I had a diverse education, not in the Charlotte Mason sense but rather in a geographical sense. I attended twelve schools in three different states and one in Canada. Some were located on the West Coast and one was in New York City. I had a variety of teachers as I changed schools frequently, however they all held something in common: boredom. This public education I received was based on a very predictable system: listen to a teacher talk in a non-interesting mundane manner, read an equally boring textbook, answer the summary questions and eventually face a test on the subject matter. Had I only experienced one school district in one locale I might be inclined to place blame on an individual experience. However, due to the vast countryside I lived in I am more inclined to believe my educational experience was typical of North America at that time.
While it is difficult to summarize the Charlotte Mason approach let me start by saying it is the opposite of the education I endured. Her method is interesting and comprehensive because it is based on the Liberal Arts. I think an easy clarification and to further our understanding of what the Liberal Arts are in relation to the CM method we could rename them the Generous Arts. The goal is to bring a wide variety of meaningful subjects to the children via literature, masterpiece artwork, poetry, and various other humanities. Along with these inspirational additions the core subjects are in no way neglected but they are approached in such a manner as to foster the love of learning. I consider boredom to be the direct opposite of the love of learning. Even with subjects such as history, foreign languages and science Charlotte Mason created intriguing ways to help them come to life. The wide subject matter is interesting in itself but that is not all the method entails. It also hinges on approaches to the way children learn and other educational goals.
Among these goals is a book-filled education not in any way dependent on textbooks. Instead of relying on short entries on a topic Charlotte Mason’s students would work with an extensive book on a single topic. This is one definition of a whole book—an entire book dedicated to dolphins, for example, will contain much more information than a short paragraph in a textbook could ever manage to provide.
One reason Charlotte Mason thought children deserved a wide curriculum and above average books was due to her unique opinions on the value of children and beyond that she believed them to have very capable minds. To make this aspect of her philosophy applicable we are to stop underestimating the children’s ability to learn, read and think. I implement this by giving my children the benefit of the doubt and striving to bring them the best, most intelligent books and materials I can possibly locate. This indicates that we avoid “dumbed-down” children’s books that Mason called “twaddle.” Instead we use literature and adult level books as early as first grade. This is one reason the parent reads aloud to the student much of the time in this method. It is an excellent way to bring the best and most vital books to children long before they are capable of reading such things as Shakespeare on their own and without our help. Another advantage is raising the child’s vocabulary level at an early age while exposing them to good sentence structure and content.
Before we leave the topic of books let’s consider whether they are a worthy priority or not. An old proverb says, “Wear the old coat; buy the good book.” C. S. Lewis is quoted to say, “Your book bill ought to be your biggest extravagance.” And Charlotte Mason had this to say, “We believe that most parents of children in the [C. Mason home schools] feel that it would be better to do without many things than without the best books, various books, and fresh books for the children’s studies. As a matter of fact, the difference between educated and uneducated people is that the former know and love books; the latter may have passed examinations.”
We need to remember that there was a time when books were so expensive that schools did not use them. The lecture system of classroom education came from that situation. The teacher had to convey his knowledge to the student without any books. Charlotte Mason thought that a book-less education was a contradiction in terms. And we will end this portion by mentioning Charlotte’s long held belief that life is not long enough to spend time with books that bore us.
Another unique idea used in the CM method is having the children deal directly with the books whether they read them or they are read to them. To foster direct contact we avoid being the middle man or lecturer, this allows their minds to function independently from ours. This is achieved through using narration which greatly improves the skill of being a good listener, an attribute that is in high demand no matter what field a person goes into. It is also a valuable trait in a spouse or a friend. Children develop this vital skill when they are allowed daily practice.
The act of narration is easy and normal, and it is an effective way to retain information. We have all used this process when we have told someone about a meeting we have attended, a documentary we’ve seen, or a book we have read. The act of repeating information or events has a powerful effect on memory, much like when we repeat a number over and over to ourselves if we are unable to write it down immediately.
It’s different from summarizing information because we allow the person narrating to choose the emphasis, even the omissions, and in all ways we let his or her mind act on the material.
Narration helps you to know exactly what your child knows about any given topic. In fact it takes the place of testing in the Charlotte Mason method. In what we might call “regular” school the students cover a body of information and regardless of whether they spend a week, month, or year on a topic, at the end of the teaching a test is administered. When the graded test is returned to the students it often will have red check marks indicating every time information could not be recalled or was recalled incorrectly. This is undesirable as it places the focus on what the child does not know about the topic covered.
Winston Churchill once said of exams, “I should have liked to be asked to say what I knew. They always tried to ask what I did not know. When I would have willingly displayed my knowledge, they sought to expose my ignorance. This sort of treatment had only one result: I did not do well in examinations.” Mr. Churchill’s desire is exactly what we do in the Charlotte Mason method. We ask the child to tell us every thing he knows about Canada, pollination, the endocrine system, or whatever we have been studying either for that day or the entire year. This helps you as the parent to know immediately if your child has understood and comprehended any materials he is working through. The main point is you cannot narrate what you do not know, and you can only narrate what you do know.
