So just what is ‘essential’ to a ‘good’ education?
Even the most impressive of experts can’t agree
on that! If you do your own research, within five
minutes you’ll have enough information at your
fingertips to keep your head spinning for a week.

In this section you’ll find articles which suggest things that are vital for every human being to know, and present a range of thoughts about what might constitute ‘essentials’.

Articles in this section:

KLAs ELAs What School Never Teaches

Please use these links, or the tabs along the top of the page
and the drop-down menus to navigate your way around.

There are no definitive answers to the questions:

  • what components are ‘essential’ to a ‘good’ education? and
  • what makes a person ‘well educated’?

Knowing that, it’s taken me quite some time to ascertain just how I can present at least some information that may be useful in the context of somebody else’s (your) process.

As home educators, we want to know what we have to teach our children, not to satisfy authorities, but to help our children lead ultimately satisfying lives.

Personally, I’ve pondered many times over the years on just that subject: what must my daughter know and have mastery of, in order to live her best life?

What is ‘Well Educated’?

As I began to look at this topic, of just what does constitute ‘essential learning’, in order to write this article, I began to ask questions of my friends and family:

  • What does a person need, in order to be called “well-educated”?
  • If there was a person that you considered “well-educated,” what would be the qualities in that person that elicited that response from you?

The topic certainly sparked some very interesting discussions, face to face, but I was somewhat startled to see how reticent people were in more open forums, such as the open pages of Facebook. It’s certainly a topic that many people find interesting, but they are not necessarily comfortable enough with their own views to want to expose them for critique.

What I learned, from those who did share their insights with me, was that a “well-educated” person is not just someone with impressive knowledge, or academic credentials, or a string of letters after their name. In fact, one cousin reminded me of a beautiful valley in the region where we grew up, which at one stage was well populated with large numbers of “highly educated” individuals who regularly needed rescue, in everyday situations, by people who had barely scraped through primary school.

There was general consensus that a well-educated person:

  • is able to learn for themselves
  • has practical as well as intellectual knowledge
  • is able to put their knowledge to good use
  • may have concluded their formal schooling at any level
  • seeks to understand rather than be understood

My friend Dominique has three children who were school-educated, and are now adults living their lives to the full. Dom pondered my question for some time. This was her reply:

“I wanted to give this the thought it deserved, and then the answer came in a real life situation. My daughter went to a friend of mine for some career advice today, at the end of which he commented that she was ‘very well educated’.

“The truth is, she only went to school until Year 11. She sounds well-educated because she is very well read on lots of different subjects, she has a remarkable vocabulary (naturally, she reads a lot), she is interested in the world around her, not just in ‘pop culture’, she attends theatre, art galleries, etc., and has travelled. I believe she is indeed ‘well’ educated, though not in an institutionalised manner, more in a ‘life’ manner.”

My husband, after a number of discussions on the subject, came up with the following:

A well-educated person:

  • must have extensive understanding and knowledge in a broad range of life topics
  • must be able to apply their understanding to the things they observe
  • must be able to challenge, grow and develop their understanding/knowledge, based on new discoveries and observations
  • must have the ability to communicate, clearly and confidently, and conveys their knowledge/understanding in a compassionate and accepting manner
  • – their knowledge should be deep, dynamic and relatable

Interestingly, the musings of my friends and family, emphasising that a good education is much more than just academic learning,  caused a stanza from Dr Seuss’s classic, How The Grinch  Stole Christmas to spring to my mind.

Right towards the end of the story, the Grinch realises that Christmas isn’t just the heartless commercial mayhem he’d assumed it to be. I’ll misquote beloved Dr Seuss here, to make my point relevant to our topic (hoping the purists will forgive me):

And the Grinch, with his grinch-feet ice-cold in the snow,
Stood puzzling and puzzling: “How could it be so?
It came without classrooms! It came without nags!
“It came without workbooks, or textbooks or weighty school-bags!”
And he puzzled three hours, ’till his puzzler was sore.
Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before!
“Maybe real education,” he thought, “doesn’t come from a curriculum core.
“Maybe real education … perhaps … is a little bit more!

Quite often I puzzle until my puzzler is sore, but usually I end up with some kind of understanding of what I’ve been puzzling about, that is beyond what I’d understood before. My new understanding helps me move forward, and guide my daughter forward, with greater freedom than we’d had before.

In this instance, I hope the outworking of my puzzling helps your puzzler be a little less sore, or at least for a shorter time. 🙂

What is ‘Essential Learning’?

Fortunately, there are no hard and fast rules about what, exactly, you must teach when you’re educating your child at home. The ACT guidelines are looking for depth and breadth, but the specifics are up to you.

Compartmentalising Input

Key Learning Areas

Historically, our education system focused on 8 Key Learning Areas, which over time have come to be delineated like this:

Arts • English • Health & Physical Education
• Languages Other Than English (LOTE) • Maths • Science •
Studies Of Society & Environment (SOSE) • Technology

As humans, we tend to want to break things down into easily digestible, bite-sized pieces, and the 8 KLA’s are one way of doing this. In some ways, it isn’t a bad breakdown, either. These aren’t bad definitions if you’re looking for types of input, but I don’t believe they provide a comprehensive understanding of what it means to be “well-educated”.

If you’d like to read more about the value of each of these learning areas, to assess their relevance to your home education experience, read our article on KLA’s.

Essential Learning Achievements

These are a more recent attempt to define what every child must learn. They do not follow subject compartmentalisation, but rather focus on ‘essential achievements’ which will be demonstrated across the range of subjects. There are 25 ELAs listed in the ACT’s Every Chance to Learn document.

