Back in the eighties, I spoke at a homeschool conference in Amarillo, Texas, where I met a family with ten or twelve children who toured the US on a Greyhound bus singing gospel music. The mother informed me that they were just returning from a singing engagement in the Dakotas. The Dakotas meant Mount Rushmore to me, so I asked if they had just loved seeing the incredible mountain. The mother hesitated, dropped her eyes, and said something I'll never forget: "We had to drive right past Mount Rushmore, because some of the younger children had not completed all of their workbook pages." I am sure I did a poor job of concealing my true feelings, yet I did manage to restrain myself from saying, "You mean your family passed up the opportunity of a lifetime to view magnificent Mount Rushmore just because some of the children needed to fill out another page or two on commas and contractions?"
I truly believe that incident was the impetus for a seven-hour video series I did years later entitled KONOS: Creating the Balance. That incident crystallized in my mind how important balance was. It has been said that variety is the spice of life. I propose that balance of variety is the meat and potatoes of life. The person who learns to balance the various aspects of his or her life early on is not only ahead of the game, but is also well positioned to diffuse and eliminate potential problems. Nowhere is balance more critical to success than in teaching the homeschool. Without balance, moms burn out and children lose their love for learning.
Often I am called the "KONOS lady." To many, that means my children are always dressed in costume, we spend the entire day - every day - doing myriad hands-on activities, we never use a textbook, and my children read only library books. Nothing could be further from the truth. The truth is I have spent the last 16 years attempting to maintain balance in my own homeschool and encouraging others to institute balance in their homeschools for the sake of the mothers' sanity, and for the children's learning.
Workbooks vs Hands-on Learning
The Mount Rushmore example is a dramatic reminder that there is much more to education than simply sitting at a desk filling out umpteen pages of workbooks. We tend to equate education with filling in blanks. Most would consider Thomas Jefferson an educated man, yet he never filled out workbooks. He simply applied the rules of grammar as he wrote. How much more interesting to write about Mount Rushmore than to fill in blanks? Which would any child remember better? (Workbooks do, however, serve a very real purpose, as a tool for mothers who want to feel all their bases have been covered.)
No doubt hands-on learning is a much better way to learn. Compare reading about how to operate a computer to sitting down at the computer and using it.
On the other hand, activity for activity's sake is just as out-of-balance as no activities. Skipping incoherently from one activity to the next with little or no regard for wrap-up or conclusion is a waste of time and energy. Although I love hands-on, I have passed up many a good field trip with my support group, because my kids had workbook pages to complete. However, I never use a complete workbook; I only use those pages that my kids need. Further, I do not use a language arts workbook every year since they tend to cover the same subjects over and over again each year. In high school, I might use a grammar workbook every other year. Writing alone will not teach what a gerund or a dangling participle is. This is where workbooks are very helpful.
I usually preach against workbooks because parents tend to consider workbooks core curriculum instead of the supplement to the curriculum that they should be, and, therefore, get out of balance. Young children understand nouns much better if they collect 25 in a bag. They understand verbs much better if they go outside and do 25 verbs and then write them down. Workbooks are great reinforcement of concepts already taught by hands-on methods.
Textbooks vs Classic Literature
Lately, I have seen a growing empahisis on reading the classics, great literature, real books. When Carole Thaxton and I wrote KONOS Curriculum, it was because we refused to teach from just textbooks. We had a real love for great literature and viewed the entire library as our textbooks. When children read great literature, their vocabularies are expanded; their personal writing and composition is improved; their reading speed is enhanced; and their ability to trace plots, subplots, and complex story lines is heightened.
However, reading a classic work of historical fiction alone, such as Johnny Tremain or Quo Vadis? without an accompanying textbook is merely getting a flavor for a particular period in history. It does not replace a history text. Knowing fictional characters is not the same as having a complete knowledge of the battles, the government, the art and architecture, the religion, and philosophy of a historical period. To neglect fact books or textbooks is out of balance. On the other hand, reading only one textbook on the Civil War will never give your children the perspective that a great book like Across Five Aprils or a biography on Lee, Lincoln, or Stonewall Jackson can give. Textbooks and fact books provide the bones of the historical framework, while literature and biographies flesh out the period. Activities make the period memorable.
Traditional Courses vs Subject Books
I have never picked up an Usborne book without learning some new and interesting fact. Usborne books, along with an array of other factual books on various history and science subjects, are exceptionally interesting; yet homeschoolers are kidding themselves if they think these books constitute a full science course or a full history course. These are excellent companion books, supplemental books, or research books. However, just as classic literature books do not give a complete picture of any history, so subject books do not make a full ancient history course, nor a full biology course. Upper level courses should use a textbook as their core, but should not limit themselves to textbooks exclusively. If history courses are rounded out with literature of the period, so science classes should be accompanied by a full lab curriculum. (Chemistry sets from Toys R Us do not constitute a full-fledged chemistry lab curriculum!)
When we entered the homeschooling arena sixteen years ago, the bulk of homeschoolers were using traditional workbook/textbook curricula. We felt we had to jump very hard on the other end of the scale - emphasizing character training, unit studies, classic library books, hands-on activities, and discovery learning - just to get people to move toward the middle of the scale where there was an actual balance of teaching methods. Sixteen years later, we do not want homeschoolers to slide off the other end of the scale. The words of the "KONOS lady" today are Maintain the Balance!