Who is Charlotte Mason, what is her philosophy of education, and why am I geeking out over her ideas?
This 19th century educator had ideas that were not only revolutionary in her day and age, they continue to be so in ours.
How is Mason’s philosophy different from modern approaches?
Teaching in the modern school system feels a bit like someone (the state and federal governments) has dumped out the pieces of several puzzles (theories of education) into a pile, and teachers are then expected to study the pieces (teaching methods) and fit them together to form a new and better puzzle-the masterpiece referred to as “high achievement.” While there may be a few good matches, and some may even eventually create a masterpiece through luck or dedicated effort, it is time-consuming, and forcing pieces together that weren’t designed to fit in the first place leads to inconsistent results.
In fact, the results are almost entirely dependent on the skill of our teachers. Individual teachers who have good classroom management skills and have developed a coherent approach to teaching their own subject matter will make or break their students’ future in that field. Ask anyone who has graduated from our school system about their teachers and the knowledge that they have in a given subject, and they will tell you, “Oh, Mrs. Fisher was the best! In fifth grade, she came to class dressed as Indiana Jones with a bull whip on her hip, and that was my first introduction to ancient Egypt,” or “Mr. Crank just had us write out the answers to the comprehension questions at the end of our history textbook every day. I don’t remember anything about American history.” (True stories.)
A brief survey of books written by and for educators reveals the importance of the individual teacher to our modern schools. You’ll see books with titles like Teach Like Your Hair is On Fire. Inspirational stories of teachers who transformed their students from low achievers to high achievers become best-selling books and blockbuster movies. There is a lot of emphasis on training skilled teachers because the teachers will have a significant impact-positive or negative-on the students’ educational experience.
I am a teacher, as well, so I share my thoughts on this topic with full respect for the challenge that modern teachers face every day when they walk into the classroom. It is not for the faint of heart!
Even in Charlotte Mason’s era, this was a problem. In her final volume, Towards a Philosophy of Education, while reflecting on the experiences that led her to develop her philosophy, she wrote,
“It occurred to me that a series of curricula might be devised embodying sound principles and securing that children should be in a position of less dependence on their teacher than they then were” (emphasis mine).
She had sympathy for the challenges that teachers faced, writing also,
“In urging a method of self-education for children in lieu of the vicarious education system which prevails, I should like to dwell on the enormous relief to teachers, a self-sacrificing and overburdened class…”
What was Mason’s solution to the problem of children’s education depending so heavily on the skill of the teacher?
In a nutshell, Mason’s philosophy emphasizes the development of the skills required for self-education rather than outlining the content and subject-specific skills that the students should learn. The skills that she emphasized include,
- The habit of attention
- Awareness of the constant need to make choices between right and wrong and guidance about how to do so (i.e. the development of self-control)
- Processing information for themselves
- Gaining knowledge directly from the source (i.e. books)
- Recognizing that reasoning can be faulty and needs to be carefully evaluated for truth.
- A healthy respect for authority
- Learning from and observing real things in the real world (especially Mother Nature)
- Curiosity to seek out knowledge and make connections between many different sources, including books, maps, personal observation, music, art, mathematics, physical education and more.
The Teacher’s Role
Once the teachers had been fully trained in her principles, they were able to play a supportive role rather than a star role in their students’ learning. Mason tested her philosophy over a period of more than thirty years with hundreds of teachers “of varying qualities”. Today, there are many homeschooling families that are implementing her methods and experiencing equally high-quality results as well.
Charlotte Mason’s Principles for Teachers
To aide in explaining Mason’s philosophy, I would like to start by comparing her to the well-known and well-studied educator, Paolo Freire.
Every modern trained teacher has read or been introduced to Brazilian educational reformer Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968). Like Freire, who strongly opposed what he referred to as the “banking” approach to education (i.e. “the teacher’s task is to ‘fill’ the students with deposits of information”), Mason felt that students were more than a “mere sac to hold ideas.” However, her approach diverges from Freire’s in that he believed people to be incomplete and that education is required to consciously shape the person, while Mason taught that children are born persons and are already complete, by which she means that they have the tools of reason, imagination and conscience, and that they have a unique personality that is all their own. This difference of opinion on the completeness of the person is likely due to context. Freire worked with poor rural adults and laborers, while Mason worked primarily with children, including the children of poor mining families. She had the advantage of beginning with young students, while Freire needed to empower his adult students who had received little or no education at all.
It was important to Mason that children’s individual personalities be respected. Adults should not coerce a child to learn through love or fear, suggestion or influence, or by feeding their desire for power, praise, vanity, etc. Grades, sticker charts, prizes and the like are not necessary. Self-education depends on the joy of learning itself, and any attempt to “bypass” this and “force” the student into learning a standard, one-size-fits-all body of knowledge would result in great difficulty for all involved. Because she held this perspective, like Freire, she encouraged an experience of mutual learning and dialogue between teacher and students.
The Three Tools of Education
“Education is an atmosphere.” – The quality of the learning environment is one of three tools available to the teacher, although Mason emphasized that it was less important then previously supposed. She wrote, “We have left behind the feudal notion that intellect is a class prerogative, that intelligence is a matter of inheritance and environment.” This distinction is especially important because Mason argued that her methods were just as effective with children who came from low socioeconomic backgrounds and were even an equalizing force between social classes.
The teacher should ensure that students not be isolated in an environment especially adapted for children because this limits their growth and development. Specifically, children should be spending time in nature, with plants and animals, with all generations of family members, with people of different skills and economic classes as well as interacting with peers. (See Volume 6, Ch. 6.)
“Education is a discipline.” – The second tool available to the teacher is the cultivation of good habits. Mason does not include a specific list of habits, but her methods support the development of the skills listed above. An especially important habit in Mason’s approach is the habit of attention, which teachers encouraged through the practice of narration, in which the child shares his or her interpretation of the reading and responds to open-ended questions about it.
“Education is a life.” – The third tool of education is also Mason’s most famous. The teacher’s role is to provide a wide and generous curriculum full of inspiring ideas typically in the form of reading “living books” (see “In CM’s Words: How to Choose a High-Quality Book“) In her own words,
Education is a life. That life is sustained on ideas. …but we must sustain a child’s inner life with ideas as we sustain his body with food. Probably he will reject nine-tenths of the ideas we offer, as he makes use of only a small proportion of his bodily food, rejecting the rest. He is an eclectic; he may choose this or that; our business is to supply him with due abundance and variety and his to take what he needs. Urgency on our part annoys him.
Teachers learned how not to interfere in the students’ learning by imposing their own views and expectations. She has a number of warnings for teachers related to lecturing, giving opinions, simplifying and other ways of getting between the students and the text. The students should be putting in the effort to understand and process the information, not the teacher.
Sources of further information and training in Mason’s method
Reading Mason’s original works, which can be considered her training manuals, is a helpful place to start. Ambleside Online provides Mason’s volumes in the original language, modern paraphrases, brief summaries and the series arranged by topic. There are regular opportunities to read her works and discuss them with other CM homeschoolers on the Ambleside Online forum.
Simply Charlotte Mason has a learning library with videos, articles and books available for purchase.
I hope that this summary of her inspiring ideas has piqued your interest and that you will explore her ideas further!