, and paper spread everywhere. Or maybe they even go all out and set up a school room. A cute desk or two, a white board, posters, and a bookshelf or twenty. (Because all homeschoolers seem to have an unerring sense for finding every educational book or textbook that comes within ten miles of their home.)

But there are other ways to learn. In fact, it’s pretty hard to not learn. It may not look like the learning you did in school, but they’re learning. Really, though, how much of what we “learned” in school did we really learn? There’s a reason that people don’t seem to be “smarter than a fifth-grader.” We don’t remember any of that. However, do you remember how you felt when you ran across a topic in a class that truly interested you? That little rush of excitement? The disappointment when the teacher moved on to another topic? Or maybe it was a class you loved. Either because of the subject, or maybe just because the teacher found a way to make the class engaging. I’d bet you remember more from that class or topic than most of the rest of your school career.

You’ll read or hear that learning should be fun. I would go out on a limb and  say that learning is fun. Because if you don’t care, you’re just memorizing most of the information so you can get though the test. You don’t learn unless you’re actually interested in a topic.

So why do we expect our kids to do something we hated? Because we must teach them to miserable to prepare them for the rest of their lives? If you’re teaching your children that they can expect nothing more from life than to be miserable, then you are doing them a great disservice. Why not show them that the world is full of more knowledge than any one person can ever absorb, and they can start now and spend the rest of their lives trying to soak it up. If they know how to learn, and if they enjoy learning new things, that will serve them always. And will enable them to learn what they need to find employment that doesn’t make them miserable.

You may be thinking that sounds like a fine idea, but how do we do this in real life? Am I one of those who advocate letting kids play video games all day, every day? I’m not, but, depending on your child, that’s not the end of the world, because truthfully, the likelihood of your child never leaving the house is pretty low. Which, of course, means that playing video games isn’t actually the only thing they do. Incidentally, my kids have learned vocabulary even I didn’t know (no, not that kind of vocabulary) from video games, and I’m a writer, editor, and avid reader.  We’ve also had the most amazing discussions stemming from games, and my kids look up all kinds of things because their curiosity was piqued by something on a video game. But that’s not where I’m going with this.

Even if you’ve completely banned video games, you have an endless supply of learning material around you. The whole world. I know that’s a little overwhelming, so I’ll narrow it down a little for you.

One day, our “school day” consisted of a board game and a documentary. At the seven-year-old’s insistence, we played The Presidential Game, which is a board game in which you try to get the most “votes” so you can win the Electoral College votes and become president. We covered Geography, Social Studies, and Math. There would have been even more math if we had used the paper score cards rather than the provided website. We recently watched the series How the States Got Their Shapes, so we talked about some of the things we learned from that while we played.

Then the boys (I also have a thirteen-year-old) picked Dinofish for our daily documentary. The show was about the coelacanth, a rare fish thought to have gone extinct with the dinosaurs, but discovered alive in 1938. We talked about deep-sea diving, dinosaurs, and fish. So that was Science.

All of this was in response to questions they asked. The only time I initiated was if I thought of something I thought they would find interesting. You don’t have to force everything into a “school” mode. Just be and the engagement and learning come naturally.

The boys have recently decided they want a pet sloth. (It’s never boring at my house.) So, they’ve been learning all about sloths. They’ve been reading websites and watching YouTube videos. Apparently the sloth documentaries on are in my future.

The seven-year-old’s bedtime reading (his choice) for the past couple of months has been library books from a dinosaur encyclopedia set. (That’s an encyclopedia about dinosaurs, not an old encyclopedia.) Right now, we’re reading the volume on ornithopods.

Those are just some things we do without even leaving the house. Other options include the zoo, the local nature center, the library, classes set up by other homeschool parents (led by a parent or a professional, depending on the subject matter), and field trips (which don’t have to be expensive).

Learning is fun. Think outside the textbook and let your child explore a little. You may even find something that you want to learn more about, and you can enjoy being not miserable together.


