Books that Changed My View of Education



Books have always been a huge part of my life. Not too long ago I wrote post about books that had a lasting impact on my life, which got me thinking about books that have affected change on the way I homeschool. Sometimes I read a book and immediately know that its story has impacted my core values. Other times it takes a while for the value of the narrative to sink in.

I’ve shared a lot about how my educational philosophy has changed over the last 15 years. Looking back, I can see some books that convinced me that a lot of what I learned in college was wrong.


The Trumpet of the Swan

by E.B. White

When my two oldest were little we read a lot. I think we were doing a unit study and discovered this darling book by E.B. White. I had somehow escaped childhood without reading it, so it was new to me as well. When you’re discovering new things right along with you children, learning is always a little more fun.

Louis is a trumpeter swan who cannot trumpet, and has no way of telling the swan he loves of his feelings. This story is a journey through Louis’s self-discovery. It’s a book about finding your way and about belonging.

Here’s what I loved: the story is great, but the discussions that my kids and had while reading it showed me what deep thinkers they were. Louis became like a friend that we discussed even when we weren’t reading. We started to make up stories of our own. We researched trumpeter swans, their habitat, and dreamed of seeing some in real life. The Trumpet of the Swan taught me how a book can spark an interest and open the door to  history, science, geography, math, art, and much more.


The Secret Garden

by Frances Hodgson Burnett


There were quite a few books between The Trumpet of the Swan and The Secret Garden – too many to name here. Around that time I had fallen into the trap of trying to replicate school at home. I had three children who were miserable doing worksheets and timed quizzes but I didn’t know any other way.  I thought crying meant that things were going the way they should. Again, I can’t remember why we started reading it, but we became entranced in the world that Frances Hodgson Burnett created.

Mary Lennox is an orphan sent to live with a mysterious uncle in a mansion in Yorkshire. The story revolves around Mary’s discovery of a secret garden, and eventually two friends, Colin and Dickon. We delved into each of the characters, and even though Spencer was only around 4, we knew he would be just like Dickon -and he is. We talked at length about why Mary was the way that she was, and reveled in her journey. The adults in the story confounded us and I vowed to never be like them.

The book unleashed the idea that had been prowling in my head, the idea that children needed to be outside as much as possible in order to learn. The idea that children are natural learners who, when given the space and time, will learn more than I could ever teach them. This is the book I credit with helping me to stop fighting with my kids about worksheets and allowing them to explore their interests. The children in this story were each different, had their own life experiences, but each benefited from the same thing: being on their own in the garden.

I actually think I loved this book more than my children did.


The Sign of the Beaver

by Elizabeth George Spears

We re-visit this one every few years. In fact we’ll be reading it this winter. This book, by Elizabeth George Spears, is about a 13 year old boy, Matt, who’s father leaves him to guard their cabin while he brings his mother and siblings. So, it’s a survival story – and a story of self-discovery.

See the theme yet?

Matt quickly learns that he is out of his element and is befriended by a Native American. Now, I’m going to tell you there are some issues with this book. It’s not perfect. I’m not sure how accurately the Native Americans are portrayed, and some of the dialogue is not as smooth as it could be. What I latched onto was how capable the children in this book were. I know that it’s a work of fiction but it got me thinking about all the things kids are capable of. We keep them from doing anything not deemed ‘safe’, and I’m not sure that’s doing them any good.

After we read this book I made the conscious decision to let them do things that scared me. I did not want to force them to live under a roof my fears, so if they were game so was I. The girls climbed trees higher than I was comfortable with, and one of them was badly hurt. Spencer was ten when we let him buy his first knife. He cut himself right away. I found him bleeding in the laundry room. He was ashamed of his mistake and sure that I would take away his new tool. I laughed and told him no one would ever eat if we took knives away from people who cut themselves. Everything has a risk. We learn from our mistakes. We keep moving forward.

This book also encouraged the kids and I to delve into true Native American history, something we really enjoy learning about. We asked questions about how realistic this story is. It sparked some great discussions and again let us down the road happy road of unschooling.


Charlotte Mason’s Original Homeschooling Series

by Charlotte Mason

My husband’s family was fairly anti-homescooling. A few would corner the children to quiz them, while one or two were bold enough to actually give me literature on why homeschooling was wrong for the world. That’s how a pamphlet called The Homeschool Conspiracy fell into my hands. This in-law didn’t read the book, though, so they didn’t know that it written to encourage people to homeschool. Hehe.

Anyway, a more benign in-law was cleaning out the church library when she came across these Charlotte Mason books. The series was complete minus one volume and she gave the set to me. I started reading and found myself thinking, “This is me! This is my homeschool philosophy!”

I felt myself relaxing as I read Charlotte Mason’s encouraging words.

Mason encourages gentle rhythms, lots of time in nature, short lessons, and lots of time discussing. Jamie Martin at Simple Homeschool wrote a great post on the characteristics of a CM education here. Find Charlotte Mason help here, and Ambleside’s free CM curriculum here.

Here at the Shepherd Abode we are not always Charlotte Mason. However, whenever I read her books or philosophy I always find myself going back.  The CM philosophy helps me to relax and enjoy education – and my children.

How Children Learn

by John Holt

So, to be truthful, until recently I had only read John Holt quotes. Last year I picked up a copy of How Children Learn. I didn’t read it cover to cover. I picked through different sections and found myself intrigued. The John Holt GWS website has some great information. The short of it is this: I believe that children absolutely learn best when self directed.

My only regret is that I didn’t find this out sooner.

The system that we are taught in, especially in the U.S., says that we have to meet benchmarks at very specific ages. To make sure that happens we force knowledge onto children. The strange thing is, children are natural learners; there is no need to force them. My youngest has never done a  ‘formal’ math curriculum but is at grade level for his age. We use Right Start Math – mainly the games. We talk about math always. He learned to count to 100 on his own. He learned to count by 5 and 10 on his own – because he was interested. 

In college everything I learned about education contradicted what I learned in child development classes.

I just didn’t see it until I tried to force my kids to learn.

On a side note, I’m not judging if you’re not here with me, if unschooling and Charlotte Mason freak you out. I do want to share the things that have helped home education work for my family, though, and encourage anyone  who keeps thinking, “This can’t be the only way.”  I do not believe that crying is part of learning.



I’m so thankful that these books found their way into my lap. I think my kids are even more thankful. Just talking about these books has calmed the anxiety that can rise up in my heart over multiplication and prepositional phrases. 


Are there any books that have re-shaped your educational philosophy? I’d love to know what encourages and inspires you.


Be brave, misfits.









2 thoughts on “Books that Changed My View of Education

  1. I just read a really great one called “Reading at the Speed of Sight” about how the brain reads and what can go wrong.

    I love Dorothy Sayer’s essay on “The Lost Tools of Learning.” (And also her “Are Women Human?” which is actually sort of about the education of women through time.)

    Dan Willingham’s “Why Don’t Students Like School” was really helpful.

    I just discovered the “Smart buy Scattered” books— and they are great! All sorts of practical ways to help parents teach kids (and themselves) to overcome executive functioning deficits.

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