What makes a good educational philosophy?

I’ve been musing on this topic lately.  We recently finished our sixth official year of homeschooling (counting K – 5th).  Philosophically, I am in a very different place from where I started at the beginning of our homeschooling journey.  I was originally introduced to homeschooling by friends who follow the educational philosophy outlined in A Thomas Jefferson Education by Oliver DeMille.  Before reading A Thomas Jefferson Education, I read a few other books on homeschooling that I found at my local library.  At the time, I enjoyed The Unschooling Handbook by Mary Griffith, which teaches a philosophy of child-led learning.  John Holt, who wrote books such as How Children Learn, was another author I read during my pre-homeschooling years. He is the father of the unschooling movement.

I have always loved rich, classic literature, so I was intrigued by what I heard my friends saying about A Thomas Jefferson Education (TJEd).  My husband and I read the book together and we agree that we want our children to be prepared to be individual thinkers and leaders rather than products of “the conveyor belt” of education.  I became involved with our local TJEd community, attending a Face to Face with Greatness seminar, forums (conferences), and classes.  I read more things written by Oliver DeMille and other TJEd authors, determined to help my children achieve “leadership education.”

I grew frustrated, though.  I felt like I was spinning my wheels to get our homeschool up and running, but I just didn’t have enough practical knowledge to feel satisfied with what we were doing.  I re-read my TJEd book and articles.  I bought more books.  I attended more lectures.  Then I began to question whether TJEd was actually what my family should be doing.  I doubted whether or not I should be homeschooling at all because I knew that I was not facilitating the type of education that would foster well-adjusted adults capable of leadership.

I more closely examined DeMille’s “Seven Keys of Great Teaching” and reconsidered their effectiveness in creating a well-educated person:

  1. Classics, not Textbooks  As I mentioned before, I love classic literature.  I get lost in Austen’s romances.  I’m swept away by Robert Louis Stevenson’s adventure stories.  I’m thrilled by the epic battles and heroic deeds in the ancient tales.  I have very much enjoyed sharing classic literature with my children.  We also enjoy classic art and music, and we include original source texts (where possible) in our history studies.  I have come to disagree strongly, however, about using classics exclusively–especially for subjects such as math and foreign languages (among others).  Newton’s Principia Mathematica is most decidedly NOT an effective way to learn calculus.  Textbooks that systematically instruct a child from basic arithmetic to multi-variable calculus and linear algebra are a much more appropriate and effective tool for learning and understanding mathematics.  Newton’s contributions to math and science should certainly be studied, but history would be a more appropriate location in the curriculum than applied math.  (In more recent years I’ve heard TJEd proponents backpedal a bit to include Saxon Math and Life of Fred as classics, but my original exposure was that DeMille himself suggested using novels like The Chosen for math studies.)  Reading Don Quixote in its original, archaic Spanish with the aid of an English translation and a Spanish-English dictionary is definitely NOT an effective way to learn Spanish.  A far more effective course of study would be to use a textbook that outlines important topics such as conjugation, syntax, and vocabulary.  After those basic skills are learned, they can be mastered through reading, writing, and speaking (modern) Spanish.  I’m now certain that classics AND textbooks are both needed.
  2. Mentors, not Professors  I have fewer problems with this Key.  As a homeschooling mom, I sometimes wear a mentor hat, guiding my child through a process with encouragement, questions, and suggestions.  At other times, I have knowledge that my child lacks and needs, so I actively teach her what I know.  Both models are necessary during the educational process, depending on the student’s needs and abilities at any given time.  I’m a fan of mentors AND professors.
  3. Inspire, not Require  This was a total, utter flop for us.  Yes, I model studying (and cleaning and working) to my children.  No, they don’t automatically want to do as I do.  😛  As with the other Keys, I combine Inspire with Require.  I explain why a particular skill/task/book/activity is worthwhile and I require it if it’s something I feel strongly about my child doing.  Math (via textbook) every day is a requirement in our homeschool. 😉
  4. Structure Time, not Content  This was another Key that I just could not make work.  I floundered because my children didn’t always know what they wanted to learn.  I also realized that there were things I needed them to learn, but I couldn’t teach them without a plan for the content I wanted to cover.  I’ve also realized that I am a planner.  I like lists.  I like order. I like knowing how to get from Point A to Point B.  I dislike gaps and a scatter-shot approach to a topic.  Above all, as the adult in the relationship, I am better equipped to know what my kids need to learn before they reach adulthood.  My kids and I ALL breathed a sigh of relief once I started making weekly lists of what we were going to do on each school day.  We have regular school hours (mornings are saved for schoolwork with afternoons available to finish, if needed).  My kids and I know what content we are going to cover at a minimum.  They can and do delve deeper into topics that interest them.  I’m a fan of structured time AND content because my kids learn far more than they would otherwise.
  5. Quality, not Conformity  I pretty much agree with this one.  I give feedback that identifies any problems.  My students correct the problems, thereby learning how to improve the quality of their work.  Mediocrity is unacceptable.
  6. Simplicity, not Complexity  I disagree that a “complex” or diverse course of study will cause burn-out, frustration, and lack of creative thinking.  A classical education, the type of education Thomas Jefferson himself received prior to being mentored by George Wythe, is rigorous and covers a wide array of subjects.  Literature makes more sense when you understand the history of the time in which it was written.  Scientific advancements and mathematical concepts build upon and correct earlier ideas.  Knowledge of the past helps us understand how humanity arrived at its present state and can help us better predict what the future holds.  Formal logic enables critical thinking, which is precisely what is needed to create leaders rather than followers.  I keep our implementation as simple as possible, but my children enjoy a “complex” curriculum.
  7. You, not Them  Watching me learn is not the same thing as having my children learn for themselves.  I am a big believer in modeling a desired behavior, but not to the exclusion of gently guiding or (if needed) insistently instructing my children in how they should behave.  My public school education and 4-year BA degree have left gaps in my own education.  I’m filling those gaps as my children and I follow the structure of the classical trivium.  It should be You AND Them.
  8. Secure, Not Stressed  This Key was added after I abandoned TJEd, but I want to address it.  One of the reasons I left TJEd with a bad taste in my mouth is that I knew a lot of other parents felt lost on how to do TJEd–how to create these articulate, knowledgeable statesmen who would lead humanity into a better tomorrow.  I got frustrated and, honestly, offended by admonishments to “trust the process” because I didn’t see the process working for very many people.  TJEd is new and radical.  Unproven.  That’s not something I could trust without more evidence that TJEd does, in fact, produce brilliant thinkers and leaders.  It stressed me out to know the outcome I want for my children (secure, independent, critical thinkers) and not have a proven, practical way to facilitate that goal.  My stress has gone down and my security has gone up after I changed my approach to a true classical model.

