Thursday, February 14, 2013

Charlotte Mason Unschooling

*Note to readers: As this is a very popular post, I feel compelled to tell you that I no longer advocate blending Charlotte Mason with unschooling. I believe that at its root, and especially in its "radical" form, unschooling is contradictory to the Christian parental vocation. I am now a strong advocate of a Catholic adaptation of the philosophy and methodology of Charlotte Mason in an uncompromised, yet still contemporary, form. All of the goodness advertised in unschooling can be found by going further up and deeper into CM, without any of unschooling's baggage. However, I think that the content of this article remains of edifying value, so if you find it helpful on your homeschooling journey, then it has served its purpose. Thank you kindly for reading!

Before anyone screams at me, I realize that the title of this post is a contradiction in terms--which is exactly why it works for me. I have always been the eclectic type, in decorating, personal style, education, interests, etc... My personality is composed of diametrical opposites, which used to make it hard for me to understand myself. Now I'm perfectly comfortable with my seeming contradictions. You know, the whole "introverted extrovert" or "extroverted introvert" thing. I am a walking oxymoron. Will I stick with this label of my homeschooling style, Charlotte Mason unschooling? Hard to tell, since I am still waiting for the unschoolers to describe their lifestyle and what it is that they do (and don't do). But in the end I'll do my own thing anyway, so onward we go!

Lest you think that the CM method and unschooling go together like liver and strawberries, read Kathy Ward's online article, "Why I Like Charlotte Mason" ( She gives several quotes from Charlotte Mason and John Holt to show their philosophical similarity. I was so impressed with this that I don't think I could possibly express the idea any better than she has, so thanks, Kathy!

I was feeling like I needed to do something different with our homeschooling, though it was actually flowing along quite nicely. That seems ironic when I think about it. Shouldn't we leave well enough alone and not go looking for trouble? Maybe that was what got me thinking about unschooling. Since our system has been working so well, and I am happy with Beezy's academic progress, it seems to me to be time to branch out. Beezy is endlessly creative, so that isn't an issue. But we could get back to needlepoint projects, for example. We could go on day trips and travel around the country. We have access to the woods in Michigan that we could visit more often. She wants to be a singer, which may or may not work out, but she has from a very young age shown a talent for song writing. She is taking piano lessons, and her homework book already has her making up tunes. It pleased her that she has homework "like the other kids" now, but hers is "easier because it's piano and it's fun."

Today we handmade tons of valentines and baked a strawberry shortcake together. Beezy listened to Taylor Swift and had a friend over to play who lives nearby. Her cousin is spending the night, since she has no school tomorrow. This has been a good week to set school work aside and ruminate on how best to proceed. The Astra Taylor youtube video really got my wheels turning! I want to provide more opportunities for independent learning experiences for my child. I was inspired by the valentine creations to become a collage artist, and when looking for library books, I learned a new term--altered art. We looked at collage art images online. I have made "illustrated discovery journals" via the idea by Sarah Ban Breathnach in Simple Abundance for years. From my experience, children absolutely love collage art. So I am planning to create a new art area for Beezy for scrap booking and creating collages or whatever she wants to do with it. She makes stuff out of our paper recycling bin all the time. I want to create a similar artist workshop for myself!

I have encountered the writing of several other homeschooling mothers who have a Montessori background and also found themselves drawn to Charlotte Mason. I have pointed out the  similarities of these educators at various points in this blog. One notable difference between them is that the CM method is predominantly teacher-led (albeit only in the mornings), while Montessori's is child-centered for the most part (though the role of the teacher is crucial). Charlotte did not establish a highly scientific, prepared indoor environment like Maria's, because she was much more nature and literature oriented. Both gave their students plenty of free time and put a high premium on respect for children as people and their innate capacity to learn without a great deal of interference from adults. Both believed in the spiritual nurturing of a child as a foundational principle of education. Both approaches contain elements similar to unschooling's basic philosophy. I am leaning more toward the CM method now, as Montessori materials are very pricey and take up a lot of space, and a full application of the Montessori method would be very difficult to duplicate in a home setting. And I don't want my home to resemble a classroom!

For your further edification in the CM method, below are the 20 principles of Charlotte's educational method, followed by a sampling of attainments suitable for a six-year-old. Enjoy!


Charlotte Mason's 20 Principles form a synopsis of her Educational Method:

1. Children are born persons.

2. They are not born either good or bad, but with possibilities for good and for evil.

3. The principles of authority on the one hand, and of obedience on the other, are natural, necessary and fundamental; but––

4. These principles are limited by the respect due to the personality of children, which must not be encroached upon whether by the direct use of fear or love, suggestion or influence, or by undue play upon any one natural desire.

5. Therefore, we are limited to three educational instruments––the atmosphere of environment, the discipline of habit, and the presentation of living ideas. The P.N.E.U. Motto is: "Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life."

6. When we say that "education is an atmosphere," we do not mean that a child should be isolated in what may be called a 'child-environment' especially adapted and prepared, but that we should take into account the educational value of his natural home atmosphere, both as regards persons and things, and should let him live freely among his proper conditions. It stultifies a child to bring down his world to the child's' level.

7. By "education is a discipline," we mean the discipline of habits, formed definitely and thoughtfully, whether habits of mind or body. Physiologists tell us of the adaptation of brain structures to habitual lines of thought, i.e., to our habits. 8. In saying that "education is a life," the need of intellectual and moral as well as of physical sustenance is implied. The mind feeds on ideas, and therefore children should have a generous curriculum.

