From Unschooling to Unit Studies and even Charlotte Mason there seem to be TONS of homeschooling styles and options for guiding your curricular design within a homeschool. Currently we are using a virtual school, but the curriculum they send is increasingly text and worksheet based which does not fit my child well. I am supplementing more and more with alternative activities am beginning to consider there may be a better fit out there. I was hoping for a synopsis or at least a link to a good synopsis of the different styles because although I have encountered quite a few, I don't believe I have a complete list in the slightest. If you have tried one of these styles, can you say what you liked and didn't like about it?

She just turned 6, has completed one year in virtual style homeschooling and is already in second grade for half her subjects with a broad and deep enough understanding that she carried on an intelligable enough conversation with a docent at a museum regarding Greek History that the docent wanted to speak with her more because she found her questions, prior knowledge and vocabulary to be better than many adults'. I am hoping to find a match for us where she can have one foot in fifth grade with another still in first for example and a style that can last so her age is really not of that much consequence to the question.

  • How old is your child?
    – John O
    Jul 12, 2012 at 14:18
  • Unit Studies and Charlotte Mason have been around for FOREVER, I don't know enough about unschooling, but I think its been around for a couple of decades at least. This question is a bit like asking, "Is a public or private education the best option?" but for homeschoolers Jul 12, 2012 at 17:58
  • My daughter isn't quite 3 yet. So homeschooling isn't an issue, really... any more than we teach her what she seems to need to learn at this age. I wonder why this would have to change as she gets older. Does it have to be a system? I know developing your own curriculum can be difficult and that's 80% of what these systems offer, but I'd much prefer to think of it in terms such as "which textbooks will we use, and how should we practice and what should we test for". All that said, I'm as curious as you are if someone could provide a summary of what each system is.
    – John O
    Jul 12, 2012 at 18:32
  • So you're looking for a styles listing, more than specific curricula packages? Or...? And how would religious-based homeschooling play into your question, since that sometimes has an impact on the curricula?
    – justkt
    Jul 12, 2012 at 23:01
  • @ justkt Yes, more like how do they really work in real life and what to consider exactly when looking at style choices? Pros and cons? I actually have a religious/ethics curriculum already - we are Christian but I do believe in Evolution and we have a lot of jewish friends so I've had to dig deep and just develop something that fits for us using bits and piecs of multiple resources. Jul 13, 2012 at 0:46

3 Answers 3


Here is what I have found out about the different styles based on research. So far, we have largely used a virtual school that is really mostly school at home along with some classical and Charlotte Mason techniques for History and a smattering really of most of the other styles here and there for enrichment. I find the problem of "school at home" being limiting and wearing on both educator and student to be somewhat true, but I also find the stated advantages to these styles to also be accurate. For more info about what we do in our home (and especially the unit studies we have done) you'll need to check out my website (listed on my profile).

School At Home This style is really like having school, but in your own house. The parent/learning coach teaches using a combination of didactic and hands on approaches with the support of textbooks and workbooks purchased through a publishing house, home school consortium or the local bookstore.

The nice thing about this style of home schooling is that the parents know exactly what to teach and when, as long as they follow the guidelines of the curricula purchased. Lessons, practice and how much should be completed of each subject each day of schooling is laid out within the materials. This can be a great confidence builder for a year or two for parents and kids just starting out even if they would prefer a freer style down the road.

It does tend to be the more expensive of the styles and it can be difficult to motivate students if the materials do not fit their particular learning style. It also tends to be one of the styles that results in the earliest "burn-out".

Unschooling This style could not be more opposite from the "school at home" style. Also known as "interest led", "natural" or "child-led" education, this style does not bear any resemblance to what many would view as a traditional education. In unschooling, children play games and are exposed to experiences that will encourage their learning. These experiences are mostly directed by the child's interests. Many people new to the concept wonder about how these children learn very much this way. However, the proponents of the style say when we wait and give them time and when they are ready they will ask, experiment and try to find out (this idea is largely backed by personal experiences and the fact that kids taught this way often do extremely well in their chosen fields).

