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Some Practices are Principles—Part 1

I’ve written a bit about principles recently (here and here) because it’s so easy to get caught up in the “what” and the “how” of our day-to-day educational endeavors that we lose touch with that “why,” which is the living, life-giving touch that makes our busy-ness purposeful and meaningful.

I think most of us who have devoted years and years to educating children with Charlotte Mason’s methods know that just looking at the principles alone—laid out at the beginning of each of her volumes—isn’t going to give you any confidence or guidance about how to get started. It’s lovely that Charlotte Mason has, with the principles, identified the path— “this is the way”—but we are still in need of guidance to make it possible to “walk ye in it.”

Charlotte Mason knew that. I’m going to tell you something rather funny from the annals of modern “CM history,” but I hope you won’t laugh at us.

The CM series was republished (thanks to the Andreolas—we owe them much) in the pink volumes we all know so well in 1989. When I acquired my set in 1994, the internet was in its infancy. I found others who were interested in Charlotte Mason, and we plunged in and read the series together, but, as far as the community goes, no one I ever met had read more than one or two of the volumes. We read them together, and there was no one to tell us that volume 6, Philosophy of Education (such a daunting title compared to the friendlier, more accessible Home Education) was a good place to start, because no one had read that far! We observed that there were 18 principles listed at the beginning of each book. We talked about the “18 principles” and even worked systematically through a study of the “18 principles.”

I had been reading and studying about Charlotte Mason for some years before I got to Volume 6, and noticed the difference there—20 principles! There were two new ones? No, there were three new ones, because Charlotte Mason had combined two of the earlier principles into one. I got out my books, and compared them side by side.
The next generation of younger CM educators knows that there are 20 principles, and probably can’t imagine how we missed that for so long, but that’s how it was. Thank goodness we kept on learning and studying, and didn’t stop after Home Education.

Do you know which of the 20 principles are the “new ones,” that CM added later in her life, after many, many years of experience?

I’m giving them in shortened form for the sake of space, but you can find them in full here.

13. In devising a SYLLABUS (I think we might say “curriculum”) for a normal child, three points must be considered:—
(a) He requires much knowledge, for the mind needs sufficient food.
(b) The knowledge should be various.
(c) Knowledge should be conveyed in literary form.

14. As knowledge is not assimilated until it is reproduced, children should ‘tell back’ after a single reading or hearing: or should write on some part.

15. A single reading is insisted on, because children have naturally great power of attention; but this force is dissipated by the re-reading of passages, and also, by questioning, summarising, and the like.

Thousands of children in Elementary Schools respond freely to this method, which is based on the behaviour of mind.

If you look carefully at these added principles, you will realize, as I did, that they are not just abstract principles in the nature of “Children are born persons”—rather, they are explicit descriptions of the practices that are indispensable to Charlotte Mason’s philosophy. These are the practices Charlotte Mason included in her appeal to the wider British public to adopt.

These vital practices are the ones that should shape our Charlotte Mason homeschools and classrooms. There are some important “dos” embedded in there, as well as a few prohibited “don’ts.”

I was interested to find in The Story of Charlotte Mason, by Essex Cholmondeley, a brief explanation of these additional principles:

Miss Mason added the following paragraphs for the use of teachers when the ‘liberal education for all’ movement was active. [emphasis added]

The other principles were expressed with parents in mind, parents who were bringing up their children, but not necessarily attending to their “school” education (although they are applicable in that setting). These additional practical principles are the ones that were given to those of us actively engaged in teaching. They bear a closer look, and that’s what we’ll do over the next few days (there are five parts in the series).

Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

(Pictures are used with permission and are found on Instagram in the community @charlottemasonirl [Charlotte Mason In Real Life]. I’m sure they’d love to have you join in.

The Quote and The Context

There’s a quote from Charlotte Mason that I like a lot. I’ve been aware of it for a long, long time, and it has underpinned my own homeschooling efforts. This is the quote:

The reader will say with truth–‘I knew all this before and have always acted more or less on these principles’; and I can only point to the unusual results we obtain through adhering not ‘more or less’ but strictly to the principles and practices I have indicated. I suppose the difficulties are of the sort that Lister had to contend with; every surgeon knew that his instruments and appurtenances should be kept clean, but the saving of millions of lives has resulted from the adoption of the great surgeon’s antiseptic treatment; that is from the substitution of exact principles scrupulously applied for the rather casual ‘more or less’ methods of earlier days. (Philosophy of Education, p. 19)

There was a time when I thought the “practices” mentioned included all the practices of the PUS (Parents’ Union Schools). I thought it meant we needed to adhere to things like strict page counts, and learning three modern languages plus Latin, and doing school in the morning so free time happened in the afternoon, and so on. I really can’t remember now when I realized that isn’t what this is about at all. Lately, I’ve seen this quote misunderstood in the same way I misunderstood it quite a few times, and not long ago, I shared with one Facebook group what I’m going to share here.

It begins with understanding the audience for the book, Philosophy of Education. Charlotte Mason’s first five books were written for the PNEU—the group of parents who adhered to her philosophy and were trying to implement it with their children. This final book was not written for them, but was addressed to the wider British public—to present CM’s philosophy and the work of the PNEU to people unfamiliar with it, in hopes of spreading their work even further. (It worked for a while, too.) Some of the chapters were even published earlier, as stand-alone pamphlets, and part of it appeared as a series of letters to a newspaper.

