Educational Philosophies Defined, Part I

Written by Jamie Martin, editor of Simple Homeschool and founder of Steady Mom

A note from Jamie: This month on Simple Homeschool, one of our themes is educational philosophy. So it seems like a good time to revisit this post, originally published on February 15, 2010. You can also check out the second part of the post for further reading.

When I first started to research homeschooling, I didn’t even realize there was more than one way to “do” education. Growing up in the traditional system, like most of us, I assumed that homeschooling meant duplicating the system at home.

Imagine my surprise (& joy) as I discovered the plethora of educational methods and philosophies out there. That’s when I realized how amazing a home education could be–so many possibilities and options existed that could be tailored for each child!

The downside of having so many choices is wading your way through all the information. If you’ve recently felt overwhelmed by all that’s out there, today’s post is just what you need.

Here’s an overview of four educational philosophies to get you started.

1. The Traditional Method

This is what it sounds like–taking the classroom model and translating it into your home. Typically this method revolves around textbooks, worksheets, and tests to determine if your child is mastering the material.

Some children love plowing through a workbook and thrive on it. For those who don’t, you can always use these sparingly or on a child’s own terms. We have a shelf of workbooks that our elementary-aged children can work in if and when the mood strikes them.

Some families may use the traditional method in one subject, like math, while using different methods for other subjects. Larger families may find it helpful to use some textbooks if it provides an easier way to follow up with several children.

Further Reading (traditional curriculum publishers):

A Beka Book
Rod and Staff
Houghton Mifflin

2. The Unit Study Method

The unit study method seeks to combine several subjects under one unifying theme. If your son loves trains, you would use that subject to look for books about trains (literature), write about trains (English/handwriting), study the history of trains (history), develop word problems about the speed of trains (math), and so on.

Photo by woodley wonderworks

A homeschooling mom or dad can compile a unit study on any subject that interests a child, but some publishers take the hard work out of unit studies by putting packages together on a variety of topics.

Unit studies often incorporate multi-sensory approaches to a subject, making it ideal for kinesthetic learners. The downside is that these lessons may require extra preparation time on behalf of the parent.

Further Reading:

Creating a Unit Study Homeschool Curriculum
Five in a Row

3. The Charlotte Mason Method

Charlotte Mason pioneered amazing educational changes in Great Britain. Living in the late 1800’s, she revolutionized the educational system at that time–aiming to prove that children of any class had the capabilities to learn and enjoy it.

Her methods have seen a resurgence within homeschoolers of our generation–a wonderful thing as her teachings offer much to families and children. Key aspects of her philosophy include nature study, shorter lessons, narration, real “living” books as opposed to textbooks, and the development of good habits.

Further Reading:

When Children Love to Learn by Elaine Cooper
Ambleside Online
A Charlotte Mason Companion by Karen Andreola

4. The Unschooling Method

The word “unschooling” may sound frightening, especially if you are new to the idea of homeschooling. Terms with essentially the same definition, but that may be less intimidating include delight-directed education, relaxed homeschooling, or interest-led learning.

Photo by Jesse Millan

Unschooling advocates believe that children are born with a natural curiosity and love of learning, and that this desire to learn will continue to grow and develop if it isn’t stifled.

This method of education isn’t about neglect and isn’t just for hippies–many households pursue an intentional type of unschooling lifestyle and find that it brings joy to both them and their families. Even if you believe you must cover the “basics” in certain subjects, you can still implement part of this philosophy by allowing your children as much freedom as possible in other educational areas.

As a mom who went from thinking unschooling was the most outrageous, scary concept I’d ever heard of–to a mom who now loves relaxed homeschooling and seeks to implement it as much as possible, I encourage you to check out the following links.

Further Reading:

How Children Learn by John Holt
Teach Your Own by John Holt
Five Steps to Unschooling (Home Education Magazine)

Next week I’ll introduce a few more philosophies for your consideration. The range of educational methods available means that each child can really flourish as they learn.

As homeschooling parents, we get to watch the beauty unfold each and every day.

