Sharing the Effort To Know

Sharing the Effort To Know

“Teaching is not a technique exercised by the skilled on behalf of the unskilled. It is a sharing of the effort to know, using all that is best in the world of books, of music, of pictures, all that can be observed and cherished out of doors, all that hand and eye can make; all that religion, history, art, mathematics and science can reveal to the active mind.” (Essex Cholmondeley)[1]

When I began homeschooling, I felt like the only qualifications I had were a love for my children and a desire to obey the Lord. Sure, I met the legal qualifications for homeschooling. But I had never done picture study or composer study, or even read much beautiful literature. I was not a skilled teacher in mathematics, history, or art. I was just inspired by the words of Deuteronomy to spend as much time as I could with my children:

And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. (Deuteronomy 6:6-7, ESV)

For me, that meant teaching my kids at home. But I had to come to terms with the many gaps in my own education.

When I discovered Charlotte Mason, her method spoke right to my heart. I saw that there was a feast I could present to my children. She showed me how beautiful education can be. I wanted to give the very best to my children. But the feast that Charlotte Mason talked about had never actually been presented to me. How was I supposed to give something that I never had?

That gap prompted me to learn all I could about teacher and lesson preparation in the Charlotte Mason method. At first, my digging led to a lot of information about “scaffolding.” But as I kept digging, I found the opposite of what I expected. So I wrote an article on scaffolding, and I knew I was challenging a lot of deeply-held ideas. I wasn’t sure how people would respond. Many people told me it was freeing for them. I was so happy for that response! However, some people may have thought that I was saying that no teacher preparation is ever required for lessons. So in this article, I would like to share about teacher planning and lesson preparation in the Charlotte Mason method.

The first thing we need to understand is that lesson preparation as we normally think of it is not part of the authentic Charlotte Mason method. Marian Ney was a contributor to The PNEU Journal who wrote her dissertation on Charlotte Mason’s philosophy. She wrote:

… in PNEU we depend upon fine books by authors who may have made the subjects their life work. For instance, since the teacher is not to instruct or lecture, or force-feed the material, what we think of as lesson preparation is not necessary.[2]

In fact, Ney wrote that Charlotte Mason tried to develop “a curriculum that would, in so far as possible, be teacher-proof.”[3] Why would Charlotte Mason do this? Was it because she didn’t trust mothers? And how do we reconcile this idea of a “teacher-proof” curriculum with the idea that the teacher should be a philosopher-friend?[4]

I have come to see that the answer to this question is not that Mason didn’t trust mothers. She was not trying to protect children from unqualified teachers. Rather, she was trying to protect children from qualified teachers! The reason for this is because she believed that there was a Teacher even greater than the best philosopher-friend-mother. That Teacher is the Holy Spirit. And Charlotte Mason didn’t want any human teacher to get in the way of His work. Cooperate? Yes. Hinder? Please, no:

Such teaching as enwraps a child’s mind in folds of many words that his thought is unable to penetrate, which gives him rules and definitions, and tables, in lieu of ideas—this is teaching which excludes and renders impossible the divine co-operation.[5]

What then does “cooperation” look like? Mason explains:

Supposing we are willing to make this great recognition, to engage ourselves to accept and invite the daily, hourly, incessant co-operation of the divine Spirit, in, to put it definitely and plainly, the schoolroom work of our children, how must we shape our own conduct to make this co-operation active, or even possible? We are told that the Spirit is life; therefore, that which is dead, dry as dust, mere bare bones, can have no affinity with Him, can do no other than smother and deaden his vitalising influences.[6]

This idea is the key to understanding the main quote from Charlotte Mason herself which explains the role of the teacher in lesson preparation:

The Teacher’s part is, in the first place, to see what is to be done, to look over the work of the day in advance and see what mental discipline, as well as what vital knowledge, this and that lesson afford; and then to set such questions and such tasks as shall give full scope to his pupil’s mental activity.[7]

When I first read this, I was tempted to think that I was supposed to figure out which specific things my kids were supposed to take away from each lesson. That’s certainly how was taught in school. My teachers all had lesson plans and lesson objectives. I wondered how I was going to figure out what the “vital knowledge” was supposed to be for each lesson and each subject. That immediately scared me and made me feel like I couldn’t do this! But then I realized what Mason meant by “vital knowledge” when she talked about cooperating with the Holy Spirit:

A first condition of this vitalising teaching is that all the thought we offer to our children shall be living thought; no mere dry summaries of facts will do; given the vitalising idea, children will readily hang the mere facts upon the idea as upon a peg capable of sustaining all that it is needful to retain.[8]

So “living thought” is the “vital knowledge.” As the teacher, I just need to make sure all my lessons have “living thought.” That mainly means choosing living books for each subject. By contrast, when I come up with a specific list of things that should be learned with each lesson, it always turns into “a mere dry summary of facts.” I certainly don’t want that! I have to keep the lesson living so that I do not crowd out the Spirit. I want to fully cooperate with Him.

