How to Simplify Your Curriculum

As I write this, many homeschoolers are in the throes of planning for the new school year. I have watched on social media as parents have shared photos of towering book piles and the complicated systems they use to keep track of their curriculum choices. While I am in awe of their dedication and the amount of energy (and money!) they are putting into their children’s education, I can’t help but be slightly overwhelmed on their behalf. Friends, that’s a whole lotta curriculum you’ve got there.

I sympathize with the anxieties that drive homeschooling parents to overcomplicate their schedules. We’ve all experienced FOMO on the trendy new curriculum, especially when all of our friends on social media are raving about it. We also have understandable and valid concerns about gaps in our children’s educations. Many of us feel pressure from family members, neighbors, and the broader society to do better than the schools we’ve opted out of. We want our kids to KNOW ALL THE THINGS. Besides, we’re cognitively inclined to problem-solve by adding—another Grecian urn project, another science curriculum, another math program, another booklist—rather than removing the excess.

Still, just as our homes are stuffed with stress-inducing clutter, too many homeschool schedules look more like the agenda for a high-powered CEO than for a couple of elementary kids. Let me don my virtual white cardigan and suggest that you consider tidying your curriculum, bidding a grateful farewell to the excess, and getting back to the joy-sparking basics.

The fact is that you don’t actually need very much at all to homeschool young children: Solid phonics and math curricula plus a library card will go a long way. While you do eventually need a little more by way of formal curricula, a streamlined approach can work for older students as well. In fact, as a dyed-in-the-wool curricular minimalist, I’d argue it’s an excellent way to keep your family’s sanity and budget intact.

How exactly do you do it?

If you’re a classical homeschooler, you may have heard the Latin phrase multum non multa. It translates roughly as quality, not quantity or less is more. Although this principle is a hallmark of traditional classical education, with its limited and often Eurocentric curriculum, it is just as useful a touchstone in the modern, inclusive, secular homeschool.

Here are three ways to apply the multum non multa principle to your curriculum choices. If you’d like to lighten your mental load and free up time for your children to play outdoors, pursue hobbies, or just enjoy being kids, read on.

(1) Focus on the core.

There are only five core academic subjects in the K-12 grades: English language arts, mathematics, social studies, science, and foreign languages. A well-rounded education will also include athletics and the fine and performing arts, but unless you have a child with a passion for these pursuits, they should not take up as much space in your schedule as the core five.

Some homeschooling methods—I’m looking at you, Charlotte Mason—artificially inflate the list of subjects by highlighting certain topics (poetry, art and music appreciation) or authors (Shakespeare, Plutarch) for special and continuous study. Even some classically-inspired methods do this when they treat logic or rhetoric as separate from the rest of the language arts. Avoid these unnecessary complications. You can give all of these topics and authors their due place without making them into separate line items on your schedule.

Likewise, there is no need for most homeschoolers to prioritize specialized areas of study like psychology, sociology, anthropology, linguistics, economics, and the advanced subfields in the natural sciences. Highly motivated high school students can take these kinds of courses as electives in 11th or 12th grade, perhaps as part of a dual enrollment program in a community college. All students should know that these fields exist, understand their purpose, and be able to name some major figures in them, but that can be accomplished through the study of world history.

Not only do you want to focus on the core subjects, you want to prioritize the core ideas and texts within them. Teaching your child about the Fibonacci sequence and golden rectangles sounds cool, but it’s more important that they know their multiplication tables and understand fractions. Students who study a curated list of literary classics, slowly and in depth, will come out ahead of their peers who zoom through dozens of titles without taking the time to ponder, discuss, and write about them. Social history is often more engaging for young people (and many adults!) than catalogs of kings and battles, but historical novels are no substitute for a good timeline and a memorized list of key dates.

(2) Combine subjects and students when possible.

Although there are only five core academic subjects, they fall into two main baskets: Humanities (ELA, Social Studies, World Languages, Arts) and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics). Readers may recognize these as the modern forms of the medieval Trivium (language arts) and Quadrivium (mathematical arts), respectively.