According to my sources, the challenge with Unschooling comes when it is time for standardized testing because these children are not use to such formal assessments. Adjusting to College or integrating into a standard classroom can also be challenging for the same reason. These children really do learn "how to learn" though as usually parent and child are researching answers to the the child's questions together. These children are also likely to become experts in their area of passion and although they may have "holes" in areas of less interest, they will pick up "basics" (such as basic mathematics) through necessity as they arrive at problems requiring these skills to be solved. For more information about this style check out www.unschooling.com or http://naturalchild.org.

Charlotte Mason Charlotte Mason was an educator herself and outlined a philosophy centered around educating the child through exposure to enriched and "living" materials and observation. The idea is that kids will learn by interacting with the world in "real life" situations and through their exposure to "living books". Living books contain rich text we would consider great literature and that has stood the test of time (classics). Textbooks would usually not be considered "living".

Charlotte Mason kids learn science through observing nature on nature walks and experimentation. They learn history by reading about it through "living books", visiting history museums where they can view historical artifacts and by keeping a time line to help in visualizing the passage of time. Likewise, they learn art by being surrounded by masterworks and then trying their hand at it, music by exposure to classic works and practice.

This website, Charlotte Mason Method Homeschool, has a discussion Forum, links to resources, articles and online books about Charlotte Mason-styled education and learning, including an article all about "getting started". For even more information, Katherine Levison is one of the leading authors regarding this style.

I did not find a lot the specified specific benefits or drawbacks as clearly as were outlined for the other two styles already listed.

The Classical Approach The Classical Approach to an at home education is one that has been around since the middle ages and in actuality is probably the most truly traditional of all the approaches (more so than sending a child to the "traditional" mortar and brick school in your neighborhood today). This approach uses the Trivium (or five tools for learning), including reason, record, research, relate and rhetoric to gain deeper and deeper learning for the student. "The Well Trained Mind" by Susan Wise Bauer and Jessie Wise is mentioned frequently in relation to this educational style. For more information check out the online magazine "Classical Homeschooling".

Without realizing it, we have used a classical approach history record book in our History Curriculum already. The classical approach uses a lot of "copy work", oral narration and recitation of items children are to have memorized. This "copy work" can become tedious for both learner and teacher, but it does offer the practice children need for memorization. From a distance, it may look a lot like the school at home approach and indeed, pre-made and organized curricula can be purchased specifically for this style sort of combining the two approaches. There are also mortar and brick schools that are considered "Classical Schools" that use this approach.

For some reason, much of the pre-made materials for this approach are religiously based, and I have had trouble finding materials for those persons who are NOT religious or even specifically Christian to use with this approach. I am told, more and more Classical approach secular groups are arising so this drawback (for some) will change over time. From a cursory search for materials, supplies and lesson plans for this approach, science education may be a weakness because it would appear not much experimentation occurs. However, the Classical approach does seem to have a reputation for being one of the best ways to make sure children get a very good background in History.

Virtual Virtual Homeschooling is basically like school at home but with an added element to the "purchased" curricula which is that there is access to an online community (and sometimes a real-world community as well) all using the same set of curricula and curricular standards. Different Virtual Schools might have differing philosophies, so it is possible to find those that use an approach from almost any of the styles listed. The idea is that all your materials, lessons and activities can be prescribed by the school, and organized and laid out for you (minimizing leg work for the parent). Families that use enrollment in a "Virtual School" may have access to trained teachers in person, online chat rooms and class sessions done in a "go to meeting" or "Skype" type of program. The online classes use computers and these programs to link students from across state, or even international boundaries with an expert in a particular subject. These online classes are in addition to what the parent teaches using the program's set lesson plans, guide books, and workbooks/practice materials and are not the only lessons children receive. Much of a virtual school curriculum can be done offline and without the use of a computer as well as online.

The advantage here is that in many virtual schools the school seeks accreditation with various states and legally (in the US) the child is considered to be enrolled in a private or charter school. This means parents using these programs have fewer concerns over meeting legal requirements as it becomes the school's responsibility to help achieve these set standards and obtain the appropriate sample work (or at least teach you exactly what to record, how to record it and what to collect).