With that audience in mind, read the quote again, giving special attention to the part I have emphasized— “I have indicated.” What practices? Indicated where? Well, that’s where the context comes in—right there on the same pages. I urge you to read the full context for yourself.

The quote is self-limiting. It can refer to nothing but the principles and practices “indicated” right there, on those pages. I really do invite you to see for yourself what principles and practices Charlotte Mason considered vital—indispensable—in order to make her philosophy work. But I’ll give you a hint—there aren’t that many of them, and none of them are as specific as “have school in the morning” or “do this for history.” Not at all—as principles should be, they are broad and robust. As practices go, they are fairly flexible, involving putting a child in touch with a wide program of living books, and using narration to insure attention and assimilation. That’s the context that goes with that quote, and I hope my fellow Charlotte Mason educators will learn, sooner than I did, how truly freeing it is to apply a set of “exact principles” to your educational practices and watch them take root, germinate, branch out, and bear fruit.

Addendum: I’m editing this post to add some information that I think might be helpful. It has been suggested to me that I am incorrect about the audience for the book—that Charlotte Mason was not actually addressing herself to anyone beyond her colleagues in the PNEU. I just want to let you all know that this is not a fabrication on my part. Charlotte Mason says, herself, in the preface to the volume: “My object in offering this volume to the public is to urge upon all who are concerned with education a few salient principles…” (emphasis added).She addresses herself to “all who are concerned with education”—casting a wide net—rather than those already associated with her work. She assumes no prior knowledge of the PNEU and its work, and explains her principles from scratch, as it were.

A few more Comenius thoughts…

I mentioned some time ago that I had one more thing to share about Comenius, and this book, Education That Is Christian, is what I had in mind. Lois LeBar worked at Wheaton College for many years, and this book is one of her contributions to education, specifically as it concerns teaching the Bible.

One of the things that makes it interesting is that Ms. LeBar looks at the educational influence of Herbart (yes, that same Herbart) on the typical teaching in churches and Sunday Schools, and recommends instead practices based on the ideas of Comenius. It is quite interesting and remarkable to read another modern educator’s thoughts on these two older educators.

I have no idea if she ever heard of Charlotte Mason or not, but it is startling to read this in the Introduction and see the points of similarity:

Lois LeBar is a revolutionary. Forty years ago she rebelled against traditional Bible teaching that “starved people with Biblical facts.” …But she also rebelled against so-called progressive teaching that ignored the authoritative Word of God and the power of the Holy Spirit.

Sounds like she and Charlotte Mason would have appreciated each other, doesn’t it? Especially as a good portion of the discussion in the book revolves around psychological considerations, such as inner and outer factors in learning.

Rousseau, Froebel, and Dewey get brief mentions, but this book is less a theoretical work of education than it is a practical one. If any of your teaching activities are conducted in the church community, you might find this book a very valuable read, and it is actually set up to be read and discussed within a group. Above all else, it brings a good deal of Bible wisdom to the task of teaching the Bible, and for that purpose, I do recommend it.

I was startled recently to run across a reference to Comenius in the tribute to Charlotte Mason published after her death, In Memoriam:

Like Comenius, she believed in a course of reading which is massive and many-sided. Like Comenius she had to guard against the dangers of superficiality.

Since I spent a good portion of the fall comparing Charlotte Mason and Comenius, it was interesting to me that even within her own lifetime, one of her colleagues drew a connection between them.

Books and Reading 2016

Don’t you love end-of-year recaps of what other people have been reading? I do! That’s why I’m sharing mine.

I used to be a book-blogger wanna-be, but I abandoned that idea. I’m too indifferent a “blogger” (term used in the loosest sense of the word) to be anything other than “occasional.” But I did like having a record of all my reading, and now I keep that in my bullet journal. (Yes, I am card-carrying member of that club–two years and counting.)

Just for fun, here are my year-end stats and the best titles of the year. My grand total is 33 books finished this year. I have a couple more in progress, but they will not be completed this year.

Of the 33, 9 were non-fiction, and 24 were fiction. Thirty-three is a low number–probably one of the lowest ever. I consider averaging a book per week kind of a minimum standard, but I fell far short of that this year, even if I give myself half-credit for books-in-progress.

Of the 24 fiction, a whopping 13 were rereads. This has a lot to do with the fact that I was away from home for over three months, traveling a lot, and I had my Kindle library with me.

Of the 9 non-fiction, 2 of them were re-reads (You will not be surprised when I tell you the re-reads were Comenius and Charlotte Mason–hence, the blog series.)

So, choosing only from the books that were new for me this year, my top 5 non-fiction books (in no particular order)

  1. Mere Motherhood by Cindy Rollins

If you are a mom, do not miss Mere Motherhood. If you want some insight into written narration, I recommend the Zinsser book. I am a Sire fan, and reading this book gave me an appreciation for John Newman. King Solomon’s Ring is a delightful living science/nature book written by an Austrian naturalist. It will be the most fun if you live in Europe and have jackdaws about; however, not all the chapters are about jackdaws, and it is a worthwhile read for anyone. If you follow Charlotte Mason’s methods with highschoolers, this would be a great pick.

And my top 5 fiction books (also in no particular order)

I have nothing to say about these that hasn’t been said elsewhere, I am sure. I am years behind other readers, and not up to date with the latest titles by my favorite authors. If you haven’t read Edith Wharton yet, Bunner Sisters should not be your first pick. It’s achingly sad (typical Wharton), but The House of Mirth remains my favorite, I think.

