Homeschooling Corner: The Well-Trained Mind, by Susan Bauer and Jessie Wise

Today we’re reviewing Susan Wise Bauer and Jessie Wise’s The Well-Trained Mind: A guide to Classical Education at Home. (H/T to commentator Jefferson for the recommendation.)

The Well Trained Mind is not the sort of book that lends itself to quoting, so I won’t. It is, however, an extremely practical guide to homeschooling, with specific advice for each year, from pre-K through highschool, including information on how to write highschool transcripts, grades, and prepare your kids for the academic paperwork portion of applying to college. It is a kind of homeschooling reference book. (There are multiple editions online; I purchased the one in the photo because it was cheaper than the newer ones, but you might want the most recently updated one.)

By now I’ve probably read about a dozen books on homeschooling/education, everything from Montessori to Waldorf, Summerhill to Unschooling, math and science curriculum guides for preschoolers, and now The Well-Trained Mind.

The data on homeschooling is pretty good: homeschoolers turn out, on average, about as smart as their conventionally schooled peers. (I forget the exact numbers.) They tend to be better than average at reading and writing, and a bit worse than average at math and science. Unschooled kids (who receive very little formal instruction in anything,) tend to turn out about a year behind their peers, which isn’t too bad considering all of the effort that goes into conventional schooling, but I still can’t recommend it.

The Well-Trained Mind is an excellent staring point for any parent trying to get their feet under themselves and figure out the daunting task of “OMG How do I do this?” It lays out a subject-by-subject plan for every year of schooling, down to how many minutes per day to spend on each part of the curriculum.

If that sounds too detailed, remember that this is just a guide and you can use it as an inspirational jumping-off-point for your own ideas. It’s like arranging all of the colors of paint in a nice neat circle before you paint your own masterpiece.

If you need a curriculum–either because your state requires it, or it requires you to cover certain topics, or you would just feel better with a curriculum to guide you before you leap in unsupervised, this is a very good guide. If you already have your curriculum and you feel secure and confident in what you’re doing, you might find the information in this book superfluous.

Bauer and Wise lay out what’s known as the Trivium: grammar, logic, and rhetoric.

Elementary school is the “grammar” stage. At this age, students are learning (mostly memorizing) the mechanical rules they need for education, like letter sounds and times tables. At the logic stage, children begin applying what they know and trying to figure out why things happen. Rhetoric is for the highschoolers, and since I don’t have any highschoolers I didn’t read that part of the book.

The curriculum for the younger grades is straightforward and easy to use: 10 minutes a day of alphabet/phonics for the preschoolers, increasing over the years to include spelling, grammar, reading, and math. The authors particularly encourage reading history (they have a specific order) and children’s versions of classic novels/myths.

Their approach to writing is interesting: in the lower grades, at least, children do very little generative writing (that is, coming up with and writing down their own ideas,) and focus more on copy work–trying to accurately and neatly write down a few sentences their parents give them, and otherwise expressing themselves out loud.

This stands in stark contrast to how writing is taught in the local schools, where even kindergarteners are expected to start writing little stories or at least sentences of their own devising.

This works great for some kids. My kids hate it. I think the combination of tasks–hold the pencil properly, now form the letters, arrange them into a word, spell the word properly, oh, and come up with an original idea and a specific sentence to write about the idea was just overwhelming.

So Bauer’s approach, which breaks the mechanics and creative work into two different parts, is a welcome alternative that may work better for my family.

Bauer and Wise are strong advocates of phonics instruction (which I agree with) and make an interesting point about emphasizing what they call parts-to-whole instruction and avoiding whole-to-parts. In the example they give, imagine giving a child a tray of insects (presumably fake or preserved,) and showing them five different kind of insect legs. The child learns the five kinds, and can then sort the insects by variety.

Now imagine handing the child the same tray of insects and simply asking them to take a good look at the bugs, figure out what’s the same or different between them, and then sort them. Well, children certainly can sort objects into piles, but will they learn much in the process? Let the children know what you want from them, teach them what you want them to learn, and then let them use their knowledge. Don’t expect them to work it all out on their own from scratch with a big pile of bugs.

I’ve noticed that a lot of children’s “educational” TV shows try to demonstrate the second approach. The characters have some sort of problem and the try to think about different ways to solve it. This is fine for TV, but in real life, kids are pretty bad at this. They struggle to generate solutions that they haven’t heard of before–after all, they’re only kids, and they only know so much. This doesn’t mean kids can’t have great ideas or figure stuff out, it just means they have sensible limits.

This is the same idea that underlies their approach to phonics–not that it’s wrong to memorize a few words (sew does not rhyme with chew, after all,) but that kids benefit from explicit instruction in how letters work so they can use that knowledge to sound out new words they’ve never seen before.

Whole language vs. phonics instruction isn’t quite the controversy it used to be, but there’s something similar unfolding in math, as far as I can see. Back in public school, they didn’t teach the kid the “algorithm” for addition and subtraction until third grade. My eldest was expected to add and subtract multiple two-digit numbers in their HEAD based on an “understanding of numbers” instead of being taught to write down the numbers and add them.

