Living Lessons in Physics

Living Lessons in Physics

Editor’s note: This article is the second in a series on the teaching of physics by Richele Baburina, author of Mathematics: An Instrument for Living Teaching, published by Simply Charlotte Mason.

In this series we are looking at the study of physics in a Charlotte Mason classroom using a Kipling poem as the device to answer our questions:

I keep six honest serving-men;

(They taught me all I knew)

Their names are What and Where and When

And How and Why and Who. (Kipling, 1909, p. 5)

The first article explored what physics is, why it had and still has a place in a Charlotte Mason classroom, and when it was taught. Let’s now turn back to Mason’s synopsis of her philosophy of education to see How physics was taught.


13. … (c) Knowledge should be communicated in well-chosen language, because his attention responds naturally to what is conveyed in literary form.

14. As knowledge is not assimilated until it is reproduced, children should ‘tell back’ after a single reading or hearing: or should write on some part of what they have read.

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. (Mason, 1989f, xxx).

Doesn’t the questioning and summarizing bit remind you of a dry and condensed science textbook with the inevitable summaries and questions at the end of each section? Now, living books and narration are hallmarks of a Mason education so let us consider both further.

Living Books

Physics was not taught from a textbook; instead, as with the other branches of science, the basic principles were laid out in narrative form. The science books in Miss Mason’s classrooms were thoughtfully chosen, of literary value, and not only aided in a child’s understanding of the world about them but also kindled their imagination.

The books used in science and physics were as up-to-date as possible but newness was not the criteria that determined its use. This was an exciting time for science and our understanding of nature was being transformed on every scale, from the smallest particle to the solar system as a whole. Mason is not shy about encouraging parents to be mindful of the latest scientific advancements or of exploring them with our students:

If parents take no heed of the great thoughts which move their age, they cannot expect to retain influence over the minds of their children. If they fear and distrust the revelations of science, they introduce an element of distrust and discord into their children’s lives… if they realise that the new idea, however comprehensive, is not final nor all-inclusive, nor to be set in opposition with that personal knowledge of God which is the greatest knowledge, why, then, their children will grow up in that attitude of reverence for science, reverence for God, and openness of mind, which befits us for whom life is a probation and a continual education. (1989c, pp. 159-160).

I won’t go through the entire scope and sequence for each form here but allow me to give you some highlights.

A former teaching student and assistant to Miss Kitching tells us in a behind the scenes look at the Parents’ Union School that the work in the programmes needed to be kept “lively and in touch with the present day.” Physics was not haphazardly thrown into the mix but rather “[a] definite relationship of studies must be secured from term to term and from form to form through school life from six to seventeen years” (Cholmondeley, 2000, p. 97).

In both Form IIB & IIA (remember, that’s approximately our years 4 through 6, ages 9-12), Mason’s students studied physics using the book The Sciences by American astronomer Edward Singleton Holden who himself discovered 22 deep-sky objects and became the librarian of the U.S. Military Academy at Westpoint. Mr. Holden wishes “to waken the imagination; to convey useful knowledge; to open the doors towards wisdom” while especially stimulating “observation” and “a living and lasting interest in the world that lies about us” (Holden, 1902, p. v).

The physics section with its simple observations and experiments can be carried out in the home schoolroom and much of it, I believe, is relevant for use today.

Form III used two lovely books with sections on physics: This Wonderful Universe by Agnes Giberne and The Fairyland of Science by Arabella Buckley.

Agnes Giberne was a contemporary of Charlotte Mason and a founding member of the British Astronomical Association as well as a children’s book author. Her book is full of Shakespeare and poetry, for Giberne states, “It is always interesting to note the manner in which great scientific truths are received by widely-differing minds, gifted with poetic insight” (1920, p. vi).

But do not think the book is a light one. The wonders of the cosmos are described in clear and vivid language, introducing astronomy in a fascinating and thought-provoking way. From discussing the shape of the Earth, the magnitudes of stars, and the workings of the spectroscope, to the nature of light and Einstein’s general theory of relativity, Miss Giberne gives what she calls “foundation-idea[s]” (1920, p. 128). She succeeds in giving the student what she says her father had given her, “a firm foundation, upon which a superstructure of further study could so easily be reared” (1920, p. 13). Throughout the book, she gives suggestions for both observations to be made and experiments to be conducted.

Arabella Buckley (known as Mrs. Fisher in the PUS programmes) worked as a secretary for Sir Charles Lyell, the foremost geologist of his day. After his death she lectured and wrote on science herself. Many of you may already have become acquainted with her through her book Fairyland of Science, which was based on ten lectures she gave in 1878. For the physics portion she discusses sunbeams and the nature of light, x-rays, gravity, atoms, and how a barometer works. In it she gives simple experiments and discusses recent changes of the day that challenged Newton’s thoughts.

