The perfect Charlotte Mason curriculum

Yeah, I thought that title would grab your attention. Everyone wants the perfect Charlotte Mason curriculum, don’t they? Because if you had that, you’d have exactly what you need to give your children a perfect Charlotte Mason education, and who doesn’t want that?

What if the perfect curriculum was so authentic and perfect, that it came directly from the Parents’ National Educational Union, the organization Charlotte Mason founded herself? You couldn’t really go wrong, then. Could you?

Let me tell you about some teachers who did.

The schools in Gloucestershire, England introduced the PNEU curriculum into five schools in 1917. They liked what they saw, and by 1925, there were 196 schools using the perfect Charlotte Mason curriculum, straight from the PNEU presses. That’s right: one-hundred-and-ninety-six!!

If you know anything at all about the teacher training at Ambleside, simple math will reveal that the schools were not supplied with Ambleside-trained teachers. They were just regular teachers—like you and me—who were lucky enough to have the perfect Charlotte Mason curriculum.

But all was not as rosy as we might imagine. Some schools thrived. The children were narrating and learning, and they loved their books. The teachers were excited about what was happening in their classrooms, and loved the PNEU materials. But there were other schools, and they were struggling. The children didn’t like the books. They didn’t narrate the way the teachers thought they should. They couldn’t handle the material at all. Can you guess what went wrong?

It’s really quite simple. The teachers didn’t really understand the principles that lay behind the methods they were trying to use. They made errors in implementing the methods because of their lack of understanding, and the results were correspondingly disappointing. If the children didn’t like a book, it was often because the teacher didn’t like the book, or didn’t see a reason for it. That distaste was passed on to students. In some schools, the students were promoted too quickly through the Forms and were trying to read and work from books they weren’t ready for, so of course that was a failure. Some teachers expected “narration” to be a word-for-word parroting back of the material read, so they read tiny chunks which the children could hold in their short-term memories just long enough to do that.

They had a lovely curriculum, but without a solid understanding of the principles, they weren’t able to make the most of it. This is why, from its inception, AmblesideOnline has stressed that curriculum is not enough:

Before getting to the nuts and bolts, we’d like to emphasize that our confidence in Charlotte Mason’s method and the philosophy behind it is what prompted us to put this curriculum online. But this curriculum is only one tool and was never intended to replace your understanding of the principles behind a CM education, what its goals are, how it works. Without the understanding of Charlotte Mason’s vision, even a curriculum like AmblesideOnline won’t give your children a CM education. It will just be another booklist, a collection of texts and subjects to mark off a checklist. We designed this curriculum so that, instead of spending your time trying to figure out the best CM-quality living books to use, your children can jump into their schooling right away and you will be freed from the burden of trying to create your own CM curriculum, so you can spend your time familiarizing yourself with Charlotte’s Mason’s vision for raising broad-minded, thinking children who are as concerned about their duty to others, as they are their own rights.

Now we come to the actual point of this post. There was a remedy for these difficulties, and I suspect you can guess what it is. Since they lacked understanding of the principles, they needed to read Charlotte Mason’s own writing for themselves—to let her teach them the philosophy that governs the methods. The suggestion was given to them to read a volume, and then to read that same volume again and again. That’s A—just one—volume. Either Home Education or School Education are suggested (because these were schools, not parents). This advice was given early in 1925, and A Philosophy of Education was published later that year, so I’m going to add my opinion that it would serve the same purpose.

But what I want to underscore is the suggestion that reading just one volume is enough to give you the background philosophy so that you can implement the methods well. If you’ve read Charlotte Mason, you aren’t going to be asking children to narrate by parroting verbatim. You’ll know why Plutarch is a worthwhile addition to the program. You won’t neglect outdoor time for the children to make their own nature observations. If one carefully-selected volume is enough to prepare a teacher to teach a classroom full of students using PNEU/CM methods, then it is enough for us.

From the Pamphlet “Notes for the Conference of July 18th, 1925 on P.N.E.U. Methods”:

Here, of course, we go to the very root of the matter, and here it is most necessary for teachers to have a firm hold upon Miss Mason’s own teaching, for the tradition of elementary school and training college is all the other way.

