Charlotte Mason Teaching Tuesdays: The Fine Art of Education

CM Teaching TuesdaysThis series is long overdue for a revival!  I enjoyed posting these so much and I learn so much when I dig into the principles Miss Mason sets out for the teacher, so here I am this morning, adding another teaching gem for you to consider.

I know we’re all wrapping up our years, and doing so always involves a certain amount of looking back….while also looking forward and considering anew, so it’s a great time to consider some of these foundational ideas on the topic of teaching!

Education Considers Relations

To set the context for today’s teaching gem, Miss Mason presents a phenomenal idea: the importance and necessity that education be rooted in relationships.  That idea may initially seem like a saccharine notion, a throwback to a time long past and an idea well out of reach in a culture more focused on instant gratification than slowly building relationships, but I propose that it is not.  Classically speaking, this idea may be essential in recovering a culture.

When a child meets an author or a book that speaks to the depths of his heart, he forms a relationship with that book, with that author, with those ideas.  And if we take this idea further in a CM education, when that child shares what he knows from a book with you, the relationship deepens.  Then, as the child matures, those ideas which he may have originally met years ago in his youth, now cemented, form a deeper spiritual relationship within the child.  Connections are made, and the child continues to grow within the relationship of those ideas.

“…consider that…education considers what relations are proper to a human being, and in what ways these several relations can be best established…”  (School Education, p. 65-66)

The vehicle for transporting ideas which leads to a relationship is the worthy book the child reads: the book must first be living, true, noble, beautiful, and express well the worthy tale within its covers.  If you have a hard time considering this in an abstract way just think of Mother Goose (read why here), the Little House on the Prairie series, The Story of King Arthur, Paddle to the Sea, or Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee  – do those help as more concrete examples?  Each of these books, and those like them, strike a profound tone.  Some lay the groundwork for building on the good, others awaken ideas and sentiments within that young person.  Rather than being told about a place, time or event, they’re immersed in it through an author’s passion for words and ability to convey the period through his art.  These are worthy tales, well told, and the child, a person made in the image and likeness of God, responds to the inherent beauty within and these books become friends. Relationship!  Relationships which grow, mature, and yield wonderful, rich fruit over time.  So, having set the context and understanding how essential these worthy books are to the education of a child…

Today’s gem comes from School Education, p. 66 & 67. (we = teachers…and emphasis mine)

we, for our part, have two chief concerns — 

1.  first, to put him in the way of forming these relations by presenting the right idea at the right time, and by forming the right habit upon the right idea;

2.  and secondly, by not getting in the way and so preventing the establishment of the very relations we seek to form.

The art of standing aside to let a child develop the relations proper to him is the fine art of education, when the educator perceives the two things he MUST do and how to do these two things.”

Thoughts on the fine art of education

  • As teachers we have two concerns: putting the child IN the way and for our part, NOT getting in the way – and there is an art to knowing this and figuring out how to make this work!  A fine art!  Sound easy?  It might not be as easy in practice as it is in principle – mainly because we’re all so anxious that our kids “get it” or see the underlying symbolism, or note the metaphor, or….  So we do what any self-respecting teacher does, right?  We point it out.  From seven different angles…just in case they didn’t get it the first six times we explained it.  We tend to operate from a structured, outlined, more “scientific” perspective because that’s what “the experts” tell us we should be seeing/hearing from our kids and this scientific extraction method is how best to go about getting at it, but Miss Mason is pretty clear in saying that this is an “art” not a science.  Art is about expression – so think of this as you, the teacher, expressing your choice to stand aside.  As opposed to what?  Agatha Christie has this great quote which I wrote down in my commonplace book, and it sums up the answer better than I could:

““I suppose it is because nearly all children go to school nowadays and have things arranged for them that they seem so forlornly unable to produce their own ideas.”

