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Getting Schooled on School: Understanding Approaches to Learning

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With the events of the last few months, I think a lot of you have suddenly found yourself thinking about school a lot more than you probably have in a very long time!  Most of the parents in the U.S. suddenly found themselves having to semi-teach their kids at home, and many, as midsummer approaches and infection rates vacillate, don’t know what their kids’ school days are going to look like come September. 

 

People have questions.  People are worried.

 

As a curriculum director for PK-grade 12 schools, I thought I would take a shot at breaking down the parts of what we usually call “curriculum” to help you have a better understanding of what it’s all about.

What I’m not going to tell you is what program to use or what to teach. Those questions are complicated and depend on your kids, you, local laws, where you live, and your values.

What I am going to explain are the various parts of the “curriculum” or “learning plan” that I evaluate, plan, and coordinate in my job. You can use this information to plan your own course of study, depending on local laws, or select one for your kids to follow, if you are considering that route.


Different schools may use different terms for things, but if you get beyond the jargon, a good educational program breaks down into consistent categories although they may have different names.

You want to know that any program can identify all of these parts, and then you want to know the program or school’s approach.


No matter what happens, at least be glad you won’t have to homeschool while wearing a corset!

18 April 1889, Punch (the Danish) side, author anonymous, public domain. Click image for source.

Curriculum & Instruction

Very often, departments in schools that deal with what the school teaches (or school system) is called “curriculum & instruction”, but to a lot of people, those terms are interchangeable.  They do mean different things to different people, but the terms actually do refer to two different things.

The more modern term is “teaching and learning”. It’s a different term for a department that does the same thing, but it recognizes that the department is concerned with how students learn, what is taught, how it is taught, and the degree to which students learn what the teachers intended to teach.


The terms “curriculum” and “instruction” are still in use. This is the way I use them although they are frequently confused, even by educators:

 

Curriculum” has more to do with the overall concepts that are taught and the overall point of the school program.

 

Instruction” has more to do with how the curriculum is taught and the specific material that delivers the curriculum.

The three prongs of instruction are called

Concepts or understandings: What does the learner understand?

content or knowledge: What does the learner know?

Skills: What can the learner do?

A good instructional program should balance and intertwine all three, but it should also be able to delineate what is being taught in each prong, when, and how.

HOW something is taught is called pedagogy. Pedagogy encompasses the actual learning activities that the student does, which can range from listening and taking notes, in the most traditional sense, to building a working robot, like the students in the cover picture.

A final piece of instructional planning is assessment. Assessment is exactly what it sounds like: it’s how the learners will be asked to prove what they have learned.

In good planning, however, assessment comes first, not last, because a well planned assessment ensures that the intended instructional program gets taught.

For example, you might be better at reading and writing the language you studied in high school than speaking it if your tests were all written.

You might hear the term “authentic assessment”, which refers to assessment being attached to the way that work is assessed in real life.

Continuing with the language analogy, in an authentic language assessment, you might be asked to complete certain tasks in the target language, ideally with someone who does not speak English!

You may not need perfect grammar to do well on an assessment like that, but you do need to be able to prove that you can effectively communicate in that language.

Does that make sense?

The students in the picture above are learning physics along with other skills. They will know they are successful if their machine works. In this case, they are also competing with other teams, so they are really successful if their machine both works and is better than the other teams.

They could also have been given a traditional test, and sometimes that’s ok, but you can see the benefits of effectively used authentic assessment.

It’s fine if a learning program includes traditional quizzes or tests, but if students are never asked to create or perform, I would look for something else.

As an English teacher, I might give a short grammar quiz here and there just to make sure the students understand the concept, but major grades are attached to writing assignments, in which they need to use the grammar they learned to communicate effectively.

But because I know that the students have to be able to write correctly, even on a quiz I would tell them to “write a complex sentence starting with a dependent clause” rather than just having them diagram a sentence I wrote. The latter assessment ensures content knowledge, the former ensures they have concept and the skill as well as the knowledge.

That’s an example of how good assessment planning drives good teaching.

How often does your job give you a multiple choice test?

You have to perform, or you don’t stay, right?


