Concepts & Theories

There are a lot of concepts and theories of education
floating around out there. What do you believe?
If you grew up within the school system, perhaps
you’ve never questioned before that school is the
right and proper way for a child to be educated.
It hasn’t always been like that.


Without doubt, you can effectively home educate your children without ever once giving thought to what anybody else thinks or does. I suspect that few of us do, however. It’s normal for us to doubt ourselves and our effectiveness. To that end, I consider it important to look at what some of the thoughts “out there” are, so that we actually know for ourselves what we believe about education for ourselves.

On the opening page for this section (Education), we looked at definitions for ‘education’. It’s interesting that as the industrial age developed and became the technology age, we have become very comfortable with the words ‘education’ and ‘schooling’ being interchangeable – and yet they aren’t. .

Modern Concepts

Modern concepts and theories of education are constantly evolving, and there is much impressive-sounding information available in libraries and on the internet. What’s tried next will have its roots in the reaction to what was tried last time – for the system as a whole, as well as for us as home educators.

It’s far easier for us to redirect our little dinghy-with-a-picnic-packed (home educating our own children) than it is for the System to redirect its laden behemoth super-tanker (with huge numbers of children from so many families), however. The repercussions of disaster are far more readily combated by us, at home, too.

1936 Paper

A document from 1936, authored by Fannie B. Shaw [1], outlines three concepts of education quite succinctly.

  1. Traditional education, said to be subject-matter centred, looks to the past for its ideals and content. It maintains its identity through an effort to “conserve and transmit the heritage of the past.” Its method is the logical organization and presentation of subject-matter. One learns the names of the bones of the body in hygiene, and the dates and battles in history. Though it may have fitted its followers to live in a static society, it is claimed that in the new social order it ineffectively prepares one for the solution of problems and continuous adjustment to change.
  2. Scientific education, which is “adult ” or “society-centred,” made its entry half a century ago through the medium of psychology, tests and measurements, and experimentation. Preparation for life is its justification and it seeks to determine what is to be taught in the public schools through a careful consideration of the needs of the present. Job analysis is its favourite technic. Its most awkward task has been an attempt to measure the abilities of students and homogenously group them in Sections A, B, and C for instructional purposes – forgetting that these same youngsters in life must hold their own in business and society that are heterogenous.
  3. Progressive education, which is called ” child-centred,” holds that the teacher should be a guide, whose duty it is to observe the spontaneous activities of children, and to study their mental and emotional reactions. Content and activities are selected to further the immediate purposes of children. Experience in meeting new situations prepares for future needs. Living fully and purposefully today gives practice in meeting situations later in life.

While Ms Shaw goes on to recommend a “new model” that incorporates the best of these three concepts, we can look at them from the perspective of home educators and see possibilities far beyond anything possible in schools. At home, we can utilise and modify in the best interests of our children, without concern for how our child’s progress or enthusiasm might impact the system.

Outcomes Based Education

Of recent years, it has become the propensity of our education system to follow an outcomes based approach, and this became an increasingly hot topic. In Western Australia, for example [2], the heat of the debate just about caused the entire state to implode! Here in the ACT, the Every Chance to Learn document has its roots firmly in the outcomes based approach.

In my humble opinion, Outcomes Based Education (OBE) and home education are not compatible. If you would like to read more of my thoughts on the subject, read the Outcomes article.

From what I understand, the outcomes based approach has arisen from a desire for students to master skills in a measurable way, and have that the basis of the system rather than the more traditional focus of what a school provides for students (input based approach).

It is an admirable goal to want every child emerging from the school system to have a guaranteed mastery of certain skills. We all want our children to be literate and numerate, and to be confident as they step out into the big wide world. It isn’t the desire that is in question here, it’s whether or not outcomes based education (OBE) actually achieves its goal.

  • Outcomes must be concretely measurable, and a system of outcomes will be complex, covering everything from recitation of facts to complex interpretation and analysis.
  • Such outcomes much be predefined, which necessitates the development of a curriculum framework that consistently develops the student to achieve those stated outcomes.
  • Standardised testing is an accepted part of OBE, an important by-product of the approach. Students are assessed against external, absolute objectives, instead of reporting the students’ relative achievements.

