Friday, September 21, 2012

How to Safeguard the Love of Learning

How to Safeguard the Love of Learning

     Last winter I read The Enchanted Places – A Memoir of the Real Christopher Robin and Winnie-the-Pooh. One of Christopher Milne’s cherished memories is of his father, A. A. Milne, reading aloud at bedtime. Sometimes a story was made-up on the spot, about a little boy and his toys.

     Christopher Milne tells of his father attending a dinner party. Around the table sat preparatory schoolmasters who gave speeches. They all agreed that the biggest burden of their job was parental interference. Normally A. A. Milne was quiet but he couldn’t resist a speech of his own. His own boy would often choose to hear the ideas of Euclid for a bedtime story over Treasure Island. He used this as an example (rather rashly) stating that all children have a keen interest in many things. Young children are eager to learn, he told them. “And then we send them to your schools, and in two years, three years, four years, you have killed all their enthusiasm. At fifteen their only eagerness is to escape learning anything. No wonder you don’t want to meet us.” *1

     In the 19th century Miss Charlotte Mason observed the lack of enthusiasm in the students of Great Britain and strove to remedy it. She developed a new method of educating children. Up until the age of 50, and with a weak heart, she took the train and traveled a circuit. She spread the news of the PNEU and the success of the method far and wide. 

     Oh, if only we could have such a revival in America’s schools today.

     How is curiosity schooled out of children? We undervalue them and then depend upon an array of artificial inducements says Miss Mason.

“B. F. Skinner could be described as a man who did most of his experiments on rats and pigeons and wrote most of his books about people.” Alfie Kohn *2 

     A hand is raised in the classroom. “Is this going to be on the test?” School teachers accustomed to this, hardly bat an eye. They don’t recognize it for what it is – a distress call. The student has surrendered to a broken system of education that squelches curiosity. Long before B.F. Sinner’s behavior experiments (do this and you’ll get that) entered psychology, Miss Mason was sharing her findings that “[grades], prizes, places, rewards, punishments, praise, blame, or other inducements are not necessary to secure attention, which is voluntary, immediate and surprisingly perfect [without them]. *3 

     According to Miss Mason a system of education that relies on bribes, continual testing, grades and other over-controlling measures to get children to do their schoolwork, is trusting in the wrong things. To cope, a child learns how to work for the grade. Well-meaning adults, once conditioned by the system – will even coach the child on how to cram. This strategy works in the short run. But in the long run, what does the student know? Does he care to know? Gray clouds gather on the horizon. The eyes of a child can be so fixed on the grade that his very identity becomes wrapped up in it.
     Competitive group games are used with the rote memorization of names, dates and assorted facts. It occurs to those in charge that since this is working and the children like it; let’s add more facts – for greater “academic achievement.” But it is the fun, the friends, and the winning of prizes that these children care about.

“Do rewards motivate people? Absolutely. They motivate people to get rewards.” Alfie Kohn *4  

     In Alfie Kohn’s big book, Punished by Rewards – The Trouble with GoldStars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes, he has unsettling things to say. He references hundreds of studies. The studies show that people (preschoolers up to adults) will work for rewards but will avoid anything challenging. They avoid risk-taking too, because they are afraid of making mistakes. He says that when you are promised a reward you come to see the task as something that comes between you and it. The fastest and easiest way is chosen to get at the prize. *5 

Amish one-room schoolhouse - photograph taken by Dean yesterday

     To entice children to read, sometimes money, ice cream or a pizza-party is given for reading a book. I wanted to do things differently. When my children were learning to read I kept our stack of easy-readers boxed and closeted in order to reveal them at intervals. When the children had finished one reader in the series, along with its accompanying phonic exercises and sight word practice, they went on a treasure hunt. Their next reader was hidden somewhere in the house. This tiny bit of anticipation and mystery was exhilarating. The reward for finishing the last book was a natural consequence, the joy of finding another. 

