Charlotte Mason was a British educator who developed a homeschooling method that is still popular today. The Charlotte Mason method is based on the idea that children learn best through hands-on experiences and exposure to high-quality literature. The Charlotte Mason homeschool method teaches that children should be allowed to learn at their own pace and that parents should provide plenty of encouragement and support.
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In this article, we’ll learn about the Charlotte Mason homeschooling style. Specifically, we’ll take a closer look at:
- Who was Charlotte Mason?
- 10 Important Tenets of a CM Education
- Charlotte Mason’s Philosophy and Christianity
- Classical Education vs. Charlotte Mason Education
- What does a CM Homeschool Schedule look like?
Let’s dive in and have a look!
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Who was Charlotte Mason?
Mason wrote many books, including a popular geography series called The Ambleside Geography Books. But, she is probably best known for her home education volumes which are (for any parent intent on using this method) a must-read.
Where does the name Ambleside come from?
Ambleside was the town where Mason started a training school for governesses and young children intending to give an excellent education to all people, whether rich or poor – this was when many poor people couldn’t get an education due to the high cost of living.
One of Charlotte Mason’s visions for her protegees was a ‘liberal education for all. By a liberal education, Mason meant ‘a generous and broad curriculum for all children, regardless of social class.’
As such, Mason was a Christian who saw the wonderful world that God has given us and wanted to share the joys of learning about it with all people.
10 Tenets of Charlotte Mason Education
Several things make Charlotte Mason education different from other homeschooling methods and very different from traditional education methods employed in many schools today. These differentiating characteristics are summed up in the following :
- Teaching using living books
- Gentle learning with education a way of life
- Guided discovery
- Good habit training
- Short Lessons
- Nature Walks
- Grow the mind and grow the person
- Dictation and
- Perfect copywork
These hallmarks were notably different from the education method used in Mason’s day.
In Mason’s day, the Classical approach was the popular educational philosophy in most schools. However, Charlotte Mason presented a radically different way of learning.
Let’s look closely into the methods Mason proposed to use below.
1. Teaching using Living books
Mason believed children should be taught with living books – that is, books that aren’t dry blocks of text, but engaging educational texts (often stories), written by a person who knows the subject thoroughly.
Living books are unabridged books that teach children through the characters’ lives in the book. They are:
…well-written, engaging, and invite the reader inside – [they] guide not through dull imparting of facts but through the lives and events of the characters. They include genres such as historical fiction, nature books, and twaddle-free fiction stories such as those of Holling C. Holling. [The Homeschool Mom.com]
Reading living books is a great way to make education fun, and consequently, these books have become a huge distinguisher of a Charlotte Mason homeschool.
Example of a living book
A living book about whales would be Moby Dick, a detailed and engaging read (based on a true story) about a white sperm whale who sank the boat that was hunting it.
During the story, readers learn about whale anatomy, whale hunting, culture in the 1800s, and many other things that make this a typical example of a living book.
2. Gentle learning with education a way of life
Charlotte believed learning should be gentler than the strict 19th century standards.
Learning should be an exciting way of life that absorbs the mind rather than a rigid curriculum that requires a great deal of motivation to learn.
Classical schools in Mason’s time were not always fun places to learn in. As Christine Miller at Classical-Homeschooling.org said:
The picture is presented of schools which resemble more military camps, teachers strict to the point of cruelty, rote memorization and drill which crowds out all love of learning or joy of discovery. Long hours were spent at a desk[s] and over books. The phrase, “Children should be seen and not heard,” was common and indicated how adults and society often viewed children. All these factors rolled together [and] made school a dreaded chore for most children.
How could kids learn from that? Well, you’d be surprised to find out that they did – and they learned well:
The literacy level of those days far outstrips our own…Unlike so many today, those completing a basic education could make their verbs agree with their nouns and their pronouns with their antecedents. Logic and Latin were unquestioned core components of the public and private school curriculum. [Christine Miller]
But, what a drag!
And that’s where Charlotte Mason came in – she saw Classical education, as it was in the 1800s, needed improvement and went about restoring the love of learning that had been lost.
As a result, CM education is often seen as a gentler style of education compared to Classical education.
3. Guided Discovery
In Charlotte Mason’s guided discovery teaching method, children are encouraged to ask questions and figure things out for themselves. Students develop a love of learning and a deep understanding of the material through this approach. In addition, Mason’s method helps build critical thinking skills and independence.
The great thing about guided discovery is that it encourages interest-based learning and fosters a love of lifelong learning in children. But unfortunately, this is something that schools struggle to accommodate due to high student: teacher ratios.
