Best of Afterthoughts, Educational Philosophy, Home Education

What Did Charlotte Mason Mean by “Short Lessons?”

January 26, 2015 by Brandy Vencel

Did you know that the length of lessons in a Charlotte Mason education changes as a child grows older? This is one of those myths I didn’t get to in my 31 Days of Charlotte Mason myths series — that in sixth grade a child is still only doing 20 minutes of math.

Today, let’s take some time to find out what short lessons looked like in Charlotte Mason’s writings and schools.

What Did Charlotte Mason Mean by Short Lessons?

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“Short Lessons” in Charlotte Mason’s Writings

A good place to begin is to discover where the concept of 20-minute lessons come from. This idea appears in Charlotte Mason’s first volume, Home Education:

… the lessons are short, seldom more than twenty minutes in length for children under eight

In a lot of Charlotte Mason circles, the idea of 20-minute lessons is discussed without ever mentioning that Charlotte Mason qualifies this as for children under eight. So basically, we’re talking the first two years of school.

Reading lessons, by the way, are even shorter:

… reading lessons must be short; ten minutes or a quarter of an hour of fixed attention is enough for children of the ages we have in view

Generally, children are six or seven when they are learning to read. When we teach children younger than that, we often find that five or ten minutes is more appropriate. When I have tutored children older than seven in reading, I’ve found that 20 or even 30 minutes works well.

Learning to write also takes very little time:

Let the writing lesson be short; it should not last more than five or ten minutes.

This is, mind you, the guideline for children who are just learning to form letters.

Miss Mason’s final volume, Towards a Philosophy of Education, discusses the education of older children — of children over the age of nine. Again, there is an emphasis on short lessons:

… we have short hours and no evening preparation … (Vol. 6, p. 158)

The problem is that in this context Miss Mason never defines “short hours.” We know that the combination of short hours (the total length of the school day being short, I mean) and varied subjects means that the individual lessons must necessarily be short. But short is a relative term. What does she mean?

A Look at the Ambleside Time Tables

On the AmblesideOnline site, there is one copy from one year. A few other examples I’ve found reveal that this is not exactly how Miss Mason’s schools always were, but simply how they were in 1908. Regardless, her principles for setting the schedule always remained the same, and so we can assume that all the changes she made in the time tables over the years still resulted in time tables that were similar to our samples.

For the under-eight crowd, we see Miss Mason consistently prescribing 20-minute lessons, along with some 10-minute lessons as well. She definitely follows her own advice.

Class II (around ages 9-11) has longer lessons, though. For example, the math lessons are 30 minutes long. Plutarch, geography, Latin, French — they all take half an hour. Other subjects, such as memory work and writing stay at 10 minutes per day. At this age, we see a mix of short lessons — even very short lessons — and half hour lessons.

Class III is equivalent to our junior high, and here the lessons are even longer. At the end of the day, there are two back-to-back 45-minute sessions, the first in a language (French or German or Latin) and the second in some other subject (a science, history, etc.). There are still some shorter lessons that are only 10, 20, or 30 minutes, but these two sessions per day that are longer show us that there is a place, in the upper grades, for longer lessons.

When we get into class IV, we’re talking high school. There are no more 10-minute lessons at all, and 30 to 45 minutes is pretty standard. And it’s not uncommon to do math twice in a day — to do, for example, Euclid for geometry in the earlier part of the day, and then algebra later on.

“Short Lessons” Must be Age Appropriate

One of the things Miss Mason connected to short lessons was the training of the attention. Her thought was that it is better to hold a child’s attention for a short period of time than to give a long lesson and risk the child forming a habit of mentally wandering off in the middle of it. Children trained in these methods build up a habit of attention that can easily handle a 30 or 45 minute lesson when they are older.

So, yes. Give your little six- and seven-year-olds incredibly short lessons, and watch them thrive on it. It’s a beautiful thing!

But if you are frustrated that you can’t possibly get through a junior high math curriculum in 20 minutes per day, fear not! Spending 30 or 45 minutes per day is completely in line with Charlotte Mason’s philosophy.

And of course, it pays to mix all of this with brains. I had to adjust this for my oldest guy at one point. When he was 12, he — my child who had always paid attention well — began mentally wandering off around the 20-minute mark. Instead of continuing to ask him to do 30 minutes straight (and risk forming a habit of wandering attention), I scheduled two 15-minute sessions per day. After a term of that, he was able to work up to 30, and later 45 minutes of math without flagging in his attention.

If you are transitioning an older student, you may find that you need to do something similar. Children who started with a Charlotte Mason approach at six have had a lot of time to build their attention span, but the transitioning student may require different care.

The nice part about homeschooling is that we can customize in this way. Charlotte Mason’s time tables were for schools and having a standardized schedule is the best way to run a school. But if you have an individual student that is struggling in your homeschool, you can make adjustments to help individual students along the way.