     When older students are bribed to read thus-and-thus many books, given a choice, shorter and less challenging books are picked to obtain the reward. Although my recollection is hazy I came across an anecdote some years back, in an introduction to one of C. S. Lewis’s books. This week I searched our shelves but couldn’t find it. Anyway, I remember that when C. S. Lewis was in a hospital a nurse recognized his name.
     “I read your book,” she said brightly.
     “Oh? Which one?”
     “The Screwtape Letters,” she said.
     “How did you come by it?”
     She confessed, “In school we had to a pick books off a list and that was the shortest.” 

     Miss Mason put her trust in a child’s ability to gain knowledge for the sake of knowledge. She avoided anything that would encourage children to become preoccupied with what they will get for what they are doing. What motivators did Charlotte Mason use? My back posts labeled “A Charlotte Mason Education” point to them. In this article I revisit some of these to tie them together for new purpose. 

The Remedy

     Children are born with God-given curiosity. If protected, a desire to know will stay alive and be engaged through high school. 

     The Holy Spirit is the Supreme Educator. He applies learning to the mind and heart. Learning isn’t entirely accomplished by a teacher’s burdensome effort. She sets up an atmosphere, the conditions that make learning possible. She supplies ideas - varied and worthwhile - to think about. Her students receive a wide curriculum under three headings: Knowledge of God, Knowledge of Man, and Knowledge of the Universe.

     There is no substitution for self-education. In place of a lecture Miss Mason’s student's derived knowledge from books. She put them directly in touch with the carefully chosen words of an author – one enthralled with his subject. She tells us that a schoolteacher in his “desire to be serviceable . . . believes that children cannot understand well-written books and that he must make himself a bridge between the pupil and the real teacher, the man who has written the book.”*6 What was her honest appraisal of the schoolbooks and lectures of her day? They were a bore. A dull education suppresses initiative. Charlotte Mason wanted students minds to be engaged.
 (Some textbooks available today are written more lively.)

An Active Mind
     A young child, eager to learn, has questions. In the classroom he is expected to sit still and be silent – for long stretches of time. A young mother once shared with me one reason she decided to home educate. As is frequently the case with a firstborn child, hers was a chatterbox and always asking questions. This lively little girl was riveted at read aloud times, loved her pets, and spent hours exploring by (and in) the creek in the back yard. After spending a year in a typical first-grade classroom she was less lively, had far less to say. And she stopped asking questions. Why should she? The teacher did that for her. 


     With Miss Mason’s method, a student’s mind is open and his mouth is open. His reaction and opinion are welcome. By putting the reading in his own words (oral or written) he is going over the ideas by which he is impressed. He may draw a picture of what is forming in his imagination. The mind puts questions to itself in order to compose. (What’s next? What else?) As one thought leads to another the child develops a train of thought. His mind is more active with narration in a more natural way than when memorizing lists or recalling fragments? Multiple choice, fill-in-the-blank, match-the-columns, or a long questionnaire – for ease of grading - are replaced with “What do you think?”

     Educators are pressured to prove in black & white that students are “getting it.” Frequent testing is also supposed to keep students on their toes. An infestation of tests may hang heavy in the air. But when we trust in Charlotte Mason’s principles a fresh wind of change revives us. To safeguard enthusiasm and create a refreshing atmosphere:

give children something interesting to think about,
let the authors teach,
require children to think, show and tell - all the way through high school, 
expect their obedience to your big choices; give them small choices,
inspire them to share and serve others with what they know as they grow.

Studies Serve for Delight

     In Punished by Rewards Alfie Kohn wrote extensively that the more we use bribes to motivate people the more they lose interest in what we are bribing them to do. Charlotte Mason did not have the benefit of the 20th century research that Alfie Kohn had. Yet, separated by one hundred years, they are in agreement. Isn’t this neat? 

     “Studies serve for delight” occurred to Miss Mason in the 19th century as being the better way to educate persons. There are higher aims by which persons live and learn. Opening up our 1965 copy of the Boy Scout Handbook puts a few at my fingertips.