The disadvantages are much like those for families using the "school at home style". These families have more freedom over what is covered educationally than do families with kids in mortar and brick settings, but they have even fewer freedoms to diverge from the prescribed texts and curricula than their "school at home", "Charlotte Mason", and "Classical" counterparts. This can be a costly way to do schooling as well.

www.k12.com can give you examples of ONE of the leading virtual schools available internationally.

Unit Studies A Unit Studies educational approach tries to create cross-curricular units in which one central subject is studied, but many (or all) of the core curricular subjects are addressed within the unit. For example, a unit study of Ancient Rome would include learning Roman Numerals, a few Latin basic root words (that are intended to help with both Language Arts skills and understanding Rome), art and architecture from Ancient Rome, and the Mythology of Ancient Rome (Literature being another category of Language Arts). Writing assignments would center around lessons done about Ancient Rome and for science one might choose to focus on the structural advantages of arch construction, gadgetry of warfare as an in for simple machines and/or volcanoes as it ties in to the eruption of Vesuvius and all that has been learned from digs at Pompeii and Herculaneum.

Most Unit studies try to incorporate hands on activities or some hands-on culminating project. Unit studies may be child-directed (chosen because of an interest the child has) or learning coach/teacher/parent directed (a topic is chosen because of a need the adult perceives in the education of the child in question). The advantage to learning this way, is that it is often a lot more memorable and "real world" than teaching each of the subjects separately. It also helps kids to see connections between subjects and therefore more value in subjects they might otherwise not find interesting.

The thing that is tough about this approach is balancing all the subjects and making sure you are meeting educational benchmarks in a fashion conducive to expectations in states that dictate standardized testing even in the earlier grades. It can be done, but requires a great deal of organization and research on the part of the educator to use Unit Studies alone.

Waldorf Rudolf Steiner founded this educational style around 1919 when he was asked to establish a school for the workers at the Waldorf Astoria Cigarette Factory in Stuttgart, Germany. Since he believed the human was a mix of spirit, soul and body and that there was a three stage emergence of the full being that occured in three developmental stages (early childhood, middle childhood and adolescence) his school was profoundly different from most schools of the day, and since. When I visited Waldorf Schools in St. Louis as part of my teacher training I found them to be incredibly comfortable because the environment is totally natural. Furniture is not made of plastic and metal, but of wood. Instead of playdough, kids mold bee's wax (which is amazing for your skin btw - softer hands in minutes). Kids work in an organic garden as part of their introduction to life sciences, nature and ecology. As you enter the school, you remove your outdoor shoes and slip into slippers . . .

Musical education begins with clapping games, singing and rhythm and then in about second or third grade kids are taught to play the recorder. Reading and writing are not a part of the curriculum until third grade, but plenty of games are played that help increase literary awareness so that when kids are taught to read and write in a more formal way they pick it up very easily and quickly. It is all about experiential learning and contact with the natural things of the world. Many schools emphasize an avoidance of early access to television, computer and other "screen" and electronic technologies as well as plastics and non-organic chemicals and products (note: the founding of this style predates the environmental movement). Kids learn by doing. For example, they make their own muesli (as a class) for morning snack, and pick fruits or veggies from the garden to make into an afternoon snack. In each snack preparation, measuring is taking place along with teamwork. After having a fairy tale read to them, the kids might recreate that fairy tale through dress up and dramatic presentation.

Even though this style was founded in mortar and brick schools many families are using the style in their home schools. Training is available (though expensive) as are plenty of pre-made supplies and curricula.

Montessori Founded by Educator and Physician Maria Montessori, much like an "unschooling" approach, these schools emphasize a child directed approach to education. However, in the Montessori school, there is a prescribed set of choices of specific games out and available that will steer the children in the direction of learning certain things.

Montessori trained teachers are trained to ask guiding questions that will help nurture and direct the child's thinking and questioning. If a child is floundering he or she is brought back into corrected thinking through their own reasoning, but with the help of thoughtful, well-planned questions.

The Montessori Foundation has a fairly extensive website with more information as well as resources for schools and information about training. They are in the process of building a section specifically designed for home school families attempting to use a Montessori approach. Montessori games and activities are often used in regular classrooms - especially in preschools and elementary mathematics so you may be more familiar with some of these than you think.

