Editor’s Note: My first introduction into the world of Charlotte Mason was not through For the Children’s Sake, like I know it was for many others; it was through Karen Andreola’s lovely purple book, A Charlotte Mason Companion. It gave me firm footing in philosophy and a glimpse into the day-to-day or how-to of a Charlotte Mason education. Through Andreola’s book I could see the beauty in this lifestyle, but also how attainable it could really be for me and my family. That is why I consider Karen to be my first Charlotte Mason mentor and why I continue to enjoy her blog, Moments with Mother Culture.
In the following article Karen tells us why the methods used throughout our society to affect the behavior of children (and even adults) simply do not work. As the mother of three young children, I encounter this everywhere from the dentist’s office to the grocery store. What should be considered normal behavior is rewarded with candy or prizes. And the practice of bribing children is considered so normal people don’t even ask the parent if they may do it. Only in recognizing this societal habit and making a commitment to form new habits in our own families and communities can we hope to change for the better. Charlotte Mason Poetry is honored to share this article by Karen Andreola which explains the problem and offers Miss Mason’s remedy to it.
In the book, The Enchanted Places—A Memoir of the Real Christopher Robin and Winnie-the-Pooh, I read one of Christopher Milne’s cherished memories. It is of his father, A. A. Milne, reading aloud at bedtime. Sometimes his father made up a story on the spot, about a little boy and his toys.
I was struck by the part in the book where Christopher Milne mentions a dinner party his father attended. Around the table sat talkative preparatory schoolmasters who gave speeches. They all agreed that the biggest burden of their job was parental interference. Normally A. A. Milne was quiet. But upon hearing the schoolmasters’ speeches he couldn’t resist a speech of his own. His own boy would often choose to hear the ideas of Euclid for a bedtime story over Treasure Island. He used this as an example (rather rashly wrote Christopher Milne) stating that all children have a keen interest in many things. Young children are eager to learn, he told them. “And then we send them to your schools, and in two years, three years, four years, you have killed all their enthusiasm. At fifteen their only eagerness is to escape learning anything. No wonder you don’t want to meet us.”
In the 19th century Miss Charlotte Mason observed the lack of enthusiasm in the students of Great Britain. She strove to remedy it. She developed a new method of educating children (different than that of the preparatory schools). Traveling by train in a circuit, she spread the news of the success of her method far and wide.
Oh, if only we could have such a revival in America’s schools today!
How is curiosity schooled out of children? What makes them care little for learning? First, we undervalue them, says Miss Mason. Next, we depend upon an array of artificial inducements.
“B. F. Skinner could be described as a man who did most of his experiments on rats and pigeons and wrote most of his books about people.” (Alfie Kohn)
A hand is raised in the classroom. “Is this going to be on the test?” School teachers accustomed to this, hardly bat an eye. They don’t recognize it for what it is—a distress call. The student has surrendered to a broken system of education that squelches curiosity. Long before B.F. Sinner’s behavior experiments (do this and you’ll get that) entered psychology, Miss Mason was sharing her findings that “[grades], prizes, places, rewards, punishments, praise, blame, or other inducements are not necessary to secure attention, which is voluntary, immediate and surprisingly perfect” without them.
According to Miss Mason, a system of education that relies on bribes, continual testing, grades, and other over-controlling measures to get children to do their schoolwork, is trusting in the wrong things. To cope, a child learns how to work for the grade. Well-meaning adults, once conditioned by the system, will even coach the child on how to cram. This strategy works in the short run. But in the long run, what does the student know? Does he care to know? Gray clouds gather on the horizon. The eyes of a child can be so fixed on the grade that his very identity becomes wrapped up in it.
Competitive group games are used with the rote memorization of names, dates, and assorted facts. It occurs to those in charge that since this is working and the children like it, let’s add more facts—for greater “academic achievement.” But it is the fun, the co-op friends, and the winning of prizes that these children care about.
“Do rewards motivate people? Absolutely. They motivate people to get rewards.” (Alfie Kohn)
In Alfie Kohn’s big book, Punished by Rewards—The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes, he has unsettling things to say. He references hundreds of studies. The studies show that people (preschoolers up to adults) will work for rewards but will avoid anything challenging. They avoid risk-taking too, because they are afraid of making mistakes. He says that when you are promised a reward you come to see the task as something that comes between you and it. The fastest and easiest way is chosen to get at the prize.
To entice children to read, sometimes money, ice cream or a pizza-party is given for reading a book. I wanted to do things differently. When my children were learning to read I kept our stack of easy-readers boxed and closeted. My intention was to reveal them at intervals. When the children had finished one reader in the series, along with its accompanying phonic exercises and sight word practice, they went on a treasure hunt. Their next reader was hidden somewhere in the house. This tiny bit of anticipation and mystery was exhilarating. The reward for finishing the last book, was the joy of finding another.
When older students are bribed to read thus-and-thus many books, given a choice, shorter and less challenging books are picked to obtain the reward. This is often the case with library summer-reading programs. Although my recollection is hazy I came across an anecdote some years back, in an introduction to one of C. S. Lewis’s books. I searched our shelves but couldn’t find it. Anyway, I remember that when C. S. Lewis was in a hospital a nurse recognized his name.
