An Exploration of the Religious Philosophy of Charlotte Mason
Introduction to Charlotte Mason
Charlotte Mason is a name not much heard of in Christian education. Mason was a devout Anglican British educator of lowly origins, who eventually became a noted educational reformer. Mason developed a model of education, “the Ambleside Method”, based on her understanding of biblical theology and educational theory. Mason was a prolific writer, writing three volumes on education, one volume on parenting, and two volumes on character development. She also wrote a series of geography readers as well as meditations on the gospel of John, and six volumes of devotional poetry, putting the life and teachings of Christ into verse form.
Charlotte Mason was not a proponent of Sunday schools. In Parents and Children, she addresses parents saying,, “that is, the Sunday School is, at present, a necessary evil, an acknowledgment that there are parents so hard pressed that they are unable for their first duty. Here we have the theory of the Sunday School––the parents who can, teach their children at home on Sunday, and substitutes step in to act for those who can not”. As an Anglican, Mason would have expected children to be present in the service with adults. Sunday schools had been in operation for about one hundred years when she was writing, but they were typically operated in addition to Sunday church services and were primarily targeting lower class children who were unable to attend school during the week. Since Mason saw the parents as being primarily responsible for the discipleship of their children, she did not invest a lot of time discussing education within the local church. This may be one reason why she is largely overlooked within Christian education.
However, Mason did discuss Christian education within the home and school setting a great deal. Her philosophy was deeply rooted in the concepts of children as made in the image of God and the Holy Spirit as the educator of mankind. She devoted chapters in her volumes to the religious instruction of children and the teaching of the Bible.
I was originally introduced to Mason’s works through the call to home educate my children. After reading For the Children’s Sake, by Susan Schaeffer Macaulay, I began to dive in to Mason’s writings more deeply and apply her principles to the task of home education. I also worked part time coordinating the elementary ministry for my local church. In attending a Mason conference in Peoria, IL, I attended a session on Charlotte Mason and Children’s Ministries. This session raised a lot of questions for me as to how Charlotte’s philosophy would apply to my ministry involvement. As a result, I decided to explore Mason’s approach to education in general and teaching the Bible in particular to see how it could impact my ministry in the local church. I came to the conclusion that Mason has been tragically overlooked. Christian educators can learn a lot from Mason’s philosophy and methods. The two are inseparable- you need to have an understanding of Mason’s philosophy to apply her methods correctly.
This paper will examine Mason’s philosophy as outlined in her Short Synopsis, or 20 Principles of Education, published as the Preface to An Essay Towards a Philosophy of Education. It will then seek to find ways that churches can apply Mason’s educational pedagogy in educational ministries.
Her first educational work, Home Education (1886), was the outgrowth of a series of lectures she gave for mothers concerning the education of young children. At the close of the 19th century, many young children were still educated in the home schoolroom by parents and governesses. As her ideas gained popularity, they resulted in the establishment of an organization titled the Parents National Education Union (PNEU), which was intended to share Mason’s educational philosophy. The PNEU began publishing a monthly journal, The Parents Review, in 1890. Mason published Parents and Children (1896) followed shortly thereafter, intending to address the role of the parent in the education of the child. Mason also established a teacher training college in Ambleside, England, which was known as the House of Education, later called the Charlotte Mason College.
Mason wrote from a strong Christian worldview and her writing is full of Christian underpinnings. Benjamin Bernier sums up her work as “an Evangelical-Anglican educational philosophy built upon spiritual premises and aimed at personal discipleship with a highly developed method”. Charlotte Mason was influenced by Anglican clergymen such as John Keble and F.D. Maurice. She believed that “the knowledge of God is the principal knowledge, and the chief end of education”. She was widely read and would also draw on the work of educational theorists such as Johann Pestalozzi and Friedrich Froebel as well as interact with her contemporaries such as Matthew Arnold, Maria Montessori, John Dewey, and Charles Darwin.
By the turn of the 20th century and the rise of public education, the focus of Mason’s works began to focus on school classrooms instead of home schoolrooms. The PNEU began the development of a curriculum which could be utilized in both home school rooms and classrooms. In 1904, School Education was published, followed by two volumes on character development: Ourselves: Our Souls and Our Bodies (1905) addressed the student directly whereas Formation of Character (1906) addressed parents and teachers. Dr. Benjamin Bernier writes, “instead of primarily aiming at strengthening parents to convey the best education for their children in families, now she was primarily targeting the teachers of the nation”.
During this time, the PNEU continued to grow and directed its efforts at promoting a nation-wide method of instruction based on Mason’s philosophy. Their goal was ‘a liberal education for all’, regardless of class or social standing. Mason’s final educational work, An Essay Towards a Philosophy of Education was published posthumously in 1925.
In his doctoral thesis, Education for the Kingdom, Benjamin Bernier argues that as Mason’s movement began to target the teachers and schools, the religious foundations of Mason’s method were softened in order to provide a more universal appeal. “As the modern state continued to move away from the tacit religious presuppositions of the Victorian era, so Mason’s philosophy lost more and more of its religious meaning, purpose, impulse, and appeal”.
After Mason’s death, her educational movement gradually declined. The PNEU no longer operates. Her teacher training college is now part of St. Martin’s College in Ambleside, England. Her works have been largely overlooked in contemporary educational theory and practice, both in secular and Christian education.