It should be said at once that no teacher can hope to get out of the programmes and the method all that can be got, unless he reads and re-reads what Miss Mason herself has said about them. As I have said before, a copy of School Education or Home Education should be in every school, and should be in constant use.

(emphasis added)

There has been an increase of interest in Charlotte Mason and her methods, and that is a very good thing. I’ve been thinking about the best way for new practitioners to really apprehend the methods. Blog posts or podcasts are too short or too difficult to re-access to really give you a comprehensive understanding of the principles. Everyone suggests “reading the volumes”—and I’m going to suggest that, too! But if you are a busy homeschool mom with several children, those six volumes are seriously daunting. As soon as you plunge into the first one, you’re going to realize that this is not light reading, and the idea of making it through all six volumes is going to seem like an insurmountable hill of difficulty.

So, let’s hit pause. What if you don’t really need to read all of the volumes to understand the philosophy? That’s a lovely ideal—you can probably do that eventually—but I suggest taking a step back and thinking hard about which matters most—reading all the volumes, or understanding the philosophy well so that you can implement it in the education of your own children? I actually know someone who read all six volumes from cover to cover in a two-month period, but I cannot recommend that as a good plan for genuine understanding. She suffered from many, many false ideas about Charlotte Mason because she had read so quickly. Suppose you take a different approach—the one recommended to the teachers in Gloucestershire—and pick one relevant volume—Home Education, School Education, or A Philosophy of Education—and make yourself a student of that volume. Read it once—narrate it to yourself. Then read it again. Then go back and read the parts you especially like or the parts that still puzzle you. Mark that book up and make it your own.  Read it with a friend or two, or read it with an online study group (there are always on-going studies happening over at AmblesideOnline). Don’t be in a hurry to read another book until you really know the first one well.

I have a feeling that this is going to pay dividends in ways you can’t even imagine. You will know Charlotte Mason’s principles. You’ll be able to spot right away whether or not a particular practice or book or idea is compatible or not. You’ll gain the confidence that comes with knowledge. You won’t need anyone else to tell you whether something is “CM” or not, because you’ll know. Suddenly, the perfect Charlotte Mason curriculum will be the one you get up in the morning and use to teach your children, because you are well-versed in her methods and philosophy.

For many years, it wasn’t really possible to purchase individual volumes—you had to buy the whole set of six. They can be a bit intimidating. But that has changed very recently, and you are spoiled for choice. You can purchase a large-format facsimile version with  lots of white space for notes from Simply Charlotte Mason, or an easier-to-hold version, and you can purchase the volume you want to read.  If funds are very tight, you can read them for free on the AmblesideOnline website, and you’ll find instruction there for how to download them to your Kindle.

Edited to add: Sometimes we talk about “scaffolding” our children into CM practices like narration. As an adult, you might feel the need for a bit of scaffolding as well, to make reading Charlotte Mason a bit more approachable when you begin. Someone commented that Brandy Vencel’s bootcamp was a good introduction to the principles, and I decided to add a few more possibilities here. Leslie Laurio has re-written the entire CM Series in modern English, and if that would make it easier for you to read, you might want to try that. If A Philosophy of Education is your choice, I have created a shorter version which leaves out much of the non-essential material and includes short chapter introductions and subheadings that make the material easier to comprehend—Mind to Mind.

Which volume should you choose? It depends on your needs. There is no perfect, magic order in which to read the volumes, but for a first choice, Home Education, School Education, or A Philosophy of Education will narrow the field. If you’re interested in a post with a bit more information about each volume to help you choose (I’ve read all six more times than I can remember), let me know. But please do choose one and digest it well. If one was enough to equip the school teachers of Gloucestershire, one will serve for us as well, and be a solid foundation. You’ll be able to make your chosen Charlotte Mason curriculum the perfect curriculum in your home, even if it doesn’t arrive from the PNEU.

4 thoughts on “The perfect Charlotte Mason curriculum

  1. “They had a lovely curriculum, but without a solid understanding of the principles, they weren’t able to make the most of it. ”

    Bravo – for this and the rest!

  2. Thank you for this information. I have read one volume but I know repeating it will do better for my Knowledge of all it contains. You are so encouraging and want to say how blessed I have been by you in just a short year of coming to know you and CM.

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