Types of Homeschooling Explained: Which Style is Right for Your Family?

Each of the most popular homeschool styles has existed for a long time, and each has diehard evangelizers and fervent critics. From classical to unit studies to unschooling, this guide will help you find the form best suited to your family.

Emily Veno
October 13, 2023

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The mention of homeschooling once conjured images of children huddled around a dining table, textbooks in tow, as a parent droned on about algebra or ancient Rome. Fast forward to today, and homeschooling has undergone a magnificent evolution. There's an expansive buffet of choices, tailored to suit every learner's needs, and a vast array of resources to match.

Perhaps your child is currently enrolled in a public or private school, and you’re wondering “What if?” they could have an education more personalized to their learning style. Or, maybe you’re a seasoned homeschooling family considering switching up your current routine. Wherever you are in your homeschool journey, let's delve deeper.

Different Forms of Homeschooling

You know, I’ve wondered if “homeschooling” is a misleading term. Although some homeschooling families do take what most people picture when they hear “school” and implement it at home (more on this below), for most homeschoolers, “homeschool” doesn’t necessarily look anything like school or take place entirely at home. Maybe a better term would be “family-led learning.”

In any case, homeschooling today might look like a combination of the following:

  1. Parent-as-Teacher (or traditional homeschooling): The homeschooling stereotype (which isn’t a dig—this can be a beautiful, effective method!). Parents act as the primary educators, utilizing a chosen homeschool curriculum.
  2. Learning Pods, Co-Ops, or Microschools: Homeschoolers have been learning together in groups for decades, often under the guidance of multiple parents or hired tutors. But there have been an explosion of options for this method of homeschooling in the past few years, from COVID learning pods turned permanent, to innovative microschool companies like KaiPod.
  3. Virtual Schools: For families feeling constrained or let down by traditional in-person schooling, online programs provide the flexibility & customization of homeschooling while relieving the parent of the responsibility to source curriculum, be a teacher, and manage the schedule. Some virtual schools are totally asynchronous, while others (such as Prisma), provide daily interaction with teachers and peers.

Popular Homeschool Methods In a Nutshell

Each of the most popular homeschool styles has existed for a long time, and each has diehard evangelizers and fervent critics. Here’s a preview before we dive into them all in detail:

  1. Classical Approach: Inspired by very old-school educational philosophy (think Plato!) and focusing on rigorous, traditional methods (think memorization!).
  2. Charlotte Mason: Inspired by a British educator who lived at the turn of the 20th century. Prioritizes learning through stories, “nature studies,” and habit formation.
  3. Unit Studies: Integrates multiple subjects around a central theme. If you’ve ever thought “Couldn’t my kid’s obsession with Ancient Egypt help them learn history and math and art and all the other subjects?” the unit study approach might be for you. (We’re partial to the unit study approach at Prisma because it’s quite similar to our curriculum!)
  4. School-at-Home Approach: Replicates traditional school structures and curriculum at home—think math class, then Language Arts class, then science class; with textbooks and worksheets to boot.
  5. Unschooling: For families who wonder “Why do kids need to learn about the mitochondria or the War of 1812 anyway?” Unschooling is a rebellious approach prioritizing child-led learning, grounded in a belief kids learn what they need through exploration.
  6. Eclectic: For families who can’t pick one, the eclectic approach combines various homeschooling methodologies to fit individual needs.


Which Homeschool Style is Right for You?

Questions to Ask Yourself (and Your Kids!)

I’m guessing part of the reason you decided to start homeschooling was your passion for being deeply involved in your child’s learning. So before you pick any old approach, think carefully. What do you dream of for your child’s education, and by extension their adult life? Investigate your own educational philosophy: what kind of learning environments are the most meaningful and transformative in your eyes?

Before designing any homeschool program, ask the following questions:

  1. What outcomes do you most want your children to achieve through their education? When we designed the curriculum framework at Prisma, we started with a long list of skills, concepts, and mindsets we wanted all learners to achieve, from creativity to data analysis to leadership. Do you want to emphasize skills, knowledge, or both? Make sure your chosen approach to home education covers the outcomes you care about.
  2. Is it important for your children to stay on track with content covered in the traditional school system? Some homeschool parents double and triple check their chosen curriculum to ensure it ticks the same boxes as their neighborhood schools, and others choose homeschooling precisely because they find state standards irrelevant or overly burdensome. Other parents aim to cover the broad strokes, but aren’t sticklers.
  3. What are your child’s strengths as a learner? Choose an approach emphasizing your child’s unique gifts and lets them shine. If your child is highly creative, a project-based approach with lots of hands-on activities might be their speed. If your child is fascinated by technology, avoid an old-school method using only pen and paper.
  4. What are your child’s challenges in learning? Try to find a sweet spot in a program offering support in your child’s biggest growth areas, while avoiding torturing them with an oversized emphasis on their weaknesses. For example, if your child struggles with reading, look for an approach building literacy skills, but doesn’t force them to learn all other subjects through text.
  5. How much time and energy do you have to devote to each child’s education? Be realistic and pragmatic. Does the idea of designing an interdisciplinary unit incorporating books, field trips, and projects sound like oodles of fun or a logistical impossibility? Will you be available to facilitate a structured learning approach each day or will you likely need your child to tackle some of the learning on their own?