In 1984, Susan Schaeffer Macaulay, the daughter of theologian Francis Schaeffer, published a short book titled For the Children’s Sake: Foundations of Education for School and Home. Macaulay’s book summarized Mason’s core principles and enthusiastically encouraged their adoption. This inspired a resurgence of interest in Mason’s thought. This book was particularly embraced by the growing homeschooling movement. In 1989, Tyndale House Press, in cooperation with Dean and Karen Andreola, republished Mason’s six volumes on education and character training as ‘The Original Home Schooling Series.’
The growth of the internet helped to spread Mason’s educational philosophy among the homeschooling community. Different homeschool curricula were developed around Mason’s philosophy such as Ambleside Online, Simply Charlotte Mason, a Modern Charlotte Mason, and Mason’s Alveary. The increase in popularity also helped spur greater academic interest in Mason’s philosophy. Charlotte Mason inspired private schools and charter schools have been established in North America and abroad. Organizations such as Ambleside Schools International and the Charlotte Mason Institute exist to support the worldwide Charlotte Mason community by “explicating the educational philosophy of Charlotte Mason, equipping individuals and schools to practice Mason’s pedagogy, and nourishing the Mason community with insightful publications and examples of practices and various forms of knowledge”.
While there has been an increase of interest in Charlotte Mason’s work in the broader educational community, including private and charter schools, Mason has largely been ignored in the theory and practice of Christian education. Bernier argues, “Mason should be recognized as a unique educational philosopher, the framer of what could be regarded as the only fully articulated gospel centered philosophy of education and discipleship based upon the doctrinal foundation of Anglicanism, a unique contribution to the theory and practice of Christian education”.
Charlotte Mason’s Educational Philosophy
View of the Learner and Teacher
In the initial chapter of Children Matter, Scottie May shares how she believes metaphors shape ministry. The word pictures we use to describe the teaching and learning process reveal our underlying philosophy or worldview. Common metaphors in our contemporary culture include children as blank slates, empty vessels, or clay pots to be shaped. These are all passive metaphors and therefore May argues that these are not biblical metaphors: “The Bible uses words such as sheep, plants, seeds, pilgrims—things that are alive, growing, and active”.
Charlotte Mason’s starting point is the weighty statement, “children are born persons”. In her first volume Home Education, Mason rejects the passive metaphors which were common in her day: “And first, let us consider where and what the little being is who is entrusted to the care of human parents. A tablet to be written upon? A twig to be bent? Wax to be moulded? … he is much more––a being belonging to an altogether higher estate than ours”.
Charlotte Mason believed that the Bible showed “the deepest insight into what is peculiar to the children in their nature and estate”. In her very first volume on education, Mason claims to derive a code of education directly from the gospels:
It may surprise parents who have not given much attention to the subject to discover also a code of education in the Gospels, expressly laid down by Christ. It is summed up in three commandments, and all three have a negative character, as if the chief thing required of grown-up people is that they should do no sort of injury to the children: Take heed that ye OFFEND not––DESPISEnot––HINDER not––one of these little ones.
Mason’s view of children is based on these words of Christ in Matthew 18 and 19. It is a foundational principle of her philosophy of education. In a later article, Concerning Children as Persons, Mason explained:
We must either reverence or despise children; and while we regard them as incomplete and undeveloped beings, who will one day arrive at the completeness of man, rather than as weak and ignorant persons, whose ignorance we must inform and whose weakness we must support, but whose potentialities are as great as our own, we cannot do otherwise than despise children, however kindly or even tenderly we commit the offence.
Mason affirmed that children are born in the image of God. She did not see the child as a passive vessel to be filled or a blank slate to be written on, but as “a person with a mind as complete and as beautiful as his beautiful little body” and therefore having “all the mind he requires for his occasions”. They are complete beings, worthy of respect. Her ninth principle states, “We hold that the child’s mind is no mere sac to hold ideas; but is rather, if the figure may be allowed, a spiritual organism, with an appetite for all knowledge”. Charlotte Mason believed that the child has “all the powers necessary wherewith to realize and appropriate all knowledge, all beauty, and all goodness”.
Mason viewed children as hungry for knowledge. She was influenced by the work of John Amos Comenius and, like Comenius, saw within children an innate desire to know God. She saw children’s continual questions about God as “symptoms of a God-hunger with which we are all born” and that a child is “able to comprehend as much of the infinite and unseen as are his self-complacent elders”. Consequently, Mason wrote that “the most fatal way of despising the child falls under the third educational law of the Gospels; it is to overlook and make light of his natural relationship with Almighty God. ‘Suffer the little children to come unto Me,’ says the Saviour, as if that were the natural thing for the children to do when they are not hindered by their elders”.
Charlotte Mason saw an immense spiritual potential in children, yet acknowledged the presence of sin in their lives. She believed that children had possibilities for good and for evil. In his essay on Mason’s theology, Art Middlekauff writes, “for Mason, total depravity—original sin or the Fall—affects the full breath of every child’s nature, but not its full depth. In other words, the Fall corrupts every dimension of the child, but does not eradicate the image of God within that child”.