Miss Swinburne of Melbourne, Australia explains how this works:

Miss Mason changes the relative positions of teacher and book. She entirely discounts as a means of imparting knowledge the oral, eductive method. Children may be able to answer one by one the careful, watered down questions, but they will be unable at the end to give any connected account of the lesson. Children should acquire knowledge for themselves from books which are well-written and which will reveal to them the interest of the subject they are studying.[9]

But how do the children actually “acquire knowledge for themselves”? The answer is simple: narration:

The citizen in whose bringing-up P.N.E.U. has had a part has had many of his innumerable emotions stirred by his “lovely books,” “glorious books,” and the emotion of the moment has translated the facts of history, travel, science, the themes of poetry or tragedy, into vital knowledge. That is the raison d’etre of narrating; the reader recovers as it were what he has read and looks at it, and in this looking his emotion becomes fired.[10]

So, the teacher doesn’t turn it into vital knowledge; the narrator does so by the act of narrating. Living ideas and narration are the way to knowledge! These two things must take place in lessons!

The reason narration is so important is because it transfers the work from the mother to the child. If we’re not careful, conscientious plans for lessons can turn into plans for scaffolds. Stanley Boardman, in “The P.U.S. Method of Narration and Its Purpose,” explains how this works. Boardman refers to scaffolds as “props”:

… the oral lesson with its preparation, its presentation, its application, its recapitulation and its blackboard notes all complete—the oral lesson with every conceivable prop and stay designed to relieve the child of any mental effort, the oral lesson where the teacher is the active partner and the child the passive, often literally so, the sleeping partner in the business of education. We know that a child can indeed follow a series of questions and can with some confidence suggest a series of answers. But don’t you think the real mental effort, the visualising of the whole, has been that of the teacher?[11]

I want so badly to fill the gaps in my own education that it is tempting to make discoveries myself and then present them to my child. But Boardman explains what happens if I do that:

The child undoubtedly arrives at a point at which the teacher wishes him to arrive, but he has not exercised his “mental muscles” in getting there. He has had a lift by the way. “The civilized man,” says Emerson, “has built a coach but has lost the use of his feet. He is supported on crutches but lacks so much support of muscle.” And the child having arrived at the desired point, in a coach so to speak, and by virtue of much labour on the part of the teacher, unconsciously registers his disapproval of the method by promptly forgetting all about it. That which was to have nourished his mind has not been digested, the learning has not become part of himself. No, I think we must agree with Mr. Sampson when he suggests that we are only slowly realizing the fact that the only person who can really educate the child is the child himself.[12]

There is a reason we don’t teach children to walk using scaffolds (crutches). They need to exercise all of their muscles all along the way. Boardman explains what it really means to be a philosopher-friend:

The teacher, in his right relation to the child, is a guide, a philosopher and, I hope, a friend, not a source of much second-hand information which must be pumped into the mind of the child willy-nilly. That way lies cramming and, as has been said, cramming is injudicious feeding. “They cram and do not know,” says Ruskin. “They narrate and do know,” suggests Miss Mason. Let us put the child in the place where he can get knowledge and narration will ensure that he assimilates it. “The place where we go to get knowledge,” says Carlyle, “is the books themselves. It depends on what we read, after all manner of professors have done their best for us. The true university of these days is a collection of books.”[13]

The role of the teacher is not to directly provide “information,” but rather to provide a “place.” To do this, we have to believe that the child has the ability to learn for himself. Boardman likens this to an act of faith:

[Narration] is a process which makes all the difference between a child knowing a thing and not knowing it. Narration is, indeed, like faith, the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. It is the method whereby the child assimilates what he reads.[14]

G.F. Husband also warns about the danger of the child learning from the teacher and not from the book:

Are the children in the teacher’s leading strings? Do they depend upon him for information? or are they learning to help themselves from the realms of gold about them? For after all, when a child leaves school he is just beginning his education. He has years and years before him in which he will have to educate himself. The great teachers of the world are not schoolmasters and school-mistresses. They are the writers of books—poets, dramatists, scientists; and painters, sculptors, musicians.[15]

He describes what this looks like in a classroom. Imagine something similar in the home schoolroom:

To the child the work should be more important than the teacher, who should be the least obvious person in the class room.[16]

Because I don’t decide in advance what my child should gain from a particular reading, I don’t use narration to check whether he or she got it. Boardman confirms this:

There should be no misconception. [Narration] is not a teacher’s device designed to find out if the child has completed a given task. It is not an act of verbal memory.[17]