 

Finding the Curriculum

The “curriculum” can be so imbedded or intrinsic that many people, including teachers, don’t even know it is there.

 

In American schools, for example, the curriculum is basically meant to prepare students to be functioning members of American society.  That’s one reason you might have had several years of American history and spent less time learning about the whole rest of the world.  Did you ever think about that? 

You’re supposed to know enough to be able to take care of yourself, regardless of the job you do, so of course you need to read and write, do math, and understand basic scientific principles so you don’t accidentally blow yourself up. 

Most American educators attended an American public school, trained to teach in public schools, and then taught in them, so they may not even know any other type of education!

You really start learning in detail about the various types of curricula at the graduate level, when you start learning how to run a school.

 

An example of how the curriculum affects instruction is the organization of American high schools. In the US, our high school program is based on a system that requires regular attendance at school and the collection of “credits.”  Most of us probably think that’s the only way to do it, but in other countries, the U.K. for example, what really counts are the exams that you take at the end, after years of study.  If you don’t pass those, what you did along the way doesn’t officially matter.  So in their system, school attendance in and of itself matters less.  What matters is being able to do well on the exam. 

American schools tend to give students more choice, especially near the end of high school, than British schools, which are almost (as far as I know) almost exclusively concerned with the national exam.  

I’ve always thought (and they taught us this in teacher school) the American system was based on the idea that most Americans are expected to have a job that involves regular and punctual attendance, and that’s why our schools are set up the way they are.  Certainly, historically it was important for the schools to “Americanize” everyone and give us a national identity.  These are concepts that are also more important when many people have families from different places and may even speak a different language. 

In the UK, on the other hand, traditionally things were more homogeneous (not so much now), and I’m guessing many more people, especially those destined for tertiary (university) educations, were privately educated. 

Don’t get me wrong: the British system is good, and at the end, students generally get to the same place, but in my experience working with British educators, there is much less emphasis on school attendance and more emphasis on exam preparation.

A British teacher would not be concerned about students’ school attendance if their exam scores are good, but American students can fail a course based on attendance alone, even if their grades are excellent.

I realize I’m generalizing a lot. My point is not do praise or criticize any school system, but to show that there are different ways of doing things that can have similar results for most students, depending on the values of the organization that creates the program.

Some traits of school programs are so embedded, you need to find a way to step outside of them to really see them.

It really isn’t necessary that you do something or anything different than the traditional way, but it’s nice to at least know there are options, especially if the traditional way isn’t working for your child.

I only really came to understand American education when I started working internationally, which included working with colleagues from different backgrounds. I have started many conversations about change with “How do you do this in Australia?” and “How do you do this in the U.K.?. And then I talk about what I know: the U.S.


 

An example that is increasingly becoming known in the U.S. is the International Baccalaureate program.  More and more American public schools offer it as an option, especially in high schools.

You will find many components of the IB program, especially the course students take the last two years, called the “Diploma Programme” (the IB uses British spellings) are similar to the British program (I’m still American), but instead of emphasizing the values of any one nation, such as the British or American, or most other national school programs do, the IB attempts to foster an international view of the world.  

Many components of the IB look the same as the high school programs of any one country.  Students study languages, social studies (or humanities, as the Brits call it), the sciences, mathematics, and fine arts.  They take exams.  But instead of learning how to function in any one country, the IB attempts to help students see how the world fits together…yet at the same time, believe it or not, the IB diploma is recognized in almost every country in the world, if not every country, and the program is flexible enough for allow schools to cover individual national requirements within the framework.


Robotics is an example of inquiry based learning and authentic assessment, where students demonstrate their learning by doing.

Click image for source.

 

When you talk with a school about curriculum, you are really asking what attitudes and beliefs the school will teach. 

One easy to recognize and common contingency, as an example, is the difference between religious and secular education.  A family may choose a school that teaches a certain religion, or homeschooling, because they think that faith is an important part of education.  In parochial schools, where religion is part of the curriculum, there is almost always time set aside for religious instruction, but the beliefs of the religion are imbedded in a lot of courses in addition to religion even though the list of subjects taught (the instruction) is the same as the government schools. 