Mason had a biblically informed view of children. In her essay Historical Perspectives on Children in the Church, Marcia Bunge describes six central ways Christian theologians have explained the nature of children, which may seem contradictory. However, Bunge saw value in drawing from all six descriptions of children to create a more biblically informed view. Bunge writes that a biblically informed approach to children will:
incorporate a complex view of the child that holds together the inherent tensions of being a child and being fully human and made in the image of God yet still developing and in need of instruction and guidance; gifts of God and sources of joy yet also capable of selfish and sinful actions; metaphors for immature faith and childish behaviors and yet models of faith and sources of revelation.
I believe Mason recognized these paradoxes and saw the implications this would have on the educational process. Mason wrote, “this doctrine, of the mystery of a person is very wholesome and necessary for us in these days; if we even attempted to realize it, we should not blunder as we do in our efforts… at education”. The personhood of children was a captain idea for Mason and she drew many educational implications from it.
One of the implications of the personhood of the child was in the role of the teacher. Mason believed that the teacher was in a role of authority, but that authority was limited. Mason’s third and fourth educational principles state, “(3) The principles of authority on the one hand, and of obedience on the other, are natural, necessary, and fundamental; but—(4) these principles are limited by the respect due to the personality of children, which must not be encroached upon, whether by the direct use of fear or love, suggestion or influence, or by undue play upon any one natural desire”.
In the discussion on metaphors, May observes that when one has a passive metaphor for children, such as blank slates or empty vessels, then the teacher is the one actively involved in the teaching/learning process. The teacher becomes the expert, the authority, the one pouring a set body knowledge into the passive student. May writes that the “teacher controls or acts on the learner”. Mason describes this as a “deadly error” and that the teacher is not the “showman to the universe”.
If children are viewed as passive in the education process, we have a low view of the student. The teacher is the one active and has a more exalted role. Mason believed that this could lead to apathy on the part of the student. Charlotte Mason viewed knowledge as “delectable”. She saw children as being born with God-given curiosity, or appetite for knowledge, and that this was sufficient motivation to learn. When teachers treat children as passive learners, they diminish the desire for knowledge. She wrote, “so besotted is our educational thought that we believe children regard knowledge rather as repulsive medicine than as inviting food”.
Mason identified several fallacies that she believed teachers were guilty of. The first is simply seeing the teacher as the fount of all knowledge and superior to the student. The focus becomes on conveying a set body of content or predefined learning objectives. In a ministry setting, this can be intimidating for lay teachers who may not feel confident in their level of Bible knowledge. Recruitment provides enough challenges as it is.
Predefined learning objectives have the danger of pre-digesting the Biblical text and can interfere with the application work of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes the learning objectives moralize the story, turning it into a moral lesson. One popular children’s curriculum our church used turned the story of the rescue of baby Moses in Exodus 2 into a lesson on creativity. The video-driven teaching saw Miriam as the hero of the story instead of God. The point of the lesson was to inspire children to “be creative like Miriam” and come up with creative solutions to the problems they face in their lives. Mason warns against moralizing with the Bible: “Do not bepreach the child to weariness about ‘being good’ as what he owes to God, without letting in upon him first a little of that knowledge which shall make him good”.
Mason was not opposed to habit training or the teaching of virtues, however, she saw this as secondary to having the child form a relationship with God: “It is well that he should know that being good is not his whole duty to God, although it is so much of it; that the relationship of love and personal service, which he owes as a child to his Father, as a subject to his King, is even more than the ‘being good’ which gives our Almighty Father such pleasure in His children”.
Another related fallacy Mason identifies is over-explaining and paraphrasing content. Adults, Mason writes, “are convinced that [children] cannot understand a literary vocabulary so we explain and paraphrase to our own heart’s content”. She compares this to pre-digesting food. Many elementary curricula now are video-driven, giving the Bible lesson in video format and robbing children of the opportunity to listen and interact with the Word of God itself. Students passively watch the Bible video instead of interacting and asking questions.
A third fallacy is believing that we have to capture children’s attention instead of realizing the powers of attention children already possess. Mason writes, that teachers fall into the lie of believing that attention “is to be cultivated, nursed, coddled, wooed by persuasion, by dramatic presentation, by pictures and illustrative objects”. A popular children’s ministry trend in the 21st century is what Scottie May and her co-writers have labeled a “Carnival Model”. May describes a typical classroom:
A visitor to one of these ministries may be struck at the outset by an atmosphere reminiscent of Chuck E. Cheese’s, a restaurant chain that caters to children. Large, open spaces are full of games, activities, and crafts. Lots of color, energy, and happy noise fill the room. Children, lots of children, mill around engaged in their activities of choice…. The fun opening time is followed by learning-oriented sessions divided by age levels. This may include large-group time, with a drama team and worship band… The final period is devoted to small groups.
In this model, the intent is to make the teaching entertaining so as to capture the attention of the student. Often the methods used are similar to what is used for entertainment in the larger culture. Unfortunately, this can result in the biblical content being diluted to make it more palatable. After experiencing one such lesson, I asked my elementary-aged children what they learned in church that Sunday. Their answer was, “I don’t know, but we bowled with potatoes”. The fun activities had gotten in the way of the message. May writes that such activities can also make it challenging for children to really “experience awe and wonder before the majesty and holiness of God”. When the activities distract from the Word of God, they become a stumbling block to children truly encountering the Lord.
