Ask Yourself these 6 Questions to Prevent Curriculum Disasters

by Jimmie Lanley on April 12, 2012

Evaluate Curriculum with These Six Questions

During the spring, many of us homeschool moms start thinking of curriculum. We attend homeschool conventions and used book sales which present a myriad of choices. Sometimes it is overwhelming to make purchasing decisions:  either everything looks great or nothing looks just right. Then there is the added fear of making an expensive mistake with your family’s resources. Curriculum decisions can be downright stressful.

For Charlotte Mason homeschoolers, though, there are guiding principles that aid us as we evaluate curriculum. Here are six questions to ask as you look at that tempting set at the convention or that discounted resource at the book sale.


ASK: Does this curriculum have worthy ideas?

Charlotte Mason says

We see, then, that the children’s lessons should provide material for their mental growth, should exercise the several powers of their minds, should furnish them with fruitful ideas, and should afford them knowledge, really valuable for its own sake, accurate, and interesting, of the kind that the child may recall as a man with profit and pleasure. (Vol 1, Part V Lessons As Instruments Of Education, p.177)

A quality curriculum goes beyond mere facts to present fascinating ideas that carry over into everyday life. It should give you something to discuss at the dinner table, something to wonder about when alone, and something to spark further investigation.

The ideas should be noble and important rather than base and trivial. They should cause the mind to work rather than merely passively absorb.

Living Books & Biographies

ASK:  Does this curriculum use living books?

Charlotte Mason says

The points to be borne in mind are, that he should have no book which is not a child’s classic; and that, given the right book, it must not be diluted with talk or broken up with questions, but given to the boy in fit proportions as wholesome meat for his mind, in the full trust that a child’s mind is able to deal with its proper food. (Vol. 1 Part IX.–The Art of Narrating, p.232)

Textbooks are like processed convenience food — all the hard work has already been done. The headings tell main ideas; the vocabulary words are in bold; and comprehension questions round out every chapter.

Just as processed food has little nutrition, textbooks have fewer meaty ideas than a living book. When evaluating a resource, look critically at the books. Are they classics or twaddle? Worthy or forgettable? Is the content pre-digested as if assuming a child is not smart enough to ferret out his own meaning? Or is the book full of deep ideas that require brain power to understand?

Are these books that you cannot bear part with or ones that you will sell as soon as you’re finished with them? Look for a foundation of living books in any curriculum choice.


ASK:  Is this curriculum delightful or does it kill interest?

Charlotte Mason says

His lessons should be joyous (Vol 1, Part V Lessons As Instruments Of Education, p.178)

The children must enjoy the book. The ideas it holds must each make that sudden, delightful impact upon their minds, must cause that intellectual stir, which mark the inception of an idea. (Vol. 3 Chapter 16 How to Use School-Books, p.178)

Charlotte Mason was not a dry, Victorian fuddy-duddy. She said that learning should be fun. Does the curriculum you are considering allow for fun or does it strangle it? A quality curriculum will still be enjoyable during 2nd semester.


ASK:  Does the curriculum incorporate narration?

Charlotte Mason encouraged narration as the primary way for students to review the lessons and for teachers (parents) to assess them. Whether narration is oral or written, it is always superior to comprehension questions.

The great thing about narration is that with a few simple prompts, you can add it into any lesson or curriculum. But if the curriculum already has a foundation of narration, it will mesh nicely with a Charlotte Mason philosophy. Look for things like notebooking pages (or assignments), writing prompts, and graphic organizers.

Fill in the blank and multiple choice activities of traditional education do not make the most of narration.


ASK:  Does this curriculum challenge without frustrating?

Difficulty is often hard to determine without trying out a material. Do your research and look for samples. Don’t be deceived by grade levels. They are very arbitrary and can offer only a most general guide for difficulty. Look for curriculum that is just right– not too hard not too easy.

Real and Hands-on

ASK:  Does this curriculum utilize real experiences rather than contrived ones?

Children can see right through artificial learning experiences. Or worse, these contrived lessons are so far removed from worthy ideas that chldren don’t grasp anything of importance.

Does the curriculum offer direct observation and hands-on experiences or does it merely tell? Math and science immediately come to mind. A math program for elementary children should rely on manipulatives to teach. A science program should integrate lots of deductive reasoning based on actual observation.

But the same principles apply for the arts. A CM approved curriculum allows the child to experience the painting or symphony directly rather than merely reading about it.

Language arts lessons should always use language in context rather than in the isolation of artificial workbook exercises.

Do you have any additional questions that you ask when evaluating curriculum? I’d love it you add to the conversation in the comments.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

kelli- AdventurezInChildRearing April 15, 2012 at 10:30 pm

very well done – I love the “meat for the mind” description :) btw- I just wanted to mention that my printer usb cord broke – I managed to print out the star fish lap book & went to print my dolphin pages & nodda! (go figure) I got a new one and am printing now :) I’ll have those pics up and added to a new post this week- I’ll be mentioning your stuff here and there a lot- we really like them!


Jasmine April 17, 2012 at 6:17 pm

I think these are great. I’ve never seen this question answered from a Charlotte Mason perspective before.


Dana Wilson April 18, 2012 at 9:32 am

Loved this, Jimmie. I would add: Does this curriculum support our family’s worldview?

Thanks, as always, for a thoughtful and helpful post!


Ellen April 18, 2012 at 7:45 pm

Hi, Jimmie! I’m popping over from the CM blog carnival. I enjoyed reading your curricula evaluation with a CM perspective. I have to say I’ve not thought about this style of evaluation before, but that it fits right in with my way of thinking. Thanks!


Lanaya April 20, 2012 at 8:39 pm

My first question is, ” Do we really need this?!” :-). It’s easy to just think something else will work better. I do love to read what everyone else is doing because it gives feedback on how different curricula work and I can know if it would work for us as well.


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