Educational Philosophy, Home Education

A Mind of Her Own: What Method Requires of the Teacher

October 15, 2019 by Brandy Vencel

I was feeling a little dull the other day so when the opportunity popped up in the interminable AmblesideOnline typing project, I jumped on it. It’s not online yet, but the article I ended up choosing had a number of real gems nestled within that can contribute further to the contrast we must always make between methods and systems in education.

I’ve been thinking about this because we just completed Week 1 in the autumn session of Charlotte Mason Boot Camp and one thing we do in Week 1 is consider the difference between the two. It’s not always easy for campers to wrap their minds around this (and it wasn’t easy for me, either, the first time I encountered it).

One of my favorite passages on this contrast between method and system is found in chapter 16 of Parents and Children:

[W]e have no system of education. We hold that great things, such as nature, life, education, are ‘cabined, cribbed, confined,’ in proportion as they are systematised. We have a method of education, it is true, but method is no more than a way to an end, and is free, yielding, adaptive as Nature herself. Method has a few comprehensive laws according to which details shape themselves, as one naturally shapes one’s behaviour to the acknowledged law that fire burns. System, on the contrary, has an infinity of rules and instructions as to what you are to do and how you are to do it.

Charlotte Mason

The idea that systems place limits on education is a powerful one. This is why many students (and teachers!) feel so confined in the standardized classroom environment. True education requires a level of freedom and creativity that a system not only can’t provide, but which it necessarily prevents.

The article I ended up typing adds, I think, an important thought, and that is regarding what is necessary in and from a teacher for method to be the case.

Much that seems to us new is only the logical sequence of what was familiar, adapting itself to new surroundings. And much more is only the re-discovery or the fresh application of an old truth. In how many of our most modern ideas we have gone back to the methods of those marvellous educationists of ancient history — the Greeks! Or how we find ourselves repeating the ideas of the now despised 18th century and Rousseau! Only if we are wise, we do not simply imitate, we adopt and adapt by the infusion of a new spirit, and gain much by doing, not what they did, but as they did.

Miss Douglas Montgomery in Self-Reliance and Public Opinion (from the Parents’ Review)

What is required of a good teacher? She is forever on the lookout for good ideas, but she does not, as the author later says, follow them “slavishly.”

The teacher must therefore have her own mind — know her own mind. She must always carry with her in her pocket her collection of important principles, those natural laws upon which her creativity can draw.

As the best dressed woman is she who follows the fashion, but modifies it to suit herself, so the most tactful educator is the one who can adapt general principles to individual cases.

Miss Douglas Montgomery

The author later calls it an abrogation of responsibility to not use our brains, to simply follow in a rut.

This can feel like a lot of pressure, what with all the managing we must be doing. On the one hand, especially if you’ve got a assortment of toddlers on your hands, there is much to be done and Mom can end up overwrought if she’s not careful. On the other hand, letting up on the management might just be the key to our success.

In Parents and Children, Charlotte Mason ties the use of method to masterly inactivity, which we also call “wise passiveness”:

Method pursues a ‘wise passiveness.’ You watch the teacher and are hardly aware that he is doing anything. The children take the initiative, but, somehow, the result here is in these and not in the teacher.

Parents and Children, p. 169

This is a good lesson for us. We may feel a little muddled — we may indeed need to study up on our principles — but nothing is stopping us from stepping back a bit, from letting go.

A good challenge I gave to myself a few years ago was to say yes more often. It can feel chaotic when my ninth grader, for example, wants to do most of Friday’s school lessons on Thursday afternoon because on Thursday afternoon she is bored and she’s pretty sure that gloating on Friday during school hours when everyone else is working will feel very satisfying (true story). It can feel chaotic when my fifth grader wants to sing his narration to the tune of In the Shallows (also a true story). Sometimes, there is a very good reason to say no. But many times in the past, I said no for my own convenience. In learning to say yes — in allowing more freedom — I found that freedom gives birth to initiative and watching initiative in action proves very quickly that all education is, indeed, self-education.

Masterly inactivity and method work harmoniously together and allow us a relaxed but deliberate approach to educating. As we allow the children more freedom, we find we have a little more space for our own thinking and creativity, which in turn allows for collection or examination of those pocket principles I mentioned, as well as their creative application to the individual students in our charge.

In other words, we have more space for method.

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5 Comments

  • Reply Thoughtworthy (Yahoo Groups, Pre-reading, New Books, and MORE!) | Afterthoughts November 7, 2019 at 12:53 pm

    […] I had forgotten about this post. It was amusing to me that it meshed pretty well with the post I published this very week! […]

  • Reply Terra-Leigh October 19, 2019 at 10:57 am

    Funny to be reading this this morning, as just late last night my older son asked me why I choose Charlotte Mason’s method for homeschooling him and his brother! Someone cue the caffeinated beverage to wake up my late night mom brain! On another note, my boys – 13 and 9 – often want to do their Friday lessons on Thursday so to extend their weekend free time. Sometimes it completely overwhelms my entire being to have to do more than I have on my prepared schedule. However I love your perspective that in allowing them more freedom, I can find more space for my own thinking and creativity. Gosh, yes! When I do say yes, it seems those Friday lessons done on Thursday take less time than if we’d complete them on Friday. Funny how that works. And then I do end up with more free time and the boys feel like they have accomplished something pretty amazing. I need to lean into those requests more often.

  • Reply Alicia October 19, 2019 at 10:32 am

    I really appreciated this, thank you. My mind was stirred! And I will ponder how to apply this.

  • Reply Carol October 16, 2019 at 8:42 pm

    Good thoughts here, Brandy! I thought this was s very sensible statement: ‘As the best dressed woman is she who follows the fashion, but modifies it to suit herself, so the most tactful educator is the one who can adapt general principles to individual cases.’ It keeps in mind CM’s ‘common’ curriculum due to all children but leaves room for some adaption to suit the individual.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel October 17, 2019 at 7:31 am

      Yes, I really liked her analogy — simple and common, leaving what is important, but making room for creativity, art — even personality and preference! ♥

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