Extracurricular activities should also support the school curriculum. For example, where a traditional school might have interscholastic sports (where the best players from each school play other schools), another approach might be to run a program that allows every kid to play or allows kids to switch around a lot to discover a “passion”.

The school building is even a part of the curriculum. If you see a lot of traditional classrooms with the desks in rows, believe me, the education that happens there is traditional. Compare the library and art facilities with the sports facilities: if you see a lot more money spent in one area than another, you will know what the curriculum values. Always take a close look at the science equipment, and I wouldn’t be afraid to look in a cabinet to see if it looks like labs are used frequently.

In short, “curriculum” is composed of the attitudes and beliefs that the school conveys through all of its programs and facilities.

Where do you find this information?

You can usually pick a lot of this from perusing the school’s website and documents, but if you aren’t sure, look for sections labeled “school guiding statements”, “mission”, and “vision”.  These documents should explain the schools overriding philosophy, and curriculum, clearly and succinctly.  

Teachers and long term students should be familiar with these ideas, if not the documents themselves, as well.  

If the documents exist but are not talked about, or “lived”, you may find that the school isn’t exactly what you expect, or that your child’s experience is too reliant on the teacher he or she happens to get.

When parents say, “The school wasn’t what the director said it was”, that means that the school is not conveying its curriculum to its staff well. It’s very easy to get caught up in “reading, writing, and ‘rithmatic” and fail to recognize what deeper values the school promotes.


Curriculum begins at home. Good learning is often messy.

These kids are working on reading and interpersonal skills. They are also learning resilience since the older one will do academic work while mom balances the needs of the little ones. The one with the barrette in hair is learning important pre literacy skills about books as objects and also from watching and listening to her sister.

Mom is letting Brother have a moment that he seems to need, but that doesn’t stop her from interacting with the other two.

Click image for source.

 

Instruction

 

Instruction consists of three main parts, although different programs might label them differently.  These parts are concepts, content or knowledge, and skills.

The “instruction” is what most people think they are talking about when they say “curriculum”. If a staff member, the school, or program mixes the two, which is common, just make sure you know which is which when they talk about it.

When talking about “instruction”, the thing to look for is what the school says about each of three main components: Concepts (or Ideas), Knowledge (or Content), and Skills.

If the school or program is skimming over any of the three components, or says any one isn’t important, move on.

Kids should leave school being able to identify what’s important (concepts), knowing something about the world they live in and where to find out more (content/knowledge), and how to do certain things (skills).

What they understand, know, and can do depends on the curriculum, discussed above. Those should be the guiding principles the school uses to decide what’s in the instructional program.

 Concepts

Concepts, which are also called “enduring understandings”, are the big ideas.  When your kids start a new school, don’t be fooled by their seeming to know or be able to do a lot of things right away.  Always ask the kids what those things mean.  Ask them why they need to know that.  Why is that important?  What will you do with that knowledge?

 

If your children have no idea, and I mean young children too (as long as they are asked in an age appropriate way), then the school isn’t teaching them concepts, which mean your child isn’t really learning.

Good learning is messy, and if your child comes home with pretty little pictures everyday, I would question that. Good learning comes in spirals and waves, not straight lines, and there should be downturns.

Sometimes learners might even seem to be going backwards for a while. Don’t panic. That’s normal. When we try to integrate new learning, we might “mess up” things we already know. Worry only if that never happens: it’s an indicator that no real learning is happening.

 


You don’t need a lot of specialized equipment to learn at home. Or even a computer.

This student has probably made many structures that fell apart before he figured out how to make it work correctly.

Jason Kasper from Harrisburg, USA / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)

Knowledge and Skills

 

Knowledge and skills are the things that the students will know and be able to do when they finish each “chunk” of learning.  There are things they should know and be able to do after each unit of study (might have been “chapters” in the old days), which should be clearly written down and shared with parents, and there should be knowledge and skills written down that students should have by the end of each grade.

 

While it’s important for the learners to know WHY they are learning something and what it means, it’s also important that teachers ensure that each and every student has the knowledge and skills that are supposed to be taught.  If the curriculum is well designed, the teachers in subsequent years will know what is in each grade’s instructional plan and will expect the students to know it.

