Charlotte Mason and the Child Who Loves To Learn

Charlotte Mason and the Child Who Loves To Learn

Which seems more interesting to you? Reading stories of Greek and Roman heroes, or sitting in a dim classroom all day memorizing historical dates? When I was little, my schoolwork looked like reading books and spending time out in nature. Many of us have childhood memories of schoolwork that looks like a blank classroom and textbooks with no story. I’ve been homeschooled my whole life, so I don’t know much about how the public education system works. But what I do know is my father’s extensive research on public school education. This research shows that many public schools fail to instill in their students a love for learning, so they fail to become lifelong learners. In this article, I’ll be addressing three of the main issues facing our public education today:

  1. Too little variety of subjects taught by schools,
  2. Too heavy a focus on grades, and
  3. The loss of intentional time out in nature.

Firstly, there is a limited variety of what is taught in schools. Schools have become less of a place to teach individuals meaningful life skills and more of a place where students are placed into a dull curriculum. In her 2022 article “The 15 Biggest Failures of the American Public Education System,” Kate Barrington speaks on the introduction of the Common Core curriculum. This was a curriculum that was “developed in 2009 to promote educational equity across the country, holding all students to the same standardized testing requirements.” This puts a hinderance on what is taught and the joy of learning that children can develop. Barrington continues to state that schools and teachers have been pressured to make their students focus on standardized tests and not “non-tested subjects like art.” And when students are being pressured to do well on these tests to show that teachers are doing an adequate job, they begin to see school as a chore, don’t actually learn the material, and creativity is thrown out. Barrington also comments on the reduction of innovation and flexibility in the classroom by the teacher due to this focus. This puts strain on students who learn differently because teachers are not given the chance to adapt to their students’ needs. And teachers cannot teach meaningful things to their students in this way.

Second, schools often stress getting good grades and not understanding the material. This leads schools to make their students think their worth is measured solely in grades. But all good grades show is that a student knows how to do well on a test. It doesn’t really mean they understood the material. Larry Cuban in his 2022 article “Schools as Factories: Metaphors That Stick,” says that many school reformers “want schools to produce higher test scores on international tests than their European and Asian competitors.” Such school reformers don’t care about the students’ needs. What good is it to have a younger generation that produces high test scores if they don’t even remember what they learned? Matthew Biggins comments on this kind of attitude in his article “How American Schools Set Students Up to Fail” written in 2018 stating:

This type of success changes our thinking. Instead of viewing success as an actual improvement to the world, the education system teaches us that success is achieving a certain status relative to our peers.

This way of treating students gives the illusion of schools as prisons.

Lastly, there is little to no study of nature in today’s society. When I say, “nature study,” I’m referring to this: you find a path through the prairie or woods and walk through it intently, taking note of the birds, animals, and plants around you. Richard Louv, in his book, Last Child in the Woods, written in 2008 says, “Unlike television, nature does not steal time; it amplifies it. Nature offers healing for a child living in a destructive family or neighborhood” (p. 7). This interaction with nature helps the child grow more confident in his ability to notice, try something new, and observe the simple sciences. Nature also has a calming effect. And this calming effect has immense importance especially now with the increasing number of broken families. Biggins defines education as such: “the purpose of education is to inspire action to better the world and lead us to personal fulfillment.” This, I believe, should include nature study. Things like climate change and tropical forests fires are all over the news, but how many of us truly know the impact they have on the world other than what newscasters tell us? All in all, nature is important for child development and should not be withheld from them.

Schools nowadays have turned to focusing on grades and test scores instead of the love of learning. From what I have seen, too heavy a focus on grades, leading to little variety of subjects, and limited time out in nature seems to be the trend of public schools. Einstein is said to have said, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

Now, I’m sure you’ve heard something like this before — about how bad public schools are, and the wrongs they’re performing. But what is one supposed to do about this monumental thing called school? Especially if one prefers not talking about it? Well, I like talking about school, so I’m going to talk about solutions: how to make school better.

Like I said before I’m a homeschool kid. And I didn’t grow up walking to school uphill any which way. Nope, I sat in my living room reading books that my old friend Charlotte Mason picked out for me. Parents and others responsible for the education of children should adopt the Charlotte Mason method to develop the child’s love of learning so they become lifelong learners. Just a few moments ago, I pointed out some of the main issues with our current education system. I’ll briefly review those points now, introduce who Charlotte Mason is, and why I think her method is the solution we need. So once again, what’s wrong with our schools?

Some of you may say, “there’s a lot wrong with our schools.” But right now, I’m going to focus on the same three things: too little variety of school subjects, too heavy a focus on grades, and the loss of nature time. Too little variety stems from schools and teachers shifting to standardized tests. Standardized tests are not as much a way to gauge if the student is learning, but more to see if the teacher can teach well, or at least, teach a student how to take a test and pass. The American University School of Education stated in an article entitled “Effects of Standardized Testing on Students and Teachers” written in 2020, “Standardized tests fail to account for students who learn and demonstrate academic proficiency in different ways.” What about good grades? Grades may have come from a good place, but nowadays, they’re used almost like a ranking system. You get an A, you’re a good student. Get an F and you’re a bad student. No more nature time has the previous two points to blame. Students are now stuck inside studying for tests and worrying about getting good grades rather than spending time outside.

