Fanning the Flames of Individualized Education

When we first started homeschooling, I had a cork board hanging in our kitchen with inspirational pictures and quotes, one of them being:

“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”- Plutarch

Before I had children of my own, I had imagined that education really was like the filling of a bucket. It was a parent’s —or teacher’s— job to open a child’s mind and deposit certain facts and skills in 1st grade, other facts and skills in 2nd grade, and so on. But when my oldest 3 boys arrived in our lives in rapid succession, their distinct personalities and learning capacities were evident from their first breaths. I instinctively knew they were not blank slates to be drawn on, but human beings with individual minds and souls to be known.

Just like different types of wood burn differently in their own right, and different environments require different fire management techniques (your fireplace, camping in the rain, or your backyard fire pit, etc.), lighting the fire of educational curiosity will look different from home to home and child to child. 

Charlotte Mason is my heroine of homeschooling. Although we do not fully embrace a Charlotte Mason philosophy in my home, her ideas have influenced us in a myriad of wonderful ways for which I am grateful. Of Charlotte Mason’s 20 Principles, can you guess what might be her first?

Children are born persons.

-Charlotte Mason

Charlotte Mason emphasized that children possess inherent dignity and individuality, and they arrive with the capacity for thought, reason, and morality from the beginning. By combining these two facets —recognizing particular traits and a readiness to learn— Charlotte Mason encourages you to approach education holistically. You are tasked with providing an environment that honors each child’s unique strengths, weaknesses, and bents, while fostering a love for learning through rich and varied experiences. Homeschooling parents can reach beyond simply imparting information by seeking to cultivate the whole person and instill a lifelong passion for knowledge, virtue, and beauty.  

How can knowing your child individually and realizing your child’s capabilities (and limitations) prepare you to succeed as a homeschooling mom? The first way is to relax and rest in the knowledge that your child is meant to learn at his own speed. In some of her writings, Miss Mason compares education to eating. Your job as parents is to “spread the feast of ideas” before the child. In similar ways to managing meals while your children naturally learn how to eat, the types of ideas we provide, introduce, or limit will help them grow in knowledge and goodness. At times our children will have difficulties with learning just as some have difficulties with eating, food allergies, or digestion. Knowing your child will help you know how to best spread the feast within both your means and their abilities.

“Education, like faith, is the evidence of things not seen. We must begin with the notion that the business of the body is to grow; and it grows upon food, which food is composed of living cells, each a perfect life in itself. In like manner…the only fit sustenance for the mind is ideas, and an idea too, like the single cell of cellular tissue, appears to go through the stages and functions of a life. We receive it with appetite and some stir of interest. It appears to feed in a curious way. We hear of a new patent cure for the mind or the body, of the new thought of some poet, the new notion of a school of painters; we take in, accept, the idea and for days after every book we read, every person we talk with brings food to the newly entertained notion. ‘Not proven,’ will be the verdict of the casual reader; but if he watch the behaviour of his own mind towards any of the ideas ‘in the air,’ he will find that some such process as I have described takes place; and this process must be considered carefully in the education of children… Our business is to give children the great ideas of life, of religion, history, science; but it is the ideas we must give, clothed upon with facts as they occur, and must leave the child to deal with these as he chooses.”

Charlotte Mason in Towards a Philosophy of Education

When I think of born persons, the first thing that comes to mind is “born personality.” A human baby seems to have likes and dislikes right away. Some are born upset and crying, others seem unruffled by the whole business of birth. Some like to be swaddled, while others like freedom to wiggle. We get to know our children better and better over the years.

There are approximately 8,753 personality systems out there if you wanted to try to understand your children better by learning about other people who might have similar bents. Some are more evidence-based than others; some are sort of silly. Some of my favorites are Myers-Briggs, DISC, Strengths Finders, and the Big 5. Cynthia Tobias’s The Way They Learn is an oldie-but-goodie that can be particularly helpful to educators. She provides a free downloadable questionnaire to help you pinpoint your child’s learning profile. I enjoy poking around and learning the various ways we can classify ourselves, but to be honest, diving deep into any system is not necessary at all. Really, what matters is how well do you know your child?

The above worksheet is included in our Chasing Wonder: A Homeschool Mom’s Guide to Yearly Planning for brainstorming your various students’ personalities and learning styles. In the guide, we ask you to sit for a few concentrated moments to contemplate ideas like: Is your child outgoing or shy? More emotional or more logical? What are their special interests? What academic subjects do they enjoy and loathe?

Going into the homeschooling year knowing your child is who he is supposed to be will change how you approach him. Understanding that she is not an empty bucket that you are required to fill with facts before graduation but rather a person to inspire to greatness will take some of the drudgery out of the daily hard work. Your child is a born person.