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Monday, October 27, 2014

Rethinking the 4-Year Rotation Approach to History

One of the very first books I read before embarking on this homeschool adventure was The Well-Trained Mind, a well-known tome that touts the benefits of a classical education and outlines a course of study from bitty littles to graduating seniors. 

Why I DUMPED teh 4-Year Classical History Rotation in my homeschool.  Homeschooling Hearts & MindsThis is where the idea of studying world history on a 4-year rotation comes from. 

This is where the idea that there are particular stages of intellectual development that coincide with particular ages is endorsed.

The emphasis is on memorization of pegs to hand new knowledge upon. 

The focus is on fine literature and history. 

The goal is provide a rich learning environment that builds great minds. 

Not minds that think alike (this isn’t aimed at a particular worldview), but minds that think.

There’s a vibrant and varied community of homeschoolers that follow (or are at least influenced by) this particular classical model of education.  I say particular because there are other models of classical education---one might even say that WTM is not strictly based upon an historically classical education.  Some day I may (nah, I probably won’t, but you never know) write a commentary on WTM point-by-point based upon my (admittedly limited and anecdotal) research and real life experience in the realm of learning.  Yeah, I think entirely too much about this stuff.

But this post isn’t meant to be about classical education in general or the pros and cons of the various approaches to it. 

This post is about why I dumped the 4-year history rotation.

Way back when we took our oldest out of school for 2nd grade, I admit that my choices for educating him were influenced by what had gone before.  The Catholic school he was attending (K-8) taught the pilgrims every November in every grade---or at least it seemed so based upon their monthly “news” updates.

There were other things that seemed to be done to death.  I wanted my son to have a wider and deeper exposure to the world.

So we started with ancient world history.  It was a good year.  Making cuneiform seals was fun.  Pyramids were fun.  There’s a strong mythological component to early history that appeals to young children.

Medieval times was harder.  There was still some of the fairytale quality, but there’s also more hard information as you get closer and closer to modern times.  I found myself cleaning things up and skipping over bits that weren’t quite appropriate for young ears.

But here’s the thing---to my kids, these historical happenings were nothing more than stories.  The retention for those things that we’d spent so much time learning about about (and that I had spent so much time planning and amassing materials for) just wasn’t there.

My now 14-year-old only has very vague recollections of what we were learning in history when he was 8.  Very vague.  His younger sister’s remembering is, understandably, even more vague.

I’m not saying that what we did wasn’t of value, BUT…if I had it to do over with from the beginning, my approach would have been very different.

It probably would have been more like my approach with my two youngest kids now, which is very grounded in the here and now.  Although we do learn about the past and different cultures, that is not our primary focus.

Not to start a fight or anything---I think starting a chronological history with my kids from the beginning was misguided.

A young child needs a concrete framework upon which to build her knowledge.  Learning about pyramids in Egypt is cool.  Building them might be fun.  Seeing videos helps. 

Learning about more exotic things is exciting, adventurous, and shows her that there is a world outside of her immediate sensory domain---it’s worthwhile and part of a rich education. 

We want our children to know that the world is bigger than them, right?

But the fact remains that the Egyptian pyramids are halfway around the world from us and not something she is likely to see in person anytime soon.

A small child’s reality is what surrounds her every day.  It’s you, her family, her home, her backyard, her street, the library she goes to, the friends she sees at the playground, the things she can see, touch, hear, taste, and smell.  The bigger world is a phantom, a fairytale.

Some day she will know it is more than that, but unless you are a seasoned world traveler (and have a TARIS in your basement), I think you’ll agree that no matter how much we learn about the past and other cultures through books, videos, and hands on activities, our ability to know them is limited.

As a child matures developmentally, she becomes more intellectually capable of recognizing and understanding things outside of her everyday experience.  But her framework for hanging that information on is (like it or not) the concrete reality that surrounds her in the here and now.

So don’t spend too much of your time learning about thousands of years ago, when there is a lifetime of learning right here and now.

Learn from my mistakes.  They are not horrible, education-destroying mistakes, mind you.  It’s more about wasted energy and unnecessary frustration for Mom. 

Exposing my younger kids to different cultures and time periods is still a good thing, it just isn’t my primary focus in the “social studies” department right now.  Instead of beginning at the beginning, we work our way out from where we are, right now.

It’s a little like reading a map---it makes no sense to start at the far north-east corner.  Where you are going is always seen in relation to where you are starting from.

So, tell me:  Have you had any big realizations that drastically changed the way you homeschool?