Combining subjects within these baskets saves time and effort. For example, many neoclassical homeschoolers do not teach geography as a separate subject but include map work and cultural information in their history studies. The primary levels of Exploring the World through Story teach geography in the context of world literature. Likewise, civics becomes a unit within a national history course, and basic topics in economics can be covered in world history. Copywork, paired with a good phonics program, provides practice in handwriting, spelling, and mechanics. Traditional classical educators teach English grammar in the context of Latin, and the same can be done with modern world languages. CM-style picture study slots into ELA if students are asked to describe the piece in a descriptive paragraph. Art and music appreciation fit nicely into history; Core Knowledge and The Well-Trained Mind show how this can be done. Mathematics is so central to the sciences that it is often referred to as “the language of science.” While I wouldn’t recommend teaching math solely through your science curriculum, the applied mathematics in science provides opportunities to review mathematical concepts and practice mathematical thinking.  Simplifying the curriculum means making these cross-curricular connections explicit and using them to our advantage in planning our children’s studies.

Another strategy is to combine not just the subjects, but the students learning them. Consider family-style studies for content areas while keeping skills-based curricula like math and writing separate unless you have two children working at the same level. Many curricula written for homeschoolers include ways to adjust the level up or down. Just make sure that primary-age kids aren’t relegated to arts-and-crafts projects in lieu of actual content and that middle schoolers are writing regularly about their content-area studies. If either group is spending more time with craft foam and tacky glue than with a field guide or history timeline, find another program.

(3) Understand the difference between studying and just reading.

To make intelligent choices about curriculum, we need to understand how different types of texts support our academic priorities. Spines are core texts that present key concepts and information in an orderly way, so that students understand both the content and the structure of each discipline. Well-written and -organized textbooks and surveys of history and science are useful here, as are age-appropriate classics and literature anthologies. The student engages actively with this content, usually by orally narrating, outlining, or writing, or—in the STEM subjects—by doing problem sets, constructions, proofs, or experiments. Spines are texts to be studied, with the goal of mastering academic skills and/or a body of knowledge.

Supplements are additional texts, lectures, videos, etc., judiciously chosen by the parent-teacher to enrich and expand the content of the spines. This is where most historical novels and the topical fiction and nonfiction gems gathered from booklists fit into a streamlined curriculum. Ditto PBS documentaries, YouTube videos, and hands-on projects. Rabbit trails based on student interest belong here as well. Supplements present more varied viewpoints than a single spine can, making them an important part of a diverse and inclusive modern curriculum. They also reinforce the domain-specific vocabulary necessary for reading comprehension. Supplements are read (or viewed or listened to) and discussed. The goal is exposure to varied ideas and perspectives that extend the content of the spine.

To keep the curriculum simple, distinguish carefully between spines and supplements, and avoid overloading students with the latter. Lit- and video-based curricula, for all their strengths, encourage this tendency, as do programs that offer a smorgasbord of activities rather than a clearly sequenced learning path. Look for curricula with designated spines and optional supplements, and resist the urge to assign every last book on the list. If any one subject requires more than three or four books per semester, it is likely skimming the surface of the topic and not prioritizing the most important information. (Programs for young children that rely on short picture books are an obvious exception to this rule.) Remember, the bulk of your students’ time should be spent reading, summarizing, outlining, or writing about the contents of the spine.

Finally, there is recreational or leisure reading. Here students choose the books themselves and read them in their free time, strictly for pleasure. I would place many children’s classics and contemporary novels in this category, although the very best of them can be used in the middle grades for formal literature study. Certain student-interest rabbit trails will end up here as well.

When it comes to formal academic study, however, Seneca’s advice still holds true:

Be careful, however, lest this reading of many authors and books of every sort may tend to make you discursive and unsteady. You must linger among a limited number of master-thinkers, and digest their works, if you would derive ideas which shall win firm hold in your mind. Everywhere means nowhere. […] And in reading of many books is distraction.

If you focus on the five core subjects, combine subjects and students when possible, and understand how to balance deep study with supplemental reading, you will automatically cut down on the stress—not to mention the expense—of homeschooling. You will free up precious time for both yourself and your children to enjoy other activities: hobbies, sports, scouting, outdoor play, arts, field trips, and time with family and friends. There is no way to do it all, so focus on the best and leave the rest.

Copyright 2021 by Drew Campbell, PhD. All rights reserved.

Drew Campbell is the author of  Living Memory, I Speak Latin, and Exploring the World through Story, and co-author, with Courtney Ostaff and Jennifer Naughton, of How to Homeschool the Kids You Have. Dr. Campbell is a veteran homeschooler and has worked as a classroom teacher, private school administrator, and independent tutor.