What an amazing privilege.

Which of these four methods have you implemented in your homeschool? If you’re just getting started, do any of these philosophies resonate with you?

About Jamie Martin

Jamie is a mama to three cute kids born on three different continents. She is the co-founder and editor of Simple Homeschool, where she writes about mindful parenting, intentional education, and the joy found in a pile of books. Jamie is also the author of a handful of titles, including her newest release, Give Your Child the World.


  1. You left out one major educational philosophy: Classical

  2. Hi Amber. There’ll be more to come next week…..

    .-= Simple Homeschool~Jamie’s last blog: Weekend Links & Giveaway Winner =-.

  3. Would you fix the link for the “Creating a unit study homeschool curriculum”?
    .-= Aimee’s last blog: Multiply Your Love =-.

  4. Great post. Our little guy is only eight-months old, but we are planning to homeschool. I’m trying to learn as much as I can as early as I can. Right now, we’re leaning towards Holt’s philosophies on unschooling, although we also really appreciate the ideas behind Montessori and Waldorf.
    .-= Toni Turbeville’s last blog: BABY ACTIVITY OF THE WEEK : Row Your Boat =-.

  5. We are life led learners and one thing I enjoy so much about our approach is using whatever fits best for our family and each child. My kids are still on the younger side (oldest is 5) but I am looking forward to find tools and outlets that best fit his learning style and interest.

    Thanks so much for the break down and I look forward to next week’s post.
    .-= hillary’s last blog: flowers13: @RonnaDetrick sounds fun! enjoy the champagne! =-.

  6. I LOVE the idea of unschooling, or interest-led learning and over last Summer began to think of ways to implement it for our son who is in 2nd grade this year (I was also starting our daughter in Kindergarten this year). I chickened out! My main trepidation is that I possibly do not possess the self-discipline (I did order your book from Amazon yesterday, so maybe it’ll offer some assistance in that area) to make sure that something educational is happening for my students at all times. And then there’s the other trepidation that they will not gain a complete education, in which case they would suffer immensely if our financial situation ever changes and I have to go to work and they enter the school system. So, we’ve ended up doing a mixture of Charlotte Mason, with short lessons, and Classical, implementing Susan Wise Bauer’s History curriculum. Whew, this is long, but it is the issue of the season for me, especially because our fourth child is due in September and I have a funny disease that makes me feel like that’s going to throw off my whole year of school! I’m wanting to nest already, down to the smallest detail, so that we can all experience the full joy of the baby’s arrival.

  7. Thanks for this post, Jamie! I am trying to figure out what to do about my daughter’s schooling and I can’t wait to learn more about these philosophies. We are really drawn to Charlotte Mason and the classical method right now… we’ll see, because we are also considering public and private school, too. It’s a big decision, but we have some time. 🙂
    .-= Katie ~ Simple Organic’s last blog: Green Goal-Setting, Part 1: Personal Life =-.

  8. great! I’ve sent this to several friends with very young ones who are thinking about future plans.

  9. Important for homeschoolers to know (at least in Canada) that “Traditional Homeschooling” means something different when you register as a homeschool family; it doesn’t refer to doing a ‘school at home’ or workbook approach, necessarily. It means that you, as a parent, will determine which resources and methods you’ll use as opposed to allowing a facilitator (or the government) dictate this to you. So, where I live, families registered as “Traditional homeschoolers” may actually follow a classical methodology, or be unschoolers or anywhere in between. They are not obliged to do any standardized testing. There are other differences. My point was simply to point out the different way this term is used so as to avoid confusion for potential homeschoolers when they research their options.

    • Yes! There is a distinction between a philosophy a family uses the the terms our government utilizes to group homeschool methods to distinguish funding and categorize for their records. Good point! (Fellow Canadian here 😉)

  10. Thanks for posting this Jamie! As if you read my mind! I’m exploring these things right now, my little one is only a year and a half and it is so fascinating that there are so many ways to go about it! I am wondering, will you be covering learning styles as well – like, how do you go about choosing which method? Because sometimes I think my own style fits well with unschooling but that maybe my daughter would be a better candidate for something classical? I’m going to read those resources you posted! Thank you again!
    .-= Vina’s last blog: The Early To Bed, Early To Rise Myth =-.

