The banquet table is a wonderful analogy for homeschooling. Hosted by the parents, a homeschool banquet offers various subjects for the consumption of the children in attendance.
Let me try to piece together the elements of The Banquet Approach to homeschooling that I see. A banquet has a particular order of service of courses - a scope and sequence, if you will. What courses make up a homeschool banquet?
I believe there are three main courses: story, hands-on, and framework.
First Course: Story
Stories speak to the heart, where character begins. Stories concentrate on the wholeness of life and contain messages within their theme, symbolism, motive, and meaning.
Ever meet someone who can't discern the "forest from the trees?" An educated fool has often so dissected life that he can't read the meaning behind the facts. I often tell my teens to step back mentally from any conversation they are having and learn to read the message below the conversation coming from both themselves and the person they are engaged with.
In a daily sense, we all know how easy it is to lie to ourselves about our true motives, yet God knows our hearts. If we learn to listen to our hearts as well as our minds, we will obtain far more wisdom from the Scriptures.
Jesus used the story form of parables mightily to uncover the hidden motives of men. The Hebrew name for this technique is Mashal.
"Mashal opens the door to wisdom - we learn best by analogy. Analogy emphasizes likeness of things versus analysis which breaks apart. Analogical thinking presents life as a picture. It deals with things within their settings. We are free to use logic, analysis, and other scientific methods, but always as pieces that fit into a whole picture. It is the whole picture that is the most important to the student. By illustration, by example, by metaphor, by figurative language, by drawing on the resources of nature, of art, of human conduct, by any of a thousand means, the true picture of this created world is brought before the student's mind, and he is guided into the path of wisdom where the real can be embraced and the unreal cast aside." (From Far Above Rubies by David Mulligan, an excellent discussion of a Biblical Classical Approach to learning.) In this way, the student's mind isn't trained to dry reductionistic reasoning, but preserves a sense of heart wonder.
Story is an ideal teaching method for a mixed-age (i.e. family) environment. Story incorporates logic, but reaches the heart by fleshing out the subtler human qualities. Books we call "The Classics," are primarily great stories, and form the center of our Banquet Approach. We could choose to read about the facts of George Washington, and quickly forget them after regurgitating them for a test; or read an inspiring biography that glimpses his character, thus inspiring the character development of our children.
We've all heard of George Washington, but can you name his brothers? George Washington is a graduate of the Banquet Approach, even though his parents were afraid he was getting an inferior education compared to what was offered at the best classical school of his day. George Washington's brothers were educated at Appleby Grammar School in England, while poor George was only taught using Appleby's principles and a makeshift version of that school's curriculum. His teachers were his mother, his father, his older brothers, sometimes a tutor, deep conversations with well-educated family friends, great books, skilled work as a surveyor (which he taught himself), and disciplined self-motivation to understand.
Most often our stories come from books, but we also use lots of story and lecture tapes to capture chore times, videos (especially after new babies), and live re-enactments or history museums for an ultimate experience.
Second Course: Hands-on
By "hands-on" I mean all aspects of schooling that bring book learning to life: drama, work, crafts, field trips, manipulatives, displays, speeches, and service. Unit studies are the way most of us fool ourselves into thinking we are using a cheap curriculum. By the time we've added up craft materials, library fines, and field trip expenses we've probably spent far more than the most expensive pre-packaged curriculum on the market, but we've had a good deal more fun.
The Scriptures call us to be productive with our hands, and the only way to do that is to allow our children to get their hands on stuff. Until they are older, this is likely to be wasteful and messy, but hands-on experience makes them highly creative, beautiful and productive in their teen years. One example: after years of expensive music lessons, squeaky playing, and broken expensive tiny violins, we are blessed with beautiful live quartet music almost nightly as our older children practice for weddings and ministry.
Third Course: Framework
While story presents life as a whole picture, analysis, or the breakdown and categorization of that story, is important to be able to articulate the underlying wisdom. We can't speak out clearly on what we haven't thought about. And a good framework will act as a net to hold and make sense out of individual stories. Once we define history in different periods - Ancient, Classical, Medieval, Renaissance, Colonial, and Modern (or however you would like to break it down) - we begin to have a mental place to shelve the story of George Washington, so we can find his story again and understand its context.
It takes a great amount of self-discipline to build and memorize a mental framework. The student must memorize the books of the Bible, Latin paradigms, the Periodic Table, and a host of historical dates and events. The best way we can aid our children in this is to find the shortest and most enjoyable route to memorizing and understanding the framework, and then find a way to help our children gain "ownership." They might memorize a song, develop a wall chart of the classification system, keep a notebook of spelling rules, or use a computer game to speed drill on multiplication facts. Some textbooks bury the organizing framework in pages or years worth of lessons without ever giving children the whole. Others teach only the framework but give so little story that it has no meaning to the student.
Dessert: Culminating Events
No banquet is complete without entertainment. Culminating events put fire in a student's belly to achieve more than he thinks he is able. These might include dramatizing of a period of history, a contest, a speech, a publication, an Advanced Placement exam, a musical performance, or a homemade video. Producing for an audience outside of one's family inspires hard work like nothing else, and is a precursor to the real world of performing in a job, or succeeding in a home.
One of the things I most dislike about a a system of study that breaks life down into separate courses is that in order to engage the heart, and mind, there must be a immersion into a subject and one cannot be equally immersed in seven subjects without being somewhat disengaged from all of them. How many times have you heard a high schooler complain that "all my teachers act as though theirs is the only course!" I believe it fragments them as people to treat their brains so carelessly. While a great teacher can be an inspiration to a student, an inspired student will find great teachers, be it in a class, a tutor, or a book. So let's not focus on the fact that we can't afford the "best" teachers for our children, but inspire them instead.
Next issue, I'll conclude by relating how you can best serve each of these "courses" to your children, presenting a specialized banquet appropriate for each child's age.