Inside: The simple rundown on the basics of a Charlotte Mason education
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If you’re in the homeschooling world, the name “Charlotte Mason” may be something you’ve heard tossed around. And you may be wondering: who is Charlotte Mason, and why should I care about her philosophy of education? What does it entail? And why does it seem so difficult to fully grasp?
The Basics of a Charlotte Mason Education
Charlotte Mason was a British educator who lived during the 1800s and early 1900s. She dedicated her life to improving the education of children in England. At the time, not all children received an education. However, Charlotte Mason saw that all children were people who, in spite of social class, deserved a feast of learning.
In addition to educating children, she also focused on educating parents in certain philosophies that would help their children to grow and thrive. Her ideas have stood the test of time and are still influencing many families today, including my own.
Apart from scripture, no other single source has been such a wealth of wisdom as Miss Mason’s writings.
Before we get into what a Charlotte Mason education looks like from day to day, let’s take a moment to first understand the philosophy underneath. There are six entire volumes written by Miss Mason herself that are a huge help in understanding every aspect of her educational style. When reading any one of them, I feel as though I’m trying to drink from firehose. But I’ll do my best to give you the quick version.
First and foremost, Miss Mason emphasized that each child is a person.
This seems obvious, but increasingly, children are being viewed less and less like people. They’re seen as an annoyance, a burden, a hindrance, something to deal with and send on its way.
However, they are indeed people with their own interests, idiosyncrasies, struggles, and merits.
Because of this, the way in which we educate them matters. Manipulation, for example, isn’t a way to instruct another person. Presenting education in a way that is dry and boring, causing a child to hate learning, isn’t the way to do it either.
Miss Mason said that there are only three tools in our belt for ethically educating another person.
Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life.
“Education is an atmosphere—that is, the child breathes the atmosphere emanating from his parents; that of the ideas which rule their own lives.”Charlotte Mason, Parents and Children, pg. 247
Children are excellent imitators. What they see is often how they behave. As we know, if the atmosphere of our homes is filled with understanding, patience, and kindness , it is more natural for our children. On the flip side, most of us have had moments during which our children reflect our own poor behaviors back to us. For example, if I’m having a day when I’m more short and frustrated with my children, I notice them speaking in that same tone of voice to one another… and cringe.
The very atmosphere of our homes is shaping our children. If we truly love and revere learning, we pass it on to our children–not by beating them over the head with lectures on how important learning is, but partially by simply cultivating learning in ourselves and being an example.
A couple of weeks ago, I was creating a sketch of a hairy woodpecker we saw on a nature walk, and shortly after, my children had all gathered around the table and began nature drawings of their own.
When I’m reading on a Saturday afternoon, one or all of my kids often grab their favorite book and come to curl up with me in bed.
The tone that we set becomes natural for our children.
“By ‘education is a discipline,’ we mean the discipline of habits, formed definitely and thoughtfully, whether habits of mind or body.”Charlotte Mason, A Philosophy of Education, pg. xvii
Leaving a child to their own devices is harmful to the child in the long run. We all need discipline. The main focus of discipline that Charlotte Mason addressed is that of habit formation.
I’ve heard it said that habits are like the rails for a train. If they’re laid down properly, it makes it much simpler to direct the child in the way he or she should go. On the other hand, without good habits such as obedience, there is often struggle between parents and children or amongst siblings.
“The mother who takes pains to endow her children with good habits secures for herself smooth and easy days; while she who lets their habits take care of themselves has a weary life of endless friction with the children. All day she is crying out, ‘Do this!’ and they do it not; ‘Do that!’ and they do the other.”Charlotte Mason, A Philosophy of Education, pg. 136
Learning about habit formation was huge for me as a parent. It’s been a struggle against some of the poor habits that were already formed in our home, but it’s encouraging that we’re getting somewhere.
“In saying that ‘education is a life,’ the need of intellectual and moral as well as of physical sustenance is implied. The mind feeds on ideas, and therefore children should have a generous curriculum.”Charlotte Mason, A Philosophy of Education, pg. xvii
As our bodies need nourishment, our minds, too, need a feast. But instead of food, the mind feasts on ideas. Throwing dry facts at our children does nothing to cultivate their love for learning. Instead, our goal should be to help them make connections. One of the easiest ways for our brains to do this is through story. People love stories.
And the lessons taught in our favorite stories often become part of who we are.
So in a Charlotte Mason education, we give children living ideas through excellent literature and interaction with nature to feed their growing minds.
So with all of this philosophy swirling in our heads, what does it practically look like? What are the means that we use to attempt keeping in step with these lofty ideas?
