The Teaching of Geography in CM’s Schools.

There is a lot that could be said here, and I do not intend this post to be the final and utmost word on the topic.  I’m also just kind of throwing together information from a handful of the resources less often cited when discussing Mason’s philosophy.  Her books, which I don’t cite here, are actually the best source of information on her philosophy.

The geography topics taught in Mason’s schools work very well on nature walks, or while walking to the store or park (or driving there, sometimes). I think it’s important to leave out a globe and a world map all the time, and regularly refer to them as a natural part of the day. We also referred to them as we read other books and stories.

Many people of late like to rely strictly on the timetables and follow them as thought they are the ten commandments.
You may perceive I am not in that hail the timetables category- you can look at them here, but I don’t find them as helpful as one might think. They are useful, but they are practices, not principles, and they are not even definite practices at that. We know that teachers and parents complained about trying to stick to them, and they also covered six days of school each week, while we generally only do five in the US. In fact, here is what one of the teachers had to say about attempting to use them strictly:
“For many simple and obvious reasons with which I scarcely like to burden you it is quite impossible in a school to take all the lessons at the set time and for the set period. “

I have also really only seen one timetable for each of forms I-IV, never one for forms V and VI, so we don’t have enough to make definitive statements for them, IMO. I’d need to see at least three years worth before I would feel like I had enough information for them to be even remotely prescriptive, and I would prefer five years worth for all six forms.  I don’t have that.

At any rate, to return to geography, have a strong suspicion that the edges between geography and a couple other subjects are a bit blurry. But what we have for Geography in the timetables is:

One showing class I doing geography twice a week for ten minutes, but I don’t know if they also included some geographical terms and discussions in Natural history (science and nature study) as well as history.

Class two again has a block twice a week, but for twenty minutes each, same questions as above apply.

Class III: two 20 minute lessons (one in physical geography specifically) and one 45 minute lesson, plus geology, which may or may not have included some geographical information. Same questions about nature study and other readings, as well as foreign language studies. Surely some mapwork was done in these other topics.

Class IV: 2 20 minute lessons, one half hour lesson, and one 45 minute lesson, and again, we have one specification of physical geography and we don’t know how much geography comes out in other studies.

So then we turn to the programmes, and how one would fit these into those schedules I don’t know:

Just a few things at random:
In 1933 the upper forms were asked in their term exams to ‘describe with a sketch map the structure and relief of Germany, showing how the physical features have affected the development of the country. Trace the course of a long railway journey you have taken, giving instances of the route being affected by high and low ground, write an essay on wind. Write about composition of the atmosphere.

1923, form II:
The ambleside Geography Books, Book II, about 30 pages, map questions to be answered from back of the book and then from memory before each lesson, Our Sea Power and Around the Empire, with maps, an atlas, children make memory maps and also see tests under scouting.

And because it was simpler than typing it all out, here’s a cut of the programme and exam in geography for form I in 1923:

There are other sources for learning more about the teaching of Geography in Mason’s schools. Her books, of course, are a given. There are also a couple articles among the Parents’ Reviews, such as this one, which sort of summarizes the time-tables rather than giving a full chart with actual times (“The following sketch of work for children from six and a half to ten is taken from the programme of work and time-tables, arranged by Miss Mason for the children working in their home schoolrooms in connection with the “Parents’ Union School.”), and about geography says:

Geography.—Sand maps, talks about places, etc. We need not be afraid of teaching children correct terms. Pistil and stamen in botany; current, whirlpool, prairie in geography, are really not more difficult to the early student in nomenclature than “Elizabeth” or “Caroline,” the names of their friends or relations. In the adoption of fancy terms, such as “officer” and “soldier” for pistil and stamen; in the relating of little make-believe stories in order to interest the child, we are guilty of want of respect for our pupils, and want of belief in the interest of the facts themselves, illuminated by the vivifying idea, which the good teacher will draw out. Every subject is capable of being degraded into a mere collection of dry facts, just as (if the teacher be a true master of his art) the ideas underlying every subject may be used as pegs on which to hang such facts. Though we deprecate teaching through games, when we see that the child finds in his lessons new ideas for his own games, that he will play at Christopher Columbus or Robinson Crusoe, and make rivers and islands and mountains with mud or sand, or even with his vegetables and gravy (oh, horrified nurse!) we may know that his lessons have been well “taken,” and hence well “given.” No lesson is valuable which does not promote self-activity by making the children think and do and work. So in later years I would not advocate lectures from teachers, but lessons where, as has already been said, the teacher is but the interpreter, not the mediator, and where he stands aside as much as possible, teaching the children to learn and study from books, and not merely to listen. In this way habits of self-study are formed, the necessity for out-of-school preparation disappears, and leisure and growing times are secured for the children.

P.N.E.U. Principles As Illustrated by Teaching, published in 1899:

“Our last and greatest materials for “mind-building” are “ideas.”

These spiritual things of the mind come to us in a vast variety of ways, but we cannot leave their advent to chance and the most ready method of imparting them in early years is through the medium of “lessons.”

