Meeting Miss Charlotte Mason
When I started to consider educating our children at home rather than sending them to school, I was overwhelmed with the array of methods and philosophies surrounding homeschool. A continuum of homeschooling styles, from school-at-home to unschooling, passed into my consciousness. One style however stood out from the rest; one that was named after a person: the Charlotte Mason Method.
Miss Charlotte Mason (1842-1923) spent her adult life educating children and developing a philosophy of education. Her philosophy has been dubbed The Gentle Art of Learning by Karen Andreola. Why? Because Miss Mason studied children and founded her philosophy upon some basic truths about children. Here is a sampling of some of these truths:
- Children are persons with individual needs for knowledge and training and their minds and personalities should be respected
- Children can sustain attention for only a short duration, and as such, lessons should be short and the subjects varied daily
- Children’s minds are most attentive and receptive in the morning and lessons should occur in the morning hours
- Children are intensely curious about the world around them and their schooling for the first six years of life should be informal and steeped in nature exploration and living books
- Children learn by forming relationships, therefore, present to them inspiring stories, biographies and concepts
- Children also learn by telling back what they have heard or seen and this re-telling is a natural and spontaneous inclination
These foundational concepts, combined with other principles, set the Charlotte Mason Method apart from other forms of education; they guide a child toward a lifelong pursuit of knowledge by developing a habit of self-education. A lifelong love of education and the pursuit of knowledge is just what I want my children to acquire.
According to Miss Mason, books and literature are the best tool to impart knowledge. Her method emphasizes the humanities rather than the more empirical approach of the natural sciences. She proposed that children should learn by listening, and later reading, what she called, living books. Living books, as opposed to textbooks, are written by authors who care deeply about their subject. These authors present the material as a narrative that engages the listeners and sparks their imagination. Furthermore, living books contain literary language and not simplified vocabulary (i.e., twaddle) which disregards the intellect of the child. Living books provide the stimulus to gently enliven a child’s appreciation in history, geography, literature, nature study, and science.
Unlike traditional methods for education, Miss Mason did not believe that teaching and then testing for comprehension was the proper method to educate a person. And she is right! When you cram for a test, you only retain what you need to pass the test, and then forget what it is that you learned because you no longer need to recall it or because what you learned was never something you truly owned as your own. Miss Mason proposed an ingenious notion for making knowledge personal, and its acquisition, gentle: Narration.
For children, telling back something that engages their imagination or inspires them is natural. The taking in, the processing, and then the composing of a cohesive re-telling is how a child personalizes knowledge. Children begin narration by telling back, and as they mature, through written composition. In addition, because the information is obtained from living books, children also gently expand their vocabulary, improve their spelling, and practice their grammar.
Miss Charlotte Mason, and her revolutionary Gentle Art of Learning, was something that spoke to my soul; it was something I needed to understand further. Fortunately, Miss Mason established a school where her method was applied, tested, and honed. Based upon her experiences and her observations she formulated her pedagogy. She was a prolific writer and her six-volume compendium is a source of inspiration for modern homeschoolers looking for an inspirational and gentler approach to education.