Multiple Intelligences I actually disagree with this as a title for an Educational Method, as Howard Gardner set forth a hypothesis about brain development, learning and (mainly) the nature of intelligence, not a guideline or philosophy about how education should occur. However, many people do use it this way.

Howard Gardner hypothesized that there are seven different intelligences (and added an eighth later) and we all exhibit these intelligences in different degrees. People that claim to use this as a method are really saying, they accept the hypothesis that there are multiple intelligences and incorporate this belief into their teaching methods in a thoughtful way that puts the child's talents and strengths to use in their learning.

Although we know there are different learning styles there is no "Learning Styles" approach to education just as there really isn't truly a "Multiple Intelligences" approach to education. Rather, this approach simply represents a philosophy or belief that a child's natural strengths (or intelligence) should be valued and tapped into in order to help each individual learn whatever subject matter is at hand in much the same way teachers today try to make sure to address all four learning styles in the classroom (a clarification: learning styles are very different from intelligences and in fact, Gardner addresses learning styles along with intelligences in some of his writing). MI approach then becomes a bit of an eclectic mix of styles depending upon the individual who is receiving the education and their specific needs as the approach to teaching will consider the learning style AND combination of intelligences the child leans on most in the choice of method used for a specific individual.

Eclectic An Eclectic homeschooler draws upon any of the homeschooling styles as that parent, learning coach or teacher deems most beneficial for their family situation and philosophy. This style usually means the parent is taking the best that each of the other styles has to offer and using it to teach in his or her home. The advantage of course, is the freedom to go with what works in each moment for each kid while still having a structure to help guide the parent through subjects he or she may not already know much about.

The disadvantage of course, is that it can be an overwhelming way to go about educating a child because of the sheer number of resources to weed through in order to find the best match for each child and subject (and its subsets of information and skills). Eclectic homeschooling can be done very inexpensively or it can become highly expensive depending on choices made in regard to purchased materials for curricula or activities.

What the proponents and opponents of a style have to say about it online and in books doesn't always match the reality for all. If your experience differs from what I have found in my research, PLEASE add another answer!!! I always love to learn more.


I was unschooled, as were my two siblings (my brother and I, the older two, did a few years in public school before escaping), and my wife, and we'll be doing the same with our children. I can say that it works, as long as someone is staying home with the kids of course - a big if for many families.

Why unschooling over other forms of homeschooling? Because unschooling lets the child learn and explore without constraints. It removes all the negative things that can burden learning - no stressful tests, no boring subjects, no dry books. Example: I read the encyclopedia article on "Solar System" straight through, until the pages were worn and torn, because I wanted to learn about it, and therefore it was fascinating, not dry or boring. Make a ten-year old memorize facts about the planets because it's on the syllabus for this week, and he may go through with it, or he may not. But if he wants to learn about it and his mental energy isn't exhausted doing school's busywork, he'll eat it up.

Unschooling is entirely driven by the child's curiosity, which as most of us on this site can testify, is damn near infinite! Curiosity can be squashed when school forces kids to focus on arbitrary topics at arbitrary hours of the day. Forcing oneself to pay attention to something one does not find interesting is exhausting; learning about something you love is exhilarating.

Objection #1: work and college. Can we agree that this problem has long since disappeared? I've never been asked for a high school diploma, and never had problems with college admissions. Demonstrate skills and you'll find work (eventually; the economy will be better by the time our kids grow up!). A university that doesn't accept a student with demonstrated ability just because she had an unconventional secondary education isn't one you'd want to attend anyway.

Objection #2: Shakespeare/algebra/other "hard" subjects. "But what if my kid never reads Shakespeare/never wants to learn algebra?" I never got through any of Shakespeare's plays as a kid, but that's because they're plays, not novellas, they're meant to be seen, in person, with the swordfights and the blood and the curses and the shipwrecks and all that cool stuff that many teens would be stoked to see. Take them to see Shakespeare.

As for algebra, it's a necessity in college, but otherwise useless unless you're going into CS or engineering. And kids with interests in computers or engineering will have practical uses for advanced math. I taught myself trig once I discovered I could use it in my little Commodore Basic programs to make a spaceship rotate and move realistically - an application for the math.

