If the name means nothing to you, you may be wondering what all the hoopla is about. Charlotte Mason was a British educator and author of the late nineteeth and early twentieth centuries. She wrote a lot of books and articles about education; she founded a teachers’ college and a correspondence school for families (the PNEU, or Parents’ National Education Union). She had a vision for a method of learning (and living) that was an antidote to dry, dumbed-down or excessively stern and rote systems of education favored by governesses and schools of her day (and still, in many cases, ours).
Her method was simple, rigorous, and lively. For each term, she (or her colleagues) drew up a list of what she called "living books," eloquent and impassioned prose for all subjects: history, literature, science, geography, civics, and poetry. No dull, committee-written textbooks for her students. All reading was to be of the highest literary quality.
The material was read slowly and thoroughly. In the early years, teachers or parents read the books aloud to their young pupils; as the students got older, they assumed more of the reading themselves.
As they read (or listened), the students narrated back the material. That is, they re-told what they had just heard in as much detail as they could possibly remember. Until age ten or so, children narrated orally; after that, they wrote out their narrations, thus developing excellent composition and retention skills.
You don’t really know something unless you can tell it back—we’ve all experienced this. Often when one of my kids says something funny I want to remember, I repeat it over to myself until it is fixed in my mind. That’s narrating, and it’s a cornerstone of a Charlotte Mason education. Such a simple idea—simply tell it back!—and yet so incredibly effective. At age eleven, Jane has a memory that
frightens astounds me: she can often repeat back word for word entire passages she has read. I’d like to take credit for passing on brilliant genes (as if I had anything to do with them, ha!) but it probably has more to do with her early training in CM’s narration techniques. I therefore grudgingly give all credit to Charlotte Mason and, you know, God.
Living books, narration, exposure to a wide range of subjects and ideas—these are the chief elements of a Charlotte Mason education. She also enthusiastically encouraged firsthand study of the natural world. She wanted her teachers (including parent-teachers) to get their students outside every day for fresh air and encounters with flora and fauna. Shoot, where did I just read the funniest excerpt on someone’s blog about a person spotting a child in a tree—and then much higher up was the child’s teacher "who had been trained at Miss Mason’s college"? I’ll look for that link. It was delightful and a perfect example of the adventurous and lively attitude Charlotte Mason liked to cultivate.
When we bring Charlotte Mason’s ideas into our homes and schools, we find that education becomes—as she put it herself—a life, a lifestyle. Our children retain their eagerness for knowledge and experience, their appetite for facts and big ideas. Miss Mason didn’t want children going through the motions of learning, cramming for tests and then forgetting everything right afterward. And of course none of us want that for our children either, whether they’re in school or not.