  11. I have found that Unit Themes work best for my daughter and me at this point in time, though I can see us transitioning to a Traditional approach once she reaches the ability to learn “independently” from a book/workbook.

  12. Thank you for this great article! There are so many questions for new home schoolers and wading through educational philosophies seems to be the biggie. Although my background is in traditional education, when we discovered a Charlotte Mason philosophy my husband and I have never looked back. I am blessed every day by the common sense approach to the way my children grow, learn and take in new ideas as their own; as well as the rigor it is providing for my now older elementary schooler. I think most of us probably salt and pepper other types of learning into our days…we certainly do, but the Charlotte Mason method provides the bones of what we do.

    • Stefani says:

      Kristen I’m curious to know what the Charlotte Mason style actually looks like in your day to day. My son is going into 5th grrade and we’re tryingto figure out which apporach might be best. I keep hearing about Charlotte Mason so I’m curious.

  13. Seeing it laid out this way, I suppose we are ‘interest-led learners’. I’m still kind of afraid of the unschooling term, even though we’ve been at it for about a year. We do some Charlotte Mason and a lot of Thomas Jeffersen Education. Reading is definitely at the heart of our learning style.
    .-= Emily @ Homespun Light’s last blog: The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kambewamba =-.

  14. Great run-down of different philosophies – and interesting discussion in these comments.

    We are mainly Waldorf influenced, but I think part of what draws us to that as learners is the unit study idea – whole to parts …. where you rotate main lesson topics but those topics enter into all of your lessons: language arts, math, social studies, science.

    Can’t wait to read more next week!
    .-= Kara’s last blog: More Than Words: Simple Ways to Show Your Kids You Love Them =-.

    • Faye E. Hunt says:

      Hi Kara,
      I know I’m coming into this thread very late but was wondering what resources/curriculum you use to reinforce your Waldorf approach? Have you ever used the Oak Meadow Curriculum? For someone so new to homeschooling options, I am particularly interested in a Waldorf-inspired way of learning and would love some more insight into what that translates to for your family?

  15. Classical definitely deserves a shout out as well since its roots go back to Ancient Greece/Rome and definitely is themed throughout Scripture. Having home schooled for 13 years, I have definitely tried dabbling in each of these philosophies pulling the best of each and incorporating them together. We do a lot of memory work but love hands on learning to tie in with it. 🙂
    Thanks for this excellent site. 🙂

  16. I don’t have a lot of experience with homeschooling – I pulled my son out of school and did about a month and a half last year before I purchased a curriculum. My friend who homeschools gave me one of your unit boxes that she makes. It was on insects. Doing that unit we had the time of our lives. It was so fun, for me and the kids – they absolutely loved it. But I had doubts about if I was really covering everything that needed to be covered. So, I went ahead and purchased a curriculum through Sonlight – which is literature based which I love. I’m now in week 5 of this curriculum and I have to say it is not as much fun as the unit box. It’s sometimes hard to motivate my son to do each of the readings and assignments. It also is hard to involve my younger ones – 4, 2 (and infant). Where as the unit study was really easy to involve them all. So, I’m not sure what I think now. I have fears about not sticking to a curriculum. I’m not very disciplined and I just don’t want to mess up. But at the same time if I have to keep pushing my son to do things he doesn’t want to do, that’s not very good either??? So, I’m kind of confused. I’m trying to read all I can and figure things out, but sometimes that just overwhelms me too. phew. this is long. Thanks for the post!

    • Hi Leslie. Thanks for your comment. Our family uses Sonlight, too–but we use it very much according to our own terms, and not necessarily by the Instructor’s Guide. I would try experimenting with different styles while still using the materials and book selections. With a bit more flexibility, and if you take the pressure off of yourself to follow things “according to the guide,” you may find you enjoy it more.