All right, now that we’re all depressed talking about grades and such, let me introduce you to Charlotte Mason.

Charlotte Mason was born in Wales in the mid 1800s. Later in life, she founded a school in Ambleside, England which still runs today. Here, she developed her philosophy of education which is best summarized by two sentences: “Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life” and “Education is the Science of Relations.” Susan Schaeffer Macaulay discovered Mason when she and her husband were faced with the decision of how to school their children. After trial and error with a “real school,” she found Mason and was impressed. Macaulay says in her book For the Children’s Sake published in 1984:

[Mason] was no armchair philosopher. Her views were shaped by her teaching experiences, not the other way around… She really loved the children she taught… From the very start, they were valued friends, persons whom she respected. (pp. 5–6)

I propose that teachers either in schools or homeschools use Mason’s method of education to solve this problem. Mason was very adamant in her belief of children as born persons with personalities, likes, and dislikes formed from the very beginning. She believed that the child already knew how to learn and just needed the right education to harness it. In his article for The Parents’ Review in 1966, “The Educational Philosophy of Charlotte Mason,” J. D. Rose writes:

Greater care should be taken in Education to fit this to the needs of the child and not the child to the needs of Education. These should not be based upon ‘his uses to society … but upon his own capacity and needs’.

Mason believed that a banquet of learning should be set before the child. From this banquet the child can choose a variety of rich food and not grow weary of one particular kind. The food that is left out most often is that of nature study. In 2019, Sophia O’Brien in “Growing Time: Thoughts on Charlotte Mason and Teaching a More Natural Science” said:

To first observe the natural world, then to delight in it, and finally to care for it are the hallmarks of Mason’s method of education for the young child.

Now, Mason’s Method uses narration instead of quizzes, tests, and worksheets. Narration is telling the story again in your own words. Some people may ask how a child can learn by just recounting a story and relying on a child’s attention span. Aimee Natal in her article “Charlotte Mason: For Whose Sake?” written in 1999 argues that:

It is folly because Mason assumes the child is born with a yearning for … knowledge, and that that desire alone, along with good books, is all the child needs upon which … to learn. One has to trust that the child … will actually learn what he has read after reading it … with no other incentive or motivation than his own desire.

While this may be true, the teacher helps the child’s motivation for learning. And you can still have worksheets and tests for things like math, grammar, and chemistry without weighing down the student. Deani Van Pelt quotes Charlotte Mason in her article “The Legacy of Charlotte Mason”:

There is absolutely no avenue to knowledge but knowledge itself, and the schools must begin, not by qualifying the mind to deal with knowledge, but by affording all the best books containing all the sorts of knowledge which [they want to know].

So, how could we implement this into our lives today? Well, not everyone has the time nor resources to school their children like this, but there are still some things you can do. Set a time each week when you and your family go outside on a nature walk. You could also advocate for longer recesses in schools as this will alleviate stress and provide a sort of mental reset. While writing this article, I reached a standstill. I decided to take a walk outside and afterwards felt refreshed and ready to continue. Provide books full of life and rich literature for your children. This helps them develop a love for learning through reading. Set some time aside to listen to classical composers or folk songs and try your hand at crafts or painting. There are numerous things that have died out in schools, yet still hold unmeasurable value. With a rich schooling like this, children will develop a great love of learning that will continue to grow into adulthood. Because children need a diet full of color and life. Why should education be different?

Those responsible for our children’s education should look to the Charlotte Mason method to bring to life the child’s love of learning. Through this article, we learned some of what’s wrong with our schools, Charlotte Mason’s beliefs on education, and why her method should be implemented. When I think back to my own school experience and think on how much time I spent outside in nature, reading historical fiction and autobiographies primarily for the story, learning Greek and Roman mythology, picture study, and composer appreciation, I think of these things, and I’m reminded of the rich education I’ve been given. The banquet of learning that’s been set before me. The romance I have with rich, old literature. And I say to myself, “I wouldn’t have it any other way.” I wouldn’t want to be put in a situation where the measure of my learning and skill is in a grade that will be looked at once then tossed in the trash. I’d rather be given the freedom to pursue what interests me. My father is a software engineer who loves math and programming, I’m neither one of those things. I do enjoy some forms of math, but I want to get my hands dirty. I want to run around in the grass without shoes nor care in the world. I want to teach my children to reach into the ground and pull out a beet, a potato, an onion. I was given the opportunity to retain my vibrant color. Why would I want my children to turn grey? Why would I want something different for them than what was given me? I was given a rich education. And you can be sure I’ll give one to my children too!

Today, I’m not asking you to agree with me and change your entire life. I’m asking you to think of the child that wasn’t given the chance to love learning and see what you can do to make that different for your children.

Anesley Middlekauff is a junior at Iowa State University, majoring in agricultural business with a secondary major in international agriculture and a minor in animal science. Anesley adapted this article from a series of two speeches she wrote and delivered as part of her university coursework. Anesley was homeschooled from the early years to high school graduation by the Charlotte Mason method.