When a mother takes on the responsibility of home educating she is thrown upon her own resources. It can be daunting. Naturally she seeks practical advice. How-to articles and curriculum guides meet immediate needs. Here is something else a home teacher will find helpful.
Education is something to understand as much as it is something to do.
When I ran my new slogan by my pen-friend in a paper letter she responded sturdily, “Yes, I don’t do school like I do the laundry or do dishes.” I smiled at her analogy. Having been pen-friends for nearly twenty years we don’t saunter across our stationary as softly as we once did. I appreciate her blunt truth because . . .only with an understanding of education will “how to” take on perspective.
Victorian Schoolmaster Model
Let’s look at how teachers secure attention and get work done. In one chair we have the intimidating Victorian Schoolmaster Model. It relies on subtle threats, grades, place, the classroom lecture, textbooks with facts mainly to be memorized, continual testing, after-hours homework, and competition – shamelessly. Today’s schoolmaster is a character that may not be as recognizably villainous as those portrayed for us in David Copperfield by Charles Dickens or in Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. The force, however, of this underlining Victorian method lingers with us today. It is all too common.
The Play Way
In another chair we have the “play way.” Miss Mason says, “We give them a ‘play way’ and play is altogether necessary and desirable but it is not the avenue which leads to mind.” *1 Well meaning teachers use puppets, jokes, flashy DVDs with second by second interludes of information brightly clothed in slap-stick or song-and-dance. Praise, prizes, fun-and-games also are used to lure, trick and entertain a student into paying attention. But these interrupt a child’s train of thought.
The Way of Interest
Enter Miss Charlotte Mason with a method she initiated more than one hundred years ago. She quickly concluded that the Victorian method and the “play way” both presume that children have little curiosity. Yet, as a young woman curiosity was the first quality Miss Mason observed in children. Therefore, how do we secure a child’s attention to do his lessons? It’s simple. We put into his hands and heart books that are interesting. Isn’t it the simplest things in life that get overlooked?
Interest is a little pearl of great value in education.
Miss Mason noted that Great Britain could boast a wealth of literary genius yet the schoolbooks were as dry as dust. Rather than lecture, a teacher who followed her method read aloud from books of literary quality, books that were alive with ideas, books whose authors had a passion for their subject, some with a story aspect to them. “Mind must come into contact with mind through the medium of ideas,” she says.*2 Ideas are found in living books. With a step of faith she made these living books the children’s schoolbooks.
The Kind of Book
Placing into a curriculum the exact titles of the old books mentioned as examples by Miss Mason in her original writings isn’t necessary. It seems to be a safe choice made by teachers new to her philosophy. I started this way. As my understanding grew, however, and as I later learned that Miss Mason herself was often replacing books and always keeping an eye out for newly written books, I confidently ventured out to choose books that fit her description of the kind of book she recommends. I believe that confident “venturing out” is what she is imploring us to do.
I still remember a certain summer afternoon when my children were little. I was resting in a lawn chair (sigh) under a shade tree turning the pages of a book catalog, making a wish list. My children were busily occupied before me. They were kneeling beside a large plastic tub of sand with the garden hose nearby making sand cities. It crossed my mind what a wonderful wealth of choices even a discriminating educator has compared to yester-year. How joyfully amazed Charlotte Mason would be, I was thinking, to see the array of children’s books and audio available. Years later, as I write this post (and the catalogs are many times larger) I wonder if such an array of resources would ever have been imagined in the wildest dreams of a 19th century educator. Choices need not be overwhelming but rather a pleasure, when we know the kind of book to look for.
The Art of Knowing
Such vivifying books enabled Miss Mason’s students to narrate what was read (after a single reading). By their narration they were putting the reading in their own words, “giving it forth again with just that little touch that comes from one’s own mind” said Miss Parrish, one of Miss Mason’s teachers.*3 Children narrated from their lovely books, rather than exclusively recite from memorization, cram for tests or stay up late with homework. Miss Mason called narration “the act of knowing.” *4 Her aim was knowledge for its own sake - not information crammed the night before for a test and soon forgotten.
Narrating “demands a conscious mental effort from the scholar” Miss Mason said.*5 With this method a child’s mind follows a train of thought, develops powers of imagination, exercises verbal skills. It does the sorting, arranging, sequencing for itself – those things a teacher’s lecture or a workbook page typically take responsibility for.
Questions and Concerns
Is it okay for young students to gain skill in the three Rs with puppets, games, songs etc, as a light treat? Yes. I treated my children lightly. Supplementary games and songs can serve as review, which in the nature of its repetition is less interesting.
Is it okay to give a student a workbook page or grades? Freely incorporate what you decide are your family’s “musts.” It is when either the Victorian Model or the Play Way dominate that learning suffers. It can be a bit of a balancing act to preserve the way of interest. But when it is preserved it draws both teacher and student pleasantly and gently forward. This is one reason I call it “The Gentle Art of Learning.”
What do you find of interest in your home school, my friend?
1. A Philosophy of Education by Charlotte Mason, Charlotte Mason Research & Supply, Quarryville, PA, page 38 - volume six of The Original Home Schooling Series.
2. Phil of Ed, pg 39
3. The Story of Charlotte Mason by Essex Cholmondeley* PNEU, London, 1960, page 125.
4. Phil of Ed, pg 99
5. Phil of Ed, Pg 159
*The Story of Charlotte Mason by Esssex Cholmodeley is an account of the work of the PNEU (Parent’s National Educational Union) with an emphasis on its founder. Click to enlarge.
Thank you, Nigel, for fixing up the "chairs" on photoshop.
Composed with the desire of offering you a revitalizing nugget to start your school year,