Let the kids lead - consciously
Going off on tangents is another massive advantage of homeschooling that schoolteachers can only dream of. If your kids are obsessed with dinosaurs this week, then have a dinosaur week. Whatever helps to motivate them, grab that opportunity.
The core skills of reading, writing and arithmetic can be applied to almost anything, so who cares if they’re learning about volcanoes or vans or velociraptors? What’s important is that they are reading, putting sentences together and working with numbers. If it catches their imagination and helps them to concentrate more deeply for longer, then go for it.
Presenting options is another great way to give the illusion of control. Shall we learn about limericks or rhyming couplets today? In the end, your kids will learn about both, so there’s no harm in letting them choose which they do first. If topics genuinely build on each other, do them in order, although often they are independent. Presenting options is an easy win. It provides extra motivation, because when they choose rhyming couplets, that shows they’re interested in it, and they would be contradicting themselves if they suddenly declared that it was boring. That doesn’t guarantee they won’t, of course, but it helps.
Also, follow tangents within lessons. If an interesting question comes up, or you realise there’s an important gap in their knowledge, then shelve your carefully designed plan and go through that instead. Their question indicates that they are now ready for that piece of information, to internalise that information according to both Piaget’s and Vygotsky’s theories, so listen out. If your kid’s topic is something you know nothing about, then it’ll have to wait until tomorrow while you do some rapid research. That’s fine, just don’t forget.
Tangents can go too far. If they want to talk about SpongeBob SquarePants for half an hour, that’s not useful. Get them to write about it instead. Many topics can be made more academic with some tweaks. SpongeBob has an interesting set of marine fauna friends, so that’s a great topic, too. My kids, when first asked what they’d like to do projects about, straightaway said “poo and wee”. Well, the urinary and digestive systems are fascinating, so that worked well, and the poster now hangs proudly in our toilet.
Tangents could be an entire lesson’s worth of work, a discussion to illustrate a point or a digression with a single example. They’re all great. It takes some mental agility to tie a random topic from the kids into something you want to teach, so if you succeed, give yourself a mental pat on the back. Your child will remember their own questions best because they bring the subject to life for them.
This isn’t just hand-wavy goodwill: academic research confirms that giving these choices will help your homeschool. Quail and Ward found that when “Interests or preferences of students are incorporated into required academic tasks” there is “Improvement in student behavior & academic performance”
So where possible, let the kids choose the entire subject in advance. Like the poo and wee poster mentioned above, projects are a great way to give kids limited free rein. Whatever’s on their mind that week, this is your chance to devote some official time to it. Plan ahead, with the kids taking turns to choose topics. That’s a nice motivation boost; just be ready to learn some random subjects.
Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development
Quail, K. R., and Ward, C. L., 2020, Nonviolent Discipline Options for Caregivers and Teachers: A Systematic Overview of the Evidence. Trauma, Violence and Abuse, sagepub.com/journals