Now at this point you are probably wondering about the Notes of Lessons and places where Charlotte Mason talks about doing more in a lesson than just reading and narration. Well, it’s actually pretty simple. First of all, most lessons are supposed to open up with a brief recap of the previous lesson: Charlotte Mason writes, “let each new lesson be so interlaced with the last that the one must recall the other.”[18] If a book is only read once or twice per week, it is important to engage the memory. Charlotte Mason explains why:

To acquire any knowledge or power whatsoever, and then to leave it to grow rusty in a neglected corner of the brain, is practically useless. Where there is no chain of association to draw the bucket out of the well, it is all the same as if there were no water there. As to how to form these links, every subject will suggest a suitable method. The child has a lesson about Switzerland to-day, and one about Holland to-morrow, and the one is linked to the other by the very fact that the two countries have hardly anything in common; what the one has, the other has not. Again, the association will be of similarity, and not of contrast. In our own experience we find that colours, places, sounds, odours recall persons or events; but links of this sensuous order can hardly be employed in education. The link between any two things must be found in the nature of the things associated.[19]

Mason is talking about brain science here. She is saying that links between lessons are necessary so that the brain can better recall the information. So it is important that the teacher does plan on ways to link each lesson with the previous one of the same subject.

Then there is the question of introducing a new book, topic, or subject for the first time. We do see examples of this in the Notes of Lessons. Miss Swinburne explains that this should be brief and should not delay the child’s access to the book itself:

In Miss Mason’s classes the teacher sets a certain part of the book to be studied as the task for each lesson; a brief introduction may be necessary to explain a difficulty or connect the task with previous work, but as soon as possible the children begin to read.[20]

But as for things like identifying difficult words in the reading, and providing definitions or explanations, I just don’t do it. I trust Miss Mason when she said that children will learn new words from the context.

For subjects like math, grammar, and foreign language, I do have to read and understand the material in advance. I need to be ready to guide the lesson and answer questions. Also, for outdoor work and nature study, I should always be increasing my own knowledge:

Mothers and Teachers should know about Nature—The mother cannot devote herself too much to this kind of reading, not only that she may read tit-bits to her children about matters they have come across, but that she may be able to answer their queries and direct their observation. And not only the mother, but any woman, who is likely ever to spend an hour or two in the society of children, should make herself mistress of this sort of information; the children will adore her for knowing what they want to know, and who knows but she may give its bent for life to some young mind destined to do great things for the world.[21]

I also need to learn how Mason’s philosophy and her method work in practice. To help with how to teach specific kinds of lessons, I turn to Charlotte Mason’s Home Education Series, to the original PNEU Programmes, and to Parent’s Review articles. This is exactly what a PNEU mother would have done a hundred years ago. I also have several other resources to help guide me in this path as a modern educator. There are plenty of book lists, consultation services, scheduling cards, podcasts, and even math books based on Charlotte Mason’s methods. All of these different resources help me learn and apply the method.

So we find that teacher preparation is less than we expect. We see those big stacks of books and lots of different subjects, and we want to dive in and start making lots of plans. But we should not get in between the child and his access to knowledge by doing this. That’s a huge relief to me. I don’t have to spend countless hours in planning for my students. But some planning is still required. Agnes Drury acknowledges this:

The teacher prepares her lesson beforehand with the aid of the set book. But she does not talk a great deal. The new passage will probably have to be connected with the last lesson. An oriental custom, such as the wailing for Jairus’ daughter, will be explained.[22]

Not a lot of talk from the teacher also means not a lot of preparation from the teacher. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t any.

What does all this look like in practice? I’ll share here about what I do for my Form 1A student. First, I begin the school year with a program in place for all three terms. This is a document (about five pages long) that lists all the books and subjects we will cover. I then set up a schedule (I use the scheduling cards from A Delectable Education to help with this). Once I have this program and schedule in place, my weekly lesson-prep time is relatively short and straightforward.

On Saturday or Sunday each week, I sit down and pray over the upcoming week and schedule. I view this as the beginning of my surrendering to the Spirit. If my child needs help with a specific subject, this is the time that I really seek the Lord in that area and try to figure out the best way to help my child. On my schedule, I write down:

  • The date and the week of school we are in
  • The pages I want to cover for each subject
  • The book that we are using for that day
  • Any appointments or any other extras our schedule that day

This gives me an idea of what we will cover for the week. I mark the pages in the books, collect all my Internet links in one place, print all the song lyrics and recitations, and gather all the other supplies. I stack up all the books for the week so they are easily accessible.

For Bible lessons we are studying the Gospel of Luke, and I use the Walsham How commentary to help me prepare. I read over the sections that we will cover for the week. I also read the Bible passages and pray. I write down the chapter and verse numbers to be covered, and any small tidbit I may use to start discussion after my child’s narration.