A Charlotte Mason homeschool centers around excellent books, written by someone who is passionate about the subject at hand. You won’t be able to find a textbook that will cause ideas to stick in equal measure to a living book. As implied by the name, the words and stories in a living book come alive. We interact with them, and the people and places we learn about become dear friends.
If you need help understanding what a living book is and what it sounds like, check out this quick Simply Charlotte Mason video by Sonya Shafer.
For ideas on excellent living books divided by year and subject, look at the reading schedule curated by the advisory board at Ambleside Online.
Narration is a simple yet powerful tool in a Charlotte Mason education. It’s simply the act of telling back what we have just read. But when our children do this, it requires more mental effort than we may realize.
I prompt my children by saying, “Tell me about what we just read, starting from the beginning.”
You can see the gears in their minds working backwards until they reach the starting point. Then as best they can, they tell me all about what they’ve just learned, in sequence.
Quick note: Narration is NOT telling back a short summary. In fact, narration should really include every detail that your child can remember from the passage.
It sounds easy. But it sets the stage for composition later on and helps the stories that we read push their roots deeper into their growing little minds. Don’t believe me? Try it with whatever book you’re reading now. Or maybe try to narrate this post when you’ve finished with it. It’ll be a little tough, especially if you’re not used to narration. But when you force your brain to recall every detail that you can, the information sticks with you.
As I tell my children nearly every day, we narrate to know.
And narration is natural for humans. We read about something that excites or challenges us, and we tell others about it.
A Rich Feast of Subjects
Along with the three R’s, a Charlotte Mason education includes subjects such as poetry, artist study, brushdrawing, folksongs, handicrafts, nature study, Swedish drill, foreign language, map work and more.
Not every subject is done every day. But Miss Mason felt it was important to set many subjects before the child. After all, they’re people. And not all people excel at the same things. A child needs a feast of varying kinds of ideas to grow and thrive and maybe even find the thing they’re best at.
Short, Varied Lessons
To fit in the feast, it makes sense that each lesson would need to be short. But this also helps with habit training, specifically the habit of attention. After too much time in any one subject, our minds can easily wander. It’s more effective to keep the lesson short with all of a child’s energy directed toward the task at hand.
Lessons should also be varied. For example, after doing our daily nature lore reading, we may move on to a poem and then do a math lesson before going on to history. In this way, different areas of the brain are being used instead of overexerting one area.
Lessons are also varied throughout the week. For example, or children do drawing lessons three times a week, math every day, and certain subjects only once a week, such as composer study, artist study, and Psalm recitation.
Every day is at least a little bit different.
One of the hallmarks of a Charlotte Mason education is nature study. For the first several years of formal education, before any experiments have begun, nature (specifically your own local flora, fauna, etc.) is the focus of all science lessons.
You see, heightening those observation skills comes in handy later on, along with a general knowledge of the world around you and laws of nature.
I found it interesting when I began studying history with my children that many of “the greats” of times gone by all enjoyed being out in nature and studying its bounty. They would observe creatures great and small, and many of them had a deep curiosity for understanding how things work.
So much of that is lost in our world today, so I’m grateful for Miss Mason’s ideas that have led our family to study nature together.
Since children are persons (as you may have noticed, that theme pops up constantly), we are training them from an early age to be capable and to know how to work with their hands. We want them to be able to create things that add value and beauty to their lives and the lives of others. This is where handicrafts come in.
As the name suggests, handicrafts are crafts or skills that are handy. They teach patience, diligence, and attention to detail. When finished, a child feels proud of the hard work that sometimes has taken him or her months to finish.
Some examples of handicrafts include: weaving, clay modeling, sewing, baking, soap carving, woodworking, and sloyd.
Handicrafts also include learning to work around the house. Each of our children (even our 4-year-old) has a few select chores that are theirs alone. When they perfect those, they may keep some, pass some down to younger siblings, and move on to learning a couple new skills around the house. In this way, by the time they’re out on their own, they’ll know how to take care of a home and the value of contributing to their family (even on days when they really don’t want to).
The Big Picture
When you put it all together, these bits and pieces form a full, beautiful, living education. Depending on the program or books you choose, it may be rigorous or gentle. But either way you go, you can be sure that your children will have a feast of ideas before them, contributing to their growth and maturity.
Like anything, a Charlotte Mason education may not be what every family chooses. But all can appreciate the philosophies that go into it while picking and choosing which parts may work for them.
But a warning: Dipping your toe in may lead you to dive in headfirst eventually. There was a time when I chose only a few of Charlotte Mason’s principles that I felt I resonated with. After a few years of learning more and waffling back and forth a bit, we are now very happily following all of her principles, learning and tweaking as we go.
Until next time,