Moving onto Form IV, about our 9th grade, ages 14-15, among the books used were Some Wonders of Matter by Bishop John Edward Mercer. Bishop Mercer himself tells us how he set out to “describe in the language of everyday life a few of the teachings of modern physics concerning the behavior of matter.” He wished to arouse “a wholesome wonder at the marvels of the material universe” (Mercer, 1922, preface). Charlotte Mason held the book in high esteem, calling it the “most inspiring of the half-dozen volumes in current use in Form IV” for general science (1989f, p. 221). Indeed, the book is also full of poetry and Shakespeare, philosophy and wonder. Are you seeing a trend?

Again, this year the students would be covering a wide field of topics in general science and Natural History—also studying botany, invertebrates, and health, while keeping a nature notebook and choosing special seasonal study for out-of-door work.

Once more, I insist that you don’t despair—the reality was that this study of physics meant the reading and narration of about 30 pages per 12-week term for this form. This is knowledge which generates enthusiasm and it is not separated from the humanities. Charlotte Mason quotes Sir Richard Gregory, professor of astronomy and later editor of the scientific journal Nature, as affirmation of her principles and methods:

The essential mission of school science was to prepare pupils for civilised citizenship by revealing to them something of the beauty and the power of the world in which they lived, as well as introducing them to the methods by which the boundaries of natural knowledge had been extended. School science, therefore, was not intended to prepare for vocations, but to equip pupils for life. (Gregory, R., as cited by Mason, 1989f, p. 221)

In Form V, our 10th and 11th grades, students studied the nature of matter, electricity, light, heat, and electrons following the same principles as in the earlier forms with the addition of following newspaper reports on astronomical subjects. One can imagine Mason’s students following Sir Arthur Eddington’s test of the total solar eclipse of 1919 that would prove Einstein’s theory of general relativity, just as our students followed with so much interest the solar eclipse of 2017. Again, we see physics was an important part of the students varied studies which also included biology or botany, zoology, the keeping of a nature notebook, and continued outdoor work.

In Form VI, we are going to go a bit beyond 1923, when Charlotte Mason passed away. Along with following newspaper reports on astronomical subjects as in the previous form, Form VI, approximately our 12th grade (ages 17-18) has some remarkable authors in its line-up. Among them are the physicist philosophers Sir James Jeans (The Universe Around Us) and Sir Arthur Eddington (Nature of the Physical World). Both men are considered the founders of British Cosmology, in which physics shares its scope with philosophy in dealing with the origin and fate of the universe.

These physicists wanted to help the layman understand the new developments of relativity and quantum theory. Sir Arthur Eddington was particularly well-known for his ability to explain the concepts in lay terms. Using a healthy dose of humor combined with literary references, Sir Eddington makes relativity, thermodynamics, and quantum mechanics perfectly accessible in his now classic Nature of the Physical World.

Now, some of the books used in Mason’s classrooms will not be scientifically viable today as they talk about the ether, or aether, which late 19th century physicists believed to permeate space. They theorized that this was the medium through which light could travel in a vacuum. The existence of the ether was disproved by the Michelson-Morley experiment which would later help pave the way for Einstein’s idea that the speed of light is constant.

And while scientific books of today don’t always rise to the poetic level of those chosen by Mason, there are some modern books that kindle the imagination and throw the doors open to wonder. For example, in addition to Holden’s The Sciences, my Form II students enjoyed three small books by Russell Stannard: The Time and Space of Uncle Albert, Black Holes and Uncle Albert, and Uncle Albert and the Quantum Quest. As in Ruskin’s The Ethics of the Dust and Holden’s The Sciences, Stannard employs the literary device of dialogue—this time between Albert Einstein and his fictional niece, Gedanken, to explore time and space, speed and light, and quarks and electrons. Form III could take a more historical view with books such as The World of Physics by John Hudson Tiner and Jerome Pohlen’s Albert Einstein and Relativity for Kids, while Form IV might enjoy Carlo Rovelli’s Seven Brief Lessons on Physics. Forms V and VI could add the more in-depth Reality is Not What it Seems: the Journey to Quantum Gravity or still consider Eddington’s classic, The Nature of the Physical World, while exploring current thought with scientific news.

A remarkable option is Sabbath Mood Homeschool’s Living Science Study Guides by Nicole Williams. Taking into account the wide field of topics in a Mason science curriculum, Williams introduces the study of physics appropriately in Form II, looks at universal laws in Forms III and IV, and then in high school begins with measurement, laws of motion, pressure, and light using the book For the Love of Physics by astrophysicist Walter Lewin. Along with the guides for astronomy and weather, this is a bountiful treatment of physics which allows for both basic principles and more in-depth study. Additional guides on quantum mechanics and relativity are due out this school year to complete the high school portion of physics in the rotation.

Taken with the other science guides, Sabbath Mood Homeschool has certainly laid down a course of study as thoughtful and generous as the PNEU. Resting on the firm foundation of Mason’s principles, the Living Science Study Guides not only schedule the living books but also the other methods important to, and utilized in, Mason’s study of physics. It is these methods that we will briefly explore next: narration, natural history notebooks (known as science notebooks today), experiments, and exams.