In addition to the carnival atmosphere, ministries will use external rewards and motivations to entice children to engage with the content. We reward children for attendance or Bible memory. My children participated in a program where they got a prize for bringing their Bibles to church—they did not need to read their Bibles during church, but they would get a prize for bringing the Bible in. Some Christian organizations are entirely based on a competitive model. Scottie May warns, “tangible rewards, when used to motivate people, substantially undermine learners’ curiosity, interest, self-motivation, and persistence… tangible rewards decrease intrinsic motivation”. Alfie Kohn has done extensive research on the effects of extrinsic motivation. In his article, Punished by Rewards? Kohn writes that rewards can damage interest and concludes that “rewards are most damaging to interest when the task is already intrinsically motivating”. Because children are born desiring to know God, knowing God and His word should be an intrinsic motivation.
A Mason education is not opposed to fun or games. In fact, she believed that children had a developmental need for play and scheduled it into their daily program. However, she did not think that we needed to capture children’s attention in order to educate them by various carnival tricks. She believed that attention was an ability to turn on the mind and concentrate. It was an ability she felt was inherent in every child. Mason writes, “this act, of bringing the whole mind to bear, may be trained into a habit at the will of the parent or teacher, who attracts and holds the child’s attention by means of a sufficient motive”. The proper motive is the desire for knowledge. “Knowledge pursued for its own sake is sedative in so far as it is satisfying”. This is intrinsic motivation and is a far more powerful motivator. May writes, “When the motivation is intrinsic… the child wants to learn because the content itself has significance and meaning”.
When the child has the proper motivation, self education can occur. Mason believed that “there is no education but self-education”. The student is not passive in the education process, as so many of our metaphors would suggest. Scottie May believes that when we see the student in a more active role in the educational process, then we have a different view of the teacher such as a shepherd, guide or friend. She writes that these metaphors “appear more in accord with biblical accounts of how the Lord Jesus related to his followers”. Mason agrees. Drawing from the gospels, she emphasizes Jesus’ command to Peter: “Feed my lambs” (John 21:15-17)
The goal of the teacher, according to Mason, is to stimulate the children’s desire for knowledge. In a church setting, this is obviously the knowledge of the one true God. Mason writes, “to excite this ‘appentency towards something’—towards things lovely, honest, and of good report, is the earliest and most important ministry of the educator”. The means we use to stimulate the desire for God must not focus on extrinsic rewards and must honor the personhood of the child. To Mason, there were three tools adults could use in the education of children: the atmosphere, the discipline of habit, and the use of living ideas.
The first tool, atmosphere can be described as both physical and spiritual. The physical atmosphere involves the space and items in the classroom or church building. The spiritual atmosphere involves the relationships and attitudes which surround the environment. The largest influence on a child is the home atmosphere. Mason writes, “the atmosphere in which the child inspires his unconscious ideas of right living emanates from his parents”. Marva Dawn agrees, “Parents will model for their children what it means to live in faith if they themselves keep God as the center of their attitudes and intentions and decisions (heart), of their use of their gifts and talents and personality (soul), of their every expenditure of energy and time and resources (might)”.
However, parents are not alone in their efforts. The individual family unit should be seen as a part of the larger congregation. This has a biblical basis. In Deuteronomy, the entire community is called to the task of nurturing children (Deut 6). In his essay “That the Children May Know” theologian Patrick Miller examines the subject of children in Deuteronomy. In discussing the religious upbringing of Israelite children, Miller emphasizes that both family and the larger religious assembly “are a primary impetus to the education of the child”. He continues, “In regard to virtually all the regular festive occasions, the text in one way or another, explicitly or implicitly, prescribes a family gathering across the generations. The children are not excluded from the ritual acts of the congregation. They are present and learning”.
Mason did not believe that children should be sheltered or isolated from the life of the family. We could say that the same is true of the church family. Churches often lose students at the point when they are transitioning out of the Sunday school or youth room. “If children belong only to a Sunday school class or a midweek club, the church’s formative influence in that child’s life is limited… The church will be a positive influence in the development of its children to the degree that they are seen as part of the church, not just attached to it through programs, no matter how well conceived or entertaining these programs are”. Unfortunately, in many evangelical churches today almost all activities are age-segregated.
Intergenerational ministry models can be helpful to consider. Larry Richards identifies three potential approaches for intergenerational communication: intergenerational small groups, intergenerational Sunday school classes, and intergenerational events such as family camps, family Sundays, or service projects. Through avenues such as these, Richards believes children will be able to belong and participate in their faith communities. Additionally, adults will be able to model a life of faith through a variety of life settings and situations.
As Christian educators, the atmosphere of our church services, programs, and classrooms will either reinforce or contradict the atmosphere of the child’s home. We want to develop an atmosphere which does more than nurture the mind, but nurtures the heart of children. Some items to consider: What is the spiritual life of the teacher like? Is the physical environment welcoming? Is it adapted to the children? What is the structure or schedule for the morning? Is there time for free play in classrooms? Are children sheltered into their own classrooms or are they (also) part of the life of the congregation? What is the attitude of the congregation towards children? Do children participate in acts of service? How are we equipping parents to disciple their children?
