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