Looking over my reading for the last couple of years, I am also making plans for 2017. I must plan, or I’ll end up reading deplorable titles on the spur of the moment. Of the 24 fiction books I read in 2016, two of them were absolutely awful, and I don’t have time to waste on awful, while another half-dozen were merely mediocre, and I’m not interested in mediocre, either.

I’m not planning the whole year, but to start with my top-picks for 2017 are:

Fiction:

(Oddly enough, these are all translations–from Russian, Japanese, and Spanish. Further titles will be English originals, maybe something from E.M. Forster and hopefully the Pulitzer winner All the Light We Cannot See)

Non-fiction:

1. (reread)

2. (reread)

3.

And I’m in the middle of Essays on Educational Reformers by Robert Quick, so I’ll be finishing that. I would also like to read Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton and/or Roots Of American Order by Russell Kirk. And it would be lovely to squeeze in something by Jacques Barzun, but have you noticed that a year has only 12 months in it? We’ll see how it goes!

If you’ve something to recommend that you think I’d like, I’m all ears–hit me with some great titles, and I’ll be happy to take a look at them.

(some links are affiliate links)

Charlotte Mason and Comenius #8–Conclusion

Now that it’s finished, I feel that this blog series went by in a hurry, but this is the 8th post in as many weeks, and it’s time for me to wrap this up and move on to other projects.

While reading The Great Didactic, there were just so many little things that reminded me of Charlotte Mason, in addition to the things I’ve already shared. I’m going to just make a few notes here.

(1)   In the history of education, many writers examine the questions of education beginning with “school age” children, jumping into the question of curriculum or order of studies as the first order of business. Both Charlotte Mason and Comenius recognized that education properly begins in infancy, and that habits of observation and correct speech, and the beginnings of all kinds of knowledge, are appropriate material for young children and lay the groundwork for more “academic” studies later.

(2)   Both Comenius and Charlotte Mason recommended that school work for children take no more than 4 hours a day, so that there would be plenty of time for outdoor nature study, pursuing interests, and…

(3)  …Handicrafts! Both of them also recommended that children learn to work with tools and materials, for a variety of reasons.

(4)   Both take a high view of man. Charlotte Mason’s first principle is, of course, “Children are born persons.” The title of the first chapter in The Great Didactic is “Man is the highest, the most absolute, and the most excellent of things created.” The first question addressed in any good philosophy is “what is man?”–and they both articulate their positions well.

(5)   Both recognize that children have a natural appetite for knowledge, a desire to learn. I smiled a bit at this quote from Comenius:

To whom is it not a pleasure to go to some new place daily, to converse with some one, to narrate something, or have some fresh experience? In a word, the eyes, the ears, the sense of touch, the mind itself, are, in their search for food, ever carried beyond themselves. (The Great Didactic, p. 195)

Comenius connects this idea to the ancient educator Aristotle: “As Aristotle says, the desire of knowledge is implanted in man: and the mind grows as the body does–by taking in proper nourishment, not by being stretched on the rack.”

(6)   Comenius and Mason, being so convinced of the value of every child, and of the natural appetite in each to learn, believed that education should be for ALL–not the privileged, the rich, the elite, the high-born, but literally for all–including girls as well as boys. In fact, Charlotte Mason herself quotes from The Great Didactic to underscore her point.

I have in this volume attempted to show the principles and methods upon which education of this sort is being successfully carried out, and have added chapters which illustrate the history of a movement the aim of which is, in the phrase of Comenius,–– “All knowledge for all men.”(Philosophy of Education, p. 20)

(7)   Comenius said, “All things that are naturally connected ought to be taught in combination,” and also, “It may be laid down as a general rule that each subject should be taught in combination with those which are correlative to it.”

It reminds me of the way that Charlotte Mason makes literature and citizenship ancillary to history. She liked to correlate subjects when it made sense, although she didn’t like to take it as far Herbartian-style “unit studies.”

I must commend any further study of the rationale of our syllabus to the reader’s own kind consideration; he will perceive that we have a principle of correlation in things essential, but no fatiguing practice of it in detail. (Philosophy of Education, p. 276)

I don’t want to leave the impression that Charlotte Mason and John Amos Comenius are carbon-copies of each other. They are not. Both of them were original thinkers, but because they begin from the perspective of Christianity, and because they purposed to seek out natural, universal laws of mind, teaching, and learning, they both tapped into the same vein of Truth about man, his purposes, and how education can best prepare him for those purposes.

Incidentals like 4-hour school days and handicrafts are interesting similarities, but the interesting point is less that they happened to propose the same things and more that basing their ideas upon universal principles led them to startling similar methods and conclusions.

I think I’ve probably said enough on this topic. I think Charlotte Mason, like Comenius, really stands out from among other educational philosophers because of her strong Christianity, her broad understanding of the humanities to include things like science and handicrafts, and her search for natural, transcendent laws of education–laws which were to be discovered, not manufactured–and above all, for offering practical, workable methods based upon those laws and principles.

I have one more thing to share about Comenius, but not pertaining to Charlotte Mason–a book review of sorts. Look for that in the next few weeks. I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about Comenius as much as I have!