I am critical of A Thomas Jefferson Education as an educational philosophy because the methods are unlikely to produce the stated goal of independently thinking leaders.  I looked at the great minds that DeMille so zealously lauds, and found that Thomas Jefferson was educated via the trivium model of classical education.  So, if I want my kids to have an education like Thomas Jefferson actually had, I know that a classical approach is the way to go.

Reading The Well-Trained Mind changed my life and the course of my children’s education.  I know that’s a rather dramatic statement, but I was ready to throw in the towel and send my kids to public school because I did not know how to give them an education based on the classics at home.

The Well-Trained Mind showed me how.  It taught me the basic patterns of classical education.  I’ve been able to tweak it to give each of my children the education most appropriate for their needs and abilities as students and my needs and abilities as a teacher.  Homeschooling has been so much easier with a well-worn, proven road to follow rather than having to carve my own path through the wilderness.  This is not a conveyor belt that spits out cookie-cutter conformists.  Classical education produces reasoned, knowledgeable people who are grounded in an understanding of the world and know how to learn and evaluate new ideas.  Surely we need more of those.  😉

My own education has improved dramatically as well.  With the concept of a four-year history rotation to guide me, I have read more classics in the past three years than I read when I was officially a student.  My understanding and appreciation of the world is much deeper and richer than it once was.  When my husband and I visited Europe last month, I had the historical and cultural context needed to truly appreciate what we were seeing.  It’s wonderful!

So, what makes a good educational philosophy?  My answer to that question is this:  A good educational philosophy is one that works to help your student reach his or her educational goals.  For our homeschool, a liberal arts, classical education is the most likely way to reach our goal of articulate, thoughtful, rational, well-rounded adults who love to learn. 🙂


About Laura

I've been homeschooling since 2005. I have six children (born 2000 - 2012). We are eclectic in our approach with a bit more Well-Trained Mind philosophy over anything else.
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8 Responses to What makes a good educational philosophy?

  1. Rachel says:

    Thanks for the recap of TJed. I’ve heard a lot about it, but I don’t know anyone who actually uses it. On the surface, it seems like a great program, but it just never spoke to me like TWTM did when I first heard about it. It’s nice to see that someone else thinks of it as life changing.

  2. Julie M. Smith says:

    This is a great post. My thoughts about TJEd are here:


  3. dangermom says:

    Very good analysis! I read WTM before I read TJEd, and though I read TJEd twice, I couldn’t seem to wrap my brain around how it was actually supposed to work. WTM grabbed me from the start and my reaction was that “I could do this.”

