Education is a life… Charlotte Mason in a nutshell

Charlotte Mason was an educational writer and teacher over a hundred years ago in England. Her insightful principles and holistic framework are followed by many home educating families today still – in fact many call her the ‘founder’ of the homeschooling movement…

There are many wonderful, thorough and helpful websites out there now about  Charlotte Mason and her approach to home education. Her methods have also been employed in schools around the world, and she founded an organisation in the UK that is still operating to support schools and home educating families.

However, there are now so many resources, curricula and so on available online, that it can actually be overwhelming, trying to discover a good starting point, or perhaps just a brief overview. This is why I am briefly sharing this set of principles and methods: for anyone wanting a ‘nutshell’ version.

I have been researching and implementing this for a few years, but I do not intend to even attempt a thorough or comprehensive description here. Instead, I will list many good websites, podcasts and resources at the end to start you on the journey, or as additional layers for those who are already on their way…

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Foundational principles:

Charlotte Mason had strong philosophical, intellectual and spiritual foundations for the educational approach she eventually became so well known for. She also spent decades teaching, so it was not just a highly theoretical framework – she gave very detailed, practical advice in all areas. However, the depth of the foundational principles is what drew me to this approach – as so much of it resonated with my own beliefs and observations.

One can also implement Charlotte Mason’s principles without following her methods to the letter ( and deciding how far you want to dive in to the painstaking details will very quickly determine which sites and resources you try to use!).

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Here are the main points, in summary:

“Children are born persons, with potential for good or bad” – they are not empty buckets to cram full of our own ideas, and endless reams of information… they have the potential to learn and grow already in them! We need only facilitate this natural ability – inspiring and nurturing many interests. Much as they learn to walk and talk as toddlers, without any curriculum administered by us, we need only provide the right environment, resources and encouragement to help them along the way… (a strong overlap here with the philosophy of ‘unschoolers’)

“Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life” – flowing from the above, is this understanding that while learning is life long, and happens naturally in many contexts all the time… Yet it is also essential to intentionally set up and manage the home space, and our daily lives; plan beneficial rhythms and resources; surround our children with beauty, inspiration and learning opportunities… More about how we do this, in the ‘practical framework’ section below. (I like this intentionality, as opposed to ‘unschooling’ proponents, who may become too passive, and their children may drift aimlessly, without much guidance or mentoring. But that is my choice and path – there are of course also many thoughtful parents following other approaches)

“Education is the Science of Relations” – the importance of linking various ideas or areas of knowledge with each other; and encouraging children to find and understand those many interconnections, is another fundamental insight, which makes this a holistic education approach.

This especially resonates with me because of my background in peace education, complexity and preferred futures thinking. Nurturing interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary thinking is exactly what is required to solve the most intractable problems we are facing today. Future generations (and ours, already) need this skill set much more than the mere committing to memory of facts that will most likely be outdated by the time they finish their education anyway!

Practical framework:

Spreading the feast – 

As facilitators, or even curators of our children’s education, we ‘spread the feast’ before our children, and they sample a bit here and there; or feast on some aspects in depth. Each child has some freedom in choosing – different interests, personalities, developmental stages or moods will affect the order and amount they ‘ingest’… We do not force feed them, and we do not offer ideas in a pre-digested, watered-down, tasteless manner…

Our role is still an intentional and thoughtful one – we carefully select what is beautiful, and good and true (e.g. music and art appreciation studies are key focus areas); also presenting ‘great ideas’ (e.g. from science) that they can engage with for themselves. Charlotte Mason emphasised that the mind feeds on ideas – so children (and adults!) should have a generous curriculum.

Good habits – 

  1. Attentiveness: listening carefully. Presentations or instructions are brief and not endlessly repeated!
  2. Narration: restate accurately. A fundamental way to show learning.
  3. Observation: looking carefully. An important life skill!
  4. Focus on the good, true and beautiful. Beauty is food for the soul!
  5. Give best efforts. Better to do a little, very well, than carry on too long and half-heartedly. Lessons or presentations on each subject are 5-15 minutes long at most for elementary years. Later this may be 45 minutes, but is always determined by energy and interest levels (with the aim if growing that attention span over time).

Living books – 

Books must be selected carefully – they must be “living” in the sense that they are interesting, inspiring and written by people who really know and love their subject!

Learning through stories is by far the most substantial and cherished part of a Charlotte Mason styled education. Not dry, dull textbooks and endless “busy” work in workbooks! (Although these can be used here and there as supplements if helpful)

History, Geography, Nature studies and even Maths can all be learned through quality literature and inspiring true stories! We learn and remember so much more through stories than through “rote learning” of facts anyway.

Guided discovery

As already explained a few times above, our role is as facilitators, curators or mentors – not the traditional dictatorial teaching style! So instead of telling children what they should think, we need to find imaginative ways and settings to expose them to ‘great ideas’ in the various subject areas; letting them engage with and discover for themselves; and finding answers to their own questions as much as possible.

Instead of quizzing them on what they (don’t) know, we ask them to share what they do know, what they have discovered for themselves in the process, what really meant something to them… 

Play outside (you too, mom)!

Nature walks and nature journalling are foundational to Charlotte Mason’s approach – as well as simply hours of unstructured, unsupervised play time every day (where of course parents or caregivers are nearby, but not directing or hovering over the children)…

In other words, a natural childhood. Simple, slow and self-directed learning – through exploration of our natural world, or any number of other interests and pursuits. Time for wonder and curiosity to blossom and flourish in all sorts of directions…

Mothers are encouraged to be continually immersed in beauty, wonder and great ideas themselves, too! (How else will we have anything wonderful, beautiful or inspiring to impart to our children on a daily basis?!)

“Never be within doors when you can rightly be without” – Charlotte Mason

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Resources:

Online-

Ambleside online – FREE online curriculum, materials, resources and support forum

Simply Charlotte Mason – curriculum, resources, very helpful blog and podcast discussions

Exploring Nature with children – a year long, season based curriculum for early years

FREE Charlotte Mason resources (downloads, printables, planners, etc.)

FREE Charlotte Mason planner

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Key Books with more depth and detail about a Charlotte Mason education (Charlotte Mason’s 6 volume Homeschooling series is a hefty undertaking, and can perhaps wait until a later point in the journey)-

  • For the Children’s sake, Susan Schaeffer Macaulay  &
  • Consider This: Charlotte Mason and the Classical Tradition, Karen Glass
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Books with thorough overviews of Charlotte Mason’s principles in specific subject areas-
  • Mathematics: an instrument for living teaching, Richelle Baburina (from ‘Simply Charlotte Mason’) &
  • Hearing and Reading, Telling and Writing: a Charlotte Mason Language Arts Handbook, Sonya Shafer (from ‘Simply Charlotte Mason’)

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Books about books (with lists of recommendations sorted by subject or ages)-

  • Honey for a child’s heart, Gladys Hunt &
  • Give your child the world: raising globally minded kids one book at a time, Jamie C. Martin

Great podcasts about a Charlotte Mason approach specifically, full of information, ideas and encouragement-

Great podcasts about homeschooling in general, that flow well with Charlotte Mason style, and sometimes touch on her methods specifically-

Podcasts for children, teaching through story (and fun!)-

Note: These are itunes podcast links, but they can be found on many other podcast platforms or on their websites.

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