A Google search on ‘outcomes based education’ will provide enough reading material for a month of Sundays, so I won’t even attempt to provide topical links within this section of the article. The more I read about OBE, however, the more I feel it has no relevant place within the practice of home education.

How Children Actually Learn

There is a perception within the school system that children learn in a particular way. If a child is struggling with a concept, then they should spend more time on it, or it should be taught in a different way, or the child should learn to take their schooling more seriously.

There is also a presumption that a great many things must be taught in a particular sequence. In some areas, this may be true – it hardly seems plausible that we might learn that a + b = c before we’ve learned that 1 + 2 = 3. But does it matter if we learn about the Battle of Hastings before we’ve even heard of the Siege of Troy?

A Maths Experiment

Some interesting research was done back in 1929 in Manchester, New Hampshire. A superintendent of schools, L. P. Benezet,  argued that the time spent on arithmetic in the early grades was wasted effort, or worse.

For some years I had noted that the effect of the early introduction of arithmetic had been to dull and almost chloroform the child’s reasoning facilities,” he wrote. Benezet further claimed that drill had divorced the whole realm of numbers and arithmetic in the children’s minds from common sense, with the result that they could do the calculations as taught to them, but didn’t understand what they were doing and couldn’t apply the calculations to real life problems. He believed that if arithmetic were not taught until later on–preferably not until seventh grade–the kids would learn it with far less effort and greater understanding. [3]

Benezet went on to put his theory to the test, replacing Arithmetic with what he called Recitation. The children were asked to talk about topics that interested them – experiences they had had, movies they had seen, or anything that would lead to genuine, lively communication and discussion. He believed this would improve their abilities to reason and communicate logically. Pupils also had some practice in measuring and counting things, to assure that they would have some practical experience with numbers.

The results were remarkable. In testing performed at the beginning of Year 6, the children from experimental classes, who had not been taught any arithmetic, performed much better than those in the traditional classes on story problems that could be solved by common sense and a general understanding of numbers and measurement. Their performance was worse on the standard school arithmetic tests, where the problems were set up in the usual school manner and could be solved simply by applying the rote-learned algorithms. But by the end of sixth grade those in the experimental classes had completely caught up on this and were still way ahead of the others on story problems.

This research is supported by much that I have read personally over the years, which in turn supports what I observed with my one child: when a child struggles with a concept, the answer is not to shove in more information or devise more intricate strategies. I do not want my child being able to parrot information for my amusement, or to impress a third-party. I actually want her to learn.

Forming Your Own Concepts

Here, I want to ask the question, simply:

What factors are key to how you want your child to be educated?

While I will share some of the factors we consider key for our family, yours will be different.

The next question is:

How can you influence your own child’s education and future for their good?

Personal Influences

Some of our key factors include:

  • While we like and admire the many educators we know personally across a number of fields of education, we do not believe that the school system is right for our child.
  • While we acknowledge that there have been both good and bad influences in the history of education, our concern is with what is right for our own child, here and now.
  • While we understand the body of research that underpins why and how many things are taught in schools, we believe it is far more fitting for us to ascertain, step by step and in relationship with our child, what her personal and current educational needs are.
  • While convoluted systems may be necessary in effectively administrating large numbers of students within institutionalised schooling, we believe it is both possible and practical to keep our own child’s education experience personally appropriate, thorough and uncomplicated.

What can we do about it?

  • We can educate our child at home.
  • We can foster an excellent relationship with our child.
  • We can work with our child, helping her develop a sound character, become a good citizen, discover her own unique abilities, and become a discerning participant in life.
  • We can honour those in authority over us, exemplifying to our child the respect for reasonable authority we hope she will emulate.

How will you answer these questions for your family, and your own child’s education?

Education is not filling a bucket, but lighting a fire.
~ William Yeats


[1] A Modern Concept of Education, FANNIE B. SHAW, Read before the Public Health Education Section of the American Public Health Association at the Sixty-fifth Annual Meeting in New Orleans. La., October 23, 1936.
[2], the education watchdog.
[3] Original reference found at Peter Gray’s Psychology Today Blog. L.P Benezet (1935/1936), The Teaching of Arithmetic: The Story of an Experiment, Originally published in the Journal of the National Education in three parts. Vol. 24, #8, pp 241-244; Vol. 24, #9, p301-303; & Vol. 25, #1, pp7-8.