Amanda Beaty

Amanda is a freelance editor and proofreader because it allows her to get paid for her otherwise-annoying perfectionism. Her blogging ranges from book reviews and stories about her kids to rants about things that annoy her to posts about nutrition or autism.

Her time is filled with reading, her kids, her friends, writing, and watching select shows on Netflix, specifically Mythbusters, Star Trek, and other shows that cement her geek status. She is also a homeschool mom and active in a local support group for parents of children with special needs.

Amanda is passionate about encouraging women to love themselves and encourage each other, and founded the Celebrating Womanhood Event in 2012. CWE is an annual online event that focuses on sending positive messages to and about women.

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  1. Karen

    Thank you for this. We have decided to home school – the kids will finish out this year. My eldest daughter was excited at first but now is having doubts. I appreciate all that has been written about this. It will help guide her through this transition without second guessing our decision.

  2. Michelle

    I totally agree with you! I also write to encourage homeschool moms, and I’ve even written one with a similar title. I think the earlier that homeschoolers figure this out, the better off everyone is. The public school method destroys the love of learning and makes it drudgery. Plus, the freedom of homeschooling is one of its biggest blessings to be enjoyed.

  3. Evan Weisberg

    This was a great article. It is a great idea to not think about just working from a textbook. Children today are much more receptive to visual and audio methods of learning, which makes the textbook quite uninteresting to them. I have worked with several students who needed to be homeschooled and it was important for me to show them how why the concepts they were learning were relevant to their lives. I feel that this is a concept that gets swept under the rug in many traditional school settings. Sometimes the textbook is outdated and you have to show your son or daughter new methods in order to capture his or her interest with the material. Also, I agree with the writer that going to the zoo or the museum can be very beneficial to homeschooled students. Sometimes when a concept is not tangible or able to be seen, it is difficult for a child to understand it. Thank you again for such a great article and letting me share my insight.

  4. Jack Stephan

    In my opinion, home school is the best thing where kids can unleash their full potential and helps in their creative growth -where traditional system fails. Trying to “mimic” public school environment in a homeschool wont do any good but bad.

  5. Ally

    We are new to homeschool, but have had enough time to realize we have wasted precious time on work books and spelling lists and failed history lessons my daughter could care less about. Next year we will roam the library, pick out your books and topics you want to learn about and enjoy the process of learning. No more fighting, no more tears…just a love of learning something new and exciting to them! Math will be the only “curriculum” we will stick with. The rest is up to them, so exciting and liberating.

  6. Bandy

    Do I take her out at the end of the school year or just before the next year starts? Do they just get a GED later or what? Thanks…I can’t seem to find an answer to these questions

  7. Jen

    I love this post because so many including homeschoolers, do not realize how much their children actually learn in the run of the day. It is really important for us to see that life is about learning, and as long as we show them they way to find the information they need. (aka use a library, use the internet, use resources to learn and discover) then they know what they truly need to in life. I have always said, as long as my children learn to read, and love to learn-I am successful. As long as you can do those two things-there is nothing you can not teach yourself.
    Very encouraging post, I wanted to take a moment to say thank you for writing and sharing it with us 🙂

    • Amanda Beaty

      “I have always said, as long as my children learn to read, and love to learn-I am successful. As long as you can do those two things-there is nothing you can not teach yourself.”

      I couldn’t agree more, Jen! I’m glad you found the post encouraging. Thanks for your comment!

  8. Lauren

    We just moved from Va to SC and due to the school district zoning I have decided to homeschool my daughther for the rest of her third grade year. I am completely new to this and would appreciate any and all advice. My concern is moving from one to state to start homeschooling in another state. I want to make sure she gets all her credits and attendance accordingly to State regulations. I will be able to get her into a better school closer to home next school year and I want to use the curriculum that will keep her most up to date to SC state standards. South Carolina gives three home school option. I am not sure which one to choose. Register through the state which i have to wait on approval and she would have to take 5 days of state test in two months.Independent Homeschool or pick an established homeschool ? Any adivce?