Are you arranging every idea in a row, every connection, every next step in every lesson?  We should be diligent in planning and scheduling worthy books (this would fall under “putting the child in the way of right ideas), but it is our duty to stand aside at this point and allow the child to form connections, pursue the lesson, grow in relationship.

  • Did you read that really important part of point 1?  It goes hand in hand with putting the child in the way — our job is to form the right habit upon the right idea.  This point alone has more depth than I can go into here, suffice to say it is a very classical idea – Aristotle spoke often of virtue being the aim of wisdom and education.  Classical educators educate for virtue.  Forming the right habit is rooted in our God-given position of authority, and our duty to train our children in those right habits: virtues.  Not only must we, as teachers, put our child in the way of right ideas, but we must form the right habits around those ideas.  This doesn’t mean spoon feeding the moral of a story; it does mean seeking virtuous examples to nurture a child’s soul and investing time in cultivating good habits which lead to virtue.  Without virtue, education is empty and meaningless.

Our duty as parents, “consists essentially in preparing man for what he must be and for what he must do here below, in order to attain the sublime end for which he was created. It is clear that there can be no true education which is not wholly directed to man’s last end…”  (Pius XI, On the Christian Education of Youth)

  • The teacher has a very active role – our own eyes must be open to wonder in order to place a child in the way of objects, experiences, books, and ideas that are the “right idea at the right time,” and THEN we exercise standing aside – not getting in the way.  As the teacher, I engage my child through the narration, the telling back.  I allow my own sense of wonder to guide me because that is part of forming the relationship and furthering the relationship.

“...Half the teaching one hears and sees is more or less obtrusive.  The oral lesson and the lecture, with their accompanying notes, give very little scope for the establishment of relations with great minds and various minds.  The child who learns his science from a text-book…he who gets his information from object-lessons, has no chance of forming relations with things as they are, because his kindly obtrusive teacher makes him believe that to know ABOUT things is the same as knowing them personally.  …  (People) do not always see that the choice of books, which implies the play of various able minds directly upon the mind of the child, is a great part of that education which consists in the establishment of relations.”  (CM, School Education, p. 66)

If I lecture or start to point out symbolism or key points that my child missed in a narration, I become the “kindly obtrusive teacher” that is certain that if I just tell the child about something, he’ll get it, and somehow it will be personal and important to him.  Nope.  It doesn’t work that way and I’m betting that right now, you’re calling up memories of your child’s glazed over look when you tried this very tactic.  But, really – this is great news homeschool mom!  We don’t have to lecture!  We don’t have to know everything and be able to offer 36 hour-long lectures across a school year on a variety of topics from Shakespeare to pond biology!  (Can I get an amen?!)  We are privileged to be alongside: to learn alongside, wonder alongside.  And in this mysterious, delightful mix of worthy books and an education of relationships the child is nurtured and grows toward self-education; yet we, too, are blessed.  “It blesses him that gives and him that takes.”  (CM, Vol 6, p. 27)

  • These are classical principles, universally true, woven through a Charlotte Mason education, that fit the child because these teaching principles view the child as a person – whether a child is gifted, average, or has learning disabilities.  Can you see how presenting worthy, living ideas to a child, any child, is universally fitting?  Made in the image of God, we are capable of recognizing truth, beauty, and goodness – so it isn’t a huge leap to understand that we, as teachers, should put the child in the way of TRUTH, BEAUTY, AND GOODNESS.  As simple as that is, it reaches profound depths.  And who better to put him in the way of truth, beauty and goodness than mater et magistra (mother and teacher)?

What if you’re new to home education, or new to Charlotte Mason’s methods and philosophy and this idea requires a seismic paradigm shift?

