Homeschooling is, in short, educating your own children, outside of an institutional setting. That is the short answer. If you ask ten homeschooling families “what is homeschooling”, you are likely to get ten very different answers reflecting their personal philosophy and experience.
There are a number of different styles and approaches that appeal to different people. Below are a few examples and descriptions that will give you a place to begin in your search for what feels right for your family. This is a jumping off point, not an exhaustive list, and there are many specific styles and curricula that overlap the general categories.
Keep in mind, also, that most homeschooling families fall somewhere in the middle; they pick and choose from various styles and may change their approach over the course of their homeschooling journey. In homeschooling, discovering that a particular curriculum or approach does not work for you or your child is not a failure. It is part of the learning and growth process.
I have attempted to order the list on a continuum, from most like the setting we public-schooled parents grew up in, to the least. However, as most things homeschooling, much of the structure and regimen for any educational style will be determined by your own family. There are likely to be as many families who prefer a school at home approach and a very relaxed, unstructured life as there are unschoolers who thrive on schedules and routine.
School at Home
Generally, this would be considered public or private “distance” education.* Families pay tuition and receive educational materials (e.g. textbooks, lessons, tests) from an accredited school, as well as teacher support. There are some programs that offer online classes with specific meeting times.
Examples would include programs such as the Calvert School and K-12.
This approach is based upon the academic trivium, the three stages of learning, and a cyclical approach to study, particularly history. Grammar stage (elementary) children learn facts and engage in memorization activities. Logic stage (middle school) students, covering the same topics, begin to use analytical thinking and discover the relationships between various areas of study. Rhetoric stage (high school) learners focus on self expression and may begin to specialize in areas that interest them through specialized training, camps or amateur associations.
Classical education may focus heavily on language (e.g. Latin and Greek) and classical literature (Homer, Aeschylus).
Examples include Charlotte Mason, Thomas Jefferson Education, The Well Trained Mind.
Eclectic homeschoolers simply take the parts of the various styles that appeal to them. In this approach, you may find a family who follows a four-year history cycle (Classical), with the major focus of their elementary aged children being art and music and exploration of the world of imagination (Waldorf), and a great deal of time spent reading classic, engaging books together (Classical). They may spend many hours on nature walks, discovering their native flora and fauna (Classical) and learning more about any tidbits the children find interesting (Unschooling). They might also be enrolled in online math and phonics programs (School at Home) and spend time learning handiwork (Classical, Waldorf).
There are no concrete examples of an eclectic approach, as its nature is that each family integrates pieces of various programs that appeal to them.
This is a system based upon the educational philosophy of Rudolf Steiner. The central focus is to foster an intrinsic love of learning and understanding by students as to how they relate to the world. Elementary aged children are engaged in learning through artistic pursuits (e.g. creation of visual arts, music and rhythm, role playing) while older students engage in observation and scientific exploration of the world. The goal is to prepare each student to pursue their individual path in life as a productive and moral member of the world.
Examples of homeschool programs include Christopherus and Oak Meadow.
This approach is difficult to define and there are ongoing debates among unschooling families at to what, exactly, constitutes an unschooler. At its simplest, unschooling is “child led learning”, as described by John Holt. However, this itself is a continuum; some parents may introduce various subjects and gauge interest to determine whether they continue, whereas others may try not to suggest any particular path, as this would negate the “child led” aspect. Some families use packaged curricula because their children ask for it, others strictly adhere to the philosophy of learning through living their daily lives. Whatever the individual path, the underlying philosophy remains: children (and people in general) are innately curious and will seek out knowledge on their own. Parents simply facilitate and support the acquisition of knowledge as their children show interest.
There are no definitive examples of unschooling. Please see the resources section.
This list, like the style descriptions, is by no means exhaustive. Many of the resources will lead you to other sites, books and articles. Use this list to explore the various styles of education and get a feel for what inspires you. The single best resource for homeschooling, whatever your style, is fellow homeschool families! Seek out support from local and virtual groups whenever possible.
School at Home
A Thomas Jefferson Education: Teaching a Generation of Leaders for the Twenty-First Century, DeMille, Oliver
A Thomas Jefferson Education Home Companion, DeMille, Oliver, et al
Charlotte Mason's Original Homeschooling Series, Mason, Charlotte
The Latin-Centered Curriculum, Campbell, Andrew
The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home, Revised and Updated Edition, Bauer, Susan W. and Jesse Wise
Understanding Waldorf Education: Teaching from the Inside Out, Petrash, Jack
Waldorf Education: A Family Guide, Fenner, Pamela J., ed.
What is Waldorf Education: Three Lectures, Steiner, Rudolf and Stephen Keith Sagarin
Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling, Gatto, John Taylor
Learning All the Time, Holt, John
(and all other titles by John Holt)
The Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to Quit School and Get a Real Life and Education, Llewellyn, Grace
The Unschooling Unmanual, Hunt, Jan and Jason
Home Learning, Year by Year: How to Design a Homeschool Curriculum from Preschool Through High School,
(and other titles by Rebecca Rupp)
Homeschooling at the Speed of Life: Balancing Home, School and Family in the Real World, Rockett, Marilyn
The Homeschooling Handbook (Revised 2nd Edition), Griffith, Mary
(and other titles by Mary Griffith)
* “School at home” can also refer to a family's personal style of structure, where they schedule subjects at specific times, have a “school room”, complete with desks and chalkboard, in their home, etc. The two uses of the term are not synonymous.