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Recently, I was driving to an appointment in a town about an hour away from my house, and I came to a fork in the road. My mapping app said to take the road to the right, but the person in the car with me said to take the road to the left. It was a decision point. I decided to take the road to the right and follow the mapping directions. It got us to the town, but where we arrived looked much different from the other part of town where that person had arrived on a previous trip, taking the road to the left.
That fork in the road reminds me of a decision point we all face as homeschoolers. There are several different paths of thought about how to educate your child. It’s a big decision to choose one. I would venture to say that the majority of the paths will get you to your ultimate destination—they will give your child some kind of education—but what it looks like when you arrive at the end of your chosen path is going to look different from other paths.
In other words, you can’t choose path A and expect to see the results of path B. It doesn’t work that way.
So how do you choose a path? Charlotte Mason gave us three key questions to ask about any educational path of thought, any educational philosophy. These three questions will help you determine which way to go at the fork in the road.
To begin to understand the differences and similarities between homeschooling paths of thought, we need to ask three key questions:
1. How does this path view the child?
2. How does this path define “education”?
3. What does this path say is the role of the teacher?
Once you know the answer to those three questions, you’ll have a pretty good mental picture of where you’re going to end up, what it’s going to look like when you reach the end of that path.
1. How does this path view the child?
The Charlotte Mason path views the child is a whole person, so his education should cultivate the whole person, not just his mind. Charlotte believed that each child’s personhood and personality deserves respect, regardless of whatever type of intelligence he might lean toward. All children come into the world with a natural appetite for knowledge gained through forming their own relationships with the people and things around them, with God, and with themselves. That natural appetite for relational knowledge needs to be encouraged and nourished.
Many other educational paths view the student mainly as a container that needs to be filled up with a certain body of information: these are the facts that the child should learn and remember. Those paths mostly focus on the mind of the child, rather than nourishing all aspects of his personhood.
So how do you know how a particular path views the child? Take a look at the content that is being given to the student. Is it limited to carefully-ordered bits of information to memorize, or does it offer a wide variety of subjects that will feed different aspects of his personality? Does it encourage you to guide your student to discover things for himself, or does it spoon-feed a bunch of facts? Also see if it offers opportunities for your child to tell what he has discovered and what he knows rather than just quizzing him to see if he remembers the facts that he’s been fed. Those types of considerations can help you determine how a particular educational path views the child.
2. How does this path define education?
In the Charlotte Mason approach, education is defined as “the science of relations.” Since the child comes into the world with a natural desire to form personal relationships with people, things, God, and himself, education is all about helping him to form those relations.
They come into the world with many relations waiting to be established; relations with places far and near, with the wide universe, with the past of history, with the social economics of the present, with the earth they live on and all its delightful progeny of beast and bird, plant and tree; with the sweet human affinities they entered into at birth; with their own country and other countries, and, above all, with that most sublime of human relationships—their relation to God.A Philosophy of Education, pp. 72, 73
So we offer students a broad and generous curriculum with a wide variety of subjects and encourage them to form their own relationships. When Charlotte used that term “science of relationships,” she was referring to personal knowledge; knowledge that is gained through personal relationships. That’s very different from being given a list of facts or a body of information to memorize, learn, and recall.
It cannot be too often said that information is not education.School Education, p. 169
For example, think about your relationship with your parents. That relationship is based on shared experiences that involved your emotions and that you can picture in your memory. You didn’t just memorize a bunch of facts about your mother and father; you shared experiences with them. Those shared experiences formed an ongoing relationship. The facts came along for the ride, but they weren’t the focus. The focus was on forming a relationship that could continue for the rest of your lives.
That’s what we want for our students. We want them to form relationships with people in the past and present, with the things around them that God has made, with God Himself, and even a relationship with themselves too, getting to know their own strengths and weaknesses. Those relationships can then continue throughout their lives. That’s a Charlotte Mason education.
Other educational paths may define “education” differently. Some may consider learning a body of information to be education. They usually use direct questions, fill-in-the-blank, true-or-false, and multiple choice to assess whether the student has retained the facts. Once that collection of facts is learned, the person is considered educated.
