Home schooling is increasing in popularity across North America, and over the years we’ve done some home schooling here at our homestead at the end of Bailey Line Road on Manitoulin Island, Ontario. In fact, we’re still doing it. But our approach is different than most. Here’s how we home school and why . . .
It was 1995 when it came time for our oldest child, Robert, to go to school, and at the time I really wanted to teach him at home. My thinking was simple: Both my wife, Mary, and I are home all day every day, and working together I was sure we could teach Robert in ways that the school system couldn’t match. Trouble was, Mary didn’t feel up to the job of home schooling and I didn’t think I could fit the job of a home schooling dad into my work day. So Robert ended up going to public school for his whole career, and so did his younger sister, Katherine.
As the years went by, I could see a steady decline in the level of morality and behaviour in the classroom. Academic expectations were in decline, too. Every long-term teacher I speak with tells me the same thing: kids today are nothing like the kids they taught 20 years ago. But despite my concerns as a dad, I couldn’t figure out how to fit home schooling into my work day, at least not the way I envisioned home schooling at the time. If only I knew then what I know now.
Quite by accident one day, I realized something. So many home schoolers manage their day the same way professional teachers do in public schools, just on a smaller scale. The parent acts as the teacher, spoon feeding the children information, leading them through the learning process hand-in-hand. My problem was that I didn’t have time to spoon feed and I’d never seen any alternative. Then it hit me: In a world where information is anything but scarce, is spoon feeding information really the best way for a child to learn? Perhaps one of the best “lessons” I could give my kids was the experience of how they could teach themselves.
I decided to put this idea into practice in 2009, when my son, Joseph, was going into grade 7 and my son Jacob was heading into grade 5. They didn’t like the idea of home schooling, but I explained that we’d try it for two years and see what happened. My plan was simple and it worked beautifully.
I set out daily academic expectations for Joe and Jake, give them the resources they need to learn what they needed to learn on their own, then monitor the results. I would do no teaching unless absolutely necessary, passing the responsibility for learning on to them. My job was to make sure these boys learned, but not to spoon feed them. As it turned out, my role as a home schooling dad took me about one hour a day, but the results we achieved were even better than I’d hoped.
The first thing I noticed about Joe and Jake when they started home schooling was that neither could write properly. They were both at the top of their classes in all subjects, yet neither of them knew how to use capitals, commas, periods and paragraphs. Each of their “sentences” had at least two spelling errors. Handwriting was almost illegible all the time. Math was weak, too. Neither boy knew their multiplication tables by heart (a milestone that everyone in my school had mastered by the end of grade 3), and neither understood how to manage their time at all.
One of the home schooling approaches I put into practice back then had to do with time and productivity. I didn’t care how fast or slow they worked, as long as they got their day’s work done before sundown. At first, if the boys wasted time, it might take them from 8 am to 6 pm to finish their work. But once they realized that working efficiently got them out of the office and down at the lake fishing for the afternoon, they could be done their day’s work by 11 am. It’s amazing what happens when a boy feels the rewards of being productive.
By the end of our two years home schooling at an elementary level, both Joe and Jake could write better than most adults, they could teach themselves just about anything, and they were covering chemistry and history and geography at a high school level. Joseph went on to teach himself all through high school (no help from me nor teachers) and earned an SAT score high enough to win an academic scholarship at the University of Tennessee. Joseph also used his afternoons to teach himself shot put and discus throwing on some concrete pads we poured together in our pasture as part of our customized home schooling program. Home schooling gave Joe the time necessary to train for hours as part of his workday, and this let him go on to set Canadian records in shot put and discus. Jacob has grown into an accomplished horseman and is on his way to becoming a veterinarian.
None of this is to brag, it’s just that I firmly believe, many young people could achieve similar results if they were presented with expectations for learning that were different than what’s common today. Will this kind of home schooling work for every family? No, it can’t. But I’m sure many more young people would develop more fully if they were taught to teach themselves as well as taught specific subjects.
Right now I’m home schooling just one child, our 10-year-old daughter, Ellie. She’s quite different than the boys and this shows up in different ways. But despite the differences in learning style and interests, it’s amazing how she’s learning what matters and learning to teach herself. And isn’t this the kind of stuff that everyone should take away from their school experiences?
Steve Maxwell and his wife Mary live on a 90-acre modern homestead on Manitoulin Island, Ontario in a stone house they built with local materials beginning in 1985. Steve is Canada’s longest-running home improvement and how-to columnist and editor of Home and Property. He divides his time working on the land, building things large and small, and creating articles and how-to videos that teach sustainable, self-reliant, hands-on living skills.