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One of the hallmarks of a Charlotte Mason education is short lessons. But why did Charlotte use them? And are they enough? Today we’re going to look at six benefits that come with short lessons and a couple of guidelines to keep in mind if you’re going to use them effectively.
“Short lessons.” It’s a phrase often heard in Charlotte Mason circles, and it’s an important principle of teaching a child in the Charlotte Mason way. But as always, that one component is part of the bigger picture. So let’s take a few minutes to dig a little deeper into short lessons and talk about what all they encompass as part of a Charlotte Mason approach.
Let’s start by discussing why Charlotte Mason used short lessons. What are the benefits? I can think of six to begin with.
Benefit #1: Short lessons encourage the habit of attention
It’s human nature. If you know that you have all day to tidy the house before company arrives, that task can expand to take all day. You think about other things; you get distracted doing other things; and before you know it, the job stretches out over several hours. If, however, you know that company is arriving in one hour, what happens to your focus? Suddenly your mind zeros in on the task at hand, and you get it done in that time limit.
It’s the same with short lessons. Knowing that there is a time limit helps your student focus on the task at hand. “Now is the time to give your full attention to the history reading. You have only a few minutes, so don’t miss it.”
As Charlotte put it,
The power of reading with perfect attention will not be gained by the child who is allowed to moon over his lessons.Home Education, p. 230
Here’s a practical tip: As you set that time limit, be sure to keep your student’s capabilities in mind. You want to find the sweet spot that creates a sense of positive urgency but doesn’t cross the line into anxious stress. When a person is stressed, it’s hard for her mind to receive new ideas.
Benefit #2: Short lessons align with a child’s natural development
When used correctly, short lessons grow with your student, leveling up as she is ready. And that gradual process is a natural fit over the years of schooling. Take a look at the lesson length guidelines that Charlotte used with her students.
Grades 1–3: 20 minutes maximum
Grades 4–6: 30 minutes maximum
Grades 7–9: 45 minutes maximum
Grades 10–12: 45–60 minutes maximum
Keep in mind that those numbers are maximum lengths; many lessons were shorter than that. Charlotte knew children! It makes so much sense to have mostly 10- or 15-minute lessons for early elementary-age children. Their natural tendency is to move and to explore and learn about a great many different things over the course of a morning. Those short lesson times can be especially helpful to the youngest students who are making the transition from informal learning during the preschool years to formal lessons during the elementary years.
But remember that those short lessons are also cultivating the habit of attention in those students. As they cultivate that habit over a few years, the lessons then get lengthened, just a little, and they get a few more years to adjust to that higher expectation, even as they are growing and maturing and beginning to study subjects more in-depth. It’s a natural process.
Benefit #3: Short lessons prevent brain fatigue
It’s easy to get carried away and think that more is always better: If a short lesson is good, then a longer one must be better. But that is not the case. We are dealing with living human beings, and all human beings have limits.
Once the brain is over fatigued, it hits its limit. It can’t learn anything more in that moment. Think of it like a sponge that is saturated; it can’t hold any more water until it processes the water that’s there. Or think of it like a fuse. Our brains are made with a natural fuse that shuts off when it’s overloaded so that it can have time to recover.
You’ve probably experienced this if you’ve stayed up late to try and keep pushing on a paper that you need to write or a book that you need to finish reading or some other learning project. Somehow we think that if we just keep pushing, we will be able to keep learning. But once you hit that saturation point, it’s over. And even the moments leading up to that saturation point are very difficult, aren’t they? But if you simply set that paper or that book aside, let your brain recover, and then go at it again later when you’re refreshed, the experience is completely different. It’s much easier to focus and comprehend. The learning goes much more smoothly and efficiently.
Charlotte wanted children to learn when their brains were fresh, for one of her goals was that they would find learning delightful, not a drudgery. So she didn’t want to overtax their brains to the point of fatigue.
But rather than take a bunch of breaks, which would make the lessons drag out over the whole day, plus have to deal with trying to get the children’s attention back after the break and ready for the next lesson—rather than doing that, she came up with a brilliant idea. She alternated the types of lessons in order to use different parts of the brain. With this strategy, the learning can keep going, but no one part of the brain gets over fatigued—because first we work with the numbers part of the brain, for example, doing a math lesson; then we do a read-and-narrate type lesson that involves the words part of the brain; then we look at a picture or we listen to music; then we do a few minutes of handwriting.
