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Top 5 Books on Children's Education and Homeschooling

Updated: Apr 2, 2023

With the arrival of the new school year, I wanted to share a list of my favorite books about children's education and homeschooling. These books are not just for homeschoolers, as they would be fantastic resources for parents of children who are not homeschooled as well.

I started studying children's education and schooling methods about 5 years ago, when my eldest was just 3 years old. I knew I wanted to homeschool my children, and wanted to give them the best schooling I could provide. So I read, and read, and read many different books. These are the best of all the books I've read on education and homeschooling. 

Thomas Jefferson Education: Teaching a Generation of Leaders for the Twenty-First Century

Reading A Thomas Jefferson Education led to a paradigm shift in my understanding of education.  Before reading this book, I thought that the purpose of education was to learn specific concepts, to check-off-the-boxes of learning specific information.  In our home school, this translated to me trying to meet specific grade content in our learning.  This type of schooling is also known as the Conveyor Belt model of education.

Through reading A Thomas Jefferson Education, my views of education were broadened and expanded; I realized that I was teaching my daughter WHAT to think  instead of HOW to think. To quote from A Thomas Jefferson Education, 

In a conveyor belt education, "the goal is to give students the same ideas, and to grade or rank them according to their conformity with these ideas... Only in the last seventy years has [public school] become the predominant system...
"Almost everybody in America today is getting the kind of education that has historically been reserved for those who simply had no other options."

A Thomas Jefferson Education is not a step-by-step guide on how to provide a Leadership Education, but it sets the philosophical ground work for doing so.  Instead of focusing on details of what to teach, it looks at the overall big picture of the purpose of education.

Leadership Education has three primary goals: "to train thinkers, leaders, entrepreneurs, and statemen - individuals with the character, competence, and capacity to do the right thing and do it well... The second goal is to perpetuate freedom, to prepare people who know what freedom is, what is required to maintain it, and who exert the will to do what is required. These two goals are accomplished by the third: teaching students how to think...
"...leadership education is based on several powerful traditions: student-driven learning, great teachers, mentors, classics, and hard work.

Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling

John Taylor Gatto, the author of Dumbing Us Down, was a public schoolteacher for 30 years who was named the NY City and NY State Teacher of the Year. This book made me cringe as I reflected on my own experiences in public school and realized just how true Gatto's criticisms of the school system were. This book made me look at schooling in a whole new light, and helped me realize that there was much from the school environment which I did not want to replicate in our home school.

A quote from the introduction:

"...I've come to believe that genius is an exceedingly common human quality, probably natural to most of us... I began to wonder, reluctantly, whether it was possible that being in school itself was what was dumbing them down. Was it possible I was hired not to enlarge children's power, but to diminish it? That seemed crazy on the face of it, but slowly I began to realize that the bells and the confinement, the crazy sequences, the age-segregation, the lack of privacy, the constant surveillance, and all the rest of the national curriculum of schooling were designed exactly as if someone had set out to prevent children from learning how to think and act, to coax them into addiction and dependent behavior...
"I began to devise guerrilla exercises to allow as many of the kids I taught as possible the raw material people have always used to educate themselves: privacy, choice, freedom from surveillance, and as broad a range of situations and human associations as my limited power and resources could manage... 
"What I do that is right is simple to understand: I get out of kids' way, I give them space and time and respect. What I do that is wrong, however, is strange, complex, and frightening. Let me begin to show you what that is."

Leadership Education: The Phases of Learning

Leadership Education: The Phases of Learning is an excellent resource for implementing the principles of Leadership Education in homes and home schools. This book provides a great overview of children's developmental stages, including information about how those stages affect learning and the optimal educational environment. The book then dives into the details (or "ingredients") of different techniques, methods, and environmental factors that work together to foster excellent education.

I refer back to this book at least once or twice a year, whenever I am looking for inspiration on how to improve our home school or whenever I feel stuck in a rut.  It is filled with so many great ideas that aid me in creating the type of learning environment I am trying to create for my children. 