About twenty years ago I read in Miss Mason’s Parents’ Reivew, something that attached itself to my memory. It was the bold concluding line of an article (an article I’ve lost track of) – a quotation by the ancient Greek teacher, Plato. “Punishments and rewards are the worst form of education.”  

A Disclaimer
     In life we act with mixed motivations. This is the plain reality of it. We are willingly devoted to our family day and night. We are commanded to love. This shows people God is real. But we also love because we, too, long to be loved. As I see it we need not apologize for this. 

Above all – Whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. (1 Cor. 10:31) 

Discussion is invited,
Karen Andreola

End Notes:
1  Christopher Milne, The Enchanting Places, page 119
2  Alfie Kohn, Punished by Rewards, pg 6 
3  Charlotte Mason, A Philosophy of Education pg 7
4  Punished by Rewards, pg 67
5  Ibid, pg 65
6  Phil of Ed, pg 260
You may read more on self-education in A Charlotte Mason Companion.   

Post Script
     A biography with little suspense, conflict or emotion will still hold my attention. I like to learn about people. The Enchanted Places was interesting. Putting my finger on what had left me feeling down, I found the account to be missing the kinds of things that a Christian reader finds satisfying – that is - looking at life as having spiritual reality, with virtue sought after – in the small details of domestic life or otherwise.
     At the end of the book Christopher Robin Milne reaches a decision. He was serving in WWII when he sent his father a letter stating that there is no Christian God - a statement his father was relieved to hear.
     Our family thinks the Winnie-the-Pooh stories are delightful, cute, clever and humorous. Disguised in fake fur the characters bring human nature to light. But pity joins my admiration for the author now.  

The End


  1. Dear Karen,

    I thank you for your thoughts. I was sad to hear of the Milne family--my 8-year-old daughter has chosen to work through "The House at Pooh Corner", but I will not share this bit of news with her!

    One of our female relatives was visiting during a birthday party, and we took her to the store to purchase a present for our daughter. When I suggested that Anna would like to receive a book for her birthday, her reaction was telling. To her mind, the last thing a child should want was a book, because books were hateful things to children, only reserved for "school". She didn't understand our children, who think books are just like jewels!

    Later my daughters, Grace and Anna, started a job close by, and at breaks they brought along their favorite Shakespeare plays (they have stacks of these in paper back form which they bought with their own money from thrift stores, etc.) to read. One of their fellow employees remarked, "You mean you read books?"

    We also know a young woman who is attending a competitive university, yet can't understand any book that was not written after 1950, what poverty!

    These days folks that like to read good, life-giving literature (anything besides Harry Potter) are labeled as freaks of nature, as if they don't get out much and won't amount to much. But it was the people of the past who read that were the "movers and shakers"! I love that JT Gatto reminds us that "The Last of the Mohicans" was a best-seller at a time way before federal public schooling, when our country was mostly filled with farmers!

    Well, that was a pretty big comment--thanks for letting me preach to the choir a bit. I will be sharing this on a few facebook pages--it would be interesting to see the results.

  2. My nieces returned from a Sunday school class all excited because they had answere enough questions to choose several prizes from the Big Box. One nieces was "happy that she at least wasn't the lowest scorer in the class." Their hands were full of cheap plastic bracelets and bubble gum. I thought of Miss Mason's admonition about prizes and places, and I wanted to cry. It is bad enough when this crime is committed in a schoolroom. It is horrific when it is committed in the name of teaching our children about God.


  3. Thank you so much for this article. I have your book, and am just starting my homeschooling journey. Your writings are an inspiration.

  4. Hello Ladies,
    Yes, developing a taste for books we continue to return to them, don't we? They are the riches of education.
    I don't walk through the doors of our local library near as often as I once did when home educating. When I do it seems that very few people are browsing the bookshelves but the computer cubicles are full. I hope this isn't an omen.

