Educational Philosophy, Home Education

Why a Charlotte Mason Education Should Include Physics

February 25, 2015 by Richele Baburina

Never lose a holy curiosity.
— Albert Einstein

[dropcap]C[/dropcap]hances are you saw Albert Einstein on a poster or T-shirt or came across his equation E = mc2 in a comic strip before ever meeting him in the classroom. Albert Einstein’s influence on modern-culture is pervasive yet even larger is the legacy he left in science, which lead Time magazine to name him their “Person of the Century.” Despite our familiarity with Einstein, how many of us today have even a basic understanding of his revolutionary ideas?


Why a Charlotte Mason Education Should Include Physics


Would you be surprised to find that a child can arrive at basic principles regarding the nature of space, time, energy, and light through living books and experiments just as he might gather ideas such as loyalty or ethics from a reading of Shakespeare? Recently, I shared a fascinating term of study with my children, ages 10 and 12, exploring the physics of the very fast, the physics of the universe and the physics of the very small.

As a steadfast believer in Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education I do my best to devise our syllabus following her principles and methods within the freedoms and constraints of our home. Realizing there might be questions regarding the legitimacy of undertaking a study of physics with children that young, I thought I would share some of the endeavors of Charlotte’s own students in the study of physics up to the time of her death in 1923. At this point, I’ll confine my discussion to Form II which is where my children fall — that’s approximately Years 4 through 6, ages 9-12 — though the principles and practices, unsurprisingly, followed through Charlotte’s Form V, our high school years.


Did Charlotte Mason’s students really study physics at such a young age?

Yes. In both Form IIA & IIB, Charlotte’s students studied physics. Following two terms of astronomy, one term was given to the study of solids, liquids and gases; another to sound, electricity and magnetism and during a third term students explored crystals before advancing to chemistry. This took place alongside the lower and upper classes’ respective studies of invertebrates in Form II. Students also maintained their nature notebooks and had special studies of the seasons during this time.

Charlotte quoted the educational innovator, Reverend Richard Dawes, at length regarding subjects thought too advanced for children:

The distinguishing mark of Nature’s laws is their extreme simplicity. It may doubtless require intellect of a high order to make the discovery of these laws; yet, once evolved, they are within the capacity of a child, — in short, the principles of natural philosophy are the principles of common sense, and if taught in a simple and common-sense way, they will be speedily understood and eagerly attended to by children; and it will be found that with pupils of even from ten to twelve years of age much may be done towards forming habits of observation and inquiry. (Vol. 1, pp. 270-271)

Physics was not taught from a textbook but, along with the other branches of science, the basic principles were laid out in narrative form. The science books in Charlotte’s classrooms were thoughtfully chosen, of literary value, and not only aided in a child’s understanding of the world about them but also kindled their imagination. The books used in science were up-to-date and, just as in mathematics, the applications of science were often related to daily life.


Were experiments a part of the study of physics at this age?

Experiments aided in the exploration of physics and were also valued for nurturing habits such as observation and attention. If the book in use did not provide experiments, a book of experiments was suggested. Nothing seems to have changed regarding Charlotte’s thoughts in this area from the publication time of her first collected volume to her sixth. She tells us in Home Education regarding science:

One thing is to be borne in mind: nothing should be done without its due experiment. (Vol. 1, p. 271)

She then states in A Philosophy of Education:

The teacher affords direction, sympathy in studies, a vivifying word here and there, help in the making of experiments, etc., as well as the usual teaching in languages, experimental science and mathematics. (Vol. 6, p. 19)


What about the mathematics involved in physics? Didn’t Charlotte wait until her students had calculus or at least linear algebra before undertaking the study?

Having no formal training in algebra, geometry or calculus did not preclude a student from studying physics in her schools. Charlotte’s purpose was not to prepare children for a job but for a full life and she strove to ensure science did not become a utilitarian subject (Vol. 6, p. 223).

During the years of Form II when students began studies in astronomy, physics and chemistry the scope of their work in arithmetic included the four rules with harder compound addition, subtraction and multiplication using money; long division; and measures of area and volume. The upper years of Form II worked with decimals, factors and fractions, including percentages and simple interest. Students in Form IIA also had a weekly lesson in practical geometry where they learned to handle mathematical tools like the compass and protractor. Through practical exercises in drawing and measurement, students were guided to discover some of the foundational ideas regarding points, lines, circles and angles.

Students did meet with distances and measurements in their science books but problems were never outside their scope of understanding. The idea that mathematical calculations were important was alluded to in these books and they certainly threw the doors wide open to a desire for deeper knowledge and a further gaining of wisdom.


We’ve discussed classical physics but what about Albert Einstein’s theories and quantum physics?

Charlotte lived during what some consider the second scientific revolution. She was not shy about encouraging parents to be mindful of the latest scientific advancements or exploring them with her students:

If parents take no heed of the great thoughts which move their age, they cannot expect to retain influence over the minds of their children. If they fear and distrust the revelations of science, they introduce an element of distrust and discord into their children’s lives…if they realize that the new idea, however comprehensive, is not final nor all-inclusive, nor to be set in opposition with that personal knowledge of God which is the greatest knowledge, why, then, their children will grow up in that attitude of reverence for science, reverence for God and openness of mind which befits us for whom life is a probation and continual education. (Vol. 3, p. 160)

Charlotte felt that “the study of science should be pursued in an ordered sequence” (Vol. 3, p. 237), so I’m not suggesting that we just plop in a term of quantum physics. One of the wonderful things about Albert Einstein was that, through the habit of imagination, he reinterpreted already known scientific results to change the way we think about things like space and time, energy and matter. If your child has already explored motion and its laws, gravity, simple machines, heat, energy and light, then Einstein’s theories and some of their effects are a natural and exhilarating next step.

