BOOKS + THINGS
Now, that you have a solid understanding of Charlotte Mason’s philosophy, it’s time to learn about her methods. Through studying CM’s methods, Jesus Christ’s methods, and recent research, I’ve discovered a pattern in teaching. First, the student’s mind is nourished with ideas through books and/or things. Next, the student narrates what they’ve learned, either through words or showing an example, followed by generating their own questions and discussing ideas with others. Finally, the student learns how to look for patterns and apply truth to other situations, usually through projects and play.
Traditional education relies on direct-instruction to impart knowledge from teacher to student. But is this the gold-standard educational method? Over many years and hundreds of research studies, direct-instruction is still the most effective way to raise student achievement. Essentially, direct-instruction is when a person with experience and authority in a subject (the teacher) instructs the student on a certain subject. They are directing the student’s learning, by either sharing experience, or providing opportunities for the student to learn. Unfortunately, this method has a negative connotation among more progressive educational circles, especially in a Charlotte Mason education. This is because direct-instruction is strongly tied to oral lectures where the child passively sits and listens.
But, this instruction does not have to come in the form of an oral lecture from a teacher. Direct-instruction can be from the top experts in their field, and provided in the form of a book. How would you like to haver your child receive instruction from John Muir or Jean Henri Fabre?
Parents and teachers can directly instruct by providing objects to study, and direct the students’ attention to certain aspects of the object by asking open-ended questions.
Charlotte Mason said that “Children are most fitly educated upon books and things.” All ideas and knowledge for lessons should come from either of these two sources. Textbooks, oral lectures, worksheets, videos, or pictures are second-rate and should be avoided. (see Education is a Life)
“A corollary of the principle that education is the science of relations, is, that no education seems to be worth the name which has not made children at home in the world of books, and so related them, mind to mind, with thinkers who have dealt with knowledge. We reject epitomes, compilations, and their like, and put into children’s hands books which, long or short, are living.” (Charlotte Mason, School Education, p. 226)
Not all books are not created equal; the books that Charlotte Mason recommends are living books.
Living books are:
Written in narrative form. Interestingly, the human brain is meant to deal in narratives, it does not digest solitary, isolated facts. One of the central tenets of narrative theory is that human thought is fundamentally structured around stories. Narrative Theory is gaining more interest from psychologists and researchers. More and more research is showing that stories and personal examples (i.e. narrative) are the best way to teach because of the way the brain latches onto information. Narratives engage the heart and the mind, which is essential for stimulating memory and processing. Jesus, the Master Teacher, taught using parables and things. He told stories and used apperception (using concrete things to teach abstract concepts) to teach people gospel principles. “If the book is truly well-written, the words between its covers are arranged in an almost magical pattern that stirs deep emotional responses in readers.” (Children’s Literature, Briefly. pg 27)
Written by one author. A group of authors drains the personality and voice of a narrative. Therefore, textbooks are to be avoided. “We know that books store the knowledge and thought of the world; but the mass of knowledge, the multitude of books, overpower us, and think we may select here and there, from this book and that, fragments and facts of knowledge, to be dealt with, whether in the little cram book or the oral lesson.” (School education, p. 232)
Written by an author who has lived what they write about. And, in the case of historical events, the author should be passionate and knowledgeable about the subject. “Skilled writers, who pay attention to small details and keep looking until they discover truth, help us to find a freshness and more precise understanding even in familiar things.” (Children’s Literature, Briefly p. 34)
In Hints for Young Writers by Orison Swett Marden, the author describes exactly what living books really mean. In his book, he recommends that young writers write about subjects and experiences they have lived. The best, living books are ones in which the author has lived what they are writing about, either in real-life or in their imagination. The emotions they felt while writing are sealed with their words and conveyed to the reader.
Interesting and Engaging. A living book depends on personal taste and experience. “The [literature] expert is not the person to choose; the children themselves are the experts in this case.” (Children’s Literature, Briefly. p. 228) Adults may believe the book to be living and high-quality, but if the child finds it boring they will not learn from it. Some children may think a book is living, while others (both adults and children) will not. It depends on the child’s experience and preference at the time of reading. It also depends on what questions they are currently exploring and the lessons they are ready to learn. The Holy Spirit (the true teacher) knows what your child needs and will help guide you (and your child) to the right books.