Understanding numbers is great, but I recommend also teaching your kids to write them down and add/subtract them.

Many kids acquire number sense through practice. Seeing that 9+5=14 whether they are in the equations 9+5 or 5+9, 45+49 or 91+52, helps children develop number sense. Give children the tools and then let them use them. Don’t make the children try to re-invent addition or force them to use something less efficient (and don’t teach them something you’ll just have to un-teach them later.)

The authors recommend teaching kids Latin. I don’t recommend Latin unless you are really passionate about Latin.  IMO, you’re better off teaching your kids something you already speak or something they can use to get a job someday, but that’s a pretty personal decision.


Here’s how our own schedule currently looks:

After all of the holiday excitement and disruption, I feel like we’re finally settling back into a good routine. What exactly we do varies by day, but here’s a general outline:

2 Logic puzzles (I’m not totally satisfied with our puzzle book, so I can’t recommend a specific one, but logic puzzles come in a variety of difficulty levels)

2 Tangram puzzles (I like to play some music while the kids are working)

1 or 2 stories from Mathematicians are People, Too: Stories from the Lives of Great Mathematicians (Warning: Pythagoras was killed by an angry mob, Archimedes was killed by an invading soldier, and Hypatia was also killed by an angry mob. But Thales and Napier’s chapters do not have descriptions of their horrible deaths.) This is our current “history” book, because I try to structure our history around specific themes, like technology or math.

Math: multiplication tables and/or fractions

A game of some sort, like Mastermind, Fraction Formula, or Chess. (No-Stress Chess is  good teaching set.)

Science and/or social studies reading (the subjects often overlap.) I happened across a lovely stack of science, math, and social studies texts at the local used book shop the other day. When I got home, I realized they’re from India. Well, math is math, no matter where you’re from, and the social studies books are making for an interesting unit on India. In science we’ve just started a unit on Earth science (wind, water, stones, and dirt) for which I am well-prepared with a supply of rocks. (Come spring we’ll be growing plants, butterflies, and ladybugs.)

Free reading: my kids like books about Minecraft or sharks. Your kids like what they like.

Grammar/spelling/copywork: not our favorite subjects, but I’m trying to gradually increase the amount we do. Mad Libs with spelling words are at least fun.

I never manage to do as much as I want to do.

9 thoughts on “Homeschooling Corner: The Well-Trained Mind, by Susan Bauer and Jessie Wise

  1. When writing stories at primary school I remember sometimes writing quite elaborate stories the teachers were very pleased with and made me read at assembly, but most of the time just staring at the blank page with no ideas and being told off for it. Maybe I would of responded to writing prompts.

    Maybe it would make sense to give the children the choice of 3 things to do.
    1. copying something for writing practice if they want.
    2. Or writing an or original story if they have an idea.
    3. Or some writing prompts if they are searching for an idea.


    • While at high school still being quite shy I completely flunked English because still being quite shy I did not want to write an essay about how a story made me feel to be read by an English teacher that I hated.


    • Yes, I agree.
      I was a slow writer when I was young (handwriting trouble) but I always had ideas. (As you can see, I write a lot.) But if someone doesn’t have those ideas, well, no sense pushing them to write “I don’t know what to write for this assignment” fifty times.

      Aww, that it is unfortunate about your highschool. I got in trouble for writing things like “The story made me feel bored,” even though it was true.


  2. My primary frustration with the classical model is that I cannot seem to get my kids at all interested in classic fiction. On the other hand, I think giving my eldest a basic survey of western history through Augustus helped make his recent attack on Asterix and Obelisk more rewarding.

    When I studied Latin in high school, I found it very helpful with English and wished I’d started earlier. We haven’t started it yet, but it has more appeal than the other languages I feel qualified to teach, so I’ll report back if and when we do.

    Learning styles are definitely a thing; my eldest was bored silly by the way math is now taught (1+3 = 4, 3+1 = 4, etc.) so we’re switching to a different curriculum, more traditional curriculum.


    • I don’t do any “classic literature” at all and probably won’t for a long time. Frankly, I’ve never been too impressed with the quality of “famous books dumbed down for kids.” Kids and adults have different concerns, and I don’t expect a five yr old to understand what was so problematic about Romeo and Juliet wanting to get married. Just because a book is good doesn’t mean it has themes or ideas that appeal to kids.

      There are so many excellent books in this world that I have never felt I lacked for something good and enjoyable for them to read. (I’m perfectly happy assigning the Magic Schoolbus and biographies of famous mathematicians for class and letting them read Minecraft fan-fiction for fun. Why not try empathizing with the point-of-view of a creeper, villager, or Herobrine himself?)

      Frankly, your kid is such an excellent reader, I’d basically trust his instincts.


      • I never got why Romeo and Juliet is considered appropriate mandatory reading for kids who are the ages of the protagonists… So many come away with the idea that it’s a great love story rather than, well, a cautionary tale, maybe?

        (Another high school staple I don’t get is Wuthering Heights…)


      • I assume it’s because the adults like the play and they assume the teens will self-identify with the protagonists in a way that maybe they don’t with, say, Richard III.

        And I don’t mean to knock Shakespeare–just Shakespeare for five year olds.


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