Charlotte Mason – who was she, and what is her relevance?

Who was Charlotte Mason?

Charlotte Mason (1842 – 1923) was a teacher and educational writer who lived and worked all over the UK. Orphaned at 16, she taught both as a governess and as a classroom teacher. Despite suffering ill health for much of her life, she founded a teacher training college at Ambleside for governesses and parents who wanted to educate their children at home. She also lectured widely, co-founding the Parents’ National Educational Union (PNEU) with Anne Clough, the first principal of Newnham College, Cambridge; Dorothea Beale, principal of Cheltenham Ladies’ College; and Frances Buss, headmistress of the North London Collegiate School. She campaigned for a “liberal education for all”, regardless of social class.

Her work had been almost completely neglected since WWII but was rediscovered and republished at the end of the 20th Century, leading to a mild resurgence of Charlotte Mason’s educational methods – especially in the US. Her work proved initially popular with the US homeschool community, and has only been re-realized in a school setting since the founding of Ambleside Schools International in 2000. She is still little known in the country of her birth, however. For more about CM’s life and ideas, read here.


What were her ideas, and what do they have to say to educators today?

I have found CM’s writing full of life, wisdom and pertinence for the 21st Century. If you have some spare time, the best way to get a sense of her thought – which is a method more than it is a system – is to plunge into her books – free online here. (Home Education is for ages up to 9; School Education from 9-12; and A Philosophy of Education, her final book, is an overview of her whole approach.)

Here are a few of her ideas, which might inform, challenge or anchor some of what teachers do today. She had a great way with words, so I include a few quotations below.

  1. A passionate commitment to knowledge and ideas. CM thought that children had a “hunger” for knowledge, and that education was “the science of relations” – an initiation into the complex web of knowledge the world. She was anti-utilitarian, promoting knowledge of history, science, painting, music, architecture, Shakespeare etc. very much for their own sake. Ideas are the “food of the mind…a spiritual germ endowed with vital force – with power to grow.” Her curriculum and lesson ideas are available here.
  2. Reading – the centrepiece of her educational method. CM believed in “living books” written in a narrative / literary style, not dry or artificial “twaddle” that had been written down to children. After much trial and error, she believed that Narration was the most potent method of learning, whereby students were required to tell back, in their own words (either orally or in writing) what they had read or heard, in order to secure it in their minds. Here is a video example of Narration done today in the US by ASI, and I’d be very interested to hear from anyone else who has experimented with this method.
  3. Character education. Charlotte Mason believed that “children are born persons”—neither good nor bad, but with possibilities for good and for evil. She believed in authority, but an authority checked by the respect due to persons. She did not like schools run on the incentives of grades and prizes. CM was also a big believer in the training of habit, which she thought could be improved by narration (above), nature study (below) and lesson length. Lessons up to Year 4 were 15 or 20 minutes; up to Year 7 were 20-30 mins. Sample schedules are here. She has lots to say on the subject of character development generally. This book goes into more detail on habit training, and this page from ASI lists some other aspects of her philosophy pertaining to character.
  4. Nature education. “Let them once touch with Nature, and a habit is formed which will be a source of delight through life…the child should be taken daily, if possible, to scenes – moor and meadow, park, common, or shore – where he may find new things to examine, and so observation should be directed to flower or boulder, bird or tree; he should be employed in gathering the common information which is the basis for scientific knowledge.” Children should be outside ½ day per week, especially in the early years. She recommends that children keep nature journals, and do lots of Science outside too. A really good series of nature study books have been developed to realize her nature education ideas. More on her lesson ideas here.

Even allowing her some room for exaggeration, the results of her method on children (many of whom came from very humble backgrounds) were miraculous, the more so compared to children taught today.

Here are the Proper Nouns used in an exam by a typical 10 year old in one of her schools (detailed here):  

“I once had the names used by a child of ten in an examination paper counted; there were well over a hundred, of which these are the “a’s”:—Africa, Alsace-Lorraine, Antigonous, Abdomen, Antennae, Aphis, Antwerp, Alder, America, Amsterdam, Austria-Hungary, Ann Boleyn, Antarctic, Atlantic; and these are the “m’s”:—Megalopolis, Maximilian, Milan, Martin Luther, Mary of the Netherlands, Messina, Macedonia, Magna Charta, Magnet, Malta, Metz, Mediterranean, Mary Queen of Scots, Treaty of Madrid: upon all these subjects the children wrote as freely and fully as if they were writing to an absent sister about a new family of kittens!”

Here’s an excerpt from a 10 year old’s essay.

And here’s one from a 14 year old’s essay.


Charlotte Mason in her own words

Her Educational vision…

“Children brought up on this theory of education, wherever we come across them, have certain qualities in common. They are curiously vitalised; not bored, not all alive in the playing-field and dull and inert in the schoolroom––even when it is that place, proverbial for dullness, a home school-room taught by a governess. There is unity in their lives; they are not two persons, one with their play-fellows and quite other with their teachers and elders; but frank, fresh, showing keen interest in whatever comes in their way Then, too, there is continuity in their education. Little children are always eager to know; but the desire for knowledge seldom survives two or three years of school-life. But these children begin on lines that go on from the first baby lessons, through boyhood, girlhood, womanhood, motherhood; there is no transition stage, but simple, natural, living progress.”

On Knowledge…

“The child’s capacity for knowledge is very limited; his mind is, in this respect at least, but a little phial with a narrow neck; and, therefore, it behoves the parent or teacher to pour in only of the best…professional teachers, whether the writers of books or the givers of lessons are too apt to present a single grain of pure knowledge in a whole gallon of talk, imposing upon the child the labour of discerning the grain and of extracting it from the worthless flood.”

On the Humanities…

“The Great Human Relationships.––Perhaps the main part of a child’s education should be concerned with the great human relationships, relationships of love and service, of authority and obedience, of reverence and pity and neighbourly kindness; relationships to kin and friend and neighbour, to ’cause’ and country and kind, to the past and the present. History, literature, archaeology, art, languages, whether ancient or modern, travel and tales of travel; all of these are in one way or other the record or the expression of persons; and we who are persons are interested in all persons, for we are all one flesh, we are all of one spirit, and whatever any of us does or suffers is interesting to the rest. If we will approach them with living thought, living books, if we will only awaken in them the sense of personal relation, there are thousands of boys and girls to-day capable of becoming apostles, saviours, great orientalists who will draw the East and the West together, great archaeologists who will make the past alive for us and make us aware in our souls of men who lived thousands of years ago.”

“Here, too, is a subject which should be to the child an inexhaustible storehouse of ideas, should enrich the chambers of his House Beautiful with a thousand tableaux, pathetic and heroic, and should form in him, insensibly, principles whereby he will hereafter judge of the behaviour of nations, and will rule his own conduct as one of a nation.”

On Habit…

“Habit, in the hands of the teacher, is as his wheel to the potter, his knife to the carver––the instrument by means of which she turns out the design she has already conceived in her brain.”

Published by willorrewing

I run Keystone Tutors, and a summer nature + creativity camp called The Imaginarium.

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