Remember: if a child’s heart and mind are not engaged they will not learn, period. So the decision of which books to read should be ultimately up to the child. “A book may be long or short, old or new, easy or hard, written by a great man or a lesser man, and yet be the living book which finds its way into the mind of a young reader.” (School Education, p. 228)
You need to accept the honest feelings of your children, misguided as they might be in your adult eye, and continue to provide and introduce books that might challenge your children. In Children’s Literature, Briefly the authors caution parents and teachers to avoid negative comments on literature they feel are “low-quality.” They say, “Direct attacks on [a child’s] positive responses to poor-quality books, however, almost guarantee that a rift will develop between you and your child and between a child and a genuinely good book. No person, young or old, wants to be forced to defend his or her choice in reading material.” It is important you not shame or guilt your child into reading certain books, but remember it is the parents’ responsibility to introduce their children to books worth reading. This could be by reading aloud at night, or filling a basket with living books near a comfy spot to read.
Mason says, “The master must have it in him to distinguish between twaddle and simplicity, and between vivacity and life. For the rest, he must experiment or test the experiment of others, being assured of one thing—that a book serves the ends of education only as it is vital.” (Charlotte Mason, P. 229)
Of High -Literary Quality. Choosing the right words is important, and a good author works magic with words. Precise vocabulary “expands the perimeter of [a child’s] language, to set a wider limit to it, to give them a vocabulary for alternatives.” (Elaine Konisburg, 1970, pg 731-732) Talented writers create works that are clear, believable, and interesting, And the rules for good writing are essentially the same for children’s books and adult books. High-quality literature has:
- Figurative Language: a good tool to introduce rich vocabulary.
- Dialogue: character is best revealed through speech. “Let what he did, tell what he was.”
- Character: characters are complex and real.
- Plot: the plot is intricate, interesting, and believable.
What is “Twaddle?”
“I am speaking now of his lesson-books, which are all too apt to be written in a style of insufferable twaddle, probably because they are written by persons who have never chanced to meet a child.” (Charlotte Mason, Home Education, pg. 229)
A book can be living or “twaddle,” and a reader can respond positively or negatively to either. For the most part, weak writing (AKA twaddle) has these three elements: didacticism, condescension, and controlled vocabulary.
Didacticism: Any intelligent person can detect and is repelled by stories that moralize and lecture. Instead of telling a child a person is “bad” or “good”, a living book simply describes the characters actions and lets the reader decide what to think. A twaddly book includes a lesson at the end that connects actions to consequences instead of allowing the reader to make those conclusions.
Condescension: According to Charlotte Mason, children are born persons. Therefore, they are born with all the intelligence required to learn. Twaddle includes condescending language that speaks down to children as if they lack intelligence. Living books are enjoyed by people of all ages; twaddly books are distasteful for most ages because of dumbed-down plot and language. Condescension doesn’t trust the reader to get the point and over-explains the obvious.
Controlled vocabulary is against everything Charlotte Mason has taught us about reading and children. It is based on the idea that children learn to read easy words first and then graduate slowly to more difficult ones. Does “Sam sat on the cat” bring back miserable memories? Even though it is still common in most elementary reading programs today, controlled vocabulary has been proven to be more difficult for children to read, especially for children with dyslexia. Over one hundred years ago Charlotte Mason advised parents to discard the books with CVC-only words and teach children to read using literature with a rich and varied vocabulary. If it is a skilled writer, he/she should include dialogue or a discreet description making it easy for the reader to understand the meaning without blatantly providing a description.
A Definitive Booklist: Does it Exist?
“There is, after all, only one list of good books that is completely dependable—your own. However, although your list may have books of both lower and high literary merit, the quality titles will end up taking your family further.” (Children’s Literature, Briefly, pg 26)
“The ‘hundred best books for the schoolroom’ may be put down on a list, but not by me. I venture to propose one or two principles in the matter of school-books, and shall leave the far more difficult part, the application of those principles, to the reader.” (Charlotte Mason, School Education, p. 177)
I have included booklists for each stage of development, but I don’t want it to deter you from exploring and reading books that are not on the list. I acknowledge that many of us are starting this difficult journey in home education and need a little assistance in the beginning. The booklists I include in the Early Years, Form 1, and Form 2 guides are a starting point; I strongly encourage you to use the principles I outlined above to discover your own living books and create your own home library.