  • Start with a clear preference for living books (If you need help choosing them, use a site like Ambleside Online, choose from the Good Books, or review my post on building a booklist for some resources on books.  And then have your child narrate after short readings.
  • Work on putting your child “in the way” of the true, good and beautiful.  Brainstorm it.  Do the books you have available illuminate truth, goodness and beauty?  What about the programs you watch?  (There are some fantastic “living” programs out there)  How about the experiences and field trips?  Are they canned or do they invite exploration and allow a child to form relationships?
  • Trust that if you’ve read this far, you’re already invested in the formation of virtue and that this is going to support the foundation of your days and motivate your choices.  Brainstorm how to fine-tune this later.
  • Work on standing aside by giving yourself a pep-talk, leave yourself a sticky note on your lesson plans to review before a narration with little bullets listed like:
    • don’t interrupt
    • ask questions – don’t be afraid of unanswered questions
    • engage with the story
    • wonder aloud

As always, I really enjoy reflecting on these principles, and I also really enjoy hearing how they work themselves out in your day!  ‘Cause I’m a practical gal at heart!  It’s all about the rubber meeting the road!  Let me know what you think!

  • In putting your child in the way of right ideas, what have you learned?  Share some tips and ideas!
  • How do you view “forming the right habit upon the right idea”?
  • What is your view of virtue in education?
  • How does standing aside look in your day?

We’re almost done teaching for the year – let’s finish strong!

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  1. What a great post! I need to come back and read it again with my notebook handy! 🙂 I really appreciate the little bullet list towards the end of the post:
    “don’t interrupt”
    “ask questions – don’t be afraid of unanswered questions”
    “engage with the story”
    “wonder aloud”
    These are perfect little reminders to have jotted down on a piece of paper to keep right with you while doing school! I especially like the “wonder aloud.” When we, as teachers, wonder aloud right along with our child when reading a book, it invites discussion and it’s a sharing in the learning process. You are learning together.

  2. This was so helpful to read. I love that in the process of teaching our children, we are learning and growing ourselves. I will be revisiting this post many times. Thank you!

  3. Oh so much ‘meat’ to chew and mull on!! Thoughts are flowing here, mostly though you’ve re-inspired me regards virtues, thanks xx

    1. You’re right – there IS a lot to chew on in these ideas. And it’s so counter to current acceptable norms, it requires a fair amount of courage and faith to step into. So glad the juices are flowing again with regard to virtues – that’s an area that requires a small but consistent investment and I’ve watched it yield great fruit here! Sending hugs, Erin!!!!

  4. “Work on standing aside by giving yourself a pep-talk, leave yourself a sticky note on your lesson plans to review before a narration with little bullets listed like:
    don’t interrupt
    ask questions – don’t be afraid of unanswered questions
    engage with the story
    wonder aloud” <- THIS! Because sooner than one thinks, our young children will need us to stand aside and we will need to accept standing aside as we watch their adult lives unfold. Lovely post, as always, Jen <3

  5. Can you recommend a book to help me begin learning about a Charlotte Mason education? I don’t quite have the time to begin a 6 volume series, but would love to learn more before I make my final plans for this homeschool year.

    1. Hi Theresa, and thanks so much for your comment!

      I can recommend two books I’d consider good starter books:

      1) Charlotte Mason Reviewed by Jenny King – this is a delightfully small little book that is such an easy read! But it’s completely faithful to Charlotte Mason principles. Read this if you’ve got one evening and you’re looking for something that isn’t overwhelming yet will give you a lovely birds-eye view of Charlotte Mason.

      2) When Children Love to Learn by Elaine Cooper is a slightly more in-depth book, but still refreshing and simple and won’t overwhelm. If you’ve got a weekend, start here.

      These two books, though simple, are completely faithful to Charlotte Mason’s principles and give a really good sense of a Charlotte Mason education that I think will give you some excellent direction and inspiration.

      From there, rather than reading through all six volumes (though they’re worthy, they don’t have to be read in order or all at once to get good detail), I’ll share a secret with you…if you have kids in high school, read Charlotte Mason’s: Towards a Philosophy of Education. If you have elementary age kids, read Home Education. And you can do that a little at a time in the evenings over the school year, or next summer!

      Happy reading, Theresa!

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