Obviously, some children will not have mastery as completely as others, but everything needs to be stated and organized or students will end up studying some things too much and others not at all. Schools are far too complex for this process to happen “naturally”, and even in a homeschool situation I would keep track of each student’s goals and accomplishments…in writing.

 

Just as some teachers might skip the concepts, especially if the school and the assessment tools don’t emphasize them, some teachers skim the knowledge, and most especially the skills, often because teaching skills is hard work and takes a lot of effort.

 

Think about learning to ride a two wheel bike.  Which was easier, learning about bikes, what they do and why we ride them (concepts) AND what the different types of bikes are and their parts (knowledge) OR how to actually ride a bike?

 

Did you fall when you learned to ride?  Did you cry?  Did you get scared? 

 

You probably did more than one.  But how would you feel now if you knew all about bikes but couldn’t ride one?

 

Yup, that’s why your parents or someone in your life went through the agony of teaching you, and probably why you insisted on learning and practicing until you got it.

Content and knowledge are pretty easy to teach, but the excuse you might hear these days is “that they can look everything up.” Please. You don’t know what you don’t know.

We don’t need to spend as much time memorizing material as we used to because yes, we can use the Internet to fill in the holes, but a hole is different from an empty field (or wasteland?). You get my point. Don’t accept that.

 

In the American curriculum, we are mostly taught information and skills.  Advanced students, those who prepare for college, as supposed to know how to apply those skills.  That’s why the SAT asks the questions in such strange ways: the assumption is that you know the material, but the SAT endeavors to find out how you can apply that knowledge. 

 

Some newer programs, that might be “inquiry based” or focused on “critical literacy” puts more of an emphasis on students figuring out things for themselves throughout their educations, with the idea that knowledge changes very quickly. 

 

Critical literacy is important.  You should know that if you use social media at all, or if you don’t, because you need “critical literacy” skills to understand whether what you are reading is true.

 

But knowing content and having skills is also important.  Don’t fall for the “You can always look it up” line. 

 

If nothing else, learning a skill online takes time, and even then there is no quality control.  And complex skills take practice, mixed with understanding (concepts), which take time and feedback.

 

It’s even more important to learn content than you might think.  While it’s true that it’s not necessary to memorize vast amounts of information like it once was (when you might find yourself without resources), you still need to have ideas about things, and at least know about them. 

 

You don’t know what you don’t know, if you know what I mean.

 

Recognizing the underlying theme of an educational program is important, again, because it’s often implicit.  But the things that get you to that curriculum is the instruction.

 

Putting Concepts, Content, and Skills Together

The concepts are usually delivered through day to day lessons that focus on two things: knowledge and skills.

 

Skills are the things you can do.  You can recognize a skill because there are active verbs involved, and note that “understand” is not an active verb.

 

Knowledge (also content) are the things you know.

 

I can know that 2×25 is 50.  That’s knowledge.  Knowing how to set up a multiplication problem and work out 2×25 is a skill.

 

Some subjects have more knowledge, such as history, and some have more skills, such as math, but most subjects are a mixture. 

 

For the record, content/knowledge is usually easy to learn.  When kids miss “knowledge” in school, it’s easy to make up later. 

 

Skills are usually harder.  You can “know” how to do something perfectly well, but you might not be able to do it.  I’m kind of that way with physical activities.  I can watch the coach do it and understand what the coach did, but I have trouble imitating the action with my body in the same way. 

 

Very often, the coach will jump in and show me again, but I know that’s not what I need.  I need to be observed and corrected.  I know, but I just can’t “do”.  My daughter is very athletic, and I can see that her body sense is much different than mine.

 

Reading is a skill.  Children can know all of the letters, their sounds, and possibly their blends, and still struggle with putting it together to reproduce a string of sounds that sound like spoken language.  That takes practice, a lot of practice. 

 

Writing is a skill.  Same.

 

So coming back to what in the heck are you going to do with your kids?

 

 

If my kids’ school situation changes suddenly, what do I need to know?

There isn’t an easy answer to this except to remember that what you do at home, over the 18 or so years that your kids are growing up, is much more important in terms of “curriculum” than school will ever be.