    I get very nervous when people say to “trust the process.” I think that’s a big red flag. That’s what proponents of Everyday Math say too. It seems to me to be an indicator of fuzziness.

  4. Sarah says:

    Hmm, I disagree with TJEd’s claim that their is THE way to educate leaders–I’m not actually aware of any leaders who have been educated in that manner; TJEd has created something new, and so far fairly un-tried. But I also disagree with TWTM’s claim that their model is a “classical” education–it also is something quite new. That doesn’t make it bad, of course, and it draws on many educational traditions of past centuries (again, neither good nor bad in and of itself). Have you read the Latin-Centered Curriculum? It gives you a better idea of what a “traditional” classical education would have been like. When Dorothy Sayers propounded her “three stages” theory for education in the trivium, she was very much aware that what she was proposing was, once again, new and untried.
    I read widely, ponder, pray, try things, adjust based on experience…I think there are some good insights in the TJEd community, and I draw from them. I also draw from Susan Wise Bauer, Andrew Campbell, the Bluedorns, Leigh Bortins, and others in the Classical homeschooling community. And then there are the fabulous ideas of Charlotte Mason and her more recent interpreters…
    The true danger lies, I think, in wanting someone else to tell us exactly what to do–or in believing there is one and only one way to educate and we will fail if we don’t find/apply it. As far as I am aware, Moses wasn’t educated by TJEd methods, Abraham Lincoln didn’t follow TWTM, Thomas S. Monson did not receive a Latin Centered education…there is more than one road to a successful life (however we define that). Different educational methods will lead to somewhat different results, and we cannot have the positive elements of each…but we CAN give our children a good education using the methods that seem right for us and our family.
    I’ve started a series of posts reviewing classical education methods and philosophies. You can read the first one here: http://growingwisely.com/2011/06/03/homeshooling-methods-and-philosophies-what-is-classical-education/
    Others are in draft form, they take me a long time to write but they will be appearing in the next few weeks.

    • Laura says:


      I agree with this. One thing my experience with TJEd taught me is to diversify my homeschooling gurus. 😉 I greatly admire and respect Susan Wise Bauer, but I don’t do everything she suggests.

      I haven’t read LCC. You’re right that TWTM isn’t pure/”true” classical. It’s a nice blend of new and old and makes sense to me more than any other pattern I’ve read about. 🙂 I want my kids to have a liberal arts education and TWTM curriculum outlines that course of study. So, it’s a good fit for us. It holds more credibility for me than TJEd because SWB and her siblings were homeschooled via this approach decades ago. She holds a PhD from an accredited and respected university, where she also teaches. She also makes a lot more sense than DeMille, but maybe I’m just a practical type of person. 😉

      One of these days I’ll get around to reading LCC and The Core, just to see a new perspective. 🙂

    • Laura says:

      I came across this article today in which Susan Wise Bauer discusses “neoclassical” methods of education (TWTM is one): http://www.welltrainedmind.com/charlotte-mason-education/

      • thegardener says:

        Hi Laura,
        I posted my review of TWTM yesterday. Overall I find the book to be a good resource, but I disagree rather strongly with it’s focus on intensive academics in the early years. SWB has shifted Dorothy Sayer’s suggested beginning years for teaching the trivium a full four years forward–Sayers suggested the Grammar phase start at age 9. Evidence from both my own experience and observations and from research in children’s physical and mental development suggest that formal academics are not really appropriate to the early years. We do lots of explorative learning in my home, we even do some memorization, math study, copywork, etc.–but more importantly I give my young children lots of time for free dramatic play and outdoors exploration.

  5. Sandra says:

    I started with no methodology, then found TWTM which really spoke to me – probably because it was a perfect fit for my eldest. It has worked less well with subsequent children so I searched and searched. I too got involved with TJEd methodology for a while but it was never a great fit for me because I do not “fit” in the typical TJEd audience in any way, shape or form. The keys and stages seemed too vague but the more detailed instructions (55 keys etc) got too nit-picky for me ( what do you mean I can’t have a coffee table and I can’t have the computer in the family room). What I’m finding works for us best at the moment is espoused by Diane Lockman on her Classical Scholar website and in the book Trivium Mastery. I’ve taken her idea of roadmaps and they’ve given me the structure I wanted but still allow the flexibility various kids crave. But I haven’t thrown away the rest – there is still a lot I like and use from TWTM, plus TJEd (I always took the “nots” in the 8 keys with a grain of salt – my versions involved phrases like, “more than” and “as well as”) not to mention Charlotte Mason etc. If you do decide to read her material be aware that she challenges TWTM methodology, although she doesn’t mention it by name.

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