Charlotte Mason and Unit Studies

We are often asked what ‘activities’ we do to go along with our books.  The truth is, for the most part we just read and narrate, and sometimes look at the map or a timeline. We rarely do an extra project correlated to the readings, and when we do it’s quite, quite simple. When reading Understood Betsy, for instance, we did make butter for supper one night. But I had the whipping cream and knew how to make butter, so it was simple. I wouldn’t have gone out of my way to go to the store to buy the whipping cream and look up buttermaking in order to do the project. We do not do worksheets, crossword puzzles, build involved models, make lapbooks, plan a study of the dairy industry in conjunction with reading of Betsy’s buttermaking, and look at the biology of a Jersey cow. I do permit the children free time in the afternoons to pursue any of these topics if that’s what interests them. I see the children making their own connections without me pointing them out, and better yet, without me going to the trouble of creating projects that really have very little to do with the actual story- often long after a story has been read. These self discovered connections are really what learning is all about, IMO.

 You can and should give your children a hint about where to make some connections when they aren’t making them, and certainly if you think of one and are excited about it, share it with your children. It’s okay to tell them, ‘While this was happening in Greenland, this is what was happening across the world in India… Just don’t stress about it, don’t overwhelm them with a flood of chatter, and do give the children time and freedom to make their own connections.=)

Also, don’t give up too quickly. One of my kids at 8 did not give very good narrations of King Lear. I broke it down in small bits and helped her over the difficult passages, but still, I was thinking of giving up. I didn’t think she was getting it at all. However, today we happened to read the story of Cap O’ Rushes from Jacob’s English Fairy Tales. In this story a king asks his daughter how much she loves him. When she says as much as meat loves its salt, he throws her out, thinking she loves him not at all. Immediately, my daughter sat up and said, “Hey, we read that somewhere else!” A little further discussion helped her reach the point where she remembered where. Incidentally, she also recognized the similarities to Cinderella in the latter half of Cap O’ Rushes. Just as when they are babies, children can understand more than they can say, I think school aged children can grasp more than they are able to articulate at first.

 Miss Mason used a curriculum and a booklist herself, but Miss Mason’s educational doctrines, if you will, are based on broad principles and ideas, not just the books themselves. Miss Mason said simply using her books would not produce the results she got, because her method was about more than a booklist. It was about her principles of education. We all know that Miss Mason advocated the use of real, living books. But what’s really important is how she used those books. So a program may use the same books you wanted to use, or a study guide may be keyed to the same books you use, yet still not be compatible with a CM education. Some study guides and programs help the children meet the books themselves, and some of them stand between the children and their books. A general rule of thumb for me is that if some of the exercises are crossword puzzles or ‘find the word’ games, this is not a program designed by somebody who grasps Miss Mason’s principles of education.

 Children need to get at their books themselves. Their minds need to meet the minds of the author. Their thoughts need to be sparked, informed, inspired, by the thoughts of the author- and they do this best when allowed to get at the books themselves without the interference of activities that really have very little to do with what the author is trying to communicate. Narration is more effective at doing this than all the rabbit trail projects (conceived by some other mind than the author’s) in the world. As our own Lynn Bruce has said, narration “…not only teaches a child to analyze, organize, compose and express great thoughts in the buoyant wake of literary masters, but also reveals how a child makes his own connections, and how forcefully and directly his personality interacts with ideas, particularly those, as Charlotte said, “clothed in literary language.”

 The rabbit trails of many study guides make the connections for the child, and the connections made are often unnatural and forced. A Charlotte Mason education permits the child to develop his own relationship with the material, mind to mind, without the interference of an interpreter. A CM education permits a child to develop a relationship with the ideas of the book, to make real, natural connections. We need not make forced connections for the child, and in fact, it is often counterproductive when we do so. It is distracting if we are not very lighthanded about it.

