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Homeschool Without Homework

By Karen Andreola
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #1, 1993.

Karen Andreola introduces the Charlotte Mason method.
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Karen Andreola

Charlotte Mason was a Christian educator who lived and worked in Britain during the latter part of the last century. Today her work is undergoing a revival in home school circles. Why? This article will attempt to answer that question!

For Charlotte Mason, education was not a list of skills or facts to be mastered. Education was an atmosphere, a discipline, a life. I think most of us would agree with her that education is a life process which is not confined to the classroom. Are we practicing this concept, or are we duplicating the public school classroom regimen in our homes? Are we educating our children for life or for achievement tests?

In the Charlotte Mason method, whole books and first-hand sources are used whenever possible, rather than textbooks. Textbooks tend to be crammed with facts and information, at the expense of human emotion. This is deadening to the imagination of the child.

Miss Mason advocated what she called "living books." Children, she thought, should read the best books, not graded readers or textbook comprehension paragraphs. Educators think they are doing children a favor by taking scissors to cut out pages of the best books. Charlotte called this putting literature in "snippet form." Children deserve to have more than just a nodding acquaintance with the best authors.

A child gains knowledge through his own work digging out facts and information. He then learns to express what he has learned by clothing it in literary (conversational) language -- in short, narrating it back to you. Miss Mason said that asking children to narrate back what they have learned is the best way to acquire knowledge from books. Because narration takes the place of questionnaires and multiple choice tests, it enables the child to bring all the faculties of mind into play. The child learns to call on the vocabulary and descriptive power of good writers as he tells his own version of the story.

Miss Mason's schools never gave homework? Correct. If you follow her method there is no need for homework in the elementary years because the child immediately deals with the literature and proves his mastery by narrating what he just learned back to you. Instead of homework he gets a cozy evening with a good book and parental attention. We want our children to be eager to learn, don't we? So why do Christian private schools bow down to the American homework grind?

Charlotte Mason believed in introducing the child to the humanities while he is still young, while he is forming his personality. In her view education is for the spiritual and intellectual benefit of the child, not just to provide the skills needed for making a living. Short goody-goody stories are shunned for whole books that follow the life of an admirable character. Morals are painted for the child, not pointed at the child.

Miss Mason wanted children to be motivated by admiration, faith, and love instead of artificial stimulants such as prizes, competition and grades. What, there were no grades in her elementary schools? No As, Bs, Cs, or Fs? No happy-face stickers or gold stars? Correct again.

Lessons in the Charlotte Mason scheme of things end at 1:00 p.m., and the afternoon is free for leisure. Leisure for children usually means running, climbing, yelling, and so forth, all out of doors. Handicrafts or practicing of an instrument, chores, visiting lonely neighbors, observing nature, or cooking, may also be accomplished during this time. Unfortunately, public school children arrive home just in time to see the sun set and do homework. What a waste of time and ability! What drudgery!

Through Charlotte's method a child gains the skill of educating themselves. Students do not depend upon notes they have taken of a teacher's lecture where most of the information has been predigested by the teacher. With Charlotte's method the carefully chosen words of an author are commented on by the child in essay form, either oral or written, starting at age 6-7. Much explaining by the teacher (this includes you, Mom) is a bore. Why is this lecture method still begin carried out in high schools?

Inspiring the love of knowledge in children depends on the presentation of ideas. Ideas are what the mind feeds on. To quote Miss Mason, "Ideas must reach us directly from the mind of the thinker, and it is chiefly by the means of the books they have written that we get in touch with the best minds." This includes all forms of human expression. This is why Charlotte said, "Varied human reading as well as the appreciation of the humanities is not a luxury, a tid-bit, to be given to children now and then, but their very bread of life."

Homeschoolers following Charlotte's philosophy and method try to give their children abundant portions of the humanities at regular periods. They don't allow themselves to get stuck in a routine which emphasizes skills alone. "Oh, we only had time for math drill, spelling, and grammar, and a few pages from our history textbook today. Tomorrow we will hopefully have time for poetry, and maybe a little music appreciation." When fear of a poor showing on the achievement test allows skills to take precedence, humanities take a back seat. The result: lessons become wearisome, children become fed up, mom gets burned out. The children are starving for knowledge touched with emotion, and for ideas.

In the Charlotte Mason method, lessons are kept short, enabling children to develop the habit of attention and preventing the contrary habit of dawdling over lessons. "Oh, you're not finished with your one math page yet? Well, then there is no time for a short romp in the back yard. Perhaps you can finish your math page in less than 15 minutes tomorrow."

Charlotte didn't concern herself with grammar lessons until the children were well into the habit of narration. She thought it was more important that the child learn to express himself correctly. He should have daily opportunities to have an opinion, make a judgment, no matter how crude, develop a train of thought, and use his imagination. Are you using grammar lessons for first, second, third grade children that replace this free use of expression? I am disturbed at curricula that claim to be based on Charlotte's method, yet spend time inappropriately breaking down parts of speech to the exclusion of familiarity with the literary content. Let's be careful not to prune the child's natural inclination toward language. In the early years, he might score slightly lower on achievement tests, but you can't serve two masters. I have notebooks I've filled with my children's narrations.

When Charlotte says education is a discipline what she means, in Victorian-day terms, is that proper education inculcates good habits. The mother who takes pains to endow her children with good habits secures for herself smooth and easy days. On the other hand, she who lets habits take care of themselves has a weary life of endless friction. The mother needs to acquire her own habit of training her children so that, by and by, it is not troublesome to her, but a pleasure. She devotes herself to the formation of one habit in her children at a time, doing no more than watch over those already formed. Remember, to instill habits:

  • Be faithfully consistent. The danger is when we let things go "just this once."
  • Forming a habit is using perseverance to work against a contrary habit.
  • Formation is easier than reformation. Nip the weed in the bud.
What are the symptoms of an unsatisfied curiosity in either teacher or student? Simply this, "Do we have to do school?" Why not follow Charlotte's advice?
  • Whole books; very few textbooks, if any.
  • Narration in place of workbooks; grammar is saved for a little later.
  • An emphasis on the humanities.
  • Short lessons, especially for drills and skills.
  • Formation of good habits.
  • Free afternoons; no homework, no grades.
  • Unedited literature; no readers.
I'm sure I could add more to the list, but my word processor tells me I'm on my last line. I hope my hodge-podge of notes has given you a peek into the life work of that fascinating woman, Charlotte Mason.
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