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Charlotte Mason

Anna Hackett, Exploring Approaches to Home Education Seminar, Adelaide 2008

"We would like every family to become a centre of
spirituality and a school of virtue"
Pope John XXIII

Charlotte Mason...is known as the "Mother of Homeschooling". She was a devout Christian who loved children. Charlotte spent her whole life either teaching children or teaching young women how to be governesses and to teach using her philosophy. She was born in England in 1842, and was educated by her parents at home. Charlotte was suddenly orphaned at the age of 16. She loved and valued children so highly that she never married, but continued teaching all her life. Charlotte lived into her eighties and died on January 16, 1923 in her sleep. Charlotte Mason founded her " House of Education " in Ambleside in 1892. She had four students in her first year. By her third year, she had thirteen. In 1880, she wrote a series of geography books that were quite well received. However, her book, Home Education , proved to be even more popular. Soon after this, the Parents National Education Union was formed. By 1890, the Union had its own magazine, The Parents Review . This magazine was organised by Charlotte herself. The magazine continued to be published long after Charlotte's death. Charlotte wrote five more books during her lifetime, which have been reproduced as a six-volume set by Charlotte Mason Research and Supply Company.

A Brief Overview of the Charlotte Mason Method

This overview is very short and does not really do justice to Charlotte Mason. It is included here only for those who know very little about her life and work. It is by no means meant to replace the volumes written about Charlotte , or for that matter, those she wrote herself.

Homeschooling parents today may take many of Charlotte Mason's teaching principles for granted. But for her time, Charlotte was a pioneer. She was a children's advocate long before the term was coined. Her teaching style was child-sensitive and gentle. She coaxed the extraordinary out of her pupils while other teachers of her day were "stuffing" children with learning as one might stuff a feather pillow. Below are some of the cornerstones of Charlotte's home education philosophy:

Living Books & Whole Books

  • Best Minds
  • Narration
  • Nature Study
  • Short Lessons
  • No Homework before Thirteen
  • Atmosphere, Discipline, Life
  • Good Habits
  • The Science of Relations.

As you may have already guessed we are great Charlotte Mason enthusiasts!

Living Books and Whole Books

Charlotte Mason believed that children should not be treated "like children". Children shouldn't be taught as though they aren't old enough to think about or appreciate the finer things in life. In fact, Charlotte was very opposed to offering children the 'simplified' versions of books or texts, especially the ones that had endless questions at the end of every chapter. "Why not let children come up with their own questions?" she would ask. She found most textbooks dull and insipid, and was sure that children found them dull and insipid as well. She called these books "twaddle".

Living books are books that 'come alive' when you read them. They are usually books about real people and real events, but may include 'historical fiction' and similar types of books. Dull, boring or silly books that talk down to a child "blunt the edge of a child's delicate mind!" But living books are interesting. They come alive with information and characters. They are filled with real lives and real dramas: people getting married, having children, dealing with illness, or hardships. Living books excite you about the subject, transport you back into time, evoke the emotions of the characters in your heart. Charlotte said of living books that they are "clothed in literary language."

There are two types of 'whole' books. Any book written on a single topic by a single author is a whole book. Many times, the subject in a whole book is 'the love of the author's life.' (We can usually assume that an author has some passion for a subject to which he devotes an entire book.) This 'love' is generally evident throughout the book by virtue of the care and interest given the subject.

Textbooks, which often only provide a glimpse of a particular subject, tend to be dry and lifeless. A whole book is bound to be more interesting than a texbook due to the author's knowledge, experience and passion.

The second type of 'whole' book is an unabridged (unaltered) version of a book. This refers to classic works of literature, novels, plays, or poetry. Textbooks or abridged versions may include a chapter, or condensed or simplified version of a story. This dilutes both the meaning and the passion of the author, and may result in a dull or dry translation. Apparently, textbooks and abridged versions of books were first implemented for use by the 'lower classes' as it was believed that they could not handle a 'whole' book.

Best Minds

Charlotte belived that a child's mind was fed on ideas.

"The life of the mind is sustained upon ideas." Charlotte Mason

"For this reason, we owe it to every child to put him in communication with great minds, that he may get at great thoughts. With the minds, that is, of those who have left us great works. And the only vital method of education appears to be that children should read worthy books. Many worthy books." Charlotte Mason, A Philosophy of Education, 1925

Charlotte did not believe in "talking down" or "reading-down' to children. If one is going to read Heidi , she reasoned, they should read the author's original version, not a watered down 'children's' version of it. It is precisely in the reading of original works that children make contact with the "best minds."


Narration is the process of re-telling something in one's own words. Charlotte found that the use of narration made children more attentive. (Each child listening to a story is aware that he might be asked to re-tell it.)

