My first day of college was the first day I ever went to school. I loved being home educated, even though there weren’t many home educating families even in the United States when my family started doing it. When my children began to edge toward school age (which in Italy is three years old), I started researching what was going on in the home education movement. That’s when I found out about Charlotte Mason, a 19th century British educator who spent many years studying how children learn and made the traditional classical curriculum of her day come alive for them.
Charlotte based her philosophy of education on several principles, the first of which is that “children are born persons.” She said that children should learn about their world through experience, and recommended four to six hours spent outdoors daily for children under six. My children (now four and seven) have been doing this for years, and their knowledge of and respect for plants and flowers, birds and insects and their ways, is amazing.
“Education,” said Charlotte, “is the science of relations.” Children should not just learn about things. They should develop relationships with everything they learn about. That way, they will both remember and properly apply their knowledge. For Charlotte, education wasn’t just about filling a child’s head with facts. It was about developing a whole person, including mind, body, and spirit. She emphasized character education and the cultivation of good habits.
Charlotte said that children should only read books where ideas were “clothed in literary language.” The teacher should never get between a child and his book with excessive explanations or quizzing. A child would learn best by having a chapter read to him (once, and once only) and then narrating (repeating back) what he had heard. She called narration “the act of knowing.” Charlotte also had her students read books over a long period of time (sometimes years). It sounded crazy to me at first, until I tried it. Both I and my daughter remember a book far better when we’ve spent a couple of months reading it slowly and savoring it, rather than “gobbling” it in a few days (my previous habit).
Charlotte believed in a liberal (or wide) education for children. Students at her schools studied fifteen to twenty subjects, including things like artist study, history, Bible, three foreign languages, and Latin. She pioneered the idea, revolutionary for her time, that all children (boys and girls, rich and poor) should receive the same rich education. She presented challenging but exciting material like Plutarch and Shakespeare to children of nine or ten, and documented their passion for what they had learned.
How did she fit so much into a school day? I was startled at first to find that Charlotte limited the length of any single lesson to ten or fifteen minutes for younger children, gradually increasing the time as they grew older. Short lessons promote the habit of attention and discourage dawdling, because children know they have only a short time to do each lesson, and don’t have time to get bored. She preferred to see children do one thing perfectly during each lesson. She made sure to alternate heavier subjects like math or history with something more active like writing or music. School days ended at lunch time, leaving the afternoon free for outside play and individual pursuits.
There’s more, much more, to what Charlotte Mason taught than what I’ve mentioned here. If you have any specific questions about her philosophy or how we apply it in our home, I’ll be happy to talk your ear off. I follow (with lots of my own tweaking, of course) a free online curriculum called Ambleside Online, which tries to emulate as closely as possible the curriculum Charlotte followed at her schools. There, you can also find the entire text of the six volumes that contain Charlotte’s philosophy of education.
Charlotte’s philosophy appeals to me because it is so rich and rigorous, and yet so attuned to children’s interests and the way they learn. Applying her methods gave us some wonderful rewards during the several years that we homeschooled. We’ve now put our children in a Dutch school, but we still look back fondly on our homeschooling days.