“We older people, partly because of our mature intellect, partly because of our defective education, get most of our knowledge through the medium of words. We set the child to learn in the same way, and find him dull and slow. Why? Because it is only with a few words in common use that he associates a definite meaning; all the rest are no more to him than the vocables of a foreign tongue. But set him face to face with a thing, and he is twenty times as quick as you are in knowing all about it; knowledge of things flies to the mind of a child as steel filings to magnet. And, pari passu with his knowledge of things, his vocabulary grows; for it is a law of the mind that what we know, we struggle to express. This fact accounts for many of the apparently aimless questions of children; they are in quest, not of knowledge, but of words to express the knowledge they have.” (Charlotte Mason, Home Education, p. 67-68)
The human brain learns abstract concepts by first becoming familiar with a concept concretely. This requires the use of things–a very specific and scientific term 😏. By things, Mason meant anything that can be experienced by the five senses. For example, a child must count objects and physically divide them (concrete) before they can understand how division works on paper (abstract). They must be exposed to words concretely, through copywork and word study, before they can compose their own essays. They must be familiar with dropping things from high places, constructing pumps, and cooking food before they will understand the formulas in physics, mechanics, and chemistry.
A couple of years ago, I read a BBC article explaining that cardiology students were failing to understand how a heart worked because they had never used or constructed a basic pump. Around the same time, I read an article about the NASA engineers that worked on the first space missions. These engineers would soon retire and NASA wanted the best-of-the-best to replace them. They picked the highest scoring graduates from the most prestigious schools in the world, but these new engineers just weren’t living up to the high standards set by the previous engineers; problems were not solved and new ideas were not birthed. These engineers were the top of their class; they were geniuses. So, what was wrong?
NASA sent out a task force to figure out what was different about the original engineers, and how they could replicate it in future generations. What they found was so simple it surprised them. Their childhoods were different. The retired engineers were allowed to take apart appliances and electronics, and expected to put them back together. It was the act of putting them back together (problem solving, creative thinking) that nurtured their engineering mind.
Worksheets DO NOT Work
Most children today do not have the same opportunity. They are too busy memorizing formulas, completing worksheets, and studying for tests. Ironically, mechanical engineers must spend time tinkering with things. Too often parents, teachers, and school administrators are focused on what can be tested and measured, putting way too much focus on abstract concepts and skills. When your child takes apart an old clock and attempts to put it back together, that is engineering. When your three year old sorts his M&Ms by color, that is math. When your child wants to see what will happen when they leave out the baking powder in muffins, that is chemistry. Sure, you can tell them what will happen, or watch a video. But if a picture is worth a thousand words, then real experience is worth a million. So much more can be learned from experiencing it with all five senses. Real, concrete, tangible things are far superior to descriptions, pictures, or videos.
For example: virtual puzzles on the iPad are a popular “learning” activity for young children. But what are children really learning from this activity? When they attempt to fit two pieces together that don’t fit, a beep sounds and the pieces fly back to the corner. The child learns that one piece cannot go there, but doesn’t understand why. On the other hand, if the child is working with a real puzzle they may try to force two pieces together but their hands will feel the incompatibility. If the child can force the two to fit, he will continue fitting pieces together until he realizes that it doesn’t look right. The colors and patterns don’t look like the picture on the box. So he must take it apart and figure out where he went wrong. This is the benefit of working with real things versus abstract or virtual “things.”
“Wait a minute,” you may be saying. “This all sounds good in theory, but does working with real things really make a difference?”