For history, our reading carries on where we left off the previous week. That place is marked in the book with a sticky note on which I’ve written a few tidbits from my child’s last narration.  This reminds me of what “vital knowledge” my son received from the previous reading, and it helps me briefly connect the new lesson to the previous. Usually any maps I need for the lesson are right in the history book itself. If not, after glancing over the lesson, I take a few moments to gather any maps or locate any places on our wall map.

For geography, the first weekly lesson is to study the map of the area we are reading about in history, so I don’t have any additional preparation for that. The second geography lesson uses Charlotte Mason’s geography book along with the included questions, maps, and diagrams. A quick glance tells me if I need to gather anything else, such as a flashlight or globe.

For science and nature study, the only preparation I have is to plan an object lesson for the term’s special studies. A Handbook of Nature Study is often my go-to resource for this. Based on the season and our location, I educate myself on what we will be able to observe that week and draw up questions for the object lesson such as:

  • What is the color of the bark?
  • Is it smooth or rough?
  • Are the furrows between the ridges deep or shallow?
  • Does the trunk divide into branches, or does it extend through the center of the tree and the branches come off from its sides?
  • What is the color of the buds?
  • How would you describe them (are they shiny, rough, sticky or downy)? Are they arranged on the twigs opposite or alternating?
  • Can you see the scars from last year’s buds?

For copywork, my student gets to choose what he would like to work on based on his recitation or the term’s books. He works on one piece at a time until it’s finished before moving on to the next of his choosing. Since the beautiful words and vital knowledge is already provided for in his books and poetry, there is no lesson prep for me.

For literature, I pull out any maps or pictures that I think will help my child for the discussion after the narration. For Pilgrim’s Progress, I used to listen to a dramatized audio book on my own to get a feel for the book. Once I understood how it was to be read, I stopped using the audio book to prepare. With Greek myths I make sure I get all my pronunciation down before I read. Those Greek names are difficult for me!

For Spanish, I go over vocabulary with my husband to get correct pronunciation. I write down any new words we are going to work on and look over what we’ve learned. I prepare to move to the next line in the book or poem that is read.

For math, I read over the lessons for the week and make sure I thoroughly understand it and am prepared to teach it.

Now that I’ve been doing this a while, this weekly preparation usually takes no more than 30 minutes on Saturday or Sunday. I’ve gotten into a good flow.

We need to remember that none of this preparation is anything like scaffolding. I don’t like to use that word in connection with Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education. Mason warns us that “a false analogy has hampered, or killed, more than one philosophic system.”[23] My children are not buildings under construction with scaffolds to help them along the way. They are persons just like me, and side by side, we are “sharing the effort to know.”


[1]Cholmondeley, E., The Story of Charlotte Mason, p. 157.

[2]Ney, M., Charlotte Mason: ‘a pioneer of sane education’, p. 10.

[3]Ibid., p. 3.

[4]Boardman, S., “The P.U.S. Method of Narration and Its Purpose,” in The Parents’ Review volume 38, p. 470.

[5]Mason, C., Parents and Children, p. 274.

[6]Ibid., p. 277.

[7]Mason, C. School Education, pp. 180-181.

[8]Mason, C., Parents and Children, p. 277.

[9]Swinburne, G., “The Parents’ National Educational Union and our Sunday Schools,” in The Parents’ Review volume 34, p. 3.

[10]Mason, C. “P.N.E.U., A Service to the State,” in In Memoriam, pp. 11-12.

[11]Boardman, op. cit., pp. 469-470.

[12]Ibid., p. 470.



[15]Husband, G. “The Teaching Methods of Charlotte Mason,” in The Parents’ Review, volume 35, p. 96.

[16]Ibid., p. 95.

[17]Boardman, op. cit., p. 470.

[18]Mason, C., Home Education, p. 158.

[19]Ibid., pp. 158-159.

[20]Swinburne, G., op. cit., p. 3.

[21]Mason, C., Home Education, pp. 64-65.

[22]Drury, A., “A Liberal Education: Practice,” in The Parents’ Review, volume 27, pp. 663-664.

[23]Mason, C., Home Education, p. 189.

3 Replies to “Sharing the Effort To Know”

  1. A stellar distillation of Mason’s method of teaching children! When I left ps teaching almost 14 years ago and began to consider hsing, I knew that I wanted my approach to be nothing like what was expected of me as a ps teacher. I found Mason and never looked back. Thank you for this wonderful “fleshing-out” of the teacher-mother’s role in educating her children. Bravo!

  2. So simple. So true. Thank you for putting into practical words how you are taking this information and shaping the culture of your school. I love the quotes you pull from here. Thank you!

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