Charlotte Mason and Comenius #7–Will and Reason

In this next-to-last post in this series, I am excited to turn our attention to one of those more obscure bits of educational philosophy, and that is the role of education in training a child’s will.

Modern thinking (much the same as in Charlotte Mason’s day) tends to associate the idea of a “strong will” with sheer stubbornness. Mason had a much better understanding, and recognized that association for what it was–a fallacy.

He must be safeguarded from some fallacies. No doubt he has heard at home that Baby has a strong will because he cries for a knife and insists on pulling down the tablecloth. In his history lessons and his readings of tale and poem, he comes across persons each of whom carries his point by strong wilfulness. He…recognises that a strong will is not synonymous with ‘being good,’ nor with a determination to have your own way. He learns to distribute the characters he comes across in his reading on either side of a line, those who are wilful and those who are governed by will. (Philosophy of Education, p. 132, emphasis mine)

In Charlotte Mason’s lists of 20 educational principles, the “way of the will” does not make an appearance until number 17, which can give us a false sense of how vital it actually is. In her book Minds More Awake: The Vision of Charlotte Mason, Anne White walks us through the rationale of how Mason’s understanding of the will affects her approach to everything from literature to science.

The key understanding is this: will only operates when it has an object outside of self. When we choose to place our own desires first and act to protect our own interests, it isn’t will that is at work, but one of those natural desires for pleasure or power that everyone has. Self-interest requires no will.

But Will must have an object outside of itself, just as a guard is not there to protect himself. It cannot be focused on you, even for good ends, such as personal health or salvation, because then it stops being Will. You can be operating with Will when your ultimate intent is to benefit a cause or a country, or to protect just one other person. And you can be missing out on Will if you’re doing good deeds from selfish motives. (Minds More Awake by Anne White, p. 21.)

It might take some thinking and reading to fully appreciate the difference between wilfulness and will, but that basic point–acting in your own interests, or for the interests of other, is the dividing line between them. But no one chooses to will in the service of others unless the conscience has been educated, and that important role of education–enlightening the conscience–was so important to Charlotte Mason she wrote a textbook for young people (Ourselves) to contribute to the process.

(Oh my goodness–I became completely distracted from writing this blog post when I glanced into Ourselves. If you want a crash course on Charlotte Mason’s understanding of the role of the will, I refer you to Ourselves, Book II, p.126 to as far as you want to read.)

But, to return to the point in hand, which is the intersection of ideas between Charlotte Mason and Comenius, we find that Comenius describes Charlotte Mason’s position perfectly. The long-term educational goal is to instruct the conscience so that the mature man consciously chooses (wills) to do right. But that maturity requires time, and children are not yet able to fully control their appetites and impulses, so making a habit of doing what is right eases the processes and strengthens the will.

Comenius echoes Charlotte Mason’s understanding of the relationship of reason, will, and habit.

Fortitude should be learned by the subduing of self; that is to say, by repressing the desire to play at the wrong time or beyond the proper time, and by bridling impatience, discontent, and anger.

The principle which underlies this is that we should accustom boys to do everything by reason, and nothing under the guidance of impulse. For man is a rational animal, and should therefore be led by reason, and, before action, ought to deliberate how each operation should be performed, so that he may really be master of his own actions.

Now, since boys are not quite capable of such a deliberate and rational mode of procedure, it will be a great advance towards teaching them fortitude and self-control if they be forced to acquire the habit of performing the will of another in preference to their own, that is to say, to obey their superiors promptly in everything. (The Great Didactic, p. 364-65, emphasis mine)

(I myself prefer Charlotte Mason’s more cautious approach to reason than Comenius’s. Both recognize the natural power of rationality which belongs to man, but Comenius places more reliance in it than Mason did. I think this difference is easily understood by recognizing that Comenius is a pre-Enlightenment philosopher, and Mason is post-Enlightment. She knew where placing too much faith in human reason could lead.)

An important role of education, for Mason and Comenius, was instructing the conscience to know well what was right, and what was wrong, so that there would be clear understanding when it was time to bring the will into play and choose: do this, or do that.

It is interesting to see that both of them link this function of will to virtue, and understand that virtue is a matter of action–doing (hopefully, what is right), not just knowing right.

Mason:

Another thought that may occur is, that ‘Will’ is synonymous with an ideal.…Self-culture is accepted as the pursuit of an ideal; but when we realise that it is an ideal accomplished in self, and with no aim beyond self, we perceive that [a man pursuing self-culture] is not a man of will, because the first condition of will, good or evil, is an object outside of self.…If it be not goodness, the will is virtue, in the etymological sense of that word; it is manliness.

…Thus far we have seen, that, just as to reign is the distinctive quality of a king, so is to will the quality of a man. A king is not a king unless he reign; and a man is less than a man unless he will. (Ourselves, p. 138-140)

Comenius:

The young should learn to practise justice by hurting no man, by giving each his due, by avoiding falsehood and deceit, and by being obliging and agreeable.…Virtue is practised by deeds and not by words. (The Great Didactic, p. 356)

The pursuit of virtue–by which we mean doing and acting rightly–is integral to the classical ideal of education, but Christian educators like Comenius and Mason have really tapped into one of the keys to achieving this much-desired end. We have been given the use of a will which enables us to choose according to higher purposes than our own natural appetites and desires. When we choose to serve God or to serve others, we are behaving like men–image-bearers of God’s own nature–for to man only, among all creatures, did God give the use of will and reason

Charlotte Mason and Comenius #6–Nature Study

This is another one of those interesting intersections. The hardcore scholastic branch of educators paid almost no attention to the natural world as it is. If they thought about it at all…they thought about it. Or read what other people thought about it and thought about that. It wasn’t always a priority in educational practices to actually go out into the world, and look at things, and learn about them just by doing that.