Through the process of re-telling, a teacher (mother) can easily determine if a child has understod what has been taught. More important, Charlotte realised that other methods of testing comprehension (questions at the end of the chapter tests) spotlight the areas that a child does not know. Narration, on the other hand, highlights what a child does know. Therefore, she reasoned, narration promtes success rather than failure. Narration allows a child the freedom to discuss what he has learned, not necessarily what a 'teacher' or a textbook tells him that he ought to have learned.

"Children benefit from working steadily through a well-chosen book. And if they narrate it to you, it will become theirs. But more happens. Because they've tackled a complete book, they become acquainted with its flow and its use of language. They are students of another person - the author." Susan Scaeffer MacAulay, For The Children's Sake, 1984.

Nature Study

The study of Nature is particularly helpful in the development of the power of observation. Charlotte felt that children were also happier and healthier when given the opportunity to spend time in a natural setting. She took her children on long walks, in all kinds of weather.

She believed that children should be able to identify all of the natural elements around them - from shrubs to trees to birds and other creatures. She taught children about geology and geography, field crops, and constellations . The children were given high-quality sketch-pads and art materials, and were encouraged to record their observations in the form of pictures, water colours, diagrams and journal entries .

Short Lessons

Charlotte belived that it is the duty of the 'teacher' to capture the attention of the child. She suggested that it is up to the teacher to form the necessary habit of attention in the child, and also to present material to the child that is worthy of his interest. With the focus of the mind on a subject so directed, Charlotte reasoned, lessons could be short and still be effective, Difficult subjects, such as math, might take up to 20 minutes for elementary-aged children, whereas simpler subjects would take even less time. Charlotte's system of short lessons allowed many subjects and much variety to be presented in a day, resulting in a more interesting and complete education.

No Homework Before Thirteen

Charlotte did not assign homework to children under the age of thirteen.

"Another attraction of Charlotte's philosophy is that her schools never gave homework to students under the age of thirteen. When a child follows her method, there is no need for homework in the elementary years, because the child immediately deals with the literature at hand and proves his mastery by narrating at the time of the reading. Studies have proved homework to be less effective than this form of immediate reinforcement." Karen Andreola, A Charlotte Mason Companion, 1998

Atmosphere, Discipline, Life

Charlotte believed in a "liberal education" for everyone, including girls. Liberal, in this sense, means "wide". A liberal education is one in which children are given a broad base knowledge, learning as much as possible about each subject. Students in Charlotte Mason's school were given lessons on Bible, government, history, math, geography, science, anatomy, vocabulary, nature, art, and poetry. They studied three foreign languages; Latin; French; and German, and the works of people like Shakespeare and Homer.

Charlotte felt that a liberal education was necessary in order for children to grow up to be complete citizens, knowledgeable in many things, able to converse on many topics, and aware of how their particular occupation (their specialisation of education) fit in with all the other occupations of the world. Her focus was to encourage a child's natural love of learning, and to resist any book or method, which would discourage this natural impulse. Schooling in the home was ideal. Home education offered the comfort and flexibilty that was so central to Charlotte's methods.

She also believed that education went far beyond studying. Charlotte asserted that development of character is simply one part of a complete education. According to Charlotte, education deals.

".curratively and methodically with every flaw in character. Discipline is not a punishment." Charlotte Mason, Vol 1, pp 15

In 1891, she adopted the motto, "I am, I can, I ought, I will."

"Every child can say "I am," said Charlotte, because they are a child of God; a gift to their parents." They can say, "I can " because they have the power God has given to them to do a thing. "I ought" is the ackowledgement of duty, and "I will" is the decision to do what is right, not necessarily what is wanted.

Charlotte also believed that children are born "persons" . She felt that a child's mind was born capable of great things. She said that one should "teach the child, not the textbook." Her emphasis was on a child's ability to learn, not a textbook's ability to teach. Conversely, many of the teachers of her day believed that only a rigorous education could produce a great mind, and that few minds could become great minds.

"Education is a life; that life is sustained on ideas; ideas are of spritual origin, and that we get them chiefly as we convey them to one another. The duty of parents is to sustain a child's inner life with ideas as they sustain his body with food." Charlotte Mason, Vol 2, pp 39

Good Habits

According to Charlotte, children have one great shortcoming - a weak will. Weak, in the sense that they are unable to do what they know they ought, or they are easily led astray. "Children are given to be idle, to tell fibs, and to dawdle," Charlotte noted.

A child needs help to strengthen his own will. Charlotte believed that only one habit should be corrected at any given time, and that the process should take about six weeks. Her basic approach was that one should reason with the child at length about a particular habit needing improvement. It is vital that the child agrees, and even desires, to make a change. From this moment, there should be no further discussion. Should there be a lapse, Charlotte suggested using only a "look" or a light touch to remind the child of his commitment.

According to Charlotte, habit is "a mere automatic or machine-like action with which conscious thought has nothing to do".

