Joan wanted a garden. In her mind this garden would provide colorful, fresh, healthful vegetables for her family. She could picture the lovely yellow peppers, delicious sweet onions, and bright red tomatoes. In fact, she could almost taste the fresh salsa!
But Joan was new to this whole gardening thing. She knew it involved putting seeds and plants in the soil, but that was about the extent of her knowledge. She decided that she needed some instructions—instructions that she could follow to the letter. Something that would guarantee success. So Joan bought a book called 283 Easy Steps to a Healthy Vegetable Garden.
She located the right spot in her yard, according to the book, and tilled the soil like the book said to. The next step in the book was, “Add sulfur to the soil to make it more acid.” Joan wasn’t sure where to find sulfur, so she decided to ask her neighbor, who had a beautiful garden every year.
“Oh, no, Joan,” her neighbor replied. “You don’t need sulfur for this soil; it’s already acid. Put a little lime in there instead.”
Joan now faced a crucial decision: Should she keep following the system in the book or should she deviate in order to better suit her circumstances? Joan decided to take a step away from the system and do what seemed best for her specific soil.
Several weeks later, Joan was outside watering her garden when her neighbor stopped by and asked what she was doing.
“Oh, the book says to water your garden for fifteen minutes every day,” Joan replied.
The neighbor smiled and gently offered, “But Joan, it has rained every day this week.”
Joan put away the garden hose.
Over the summer Joan learned a lot about gardening, and little by little she let go of the follow-the-book-to-the-letter system in order to adjust to her garden’s unique and changing conditions. Her efforts were rewarded with a bountiful harvest.
What Joan learned over the summer was how to let go of a system and embrace a method. She had the picture in her mind of what she wanted to accomplish; and as she gradually acquired the general principles of gardening, she began to see how to apply those principles in different ways amid varying circumstances.
She no longer blindly followed the book. The author of that book didn’t know Joan’s personal situation: what the soil was like in her yard, what the weather was like at Joan’s house during any given week that summer, what kinds of vegetables Joan wanted to grow and didn’t want to grow, how shady or sunny her garden patch ended up being. All of those factors came into play whenever Joan faced a decision about her garden. The book couldn’t make informed decisions nor adapt in the moment as Joan could.
The book outlined a system: follow steps 1–283 and you will end up with the garden of your dreams.
A system is different from a method.
A method is how Charlotte advised us to approach educating our children. Education (all we do to help our children develop mentally, morally, physically, and spiritually) should be a method. We should have the end goal in mind, learn the principles of what we’re trying to accomplish, and then apply those principles in different ways according to our varying circumstances.
“The following of a method implies an idea, a mental image, of the end or object to be arrived at. What do you propose that education shall effect in and for your child?” (Home Education, p. 8).
That’s where it starts. Do you have a mental image of your end goal? When your child stands before you as a graduate of your home school, what is it you want to see standing there? You know your child better than any curriculum writer does, so don’t become trapped in a one-size-fits-all system. Use curriculum as a servant; don’t let it become your master.
Education should not be a system that dictates the exact same actions at the exact same time for every child. A one-size-fits-all mentality cannot possibly be adequate in every situation.
But isn’t that what we all look for? We want a system, not a method. Charlotte recognized that emotional pull: “A ‘system of education’ is an alluring fancy” (Home Education, p. 9). We want the 283 easy steps to an educated child: “Just do what the book says and you are guaranteed to be successful!”
But such an approach can never hope to achieve what a method can. When you use a method, you recognize the fact that you are dealing with a unique human being, who has individual strengths and weaknesses.
“The educator has to deal with a self-acting, self-developing being, and his business is to guide, and assist in, the production of the latent good in that being, the dissipation of the latent evil, the preparation of the child to take his place in the world at his best, with every capacity for good that is in him developed into a power” (Home Education, p. 9).
That kind of individualized education cannot be achieved with a one-size-fits-all system. It requires a solid yet flexible method.
You can still use a curriculum, of course; but use it as a starting point, a loose guide, a suggested idea. Don’t be afraid to deviate from those suggestions. Adapt the curriculum to fit your child; don’t make your child fit the curriculum.
Ask God for wisdom, apply Charlotte’s wonderful methods, and adjust as needed for your child to grow and flourish. Picture your goal; keep it in mind. Then learn the principles of a Charlotte Mason education, and use them to fit your situation. Don’t get locked into a system.
I’m curious in what areas of homeschooling you have been able to let go of a system and embrace Charlotte Mason methods instead. Was it a long process? What results have you seen from that switch? Leave a comment and let’s encourage each other in this important mind shift!