Those educators who focus on the broader, universal principles of education–like Charlotte Mason and Comenius (and a few others–they are not alone)–tend to have a different view, and to recognize that the knowledge to be gained from a first-hand acquaintance of the natural world (or anything where first-hand knowledge is possible) is a valuable part of education.

A sort of precursor to actual nature study is understanding the relationship between the things perceived by the senses and the ability to express with words the things that are known. Again, this perception is not unique to Mason or Comenius, but they are “on the same page.”

Comenius:

Everything should, as far as possible, be placed before the senses. Everything visible should be brought before the organ of sight, everything audible before that of hearing. Odours should be placed before the sense of smell, and things that are tastable and tangible before the sense of taste and of touch respectively. If an object can make an impression on several senses at once, it should be brought into contact with several.…For this there are three cogent reasons. Firstly, the commencement of knowledge must always come from the senses (for the understanding possesses nothing that it has not first derived from the senses). Surely, then, the beginning of wisdom should consist, not in the mere learning the names of things, but in the actual perception of the things themselves! It is when the thing has been grasped by the senses that language should fulfil its function of explaining it still further. (The Great Didactic, pl. 336-37)

Mason:

Watch a child standing at gaze at some sight new to him––a plough at work, for instance––and you will see he is as naturally occupied as is a babe at the breast; he is, in fact, taking in the intellectual food which the working faculty of his brain at this period requires. In his early years the child is all eyes; he observes, or, more truly, he perceives, calling sight, touch, taste, smell, and hearing to his aid, that he may learn all that is discoverable by him about every new thing that comes under his notice.…The child has truly a great deal to do before he is in a condition to ‘believe his own eyes’; but Nature teaches so gently, so gradually, so persistently, that he is never overdone, but goes on gathering little stores of knowledge about whatever comes before him.

And this is the process the child should continue for the first few years of his life. Now is the storing time which should be spent in laying up images of things familiar. By-and-by he will have to conceive of things he has never seen: how can he do it except by comparison with things he has seen and knows?

…We older people, partly because of our maturer intellect, partly because of our defective education, get most of our knowledge through the medium of words. We set the child to learn in the same way, and find him dull and slow.…But set him face to face with a thing, and he is twenty times as quick as you are in knowledge about it; knowledge of things flies to the mind of a child as steel filings to magnet. And, pari passu [hand in hand] with his knowledge of things, his vocabulary grows. (Home Education, excerpted from pages 65-7)

Quite possibly this topic deserves a post of its own, but I’m running out of space in this series for all the topics that could be written about the links between Mason’s ideas and Comenius’s, so we’ll just let it be an adjunct to nature study. Now that we understand their understanding of the relationship between things and words, we can venture out into nature.

First-hand acquaintance with whatever nature has placed before us is the object, and it of more value to know by sight and habit the trees, birds, insects, and waterways in your immediate vicinity than to read about exotic creatures in Australia or the Amazon jungle (unless, of course, that is where you live).

Charlotte Mason encouraged parents and teachers to have children outside observing nature for themselves every week, at least, and to make records and drawings of their observations in Nature notebooks. But the most important things was observing and learning at first-hand, and keeping a nature notebooks was part of that process. The creation of a nature notebook as a product is not the object.

Thus our first thought with regard to Nature-knowledge is that the child should have a living personal acquaintance with the things he sees. It concerns us more that he should know bistort from persicaria, hawkweed from dandelion, and where to find this and that, and how it looks, living and growing, than that he should talk about epigynous and hypogynous. All this is well in its place, but should come quite late, after the child has seen and studied the living growing thing in situ, and has copied colour and gesture as best he can. (Parents and Children, p. 231, emphasis mine)

The keeping of the nature notebook was a means of encouraging the children to pay close attention to what they were seeing, but over time, it also became a valuable record of all the things they had encountered and recorded, and year after year, new knowledge would build on old.

Comenius placed “natural philosophy” next to grammar in his curriculum proposal*, and wanted to limit the amount of reading done so that it could be accomplished early enough in the day to allow time outdoors.

Any reading that is necessary can be got through quickly out of school-hours without tedious explanations or attempts at imitation; since the time thus spent could be better employed in the study of nature. (The Great Didactic, p. 330)

He placed a great deal of faith in the wisdom that might be found by contemplating nature, and suggested that wisdom might as well be acquired from “oaks and beeches” as from books.

The spirit of the scientific age, which was in full flower in Charlotte Mason’s lifetime, was in its infancy during the the life of Comenius. Nevertheless, the importance of observing things and learning from things in nature, simply by looking purposefully, was common to them both.

And then, just because I’m trying to squeeze in as much as possible…

An adjunct to nature study for Charlotte Mason was geography (both fall into the category of “knowledge of the world”), in which she expected young children to be able to understand a mountain because they were acquainted with a nearby hill, or a mighty river because they had observed a stream. Comenius appreciated the same point:

We know the elements of geography when we learn the nature of mountains, valleys, plains, rivers, villages, citadels, or states, according to the situation of the place in which we are brought up. (The Great Didactic, p. 412)

The same powers of observation encouraged by nature study go a long way toward understanding the physical geography of the area that we live in, and relating that knowledge to what we know of other places.

