BY CELESTE CRUZ
Charlotte Mason’s educational prescriptions for young children are well-known: delayed academics, plenty of time outdoors and training in good habits, lots of opportunities for “hands-on learning.” But once formal schoolwork begins at age six or so, it’s all reading and narration, right?
Not quite. As Anne mentioned earlier this month, there is much more to a Charlotte Mason education than books and narration. And much of it is hands-on.
Before we get into that, though, let’s briefly define hands-on learning. Usually, the phrase refers to incorporating craft projects, field trips, manipulatives, and other tactile activities into lessons. The goal is to engage kinesthetic learners and make learning more fun or memorable.
I think we might first consider whether these kinds of hands-on practices are even beneficial. Because let’s be honest: much busywork can be added to lessons in the name of “hands-on learning.” Lapbooking across America, constructing dioramas of the life cycle of a butterfly, making sugar cube models of the pyramids, throwing a pioneer festival for the neighborhood…these are the kinds of projects educators add in the quest to be more hands-on. And Charlotte Mason schools weren’t scheduling such activities into the programme.
So when I hear “CM isn’t ‘hands on’ like other curricula,” I actually might agree: “Yes, CM isn’t hands-on like other curricula.” But that doesn’t mean a Charlotte Mason education isn’t hands-on. Rather, Miss Mason proposes a way of being hands-on that complements her vision for education, respects the child, encourages the science of relations, maintains efficiency in lesson time, and has the student doing the mind-work rather than the educator.
What does that look like in practice? Charlotte Mason said her students were “fitly educated” by Things and by Books (School Education, p. 214). Those two categories provide a guide to her version of hands-on learning, which involves (1) the inherently hands-on subjects she included in her schools, and (2) the hands-on modes she employed for the reading-and-narration subjects.
First, the inherently hands-on subjects. Charlotte Mason believed in offering students a “generous feast,” including education by Things:
He must stand and walk and run and jump with ease and grace. He must skate and swim and ride and drive, dance and row and sail a boat. … Every child makes sand castles, mud-pies, paper boats, and he or she should go on to work in clay, wood, brass, iron, leather, dress-stuffs, food-stuffs, furnishing-stuffs. He should be able to make with his hands and should take delight in making.School Education, p. 80
Her schools included physical education and instructed in handicrafts. The goal for the latter was beauty, usefulness, and quality — this is not crafting for the sake of crafting, as so many educational supplements seem to be. There were also lessons in singing, dancing, drawing, piano, and dry-brush painting. Far from being extras in a Charlotte Mason education, these hands-on subjects both developed valuable skills and, through alternation with bookish subjects, acted in the service of other learning by keeping the mind fresh and attentive.
Miss Mason classes science under the heading of “Things” too, since the goal of such study was to learn from “natural objects in situ — birds, plants, streams, stones, etc.” and “scientific apparatus” (School Education, p. 214). Of course, she also assigned living books in science, but, as she put it, “our main dependence is on books as an adjunct to out-of-door work.” (School Education, p. 239, emphasis mine)
And out-of-door work they did: weekly field trips to the country for close observation and journaling en plein air, even a Natural History Club. These practices joined further scientific inquiry later on: biology and ecology through “special projects” in the field and object lessons in the classroom, chemistry and physics in the lab with careful scientific illustration and note-keeping. Science is a natural match for hands-on learning, and Charlotte Mason leveraged that.
But what of the subjects taught chiefly through Books? When we look at the practices that flow from her principles, we see a pattern of hands-on modes that Miss Mason utilized across disciplines.
Narration. Admittedly, “tell me all you remember,” though strikingly efficient as a learning method, doesn’t sound all that exciting. But a peek at PNEU exam questions hints at variety in narrative forms:
Write a short letter to The Times on the coal strike from a) a mine owner, b) a miner.
Write, as you would set, a scene from Julius Caesar, in which Caesar and Casca appear.
Make a chart of a) Perseus, or b) of a constellation you have watched this term, and its neighbouring stars.
Describe Corot’s “Evening on the Lake,” with a rough sketch of the composition.
The Parents’ Review includes lively scenes such as this one by G.F. Husband:
A class of very young boys had been reading of the incident between Bruce and De Bohun at Bannockburn. They were told that some boys were to be chosen to act it. A short time was allowed for each scholar to think out how it should be done, but no conversation was allowed. Then De Bohun and Bruce were chosen from a host of eager volunteers. They selected, one a “horse,” the other a “palfrey.” The lance was a short map pole; the battle axe, a rolled up newspaper. There were some very candid criticisms of the performance. The whole affair did not take five minutes, but there had been a sure sifting of facts in the mind of every boy.
Another lists acting, map drawing, clay modelling, drawing in paint or chalk, and even cut-and-pasted models as narration opportunities. Dry brush drawings of scenes from literature or history were common as well.
Field work. Learning beyond the classroom was not confined to nature walks. History studies involved field trips to museums and other places of historical import, and students sketched what they saw in their history notebooks. Geography lessons relied on map tracing, compass work, city walks, out-of-doors observation, clay modelling, story-telling, and even holiday travels with family.
Keeping. I borrow the term from Laurie Bestvater’s wonderful book, The Living Page, in which she uses “Keeping” to refer to the many iterations of notebook-keeping that Charlotte Mason’s students were assigned. Notebooks were an integral part of every subject, from lab notebooks in chemistry, to phrase books in French, to the three lifelong pillars of Keeping — the Book of Centuries, the Commonplace, and the Nature Journal. Whether a math notebook for an older student or a My First Words book for an emerging reader, Miss Mason’s notebooks share a common goal: they express the relationship a child has formed with knowledge gained, not the relationship an educator thinks he should form. This Keeping serves as not just a record of learning but an instrument of learning — just what hands-on learning is meant to be.
Free time. I’m sure it sounds like a bit of a cop-out; after all, should the way a child spends his leisure hours even “count”? But I actually think this category might be the most important. Charlotte Mason had quite a lot to say about free time and suggested plenty of it. My children spend much of their afternoons penning new verses to old folk songs, building bows and arrows to fight the sheriff’s army in Sherwood, constructing paper ships to fight the Armada…
Is valuable learning happening in those moments? Absolutely. And part of its value is that it’s not directed by me.
And that’s the goal, isn’t it? Self-education, relationships with Things and Books past and present. Miss Mason’s style of hands-on learning aims for efficient, relevant, idea-rich, lifelong learning practices. Because “education is a life,” after all.
Celeste Cruz is the mother of seven children under age nine. Her perfect homeschool day would involve a long run, lots of coffee, time at the coast with her nature journal, and a stack of books to read to the kids. She is a moderator for the AmblesideOnline Forums, and she shares the joys of a Catholic Charlotte Mason home education at Joyous Lessons.
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