      Hang in there!

    • Leslie,
      You have completely described my home schooling situation. My 6 year old daughter loves active learning, and while I love Sonlight, she gets bored and finds going from reading to reading tedious.
      I started home schooling last fall. Six weeks into the school year we were blessed with the opportunity to adopt our son. It meant packing up my daughter and taking her to another state for 3 months until the baby was well enough to leave the hospital. I was so happy we were home schooling because public school would have made the stay impossible.
      Unfortunately, our son’s medical problems were only beginning when we returned home. I tried to start home school again this fall, but after a few weeks we decided my daughter was better off in public school than sitting in doctor offices worrying for her brother.
      He is now stable and thriving and today we returned to home school. I am struggling to find a method that works for us. I love the Sonlight materials but I don’t find their daily plan to be an enriching experience for Lydia.
      I hope you will continue to post here as it will be great to hear more about how you and your family are working through these questions. Best of luck to you!

  17. Wow this is so interesting. We are on the edge of diving into HSing with our 5 year old for next year. The Charlotte Mason & Unschooling methods seem to fit what my vision has been for our son. I am so looking forward to reading more! Thanks Jamie
    .-= Angie’s last blog: Photographing 2-year olds … eeek! =-.

  18. I consider our homeschool to be classically eclectic. I can remember when we first started out and classical homeschooling was in its resurgence. Over the years, I’ve relaxed a lot more and allowed the other philosophies to take their turn depending on the season and the child. Nature studies and child-led learning is often a part of our weekly “schooling”. Great post!

  19. Great discussion here! The beauty of homeschooling is being able to mix and match according to your parenting style and your child’s interests. I consider our homeschool to be “interest-led” which is closest to unschooling, but that just means everyone gets to do what they are drawn to, in a way that works for them. A “bookish” child can do it in a classical, traditional way; an “artsy” child can do it in a hands-on, emotional way. It’s pure joy to find what your child loves and then be able to nurture them in it. Love reading what you all have to say. 🙂
    .-= Jena’s last blog: Want Passionate Kids? =-.

  20. This is a helpful resource. We’re still trying to find ‘our method’ but at least we have options. Thanks for the post
    .-= Tracie’s last blog: Taking risks =-.

  21. Thanks for this! *Just* getting started with my 7-year-old, his last day of formal 2nd grade was last Friday. I’m leaning (from what I know so far) to project based, but haven’t decided or started. I’m taking a couple of weeks to wade through things and see what makes the most sense for us. I imagine there will be a bit of Classical and some unschooling too, I hope to be footloose most days!

  22. I grew up in the public school system. Our church has a Christian school that follows the Beka system but due to cost and distance, we’ve decided to home school – completely new to us! My oldest just turned 3 so we have some time yet. I had just assumed that home schooling was bringing a school setting into the home however since the launch of this site, I am beginning to see that it can be much more. I think that the Charlotte Mason style (after following some links) really appeals to us and the unschooling sounds pretty intriguing!
    .-= Jenn @ Beautiful Calling’s last blog: Feeling Munchy? Home Made Potato Chips =-.

  23. I hope that you will talk about Montessori as well.

  24. We started out when the kids were around 4 years old doing a little bit of Unit study with 5 in a row series. I loved the books they use. Then the following year I slowly moved into unschooling. We still read a lot of the books from the FIAR series, but we do it to suit us now. I was very leery of unschooling when I started looking into different types of homeschooling, but after reading a lot of books, magazines and family blogs I feel it is more natural for our family. The key is research and understanding your family’s needs. Great post Jamie.
    .-= Rana’s last blog: So how did we do? =-.

  25. Heather h says:

    Hi! I’m just starting to explore the homeschooling world, and I have read many posts on this blog…which is an excellent one if I might add:) I was wondering if there is one book or guide that would explain most of the methods mentioned on this site. While I love searching the internet, I also find it easier to curl up with an actual book in hand. Thanks!