An Example of Guided Discovery
An example of guided discovery is going for a nature walk with parents and seeing plants, animals, or insects along the way and examining these closely.
Along the way, parents ask thought-provoking questions to get children thinking more about the subject and fuel their desire to know more.
For example, children might find a caterpillar, take it home, and put it in a box with netting over it. They would then feed it with leaves until it makes a cocoon and eventually emerges as a butterfly or moth.
Parents might ask them to write an assignment about the lifecycle of a butterfly which children will be only too happy to do!
4. Good Habit Training Integral to a Charlotte Mason Homeschool
Habit training is one of the most important aspects of Charlotte Mason education. It is the process of teaching a child to form good habits and break bad ones. Habit training begins in infancy and should be continued throughout life.
For this reason, Charlotte Mason encouraged the cultivation of good habits such as:
- prompt obedience
- quality over quantity
- good routines
- handicraft like sewing
- free time without interruption (i.e., iPads and other technology)
- close observation and
- plenty of reading
If we instill good habits into our children early, they’ll use them when they’re older. They’ll be some of the greatest gifts we can give them.
5. Short Lessons
Short lessons are another hallmark of the Charlotte Mason homeschool method. Mason aimed to keep children interested in their lessons by keeping them short and exciting.
She felt children shouldn’t be squirming in their chairs, struggling with motivation, or waiting to leap onto the playground the moment the school bell rings.
The time children spent in their chairs should be short, but while they were sitting down, they must pay attention!
As a result, a CM education can be excellent for moms who homeschool restless, energetic boys and girls.
6. Nature Walks
Charlotte Mason encouraged parents to get outdoors with their children and explore nature.
You can do this by taking walks in your local park or nature reserve. Not only will you be spending time with your child, but you’ll also be teaching them about their surroundings and providing them with opportunities to learn new things.
When children do nature walks, they should bring a sketchbook or nature journal and note their observations. For example, you might draw a bird or inspect a leaf. Nature is your classroom here.
Charlotte Mason Led to the Scouts
Girl Guides and Boy Scouts are both creations that stem from a Charlotte Mason education. Mason believed scouting experiences helped create outstanding educational outcomes and were beneficial for learning about God’s creation.
7. Grow the Mind and Grow the Person
The ultimate end of the Charlotte Mason homeschooling method should be to create self-regulated individuals who have a broad interest in learning about the world around them.
The aim is to grow the person, so they make good decisions about educating themselves when they’re adults. For Mason, this very much included Christian spiritual growth.
8. Narration Integral to a Charlotte Mason Homeschool
After listening to a story (often read by parents), children orally relate what they have just heard. This process is called narration. Narration helps children learn how to think and express themselves clearly without the added confusion of handwriting:
Up until the age of 10 or 11, Charlotte advises teachers to use mainly oral narration with a child. After listening to a short passage of a book, the child will tell back important aspects of the story in their own words.
Letting a young child do this orally helps them develop analytical thinking skills without getting stuck by the physical mechanics of handwriting. [SimpleHomeschool.Net]
Narration also serves as a low-pressure way to evaluate a child’s understanding of a subject. Therefore, it has become a hallmark of a Charlotte Mason home education.
Dictation is writing words someone else speaks to learn how to write.
Dictation is another hallmark of a Charlotte Mason education. Dictation assists with handwriting, grammar, and spelling. Certain books made better dictation texts than others:
Charlotte recommends using inspiring quotations or Scripture for dictation. The child studies the passage until they know the spelling and punctuation. Then the teacher dictates the passage slowly while the child writes it down. [SimpleHomeschool.Net]
When a child writes what has been dictated, they have to pay attention to what is said. This forces them to listen well and not be distracted by the things around them.
10. Perfect Copywork
In copywork, children duplicate a passage and submit it to parents for review.
In a Charlotte Mason homeschool, children are expected to copy that passage out perfectly when a passage is dictated.
If it is not done perfectly, parents should get the child to do the task repeatedly until it is done perfectly. In this way, perfect copywork teaches children to spell and do things correctly the first time by paying attention to the text.
20 Principles of the Charlotte Mason Method
Mason wrote 20 Principles that sum up her philosophy brilliantly. These are available here with explanations.
These principles are an excellent summary of her books. If you don’t want to read multiple volumes of Mason’s Home Education series, these principles are a great way to understand Charlotte Mason education thoroughly.
Charlotte Mason’s Philosophy and Christianity
Many people have heard that a Charlotte Mason education is ‘liberal’ and encourages a connection with nature.