They will probably be the people you teach them to be, not what the school teaches them to be.

Also keep these two principles in mind:

  1. Needs are not the same as wants. The point of school is to provide for the NEEDS of the children.

  2. Health and safety, first of the students and second of the staff, are NEEDS that come before academics.

    The added blip that COVID 19 brings to the usual formula is that children and staff may have family members in the home or who need care that are more vulnerable than they are but who can be exposed through transmission. Usually the school is concerned with the people who are in the building, but this time, they can’t limit their vision.

The information below is designed to help you make choices and evaluate your options as you decide on the model or program that works for your family.

 

Concepts

When you’re working on a “unit” or a “chapter” that came from the school it can be really helpful to know what it is important to know.  

If you are getting work from the teacher, and getting a bit lost in it or can’t get it all done, ask the teacher, “What is my child supposed to understand at the end of this?”.  There should be 3-5 big things. 

Many American teachers have been taught a unit writing technique called “Understanding by Design” (UBD).

In UBD, the big ideas are expressed through “Essential Questions” (EQ’s) and “Enduring Understandings” (EU’s). If your child’s teacher uses UBD, as about the EQ’s. The teacher should actually be in the habit of sharing them anyway, but if you can get them, they will help you know what is important. 

The EQ’s are not supposed to generate a list of information, they are supposed to seek main ideas. 

If your school uses “UBD”, ask for the Essential Questions. If not, ask for the main ideas that the teacher wants the students to “understand”. The term “understand” is most important to getting at the concepts.

If you can’t get a clear answer on this, and you may not…some schools are more focused on knowledge and skills…look over the materials and decide for yourself. Later, if necessary, you can always tell the teacher, “This is what we did.”

Believe me, something is better than nothing. Don’t worry too much about “getting it wrong”.

 Example

Going back to the multiplication example, an EQ for a unit on multiplication might be, “What is the purpose of multiplying?”.  The answer would be something along the lines that it is a faster way of adding.  Working out 25+25 is about the same as 25×2, but what if you have 25 five times?  Then adding all of those numbers up is a pain. 

If you know that’s what you need to get at, and your kid isn’t getting the work the teacher sends, then you can just do it another way.  How you get there doesn’t matter that much.


More about “Understanding by Design” and “Essential Questions”

The book below the original guide that teachers use in schools, but there are plenty of videos on line that explain what you might need or want to know, depending on your needs.

Jay McTighe, one of the original designers of UBD, offers a concise and understandable description here. The first three minutes or so provides a good working definition.

 

The most important thing to understand about UBD is the “Essential Question”. Below is a short training video from the authors of the original book, Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, and below that is a book focusing on the topic.

Good Essential Questions lead to good learning, but they also keep the work interesting, for the kids and the adults.

Knowledge/Content

 

There may well be a list of things that your kids is supposed to know, and again, if you know what those things are, you can help your child learn it anyway you can.  Content isn’t as important in education as it used to be because of the recognition that many things can be looked up instantly.  The main things we still memorize are the things you need to know automatically to speed yourself along, such as words, or “math facts,” because working everyone out individually would take forever.  You need to be able to make change on the spot and so forth.

Learners also need to know a framework of information. It’s ok if they have to look up details because that’s a reasonable expectation of what they will experience as an adult.

 

What I’m driving at, is if it’s straight content, don’t worry so much, especially for elementary school kids.  What they need are the skills.  Those are really hard to make up.

Content can be made up easily in secondary school if the skills are good (e.g. reading).

For content, my approach is to pick topics that are either representational or appropriate to the group. Go into depth in one area, and then apply that knowledge to the whole.

There’s no way you can cover everything equally, and the attempt will mean that your program is “a mile wide and an inch deep”.

Remember, the goal is representation.

For example, if I were teaching indigenous people, I would study the groups in my locality, and then show how that group fits into the larger framework. Later on, the students can use that “groundwork” if they want to study indigenous nations further on their own: they have the basic knowledge on a larger scale and specific knowledge that they can use in everyday life.

If you are on your own, it’s a good idea to have a list of topics to choose from.

