What’s Charlotte Mason Homeschooling & Why Use It In Your Homeschool
Are you interested in using the Charlotte Mason homeschooling method in your children’s education? A Charlotte Mason education is an amazing thing and is a popular choice among home educators today – particularly those of Christian convictions in America. The method’s inherent gentleness and connection with nature has made it a great choice for many families, especially those with exuberant children with a love for the outdoors.
In this article, we’ll look at many things about the Charlotte Mason (CM) homeschooling style, including:
- Who was Charlotte Mason?
- 10 Important Tenets of a CM Education
- Charlotte Mason’s Philosophy and Christianity
- Classical Education Compared with 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 with the aim of giving a great education to all people, whether rich or poor – this was in a day when many poor people couldn’t get an education due to the high cost of living.
One of the visions Charlotte Mason had 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 Important Tenets in Charlotte Mason Education
There are a number of things that make Charlotte Mason education different from other homeschooling methods, and very different from traditional education methods employed in many schools and homeschools in our world today. In particular, the 10 hallmarks of a CM education are:
- Teaching using living books
- Gentle learning with education a way of life rather than a curriculum
- Guided discovery
- Good habit training
- Short Lessons
- Nature Walks
- Grow the mind and grow the person
- Dictation and
- Perfect copywork
These hallmarks were particularly 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. Charlotte Mason presented a radically different way of learning. Let’s look a little more 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 books that teach through an engaging story, written by a person who knows the subject thoroughly.
For example, a living book about whales might be Moby Dick which is 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.
Living books are unabridged books that teach children through the lives of characters in the book. They are:
…well-written, engaging, and invite the reader inside – [they] teach 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]
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.
2. Gentle learning with education a way of life rather than a curriculum
Charlotte believed learning should be gentler than the strict 19th century standards. Mason thought 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 usually fun places to learn in. As Christine Miller 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 desk[s] and over books. The phrase, “Children should be seen and not heard” was common of this time, and indicates how adults and society as a whole 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 both 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, a CM education is often seen as a gentler style of education compared to Classical education.
3. Guided Discovery
Parents lead children on a journey of discovery through nature and subject studies, acting as guides. When children find something worth observing, parents take a back seat and let the child discover the object for themselves.
An example of guided discovery is going for a nature walk and seeing plants, animals or insects along the way and examining these closely. Children might find a caterpillar and take it home, 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.
The great thing about guided discovery is that it encourages interest-based-learning and therefore fosters a love of lifelong learning in children. This is something that schools struggle to accommodate due to high student: teacher ratios.
4. Good Habit Training Integral to a Charlotte Mason Homeschool
Mason spotlighted good habits that she thought were worth cultivating in her students, such as paying attention and doing work well. As Sonya Schafer put it:
You can get a lot done in a short amount of time if the student has the habit of paying attention and doing his best. The young student is required to pay attention for the whole lesson, but his efforts are not overtaxed by long lessons. Short lessons help him get the habit established; once that habit is in place, lesson times are lengthened for older students.
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
That brings us to another important thing that sets Charlotte Mason education apart from many other learning methods – short lessons. Mason aimed to keep children interested in their lessons:
[D]oing a few minutes of drill every day will not make their whole educational experience a drudge, but not only will it help them remember and recall important information, it will help them learn that in life we do the things we must [do] as well as the things we want [to do].
It is common sense to have shorter subjects and more play the younger a child is, but to help children mature, it is necessary to help them develop a sustained attention span, to help them grow into being able to study a single subject for a sustained time period.
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 they should be paying full attention when they do. As a result, a CM education can be great for moms who are homeschooling boys.
6. Nature Walks (Charlotte Mason Lead to the Scouts)
Girl Guides and Boy Scouts are both creations that stem from a Charlotte Mason education. Mason believed scouting created amazing educational outcomes and was beneficial for learning about God’s creation.
This led to another hallmark which is popular among CM advocates – nature walks. This is just taking your sketchbook and/or nature journal and interacting with nature. You might draw a bird or inspect a leaf. Nature is your classroom here.