    Prizes, competition, and rewards in Sunday School can easily be replaced with activities of various kinds. Teachers are unaware of the behavior manipulation and are only following the curriculum plan given to them. But I also cringe when I hear of it in the church.
    28 years ago I took a week-end course on how to teach using the Child Evangelism Fellowship materials and method. I'm so glad I did. This organization weaves the gospel into every story. I learned how to use flannel figures, object lessons, tactile crafts, make song visuals, include hand motions in songs and stories. I enjoyed teaching the ages 3-5 class in our little church in Maine. They didn't care that their teacher, Mrs. A., was atonal. Just as Miss Mason observed I found the children to be attentive when the class was filled with a string of mini lessons and activities. This does take some preparation, though.
    Karen A.

  5. Karen, I think you are right about the amount of preparation required to teach Bible classes. Many of our teachers are already over-stressed and over-scheduled as it is. They are teaching because, "No one else will do it." I try to remember that every time I am frustrated by prizes and places. I also try to remind myself that Sunday School is just one hour a week. Parents can devote many other hours to teaching Words of Life to their children.

    I have never heard of Child Evangelism Fellowship. Thank you for the idea.


  6. Karen~ This was so well thought out and spoken.
    As a mother of a senior son, who I only started homeschooling last year. I am so sad to say that he had lost all enthusiasm for education and could care less about the books we are reading. (Currently: Giants in the Earth.)His light had gone out and I only realized it after having started homeschooling his much younger brother. Who has such a bright and shiny light, just glowing over and around the living and learning of our little school. I am heartsick that as his mama, I didn't see this or know this sooner! We, in our attempt to give our oldest children the best education possible. Had spent a fortune on a private little Christian School...thinking that they were most equipped at teaching...

    Sadly~ I believed that I could not do this role as well.

    So, at 42, and being a relatively "new" home teacher. (Starting our 4th year) I am guarding the joy and love of learning with my life!

    Love these posts by the way.


  7. Kristin,
    My sympathy goes out to you in your heartsickness. I feel, too, for you who are reading this, who can relate to Kristin's honest and thoughtful sharing.

    I hear of the sullen, uninspired students - even in my extended family. This is a reason I decided to take a couple of weeks to put together this essay. Now I am free to dust my house.

    I do believe young people can be revived in time.

    I asked my son this morning what he would recommend to another young man who had lost enthusiasm for reading. He brought up the "Binding of the Blade" series by the Christian author L. B. Graham for leisure reading. But Nigel also admits that fantasy is too strange for some people. The series is based in part on the prophesy from the book of Isaiah. Yet, sometimes the strangeness of an adventure makes it "different" enough to be refreshingly interesting.

    Nigel also liked reading Edgar Rice Burrough's Tarzan series very much and Mr. Burrough's Mars series. They are "clean" over-the-top chivalrous stories - far from hum-drum - that could very well usher in a revival of a sort.

    Thank you for sharing on this sensitive subject.
    Karen A.

  8. Thanks so much for the much needed reminder of the trap of grades. In my state, we have to turn in grades. Effort makes up a large part of how I "grade" and, until this year, I've been very happy with that arrangement. But for some reason, I've felt as if I needed to be more rigid in "school". Thanks for reminding me that it's not about the test but about the learning (love of learning).
    Michelle in Tennessee

  9. Another refreshing post. I especially liked the image from the Boy Scout book- I can see a character unit study coming out of it for our family! As always, Karen, a real pleasure.

    God's blessings and grace be to you,

  10. What a lovely, inspiring blog. I've been rereading the Charlotte Mason Companion and have been so refreshed. I have homeschooled for 5 years and am finding my way back to the peace and joy which comes with doing the Charlotte Mason method. Our curiosity and creativity were being strangled by the inordinate amount of worksheets and answering questionnaires on top of narrations and composition required by the one day a week, Classical homeschool academy we were involved with the past few years. Now, my child is free to truly learn and develop her strengths while strengthening the weaknesses. Wish I had reread your book sooner.


