STEM and a Charlotte Mason Education

It seems that the most recent trend in education is something called STEM. You’ve probably seen that acronym popping up in many places. And we have received questions about how a STEM education aligns with a Charlotte Mason education. So I want to share some ideas about that today.

The thing to remember when looking at an educational idea is that all education is based on core ideas—key principles that are then applied in practical ways. You’re not just evaluating the methods or practices that you see, you are evaluating the philosophy behind them. Charlotte encouraged us to know the core values behind how we educate, for that wisdom is what will give us clarity and confidence as we teach. 

“Education is no more than applied philosophy—our effort to train children according to the wisdom that is in us; and not according to the last novelty in educational ideas.”

School Education, p. 118

When any new educational idea comes along, rather than just jumping on board with whatever the current trend is, we need to lay that idea beside the core values that we have thought through and know that we agree with and see how it aligns. 

So today, let’s do that with this recent trend in education, STEM, and see how it aligns with the principles of education that Charlotte Mason educators hold dear.

By the way, if you’re not sure what the core values of a Charlotte Mason education are, we are walking through those in another series.

First, let’s take a look at what STEM is and the key ideas behind it.

STEM—S, T, E, M—stands for science, technology, engineering, math. It focuses on those four areas of study. According to the research I’ve done, the STEM emphasis was created to meet a perceived need for more workers in STEM-related jobs.

You’re seeing it a lot now because the government has been offering huge grants to schools who will jump on board and implement this agenda. So you’re also seeing a lot of curriculum being developed to help teachers make the shift, because STEM also comes at those four subjects in a unique way.

The approach is to try to teach those four subjects (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) in an integrated, cohesive manner—rather than as four separate subjects. STEM seeks to offer exploratory, project-based learning using real-world applications. And it encourages a student-centered, cooperative approach to problem solving through discussion of ideas and solutions. The approach migrates away from rote memory and toward what are considered the 21st Century Thinking Skills: communication, creativity, critical thinking, and collaboration. 

That’s a summary of what I’ve discovered through some research. I’m sure there’s a lot more to it, and I encourage you to do your own research and educate yourself on more details as desired. But let’s take a look now at how those main STEM ideas align with Charlotte Mason ideas.

First, let’s see where the two approaches do align.

  1. Offering an integrated approach for subjects that naturally fit together works well. Charlotte saw nothing wrong with that approach. The caution she gave was when the teacher tries to force an integration with subjects that aren’t naturally a good fit. But as long as the subjects naturally go together, it’s perfectly fine to integrate them.
  2. Real-world application is another idea that aligns well with a Charlotte Mason approach. Especially in math, Charlotte used objects and what we would call “word problems” to emphasize the everyday application of math concepts. 
  3. The idea of downplaying rote memory as the proof of learning resonates well with a Charlotte Mason education. She encouraged her teachers to focus on ideas and make sure the student was thinking about and understanding the ideas, not just parroting back certain facts. She sought to guide the student toward a personal, vibrant knowledge instead of just rote memorization.
  4. Charlotte would also agree with helping the student develop good communication skills by sharing the knowledge that he has made his own and discussing it with others. That’s what narration is all about.
  5. And she would agree that critical thinking is good as long as it doesn’t depend wholly on reason and logic. Charlotte warned us that reason is not infallible; we can reason our way into or out of any idea if we want it badly enough. 

Now let’s look at a few places where the two approaches’ key ideas don’t seem to align as well.

  1. A Charlotte Mason education is based on a wide range of subjects.

We need to be careful that we don’t put overdue emphasis on certain subjects and exclude others. Charlotte divided all the subjects into three main groupings: the knowledge of God, the knowledge of man, and the knowledge of the universe. We must be careful to give our children plenty of opportunity for knowledge in all three. STEM seems to focus on only one of the three: knowledge of the universe. And I’ve seen STEM schools that focus only on STEM subjects.

“Education should be a science of proportion, and any one subject that assumes undue importance does so at the expense of other subjects which a child’s mind should deal with.”

A Philosophy of Education, p. 231

We must make sure we offer our children all three areas of knowledge. If we focus only on knowledge of the universe and push aside the knowledge of God and the knowledge of man, we enter dangerous territory. Why? Because those are the studies that instruct the conscience, shape the character, and create an understanding of human nature and respect for other cultures. 

History, literature, Bible, geography, art, and music all contribute to that knowledge of man and knowledge of God. If those studies are neglected, the child will learn how to use science, technology, engineering, and math, but that child will have no foundation of guiding values for determining the wisest use of that technology—what it should be used for and not used for and why. Those are matters of conscience and personal principles that are formed over many years of wide reading and thinking in the areas of his fellow man and God.

Without an instructed conscience and solid personal principles, a person tends to pick up his opinions “second-hand,” as Charlotte put it, without giving them the justice of due thought and consideration. In other words, the principles and values that studies in history, literature, Bible, geography, art, and music offer are what influence your child’s opinions. When that influence is missing, it creates a void and the child tends to depend on others for that influence. Collaboration without personal principles or values simply reinforces a tendency to lean on others’ opinions, to conform to majority opinion.

