I have had several requests for a summary of Charlotte Mason's philosophy and ideas. Because I have a tendency to be very wordy and over-complicate things, I decided to write something that could be read in 5 minutes. Most of these topics will apply to younger children, not those in High School. I haven't had time to study that yet. :)
Charlotte Mason was an education reformer, teacher, and directer of a chain of schools in the late eighteen- hundreds. Many of her ideas were revolutionary then, and are still unique today. The first thing to emphasize is that Charlotte herself was opposed to her work being used as any kind of 'system'. She was adamant that a method, a philosophy, is flexible and useful, while a stringent system is constrictive. Charlotte also insisted that parents could teach their children as well or better then a school, and her first book is considered the original how-to book on homeschooling.
Charlotte believed children, especially young children, should spend the majority of their time outside. She recommended at least 6 hours outside each day! These hours were not spent just in idle playtime, but were used to teach and develop many things. The habit of attention is learning carefully studying flowers. The ability to envision something in their heads, so important for learning to read, is learned by studying a scene and imprinting it in their minds. The ability to tell something back, describing it for others, which is the first step in learning to write well, can be practiced by describing that scene. Visual development is enhanced by having long vistas to focus on. And, of course, there is no where children are happier then outside!
Living books are a very important part of any Charlotte Mason method. Living books are simply REAL books, as opposed to textbooks. But living books are also more. The foundational idea behind living books is the importation of ideas. Children's minds are fed upon ideas, and books which only give facts, dry knowledge, and miscellaneous tidbits of information do not feed children's minds. Look for books that are the best of the best. They inspire, delight, and motivate. Not all good, fun books are living. Books that have depth and a heart and soul are important. Ambleside Online, Sonlight, Heart of Dakota, Winter Promise, Five in a Row and other literature-based curriculum are a good place to start in your search for living books Keep in mind that although these are good starting points, not nearly all of the books used by some of these are 'living' by Charlotte's standards. Also, the methods used by some of them are not in keeping with Charlotte's ideas. Our children deserve only the best ideas to nourish their growing minds.
HISTORY: History is described by Charlotte as a pageant of ideas. One of my favorite Charlotte quotes:
It is a great thing to possess a pageant of history in the background of one's thoughts. We may not be able to recall this or that circumstance, but, 'the imagination is warmed'; we know that there is a great deal to be said on both sides of every question and are saved from crudities in opinion and rashness in action. The present becomes enriched for us with the wealth of all that has gone before.
She wants children to form their own relationships with the people, events, and locations of history. This is where her method differs from Unit Studies, which try to do the connecting for the child by planning all subjects around a central theme. This delightful study of history comes, of course, from living books. The influence of one great mind, the author, upon one eager mind, the child, is the transfer of ideas at its best. children learn history from learning its stories. The stories are what we all remember and is what makes history alive. Dates, events, and people are meaningless to children if not surrounded by the comforting and inspiring blanket of a story.
This does not mean children need watered down, juvenile adaptations for history. This means they need well-written, quality, non-fiction history books, which are by their very definition, already living. This means wonderful spines, the book which brings it all together into one 'pageant of history', along with life-stories, biographies that are well-written and inspiring, should be the children's history curriculum. Well-written, accurate historical novels can be added to feed the mind in events, lifestyles, and give them a sense of 'being there', always being careful to let young children know when they are reading a realistic novel, not a biography.
GEOGRAPHY: Geography is approached in a slightly different way. The best way for children to learn basic concepts in geography is to talk with them as they are spending their outdoor time with you. Learning mountains, hill, dales, and valleys, along with all the other landforms will inspire their minds to imagine greater and grander things in other places. Children can learn direction, the water cycle, and many other things outside through short, gentle conversations. These are not lectures, mind you! Just the gentle conversation which a mother should already have with her child, inspiring great ideas through little things.
SCIENCE: Science should be given to the children as a living thing. Nature study is the most important part of a young child's science development, and paves the way for harder things to come. Learning to really study, see, and remember the minute and great things they encounter outside, will develop the skills they need for harder science subjects later. Living books can also be added, helping children develop ideas about things they cannot observe on their own. Always taking care, of course not to over-feed the imagination with words when nature, full of the real things, lays right outside the door!
For the evil is, that children get their knowledge of natural history, like all their knowledge, at second hand. They are so sated with wonders that nothing surprises them.
Charlotte also believed that is was important to give children beauty. Beauty is the inspiration, the hope, the imagination, of bettering the future. The child's natural appreciation for beauty can be easily squelched if it is not fed beauty on a regular basis. This is done through great works of are, great music, great literature, great poetry, and, of course, the great works of art of God himself, nature. My children regularly look at pictures by famous artists and listen to the works of the great composers. This is easier and less complicated then it sounds, and we do it in a few minutes every morning.
Developmental skills are also encouraged by this practice. Careful observation is formed by studying a picture for all its details and nuances. A listening ear is developed by allowing the music of great composers to take them away in imagination. Critical thinking comes as a child tries to dig the deeper meaning out of poetry- not for a literature class, but for his own enjoyment.
LANGUAGE ARTS: Language and writing skills can be taught in a developmentally appropriate and enjoyable way. The modern push to get children writing at younger and younger ages is meaningless until their mental facilities are capable. Writing down your thoughts is an incredible complex process, which should not be pushed until several separate abilities have been mastered.
The physical act of writing is one of these skills, and Charlotte taught this through copywork. First, the children learn their letters and how to form them. After that skill is mastered, copywork, and then studied dictation, is the next step. Copying the great writings of others, through poetry, prose, and Bible verses, teaches much more then just handwriting. It also teaches how the English language works, with its subtle nuances of grammar, spelling, and punctuation.
The next step in learning to write well, is learning to order your thoughts and tell a story. The ability to write depends on the ability to think, create ineligible sentences and paragraphs, and use delightful language. Charlotte Mason taught this through narration. Narration is simply the practice of telling back what you have learned. For very young children, only a sentence or two is asked. As they mature, more details are required and expected. The skills learned through this practice are two-fold and vital.
First, the child learns to learn. He develops his mind and abilities to focus and remember. Charlotte went so far as to say "A reading not narrated is a reading wasted". The process begins when the child is young, talking about his observations in the natural world. It culminates in highschool with the ability to give long written narrations, although the spoken narrations are always used as well.
The second use for narration is the writing skills developed. The skills developed separately, through copywork, dictation, and narration, are then combined in the upper grades as the children begin actually writing, with pen and paper (or computer, these days!) what they have read. Creative writing is also encouraged.
Because you only have five minutes to read this, I will leave off here. The subjects of math and reading instruction are best left for more detailed articles, and more learned authors. I will end by saying, in my estimation, the methods of Charlotte Mason are as close as you can get to a perfect, mind-building, child-inspiring, idea-giving, life-breathing education as you can get. Yes, I am prejudiced. No, Charlotte Mason and Ambleside Online are not for everyone. But for those of you who try it, even adding parts to your other curriculum, I think you will find it transforming the way you teach and learn.
For more information, visit the following links:
About Charlotte Mason and her methods
Charlotte Mason's Educational Philosophy
Charlotte Mason's writings in modern English paraphrase
A summary of Charlotte's 20 educational principles
What ISN'T Living Books?
A Subject-by-Subject Charlotte Mason Series ~Highly recommended!
Imparting Living Ideas
The Art of Reading Slowly