"Every day, every hour, the parents are either actively or passively forming those habits in their children, upon which, more than anything else, future character and conduct depend." Charlotte Mason

Charlotte believed that habits begin as thoughts, "Thoughts defile a man; and thoughts purify a man." Therefore, it was of the utmost importance to develop good habits at an early age.

The idea that bad habits should be overlooked because children are "too young" or will "grow out" of them is in opposition to Charlotte's philosophy. She emphasised the importance of developing right habits, so that these habits would be automatic, especially in times of trial or emergency:

"In every sudden difficulty and temptation that requires an act of will, conduct is still apt to run on the lines of familiar habit." Charlotte Mason

In terms of education, the habit of attention is vital.

Attention, according to Charlotte, is the focus of mind brought to bear on a person or subject. Great minds have great focus. They are owned by experts in their field, or by counselors in whom one feels comfortable confiding. An unfocused mind is preoccupied with itself or it's surroundings, and cannot bring one's whole self to bear on a matter.

Science of Relations

"The idea that vivfies teaching.is that 'Education is a Science of Relations'; by which phrase we mean that children come into the world with a natural "appetite" for, and affinity with all the material of knowledge; for interest in the heroic past and in the age of myths; for a desire to know about everything that moves and lives; about strange places and strange peoples; for a wish to handle material and to make; a desire to run and ride and row and to do whatever the law of gravitation permits."

"Therefore.we endeavour that he shall have relations of pleasure and intimacy established with as many possible of interests proper to him; not learning a slight or incomplete smattering about this or that subject, but plunging into a vital knowledge, with a great field before him which in all his life he will not be able to explore. In this conception we get that "touch of emotion" which vivifies knowledge, for it is probably that we feel only as we are brought into our proper vital relations." Charlotte Mason

Charlotte felt that an understanding of all subjects was vital to the understanding of any. Art, literature, science and music must all be studied in relation to geography, culture, language and religion. Anything less might rob a child of the "wide outlook" so necessary to becoming well educated.

"A child should be brought up to have relations of force with earth and water, should run and ride, swim and skate, lift and carry; should know texture and work in material; should know by name, and where and how they live, at any rate, the things of the earth about him, its birds and beasts and creeping things, its herbs and trees; should be in touch with the literature, art and thought of the past and the present.He must have a living relationship with the present, its historic movement, its science, literature, art, social needs and aspirations.

"In fact, he must have a wide outlook, intimate relation all round; and force, virtue, must pass out of him, whether of hand, will or sympathy, wherever he touches. This is no impossible program. Indeed, it can be pretty well filled in by the time an intelligent boy or girl has reahed the age of thirteen or fourteen; for it depends, not upon how much is learned, but upon how things are learned." Charlotte Mason, Original Home Education Series Vol 3, pp 161-162

In 1993 we began homeschooling using a well known Catholic Curriculum. As we were blessed with an increasing family, time spent on each subject was not increasing. Add to that the dryness of the curriculum and the lack of creativity it supplied, I gave up in disgust!

God is very good. I knew He wanted us to homeschool. He provided the answer through another homeschool mum and her knowledge about Charlotte Mason. I became increasingly excited and I read all I could about her and her method. At that time the Parents Review was being distributed in Australia (for a pricey subscription but it was worth every cent.) Next I read her six volumes, although a little difficult and laborious reading, I was enthusiastic about what I could do!

In time Karen Andreola, Catherine Levison, Penny Gardner, Elizabeth Foss and some others have produced excellent books to give us a better look into her works and method. (I own all these books & constantly refer back to them for help & inspiration.)

Needless to say, we began our 'new' homeschooling with CM's method and have loved every moment of it to this day.

Living books are the main thrust in our homeschool. We love using these gems for ALL our subjects, even our Faith. The only text books we use are Math books!

Resources for more information on Charlotte Mason

  • The Original Homeschool Series, (six volume set) by Charlotte Mason
  • For The Children's Sake, by Susan Shaeffer MacAulay
  • When Children Love to Learn, edited by Elaine Cooper
  • Real Learning: Education in the Heart of the Home, by Elizabeth Foss
  • A Charlotte Mason Companion, by Karen Andreola
  • A Charlotte Mason Education, by Catherine Levison
  • More Charlotte Mason Education, by Catherine Levison
  • A Literary Education, by Catherine Levison
  • Charlotte Mason Study Guide by Penny Gardner
  • Teaching Children, by Diane Lopez
  • For The Love of Literature, by Maureen Wittmann
  • A Picture Perfect Childhood, by Cay Gibson

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Beverley Paine with her children, and their home educated children, relaxing at home.

Together with the support of my family, my aim is to help parents educate their children in stress-free, nurturing environments. In addition to building and maintaing this website, I continue to create and manage local and national home educating networks, help to organise conferences and camps, as well as write for, edit and produce newsletters, resource directories and magazines. I am an active supporter of national, state, regional and local home education groups.

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