The second tool Charlotte Mason emphasized was the discipline of good habits. Drawing on the work of British physiologist William B. Carpenter, she believed that the formation of “habits intentionally and thoughtfully” was an important part of education and that habits shaped one’s character. Carpenter taught that the will controlled and directed one’s attention and that this was the key to self control. Mason wrote, “the one achievement possible and necessary for every man is character; and character is as finely wrought metal beaten into shape and beauty by the repeated and accustomed action of will”.
Mason saw the importance of character formation and wrote two volumes on the subject. The first was titled Ourselves: Our Souls and Bodies, taken from the Anglican Prayer of Oblation. Its goal was to encourage students to improve their character and growth towards the chief end of man, glorifying God. The second, Formation of Character, was directed to parents and teachers to give guidance on moral development. Mason did not see this as a means of self-salvation. Bernier writes, “Mason’s emphasis on character training by the cultivation of habits and the training of the will is an expression of her view of these as gifts of God’s grace that may be used in the nurturing of Christian character, not a negation of his grace, but rather a recognition of the kind of provision and responsibility associated with it”. Human effort is necessary in sanctification, but not sufficient in itself to bring about a changed life.
The role of the parent and/or teacher is to understand the natural process of habit development. The way to moral change is not to moralize, or focus on extrinsic behavior, but to increase the desire for good through a steady diet of ideas. Mason writes, “our function as teachers is to supply children with the rations of knowledge which they require; and the rest character and conduct, efficiency and ability, and, that finest quality of the citizen, magnanimity, take care of themselves”.
Mason’s third tool for use in education is living ideas. Charlotte Mason believed that the mind was a “spiritual organism with an appetite for all knowledge”. Using a feasting metaphor, she believed that “the mind is capable of dealing with only one kind of food; it lives, grows, and is nourished upon ideas only; mere information is to it as a meal of sawdust to the body”.
What is an idea? How is it communicated? One Mason educator writes, “The nature of knowing (learning) begins with ideas, the live things of the mind, that strike, impress, seize, and catch hold of one”. Mason herself described an idea as “a spiritual germ endowed with vital force- with power, that is, to grow and to produce after its kind”. Ideas are “clothed upon with fact, history, and story” and “are of spiritual origin, and God has made us so that we get them chiefly as we convey them to one another, whether by word of mouth, written page, Scripture word, musical symphony”. In other words, Mason believed children learned through literary form and the living ideas surrounding them in the natural world.
Christian educators are beginning to emphasize the role of storytelling. In Children Matter, the authors believe that storytelling is a “primary tool of the Christian educator”. The Bible is the Word of God, God communicates to us in literary form. We naturally learn from stories. Ivy Beckwith speculates, “God knew there was something in the human spirit that could relate to, inhabit, and be transformed by stories, even stories conceived thousands of years before in dramatically different cultures from those of the hearers”.
We are recognizing the importance of stories. Catherine Stonehouse and Scottie May write “if [children] do not come to know and love God’s story, they are deprived of the food needed for healthy spiritual development at a time in life that is rich with spiritual potential”. The authors of Children Matter write,
through [stories] children comprehend the deep truths about God and the world. Through stories they understand realities that they would not grasp through abstract explanations, propositional statements, or theological concepts. Stories touch the heart and mind and inspire us to believe in God and live as God’s children. We express our faith through the stories we remember and tell about God. We tell Bible stories because the Scriptures instruct us to, because Jesus told stories, and because they are worth telling. As children come to know the stories of the Bible, they develop their identity as part of the Christian community.
In the past decade, Christians have made important strides in this area. Some Christian authors and publishers have met this need by publishing books and curricula for children which place individual Bible stories within the larger context of God’s story. Bibles such as The Jesus Storybook Bible, The Big Picture Story Bible, or The Gospel Story Bible are children’s story Bibles which try to communicate each individual story within the context of God’s plan to rescue mankind from their sins. Curricula such as The Gospel Project or The Gospel Story also try to connect each lesson within the larger metanarrative.
However, Mason did not advocate paraphrases of the Bible text for elementary aged students, as she felt they were treating the child as less than a person. “We are apt to believe that children cannot be interested in the Bible unless its pages be watered down—turned into the slipshod English we prefer to offer them”. She believed children ages 6 and up should be read to from the Bible itself, with the teacher making necessary omissions. Some Mason educators would use story Bibles and paraphrases for younger children. Writing for Mason’s journal, The Parents Review, Rev. Henry Seeley advocated using Bible retellings for young children with the stipulation that, “the statements paraphrasing Bible accounts should be accurate”. In examining story Bibles, scholar David Shaw agrees, “subtly changing the details of biblical narratives and relating details to the rest of Scripture will shape how a child forms their first thoughts of God’s character, how their life relates to his purposes, and to what end he has given us his word”. The early ideas children form about God matter, and we want them to be accurate.
Curriculum, Content and Assessment
What inspiring ideas do we want to communicate? In School Education, Mason identifies four ideas, all dealing with one’s relationship with a member of the Trinity. First, the fatherhood of God. Second, the Kingship of Christ. Third, Christ as Our Savior. Lastly, the Indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Faith is relational. She said that “faith is, then, the simple trust of person in Person”. It is connecting God’s story to the story we are living in our own lives. Mason saw the Bible as “the truth which interprets our own lives”.
