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-Which Approach to Choose?
by Dr. Mary Kay Clark, Director of Seton Home Study
One of the topics buzzing around
homeschooling groups is the issue of structure vs.
for the homeschooling families. Looking through the
homeschooling literature, some programs advertise freedom and
independence; others advertise high academics; some advertise
character education and the unit study approach, some
advertise basic skills and content.
The programs which are
using the unit approach, claim that the structured programs
are trying to bring the classroom into the living room. Those
promoting programs that are structured are often heard to say
that the lack of structure could result in the possibility of
basic skills or areas of knowledge "falling through the
Differences In Thoughts and
The unstructured programs or
unit study approach build the various subject lessons
around an idea or concept. Most unit
study programs, for instance, will take a concept of a virtue,
such as patriotism or loyalty. The lessons may start with
characters from the bible who practice this virtue. From this,
historical characters are studies who many emulated this
virtue. Spelling words and vocabulary words are taken from the
Bible and historical readings. Grammar lessons, such as the
study of nouns, would be based on sentences from the Bible or
Unstructured programs tend to emphasize
hands-on experiences, field trips, and child-initiated
lessons. Sometimes the children pick their own "unit" to
study, such as the Revolutionary War. Mother and children work
together to plan lessons in other subject areas which can be
derived from the Revolutionary War studies.
Proponents of this approach believe that
children's interest level and motivation are high because the
program is more child-directed. Because the motivation is
high, even the spelling, vocabulary, and English are learned
better - they say - than in a structured approach.
is also a claim among the non-structured parents that they
have a warm and loving responsive approach to their children's
interests and needs. These proponents should realize that all
of us homeschooling mothers want what is best for our
children, that we all love our children very deeply or we
would not have made this full-time commitment in the first
place were it otherwise.
Most of the well-known curriculum
programs are structured, including the non-Catholic programs
like Pensacola Christian, Christian Liberty Home, Calvert,
and, of course, our own Catholic Seton Home Study. These schools all have
certain criteria for study, require tests periodically,
provide reports cards and standardized testing, offer
teacher-counseling service, etc.
Obviously, in the unstructured program in
which the studies are child-directed or child-initiated, the
child will be more motivated because he is more interested.
The conclusion is that high motivation results in good
education. However, there is no question that many children
have received excellent education through the structured
programs as well.
Certain homeschoolers and home school leaders
believe that the burnout experienced by homeschooling mothers
is due to structured programs or the structured classroom
approach. This is too
Burnout can be caused by lack of
organization, lack of discipline, lack of support by the
husband, antagonism by family and friends, or personal and
Close Look at Structure
There are advantages to both approaches
that we Catholics should not forget. Formalized Catholic
education was begun by the Catholic church with the cathedral
schools in Europe. From those schools came such great
scientists like St. Albert, not to mention St. Thomas Aquinas,
and so on. Down through the centuries, we can list thousands
of highly educated Catholics, many doctors of the Church, as
well as professional and scientific experts who were taught by
the formal and structured Catholic schools.
It would be a denial of history - a
denial of the achievements of the western world, in fact - to
deny the great education provided by the structured
curriculums of the Catholic schools and
However, within the structure of the programs
was an encouragement of creativity, creative thinking, and
flexibility of methods.
Consider the Summa Theologica of
St. Thomas Aquinas. St. Thomas had certain truths to teach,
but he encouraged his students to ask questions. He first
restated the questions and then gave his basic teaching, such
as the proofs of the existence of God. Then he answered the
questions. He encouraged questions
and discussions among his students.
Think about the convent schools
in the United States. From such schools came great Catholic
women leaders, women who volunteered their services for the
community, in schools and hospitals, and established Catholic
charities for the poor, the sick and the elderly. Some became
doctors and lawyers. The schools that taught them facts also
taught them thinking skills, how to be creative, how to
initiate projects, and, perhaps most importantly, how to serve
their fellow man.
What is the Answer?
The answer is a between structure and
non-structure. This blend must be reached after a
consideration of factors. These factors include the age of the
student, the learning ability and the best learning style for
the student, the parent's ability, and the subject
For instance, a kindergarten
child does not need formal structure at all, unless
kindergarten is required in a state. If so, probably there
would need to be some structure in math and phonics, though
the schedule might consist of 20 minutes a day in the morning
for each subject, and another 20 minutes in the
Older children need more
because certain skills and basic content should be learned.
Every day the student should be reading, practicing the
handwriting, phonics and math drills, and nearly every day
spelling and vocabulary.
The teaching of English grammar
needs to proceed more cautiously according to the maturity of
the student, since this involves a higher degree of logical
thinking. Composition exercises,
however, should be started as early as first grade, with
creative sentences and even short creative paragraphs. The
structure involved would be the daily formal practice, the
amount of time which would tend to be regular, and the time of
day which should be regular.