  1. History is one area where we struggle a bit. At ages 6-9 remembering all the names, dates, wars and what not are just not my daughter's forte. And you're right. She forgets from year to year. But we keep at it. I go through the motions and focus on the things that do interest her. She did take a big interest in George Washington last year.But I like your idea of focusing on things near and dear.

    1. I think the key is really finding the right balance for your kids---history can be fun, but it's not all that there is to social studies.

  2. I agree with you about the history rotation. I have struggled with that since the beginning, and still trying to figure out the best way to go. I am now leaning toward doing each child in their own history and seeing how that goes.
    Another realization I finally came to - textbook/traditional curric is OK. At the beginning, I was under pressure to not do "school at home" and to stay far away from textbooks. I think that hurt our beginning and now we are playing catch up in some areas.

    1. Textbooks and traditional curricula do have their place, I agree Nicole. There's no one right way to homeschool. Some kids thrive on "getting it done," and then having plenty of unstructured time to pursue their personal interests, for instance, and a traditional approach can make that easier to achieve. One of the things I ran into when I was starting out was that I was trying to orchestrate too much. My kids resented home-"schooling" even though it was all living books, narration, unit studies, and fun stuff, because it seemed we were always "doing school." They wanted more freedom to do their own thing.

  3. I like the rotation because it narrows down what to study. We pick and choose and go where their interests lead us within a specific time frame. It's nice for us to have some structure and guidance. The four-year rotation does that for us.

    And we've never mummified anything- yuck! Or built a pyramid. I guess I'm not winning any awards over here for super star homeschooling. Ha ha!

    1. Yes, the rotation is one way to narrow down your options and to have a general guide/plan in place without reinventing the wheel. It can also be an easy way to keep kids of multiple ages on the same page (or at least the same time period) in history.

      Ha! The only thing we have ever mummified was apple halves. I don't get the whole mummifying a chicken thing. Why waste a perfectly good chicken? ;)

  4. Interesting. I have to admit, we've been kind of hit and miss about history around here. I have done the fun, interactive subjects for Ancient history - mummified apples, wrapping me in toilet paper, playing mummification games on the computer, watching documentaries, etc. We learned a lot. Do I honestly think they are going to retain any information about it? Probably not a lot, but i never expected them to memorize dates and people - just to have an understanding about the time period and the things that were highly relevant. I'm prepping to do a history of Canada unit in the new year. (I personally hate modern history, so this is a stretch for me!) I think it's important to know the roots of your own community and culture, so that's why we'll give it a go.
    I don't do well with a rotating anything. We just learn whatever we want. LOL. I'm such a slacker.... ;)
    Interesting post! :)

    1. I don't think you're a slacker, Lisa Marie. It sounds like your family has varied and memorable approach to history. :) We don't focus on dates or facts, either---for us it's more about making connections and having a general chronology in mind. We are doing more of a "learning what we want" now.

  5. I just began homeschooling my second-grader, and your post resonates so much with what I am feeling right now. The ancient Egypt stories are interesting but so removed from her reality. Do you have any suggestions as to what I could focus on with a second grader that would be appropriate, and any resources? I've been using Story of the World vol.1, which is great, but I would like to find some resources dealing with social studies and history that would be more meaningful to her. Thank you in advance! Thank you also for your wonderful blog!

    1. Hi Kathy,
      Welcome to the world of homeschooling. :)

      You might try balancing your SoTW lessons with some lessons in "home" geography, family history, and community awareness. The primary grades are great for this. Our family spends a lot of time out and about in our community, going to the library, the post office, etc. A trip to the firehouse is always a hit (see if yours does an annual open house---ours does and they are also open to small group field trips). We meet community workers and neighbors, but we also get a "feel for the land" while walking about.

      You can easily teach how the directions right and left are relative and how to use the cardinal directions. Get a map of your area (print one from Google Maps) and match up familiar landmarks with where they would be on the map. Young children are very concrete and this really helps them to understand that maps and globes are representative of real places. Try Google Earth to view your area from a bird's-eye-view and zoom in and out. Check out other places you have visited:

      You might also like this book, Home Geography for the Primary Grades. It's free to download:

      Yo might make a family tree. Talk about your daughter's birth story. Talk about your own childhood and how things were different or the same from the way they are now. "Interview" grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins about their life experiences. You can create a scrapbook of your family's history.

      This year I am also doing literature-based unit studies with Five in a Row. It's a great fit for this age group and offers exposure to lots of different topics, fitting them into the contexts of excellent picture books. I'm finding that it's very good about encouraging inquiring minds.

      I hope this helps. ;)



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