As our mind-builders tell us, ideas are added to one another like to like, and experiences are aggregated and grouped, until the sum of our ideas becomes “a dome more vast,” namely, character and active force for good or bad.

We believe in an “open-door policy” for our children; the larger and nobler an idea, the more fit are the children to receive it, for their hearts and minds are like a great open porch, not yet bricked up by prejudices.

We therefore adopt a time-table calculated to give ideas and experiences in as many branches of our relationships as possible.

We don’t want, for example, to teach children “all about Africa” in their geography lessons, we want to give them such ideas of the dawning continent as will send them to books of travel, and later to the place itself, to view its panoramas or take their share in its future destinies.

Therefore, for each group of subjects, as for each lesson given from them, we have an idea to give, a habit of mind or body to initiate or strengthen.

And this section has long informed my notion that geography was also taught by the way, during nature study, nature walks, outside of strict time tables, and through reading and conversations as well:

Geography.–Foreign tongues naturally suggest foreign countries.

If we know the history and speech of our neighbours, we shall also need a pretty thorough knowledge of their surroundings.

The educational value of geography, both as alone helping us to understand all the intricacies of the former (how Holland’s dykes kept her free, and how France had her two languages–the Langue d’oc and the Langue d’ocil) and as enlarging our conception of the wonderful, beautiful world in which we live, and of helping us to understand and sympathize with the imperial spirit of our times.

“What do they know of England who only England know?”–and we see in geography that older spirit of emigration which is ever driving men Westward Ho!

“The world’s our oyster”–through the medium of the map; this must be known and studied so that its every line and dot are familiar, and this, not as a mere mechanical recognition, for our lessons must furnish the children with graphic pictures so that they can describe any part of the map to which their attention is drawn, or describe the course of a given river from its source to the mouth. Comparison with what they know at home, on a smaller scale, or comprehension by contrast, as for example, “Imagine those green fields to your left reared straight on end, and they would be like the South Downs, etc,”–are valuable as bringing facts, very remote in themselves, within the children’s experience.

We should teach children what we ourselves need and care to know about foreign lands, read them good books of travel, and link the passing events of the day into their lives by lessons on the places whose names are on everyones’s mouth–Manila and the Philippines are more important to the child than “the area of the German Empire is so many thousand square miles.”

The first beginnings of geography–its foundations will be laid long before the schoolroom days, at home, for geography is essentially a subject which must progress outwards from the circle of the child’s experience, he begins by learning to know a hill, a river, a field, a village, and to reproduce them in sand or clay.

Then, in the early days of the definite instruction, he hears about the round world and her seven sisters–the planets, he learns that part of the earth is very hot and part very cold, he learns that the sun does not go to bed at night but that the earth turns round, while at the same time his knowledge of the earth’s surface has spread to the neighbourhood of his home, his county, and his country.

He will then go from the sand try to the plan of his schoolroom, actually measured by himself, parts of inches being taken for feet so that he knows what is meant by “measuring to scale.”

Then he learns how the globe is measured and maps made to scale, and then he is ready, map in hand, to explore the earth, sitting comfortably at home the while.

Science.–Geography is a science both mathematical and natural, embracing as it does through the magic words “flora, fauna, and production,” the sister sciences of botany, zoology, and geology.

We want our children to learn all these, for they will draw them more closely to mother earth, but they need not at first ever hear their names.

One of our maxims is “teach the thing before the name.”

“Go out,” we say, “into the country, learn its sights, its sounds, its smells, learn the flowers by sight and by names, the creatures in their homes and by their customs, the stones of earth by their look and from touch, and the configuration of the country.”

Then you will have learnt at first hand from the most wonderful books, and have something to classify and amplify in your later studies.

From their earliest babyhood children can and should be given interests and pursuits, therefore we encourage them to note their observations and to reproduce, however roughly at first, in their nature note-books, the treasures they have found, and above all we want them to have that loving interest in “birds, and beasts, and butterflies” which will teach them that life is a sacred cycle, not be tampered with, so that the protection of an apparently valueless lady-bird means fewer green-fly and therefore more roses and therefore more pleasure in life.

Our science lessons are therefore largely incidental.

A few words about the stars they can see walking home from evening church for example, dealing with the things most of interest on the spot, and as children get older we use this knowledge of their own as a basis for our further teaching, which must as yet be largely oral, for as yet the “literature of science” is only “in the making.”


There’s a lot of information and things to think about in the things I quoted above.  Mainly, I think, keeping in mind you are giving your children ideas, not mere facts. If they walk away from a lesson able to sing a song about the continents and list the countries of Africa and Europe in order from south to north and back again but they aren’t curious about those places, they aren’t thinking about them, including them in their play, stopped at the library by the sight of a magazine or book about these foreign climes- then it was kind of a waste of time, yours and theirs.

You want sparks, flashes, crackles of curiosity and wisps of wonder, not lists of boring facts.  If you can mange both, that’s okay, but if you have to focus on one, go for wonder.

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