Here’s a video I made on nature walks:
7. Grow the Mind and Grow the Person
The aim of a CM education is to cultivate a wide range of interests by teaching children how to teach themselves. This meant that children went from needing to have learning facilitated to much less guidance in a child’s education later in life.
This is because, as education began, CM assumed children needed molding and growth. Later in life, when that child has grown older and learned a lot of good habits, they can teach themselves using the skills they’ve been given. That is, they can pick up harder and harder books and make their way through them, looking up words by themselves as they go.
CM aimed to grow the whole person, and, as you’ll see below, that includes spiritual growth for ‘His good pleasure’.
8. Narration Integral to a Charlotte Mason Homeschool
After listening to a story (often read by parents), children have to 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, in his or her own words, important aspects of the story.
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 another hallmark of a CM education. Dictation assists with handwriting, grammar, and spelling. There are certain books that made better dictation texts than others:
Charlotte recommends using inspiring quotations or Scripture for dictation. The child studies the passage until they are certain of 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 try to duplicate a passage and submit it to parents for review. In a Charlotte Mason homeschool, when a passage is dictated to children, children are expected to copy that passage out perfectly.
If it is not done perfectly, parents should get the child to do the task over again until it is done perfectly. In this way, dictation teaches children to spell and do things properly the first time by paying attention to the text.
Charlotte Mason’s Philosophy and Christianity
Many people have heard that a Charlotte Mason education is ‘liberal’ and encourages a connection with nature. For many Christians, this will set off alarm bells as we assume the philosophy is based on non-fundamental principals. However, this is a sad misconception that’s led a lot of families away from this great way of teaching. In the next section, I’d like to dispel a few common myths about CM education.
Charlotte was Definitely 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 un-religious and I should refrain from using it. That she has odd philosophies. 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. 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 who try to make a Charlotte Mason education completely secular, but I think that 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 reading from both the Old and New Testaments and talks about how math and science both prove that there is a Creator.
I strongly 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 which pointed to the glory of God. Furthermore, her method of education tried to develop 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 moulded 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. 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 (late 1800s, early 1900s) poor children often got no education at all, and if they did it was often very limited. 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]
(It’s interesting that 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.
If her students were given this education, Mason believed they could achieve things beyond their social class or situation.
As such, a Charlotte Mason education shouldn’t conjure up images of left-wing looseness and progressiveness. Rather, 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 were in need of help like sick children were in need of 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 was apt to create a spoiled child and bad character.
Really, 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 good will, with honest desires toward right thinking and right living.’ In this, Mason seems to say that children see the right thing to do and have a desire to do it (this is also the underlying basis of many unschooling parents’ philosophies).
This goes against my experience of 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 to get rid of some hindrance––a bad temper, for example––likely to spoil his life.’
Classical Education Compared with 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 important as they make a good basis for learning.
- A Charlotte Mason homeschool education puts more emphasis on language arts, such as painting analysis.
- A CM education is more gentle, but Classical Education is more rigid.
- A CM homeschooling education sees learning as a way of life. 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. Charlotte Mason homeschooling leans heavily on verbal narration (the child retelling the summary of a story after they’ve heard it to gently make sure they’ve been listening).
- A Charlotte Mason education sees memorization as valuable because it teaches ideas. Classical education seems to see value inherent in 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 in cases where inappropriate words are used.
- A CM education focuses more on nature and so mimics Steiner/Waldorf and Montessori homeschooling methods more than CE.
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, 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 maths so children can see the point of it. 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 what the painter’s style is like.
- 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 lookup 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 of these families don’t spend above 1 or 2 hours in formal education, especially in the elementary years. Charlotte Mason homeschools probably spend even less again.
Personally, I’m a massive fan of Classical Education. But, Classical Education lacks a little freedom that Charlotte Mason has in spades. Many Christians seem to do a mix of Charlotte Mason homeschooling and Classical education. This is what I will be choosing. I think this mix will enable a love of learning while giving children a good foundation in the Classics which have informed great minds for centuries.