Jamie Martin, editor of Simple Homeschool, also blogs about motherhood at Steady Mom
This post is the first in an ongoing series I’ve planned about the educational philosophy Leadership Education (also known as A Thomas Jefferson Education.)
“Core Phase is the basis of a life. A good Core Phase naturally provides the foundation for a good life, a great Core Phase for a great life, and so on.”
~ Oliver and Rachel DeMille, Leadership Education, page 40
I stared at the desktop screen late one night, engrossed in a popular homeschooling forum where members could ask for help and receive advice. Someone had asked a question–I don’t even remember what it was–and one of the responses said something like this:
“I recommend you check out A Thomas Jefferson Education.”
It included a link to an overview of the method, which I clicked. Then, as sometimes happens in the midst of epiphanies, I sat up straighter as I began to read. In a flash of insight, I absolutely knew that this was part of what I was looking for in our homeschool.
The method combined the freedom of unschooling with a balance of structure, responsibility, and academic focus–especially in the teen years–that resonated with me.
Though my kids were all young at the time, I ordered every book I could find about it and began to internalize its principles. And it turns out I had plenty of time to focus on my own education–because all my kids were in Core Phase.
What is Core Phase?
Leadership Education divides childhood learning into four phases (head here for a short overview) and Core Phase is the first. It encompasses the initial eight or so years of a child’s life, the most impressionable and foundational time for all that follows.
If we envision the phases of learning as a planet, than core phase would be at the center of it all, each phase that comes later building on top of it. You can imagine, then, the vital importance of it being strong and solidly built.
Without it, nothing that comes after could last or grow.
“The tools for academic learning are present, as are the tools for cooking or making home repairs, and little children use them more in the context of tagging along or playing at the work of adults. There is no adult skill that children are obligated to master at this stage.”
~ Leadership Education, page 42
The curriculum for Core Phase
In core phase the “curriculum” is this:
- right and wrong
- true and false
- good and bad
- faith and security
- family identity
- routines and responsibilities
- accountability (learned through the above, not through academics)
- the value and love of work and play
The first time I read this list I loved it. It whispered and confirmed to my soul the most important lessons in life.
You’ll notice that academics don’t appear on the list, and that is a deliberate omission. Parents work hard in Core Phase to create an inspiring atmosphere (following the seven keys of great teaching) that exposes their children to good and beautiful things, including academics. But children are not expected to master any of it until much later.
“When we give in appropriate attention to academic achievement…, it can teach our children that they dislike academics because everything is hard and boring, and/or offer our children an alternative sense of self-worth that is inferior to a genuine and positive self-concept resulting from living according to true values such as faith, good works and accountability.”
~ Leadership Education, page 41
I get emails regularly from worried homeschooling parents of young children under eight, complaining that all their kids want to do is play. But what if, in fact, that is exactly what young children are meant to be doing?
What if play is a child’s work and the inbuilt curiosity that God gave them the inner force they need to one day succeed in this world?
Voices in support of Core Phase:
“The first education should be the harmonious development of the child’s physical, mental and spiritual powers. Providing warm and understanding responses to your children’s ‘hearts’ accomplishes far more than pressuring book knowledge into their minds. ”
~ Raymond and Dorothy Moore, homeschooling pioneers and authors of Better Late Than Early
“…my object is to show that the chief function of the child–his business in the world during the first six or seven years of his life–is to find out all he can, about whatever comes under his notice, by means of his five senses…”
~ Charlotte Mason, 19th century British educator
“Our highest endeavor must be to develop free human beings who are able of themselves to impart purpose and direction to their lives. The need for imagination, a sense of truth, and a feeling of responsibility — these three forces are the very nerve of education.”
~ Rudolf Steiner, founder of Waldorf Education
“Children are, by nature and from birth, very curious about the world around them, and very energetic, resourceful and competent in exploring it, finding out about it, and mastering it. In short, much more eager to learn, and much better at learning than most adults.”
~ John Holt, founder of unschooling
“Education is a natural process carried out by the human individual, and is acquired not by listening to words, but by experiences in the environment.”
~ Maria Montessori, Italian physician and educator
To me, seeing such a wide variety of experts in their fields–philosophers, researchers, doctors, teachers–proclaiming the benefits of Core Phase in their generation is wildly comforting. It reminds me that this idea just makes sense–that actually institutionalized schooling is the latest educational experiment.
If they don’t play now, then when?
We have a crisis going on in our culture. We stop our young children from playing at the season in life when they should. Resentful and bitter–even on a subconscious level–not only does this often create a hate of learning, it also results in adults determined to “play” in other seasons of life where their behavior has more serious repercussions on their families, their children, and society as a whole.
Maybe a major “mid-life crisis” is nothing more than someone who lacked a secure core foundation as a child. One way or another, we will learn the core phase lessons of good and bad, right and wrong, true and false, but wouldn’t it be best to learn them in a way that doesn’t cause suffering to ourselves and others?
And if that is true, then maybe the best gift we could possibly give our young kids isn’t the earliest reading skills or math drills. Maybe their future happiness and success rests upon the foundation of the pyramid we allow them to build now–through play and work and natural learning in the midst of secure family life.
We have followed this educational philosophy since that very night when it appeared on my computer screen. Toddlers and preschoolers at the time, my kids have never known any another way. Trishna (10) and Jonathan (9) have now transitioned into the next learning phase. Elijah (8) has one foot still firmly in Core and is dipping his toes into the waters of the upcoming phase as well.
Two of my kids naturally learned to read during their Core Phase with plenty of modeling, discussion, and read-alouds. But there were few formal lessons in any subject to speak of, unless the children asked for them.
These core phase years–that seemed as though they would last forever–are almost entirely behind us. It has been downright scary at times to raise little ones in such a different way to the majority, but it’s also been incredibly freeing.
And for us, it’s been right.
More on Leadership Education and the next phase of learning soon!
In the meantime, if this intrigues you and you’d like to learn more, check out these resources:
- Tjed.org – the official site of A Thomas Jefferson Education
- A Thomas Jefferson Education by Oliver DeMille (This book explains the WHY of the method)
- Leadership Education: The Phases of Learning by Oliver and Rachel DeMille (My personal fav, this book explains the HOW)
- FREE 7 Keys Certification – Right now the DeMilles are offering one of their most popular trainings free to readers here at Simple Homeschool! (See an overview here. You can work through the material on your own timetable.)