So these and other "hard" subjects can be learned if the child has an interest. If not, that's OK. A curious kid will, over 18 years, learn TONS about a LOT of stuff. Maybe not the capital of Mali. Maybe not the 22nd U.S. president. But trivia does not a person make. Having a subject you're passionate and knowledgeable about makes you an interesting conversationalist and a worthwhile employee.

In the age of Wikipedia, your kids can learn almost anything about almost anything, as long as they have the time to do so. It's a great day to unschool.

  • 1
    This is a great description of the benefits of Unschooling. However, the question is asking for explanations of each of the major different homeschooling styles. This is a great start to an answer. It would be fantastic if you could add some information about other homeschooling styles to your answer.
    – user420
    Aug 2, 2012 at 12:09
  • @Beofett: I can't speak to other options, but hopefully some other people will. There is a very similar question at parenting.stackexchange.com/questions/5593/… which covers the topic more generally.
    – user3034
    Aug 2, 2012 at 12:29
  • 3
    Not sure we can all agree on objection #1. As for work, a high school degree is mandatory for most positions in the US. Colleges should let you in with a GED, which you'd want to get anyways. As for Objection #2, Algebra is useless? I can't agree with that at all. It's a fundamental part of basic math that most adults need frequently.
    – DA01
    Aug 2, 2012 at 16:53
  • I can only speak for my own experience, but I've done a lot of consulting work so I've been through the I9 rigmarole about a dozen times. No one has raised an eyebrow at "Home School" for my high school, and I've never been asked to show a diploma. Please tell me, what career other than CS or engineering requires algebra frequently?
    – user3034
    Aug 5, 2012 at 12:48
  • Thank you Jon of All Trades. It is difficult to answer to all when you are familiar with only one. BUT you gave me lots of info about one of the styles with which I am least familiar. Oct 24, 2012 at 3:12

We practice “hackschooling”. It’s a term we made up for avoiding the baggage of saying that we homeschool. One, our kids are hardly every at home so it’s misleading. Second is that homeschooling has unfortunately developed a reputation of being "pushy" and having a root motivation of trying to avoid exposing and/or socializing the kids with worldviews and value systems that are out of sync with their parents. "Unschooling" is another term gaining in popularity and it has some great perspective, especially the "don't push" and eschewing the popular definition of educational success via standards-based quantitative measurement, but we do feel some some aspects of what unschooling advocates "push" for falls short.

Our approach has been to "hack" school (remix, mash-up, co-op, and create) to create a learning and achievement environment for our family and stakeholder social network. We're happy to take from any "school of thought" what we think is efficient and beneficial and not deal with the shadow. We're always looking for the hack that achieves optimal result or efficiency. The kids "just happen" to be included in that.

Three difficult paradigm shifts for us to make in this approach were:

  1. It’s not JUST about the kids. Its the family, extended family, and a circle of relevant people in our social network. The kids are growing up in an environment where they see everyone around them challenging themselves with some form of developmental growth. Often on the same subject and/or activity they are. They are immersed in an environment where everyone in their immediate social network is striving to learn and change.

  2. It’s not school, it’s life. Life is 24×7, 365. It’s most certainly not 9-3p, M-F, 9 months of the year. It’s persistent and holistic.

  3. Optimize for efficiency, experience, and outcome. This means putting a lot more faith in qualitative results. Quantifying everything is too much of a drag coefficient. This was a huge cognitive dissonance for us as we were bred on measuring education comparatively.

Is this the solution for everyone? Absolutely not, however, gone (err…going) are the days of mass homogenized approaches inside nations that have enjoyed modernity and a comfortable GDP for a few decades.

The best education “strategy” for a child is dependent upon so many factors, not the least of which is the socio-economic level and developmental altitude of the parents. Unfortunately in the US our melting pot of conflicting value systems, worldviews, collective bargaining units, efficient lobbyists, and a predisposition to litigate has hamstrung our public education system from being able to “reform” at a pace that gives many hope.

  • So you are basically doing an ecclectic approach? Oct 24, 2012 at 3:15

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