Some Practices are Principles—Part 5

The final practice which was added to the original 18 principles has several elements within it, and it is here that we find a few prohibitions—Don’t do these things!

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.

We’ve already noted the connection between narration and attention, but Charlotte Mason includes a warning here about things that can hinder the attention we want to secure. A single reading is the point she insisted upon. If the children thought they’d have another chance to hear or read, they just wouldn’t give their full attention to that reading.

But re-reading is not the only way we can hinder a child’s power of attention, which will also hinder his ability to assimilate and make knowledge his own. Unfortunately, those things that are hindrances are standard educational practices, and it requires a deliberate effort on the part of a CM educator (who was probably brought up under those practices and finds it hard to let them go) to refrain from…

1) Questioning. It is so tempting. But any question aimed at eliciting a specific piece of information from a child is…well, Charlotte Mason gave us this graphic description: It’s like asking a child to show you his dinner before he has finished digesting it. Eew. Also, it prevents assimilation if a child has to spew out what he should be absorbing internally. I’m being graphic on purpose, because I find it the best way to develop the proper attitude toward what I call analytic questioning. It should disgust us a little bit, and our abhorrence will prevent us from doing it. There is an article in the Parents’ Review that really explains this well. If you want an idea of what kinds of questions are okay—questions that could be asked after narration has taken place, I suppose you want to think about open-ended questions. I’d call them synthetic questions, without a single “right” answer, but that require a child to think a little deeper, or further, or “outside the box.” (I could write a whole post about questions—let me know if you are interested.)

2) Summarising. It’s so tempting to do the talking ourselves—to wrap things all up for the children in tidy little packages. But the person who does the talking is doing the thinking—that is the person who has performed the act of learning and knowing. Charlotte Mason knew that if the teacher did it for him, the child would not do it, and she is adamant: The children must do the work for themselves.

3) “and the like.” Isn’t it just like Charlotte Mason to be that vague in a principle about practices? That’s because she wants us to think—to “mix it with brains” —and really understand what it is we are doing, to think about whether or not any particular thing is in line with the principles or not. The principle is: the child must be the one who is doing the mental labor, not the teacher. Keep a sharp eye on fads, and avoid them if they are going to interfere with any of the vital processes.

I’m going to add here the manner in which Charlotte Mason expressed these practices-that-are-principles in Philosophy of Education, when she wanted to present the ideas and work of the PNEU to the wider British public:

He requires that in most cases Knowledge be communicated to him in literary form; and reproduces such Knowledge touched by his own personality; thus his reproduction becomes original.

The natural provision for the appropriation and assimilation of Knowledge is adequate and no stimulus is required; but some moral control is necessary to secure the act of attention; a child receives this in the certainty that he will be required to recount what he has read. Children have a right to the best we possess; therefore their lesson books should be, as far as possible, our best books.

They weary of talk, and questions bore them, so that they should be allowed to use their books for themselves; they will ask for such help as they wish for.

They require a great variety of knowledge,––about religion, the humanities, science, art; therefore, they should have a wide curriculum, with a definite amount of reading set for each short period of study. (Philosophy of Education, p. 18-19)

Do you see how closely these align with the “new” principles in this final book—the practices that Charlotte Mason considered essential?

These are practices “that [Charlotte Mason] has indicated” must be followed exactly in order to obtain the benefits of her ideas. These are practices that have “methodised” the principles such as “children are born persons” and “education is the science of relations.”

I’ve added this quote here because it hints at one or two further practices that will give us optimum results. I’m thinking in particular about “a definite amount of reading set for each short period of study.” There is quite a bit implied there, but keeping the lessons short was part of the way that attention was maintained.

Every practice under consideration can be brought back to the principles, and that is the way to decide whether or not something is a good idea. This is what Charlotte Mason wanted teachers to know.

Once Miss Mason gave an instance of how a question of seemingly small importance should be answered. She put the question to the students and when they could give no suggestion for an answer she told them that before an answer could be found it was necessary to think back to first principles, then to think outward again to the question in their light. (The Story of Charlotte Mason, p. 152)

The principles always determine the shape of the practices. The principles represent universal truths, while the practices are the behavior that shapes itself around those truths, just as “fire burns” is a principle that determines our practices, but does not dictate explicitly what must be done.

The final part of principle 15 is a summation of these added “practical” principles:

Acting upon these and some other points in the behaviour of mind, we find that the educability of children is enormously greater than has hitherto been supposed, and is but little dependent on such circumstances as heredity and environment.

Nor is the accuracy of this statement limited to clever children or to children of the educated classes: thousands of children in Elementary Schools respond freely to this method, which is based on the behaviour of mind.

These methods—these practices—are based upon “the behavior of mind.” The way the mind behaves is part of the human nature that is common to us all. Charlotte Mason had a vision for a “liberal education for all,” and when we take up her principles and these vital practices, we become a part of her vision. What are the vital practices again? I give them to you in the shortest form I can manage:

  1. Education is the science of relations.
  2. Children must form relationships with a wide variety of knowledge, generally divided into the knowledge of God, the knowledge of man, and the knowledge of the world.
  3. Children take in knowledge best through literary language.
  4. And they make it their own when they are required to narrate.
  5. The children must be the ones performing the mental effort of learning, so we must take care not to interfere with that process.

These are the practices that Charlotte Mason identified as principles–the ones that are truly vital to educating according to her method. If these are the practices that shape your homeschool or classroom, you are being faithful to the method and the ideals that lie behind it. Your children will be blessed.

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

(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.

This blog series is now available as a short digital book in the “Encore” series for Kindle. The original material from the series, plus bonus content, is collected in one place where you can easily refer to it. Read the Kindle version of Some Practices are Principles or purchase an epub version to read on a platform of your choice.

6 thoughts on “Some Practices are Principles—Part 5

  1. Yes, I’d like to know more about what you think are good and bad questions.

  2. This is very challenging. I too would like to know what are good vs bad questions. Also, would you be able to put in the page and book number for the quotes as I would like to look them up and read them myself.

  3. Please post the questions! It would be such a blessing to have examples to help get a better feel for is okay or not okay to ask. Since we are on the topic of narration… How long should you allow for each child’s narration? When it is oral? Written? Is there a difference of time allowed between the two forms of narration? Thank you!

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