Having dedicated much of this article to books, and how to get the most from them by using narration, I want to point out that while this method emphasizes reading it is not solely a literature based method. I feared this approach was in danger of being misunderstood and wrongly categorized as yet another literature based method when it first became popular. It is far more than that. There are many aspects as demonstrated by the fact that Charlotte wrote a six-volume set of books entitled, “The Original Home Schooling Series” and edited a publication called, “The Parents’ Review” that was of great help to the Charlotte Mason teachers and parents using her method in their homeschools. She used and endorsed so many techniques and developed such a vast philosophy that the sheer content of this work required six books to record.
Along with the high quality reading the students keep a century book something I have written about in detail in my second book, More Charlotte Mason Education. Basically, this is a three ring binder filled with sketch paper that allows for one century per page. The idea came from the CM schools over a hundred years ago but they are very useful in helping children have a tangible way to record notes and sketches of all they learn during the study of history. In a similar vein the children keep a nature diary also known as a nature journal. This simply entails the use of a common sketch book in which the children draw what they have seen rather than what they have studied in a book. They may include notes of what they have directly experienced in nature and Latin names if desired for the specimens they encountered. The use and benefits of keeping a nature diary are further detailed in my first book, A Charlotte Mason Education. It is important to note that keeping the diary is voluntary and never forced upon the child. Equally important is the fact that Charlotte Mason strongly insists on children being outside daily and that make nature observation become unavoidable. Even without deliberate effort children will learn about the natural world if they are provided ample time to experience it first-hand.
Yet another unique factor to this method is the use of concentrated short lessons, making good use of the power of habit inherent in humans. That in turns leads ultimately to the worthy goal of self-education. In addition it results in being able to cover all the school subjects and some of life’s other concerns such as punctuality, using our time effectively and even how to recharge ourselves and slow down long enough to rest. With the short lessons, detailed in this article, come two advantages. The children learn to concentrate for short episodes during the morning which helps greatly with their ability to retain what they have covered. The second is they have far more free time to both enjoy their childhood and pursue their personal hobbies. They are encouraged to learn constructive entertaining things such as pottery, wood working or painting. There is time set aside everyday for this type of enjoyment along with time to follow their own interests, and we all know when someone is interested in something that is the time when they are really able to learn.
Much of the reasoning behind the concept of short lessons was due to Charlotte Mason’s observation that childhood is fleeting. She loved children, and wanted them to enjoy that special time of their lives and not have it pass by them in a hurried blur.
No overview of any size would be complete without a mention of art appreciation and how easily it is accomplished. As far as the CM method is concerned we only have one goal with art appreciation. Because the art itself has a primary purpose of enjoyment, the study of it also has the same purpose of enjoyment. The way we easily incorporate it into our homeschools is by setting aside a few minutes a week. All that is needed is one piece of artwork per session. It does not matter whether you use a calendar or library book if you keep in mind that enjoying it and seeing it will be easier if it is sizeable and in color. A small black and white is not really desirable. Here is a brief explanation from my first book.
“Have the child really look at the picture, take in every detail, and give him as much time as he needs. If I’m showing the print to more than one child, I give each one an individual turn of seeing it up close. Now, take away the print and look at it yourself, so that they cannot see it anymore. Have them describe what they saw from memory starting with the youngest child present. This will challenge the older ones to seek out detail the younger ones may overlook. From the first try, I was overwhelmed with the accuracy of my children’s descriptions.” p. 48
Allow me to add that I am still overwhelmed at the accuracy and the detail to which they are able to talk about a piece of art they only looked at for mere minutes. You have nothing to lose by trying this process at least one time. I predict you will be happy with the results and if you are like me you will enjoy your time of looking at the painting while the descriptions take place—it is very restful in the middle of the home schooling day.
In closing, it bears repeating that Charlotte Mason was a prolific writer of a vast educational approach. When people are new to her ideas they have a desire for a nutshell version and I do not blame them for that in the least. When I overview her material I am attempting a quick introduction much like the first meeting between two people. It is unlikely that two strangers will be able to comprehend all aspects that the other represents and I believe this becomes even more problematic when the potential new acquaintance is very complex by nature. Imagine meeting Albert Einstein at a party and asking for a nutshell version of his entire scientific field of study. He might stare at you in disbelief as you insist on a capsulation of all that is important to him, and all that he stands for. Albert could possibly balk at your insistence that you learn enough from him in minutes that you would be ready to replicate his methods at home.
This scenario is admittedly far-fetched but it holds some truth for regarding the nature of meeting someone new to us—there is a time limit and we usually do not have ten years to invest into our introductory phase. No, sometimes the most needed thing is a friendly introduction knowing much will be left out, however in most cases it is more worthwhile to have met a new person or new idea than to never have met at all.