If you need help finding that, the best resources I know are from E.D. Hirsch. He was big in the 1990’s, and he is the only person who has comprehensively laid out what kids need to be exposed to in terms of what Americans call “social studies” and Brits call “humanities”: history, geography, sociology, psychology, economics, etc. He’s also pretty good with science at literature.

The only caveat is that he is “American-centric”, so if you are outside of the U.S., he’s not as helpful you are going to need to shift things around, and cut 95% of what he covers about the U.S., to teach what’s important in your locality.

His classic, Cultural Literacy, is below. You can also find some excellent FREE downloadable material on his site: Core Knowledge Curriculum.

You can also find copies of Hirsch’s series by grade, but really sticking to the grades isn’t necessary. If you are at home with several kids, choose topics of common interest and choose some harder materials for the older ones.

Having the older ones “teach” the younger ones is an excellent teaching strategy for both groups. You can’t teach what you don’t know, and explaining things in a simplified way is quite challenging!

I’m a language arts/English specialist, and there are a couple of posts on The Lois Level that can help:

Did you ever wonder why you had to read what you read in school?  provides you with an overview of the types of literature your child should read.

Keeping Your Teen Busy at Home: Part 3, A Pre-College Reading List offers specific reading suggestions for middle and high school students (ages 13-18) culled from current university reading lists.

1001 Children’s Books has fantastic ideas for classic children’s books to read, and many of the older ones can be found for FREE on the Internet.

Check out The Lois Level category “Family Reading” for many more FREE ideas.

The Read Aloud Handbook is a classic about reading with your family…and it’s not just for little kids either. New editions appear regularly so that the book list, which is about half of the book, is updated.

If you are into thrifting, get an older edition for the lists of books that might currently be out of print. They books are still good quality: they get removed to feature new materials or because they have just gotten too hard to find as they go out of print.

If you order The Read Aloud Handbook used, double and triple check which edition you are ordering. If you still get sent the wrong one, you should be able to easily get your money refunded.

Skills

 

Most of the United States now does what’s called the “Common Core curriculum”.  The Common Core isn’t a curriculum so much as a set of what’s called “standards”.  Standards are supposed to be measurable goals for students to master at each age.

 

A good teacher will have the kids trying a little bit more than the kids really have to do.  That’s so the kids in the top half can learn.  But there is usually a sweet spot, that the teacher can identify, that she wants to get all of the kids to get.  That’s the standard.

Standards are written so that teachers can be assured that they are all working together and keeping their expectations consistent.

They also help schools, teachers, parents, and students know when the student is on target or needs a little support (or is ahead). The idea is not to humiliate the student but to make sure the student’s NEEDS are being met.

Standards are really helpful to have if you have to temporarily homeschool because you will know where your kids are supposed to be, and you will worry less. Don’t worry about the standards everyday…as I said, students are expected to “zig zag” as they learn. Standards are an end point.

Don’t push ahead. More is less. You’ll run the risk of getting into an area your children aren’t developmentally ready for. Do projects, combine subject areas, explore different content areas rather than insisting on pushing on.

The standards are usually skills, and skills need lots of practice and application.

For the record, I don’t believe in only teaching the “advanced” work to the “top” kids. Some kids excel at some things and not at others, and also some kids will excel just out of interest in the topic, which may come from that “extra” information. It’s just important to know what material is “required” and what is “optional” when you have to make choices and measure learning and skill acquisition.

It’s very dangerous to “skip” topics too…because sometimes the “required” material is much harder to learn and is necessary for subsequent learning.

Also, let me add that I don’t believe in complimenting students for being smart. “Smart” is something you are born with. Who cares? Reward and complement hard work. I always asked my kid, “Did you do your best?” I also never gave her rewards for grades. To me, if you do your best, grades are mostly irrelevant. I believe in giving them, because we need to know how well we did, I just don’t believe in making a big deal about them. They tell you whether you are “good to go” or “need more work”. That’s it.

 

As an educator, I get annoyed with too much emphasis on skills because I know that there is still a range of information and ideas that the students need to be introduced to.  This focus on “skills only” really isn’t enough.  If the teachers in each grade teach the content that they like, or that’s easy to teach, or that the kids like, the kids are going to miss out because “they don’t know what they don’t know”. 