    • Mary Ann Kelley

      Hi Lauren – since homeschool regulations vary by state, we do not offer advice on how to meet the requirements of each state. We defer to those state and local homeschool organizations with “boots on the ground” so to speak. Our list of South Carolina organizations might help you locate a group near you. Best wishes to you and your daughter!

  9. Paul Milas

    Along with having a good homeschooling environment, I think it is necessary to follow a curriculum and most importantly stick to it as much as you can. If you keep changing the curriculum, your child will get bored with homeschooling too easily. What do you think Amanda?

  10. shonna

    I live in Louisville Kentucky, do I need to contact the board of education to inform them, that I am wanting to home school my children? I would like for this to start 2016-2017 school year. Also do I need to join an homeschool organization?

    • Mary Ann Kelley

      Hi Shonna – Since homeschooling is regulated by the state and that makes for 50 (plus DC & territories) different sets of laws. To avoid steering you in the wrong direction, we direct prospective homeschoolers to the local and state groups for information about homeschool laws. I don’t know whether Kentucky requires enrolling in an umbrella school or not, but other than that type of requirement joining a support group is not a requirement but can be a huge help. I recommend joining at state organization at a minimum as they will keep you apprised of changes in the law, events and opportunities, and they usually have a newsletter. You’ll find the Kentucky organizations listed here:

  11. Christopher Bradshaw

    Great post! Sometimes I feel like the only one who rejects curriculum, but the truth is that there is so much to learn just by opening your eyes. Thank you for pointing that out.

    –Homeschool Navy Dad

    • Amanda Beaty

      You are definitely not alone! There are a lot of us who don’t use curriculum, and it seems as if our numbers are growing all the time. Maybe not as fast as we’d like, but growing.

  12. Elizabeth

    There was one statement in this post that really stood out to me and that was how none us can remember the questions on Who’s Smarter Than a Fifth Grader because those were items we were forced to know, not that we wanted to learn. This really hit home, because looking back, I don’t remember liking much about school. I mean I always got good grades (I was able to regurgitate everything I was supposed to memorize). But I didn’t develop a love of learning until my late 20’s. I didn’t even know what I liked, because I never had the inclination to delve into interests. As an adult all these topics that I never knew about peaked my interest and suddenly I was reading everything I could get my hands on with those subjects. This is how it should be for kids! Kids should be able to want to learn, not feel forced.

    • Amanda Beaty

      Exactly! On one hand I’m happy to hear that this resonated with you, but on the other, it’s sad that it did. If enough people come to realize this, though, we’ll eventually reach a tipping point and education might actually change in this country.

  13. Kacee Harrison

    I know people with homeschool rooms with desks and the whole brick and mortar setup and at times I almost felt guilty that I didn’t run our homeschool like that. It’s a good reminder that learning can be done in a number of environments and in different ways. I like to utilize a number of things like field trips, movies, books, art projects, etc. to illustrate the material. I also try to hone in on what it is exactly that my son finds interesting and incorporate that into our learning too. We’ve learned details about topics such as hurricanes, clouds and buried treasure just from his interest in these things. If we had stuck to the traditional text book we could not have delved so deep into some of his interest.

    • Amanda Beaty

      It doesn’t sound like you have anything to feel guilty about, Kacee. Letting kids follow their interests is (in my opinion) the best way for them to learn.

  14. renee sargent

    thank you so much. i just pulled my son out of public school to homeschool him and was stressing on how to go about teaching him without having to do it like his school did. the problem is that he has a learning disability which happens to be the same as mine. i do not think like other people and i do not do well on planning. i do know that once i get going in the right direction it will be easy to do what is needed to teach him. thank you for some ideas so now i can make this an interesting adventure as opposed to him being bored to tears.

    • Amanda Beaty

      Renee, the first thing I tell new homeschooler is, “Relax.” Homeschooling is easier than you think it has to be, and it can certainly more fun than some people make it. You’ll learn what works for your son and what doesn’t. Congratulations on your new adventure!

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