When I transitioned to a Charlotte Mason style homeschool mid-way through my son's 1st-grade year, I began using a timetable I had devised to fit in all the subjects I wanted to include.
I see a lot of misconceptions about why one would choose or not choose to follow a strict schedule in a homeschool, so I want to share why we have chosen to do so. I am not suggesting that you must have a strict schedule to enjoy these benefits; they just happen to be the benefits we are experiencing by following this type of schedule.
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Following a schedule protects a student's free time
I am a firm believer that learning happens all the time. A big reason why my husband and I decided to homeschool our children from birth onward is that we wanted to protect our children's childhood by providing them with lots of unstructured time to explore interests, play with their siblings, and enjoy time in nature.
By following a fairly strict schedule for our lessons, I can ensure that my children have time to practice piano, contribute to family life through chores, spend time outside, participate in activities like soccer and still have hours every day to do things like playing their made-up games, practicing their latest obsessions (lately string games and sewing), reading, drawing, or thinking.
Following a schedule improves the habit of attention (and reduces dawdling)
Time-table; Definite Work in a Given Time.––I shall have opportunities to enter into some of these points later; meantime, let us look in at a home schoolroom managed on sound principles. In the first place, there is a time-table, written out fairly, so that the child knows what he has to do and how long each lesson is to last. This idea of definite work to be finished in a given time is valuable to the child, not only as training him in habits of order, but in diligence; he learns that one time is not 'as good as another'; that there is no right time left for what is not done in its own time; and this knowledge alone does a great deal to secure the child's attention to his work. Home Education, Vol I, page 142The habit of attention is the ability to focus your mind to perform mental efforts. And it is the first mental effort Mason discusses in Home Education:
First, we put the habit of Attention, because the highest intellectual gifts depend for their value upon the measure in which their owner has cultivated the habit of attention. Home Education, Vol. I, page 137When I set the time for lessons and require my children to do the lessons one after another, I am giving them daily practice in attending to varied subjects of the curriculum. Because I set the time for the lessons, I can be accountable to ensure they are paying attention the whole time. I can see if they are writing, reading, or narrating. Or, I can see if they are looking around the room or staring into space.
Because each lesson is set for a certain period of time, the lesson must take place during that time. It cannot take 1 hour to do the math work because you are stumped and decided to let your mind wander. It cannot take 30 minutes to read a chapter of geography because you want to procrastinate since it isn't your favorite book.
The time and not the material is what must be gotten through and so once the time is gone, it is gone, whether you learned something or not. For this reason, dawdling over lessons is not allowed to go unchecked. I try to do exactly what Mason recommended:
In the first place, never let the child dawdle over copybook or sum, sit dreaming with his book before him. When a child grows stupid over a lesson, it is time to put it away. Let him do another lesson as unlike the last as possible, and then go back with freshened wits to his unfinished task. If mother or governess have been unwary enough to let the child 'moon' over a lesson, she must just exert her wits to pull him through; the lesson must be done, of course, but must be made bright and pleasant to the child. Home Education, Vol I, page 141My son usually doesn't like to switch to a new lesson and return to the old one, so when he is dawdling, I ask him if we need to switch to the next lesson right now. Most often, this happens when he has hit a very challenging math problem and feels stuck or when he feels like I am asking him to do something that he shouldn't have to do. He either says, "Yes!" and we move on to our next subject without shame or he begins to pour out the feelings that are blocking his ability to focus. After I hear that "it is too hard" or "this problem is taking too long" or "I don't want to do this" we can take some deep breaths, remember that the goal is not to get through the work but to learn and grow, and reorient ourselves back to the problem.
Every single time we have done either of these techniques, my son has been able to do the remaining work without dawdling. Most importantly, I feel like he is learning more valuable lessons about life and work and obedience, as well as developing his habit of attention.
Following a schedule keeps lessons developmentally appropriate
As parents, it is tempting to become attached to our children finishing an amount of work per day, per month, or per year. But do we really want to teach our children that quantity trumps quality or that chugging through huge swaths of content equals knowledge?