1. What Is Classical Homeschooling?

Grounded in the ancient tradition of “classical education,” the classical method operates sequentially from the grammar stage (knowledge accumulation), to the logic stage (analytical thinking), and finally the rhetoric stage (articulate expression). Rooted in the traditions  educating everyone from Thomas Jefferson to Leonardo da Vinci, it champions thorough knowledge of classical languages, arts, and sciences. Parents typically act as knowledgeable guides, leading children through structured stages of learning.

Classical homeschooling might be a good fit for your family if...

  1. You believe education has been going downhill in the modern era.
  2. You believe critical thinking isn't a skill; it's a way of life.
  3. Your children have the attention span and discipline to handle this approach, or you're committed to instilling it.

Classical homeschooling might not be a good fit for your family if...

  1. You can’t imagine your child lighting up while memorizing a poem.
  2. You’re more interested in developing future-ready skills than instilling a deep well of knowledge.
  3. Strict stages sound more confining than enlightening.

2. What is Charlotte Mason style homeschooling?

Charlotte Mason (1842-1923) was a British educational thinker who believed children should be free to play and learn from immersing themselves in real life, which has resonated with homeschooling parents for generations. Embracing a philosophy of education engaging the whole child, the Charlotte Mason method leans heavily on literature and nature. Using "living books" (those written in a narrative or conversational tone) and regular “nature studies,” it encourages children to connect with the material deeply. As a parent, you'd play the role of a gentle facilitator, introducing your child to quality sources and then allowing their natural curiosity to take over.

Charlotte Mason homeschooling might be a good fit for your family if...

  1. The word "novel" makes your heart flutter.
  2. You believe in the wisdom of nature walks.
  3. Character development is equally crucial as academic development.

The Charlotte Mason approach might not be a good fit for your family if...

  1. The digital age beckons more than the Elizabethan era.
  2. You prefer equations over essays.

3. What are Unit Studies?

Thematic and immersive, unit studies intertwine subjects around a core theme. In education, this is known as “interdisciplinary learning,” which is a strategy backed by research for its ability to engage learners and given them real-world context for their studies. (Plus, it’s practiced everywhere from MIT to the London Interdisciplinary School to Prisma!) In unit studies, every subject from math to literature gets roped into the theme. This approach offers flexibility and real-world relevance. Parents here are like creative directors, weaving connections and crafting interdisciplinary learning experiences.

At Prisma, our curriculum team creates interdisciplinary themes at both the middle school and high school level. Past themes have included Unsolved Mysteries, Build a Business, World of Wonder, Wild Inventions, and Legend Has It. I wrote this guide to designing unit studies for Secular, Eclectic, Academic Homeschoolers Magazine last year based on our theme design process.

Unit studies might be a good fit for your family if...

  1. Field trips and hands-on projects make your day.
  2. Learning flexibility is your mantra.
  3. Drawing connections across subjects feels like unraveling mysteries.

Unit studies might not be a good fit for your family if...

  1. You're a stickler for regimented curriculum.
  2. You can’t imagine yourself designing whole units without burning out.

(And if you like the sound of unit studies but don’t like the sound of designing them, check out Prisma!)

4. What is School-at-Home Homeschooling?

The school-at-home method is traditional schooling in a home setting. This method follows structured curriculums with regular assessments. Think workbooks, lesson plans, quizzes, and sometimes even bell schedules. Here, parents wear the teacher's hat, bringing the structure and routine of school into the home environment.

Some families do the school-at-home approach using pen-and-paper curriculum, and others incorporate online programs (see our guides to science and math and writing curricula to explore some of those options).

School-at-home style homeschooling might be a good fit for your family if...

  1. You’re relieved by the idea of your children covering the same content as regular schools.
  2. The words "lesson plan" bring you peace.
  3. Balance and structure are non-negotiables.

School-at-home style homeschooling might not be a good fit for your family if...

  1. You're itching to break free from public school norms.
  2. Rigid schedules sound like a nightmare.

5. What is Unschooling?

Conceived by revolutionary thinker John Holt, unschooling is child-led learning unhinged from the confines of a classroom or curriculum. Unschooling advocates argue children are naturally wired to learn, and traditional school sucks the joy and motivation out of learning. The ultimate goal of unschooling is to create self-directed, curious, lifelong learners.

Unschooling might look like designing a learning space in your house with lots of interesting books, activities, and creative tools, and letting your child run wild; or enrolling them in a Sudbury School or other self-directed learning center. Some eclectic homeschoolers do a hybrid of unschooling and more traditional approaches (for example, using a structured math curriculum but allowing their kids to learn history and science in a self-directed way). At Prisma, we incorporate self-directed learning by encouraging each learner to design a self-directed Quest they work on throughout the year, from mastering piano to becoming an expert in different species of bugs.

Unschooling might be a good fit for your family if...

  1. You believe learning isn't bound by textbooks.
  2. Curiosity is the compass.
  3. Life's everyday moments are profound lessons in disguise.

Unschooling might not be a good fit for your family if...

  1. You find solace in syllabi and schedules.
  2. "Winging it" gives you the jitters.
  3. Your child has spent many years in traditional schools and doesn’t have much motivation to learn.

Still undecided? Dive into the eclectic homeschooling approach—a harmonious blend of styles, ensuring your child gets the best of all types of homeschooling. After all, when it comes to learning, sometimes the magic lies in the mix.

Join our community of families all over the world doing school differently.

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