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17 Comments

  • Reply Are You Sabotaging Your Charlotte Mason Homeschool? | Afterthoughts October 18, 2019 at 2:27 am

    […] example of how those principles might be put into action. Which principles? Well, things like short lessons, alternation of subjects, having set and limited school hours, and the like. Christy would even say […]

  • Reply A Homeschool Schedule: Do you really need one? Check out this post! July 13, 2019 at 7:35 am

    […] Here’s a good podcast on Short Lessons. […]

  • Reply Momstarr June 30, 2018 at 10:23 am

    Do you have any links to articles where homeschooling moms of MANY ages discuss applying the short lesson concept?
    I have a 4, 6, 8, 9, 11, 13, 15 yo in my homeschool this year.
    It seems easier for moms who only have 2-3 children.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel July 2, 2018 at 10:07 am

      I can’t think of an article, but I think the solution is probably dividing into forms rather than teaching individual grades. (Last year, even though I only have 4 children, I needed to teach 4 separate forms because of the age spread, so this tends to simplify more for big families than smaller.)

      So forms would be approximately:
      – Form 1: grades 1-3
      – Form 2: grades 4-6
      – Form 3: grades 7-8 or 9
      – Forms 4, 5, 6 are technically high school, but it sort of falls apart because not all CM schools even offered high school

      Anyhow, AO for Groups is a free curriculum already set up according to forms and was originally dreamed up by a mom of 7 or 8, so it might work perfectly for you!

      A blog that might help is Joyous Lessons. Celeste has 9 children so far. I think. She is my friend, but I lose track because I rarely see her in person and never with her children! ♥

  • Reply Mommy Chickadee January 29, 2015 at 11:28 am

    Thanks for sharing, Brandy! It also appreciate the reminder that CM’s timetables were for school lessons and at home we can adjust. My daughter could only handle 5 minutes at a time when we first started before she needed a break, but now she can handle 20 minutes at a time. I love how CM’s methods have helped her attention span because in the beginning I had a hard time believing that we would get there!

    • Reply Brandy Vencel January 29, 2015 at 2:28 pm

      Ooh! I love it when it works on tough cases. 🙂

  • Reply Melissa January 29, 2015 at 4:27 am

    Great article Brandy! I’m glad to see you busting the 20 minute high school myth. I often hear folks using a CM education in the early years and then falling away in high school thinking it’s too fluffy. Hopefully, the information you gave will help bust this myth 🙂

    Blessings,
    Melissa

    • Reply Brandy Vencel January 29, 2015 at 8:46 am

      Thanks, Melissa. I hope so, too! I feel like when we get to junior high and high school, we’re finally getting to the REALLY good stuff, and seeing people drop off because they think it is fluffy is so sad!

  • Reply Carol January 26, 2015 at 10:01 pm

    Appreciated your thoughts here, Brandy. Something else that crops up & is related to this is the length of a ‘school’ day for an older student. They just can’t get everything done before lunch & have their afternoons free like they could do in the younger years.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel January 27, 2015 at 9:13 am

      That is so true. I resisted that idea for a long time because *I* value the free afternoons. But I suppose we have to adjust just like everyone else. 🙂

      Someone should come habit train me. 😉

  • Reply Mariel January 26, 2015 at 6:11 pm

    I love the personal bit about how you applied this with your son (the two 15 minute periods, instead of one 30 minute period). And I think it’s a good point about short lessons being for both 1)developing attention, and 2)having time to pursue a broad curriculum. In public school, because of long lessons, we don’t have time for anything outside of the 3 Rs.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel January 26, 2015 at 7:01 pm

      Oh, that is so sad! My favorite parts of public school growing up were things that weren’t 3R related!

  • Reply Lisa January 26, 2015 at 8:56 am

    I have been struggling with this time issue all year. I even posted a thread on the forum asking for some clarification in this area.
    I agree that customization is the key.
    I am noticing when my children have “had enough” for that specific subject/time frame. And when I see that happening, we stop and move on to another subject, or simply take a break from lessons altogether.
    Thank you for this post. 🙂

    • Reply Brandy Vencel January 26, 2015 at 9:39 am

      You’re welcome!

      It’s such a hard balance, I know! We want them to be able to focus for whatever amount of time we think is appropriate, but sometimes it doesn’t work. I think a good thing to remember is that Miss Mason said that stopping BEFORE they lost their attention was the key to building attention in the first place. It’s really counter-intuitive, I think.

  • Reply Karen @ The Simply Blog January 26, 2015 at 7:06 am

    This was a good post Brandy. And I’m glad you pointed out the fact that these timetables were for a school setting and we have the benefit of being able to customize and adjust. My understanding of the principle of short lessons is that it is meant to help the student build attention span. I have found that some children already have that attention span and to make them hold to the guidelines CM prescribed for their age range might cause frustration.

    For my youngest, switching back and forth with various subjects in the shorter time frames that CM recommended for her age range did not work well. In general, she does better when she has plenty of time with each thing we do for school whether it be a math worksheet, history lesson, etc.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel January 26, 2015 at 9:38 am

      I have a child born with a long attention span, too. It has taken a lot of work to make sure that he doesn’t give into his temptation to specialize and gets that broad and generous education we’re going for. It’s a challenge, I know! 🙂

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