I had a diverse education, not in the Charlotte Mason sense but rather geographical. I attended 12 schools in three different states and one in Canada. I had a variety of teachers as I changed schools frequently, however they all held something in common: boredom. This public education I received was based on a very predictable system: listen to a teacher talk in a mundane manner, read an equally boring textbook, answer the summary questions and eventually face a test on the subject matter.
While it is difficult to summarize the Charlotte Mason approach, let me start by saying it is the opposite of the education I endured. Her method is interesting and comprehensive because it is based on the liberal arts, or the “generous arts.” The goal is to bring a wide variety of meaningful subjects to the children via literature, masterpiece artwork, poetry and various other humanities.
Along with these inspirational additions, the core subjects are in no way neglected but are approached so as to foster the love of learning.
Among these goals is a book-filled education not in any way dependent on textbooks. Instead of relying on short entries on a topic, Charlotte Mason’s students would work with an extensive book on a single topic. A whole book dedicated to dolphins, for example, will contain much more information than a short paragraph in a textbook could ever manage to provide.
One reason Charlotte Mason thought children deserved a wide curriculum and above-average books was due to her unique opinions on the value of children, and beyond that she believed them to have very capable minds. To make this aspect of her philosophy applicable, we are to stop underestimating children’s ability to learn, read and think. I implement this by giving my children the benefit of the doubt and striving to bring them the best, most intelligent books and materials I can possibly locate. This indicates that we avoid “dumbed-down” children’s books that Mason called “twaddle.”
Another unique idea used in the CM method is having the children deal directly with the books. To foster direct contact we avoid being the middleman or lecturer; this allows their minds to function independently from ours. This is achieved through using narration, which greatly improves the skill of being a good listener, an attribute in high demand no matter what field a person goes into.
The act of narration is easy and normal, and it is an effective way to retain information. We have all used this process when we have told someone about a meeting we have attended, a documentary we’ve seen, or a book we have read. The act of repeating information or events has a powerful effect on memory, much like when we repeat a number over and over to ourselves if we are unable to write it down immediately. It’s different from summarizing information because we allow the person narrating to choose the emphasis, even the omissions, and in all ways we let his or her mind act on the material.
Winston Churchill once said of exams, “I should have liked to be asked to say what I knew. They always tried to ask what I did not know. When I would have willingly displayed my knowledge, they sought to expose my ignorance. This sort of treatment had only one result: I did not do well in examinations.” Churchill’s desire is exactly what we do in the Charlotte Mason method. We ask the child to tell us everything he knows about Canada, pollination, the endocrine system, or whatever we have been studying either for that day or the entire year. This helps you as the parent to know immediately if your child has understood and comprehended any materials he is working through. The main point is you cannot narrate what you do not know, and you can only narrate what you do know.
While this method emphasizes reading, it is not solely a literature-based method. I feared this approach was in danger of being misunderstood and wrongly categorized as yet another literature-based method when it first became popular. It is far more than that. Along with the high-quality reading, the students keep a “century book.” Basically, this is a three-ring binder filled with sketch paper that allows for one century per page. The idea came from the CM schools over 100 years ago, but they are very useful in helping children have a tangible way to record notes and sketches of all they learn during the study of history.
In a similar vein the children keep a nature diary, also known as a nature journal. This simply entails the use of a common sketchbook in which the children draw what they have seen rather than what they have studied in a book.
Yet another unique factor to this method is the use of concentrated short lessons, making good use of the power of habit inherent in humans. That in turn leads ultimately to the worthy goal of self-education. In addition it results in being able to cover all the school subjects and some of life’s other concerns such as punctuality, using our time effectively, and even how to recharge ourselves and slow down long enough to rest. With the short lessons come two advantages. The children learn to concentrate for short episodes during the morning, which helps greatly with their ability to retain what they have covered. The second is they have far more free time to both enjoy their childhood and pursue their personal hobbies.
No overview would be complete without a mention of art appreciation and how easily it is accomplished. As far as the CM method is concerned, we only have one goal with art appreciation. Because the art itself has a primary purpose of enjoyment, the study of it also has the same purpose of enjoyment. The way we easily incorporate it into our homeschools is by setting aside a few minutes a week. All that is needed is one piece of artwork per session.
In closing, it bears repeating that Charlotte Mason was a prolific writer of a vast educational approach. When I overview her material I am attempting a quick introduction much like the first meeting between two people. It is unlikely that two strangers will be able to comprehend all that the other represents. Imagine meeting Albert Einstein at a party and asking for a nutshell version of his entire scientific field of study. He might stare at you in disbelief as you insist on such a capsulation. Einstein could possibly balk at your insistence that you learn enough from him in minutes so as to be ready to replicate his methods at home.
This scenario is admittedly farfetched, but it holds some truth for regarding the nature of meeting someone new to us — there is a time limit, and we usually do not have 10 years to invest into our introductory phase. No, sometimes the most needed thing is a friendly introduction knowing much will be left out. However, in most cases it is more worthwhile to have met a new person or new idea than to never have met at all.
From the FPEA Guide to Homeschooling in Florida. This is an edited version of an article by Catherine Levison that may be read in its entirety at www. charlottemasoneducation.com/ overview.html (accessed September 19, 2011).