Let’s listen to Charlotte Mason and Comenius, and…go take a walk? With our eyes wide open, of course.

*Grammar, to Comenius, meant learning to read. His biggest claim to fame is probably the Orbis Pictus, a beginner’s book which taught children to read in Latin and the vernacular at the same time. It was translated into over 100 languages, including Chinese and English!

Charlotte Mason and Comenius #5–Narration

This discussion is especially interesting, because narration is quintessentially associated with Charlotte Mason (and rightly so). For the sake of space (because this is a blog post), I have to assume my readers are familiar with narration and the way that Charlotte Mason used it. Nevertheless, she makes no claim to have invented the method. Quite otherwise, she tells us:

The method is as old as the mind of man, the distressful fact is that it has been made so little use of in general education. (Philosophy of Education, p. 160)

She does not tell us precisely where she encountered the idea for using narration as a general practice in education, but she could have found it mentioned in The Great Didactic of Comenius, if she read it in full, because he may be numbered among those who recommended the practice (although history does not suggest he ever had the opportunity to practice it on more than a small scale).

We may learn the most suitable mode of procedure by observing the natural movements that underlie the processes of nutrition in living bodies, namely those of collection, digestion, and distribution.…These three elements are to be found in the well-known Latin couplet: —

To ask many questions, to retain the answers, and to teach what one retains to others;
These three enable the pupil to surpass his master.

…With the two first of these principles the schools are quite familiar, with the third but little ; its introduction, however, is in the highest degree desirable. The saying, “He who teaches others, teaches himself,” is very true…because the process of teaching in itself gives a deeper insight into the subject taught. (The Great Didactic, p. 308-9)

This idea of telling/teaching what has just been learned seemed very valuable to Comenius, and he explains at length what the use of narration might look like in a classroom, and while his suggestions are by no means identical to Charlotte Mason’s (although did you notice he uses the same “digestion” analogy that she did?), it would appear much the same in practice. One of the things I found interesting is that both Comenius and Charlotte Mason recognized that this method was the ideal means to secure attention.

Another point should be borne in mind; the intellect requires a moral impulse, and we all stir our minds into action the better if there is an implied ‘must’ in the background; for children in class the ‘must’ acts through the certainty that they will be required to narrate or write from what they have read with no opportunity of ‘looking ‘up,’ or other devices of the idle. (Philosophy of Education, p. 17)

Comenius makes the same point, and like Charlotte Mason, takes note of the fact that the habit of attention, once developed in this way, becomes a power in every area of life.

The teacher is certain to have attentive pupils. For since the scholars may, at any time, be called up and asked to repeat what the teacher has said, each of them will be afraid of breaking down and appearing ridiculous before the others, and will therefore attend carefully and allow nothing to escape him. In addition to this, the habit of brisk attention, which becomes second nature if practised for several years, will fit the scholar to acquit himself well in active life. (The Great Didactic, p. 309-10)

Narration as a method may have been recognized as a powerful tool by some educators throughout history, but Charlotte Mason applied it on a wide scale, and showed the results of using it, in a way for which no earlier record exists. Doubtless some teachers used it to good effect, but we can thank Charlotte Mason for lifting this method out of all the others that might be available, testing it, and refining it in practical ways that encourage higher-level thinking in all areas of study.

I mentioned in the last post in this series that both Charlotte Mason and Comenius preferred education to focus first on synthetic thinking, which might be called “relational” thinking. And narration is a practice that allows those relationships to be formed. This, I think, is one of the more interesting points of intersection between Comenius and Mason–including both synthetic thinking and narration at the core of their ideas, and recognizing that they go hand in hand.

They also both recognized that narration is not a one-dimensional exercise, but also promotes the acquisition of vocabulary, reinforces memory, and develops a sense of style gleaned from the authors being narrated.

The scholars must be taught to express in language whatever they see, hear, handle, or taste, so that their command of language, as it progresses, may ever run parallel to the growth of the understanding. (The Great Didactic, p. 329)

Literary taste should therefore be taught by means of the subject-matter of the science or art on which the reasoning powers of the class are being exercised.…I have shown that it is possible for the scholars to give instruction in the subject that they have just learned, and, since this process not only makes them thorough but also enables them to make progress more rapidly, it should not be overlooked in this connection. (The Great Didactic, p. 330-31)

Charlotte Mason’s method of narration was used in scores of schools in Great Britain, and has been practiced faithfully in many homeschools for the last couple of decades. Of all the things you might glean from her, this particular practice ranks at the top of the list as one of the most effective educational methods ever developed. While I doubt many of what we call “classical” educators used it as faithfully or scientifically as Miss Mason did, it is in perfect harmony with their highest aims and ideals. Comenius, at least, along with Charlotte Mason, appreciated the way that this natural exercise developed the skills of thinking, speaking, writing, attention, and recollection in each young scholar.

Charlotte Mason and Comenius #4–Synthetic Thinking

As you can imagine, it was difficult not to make this the first thing I wrote about, just because the topic is so interesting to me. But there were other foundational principles I thought should come first. Nevertheless, the use of synthetic thinking ranks high on my list of important educational practices.