  11. Dear Ladies,
    This is a sensitive subject. Thank you for braving a comment.

    Grades are assigned because grading is a state requirement. But, yes, we can give grades (quietly) based on an evaluation of effort, attentiveness, a willingness to correct mistakes and try again, creativity, as well as the obvious assessment that the student is, indeed, "getting it" by the putting of it in his own words.

    I see you've noticed that the use of motivators is widespread and predominant. Miss Mason's peaceful way is belittled. Or, perhaps out of an apprehension of its oddity (and simplicity) is a path less taken. Therefore, thank you for your testimonies. They are affirming, I am sure.

    Karen A.

  12. I was working on next month's Mom Heart post just before getting caught up on reading favorite blogs (like YOURS!). :)

    Our theme next month is planting and harvest so my thoughts were already about reaping what we sow.

    Our public schools (and even our Christian schools) are reaping a generation who have little creativity. If a student does think outside the box, they are often labeled as troublemakers.

    I wonder if anyone who makes the decisions can put 2 and 2 together as our schools continue in a free fall decline since "teaching for the test" became the norm?

  13. Dear Karen ~ I trust the Lord is blessing you richly, this Monday morning! I loved catching up on this post...a lot to think on...I just ADORE your fabric colors...

    Blessings! Amy

  14. I realize now that I've missed TWO posts...I absolutely LOVE ALL of this post and it is just the reminder I needed as we dive back into our reading and adventures together after a family wedding break. :-) You woods post was so delightful as well!! I'm so glad I had TWO things to read from you this morning! :D

  15. PS - We LOVE Eloise Wilken around here! :)

  16. Karen,

    I am so glad to have stumbled upon your blog, and more specifically, upon this post. It is a great encouragement and affirmation of my desire to homeschool! My four-year-old son is so excited about learning, it pains me to think of his fervor being diminished. I look forward to reading Miss Mason's work!


  17. Dear Karen,

    I am so thankful that I stumbled across your blog and this post! I take great encouragement and pleasure in reading this now.

    I had just this year (after being swayed and seduced by so much formal "boxed" curriculum) decided that we needed to simplify things and go back to our roots. We are so much happier with getting our history/geography/science and etc.. from good living books rather than from static and often dull curricula.

    Thank you for this! I am off to re-read a Charlotte Mason Companion.


  18. Such and inspiring post for someone like myself that is just starting out on this journey. My strongest desire, outside of raising a Christian daughter, is that my little girl LOVE learning.

    Thank you.

  19. What a wonderful blog to "wander" upon today! I took to my laptop today because some fellow homeschool families are excited about Classical Conversations. I couldn't put my finger on why I am not excited about it. (After researching, I find it is to structured for me.) I have been homeschooling for 6 years and I'm not sure why I haven't read any Charlotte Mason material. But I guess I have been naturally "Charlotte Mason-ing" without realizing it.

    I'm excited that I have more material to read - about Charlotte Mason and her style of learning. Your blog has lifted my heart today and you wrote it a year and a half ago. I love how God works!

  20. I can sadly relate to many of these past posts. I can't believe how in just one full kindergarten year of school, the excitement for learning left my little curious boy. I am working so hard to instill in him a passion for learning more about who God is and His thoughts toward us, His children, and a love for exploring and learning about the world that was created for us. Even though I am a working mom with little free time, I am determined. Over the last month, I am seeing some improvement, but I have to tell myself to be patient to see the fruits of this labor of love. Thank you for the reminder about rewards. I have used this one too many times thinking it was a good motivating tool, but they do just seek after the rewards after a while, don't they? I was thinking that myself today after our day of lessons, that this was a successful day because we got through it with minimal complaining under 2 hours, when the day before took nearly 4. I hope I can steer him to love to read as well, as soon as he is able to. We are still working on that!

    Thank you for sharing your wisdom.

  21. I did not know that about the Milnes. It's just one more sad part of their lives.