  1. The student uses a range of strategies to think and learn.
  2. The student understands and applies the inquiry process.
  3. The student makes considered decisions.
  4. The student acts with integrity and regard for others.
  5. The student contributes to group effectiveness.
  6. The student uses Information and Communication Technologies effectively.
  7. The student creates, presents and appreciates artistic works.
  8. The student listens and speaks with purpose and effect.
  9. The student reads effectively.
  10. The student writes effectively.
  11. The student critically interprets and creates texts.
  12. The student takes action to promote health.
  13. The student is physically skilled and active.
  14. The student manages self and relationships.
  15. The student communicates with intercultural understanding.
  16. The student understands and applies number.
  17. The student chooses and uses measures.
  18. The student recognises and represents patterns and relationships.
  19. The student understands and applies scientific knowledge.
  20. The student acts for an environmentally sustainable future.
  21. The student understands about Australia and Australians.
  22. The student understands and values what it means to be a citizen within a democracy.
  23. The student understands world issues and events.
  24. The student makes informed choices about money and finance.
  25. The student designs, makes and appraises using technology.

These are applied across Key Learning Areas, defined as:

The Arts • English • Health and Physical Education • Languages • Mathematics • Science • Social Sciences • Technology

With overlapping areas defined as:

Interdisciplinary Studies

Quite likely, like me, you can read through the list of 25 ELA’s and see that these are indeed valuable achievements. What part they play in helping your child become a ‘well educated’ human being is something for you to decide, however.

No matter how many times I read through this list, I cannot see how such achievements can be guaranteed, from the planning level of a child’s education. It seems to me that they happen as a matter of course, as you grow and adapt your child’s education in accordance with who they are and the needs that manifest themselves as education happens in the rich environment of home.

If you’d like to read more about how the ELAs might be useful to your home education experience, read our article on ELAs.

Other Ways to Compartmentalise

Recognising that dividing things up into compartments can be useful, but that the compartments have to be relevant to what we’re doing in our own home education environment and experience, I’ve played with this a bit over the years.

At one stage, I segregated experiences and opportunities across three focuses for my daughter’s learning:

  • Life: who am I and all about me
  • Community: how do I relate to my family and immediate community
  • World: the big wide world and my place in it

It was interesting to see how many of our studies fell readily into one these three focuses, yet still impacted the other two in some way.

  • Learning how to cope with criticism easily falls into Life, but it also has an impact on Community and World, because community and world changers don’t get far without a reasonable development of metaphorical Teflon-coating.
  • Participating in something like Frogwatch is obviously a Community focus, but it makes you feel good, so it impacts Life, and it’s part of a network of Frogwatches with global participation, which is also World.
  • Discussing the election of Barack Obama as the United States’ first African-American President is clearly a World focus. Discussing the cultural prejudices that were displayed during the election and comparing them to attitudes in our own culture brings that into a Community focus, and challenging personal opinions and assumptions adds Life relevance, too.

That’s just one way that we’ve divided things up differently over the years. We’ve done other things too – all of them revealing the depth and breadth in Hayley’s educational experience, and each one relevant to our unique situation.

My encouragement is: don’t be afraid of the compartments, but explore them and know what they’re about, so that you’re not just slavishly following something that someone else says. Your focus must be: what is going to serve my child’s education best?

A Different Perspective

With all my reading about Key Learning Areas, and the more progressive Essential Learning Achievements, the more I question the relevance of schools in the education of children. The more I read, the more it occurs to me that we look at education from the wrong end first.

Perhaps the most obvious purpose of a “good education” is so that students can grow up and “get a good job” and thus “be a valuable part of the community”. Superficially, this has merit, but is that what life’s really all about? How many people are truly satisfied by their jobs? I have no idea who originally said: “No man on his deathbed ever wishes he’d spent more time at the office,” but it’s an oft quoted comment that, I suspect, holds a big key to the different perspective we seek.

The aforementioned “man on his deathbed” is most likely pondering the relationships he could have had that might be in better shape if he’d spent more time with the people rather than focused on his work. I have come to believe that home education is primarily about relationships, and in a much larger sense, I suspect that a truly fulfilled life is also primarily about relationships.

In a CD series entitled “Turning Hearts” American home educator, Chris Davis, talks about how he and his wife took a number of weeks to write lists of:

  • what they had found useful in their own school-based education?
  • what of that was more of a life lesson than an academic subject?
  • what had they not learned in school that would have been useful to them as adults?
  • what did they now, as parents, wish they’d know as they were growing up?

As they refined these lists, that information became the foundation for their curriculum as their children grew. They would pick and choose according to what was appropriate to their children’s ages and interests from their refined list, which helped them focus and remain true to what they believed was truly valuable.

The Davis family came to the same conclusion that we did: that relationship was the most important goal of education. They compartmentalise by identifying that relationship is about God, self, others and the natural world. Hearing this, many years after reaching such similar conclusions myself, and hearing it expressed so articulately, has been very affirming for me. (At the time of writing, these CDs are not readily available in Australia, sadly.)

Please don’t get me wrong, I do believe that getting a good job is valuable. It is not what will ultimately satisfy a life, however. I believe a job or career that is undertaken from the perspective of knowing yourself, how you relate to others, and how you fit into community will ultimately have greater longevity and provide greater satisfaction than one that is pursued because “it’s the next step”, or “it’s just what you do”.


As you are working through just what will be “essential” in your home education environment, I urge you to allow yourself to think outside the box. Think about what you’d like your end result to look like. Think about how you can achieve that. And please, don’t be pigeon-holed by schoolish expectations, the opinions of others, or anything that makes you and your children feel constrained and tense. There is a better way.

“The only person who is educated is the one who
has learned how to learn … and change.”
~ Carl Rogers