If you have read Consider This, I have devoted quite a bit of time to explaining what synthetic thinking is, and why it is important. I don’t have the space to do that here, so I’m basically just going to address the fact that both Charlotte Mason and Comenius saw the importance clearly, and shared the view that synthetic thinking should come first in the educational process. Synthetic thinking is virtually absent from most modern pedagogy, but played a crucial role in the classical, liberal arts tradition. (I spoke about synthetic thinking at the AmblesideOnline conference, if you are interested in learning more.)

To put it in the simplest terms possible, synthetic thinking is “relational” thinking, which focuses on forming a personal relationship with knowledge, as well as exploring how any new knowledge is related to what the learner already knows and understands, and how one thing is related to another. Analytic thinking focuses on taking things apart, breaking them down into smaller, discrete parts, and thinking about them separately. One is not “good” and the other “bad”–both are natural and have their place. Ideally, “putting together” by synthetic thinking should take place before “taking apart” analysis is brought into play. Children, especially, should be encouraged to deal with knowledge in a synthetic way, and all of Charlotte Mason’s methods promote synthetic thinking (more about that in a future post).

Comenius tells us “synthesis first” in plain language:

We may therefore lay it down as a law…that in dealing with any subject the analytic method should never be used exclusively ; in fact, preponderance should rather be given to the synthetic method. (The Great Didactic, p. 302)

He also gives us a good explanation as to why this should be so. Once things are apprehended synthetically, they can be analyzed with relative ease by an experienced learner.

Does the builder teach his apprentice the art of building by pulling down a house? Oh no; it is during the process of building a house that he shows him how to select his materials, how to fit each stone into its proper place, how to prepare them, raise them, lay them and join them together. For he who understands how to build will not need to be shown how to pull down, and he who can sew a garment together will be able to unrip it without any instruction. But it is not by pulling down houses or by unripping garments that the arts of building or of tailoring can be learned. (The Great Didactic, p. 301)

Charlotte Mason, too, well understood the benefits of forming relationships and learning to care about things, before attempting to dismantle them.

This invective discovers a mistake in our educational methods. From the time a child is able to parse an English sentence till he can read Thucydides, his instruction is entirely critical and analytic.…We miss the general principle that critical studies are out of place until the mind is so ‘throughly furnished’ with ideas that, of its own accord, it compares and examines critically.

…we are not capable of examining that which we do not know; and knowledge is the result of a slow, involuntary process, impossible to a mind in the critical attitude. Let us who teach spend time in the endeavour to lay proper and abundant nutriment before the young, rather than in leading them to criticise and examine every morsel of knowledge that comes their way. Who could live if every mouthful of bodily food were held up on a fork for critical examination before it be eaten? (Formation of Character, p. 293-95)

One interesting thing I have noticed while reading through the writing of Charlotte Mason and others who wrote articles in the PNEU Parents’ Review, is that they tend to use the actual word “synthetic” in reference to thinking and knowledge, without explanation, as if they expect the readers to understand what it is all about, though too often contemporary readers do not. Charlotte Mason refers to Goethe as having a “synthetic mind,” being dissatisfied with fragmentary knowledge.

Her introduction to her representation of the gospels in verse, The Saviour of the World, offers some commentary on the results of overly-analytic thinking:

We are at present in a phase of religious thought, Christian and pseudo-Christian, when a synthetic study of the life and teaching of Christ may well be of use. We have analysed until the mind turns in weariness from the broken fragments; we have criticised until there remains no new standpoint for the critic; but if we could only get a whole conception of Christ’s life among men and of the philosophic method of His teaching, His own words should be fulfilled and the Son of Man lifted up, would draw all men unto Himself. (quoted in Philosophy of Education, p. 166)

Notice the contrast between the “wholeness” of a synthetic approach, and the “broken fragments” of analysis. Synthetic thinking promotes relationship and caring, while analytical thinking ends in weary distate. It is worth any amount of time and thought to restore in ourselves the ability to understand knowledge synthetically, wholly. Modern education pushes analysis first and last, so that many of us have reached adulthood without being aware that there is any other way to approach knowledge. Without it, it is nearly impossible to implement Charlotte Mason’s methods effectively, and of course, to place analysis before synthesis is to depart from the classical tradition.

Apart from using methods that promote synthetic thinking, there are a couple of practical outcomes that were common for Charlotte Mason and Comenius. First, both of them insisted that lessons should be consecutive, not random, so that there is a rational plan for adding new knowledge to old knowledge, and the gradual understanding of the whole can be achieved.

Second, they both abhorred the practice of doling out knowledge in bits and pieces.

For the knowledge that consists of the collected sayings and opinions of various authors resembles the tree which peasants erect when they make holiday, and which, though covered with branches, flowers, fruit, garlands, and crowns, cannot grow or even last, because its ornamentation does not spring from its roots, but is only hung on. Such a tree bears no fruit, and the branches that are attached to it wither and fall off.(The Great Didactic, p. 302)

In other words, such a way of offering knowledge is not living, even if it looks that way at first glance. It has been cut off from the root, and can only wither and die. Charlotte Mason called this kind of material “scrappy,” and she joins Comenius in deploring it.

