Well-Trained Mind: The Four-Year Cycle

Since making the decision to home school my children, currently ages one and three, I have been researching various methods of home schooling.  Over the next few weeks, I’d like to share with you some of the benefits I’ve seen in each of those methods.  If you are considering home schooling, this may help you decide where to start.  If you are already home schooling, this may provide you with some ideas to enhance what’s working well for you or re-work something that’s been a struggle.  To see all posts in this series, please click the tag “home schooling methods.”

The Well-Trained Mind curriculum is meticulously organized into a four-year cycle to create cohesion across subject matter.  The history instruction, for example, is taught chronologically: Ancient, Medieval, Early Modern (up to 1850), and Modern (1850-present).  The fifth year, students begin again with The Ancients but increase depth.  Two aspects of this make it really successful.  First, it is bonkers to teach history out of chronological order.  Everything that has ever happened has had a cause, and trying to explain historical events out of order places them completely out of context, making them dull, meaningless, and fully forgettable.   Additionally, returning to the same material as children grow reinforces what they have learned in the past and allows them to build on that foundation.  In most schools, that maddeningly vague umbrella of the “social studies” is so disjointed from year to year that by the time kids get to middle school, they’ve had no exposure to history whatsoever and can barely recall a smattering of facts from previous years.  Many of them don’t know the difference between a city, a state, a country, and a continent.  Lest you think I exaggerate, I humbly remind you that I currently teach fifth grade American history in a school with above-average standardized test scores.  The situation is bleak.

The four-year cycle applies to all core subjects in The Well-Trained Mind and is designed so that ideas align from one subject to the next.  For example, geometry is taught alongside Ancient Greek history, as are Greek dramas and biology.  Astronomy and earth science find their place with Medieval history, and so on.  Obviously, literature and history can easily go hand-in-hand, but this curriculum goes the extra step of incorporating science and mathematics into that bundle as well.

I did a little experiment of my own with this concept.  One method recommended by The Well-Trained Mind is to use simplified versions of classics with younger children so that they can become familiar with the story before reading the original work when they are older.  I have learned that this suggestion is very controversial in the homeschooling world, as others react in shock and horror at the idea of reading anything but the original work.  However, this struck a chord with me because I specifically recall episodes of Wishbone that made me fall in love with great books before I was anywhere near old enough to read them.  When that little Jack Russell is sitting in prison saying “It is a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done…”  I get choked up just thinking about it.  I was about six or seven at the time.  Flash forward many years to the first time I read A Tale of Two Cities; I was enamored with it.  Couldn’t put it down.  Didn’t want it to end.  It is one of my absolute favorite books.

So do I think my children’s intellectual lives will be stunted by hearing simplified versions of classics?  Um, no.  Not in the slightest.

Back to my experiment: I went through a list of specific books in The Well-Trained Mind and noticed there was a children’s version of Beowulf listed.  Now, I love love love Beowulf, and while I do think it is best in the original Old English (HWAET!), I do not think it is appropriate for young children in any language, so I was curious to see what this purported “children’s adaptation” was like.  I picked it up from the local library, started flipping through, and about four pages in I was assured that it is still not an appropriate story for young children!  You just can’t write a story that involves cannibalism without inciting nightmares.  There is a reason Wishbone never made a Beowulf episode.

Still, I think the principle is sound, which is why the four-year cycle makes my list of things I love about The Well-Trained Mind.  Check it out for yourself and let me know what you think.

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