This will set off alarm bells for many Christians as we assume the philosophy is based on non-fundamental principles.
However, this sad misconception has led many families away from this great way of teaching.
I’d like to dispel a few common myths about CM education in the next section.
Charlotte was a Godly Woman
Some Christians read about ‘secular Charlotte Mason homeschooling’ and think Mason was probably a secular woman or a weak, nominal Christian in her day.
Below is a comment that sums up what some people have heard or think:
Can someone answer a question? I have been told by a resource place for homeschoolers in my area that CM is very unreligious, and I should refrain from using it. That she has odd philosophies. I just wondered if I could get some input. I want all our curriculum to be Christ-based and not taken from some other form…I haven’t made that purchase yet because of this concern! I guess the remark was she was very liberal. [SimplyCharlotteMason.Com]
This was also my initial concern, but having investigated CM more closely (and read her writings for myself), I’ve become convinced she was actually a very godly woman. So perhaps it is more that when secular people use Mason’s ideas, she gets labeled as secular herself. As one Mum put it:
I have heard of people trying to make a Charlotte Mason education completely secular, but I think it would be hard to do her philosophy justice without religion… She constantly refers to Christ and scripture in her writings. She is full of love for Christ, and all her philosophy leads back to worshipping God. She often had the children read from the Old and New Testaments and talked about how math and science prove a Creator.
A Curriculum Without God?
I firmly believe Mason would have been horrified if she found people removing references to God in a CM curriculum.
Indeed, she deliberately developed studies in nature that pointed to the glory of God. Furthermore, her method of education tried to create good, Christian characters in her pupils.
Here is Mason herself writing about it:
A Disciplined Will [is] necessary to Heroic Christian Character.––Once again, though a disciplined will is not a necessary condition of the Christian life, it is necessary to the development of the heroic Christian character. A Gordon, a Havelock, a Florence Nightingale, a St. Paul, could not be other than a person of vigorous will. In this respect, as in all others, Christianity reaches the feeblest souls. There is a wonderful Guido [Guido Reni] ‘Magdalen’ in the Louvre, with a mouth which has plainly never been set to any resolve for good or ill––a lower face molded by the helpless following of the inclination of the moment; but you look up to the eyes, which are raised to meet the gaze of eyes not shown in the picture, and the countenance is transfigured, the whole face is aglow with a passion of service, love, and self-surrender. All this the divine grace may accomplish in weak unwilling souls, and then they will do what they can; but their power of service is limited by their past. Not so the child of the Christian mother, whose highest desire is to train him for the Christian life. When he wakes to the consciousness of whose he is and whom he serves, she would have him ready for that high service, with every faculty in training––a man of war from his youth; above all, with an effective will, to will and to do of His good pleasure.
As you can see, this was not written by a woman of vague religious philosophies. On the contrary, she knew what she was doing, and her Christian faith is evidently a hallmark of her educational approach. (This is also blatantly obvious when you read her Home Education series.)
‘A Charlotte Mason Education is too liberal.’
Saying a CM homeschool education is liberal leads to many misunderstandings because the word ‘liberal’ has changed so much today. To say someone is liberal today means they probably follow left-leaning ideologies.
To say you were liberal in the 1800s means you were generous. And this is the meaning that should be taken. As one homeschool Mom put it:
The part about CM being liberal is true, but not in the modern political sense. Charlotte Mason advocated for a “liberal education” for all children. In her time (the late 1800s, early 1900s), poor children often got no education at all, and if they did, it was often minimal. Liberal in the CM sense implies a generous and broad curriculum for all children, regardless of social class. She wanted to inspire the minds of all children to their maximum potential, not turn them into political automatons. [SimplyCharlotteMason.Com]
(Interestingly, a so-called ‘liberal’ education in Mason’s day would probably be a relatively strict one in our day where so many things are permissible in the classroom.)
Liberality in Mason’s day was a Christian idea. To say CM was liberal meant she didn’t distinguish between rich and poor children (or adults) but instead wanted to provide a generous education for all people.
Mason believed they could achieve things beyond their social class or situation if her students were given this education.
As such, a Charlotte Mason education shouldn’t conjure up images of left-wing looseness and progressiveness. Instead, we should be reminded she cared for the poor and had mercy on the weak.
Children need good habits like sick people need good medicine
Mason saw children needed help like sick children needed a loving, nursing mother. She believed educators should see children as ‘sick’ and watch over them to ward off sickness.
By ‘sickness,’ Mason was referring to bad habits. Mason believed training and instruction were needed to instill good habits in children. Otherwise, a life without instruction created a spoiled child and a flawed character.