The Bible isn’t to be moralized. It also isn’t to be buried under too much extraneous talk. Mason writes, “I think we make a mistake in burying the text under our endless comments and applications. Also, I doubt if the picking out of individual verses, and grinding these into the child until they cease to have any meaning for him, is anything but a hindrance to the spiritual life. The Word is full of vital force, capable of applying itself”.
In her book Postmodern Children’s Ministry, Ivy Beckwith passionately agrees:
When we use the Bible with children simply to teach doctrinal tenets, moral absolutes, tips for better living, or stories of heroes to be emulated, we stunt the spiritual formation of our children and deprive them of the valuable, spiritual story of God. When we only distill the Bible into practical applications and little life lessons, we fail to teach children how to use the Bible as a means of understanding God’s overarching purposes in the world. We fail to give them the ability to understand their own stories in the light of God’s story. When we tell them what the Bible says or what to believe about what a particular Bible passage says, we rob them of the ability to experience the text for themselves and pull out its meaning in their own context and the larger context of their world. These are far more valuable spiritual skills for the child than learning Bible facts or spiritual axioms.
When we present living ideas to children, what do children do with them? A key idea of Mason’s is that the children should narrate. To continue Mason’s emphasis on the food analogy, just as we cannot digest food for the children, we cannot force them to learn an idea. True to her emphasis on self-education, Mason thought that the child had to be the one to take and see the value of an idea. In Children Matter, Linda Cannell came to a similar conclusion that children “have to be engaged in their own learning”.
Charlotte Mason believed “it is not what we read or what we hear that sustains us but what we appropriate; what we take home to our minds and ruminate on”. This act of knowing is the process by which children take the ideas and consider them, ultimately accepting or rejecting them. When a child accepts an idea, it becomes personally integrated into their lives. Dr. Jennifer Spencer writes, “a skill or idea has been integrated when it works an irreversible change and becomes an inseparable part of the learner”. Narration was a primary tool Mason used to help children perform this process. She writes, “knowledge is acquired only by what we may call ‘the act of knowing’ which is both encouraged and tested by narration”. She believed that narration was the way God designed children to learn.
As beings made in the image of God, we are image-bearers. We are made to narrate. Mason believed children narrate by nature, and that the power to narrate is “there, in every child’s mind, waiting to be discovered, and is not the result of any process of disciplinary education. A creative fiat calls it forth”. Children naturally retell the stories they hear, the movies they watch, or the experience of watching the garbage truck pick up the trash. They are natural storytellers.
Mason harnesses this natural ability of children and uses it as a tool to help children digest information. In its most basic form, narration is simply the child telling back what he or she has heard or experienced. Narration can take place through various forms- oral retelling, written retellings, drawing, acting- the goal is that the child is acting on the information received internally and processing it externally. It requires attention, because one cannot know what one has not paid attention to.
According to research by Edgar Dale, cited in Children Matter, children learn 70% of what is said and written and 90% of what is performed as a task. For us to truly know something, we must be able to reproduce it in some form. Mason believed that narration was the tool to help students personally integrate knowledge and be actively involved in their education. Scholar Dr. Carroll Smith agrees, “Since narration helps students own what they know, this type of knowledge is transformative and builds moral character”.
This method would not pinpoint select morals or propositions for the child to learn. Instead, the teacher would trust the Holy Spirit to be at work within the child to teach the child what he or she needs to know. Ivy Beckwith agrees, “we can allow the Bible story to stand by itself and trust kids to enter it in such a way that God will speak to them through it”. The teacher’s job is not to communicate a set body of knowledge, but to participate with the Holy Spirit in helping the child engage and apply the text. Beckwith describes the need for the teacher “to allow space for the children to explore the story in ways that are meaningful to them”.
While Mason highlighted the role of the Holy Spirit in teaching truth, she did not believe that one’s own interpretation or experience was above truth. She didn’t want teachers to tell the students how to apply the text, but she did want teachers to understand the meaning and background of a passage. As part of lesson preparation, she expected teachers to prepare by using a reputable commentary and to be well versed in modern criticism and research. As children were older, she encouraged the teachers to read selections from the commentaries to students after a narration. In her day she recommended the work of J. Paterson Smyth, an Anglican clergyman and theologian. Today there are numerous options for teachers to pursue within their own faith traditions.
Charlotte Mason saw the Bible as the most important lesson for children to learn. “Their Bible lessons should help them to realize in the early days that the knowledge of God is the principal knowledge, and therefore, that their Bible lessons are their chief lessons”. However, Mason believed that children needed “a full and generous curriculum”. Using her favorite analogy, Charlotte Mason advocated that children be given a wide feast of subjects, based on what she felt was a child’s right as a person made in God’s image:
Now we must deal with a child of man, who has a natural desire to know the history… of his nation, what men thought in the past and are thinking now; the best thoughts of the best minds taking form as literature, and at its highest as poetry, or, as poetry rendered in the plastic forms of art: as a child of God, whose supreme desire and glory it is to know about and to know his almighty Father: as a person of many parts and passions who must know how to use, care for, and discipline himself, body, mind and soul: as a person of many relationships,––to family, city, church, state, neighbouring states, the world at large: as the inhabitant of a world full of beauty and interest, the features of which he must recognise and know how to name, and a world too, and a universe, whose every function of every part is ordered by laws which he must begin to know. It is a wide programme founded on the educational rights of man; wide, but we may not say it is impossible nor may we pick and choose and educate him in this direction but not in that…. Our part it seems to me is to give a child a vital hold upon as many as possible of those wide relationships proper to him.
