Get the exclusive (almost) Weekly Digest.

    Educational Philosophy, Home Education

    Lessons From Charlotte: Habits of the Mind

    June 18, 2010 by Brandy Vencel

    Okay, though I like to be thorough, I am going to try to speed through this because I still have Norms and Nobility to finish and School Education to read this summer, and is it just me, or is June more than half gone? So many books … so little time. Especially when we consider that the point is not in the reading but in the doing!

    So Charlotte says there are six important mental habits:

    1. Attention
    2. Application
    3. Thinking
    4. Imagining
    5. Remembering/Recollecting
    6. Perfect execution
    Lessons from Charlotte: Habits of the Mind

    We talked about attention yesterday. Today we’ll try and go through what each of the rest of these are along with how Charlotte believed we should train them.


    The habits of application, actually. (As in, more than one.) This is a little pair of related habits that Charlotte puts under the umbrella term of application: rapid mental effort and zeal. Rapid mental effort is training them to think quickly (and still well). Mason tells us:

    Aim steadily at securing quickness of apprehension and execution, and that goes far towards getting it.

    Zeal is the opposite of the child saying “I’m so tired of math” or whatnot. Essentially, the child is fairly excited about what they are learning. Mason says that both of these habits are greatly increased as we focus on that first habit, the habit of paying attention. In regard to zeal, she writes:

    [S]teady, untiring application to work should be held up as honourable, while fitful, flagging attention and effort are scouted.

    I would also say that zeal in particular is contagious. There is nothing like a teacher who loves his subject. And there is something noble about mothers learning to love every subject in proportion to its worth.


    Mason writes:

    [B]y ‘thinking,’ let us mean a real conscious effort of mind, and not the fancies that flit without effort through the brain.

    How is it trained?

    [I]n every lesson — a tracing of effect from cause, or of cause from effect; a comparing of things to find out wherein they are alike, and wherein they differ; a conclusion as to causes or consequences from certain premises.

    It seems good to point out here that Charlotte has just referred to both logical thinking (cause to effect and vice versa) as well as analogical thinking (how one thing is like another). The latter is actually quite fun to practice with small children, creating your own family colloquialisms in the process.

    Mason tells us that

    [T]hinking, like writing or skating, comes by practice. The child who never has thought, never does think, and probably never will think; … Let the parent ask ‘Why?’ and the child produce the answer, if he can.

    See? I told you she was a classical educator! Socratic conversations, people!


    Imagination is a form, I think, of imitation. The children are putting themselves in the position of some other person from some other time or place, and pretending to be him. In other words, they are playing at their books. Mason says we can encourage this habit by giving them good books — good, but not absurd (like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland). This does not mean that “ludicrous” books are forbidden, but, like dessert, they should never make up the bulk of a child’s intellectual diet. We also shouldn’t have their “diet” consisting of common-place tales — tales of lives so like their own that there is nothing to play at when they have put down their books. Instead, she suggests something like The Swiss Family Robinson, noble, wonderful adventure tales. In addition, their books for study (especially history and geography} should still be of such high literary quality that the children can imagine other times and places for themselves.


    Thus sayeth Charlotte:

    Memory is the storehouse of whatever knowledge we possess and it is upon the fact of the stores lodged in the memory that we take rank as intelligent beings. The children learn in order that they may remember…[M]uch that we have learned and experienced is not only retained in the storehouse of memory, but is our available capital, we can reproduce, recollect upon demand.  This memory which may be drawn upon by the act of recollection is our most valuable endowment.

    Okay, so here we learn that memory is the knowledge that is filed away in our minds somewhere, while recollection is the act of bringing said memories forth that they might inform in the present situation. We do not know all that we have been taught, but only what we are able to remember. When we think of it this way, we see why the habit of remembering is foundational for a sound education.

    I might add here that teaching children to remember in other areas (for instance, the chores they should have already done) is also a part of training them to be adults. Hopefully, the habit of remembering one’s chores will spill over into remembering one’s lessons, and back again.

    Attention, Charlotte says, is key to remembering. We do not remember anything we have not first fixed our attention upon. So we see again, that attention is the queen of the habits of the mind. She does not mention it in this portion of the book, but I have found Mason’s concept of narration to be of the utmost assistance when it comes to remembering lessons. Mason also said in School Education that term exams would encourage children to remember — knowing that they are responsible to know later on, and that there will be no studying, but only recollecting, involved in the examination process.

    Here Charlotte teaches us how to make a servant of that law of association we discussed last time:

    [E]ach [lesson] must be so linked into the last that it is impossible for him to recall one without the other following in its train…This is to make a practice use of that law of association of ideas of which one would not willingly become the sport; and it is the neglect of this law which invalidates much good teaching. The teacher is content to produce a solitary impression which is only recalled as it is acted upon by a chance suggestion; whereas he should forge the links of a chain to draw his bucket out of the well.

    This is something I wish to do more of next year: deliberately connecting the previous lesson to the present lesson. This is most easily done in history, especially when studied chronologically:

    [L]et each new lesson be so interlaced with the last that the one must recall the other.

    Perfect Execution

    Mason says that turning out imperfect work is a habit, and the remedy is the habit of perfect work. This sounds daunting until we consider that Mason desired that every single thing the child was asked to do was exactly within his ability. This has always been my philosophy in math. I do not grade math and allow a 90% or 75%. Rather, my son does a page of math. I correct it. We talk through his errors (unless I know he was just being sloppy and is capable of better execution if he was more careful). He corrects his errors. We go through the process until it is perfect.

    Every. Single. Time.

    After much deliberation, I decided to approach cursive the same way. He is learning Charlotte Mason’s way. The other day his job was to deliver to me six perfect I’s. He is the judge of his own perfection now, and is holding himself to a high standard. Sometimes he does this quickly, sometimes it takes more time. After he has perfected each letter, we will work on a single perfect word, and then sentences, and so on, until he is able to complete a true copywork assignment in cursive.

    In my opinion, grading is a contributing factor to a habit of sloppy work, because we decide we have so much leeway–I become comfortable with 98%, or 85%, and so on. When we eliminate grades and strive for excellence (but within the child’s sphere), we notice improvement.

    I have been amazed at our cursive assignments.

    Moral Habits

    Mason had also a list of moral habits in this chapter. We’ll go over those in the near future.

    Get the (almost) weekly digest!

    Weekly encouragement, direct to your inbox, (almost) every Saturday.

    Powered by ConvertKit


  • Reply Gail March 5, 2015 at 2:31 pm

    I love this post – very concise. Also, do you own that typewriter in the photo above?? 🙂

    • Reply Brandy Vencel March 5, 2015 at 8:57 pm

      I don’t. But I wish I did! Wouldn’t it be pretty displayed on a shelf? Sigh… 🙂

    Leave a Reply