 

But the fact is also, that if they miss out on content, they can make that up relatively easily.  What they can’t make up easily are skills.

 

So if you let them get away with not practicing the math, or the reading, or the writing (and I mean handwriting as well as composing), they are going to struggle when they go back to school.  They will have lost some of the skills they had when their regular schooling ended, and they will have missed the new stuff. 

If your kids get bored, consider letting them learn an “extra” skill, like touch typing/keyboarding, coding, or perhaps a language. Wow, anyone of those things is an awesome gift for your child to take into adulthood.

This is also a good time to learn art, mechanical, craft, or music skills.

 

So don’t skimp on skills. They are things we never forget and are hard to learn as adults. 

Use the link above for access to the Common Core Standards and use them to see if your children are on track with the skills you see listed there. The Common Core covers math and English language skills, which are the most important because they are hardest to fix later.

If you want science standards, American Education Reaches Out (AERO) is the place to go. They also have additional resources for language, mathematics, and social studies along with standards for music and art, if you are interested in that.

Another good resource for standards and skills is the British National Curriculum. You’ll need to read the guidance to understand what material is appropriate for your kids’ age levels. Obviously, not everything in the British curriculum is appropriate for Americans, but it’s all free, and there is a lot of extra helpful information.

I’ve always found the British curriculum particularly good at outlining grammar skills that children need, but keep in mind that American children need to learn American grammar; British spelling and grammar is sometimes different. The rules taught at each age are pretty consistent.

Note: The general curriculum ends at age 16 in the U.K. Only students preparing to enter university stay in school until age 18.

The Final Word

It is always important to link both content and skills back to the concepts. If the kids don’t know “why”, they have been trained, not educated.


Some great learning comes from observing the natural world. School doesn’t always have to be in a classroom.

Click image for source.

For Parents of Preschoolers and Younger

I am particularly a fan of the British Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) program for children up to age 5. The standards for that are based on child development for specific age targets, which is appropriate for little kids. You can do whatever you want with your children at home, secure in the knowledge that they will be ready for school if they are hitting these standards.

An extra benefit of the EYFS is that it’s designed for all types of child care situations, including home based day care and children who are with their parents full time.

You don’t need to be a teacher or in a school to follow it. Just please don’t try to push past the standards. You will only cause problems. Definitely, some children will be ready for more sooner, but let the child lead and don’t push it.

As advised for older children above, go deeper, don’t push ahead.

Rushing young children causes problems later. Don’t. Just don’t. I can’t emphasize this enough.

If your child is having trouble hitting the standards, that’s the time to seek assistance. Start with your local public school as services are available for special needs students even if they haven’t started kindergarten yet. The school can also connect you with staff who will help you through the process of figuring out what’s going on. Certainly consult your pediatrician, but call the local school too. These things can get complicated.


In the children’s classic, Understood Betsy, looking out for others is part of the curriculum.

Public Domain, click image for source.

 Bringing it Together

While you’re working with your kids, do also try to get back to those Essential Questions when you can.  If you can’t get them from your teacher, then figure it out for yourself by asking yourself, “Ok, what about this is important in life?”

 

If you’ve run out of things to do with your kids, think of more skills they can learn.  You know the expression “It’s like riding a bicycle?” There are so many things that once your kids learn to do them, they can do for life.  Cooking, typing, and languages are three that come to my mind…hard to learn as an adult and awkward to work around.

One more resource I’m going to leave you with is regarding one of my all-time favorite books. I wrote a paper about it in graduate school (and earned an A+).

One of the very first posts on The Lois Level was about it: Understood Betsy: Helicopter parenting is not a new thing

While the article I wrote back in September, 2019 focused more on helicopter parents, the author, an educator named Dorothy Stanfield Fisher, was an educator with specific ideas about learning by doing and multi-age education: perfect for learning at home.

Oh, and it’s FREE.


Check The Lois Level regularly for more ideas and resources.

Share your thoughts! We want to hear your perspective and most definitely your reading recommendations!