When first encountering relativity, what really struck me about it more than anything else was actually how incredibly simple the underlying ideas were. The big point wasn’t hidden in some minutiae of some deep mathematics, or these stunning, very striking assumptions — that the speed of light is constant and that physics looks the same in all frames of reference — and from these two seemingly innocuous assumptions come this incredibly different worldview than the standard Newtonian picture of the world. (Nima Arkani-Hamed, Theoretical Physicist)


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  • Reply Don't Be Afraid To Teach Physics September 4, 2015 at 4:02 am

    […] certainly made it appear doable in her talk.  Physics is simply the exploration of energy in matter.  In Charlotte Mason’s […]

  • Reply Richele February 28, 2015 at 6:06 pm

    For those that posted encouraging words, thank you, they are like honey for someone that has been head-down in tax preparation for the last week. For those that posted their resources, thank you, as I am Brandy, thank you for hosting me at your place for a bit to talk about physics and Charlotte Mason. For those of you that want to know what our term looked like practically in our own home, Brandy is graciously lending me her space again so that article will be forthcoming.

    • Reply RobinP March 4, 2016 at 4:19 am

      Richele, I would love an update to this post if it is possible. My 25yo son is an engineer, was CM educated and was driven by all things math and physics. My youngest 12yo shows similar interests in physics but won’t be able to do the math involved in “formal” physics courses for some time. I’d love to see what you did with these ages.

      • Reply Richele March 4, 2016 at 5:57 am

        Oh, dear, this last year got away from me with the B&B and the move. Are you okay with me emailing you, Robin?

  • Reply Mommy Chickadee February 28, 2015 at 1:23 pm

    Thank you so much for this, Richele! Your CM math book has been such a big help in wrapping my head around CM’s math methods, and now I’m so excited to see you expanding that interest into Physics. I used to be so intimidated by these areas, but I’m feeling so much more confident and excited now. Thanks for the inspiration!

  • Reply Nancy Buterbaugh February 26, 2015 at 3:20 pm

    Thanks for the recommendations!

  • Reply Heather February 26, 2015 at 10:20 am

    We just started The Rainbow science curriculum from Beginnings Publishing which starts with a section on Physics. It comes with a student book and lab manual and materials. I think it was recommended for Year 6 under the old AO Science and I already planned on using it before I realized there were changes. I also found used copies of most of The Secrets of the Universe series which I believe covers Physics in one of the books.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel February 26, 2015 at 12:24 pm

      I think Secrets of the Universe was moved to Y7? I think that’s what happened. We did it in Y6 last year before the changes. Anyhow, yes, there were some physics covered there…

  • Reply Mama Squirrel February 26, 2015 at 5:21 am

    We have a strong family interest in physics, and my oldest is a science/math major, so we’ve picked up quite a few books on quantum things. My middle schooler was bored with her science textbooks this year and got interested in a couple of her older sister’s adult-level books such as The World of Physics and The Elegant Universe, so I have given her permission to use those as her science books for the rest of the year. One book we used previously, aimed at maybe the 10-14 age group, is The Great Motion Mission: A Surprising Story of Physics in Everyday Life, by Cora Lee.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel February 26, 2015 at 12:23 pm

      Ooh! Mama Squirrel, Do you think that one — The Great Motion Mission — would work as a read aloud? I often have a science read aloud {or two, depending upon length} for summer time…

      • Reply Mama Squirrel February 26, 2015 at 1:10 pm

        It would be a good summer read. It’s deceptively easy-looking; you could spend a lot of time on the science concepts that are covered in each chapter. It has a bit of an “everybody should like physics and if you don’t we’re going to make you” attitude, but overall it was good…like a slightly older-grades Magic School Bus episode, without the bus.

        • Reply Brandy Vencel February 26, 2015 at 2:59 pm

          Thank you for this. I’m putting it on my list. 🙂

  • Reply Nancy Buterbaugh February 25, 2015 at 6:06 pm

    Would love to know some of the books you found useful for this study. I confess that we struggle a little with some of the CM recommended science books (such as the Story of Science by Fabre. I realize that there are lots of valid scientic principles, but the very dated feel to it has been something of a turnoff to my boys. It somehow doesn’t seem serious to them. Have you found many living books which are more recently written?

    • Reply Sara McD February 26, 2015 at 8:07 am

      My boys disliked the science in that book as well because they found the story aspect silly and because I was constantly supplementing with Internet research to give more up-to-date information and theories. It was a good jumping off point, though and did spark their curiosity and willingness to observe.

  • Reply Mystie February 25, 2015 at 1:34 pm

    Thank you so much for this perspective! It’s so common to hear CM or AO criticized as light on science, when the truth is that she was actually coming at it from a more historic and humane way.

    Though I *was* hoping CM would give me permission to forego experiments. Drat. 😉

    • Reply Brandy Vencel February 25, 2015 at 3:10 pm

      Oh, Mystie, I was hoping for the same thing! Richele is setting me straight, too. 🙂

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