Children want a certain amount of
structure. It gives them stability and a sense of
things being in order. How would we feel if some days Father
had Mass at 8 a.m., sometimes 9 a.m., and sometimes 10 a.m.?
We would quickly become frustrated and stop attending
In the same way, children need to
get up at a certain time, eat at a certain time, and rest at a
certain time. This promotes mental and physical
Structure regarding time of classes,
the amount of time for the class, and possibly even a pattern
for the class (such as the study of spelling and vocabulary)
will result in security and healthy progress in learning the
The Flexibility Factor
On the other hand, some classes lend
themselves naturally to what we at Seton call the flexibility
are the subjects of science and history, and sometimes
religion. In these subjects, the lessons may be closely
followed, or there may be more creativity and
The science program at Seton, for instance,
has daily and weekly lessons with the textbook, but projects
and experiments are encouraged. Some families don't use the
textbook at all. We have farm families whose children become
involved in various projects at home which become their
science projects. Some raise animals, some grow experimental
vegetables, some work with Dad on hobby type projects, such as
photography. My own children, due to my working mother hours,
have watched the Mr. Wizard programs and have done many of the
While Seton's history
courses include a textbook and
daily lesson assignments, field trips to historical museums or
famous battlefields are encouraged. These days, historical or
biographical films or videos are available. These activities
can enrich and supplement the courses, and sometimes actually
replace lessons or chapters in a text.
In religion, especially with the large family, we
encourage flexibility by having two or more children learn the
same subject matter at the same time. The children may all
discuss the eighth commandment with mother or father, but
perhaps the older children should read more details in their
text. The youngest may draw a color picture of a child
returning his library book on time, and the middle child may
need to work on memorizing a catechism answer.
Most parents, whether using a structured
or non-structured approach, group the children for art, music
and physical education. In addition, Seton encourages families
to consider local art, music or physical education classes as
they may be available. Needless to say, we need to monitor any
group classes. Some homeschooling support groups are working
toward join arts and crafts classes, gym days, or science
At Seton, while we have a structured
program, we also give credit to a child who is involved in a
support group class. For instance, in science, we simply ask
that a description of the course is sent to us, along with
evidence of work done, and a grade based on the parent's
The above flexible arrangements offer
our families and benefits of the structured program as well as
the advantages of the instructed courses.
Pros and Cons of Testing and
One of the reasons I heard that parents
don't like a structured program is what they consider its
excessive emphasis on testing and grades. There are advantages
and disadvantages to both.
Advantages include helping mothers and students stay on a fairly
regular schedule and having "proof" of consistent progress. It
some states, formal testing and a report card are either
required or serve as a protection against hassling by local or
state educational authorities.
The advantage of no testing and grades
is a lack of pressure on mothers and students not to perform
in a certain way or by a certain time. Of course, families
enrolled in Seton who choose not to test or have grades on a
report card are free to choose this option. They still have
the benefits of counseling from our priests and teachers, the
learning disability specialists, and our attorney.
The High School Years
Parents of high school students who are
being homeschooled, however, need to seriously consider the
benefits of a structured program. While children up to eighth
grade need to concentrate on basic language arts and math
skills, at the
high school level, certain knowledge content is expected by
colleges for their entering freshmen.
High school students enrolled in a
structured program can and should still have some flexibility
within the course work. Seton highly encourages field trips and
hands-on projects. Requests for alternative books for analysis
in English class or for alternative science projects are
almost always accepted. The bottom line, of course, is that
certain tests or papers need to be done in order to obtain a
report card or transcript or dimploma with the Seton School
name on it.
It is commonly thought that
Seton's high school program is challenging and demanding,
programmed for the college-bound student. While this is true
to some extent, Seton has introduced courses which are meant
to accomodate the non-college bound student. While these may
not be as accademically demanding, neverthless, they are the
best texts we could find.
If a parent chooses not to enroll in a
program for the high school yeras, we recommend that the
parent come fully informed about what is expected by the
college or vocational school, not only in the way of
curriculum but also for report cards and standardized testing.
The military and related academies are almost impossible to
enter without being enrolled in a formal program.
In conclusion, it is most important for
all of us to reemmber that God gives each parents the graces
to make the decisions for their own children. It is not for
any of us to judge an individual couple's decision about the
method or program chosen for their children.
However, we at Seton believe that,
given the teachings and documents of the Church, parents need
to take the responsibility to teach their own children at
home. We encourage all Catholic parents to homeschool, no
matter what program nor method. Our primary goal is not facts
and figures, but Faith and Family.
-From "The Catholic Family's
Magnificat!" Premiere Issue 1994
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