One more thing is of vital importance; children must have books, living books…Charlotte Mason (Parents and Children, p 279)
You have probably heard it said that one of the most important parts of a Charlotte Mason education is the use of living books. Textbooks are dry, dull, and uninspiring. Real education is done through a connection with the ideas in living books, which inspire children to love learning. You have probably also seen math curricula with a literary approach described as Charlotte Mason math.
It may surprise you to learn that Charlotte Mason did not recommend taking a literary approach to math, and actually used textbooks with her own students. She stressed the importance of first teaching with concrete examples and manipulatives, and once the concepts were firmly in the child’s head to then move on to problems. She also stressed the importance of the teacher. Consider this quote from Philosophy of Education:
Mathematics depend upon the teacher rather than upon the text-book and few subjects are worse taught; chiefly because teachers have seldom time to give the inspiring ideas, what Coleridge calls, the ‘Captain’ ideas, which should quicken imagination.p. 233
Unlike other subjects where the great ideas are coming from the living books, in math the inspiring ideas are to come from the teacher.
But, you may say, surely if living math books had been available in her time, Charlotte Mason would have used them? The truth is that Miss Mason believed that math was fundamentally different from other subjects like history, science, geography, and literature, and therefore did not benefit from a literary approach.
I have so far urged that knowledge is necessary to men and that, in the initial stages, it must be conveyed through a literary medium, whether it be knowledge of physics or of Letters, because there would seem to be some inherent quality in mind which prepares it to respond to this form of appeal and no other. I say in the initial stages, because possibly, when the mind becomes conversant with knowledge of a given type, it unconsciously translates the driest formulae into living speech; perhaps it is for some such reason that mathematics seem to fall outside this rule of literary presentation; mathematics, like music, is a speech in itself, a speech irrefragibly logical, of exquisite clarity, meeting the requirements of mind.Philosophy of Education, p 334
In a sense, she is saying that the mind is able to convert the dry language of math into living speech. Math, its logic and clarity, speaks to the mind on its own, and does not need a literary presentation to engage the student.
But what is it about math that makes it a subject that does not respond well to a literary approach? As she says, other subjects are best taught in a literary way until the student reaches mastery, the point at which the mind is fluent in the subject and can translate dry speech into living ideas.
It seems to me that the difference comes from math being its own language. The literary approach can be distracting from learning the language of math. In fact, I would go so far as to say that no new language is ever learned best by a chiefly literary approach.
When children are learning to read, we do not read them beautiful, literary stories about the alphabet and how the letters work together to form words. No, the teacher works with the student with concrete manipulatives to learn the shapes, the sounds they make, and ways to combine them to form ideas.
No one would teach French by telling a literary story in English. No, French must be acquired through the speaking of French.
The same can be said of English grammar (Charlotte Mason did not teach grammar through living books about the adventures of nouns and verbs, for example), music, and higher level science.
In the same way, math is best learned not through a literary presentation, but through speaking the language of math. Charlotte Mason understood this, and her approach to math reflects it. In fact, her approach to teaching math in many ways mirrors her approach to teaching reading: the use of manipulatives and concrete examples, gradually giving way to more abstract applications of those concepts.
Now this is not to say that you cannot use living books in math. A well-written, engaging literary math book can certainly have a place in your child’s study of math. I would, however, give two cautions: first, that most of the literary math books out there suffer from a common failing that Charlotte Mason recognized: people who excel at math are usually not also people who excel at beautiful writing, and vice versa.
When a mathematically-minded person tries to write a literary story, it often falls flat, and likewise when a literary-minded person sets out to write a mathematical story, it often suffers from a lack of mathematical ideas. A truly living literary math book is a rare find. Be choosy with your living math books.
The other caution would be to ensure that the bulk of the math instruction is actual math. A French course where the majority of the instruction is in English would be wasted time, no matter how inspiring and beautiful the English part of the course. So it is with math. The bulk of math instruction should be in the language of math. In a Charlotte Mason education, lessons are short. Make your time teaching math count by not drowning out the math in flowery language.
In short, math is the most notable exception to the golden rule of a Charlotte Mason education that living books are better than textbooks. Miss Mason was wise enough to realize that the usefulness of living books had a limit, and I think we would be wise to listen to her advice.
Harmony is a wife and mother of a five-year-old girl and almost-two-year-old boy. Math was always her favorite subject in school. In college she studied engineering, and after school she tutored high school and college math and sciences until her oldest was six months old. Charlotte Mason has been her favorite educational philosopher since before her children were born.
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