9. We hold that the child's mind is no mere sac to hold ideas; but is rather, if the figure may be allowed, a spiritual organism, with an appetite for all knowledge. This is its proper diet, with which it is prepared to deal; and which it can digest and assimilate as the body does foodstuffs.

10. Such a doctrine as e.g. the Herbartian, that the mind is a receptacle, lays the stress of education (the preparation of knowledge in enticing morsels duly ordered) upon the teacher. Children taught on this principle are in danger of receiving much teaching with little knowledge; and the teacher's axiom is,' what a child learns matters less than how he learns it."

11. But we, believing that the normal child has powers of mind which fit him to deal with all knowledge proper to him, give him a full and generous curriculum; taking care only that all knowledge offered him is vital, that is, that facts are not presented without their informing ideas. Out of this conception comes our principle that,––

12. "Education is the Science of Relations"; that is, that a child has natural relations with a vast number of things and thoughts: so we train him upon physical exercises, nature lore, handicrafts, science and art, and upon many living books, for we know that our business is not to teach him all about anything, but to help him to make valid as many as may be of–– "Those first-born affinities That fit our new existence to existing things."

13. In devising a SYLLABUS for a normal child, of whatever social class, three points must be considered: (a) He requires much knowledge, for the mind needs sufficient food as much as does the body. (b) The knowledge should be various, for sameness in mental diet does not create appetite (i.e., curiosity) (c) Knowledge should be communicated in well-chosen language, because his attention responds naturally to what is conveyed in literary form.

14. As knowledge is not assimilated until it is reproduced, children should 'tell back' after a single reading or hearing: or should write on some part of what they have read.

15. A single reading is insisted on, because children have naturally great power of attention; but this force is dissipated by the re-reading of passages, and also, by questioning, summarising. and the like. Acting upon these and some other points in the behaviour of mind, we find that the educability of children is enormously greater than has hitherto been supposed, and is but little dependent on such circumstances as heredity and environment. Nor is the accuracy of this statement limited to clever children or to children of the educated classes: thousands of children in Elementary Schools respond freely to this method, which is based on the behaviour of mind.

16. There are two guides to moral and intellectual self-management to offer to children, which we may call 'the way of the will' and 'the way of the reason.'

17. The way of the will: Children should be taught, (a) to distinguish between 'I want' and 'I will.' (b) That the way to will effectively is to turn our thoughts from that which we desire but do not will. (c) That the best way to turn our thoughts is to think of or do some quite different thing, entertaining or interesting. (d) That after a little rest in this way, the will returns to its work with new vigour. (This adjunct of the will is familiar to us as diversion, whose office it is to ease us for a time from will effort, that we may 'will' again with added power. The use of suggestion as an aid to the will is to be deprecated, as tending to stultify and stereotype character, It would seem that spontaneity is a condition of development, and that human nature needs the discipline of failure as well as of success.)

18. The way of reason: We teach children, too, not to 'lean (too confidently) to their own understanding'; because the function of reason is to give logical demonstration (a) of mathematical truth, (b) of an initial idea, accepted by the will. In the former case, reason is, practically, an infallible guide, but in the latter, it is not always a safe one; for, whether that idea be right or wrong, reason will confirm it by irrefragable proofs.

19. Therefore, children should be taught, as they become mature enough to understand such teaching, that the chief responsibility which rests on them as persons is the acceptance or rejection of ideas. To help them in this choice we give them principles of conduct, and a wide range of the knowledge fitted to them. These principles should save children from some of the loose thinking and heedless action which cause most of us to live at a lower level than we need.

20. We allow no separation to grow up between the intellectual and 'spiritual' life of children, but teach them that the Divine Spirit has constant access to their spirits, and is their Continual Helper in all the interests, duties and joys of life.

Volume 6: A Philosophy of Education Charlotte Mason 1922

"A Formidable List of Attainments for a Child of Six":

(A reprint of a curriculum outline from a CM school in the 1890s, from Summer 93 Parents Review published by Karen Andreola)

1. To recite, beautifully, 6 easy poems and hymns
2. to recite, perfectly and beautifully, a parable and a psalm
3. to add and subtract numbers up to 10, with dominoes or counters
4. to read--what and how much, will depend on what we are told of the child
5. to copy in print-hand from a book
6. to know the points of the compass with relation to their own home, where the sun rises and sets, and the way the wind blows
7. to describe the boundries of their own home
8. to describe any lake, river, pond, island etc. within easy reach
9. to tell quite accurately (however shortly) 3 stories from Bible history, 3 from early English, and 3 from early Roman history (to note, we may want to substitute early American for early English!)
10. to be able to describe 3 walks and 3 views
11. to mount in a scrap book a dozen common wildflowers, with leaves (one every week); to name these, describe them in their own words, and say where they found them.
12. to do the same with leaves and flowers of 6 forest trees
13. to know 6 birds by song, colour and shape
14. to send in certain Kindergarten or other handiwork, as directed
15. to tell three stories about their own "pets"--rabbit, dog or cat.
16. to name 20 common objects in French, and say a dozen little sentences
17. to sing one hymn, one French song, and one English song
18. to keep a caterpillar and tell the life-story of a butterfly from his own observations.


  1. Thank you for this! I'm a Charlotte Mason Unschooler too! I thought I was nutso for categorizing myself that way but then I came across a Facebook group for Charlotte Mason Unschoolers!

    1. Thank you for reading and taking the time to comment! I think more in terms of "relaxed homeschooling" than unschooling now. But there are certainly areas of intersection between CM and unschooling, with the idea of self-education. I think that we need to feel free to use whatever terms help us in our home education efforts, even if others don't think in the same way.


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