How to Classically Homeschool Multiple Ages
We’ve been classically homeschooling our family of five for a dozen years now. When my oldest turned six, I was pregnant with baby #4 and had an eighteen-month-old getting into everything and a four-year-old wanting to do everything his brother did.
Over the years we added a fifth baby, everyone eventually learned to read, and we moved through the middle school years with a full spectrum of ages. Now my youngest is seven, reading fluently, and my oldest is attending the local community college for his junior year of high school. Four are home being educated, and though things are much more settled than they were in the little years, there are still many pieces to keep track of.
But, yes, it is possible to classically educate a passel of kids at home. You don’t need to personally tutor each child in every subject to achieve your goals or to educate well. You don’t need to do every page in every curriculum’s book to “count” it as done, either. There’s a lot you don’t need to do, but only a few that you really need.
One thing I know: people make it harder than it needs to be and some curriculum companies thrive on confusion and insecurity.
We can’t homeschool well without confidence and independence – freedom – of mind. Classical education should bring both confidence and freedom by its very nature. If it doesn’t, it’s probably not actually classical.
Let’s start off with the CiRCE Institute’s definition of classical education:
Classical, Christian education is the cultivation of wisdom and virtue by nourishing the soul on truth, goodness, and beauty by means of the seven liberal arts and the four sciences so that, in Christ, the student is enabled to better know, glorify, and enjoy God.CiRCE Institute
This succinct statement gives us the goal – cultivation of wisdom and virtue – and the what – truth, goodness, and beauty – and the how – the seven liberal arts – and the reason – to know, glorify, and enjoy God.
In The Liberal Arts Tradition, Kevin Clark and Ravi Jain use this definition:
“The ancients believed education was fundamentally about shaping loves….It is for this goal of passing along a culture that the curriculum existed.”Kevin Clark and Ravi Jain, The Liberal Arts Tradition
While particular practices and day school techniques might not be feasible in the home, giving our kids an education with a classical goal, classical content, and for classical reasons is possible.
Don’t confuse a philosophy (classical education) with a particular method for implementing that philosophy. There can be numerous expressions of a philosophy. Usually, particular practices are not individually mandatory to be “doing” the principles or the philosophy. Applications are outworkings that need to be situationally appropriate as well as based on sound principles.
Instead of trying to give our children an education by mimicking techniques used in other settings (especially the institutional setting of schools), let’s use the setting of our home and family life to our advantage as we homeschool.
In fact, I believe having multiple ages in our homeschool can be an advantage itself. Age segregation for learning is a very modern practice, done to model schools on an efficient, industrial, factory model.
Factory-model schooling is not classical, which was always personal, intimate, and human-relationship-scaled.
We homeschool to avoid the factory model and give our children an effective learning environment rather than an efficient one. Thus, our home life and our various ages working alongside one another is actually a perk, not a problem.
Sure, it often poses logistical problems, yet most of those offer character training for all involved, as well, as we learn to put the needs of others before our own and learn to not demand perfect circumstances before getting to our work.
Classically homeschooling with toddlers in the mix
The toddler has to learn to control his volume, has to learn some of his siblings can’t play with him right now, has to learn to sit comfortably and listen to language above his head – all three of which are incredibly fruitful in his little life. They are sacrifices, but they are also practices which educate him. These lessons are the lessons of preschool.
The alphabet is optional and not an important item on the agenda. Learning to listen and control your emotions and choices, learning some things are appropriate in some places and times but not all places and times, learning to give up your desires for the sake of someone else – these are the lessons we must teach our toddlers and preschoolers.
Such lessons require no curriculum, checklist, or tests. Rather, each day offers a multitude of tests, real-life pop quizzes and teaching opportunities. Our young children learn best in the midst of a bustling family home life, because such a life is replete with the lessons that they need most.
Classically homeschool multiple ages together by focusing on truth
One thing that does not belong in classical education is busy work. Busy work is a violation of the multum non multa principle. An education that insists on “much, not many,” means that whatever we are assigned to read or do should be rich and meaningful. It should be the best practice to learn the material. Most activities, comprehension questions, and even tests and quizzes are added busy work, used by teachers to occupy a classroom all day and to assess knowledge because they don’t and can’t know each student’s progress individually and see him use his knowledge throughout his day.
The homeschool setting has the potential, the luxury, nay, the need to eschew busy work both on principle and on practical grounds.
Homeschooling does not mean you have to be sure the preschooler can glue cotton balls to blue paper to learn about the sky. Just send him outside, telling him to see if he can see any shapes in the clouds – and whatever he goes out and absorbs is concrete truth, deep connection, real learning.
Homeschooling does not mean you have to be the one to build salt maps of Egypt or crafty versions of the solar systems with your elementary children. Mummified chickens are not required. Read, draw, map, talk, write, and save the crafting for free time. For the time, effort, and mess they create, such activities do not actually solidify or aid knowledge or retention. They are not the deep work of learning. They are window dressing to give something to show off, something to convince everyone we’re having fun. Let the learning happen in concentrated doses and leave plenty of time for free-rein fun which allows for actual creativity. Real learning is fun when it leads to knowledge and interest, not when it has crafty “proof.”
Above all, homeschooling does not mean you need to be the one tracing letters in the sand with a three-year-old, having a five-year-old learn about seasons by cutting out leaves from paper when he could go make a pile of them outside, making a six or seven year old use sight-word flash cards to speed up her reading ability, doing a science experiment that is mere “fun” and no real experiment nor science with an 8-year-old, and harping on the ten-year-old to keep his handwriting legible while he fills out a page full of obvious short answers after his reading.