Here is a quote from the book in the context of creating the right type of environment for learning:

"Summers are a good time to sweat, something the last two generations have largely forgotten to teach (or been unwilling to learn). Some of this can be the 'assigned' kind, where the young person has daily stewardships that require hard physical labor, but much of it should be done together as a family. If you outsource the care of the grounds and the home, the children might be suffering for a lack of meaningful work. A very important part of Core [~age 0-8] and Love of Learning [~age 8-12] phases is to work together daily with parents. A vital part of Love of Learning is the mastery of skills which make one a confident and competent young man or woman. Those living on farms tend to find the phases naturally; those in other settings need to give work (work that the family really depends upon) to young family members. In our affluent society, we often think we are helping a child by not requiring him to do real work. In reality, we are stunting his development...
"...Home businesses, pets, yards, homes, neighborhoods, church service, and daily meals and living require hard work. Young people gain as much education from cooking, cleaning, laundering, mowing and helping others as they do from books and manipulatives...
"...real work done together in families is a vital part of raising quality future parents and citizens, and Core and Love of Learning are the time to do this well. If you do, you will have youth in Scholar Phase [~age 13-18, which in the Leadership Education model is when the young person begins a rigorous, disciplined survey of classic works and real life application]; if not, you will likely create modern teenagers in 'Entertainment Phase' -- a fate we would not wish on anyone."

Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life

Peter Gray is a developmental psychologist who studies education from a biological perspective. In his book Free to Learn, he dives into an understanding of how learning occurred in hunter-gatherer cultures (which were the norm for 99% of human's history), looks deeply at our modern educational system, and draws conclusions about human educative instincts including the role of play in education. This book has been foundational to my own understanding of my children's learning and education, in understanding just how important their own play and explorations are in teaching them what they need to know and leading them to find their own true passions.  This book has given me a true understanding of how, by limiting free play time through more structured time and activities, I could actually be weakening my children's educations.

A quote from the prologue,

"Children come into the world burning to learn and genetically programmed with extraordinary capacities for learning... Within their first four years or so they absorb an unfathomable amount of information and skills without any instruction. They learn to walk, run, jump, and climb. They learn to understand and speak the language of the culture into which they are born... They acquire an incredible amount of knowledge about the physical and social world around them. All of this is driven by their inborn instincts and drives, their innate playfulness and curiosity. Nature does not turn off this enormous desire and capacity to learn when children turn five or six. We turn it off with our coercive system of schooling. The biggest, most enduring lesson of school is that learning is work, to be avoided when possible...
"I began to study education from a biological perspective... such work led me to understand how children's strong drives to play and explore serve the function of education, not only in hunter-gatherer cultures but in our culture as well. It led to new insights concerning the environmental conditions that optimize children's abilities to educate themselves through their own playful means... This book is about all of that."

Charlotte Mason Companion: Personal Reflections on the Gentle Art of Learning

Back before I found the Leadership Education philosophy, the Charlotte Mason Companion helped me take a step back and see that I was not making our home school reflect the "gentle art of learning". Charlotte Mason was a British educator in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. To quote from the foreword,

"Charlotte saw children as thinking, feeling human beings, as spirits to be kindled and not vessels to be filled... She believed all children were entitled to a liberal education based upon good literature and the arts."

Although this book does include sections on typical academic subjects such as grammar, spelling, and writing, where this book really shines for me is in its descriptions of how to incorporate the beautiful things into our homeschool: nature study, art and music appreciation, poetry, Shakespeare, and good literature. Shifting my focus to include more of all of these has helped me in setting a "gentle" tone, and focusing on the lovely things has also opened up my own appreciation for sharing these wonders with my children.

Here is a quote about art appreciation (also known as "Picture Study"):

"Against the rigorous demands of a full homeschool schedule that sees year-end testing in clearest view, our aims to appreciate art may drift out of sight or may even be forgotten entirely. So from time to time it is helpful to bring to mind Charlotte Mason's aim in providing certain subjects, like Picture Study, to children...
"Why Picture Study? In order that children may be put in touch with the contribution that each famous artist has made to the world's store of all that is beautiful and worthwhile. Just as literature introduces us to the thought of the greatest writers, so Picture Study opens the gates to the ideas of the famous artists. It also provides a treasure store of images for our children that will help defend them against the commercial world's attempts to dominate their senses...
"Charlotte Mason said in Home Education, 'We cannot measure the influence that one or another artist has upon a child's sense of beauty, upon his power of seeing, as in a picture, the common sights of life; he in enriched more than we know in having really looked at a single picture.'"

What are your favorite books about children's education and home schooling? 

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May 16, 2018

Here are comments from when this post was originally published on my old blog.

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