This isn’t hard to see. If you leave a child to his own devices, he’ll turn into a spoilt child. Mason just incorporated this into her educational approach.
Are children really good?
Charlotte Mason also thought children are ‘persons of goodwill, with honest desires toward right thinking and right living.’ In this, Mason seems to say that children see the right thing to do and desire to do it (this is also the underlying basis of many unschooling parents’ philosophies).
This goes against my experience with children. My experience of children is that they push boundaries and often do not have goodwill towards those around them, especially a sibling who might irritate them.
It doesn’t seem like they have ‘desires towards right living’ when they display these actions. When children gravitate towards unlimited quantities of chocolate biscuits and unlimited hours on computer games, it doesn’t seem like they have a desire towards right thinking.
Christine Miller from ClassicalHomeschooling.Org put it like this:
[W]e need a proper view of children. Not the romantic view in which childhood is idealized as the most innocent and good-natured of times, because as anyone with children knows, children have a natural tendency to sin. They also dwell in a natural state of foolishness and selfishness, out of which they must be led.
But, I think Mason did see the benefit of instruction, though, saying, ‘Provide a child with what he needs in the way of instruction, opportunity, and wholesome occupation, and his character will take care of itself… All we can do further is to help a child get rid of some hindrance––a bad temper, for example––likely to spoil his life.’
Classical Education vs. Charlotte Mason Education
There are quite a few similarities between Charlotte Mason and Classical education. Perhaps this is because Mason was a Classical educator herself.
- Memorization is valued
- Great literature is important
- Grammar, history, and mathematics are essential as they make a good basis for learning.
- A Charlotte Mason homeschool education emphasizes arts, such as painting analysis.
- A CM education is gentler, but Classical Education is more rigid.
- A CM homeschooling education sees learning as a way of life. Therefore, it is less rigidly academic compared to Classical Education.
- Classical education starts formal learning earlier (i.e., grammar and writing).
- Classical education starts writing composition earlier in children’s lives and teaches it as a separate subject; a Charlotte Mason education teaches it as part of book studies.
- Debate, Latin, and logic are not taught as often in a CM homeschool.
- Classical Education has parents involved in explaining the subject more. However, Charlotte Mason homeschooling leans heavily on verbal narration (the child retells a story’s summary after hearing it to make sure they’ve been listening gently).
- A Charlotte Mason education sees memorization as valuable because it teaches ideas. On the other hand, classical education seems to value rote memorization (i.e., discipline).
- Classical education uses abridged versions of the classics for young children; Charlotte Mason education always uses whole texts (narrated by the parents) and redacted only when inappropriate words are used.
- A CM education focuses more on nature than CE and mimics Steiner/Waldorf and Montessori homeschooling methods.
What does a Charlotte Mason Homeschool Schedule look like?
By now, you might be wondering what a typical day in a Charlotte Mason homeschool looks like (as perhaps opposed to other homeschool schedules).
Sonya Schafer, the co-founder of SimplyCharlotteMason.Com, said her schedule has the following subjects in the time slots indicated below (I’ve summarised what they do during that time and expanded on the theory – where applicable – to explain it a little more):
- 8:30 Scripture Memory – read the new passage you’re memorizing and review old passages.
- 8:35 History – done through literature. You want to learn about history through novels, so you’re not learning a bunch of facts, but instead, you have context for your facts. (Narration testing of literature subjects like history is a big hallmark of a CM homeschool.)
- 9:00 Math – try to do the math so children can see its point. For example, teach addition and subtraction using $1 and $2 coins.
- 9:20 Poetry – analyzing poems.
- 9:30 Picture Study – analyzing paintings, such as the great Classical paintings (Monet, etc.). Schafer says they study several paintings by one artist over the week, so her children get a good feel for the painter’s style.
- 9:40 Copywork – students carefully copy a passage perfectly (or try again until they get it perfect).
- 9:45 Science, then chores, then free time.
- 12:00 Lunch.
- 1:00 Nature Study – family takes sketchbooks and field guides to a nature spot and may look up things they haven’t seen or sketch items they discover. Look at a video on this here.
- 3:00 Literature plus snack-time – read a great family classic.
Note: Many homeschooling parents do formal homework in the morning and then spend some time socializing with other people in the afternoon. Many families don’t spend above 1 or 2 hours in formal education, especially in elementary years. Charlotte Mason homeschools probably spend even less again.
In conclusion, the Charlotte Mason homeschooling method is a great way to provide your child with a well-rounded education. It allows them to learn in various ways while still providing structure and guidance. If you are considering homeschooling your child, I highly recommend using this method.