Many private and home educators have been rediscovering and implementing the ideas of British educator, Charlotte Mason, and with good reason. She understood children and respected their value as full persons made in the image of God. Throughout her long career teaching children, training other teachers, running schools, and organizing parent-run schools, she refined a truly lovely and life-giving approach to educating that is still just as valid and valuable now as it was when she lived in the mid 1800s to the 1920s. Thankfully, she wrote down her wisdom in her six-volume set of books now in the public domain, and we can continue to glean from it today. In fact, many organizations have sprung up to help people follow Charlotte Mason’s educational plan as closely and faithfully as possible. These organizations provide many fantastic resources for parents and teachers.
Yet, when trying to discern the best curricular choice or course of action, the most helpful question a contemporary Charlotte Mason teacher and parent can ask is not, “What would Charlotte Mason do?” or even, “What has Charlotte Mason recommended that teachers and parents do?” but rather “What would Charlotte Mason do if she lived now and were in my situation?”
Because Charlotte Mason, in her day, would have gone home from teaching mid-afternoon to a child-free, spouse-free house and a nice, quiet cup of tea.
She also recommended that a mother outsource nurse-maid/nursery duties so that the children have mother only at her best. (See Volume I: Home Education, I.iv, pp. 17-18.)
So, if you are married, with children, and homeschooling, you are already not doing what Charlotte Mason did during her time, or even what she recommended doing.
But what would she do if she were married, homeschooling, and living now in the twenty-first century? Now that is a different question. And an interesting one.
Charlotte Mason is one of my heroes for many reasons including not only her brilliant insight into how children best learn, but also her dedication to following and investigating the best thought and research available to her at the time. For example, she studied the latest, breaking findings related to the physiology of the brain and frequently referred to it in her own writings as a basis for many of her practical recommendations for parents and teachers. She read widely in various fields related to child development, psychology, educational theory, and natural law. She was eager to circumspectly incorporate “whatever new light modern research puts in our way.”
In the Preface to the Fourth Edition of Volume I, she writes,
My attempt in the following volume is to suggest to parents and teachers a method of education resting upon a basis of natural law; and to touch, in this connection, upon a mother’s duties to her children. In venturing to speak on this latter subject, I do so with the sincerest deference to mothers, believing that, in the words of a wise teacher of men, “the woman receives from the Spirit of God Himself the intuitions into the child’s character, the capacity of appreciating its strength and its weakness, the faculty of calling forth the one and sustaining the other, in which lies the mystery of education, apart from which all its rules and measures are utterly vain and ineffectual.” But just in proportion as a mother has this peculiar insight as regards her own children she will, I think, feel her need of a knowledge of the general principles of education, founded upon the nature and the needs of all children. And this knowledge of the science of education, not the best of mothers will get from above, seeing that we do not often receive as a gift that which we have the means of getting by our own efforts. [emphasis mine]
We have, she tells us, a maternal duty to study the science of education.
Under “Some Preliminary Considerations,” she further clarifies what it looks like for mothers to “owe a ‘thinking love’ to their Children”: (I note here how she herself quotes other contemporary educational thinkers, such as Pestalozzi, revealing her own commitment to ongoing study of developing educational thought.)
“The mother is qualified,” says Pestalozzi, “and qualified by the Creator Himself, to become the principal agent in the development of her child; … and what is demanded of her is––a thinking love ….”
We are waking up to our duties and in proportion as mothers become more highly educated and efficient, they will […] take it up as their profession––that is, with the diligence, regularity, and punctuality which men bestow on their professional labours. That the mother may know what she is about, and may come thoroughly furnished to her work, she should have something more than a hearsay acquaintance with the theory of education, and with those conditions of the child’s nature upon which such theory rests. [emphasis mine]
These strongly-worded admonitions suggest to me that, if Charlotte Mason were alive today, she would urge us not to look back to her late-1800s/early-1900s curricular recommendations as a static educational plan to imitate without question. On the contrary! She would urge us rather to rouse ourselves to get on our game and continue to research.
If we want to imitate Charlotte Mason, we ought to look at, evaluate, and incorporate the best of current educational research and related fields.
Take reading instruction and phonics, for instance. Since Mason’s time, we have learned much more about how English is best taught and learned.
Just within the homeschool world, there are now several powerful phonics/spelling programs available that have recently been developed on the basis of the ground-breaking research Orton and Gillingham conducted on English phonograms and spelling rules shortly after Mason’s time.
Additionally, because of both national legislation like No Child Left Behind and also because of the school system’s need to accommodate a wide diversity of students (including those who do not speak English as a first language at home), much research has been done on how to best teach reading and writing (e.g. phonics vs. whole word reading instruction and such).
Would Charlotte Mason encourage us to ignore all that and keep doing what worked best for her in turn-of-the-century England? Her admonitions and her own example make that highly unlikely.
Best research (like the meta-study here; get it free at a university library) suggests that a systematic phonics program is by far the best foundation for reading and writing. The whole-word approach that rolled through U.S. schools on and off during the last several decades has been debunked. And, while informal, laissez-faire approaches can accomplish good, systematic phonics remains the most sound and reliable method for ensuring success for students of all abilities.
Curriculum author, Wanda Sanseri, further argues that a program that overtly teaches the 70 basic English phonograms along with the 28 foundational spelling rules is the best kind of systematic phonics instruction. Her presentation to the Oregon senate is revelatory and compelling. She bridges the gap between Orton-Gillingham and contemporary practice.
Since Sanseri delivered her presentation, several programs have debuted in the homeschool market that draw on the Orton-Gillingham research base. I personally prefer Sanseri’s Spell to Write and Read, but there are several other curricular options that follow the same research and are also great. Two such programs are All About Reading/All About Spelling and Logic of English. Before any of these, there was also The Writing Road to Reading. All of these programs are great with different trade-offs. Different programs will certainly work better for different families depending on the needs and temperaments of those involved.
Discussing these options and the underlying research lands us firmly in the spirit of Charlotte Mason’s approach to education. So, rather than closing off curricular options because they do not seem to neatly match the instructional progression prescribed by Mason more than a century ago, let us think critically and research widely in imitation of Mason herself, our beloved paragon of “a thinking love.”
[This post first appeared on a personal blog and has been revised.]