 Consider what Miss has to say about the sorts of extraneous projects we find in many unit studies: She [Miss Mason] believed that the ability to make intellectual connections was an inborn gift – something that “must emanate from the soul, or person,himself,” and that if ideas are presented to the person in a pre-digested, pre-connected form, “this tempting unity may result in the collection of a mass of heterogeneous and unassimilated information.” (paragraph extracted from a study by Lynn Bruce on the CM Series Mailing List several years ago)

 Read Miss Mason’s description of the earliest form of unit studies and see what her description reminds you of!

“A fascinating vista is open before us; education has all things made plain and easy for her use; she has nothing to do but to select her ideas and turn out a man to her mind. Here is a tempting scheme of unity and continuity! One might occupy all the classes in a school for a whole month upon all the ideas that combine in one ‘apperception mass’ with the idea ‘book.’ We might have object- lessons on the colours, shapes, and sizes of books; more advanced object-lessons on paper-making and book-binding; practical lessons in book-sewing and book-binding; lessons, according to the class, on the contents of books, from A B C and little Bo-Peep to philosophy and poetry. A month! why, a whole school education might be arranged in groups of ideas which should combine into one vast ‘apperception mass,’ all clustering about ‘book.’ The sort of thing was done publicly some time ago, in London, being the idea round which the ‘apperception mass’ gathered.

 Charlotte describes this lesson scheme in some detail in Volume 2, pages 255-6, then comments:”Everybody said,

 ‘How pretty, how ingenious, what a good idea!’ and went away with the notion that here, at last, was education. But ask ‘What was the informing idea?’ The external shape, the internal contents of an apple,– matters with which the children were already exceedingly well acquainted. What mental habitudes were gained by this week’s work? They certainly learned to look at the apple, but think how many things they might have got familiar acquaintance with in the time. Probably the children were not consciously bored because the impulse of the teachers’ enthusiasm carried them on… This ‘apple’ course is most instructive to us as emphasising the tendency in the human mind to accept and rejoice in any neat system which will produce immediate results, rather than to bring every such little course to the test of whether it does or does not further either or both of our great educational principles.” 

 See also Volume 6, pages 115-16, where Miss Mason discusses a similar course of study applied to Robinson Crusoe:

“The whole thing must be highly amusing to the teacher, as ingenious amplifications self-produced always are: that the children too were entertained, one does not doubt. The teacher was probably at her best in getting by sheer force much out of little: she was, in fact, acting a part and the children were entertained as at a show, cinema or other; but of one thing we may be sure, an utter distaste, a loathing, on the part of the children ever after, not only for ‘Robinson Crusoe’ but for every one of the subjects lugged in to illustrate his adventures.” 

 That the children are having fun

 “…does not at all prove that these are wholesome food; they like lollipops but cannot live upon them; yet there is a serious attempt in certain schools to supply the intellectual, moral, and religious needs of children by appropriate ‘sweetmeats.’ As I have said elsewhere, the ideas required for the sustenance of children are to be found mainly in books of literary quality; given these the mind does for itself the sorting, arranging, selecting, rejecting, classifying, which Herbart leaves to the struggle of the promiscuous ideas which manage to cross the threshold.” (Mason, Volume 6, p. 117)

 And one of my favorite CM paragraphs illustrating the importance of natural connections as opposed to artificial, contrived connections:

 “Another point, the coordination of studies is carefully regulated without any reference to the clash of ideas on the threshold or their combination into apperception masses; but solely with reference to the natural and inevitable coordination of certain subjects. Thus, in readings on the period of the Armada, we should not devote the contemporary arithmetic lessons to calculations as to the amount of food necessary to sustain the Spanish fleet, because this is an arbitrary and not an inherent connection; but we should read such history, travels, and literature as would make the Spanish Armada live in the mind.” (Volume 3, page 231)

 If you are interested in reading further about these ideas and principles, I cannot recommend a better source than CM herself.  But since I like to talky-talk myself, I’ll write more about this tomorrow.=)

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