The important role of living books in the study of physics is supported by the equally important role of narration in these lessons. Miss Parish, who trained at the House of Education and gave her heart to Charlotte Mason’s movement, sums up the art of listening and giving back beautifully:

Narrating is not the work of a parrot, but of absorbing into oneself the beautiful thought from the book, making it one’s own and then giving it forth again with just that little touch that comes from one’s own mind. (Parish, E., as cited by Cholmondeley, 2000, p. 125)

While a narration could be given either orally or written, it could also be found in the form of an entry placed in the student’s notebook.

The Natural History or Science Notebook

How was the natural history notebook or, what we frequently term the science notebook, utilized in the study of physics? Charlotte Mason explains how far-reaching the nature notebooks were in their schools, noting that they find room for both the courses of the stars and a “fossil anemone found on the beach at Whitby,” and she emphasizes that the notebooks “do a good deal to bring science within the range of common thought and experience” (1989f, p. 223). Indeed, when looking through the Charlotte Mason Digital Collection, you may see natural history notebooks from the House of Education, with entries on architecture, geography, chemistry, physics, and spectrum analysis along with the parts of a cockroach all housed in the same book (Hugman, 1923). Entries in a student’s notebook could be written and/or include drawings and diagrams from books or newspaper reports. While the programmes of study specify daily nature journal entries (again, not necessarily a brush-drawing—this could be a short written entry), there seems to be no hard and fast rule to the natural history or science notebook. What we do see is that entries were a definite part of the work, although the student was allowed to choose what to enter. We see here the same aspect of “self-management” as we see with the nature notebook.


Other entries that might find their way into the notebook are those coming from experiments. In my previous article, I shared Telford Petrie’s words regarding Charlotte Mason’s criticism of school laboratories; even so, fieldwork, lab work, and experiments were important to her. In praising Holden’s The Sciences, which you’ll remember was used in Form II, Mason tells us:

Capital diagrams and descriptions make experiments easy and children arrive at their first notions of science without the verbiage that darkens counsel. (1989f, p. 219)

Here Mason quotes Job 38:2 “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge” (ESV, 2016) to relay how a preponderance of words only serves to cloud rather than clarify a child’s first ideas of science.

But when rightly used, experiments aided in the exploration of science and physics and were also valued for nurturing the habit of observation. Nothing seems to have changed regarding Mason’s thoughts in this area from the publication of her first volume to her sixth. She tells us in Home Education regarding science:

One thing is to be borne in mind: nothing should be done without its due experiment. (1989a, p. 271)

She then states in her final volume, Towards A Philosophy of Education:

The teacher affords direction, sympathy in studies, a vivifying word here and there, help in the making of experiments, etc., as well as the usual teaching in languages, experimental science [i.e., physics, chemistry] and mathematics. (1989f, p. 19).

If the book in use did not provide experiments, a book of experiments was suggested. In the case of relativity and quantum physics, thought experiments—those carried out in the imagination, such as the one at the beginning of the previous article—were described. The modern books I mentioned contain thought experiments and/or physical experiments. The American Physical Society’s Physics Central offers a multitude of experiments that can be done in the home schoolroom as do the Living Science Guides put out by Sabbath Mood Homeschool.


And of course there were end of term exams. Usually there was only one question per term regarding physics, but the questions were such as would both “release and confirm knowledge” (Kitching, E., as cited by Cholmondeley, 2000, p. 197). Examples include:

[Form] IV. 1. Describe the “behavior of those marvelous molecules (of matter)” in the liquid state. (PNEU, 1921, p. 4)

[Form] V. 1. Show that we have experimental proof that light is due to electrons revolving round atoms. (PNEU, 1929, p. 4)

In How to make a study of physics in a CM classroom, we have considered living books, news articles, narration, science notebooks, experiments, and exams. But How about the math found in physics? We will discuss that in our final post of the series where we take a look at Where the study of physics took place in the Charlotte Mason classroom, before we end with the Who.


Buckley, A. (1880). Fairyland of Science. London: Edward Stanford.

Cholmondely, E. (2000). The Story of Charlotte Mason. Petersfield: Child Light Ltd.

Eddington, A. (1929). The Nature of the Physical World. Cambridge: The University Press.

ESV. (2016). The Holy Bible: English standard version. Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

Giberne, A. (1920). This Wonderful Universe. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.

Holden, E. (1902). The Sciences. Boston: The Athenæum Press.

Hugman, K. (1922). Natural History. Retrieved from

Kipling, R. (1909). Stories and poems. New York: A. L. Burt Company.

Mason, C. (1989a). Home Education. Quarryville: Charlotte Mason Research & Supply.

Mason, C. (1989c). School Education. Quarryville: Charlotte Mason Research & Supply.

Mason, C. (1989f). A Philosophy of Education. Quarryville: Charlotte Mason Research & Supply.

Mercer, J. (1922). Some Wonders of Matter (2nd ed.). London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.

PNEU. (1921). Examination 90. Retrieved from

PNEU. (1929). Examination 115. Retrieved from

©2017 Richele Baburina

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