What the classrooms do, what the curriculums suggest, are not binding on us and are oftentimes not what actually make up a true, active, interesting, and ultimately fun and satisfying education.
As homeschoolers, we can cut through the inane, the multa, the busy work and spend our time only on what is most meaningful because we have so much more scope and time for encountering the real world in real relationship.
Classically homeschool multiple ages by focusing on goodness
The curriculum of a classical education can be summarized as truth, goodness, and beauty, with an aim towards wisdom and virtue.
While we often believe we are at our best when we remain undisturbed and our plans hum along, such times generally do not promote love, wisdom, or virtue. The peace of such times is a surface peace that does not bear fruit in our hearts.
The same is true of our children. It does not build character (virtue) to educate them in an artificial environment that will not prepare them for any other setting in life. Classrooms might look like they are efficient and peaceful, but it comes at the cost of separately learning from real life and placing it outside the home, outside normal relationships, and outside the difficulties all the rest of the learning of their life will take place amidst.
When children learn how to learn at home – with interruptions, with annoying siblings, with distracting siblings, with temptations to play, with people who love them and also know them intimately, they are learning in a real life context that will train their heart, mind, and conscience – their character – on an entirely different level.
When their tutor (for a mother is a tutor rather than a teacher, and tutoring is a much more classical model than a classroom filled with a single age group) knows and loves them intimately, the instruction itself lends itself to virtue-building. After all, the mother sees how the character, the student, is responding and can take that into account. The material is important for gaining knowledge, and the work is important for gaining character.
Learning in an environment where emotional defenses and public faces are down, the students are more likely to pitch fits, complain, and argue, it is true. However, it is also true that the knowledge gained in this environment is also more likely to naturally sink down deep. It is a part of his home environment, and any classroom teacher will tell you that a child’s home environment is more instrumental in his success than the classroom.
If the home environment is not only reading, learning, doing, but also conflict resolution, work ethic (because the toys and distractions are right at hand, not helpfully removed), flexibility, and self-sacrifice (putting others’ needs before your own), then the environment is classically educating everyone there just as much as the books.
Classically homeschool multiple ages by focusing on beauty
Beauty in our homeschool is much more than artist study. To learn beauty and to experience beauty is not to learn a few techniques with a paintbrush and be told you’re imitating the great artists.
Beauty is harmony, which can take many forms – visible, audible, spiritual.
Beauty does not continence anything being out of proportion, including the time given to direct studies.
Our homes and our education – not only in the content, but primarily in the manner and atmosphere – ought to be conducted in and with and toward beauty.
The art on our walls and the art we study ought to be art that beautifully demonstrates truth and goodness. More than that, the expression on our faces, the manner of our dress, the care taken with our work ought to communicate and harmonize with beauty. Dissonance of thought and expression, of knowledge and action, must be resolved. Classical education does not demand its students receive artistic training; but it does demand that our tastes, our desires, our loves and affection, be given to what is objectively beautiful – and love is always expressed and visible.
The music we play in our homes also cultivates taste and affections and preferences and is much more important and shaping than whether or not our children play an instrument themselves. Audibly, our homeschools should seek beauty in expression, tone, and interaction. Again, bringing the dissonant into harmony will be our primary educative role as homeschooling mothers – and we will find the dissonance is often in ourselves. Fitting words spoken well and in kindness and love ought to be the primary source of audible beauty in our education. To focus on these is more classical than participating in a band or memorizing ditties.
Most importantly, education must be done in a spiritually beautiful manner and include spiritual beauty. When our educative life is all wrapped up in and inseparable from our home life, we – ourselves and our children – are less likely to separate either from our spiritual lives or the spiritual dimension of the world. Compartmentalization is built into the industrial school model (whatever practices happen within it), whereas it is unnatural and unneeded in home and family life.
“There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”Abraham Kuyper
Knowing that God sees and cares about your math page, including caring that you had a temper outburst about it that you must repent of is part of living a beautiful, fully integrated life.
“At its highest, leisure is contemplation. It is an activity that is its own justification, the pure expression of what it is to be human. It is what we do. The ‘purpose’ of the quadrivium was to prepare us to contemplate God in an ordered fashion, to take delight in the source of all truth, beauty, and goodness.”Stratford Caldecott, Beauty for Truth’s Sake
Living within the bounds of spiritual beauty is scholé. Having time to think and to play with knowledge and understanding is the means and end of a liberal arts, classical education. If we fill our own and our children’s time with every study and every activity under the sun, we are undermining the very education we’re trying to impart.
You and I can homeschool many ages together in our homes well and classically when we function with a full-orbed view of the world and our lives, not returning to the compartmentalization we were raised in, but seeing that all of life is connected.
Such a view does not negate the need for serious study and for hard work, but it does call into question much of the work that passes for serious and needful in schools – even classical schools, even some co-ops. The work of gaining knowledge from a book or at a table should never consume most of anyone’s day. When we rid ourselves of busy work, we find that juggling the balls of many children’s education is not burdensome or overly taxing.
A lot of ground is covered in singing together, reading together, a math page tackled, and five minutes of handwriting. And even more ground is covered when our children under 14 have plenty of free time to integrate their knowledge into their lives and to cultivate personal relations and connections with a broad swath of the real world by being outside.
So what do you need to classically homeschool multiple kids? You need good books, time to read and talk about them, thoughtful and engaged brain work, encounters with the real world, and discipleship into living well alongside others. All of these things the home and family come fully equipped to provide.