“I read your book,” she said brightly.
“Oh? Which one?”
“The Screwtape Letters,” she said.
“How did you come by it?”
She confessed, “In school we had to a pick books off a list and that was the shortest.”
Miss Mason put her trust in a child’s ability to gain knowledge for the sake of knowledge. She avoided anything that would encourage children to become preoccupied with what they will get for what they are doing. What motivators did Charlotte Mason use?
Children are born with God-given curiosity. If protected, a desire to know will stay alive and be engaged through high school.
The Holy Spirit is the Supreme Educator. He applies learning to the mind and heart. Learning isn’t entirely accomplished by a teacher’s burdensome effort. She sets up an atmosphere, the conditions that make learning possible. She supplies ideas—varied and worthwhile—to think about. Her students receive a wide curriculum under three headings: Knowledge of God, Knowledge of Man, and Knowledge of the Universe.
There is no substitution for self-education. In place of a lecture Miss Mason’s students derived knowledge from books. She put them directly in touch with the carefully chosen words of an author—one enthralled with his subject. She tells us that a schoolteacher in his “desire to be serviceable… believes that children cannot understand well-written books and that he must make himself a bridge between the pupil and the real teacher, the man who has written the book.” What was her appraisal of the schoolbooks and lectures of her day? They were a bore. A dull education suppresses initiative. Charlotte Mason wanted students’ minds to be engaged.
(Some textbooks available today, created by home teachers, are written more lively.)
An Active Questioning Mind
A young child, eager to learn, has questions. In the classroom he is expected to sit still and be silent—for long stretches of time. Consequently, he becomes sleepy or restless. A young mother once shared with me a reason she decided to home educate. As is frequently the case with a firstborn child, hers was a chatterbox and always asking questions. This lively little girl had a skip in her step. She was riveted at read aloud times, loved her pets, and spent hours exploring by (and in) the creek in the back yard. After spending a year in a typical first-grade classroom she was less lively, had far less to say. And tragically, she stopped asking questions. Why should she? The teacher did all the asking of questions—a never ending stream of them.
Something to Think About, Something to Say About it
With Miss Mason’s method, a student’s mind is open. And his mouth is open. His reaction and opinion are welcome. By putting the reading in his own words with her method of narration, the student’s mind puts questions to itself. (What next? Where? Why? How? What else? How does thus-and-thus fit-together and make sense? What’s the outcome of so-and-so’s action or decision?) His mind is more active and engaged with narration. It works in a more natural way than when memorizing lists or recalling fragments. We can replace multiple choice, fill-in-the-blank, match-the-columns, or a long questionnaire with “What do you think?”
Educators are pressured to prove in black-and-white that students are “getting it.” Frequent testing is also supposed to keep students on their toes. An infestation of tests may hang heavy in the air. But when we trust in Charlotte Mason’s principles a fresh wind of change revives us. To safeguard enthusiasm and create a refreshing atmosphere:
give children something interesting to think about,
let the authors teach,
require children to think, show and tell—all the way through high school,
expect their obedience to your big choices; give them small choices,
inspire them to share and serve others with what they know as they grow.
In Punished by Rewards Alfie Kohn wrote extensively that the more we use bribes to motivate people the more they lose interest in what we are bribing them to do. Charlotte Mason did not have the benefit of the 20th century research that Mr. Kohn had. Yet, separated by one hundred years, they are in agreement, uncovering the same truth. Isn’t this neat?
“Studies serve for delight” it occurred to Miss Mason. It’s the better way to educate persons. There are higher aims by which persons live and learn. Opening up our 1965 copy of the Boy Scout Handbook puts a few at my fingertips. A boy scout is… trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, reverent. These are codes of action by which we aspire to live.
About twenty-five years ago I spotted in The Parents’ Reivew, a bold concluding line of an article, a quotation by the ancient Greek, Plato. “Punishment-and-reward is the worst form of education.” Must we keep re-inventing the wheel?
In life we act with mixed motivations. This is the plain reality of it. We are willingly devoted to our family day and night. We are commanded to love. This shows people God is real. But we also love because we, too, long to be loved. As I see it we need not apologize for this.
Above all—Whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. (1 Cor. 10:31)
After reading The Enchanted Places, I put my finger on what had left me feeling down. At the end of the book Christopher Robin Milne reaches a decision. He was serving in WWII when he sent his father a letter stating that there is no Christian God—a statement his father was relieved to hear. Our family thinks the Winnie-the-Pooh stories are delightful, cute, clever, and humorous. Disguised in fake fur the characters bring human nature to light. But pity joins my admiration for the author and his family.
 Christopher Milne, The Enchanting Places, p. 119.
 Alfie Kohn, Punished by Rewards, p. 6.
 Charlotte Mason, A Philosophy of Education, p. 7.
 Punished by Rewards, p. 67.
 Ibid, p. 65.
 Philosophy of Education, p. 260. See also School Education, p. 226.
An earlier version of this article was originally posted at Moments With Mother Culture.
©2017 Karen Andreola