Mason saw no distinction between secular and sacred subjects. She thought such a dichotomy was “unnatural and irreligious”. Key to Mason’s thinking is what she refers to as the Great Recognition that all truth is God’s truth and all ideas are thus spiritual in origin. She firmly believed that “God, the Holy Spirit, is Himself the supreme Educator of mankind”. The Spirit is not limited to just ideas of a religious nature. Quoting Isaiah 28:23-29, she discusses how all ideas and inventions originate from the Spirit, regardless of whether the thinker was a Christian. “In the things of science, in the things of art, in the things of practical everyday life, his God doth instruct him and doth teach him”.
Charlotte Mason believed that “education is the science of relationships” and that children needed to build relationships in three different areas: God, man, and the physical creation. While Mason’s focus was broader than church-based education, I believe the church has a lot to learn from Mason in this regard. In contemporary evangelical American culture, church programs are primarily, and rightly, focused on the knowledge of God. Evangelicals typically leave the knowledge of man (the arts and humanities) and of the universe (the sciences) to be learned through the child’s formal schooling. Logistically speaking, this makes sense because few churches operate schools. However, it emphasizes the divide between secular and sacred subjects and deemphasizes the fact that all truth is God’s truth, something foundational to the development of a Christian worldview.
Nancy Pearcey has written extensively on the topics of worldview and the sacred/secular split. Arguing that Christianity is total truth, Pearcey believes that, “only by recovering a holistic view of total truth can we set the gospel free to become a redemptive force across all life”. Regulating sacred subjects into a more private or religious sector weakens the church. We want to enable children and young adults to think Christianly about every subject matter. Pearcey writes “we have to insist on presenting Christianity as a comprehensive, unified worldview that addresses all of life and reality. It is not just religious truth, but total truth”.
So what if churches began to highlight these subjects? What if church history was incorporated into our Sunday school classrooms? What if we read missionary biographies or prayed for different countries and located them on the map? What if we had the students look at a Rembrandt painting? What if instead of merely didactically teaching how Psalm 8 tells that the heavens declare the glory of God, we took children outside on a nature walk and marveled at God’s creativity? The church has an opportunity to provide a Christian worldview on these subjects, something that public education systems are not likely to provide.
Ivy Beckwith writes, “Knowing the stories from church history is an important piece of the positive spiritual formation of our children. Helping children understand that they are part of a movement that has been alive for more than two thousand years… is an important part of their spiritual development and spiritual memory”. Protestant churches, and evangelical churches in particular, are apt to ignore church history, especially before the Reformation. Our children are being deprived of a great cloud of witnesses who went before them.
As far as the subject of the sciences, the relationship between faith and science is complex and beyond the scope of this paper. Charlotte Mason lived in a very scientific age where scientific thought was gaining popularity. Mason did not want to shelter children from doubts, but saw “apologetic teaching as an essential part of the kind of… education demanded by the times”. Bernier writes, “she wanted to remain faithful to traditional belief while open to the new knowledge offered by the ‘new revelations’ of science… her approach was one of reserved openness, based upon a belief in a fundamental agreement between religious and scientific truth”. Whatever our church positions on origins, we can still instill in our children a respect and admiration for the Creator and create a safe place to discuss any questions or doubts students have.
Respecting children as persons means respecting their ideas, their questions, and their doubts. “How we handle their questions matters because our responses tell them what we think about them and their emerging ideas, theological or otherwise”.
In Practice: An Experiment in Mason’s Methodology
I was curious to see how Mason’s ideas could influence a children’s ministry, so my husband and I volunteered to serve in the 4th and 5th grade class while a teacher was recovering from surgery. The upper elementary class consists of about twelve children in fourth and fifth grade. It is heavily dominated by boys and has a reputation for being the most challenging group to teach. I was wondering if any of Mason’s practices would resonate with this rowdy class.
TCC is an evangelical church in the suburbs of Chicago. The children’s ministry runs separate classes for children during the service times. There is only one service time and volunteers serve once per month. The church currently utilizes a curriculum titled The Gospel Project for Children, published by Lifeway. This curriculum has a three year scope and sequence, covering the major portions of the Bible in a mostly chronological order. As per its title, this curriculum heavily focuses on seeing the gospel in every lesson. The curriculum is structured in a large group/small group format and typically, teachers utilize a video to teach the large group setting. The small group activities focus on games, crafts, and worksheets to bring home application points.
The children were at the end of a unit on the parables of Jesus. Our lesson focused on the Parable of the Wicked Tenants, found in Matthew 21:33-45. The stated main point of the lesson was: God will judge those who reject Jesus. The lesson also focused on the concept of Jesus being the cornerstone that the builders rejected.
As students arrived, we had them build towers of blocks as suggested in the opening activity. The children played Jenga with the blocks and then we had them build the tower and remove the corner pieces. After all the students had arrived, we passed out Bibles and defined terms such as tenant, landlord, and vineyard, I read Matthew 21:33-45 from the ESV while the children followed along.
