A friend was talking to me about the Charlotte Mason approach to education. I have come across this in some of my reading, but to be honest, most things that are associated with an individual person’s name tend to be a bit offputting to me. I think that is because I have seen too much ‘hero worship’ both professionally and within the church. You know the kind of thing, where anything associated with a particular individual is accepted, even lauded, without question. But being aware that several friends I respect have been influenced by the ‘Charlotte Mason’ approach, I decided to ignore the name and look a bit more.
Much of this approach is familiar to me, although I did not know it had a name! Charlotte Mason was a British educator living in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and her method centred around the idea that education has three key strands:
ATMOSPHERE: This refers to the environment in which a child grows up. Children absorb so much from their home environment, that it is thought to constitute a third of a child’s education. This does not surprise me, and is something I have been so aware of as I raise my children. There is much evidence showing that the fundamentals of character are formed by the age of three or four, and I have seen personally how devastating the consequences of difficulties in these early years can be, leaving deep roots and scars that persist well into adulthood. It is not enough just to talk to children about how things SHOULD be if life within our family home is not consistent with these principles. In medical education, we refer to some of this as the ‘hidden curriculum’, where for example, we are taught the need for compassion, but the attitudes of some clinicians towards their patients are anything but compassionate. Similarly, how can I teach my children the importance of generosity if I myself am mean and not given to hospitality? How can I teach them to think the best of others, if I am critical and back-biting? How can I teach them not to complain and whine, if I effectively do the same thing when speaking with other adults? And how can I assure them of my love and commitment to them, if they overhear me making negative comments relating to them (as one often hears parents doing).
DISCIPLINE: Not a fashionable word today! But so very important. Here, it refers to the discipline of good habits, and specifically the habits of character. Cultivating good habits in a child makes up another third of their education. Charlotte Mason referred to good habits as the tracks formed in childhood upon which an adult can smoothly run through life. Again, I would agree with this! Much of my time is spent quietly, repetitively, calmly (I hope!) correcting the small things which are not good habits. Good table manners, courteous ‘please’ and ‘thank-yous’, respect for others, sharing, being kind to other children who are upset, I could go on. There are days when I feel I have done little else, with mealtimes and tidy-up times, encouraging to share, and listening properly taking up most of the day. It is not easy, and it is not something which seems encouraged in today's society; I know others do think we are wasting our time and should be doing more 'important things'. In fact, this is one of my major reasons for not wishing to enter mainstream education; I cannot believe that discipline and good habits are cultivated in a classroom setting of a large number of self-willed toddlers and a handful of overstretched, unrelated adults. Even this morning, I was mortified when my eldest suddenly, and without provocation, hit a younger girl. Even with my continual presence and attempts to discipline, and the consistent re-inforcement of this by my husband, it is still a major challenge and major element of our daily living. It would seem largely neglected in modern education, and I believe this sets a child up for difficulty later (not to mention questions relating to honouring parents or honouring God!).
LIFE: This is where ‘academics’ come in. But for young children, these should be covered through a steam of living thoughts and ideas rather than presentation of dry facts. I have already written several blog posts regarding the lessons that can be embraced through everyday life, and this would be straight down the Charlotte Mason outlook. Similarly, history is far better learned through the eyes of an individual, perhaps as a biography, than through lists of dates and events. Spelling and grammar can be learnt through the enjoyment of literature, and this would avoid the tendency of some educational methods to snuff out the pleasure of reading. And importantly, a significant proportion of every day was to be spent outdoors, learning about nature, geography, seasons, exploring the world and wondering at God’s creation. I think others sometimes find us strange for the amount of time we do spend out of doors doing exactly this, but Charlotte Mason would have encouraged us to continue.
So interestingly, out of all the approaches to education, the Charlotte Mason method seems extremely close to what we have evolved into doing as a family with boys of 3, 2 ½ and 6 months. We often hear sayings such as ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’. Here, I would say to myself, ‘Don’t judge a method by its name!’
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