  26. I just pulled my 2nd grader out of private school. I have no curriculum at this time. Thank you for spelling out all the different styles/philosophies. I have started creating a unit study on weather and printed out a unit study I found online for Legos. My son was doing Saxon Math while at school but not sure if I should finish that for this year or create my own math program. It is overwhelming when just getting started. I am not sure even where to begin. I know he is intellectually advanced (but immature that is why we pulled him out). I don’t want to mess this up! But I know this is God’s will for me to homeschool. Next year I will have him and one of his older sisters who would have been starting high school. I feel it is harder because they both have already been in school and maybe expect that same kind of style at home.

  27. Though I’m a former teacher, the idea of homeschooling slightly overwhelms me! I think it could be the best option for us, however, and I am really excited to learn more. Thanks for this post. I am looking forward to gaining a better understanding of the different methods and the practical resources available for each!

  28. We’re unschoolers. 🙂
    bethany’s latest post: yuv yuv

  29. A good source of basic information. I was just in the process of helping a mother sort through the seemingly endless options last week. We’ve only been at this for two years now but we’ve been around the learning curve from her point of view. I will send her this way. I am looking forward to other methods you may address.
    Jennifer’s latest post: Starting Points

  30. Jamie,
    I was just wondering if there was a way to figure out how our children learn best? I have heard of some tests, but not quite sure where to start. I think if I could pin point the best way my daughter learns then I could decide what type of homeschooling would be best for her/us. Thanks!
    Jessica’s latest post: Whats Going On With Us

  31. I am definitely a combination of things. We use Singapore Math for my 6th and 2nd grader and I love First Language Lessons for grammar. I love The Well Trained Mind-A Guide to Classical Education at Home. I lean towards classical with some unit studies, school at home, and unschooling mixed in.

  32. Thank you so much for this post, and your whole blog. My oldest daughter is currently in a Montessori school, and while we love it and the philosophy we are thinking about homeschooling because of the expense of private school. I don’t know if I could do it. I am worried I wouldn’t “do” it as well as at her current school. Having a curriculum is encouraging, but I’m still worried about it. Have you heard of the Enki curriculum?

  33. We like a mixed approach. We use a little bit of everything right now while our kids are so young (K and Pre-K) It’s fun to see how they attach to different things. We enjoy the variety and we love that we can change it up as we need to. The beauty of homeschooling is that we get to decide with our kids what and how we will all learn. I recommend attending your state’s annual HS conference. You can learn a lot at those – I know it really helped me!

  34. Stefani says:

    I love thsi post and have it boookmarked for awhile before actually reading it. I’m failry certain we’re taking the plung and taking our soon to be 5th grader out of public. Question though, as I seek to find the method best suited for him, ho w do I go about matching taht to him? I know there will be some trial and error but is there a resource or way to “test” him to see what his learning style and where he’s at academically?

  35. Stefani says:

    Yikes, just read my comment and all the typos…maybe I shouldn’t be the one teaching my son, lol!

  36. Camille Withers says:

    Hi, Isn’t that that school house at Old Sacramento?

  37. Laura France says:

    I just discovered your blog and I’m loving it! It is so helpful! We are considering returning to homeschooling and your posts on the different philosophies of homeschooling are so enlightening and helpful for me to feel confident in figuring out where our family falls and how to best prepare to homeschool so I don’t get overwhelmed and give up on it again. I have a request that would be very helpful to me, and possibly others: would you do an extended post for each of the philosophies you are highlighting? I found one for one of them and it was extremely helpful to see more details and to see the ways in which I agree and disagree so that I can take the nuggets that would be useful for our family without getting bogged down in feeling like I have to adopt and commit one single philosophy entirely.

    So if there was a separate, dedicated blog post for each philosophy, that would help me to hone in on what will work for our family instead of being overwhelmed with so much out there and giving up before I start, which is what happened previously. Thank you again for your blog. It has truly been an answer to prayer for my husband and I as we prepare to make an education decision for this fall!

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