To engage the children in the learning process and have them ruminate on the story, we had the students do an artistic narration of the parable. They were given markers, crayons and paper to draw the parable they had just heard. The children, particularly the boys, were uncertain at first due to the more violent tone of the parable. We reassured them that they were permitted to draw the entire scene and then they took to this with gusto. After about 5 minutes, the children were paired in groups of two or three and encouraged to share their drawings and retell the parable to one another. We allowed a couple volunteers to come up in front of the class to share their depictions of the parable.
These children were not accustomed to narration, but they did very well overall at retelling the passage. Using a rubric developed by Lisa Cadora, the children largely focused on the most dramatic part of the story, the slaying of the vineyard owner’s son, however some were able to include more details about the servants sent prior to the son.
After the children discussed their illustrations, we had a discussion about the meaning behind the parable. We brainstormed about who the vineyard owner represented and who his son represented. By and large, the children were able to associate these with God the Father and Jesus the Son. We had a bit more discussion as to who the tenants were. We also looked at famous art depictions of this parable. After we finished our discussion, we allowed the children to watch the short video of the Bible story with the task that they were to critique and compare it with what they had just read. The children almost unanimously prefered the written account, saying that details had been left out of the video.
We then focused on application, asking the students to think about how the passage could relate to their lives. This was more difficult for the students, but with some reflective questioning, we began to talk about the cost of rejecting Jesus. One of the children connected this story and the idea of a cornerstone to the Parable of the Foolish Builders, and we discussed the concept of building your life on Jesus.
After the discussion, we did another active demonstration around the concept of cornerstones. We finished our time by reading a chapter long biography of DL Moody from the book Ten Boys Who Made History. The children, who had been very active in the game, were quiet and listened attentively to the biography. The boys especially seemed to resonate with Moody’s rowdier childhood and church experiences. I believe they were encouraged that Moody was not perfect and that God could use them in a similar way.
Charlotte Mason stands most in agreement with a contemplative-reflective model of ministry. I believe this is where Mason is in partial agreement with approaches such as Jerome Berryman’s Godly Play. Mason had a high view of the learner as being a full person, made in the image of God, being both fallen and sinful, yet having great potential for good. She held the teacher to be in authority, but as a guide not an expert. She also believed that children needed to process and engage with the material they were presented with. Narration is a central part of a Mason education.
Unlike Montessori approaches, Mason did not believe in a special prepared environment, and believed that children best learn through living ideas. This is where Mason would be in disagreement with programs such as Godly Play. Mason would also widen the curriculum to include such things as great artwork, time in nature, biographies from church history, quality Christian literature, or great music.
Mason also emphasized the Bible over experience. While she did believe that the Holy Spirit is the one to impress truth on our hearts, she did not neglect the historical teachings and objective doctrines of the church. As part of lesson preparation, her teachers were expected to prepare with a reputable well-written commentary, and even read the commentary with children as they got older.
In many ways, Mason’s philosophy is very simple. It doesn’t require a lot of materials or preparation. Read the passage, have the children narrate and discuss. Keep lessons short and varied. Allow time for play and gross motor skills. Incorporate other disciplines such as art, music, church history, and time in nature. It would not require intense training of volunteers, but it would require volunteers committed to reading and studying the passage ahead of time.
The biggest challenge with a Mason approach is engaging with our media-saturated culture. As American culture grows more and more enamored with media and technology, this approach could seem unsophisticated and perhaps even luddite. While it worked well with my class of energetic boys and girls, almost all of those children had grown up in the church and had some familiarity with biblical teaching. I believe a Mason inspired ministry could be a refreshing change. More research needs to be done on the effectiveness of a more media-driven approach. Finding a balance is probably key.
I think there is much wisdom to be found in Mason’s principles, particularly the child’s desire to know and the effectiveness of narration as a tool for engagement. The children have minds ready and eager to learn. To return to the concept of metaphors, teachers are to act as shepherds, fellow pilgrims, and guides. We value children and value the Word of God as well as all knowledge. We provide safe relationships and the right atmosphere, discipline, and living ideas to encourage the child to grow in the knowledge of God, mankind, and the world God has made. I think Christian educators would do well to better acquaint themselves with Mason’s ideas.
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 Cited in Children Matter, 259.
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Amanda Kunzeman is a wife and a mother of three. She first heard of Charlotte Mason as a teenager when she saw the pink volumes on her cousin’s shelf— little did she know how much those pink volumes would influence her life! As she started homeschooling, the Charlotte Mason method truly resonated with her vision of education for her family.
Amanda has an MA in Educational Ministries from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, IL. She has previously served on staff at her local church coordinating children’s ministries. Amanda’s final paper focused on the application of Charlotte Mason’s methods to a children’s ministry setting. She relished the opportunity to dive deeper into Mason scholarship.
Originally from the Philadelphia area, Amanda lived in the Chicago area for over twenty years. She organized a Charlotte Mason book study in the Northern suburbs of Chicago and piloted a living library with her meager collection of 4,000 vintage children’s books.
Amanda and her family have recently relocated from the Chicago area to the Connecticut countryside. She is thankful that the Connecticut State motto is “He who transplanted, sustains.” She is also excited to be close to the ocean again.
©2018 Amanda Kunzeman