What The Research Says
A meta-analysis of 15 years of research on the advantages of hands-on learning, including 57 studies of 13,000 students in 1,000 classrooms, demonstrated that students in activity-based programs (programs that use “things”) performed up to 20% higher than groups using traditional or textbook approaches. The greatest gains occurred in creativity, attitude, perception, and logic (Bredderman, 1982). The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) also known as “The Nation’s Report Card,” revealed that teachers who conduct hands-on learning activities on a weekly basis out-perform their peers by more than 70% of a grade level in math and 40% of a grade level in science (U.S. Department of Education, 1999). (Source)
Children can learn mathematics and sciences effectively even before being exposed to formal school curriculum if basic math and science concepts are communicated to them early using hands-on, concrete methods of teaching. Math and science are practical and object-oriented and can best be learnt through inquiry (Okebukola in Mandor, 2002) and through intelligent manipulation of “things” (Ekwueme, 2007). (Source)
With so many “things” available, how do you decide which to purchase and keep around? As with booklists, I include supply lists in the Curriculum Guides (the Early Years is the most extensive). But for now, here is a list to get you started:
String or rope
Paper (printer and construction)
Paints + brushes
Clay + tools
(clocks, VCRs, remote control cars, etc)
Stainless steel buckets
Aquariums (a few sizes)
“I know you may bring a horse to the water, but you cannot make him drink. What I complain of is that we do not bring our horse to the water. We give him miserable little textbooks, mere compendiums of facts, which he is to learn off and say and produce at an examination. And all the time we have books, books teeming with ideas fresh from the minds of thinkers upon every subject to which we can wish to introduce children. We must open books to children, the best books. For 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. Our business is to give our children mind-stuff, and both quality and quantity are essential. Naturally, each of us possesses this mind-stuff only in limited measure, but we know where to procure it; for the best thought the world possesses is stored in books.” (Charlotte Mason)
“I think we owe it to children to let them dig their knowledge, of whatever subject, for themselves out of the fit book; and this for two reasons: What a child digs for is his own possession; what is poured into his ear, like the idle song of a pleasant singer, floats out as lightly as it came in, and is rarely assimilated. I do not mean to say that the lecture and the oral lesson are without their uses; but these uses are, to give impulse and to order knowledge; and not to convey knowledge, or to afford us that part of our education which comes of fit knowledge, fitly given.” (Charlotte Mason, School Education,, p. 177)
“The teacher who allows [her] scholars the freedom of the city of books is at liberty to be their guide, philosopher and friend; and is no longer the mere instrument of forcible intellectual feeding.” (Charlotte Mason, Philosophy of Education, pg 32)
“This sort of weak literature for the children, both in any story and lesson books, is the result of a reactionary process. Not so long ago the current impression was that the children had little understanding, but prodigious memory for facts; dates, numbers, rules, catechisms of knowledge, much information in small parcels, was supposed to be the fitting material for a child’s education. We have changed all that, and put into the children’s hands lesson-books with pretty pictures and easy talk, almost as good as story-books; but we do not see that, after all, we are but giving the same little pills of knowledge in the form of a weak and copious diluent. Teachers, and even parents, who are careful enough about their children’s diet, are so reckless as to the sort of mental aliment offered to them, that I am exceedingly anxious to secure consideration for this question, of the lessons and literature proper for the little people.” (Home Education, pgs. 176-77)
“…seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom, seek learning even by study and also by faith;” D&C 109:7
“We know that books store the knowledge and thought of the world; but the mass of knowledge, the multitude of books, overpower us, and think we may select here and there, from this book and that, fragments and facts of knowledge, to be dealt with, whether in the little cram book or the oral lesson.” (School education, p. 232)
Tell me a fact and I’ll learn. Tell me the truth and I’ll believe. But tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever. (Native American Proverb)
“If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten” (Rudyard Kipling,1970)
“A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.” (CS Lewis)
“No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally – and often far more – worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.” CS Lewis
“The children I am speaking of are much occupied with things as well as with books, because ‘Education is the Science of Relations,’ is the principle which regulates their curriculum; that is, a child goes to school with many aptitudes which he should put into effect. So, he learns a good deal of science, because children have no difficulty in understanding principles, though technical details baffle them. He practises various handicrafts that he may know the feel of wood, clay, leather, and the joy of handling tools, that is, that he may establish a due relation with materials. But, always, it is the book, the knowledge, the clay, the bird or blossom, he thinks of, not his own place or his own progress.” (Vol. 6, p. 31)
Mark 4: 2-12
Home Education, Part V, Chapter VIII
School Education, Chapters XV, XVI, and XXI
Towards a Philosophy of Education, Book I, Chapter VII
The Read Aloud Family by Sarah Mackenzie