Some paths may put a heavy emphasis on exercising one particular “part” of the student’s mind; for example, emphasizing reasoning and logic. And if the student can reason well, he is considered educated. Other paths put a heavy emphasis on career preparation; once the child can earn a living, he’s good to go. He’s educated.
How do you know how a particular path defines “education”? Here are a few things to look at.
Look at the type of books that are used. Are they just the facts, or do they offer shared experiences that touch the emotions and fire the imagination in order to form relationships?
Look at the methods that are used. Do they nourish the student’s heart and mind, or do they just exercise his mind? Do they offer good, noble ideas to ponder?
Look at the spread of subjects that are offered. Do they encourage your student to form relationships across a wide range, or are they limited to only what is “practical” or “necessary” to earn a living? Another way to ask that question is, Is your student being encouraged to live or to earn a living?
Also take a look at whether the methods and content focus only on your student’s mind and thinking skills or if they take into account the whole person and help your student grow in all aspects of personhood. Does that path help your student form good habits of all-around character or just mental acuity?
Those types of questions can help you determine how each educational path defines “education.”
3. What Does This Path Say is the role of the teacher?
In a Charlotte Mason approach, the teacher is a guide. Your job is to spread a feast of relationship-building opportunities by introducing to your student the great people of the past and present who have good and noble ideas, and then get out of the way and let your student form his own relationships.
Give children a wide range of subjects, with the end in view of establishing in each case some one or more of the relations I have indicated. Let them learn from first-hand sources of information—really good books, the best going, on the subject they are engaged upon. Let them get at the books themselves, and do not let them be flooded with a warm diluent at the lips of their teacher. The teacher’s business is to indicate, stimulate, direct and constrain to the acquirement of knowledge, but by no means to be the fountain-head and source of all knowledge in his or her own person.School Education, p. 162
‘Education is the Science of Relations’; that is, that a child has natural relations with a vast number of things and thoughts: so we must train him upon physical exercises, nature, 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 affinitiesA Philosophy of Education, p. 154
That fit our new existence to existing things!’
In other words, to form his own relationships with everything around him. Those last statements reveal a key difference between educational paths. Many paths consider the teacher’s role to be the source of knowledge and their responsibility is to teach the student all about everything, to make sure the student knows all of the information that is deemed important. The teacher is the one who determines whether an answer is correct or incorrect.
But a Charlotte Mason educator is different. She is a fellow traveler in life, who is continuing to deepen her own ongoing relationships with people and things around her. She is also a wise guide who directs her student to the best books and things that will offer that student the opportunity to form relationships with the best ideas. And she helps the student grow in cultivating best practices within those relationships that he is forming; in other words, good habits of thought and behavior.
So how can you tell how an educational path views the role of the teacher? Look at how much the teacher is expected to present in the lessons. Is she being set up as the source of knowledge and the dispenser of important facts? Is she perhaps expected to form the relations herself and then spoon-feed her findings to the student? Is a lot of her time spent in determining whether the student’s factual answers are correct or incorrect? All of those descriptions are different from how the Charlotte Mason approach views the role of the teacher: as a fellow traveler and wise guide.
Choosing Your Path
Several paths. Three questions. They seem simple, but they are so important to think through when you are considering which educational path to go down:
- How does this path view the child?
- How does it define “education”?
- What does it say is the role of the teacher?
Yes, all of those paths lead to some kind of education, but what you’re going to see at the end of each path is different. The path you choose will affect how your child thinks about education and himself.
With some paths, your student may end up seeing learning as a separate mental task to finish and forget, something removed from who he is and how he lives. He might view learning as just a body of information to work through and be done with. He could easily lose the joy of learning that was natural when he was young. And he might get the message that learning depends on someone else telling him what to learn and when. It’s not uncommon to see those attitudes in a lot of high school graduates, unfortunately.
But at the end of the Charlotte Mason path, your student will see learning as an ongoing part of who he is as a relational person. He will view learning as a life filled with relationships, continually forming new ones and strengthening existing ones and growing in the best practices within them. He will have the tools and the desire to keep learning for himself and to continue growing for a lifetime.
For more help as you consider which homeschool path will fit your family, download our free e-book Getting Started in Homeschooling. It will give you more details on different educational paths and how they answer those three key questions.