Following a timetable forces us to identify at the outset the time appropriate for each lesson so that we can then set the content to fit. These appropriate lessons are what allows us to both require perfect execution (as the child should not be asked to do what he cannot execute perfectly) as well as demand constant attention. In the same paragraph as Mason describes the timetable, she writes
Again, the lessons are short, seldom more than twenty minutes in length for children under eight; and this, for two or three reasons. The sense that there is not much time for his sums or his reading, keeps the child's wits on the alert and helps to fix his attention; he has time to learn just so much of any one subject as it is good for him to take in at once: and if the lessons be judiciously alternated––sums first, say, while the brain is quite fresh; then writing, or reading––some more or less mechanical exercise, by way of a rest; and so on, the program varying a little from day to day, but the same principle throughout––a 'thinking' lesson first, and a 'painstaking' lesson to follow,––the child gets through his morning lessons without any sign of weariness. Home Education, Vol I, page 142I could go on and on about the benefits of short lessons. Probably the biggest single reason I began following the Charlotte Mason method was that I became convinced that short lessons are the key to an excellent education. For 2 years, I had observed the benefits of (ever so) slowly reading living books at our morning time, as opposed to gulping them down in huge portions. In small bites, my children were endlessly attentive and inquisitive and if I switched between different subjects, their attention span would be incredibly long for their young ages of then 4 and 6.
I had also observed that my boys improved skills faster when they were given downtime before moving on to new content. This is why I would only let them do (for fun) 3 Kumon workbook pages a day or 2 chapters of Life of Fred even though there were many days they wanted to do more.
By being committed to short lessons following a fairly strict schedule, even the most difficult lesson seems doable for my 2nd-grader and I hope that my rising 1st-grader will find it the same. And I wonder if short lessons are possible if a schedule is not followed since a student might be free to "moon" over a single problem or page for as long as they were not discovered.
Following a schedule helps student and teacher accomplish ALL important subjects consistently
If I have chosen to include a certain subject in my children's curriculum, I believe it is important. However, it is hard to break cultural ideas that math and history are more important than art, at least for me. A schedule holds both me and the child accountable for doing both the subjects that come easily or seem "more important" and the subjects that are more challenging for both of us or seem like "electives."
It also helps me convey through my behavior the value of a broad, liberal education in the classical sense. According to Mason:
The question is not,––how much does the youth know? when he has finished his education––but how much does he care? and about how many orders of things does he care? In fact, how large is the room in which he finds his feet set? and, therefore, how full is the life he has before him? I know you may bring a horse to the water, but you cannot make him drink. What I complain of is that we do not bring our horse to the water. School Education, vol 3 pg 170-171.If I consistently do not bring my charges to the vital waters of art and geography and singing, I fear I am sending the message that these things are not worth caring about.
Right now, my hardest subjects to want to do are singing and drawing. Because these lessons are scheduled and short, I can see them within the context of the whole education. They offer a meaningful break from more academic work. They show my children that I value beauty, personal development, and different aptitudes, not just facts and mainstream skills subjects.
Following a set schedule can help parents balance homeschooling with other obligations and pursuits
I take my vocation as a homemaker and a homeschooling mother very seriously. As a consequence, I see myself owing duties to my husband, each of my children, as well as my community.
Fulfilling some duties compels me to continue to develop myself as a homeschool educator, friend, and wife. Fulfilling other duties means cooking, cleaning, and bill-paying. Obviously, I devote serious effort to planning and carrying out consistent homeschooling. But still, I need time and energy to devote to other people and other activities on a daily basis.
By following a schedule, I have a dedicated time when I am homeschooling. I guard these hours carefully. In these early years with only young children, formal lessons are typically completed by 10:30am, leaving plenty of time for extras like park days, doctor appointments, time spent with my babies and toddlers, and even field trips. [See a recent day in our lives here.]
After homeschooling lessons are done, my children are free to play and I am free to devote myself to other work. This work includes spending more time with my children! But it also includes preparing for my Charlotte Mason reading group, chatting with a friend, or taking a rest if needed, as well as cooking and cleaning.
I don't have to nag my children to complete school work and instead can use that energy to nag my children to do their chores. Just kidding! They still need to be reminded to get other things accomplished, but there is plenty of time for playing and work in their schedule.
But what about rabbit trails, spontaneity, time management skills, compartmentalizing learning?
There are a lot of myths and misconceptions about strict schedules. As I was articulating the benefits we've discovered from following a schedule, it led me to think about all the reasons why I thought I'd never do a schedule like this! Many of those reasons were related to common myths about strict schedules I had learned from those who follow a less-structured style of homeschooling.
Next up, I'll be discussing those myths and how they do not apply to the way I implement a schedule in our homeschool. See my post on 6 Myths About Strict Homeschool Schedules here.
In conclusion, I love our "strict" schedule and it works for us!
But I never for one minute think it is the only way to achieve the same benefits or results. And I don't for one second think it is the best way or only way to homeschool successfully.
I want to offer our example for those interested in giving a more rigid schedule a try or those troubleshooting their current system of scheduling homeschooling into a busy day.
Curious about what this looks like in practice? Here is a bit about our strict homeschool schedule right now.