By alternating the type of lessons in the sequence, the students are able to keep going without overtaxing any particular part of their brains. Here’s how Charlotte described it for that first level, grades 1–3:
The lessons are short, seldom more than twenty minutes in length for children under eight; and this, for two or three reasons. The sense that there is not much time for his sums or his reading, keeps the child’s wits on the alert and helps to fix his attention; he has time to learn just so much of any one subject as it is good for him to take in at once: and if the lessons be judiciously alternated—sums first, say, while the brain is quite fresh; then writing, or reading—some more or less mechanical exercise, by way of a rest; and so on, the program varying a little from day to day, but the same principle throughout—a ‘thinking’ lesson first, and a ‘painstaking’ lesson to follow,—the child gets through his morning lessons without any sign of weariness.Home Education, p. 142
Benefit #4: Short lessons allow you to spread a feast of ideas
As Charlotte mentioned in that quote we just read, each day’s program varies a little from day to day. Her heart-cry was a broad and generous education for all the children. She wanted them to have art and music and poetry and handicrafts and nature study and hymn singing along with the history and science and math and language arts and such. She wanted their education to be the spreading of a feast of ideas—a wide feast!
Many of those lovely subjects don’t have to take a lengthy lesson time to be included in your school schedule. Picture study takes only 10 or 15 minutes once a week. It takes about 5 minutes to read a poem and enjoy it together or to sing a hymn once or twice a week. Music study takes about 15 minutes too. Handicrafts and nature study and art instruction can be enjoyed during the afternoons after morning lessons are done, just once a week for each.
You can include a wide number of subjects by using short lessons. Charlotte explained that
Not the number of subjects but the hours of work bring fatigue to the scholar.A Philosophy of Education, p. 158
By tucking those beautiful short lessons here and there during a week, your students are able to receive a wide variety of subjects and ideas; and those short, constant touches add up over the years.
Benefit #5: Short lessons protect necessary time for students to process
In this fast-paced world, we are losing our ability to ponder, to ruminate on ideas, to turn them around in our minds and look at them from different angles. That kind of thinking comes most readily in quiet moments, when your mind is relaxed. Perhaps your hands are busy, but you don’t have external input coming at you. You are alone with your thoughts, and you can process them and make friends with them for yourself. That’s a gift that short lessons can give.
When formal lessons are done before lunch, afternoons are left open for thinking, processing, and even expanding on what was taken in during the morning. The beauty of this schedule is that it respects each child as a person and allows her to form relations with the ideas that stood out to her. And part of forming relations is having the opportunity to think about them for yourself. Short lessons protect that time and give that opportunity.
Benefit #6: Short lessons preserve a positive attitude toward learning
Children come into this world with a natural desire to learn. Look at a toddler or a preschooler and you see a child who is constantly exploring, experimenting, testing, and processing. It’s natural. But too often we school that out of them. When children are required to sit and listen or read and memorize a list of facts all day, they gradually lose that natural curiosity. The joy of learning dries up.
But with short lessons that focus on a wide variety of ideas—that present living thought that the student is encouraged to form a personal relationship with—that natural love of learning is preserved, and the student doesn’t dread school each day.
We are able to get through a greater variety of subjects, and through more work in each subject, in a shorter time than is usually allowed, because children taught in this way get the habit of close attention and are carried on by steady interest.School Education, p. 240
So there are many advantages to short lessons. But let me give you a qualifier: Short lessons can be powerful . . . when used in the right way. It’s not just about the amount of time you spend on a lesson, it’s about how you use that time. A short lesson that is a fact-dump will not yield the same benefits as a short lesson that is filled with living ideas. A short multiple-choice quiz will not yield the same benefits as a short narration lesson. The methods you use during the short lessons matter as much as the length of those lessons.
So let’s wrap up with two reminders. These are things you probably already know, but I just want to remind you of them as you put short lessons into practice.
Reminder #1: It’s not about the information
Often, people who panic about the idea of short lessons are thinking, “I don’t have enough time to dispense all of the information I need to during a short lesson.” But a Charlotte Mason education is not about information, it is about relations. A short lesson can stimulate your student to form a relationship with God, with God’s creation and His natural laws, with others, or with herself. And once that relationship is in place, your student can continue to develop it for the rest of his life.
So your goal is not to dispense all of the information available on any given subject. Your goal is to help your student begin a relationship with the person or object or event and then provide opportunity later to expand on that relationship.
Education is the science of relations.
Reminder #2: Focus on quality over quantity
You know from experience that the longer you work at a particular task, with no break or let up, the easier it is to care less about how well you’re doing it and more about just getting it done. In other words, to become careless. During the short lessons, you are encouraging your student to set up a habit of giving her best effort to the task at hand. That effort won’t be over-taxing, because the lesson times are short; but you are focusing on quality, not quantity.
When you think about it, short lessons really have a long-range perspective. Students who have formed relationships with people, past and present, and with the objects and natural laws that surround them—and have done this in less stressful, short, focused times—are more likely to want to keep pursuing and developing those relationships throughout their lives—to keep learning about them. Likewise, students who have practiced skills in short, concentrated time segments are less likely to burn out on those skills, less likely to develop bad habits of sloppiness and inaccuracy, and more likely to develop habits of giving their best effort and their focused attention. And those developing relationships and good habits continue throughout life.
Don’t be fooled: short lessons have a long-range purpose.