Psalm, hymn, and catechism have departed; the Bible lesson is pared down to a shred; and, in our zeal, we do not see that we have deprived the people of the classics, the metaphysics, the ethics––as well as the religion––peculiarly their own. Instead, we have put into their hands–– “Readers”––scraps of science, of history, of geography––saw-dust, that cannot take root downwards and bear fruit upwards in human soil. (Formation of Character, p. 148)

“Education is the science of relations” is one of Charlotte Mason’s fundamental principles, and “ordo amoris”–ordering the affections by learning to care about things that ought to be cared about–is a classical hallmark. They are essentially the same, and cannot be achieved except through synthetic thinking. “…he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.” (Gandalf, in The Lord of the Rings by Tolkien)

This topic leaves me worrying whether I and other bloggers are not doing the very thing Charlotte Mason and Comenius warned against–offering up knowledge in bits and pieces. If so, I beg forgiveness, and I will say here that this blog series is no substitute for reading Charlotte Mason’s Home Education Series or Comenius’s Great Didactic for yourself. Please consider this series, not a substitute for reading on your own, but the enthusiastic out-pourings of a fellow lover of knowledge. I don’t want to give you pre-digested knowledge, but rather invite you to the feast for yourself. By describing the dishes at the feast, I just want to whet your appetite. If time constraints won’t allow you to partake right now, at least you know the table is out there, and this kind of feast does not spoil or grow stale. It will still be there when you are ready.

Charlotte Mason and Comenius #3–Mind and Body

Today’s topic is not something that Charlotte Mason and Comenius share exclusively, but is rather one of those things they hold in common with some of the most ancient educators. The physical health and well-being of a person play a role in preparing a person to think, learn, and behave well. The ancient Greeks gave gymnastics a prominent role in their educational process, to prepare their pupils in every way for future heroic deeds, should they be called for. Charlotte Mason appreciated the point, and folded that idea into her educational methods.

The object of athletics and gymnastics should be kept steadily to the front; enjoyment is good by the way, but is not the end; the end is the preparation of a body, available from crown to toe, for whatever behest ‘the gods’ may lay upon us. It is a curious thing that we, in the full light of Revelation, have a less idea of vocation and of preparation for that vocation than had nations of the Old World with their ‘few, faint and feeble’ rays of illumination as to the meaning and purpose of life. (School Education, p. 102)

Truly, for many years, the physical well-being of the learner was not much considered, but after the Renaissance, thoughtful educators made a point of including it in their ideas. Comenius, too:

This same body is not only intended to be the dwelling-place of the reasoning soul, but also to be its instrument, without which it could hear nothing, see nothing, say nothing, conduct no business, and could not even think. (The Great Didactic, p. 258)

Both proper food and exercise were not too mundane to be a part of his admonitions.

In order that good health may be preserved, it is necessary that nourishment be not only moderate in quantity, but also simply in quality.…Parents should therefore take care not to spoil their boys, particularly those who study or ought to study, by giving them dainties. (The Great Didactic, p. 259-60)

Charlotte Mason goes into even greater detail about the proper (and improper) diet for children.

Everybody knows that children should not eat pastry, or pork, or fried meats, or cheese, or rich, highly-flavoured food of any description; that pepper, mustard, and vinegar, sauces and spices, should be forbidden, with new bread, rich cakes and jams, like plum or gooseberry, in which the leathery coat of the fruit is preserved. (Home Education, p. 26)

One of the practical points that arises from considering the well-being of the body, even during the hours devoted to learning, is a balanced schedule. A teacher who is trying to make sure children have the best chance to learn will make sure that their bodies and brains are rested and exercised between lessons. It was Comenius’s recommendation:

It is…useful to intersperse the labours of the day with recreation, amusements, games, merriment, music, and such-like diversions, and thus to refresh the inner and the outer senses. (The Great Didactic, p. 260)

We see then that a large portion of the good organization of schools consists of the proper division of work and of rest, and depends on the disposition of studies, intervals to relieve the strain, and recreation. (The Great Didactic, p. 261)

Modern science as Charlotte Mason knew it confirmed these basic ideas, and gave her additional confidence to recommend much the same thing:

Just as important is it that the brain should have due rest; that is, should rest and work alternately. (Home Education, p. 22)

This much is certain, and is very important to the educator: the brain, or some portion of the brain, becomes exhausted when any given function has been exercised too long. The child has been doing sums for some time, and is getting unaccountably stupid: take away his slate and let him read history, and you find his wits fresh again. Imagination, which has had no part in the sums, is called into play by the history lesson, and the child brings a lively unexhausted power to his new work. School time-tables are usually drawn up with a view to give the brain of the child variety of work. (Home Education, p.24)

One of the interesting points for us today is that even the newest research confirms that learning is optimal only under certain physical conditions. At the AmblesideOnline conference earlier this year, Lynn Bruce spoke on this topic, among other things, and delighted us by showing us how many of the riches included in a Charlotte Mason education, such as art and composer studies and nature walks, reduce cortisol (stress hormone) levels and restore a healthier physical condition for learning.

These educators of long ago might not have had access to all the latest research we do, but their own observations and experiences set them on the healthiest path just the same. It is interesting to see how the basic principle “a healthy body is the best tool for learning” resulted in similar practical applications at different times.

Add some physical activity to your day, and take care to alternate the type of lessons/activities you do, so that your students have a chance to refresh their minds and bodies. It seems more like common sense than a lofty educational ideal, but I think the smartest and most effective teachers remember that these little things add to the atmosphere of the learning environment and the well-being of their pupils, and that makes them important enough to include in educational discussions.