We need to make sure that we’re not putting powerful technological tools in a child’s hand without any guiding values in his heart for how they should be used and not used.

And that guidance is accomplished by giving our children a wide range of subjects that include knowledge of the universe, yes, but also knowledge of God and knowledge of man. 

  1. The goal of education in a Charlotte Mason approach is to develop a person as a whole person, not just to teach a certain set of skills for a particular job.

“It is a mistake, perhaps, to think that, to do one thing well, we must just do and think about that and nothing else all the time. It is our business to know all we can and to spend a part of our lives in increasing our knowledge of Nature and Art, of Literature and Man, of the Past and the Present. That is one way in which we become greater persons, and the more a person is, the better he will do whatever piece of special work falls to his share.”

Ourselves, Book 1, p. 47

Think about Leonardo da Vinci and what a great innovator of engineering and science he was. He studied anatomy, friction, and the flight of birds; he created a system of barricades to protect a city from attack; he diverted the flow of the Arno river; he came up with ideas for new musical instruments, a mechanical knight, hydraulic pumps, and a steam cannon; his notebooks had sketches and plans for several flying machines, as well as a parachute. More than 100 inventions can be traced back to Leonardo da Vinci. Oh yes, and he painted some pictures.

I’m not saying every child will be like Leonardo da Vinci, but how will you know unless you view that child as a whole person and develop the whole person, not narrow that view down to one small aspect of his skills or talents? 

Our goal should be to educate for growth in all aspects of personhood. We need to be careful that we don’t reduce education to the limits of a specific job preparation rather than the larger view of personal development.

“But the people themselves begin to understand and to clamour for an education which shall qualify their children for life rather than for earning a living. As a matter of fact, it is the man who has read and thought on many subjects who is, with the necessary training, the most capable whether in handling tools, drawing plans, or keeping books. The more of a person we succeed in making a child, the better will he both fulfill his own life and serve society.”

A Philosophy of Education, p. 3
  1. Not all children are able to excel in STEM subjects. If you remember the first core value of a Charlotte Mason education, you will see this misalignment. Charlotte built her philosophy on the principle that the child is a person.

He is not just a mind to be filled. He is not just a blank slate to be written upon. And he is not just a future worker to be trained along the same lines as everyone else. He is a unique individual with his own set of strengths and weaknesses, hopes and dreams, tendencies and personal interests. 

So we need to be careful that we are not pushing every child into the same mold. We must respect each child’s individuality. Some children will do well in STEM studies; others will flounder in STEM but excel in language arts or geography or music. 

Evidently there was a trend in Charlotte’s day to exalt math skills too, for she included an interesting passage in her final book, A Philosophy of Education, exhorting teachers to keep in mind that not every child will be proficient in mathematics and that a wide range of studies needs to be kept in balance.

“Mathematics are delightful to the mind of man which revels in the perception of law, which may even go forth guessing at a new law until it discover that law; but not every boy can be a champion prize-fighter, nor can every boy ‘stand up’ to Mathematics. Therefore perhaps the business of teachers is to open as many doors as possible in the belief that Mathematics is one out of many studies which make for education, a study by no means accessible to everyone. Therefore it should not monopolise undue time, nor should persons be hindered from useful careers by the fact that they show no great proficiency in studies which are in favour with examiners . . .

“We would send forth children informed by ‘the reason firm, the temperate will, endurance, foresight, strength and skill,’ but we must add resolution to our good intentions and may not expect to produce a reasonable soul of fine polish from the steady friction, say, of mathematical studies only.”

A Philosophy of Education, pp. 152, 153

The goal of education should be to help each child become the best version of himself that he can be—to understand and respect his individual strengths and weaknesses; to spread a wide feast of ideas so he can form relations in many directions; and to gently and persistently shape his habits (and thus his character), instruct his conscience, and strengthen his will so he will be ready for whatever comes his way in life.

Those who are mathematically or scientifically minded or who are inclined toward STEM subjects can be offered more studies in that area, certainly, and Charlotte acknowledged that fact.

“Lack of proportion should be our bête noire in drawing up a curriculum, remembering that the mathematician who knows little of the history of his own country or that of any other, is sparsely educated at the best.”

A bête noire is a French idiom that refers to something we particularly dislike and avoid. To Charlotte, that thing to be avoided was lack of proportion in a curriculum. But she went on to say,

“At the same time Genius has her own rights. The born mathematician must be allowed full scope even to the omission of much else that he should know. He soon asserts himself, sees into the intricacies of a problem with half an eye, and should have scope. He would prefer not to have much teaching. But why should the tortoise keep pace with the hare and why should a boy’s success in life depend upon drudgery in Mathematics?”

A Philosophy of Education, pp. 232, 233

If your child shows genius in one area of studies, by all means feed that genius. But we can’t hold all children to that standard. What we need to be careful of is trying to herd all children in one direction—for example, STEM—and not respecting their individual differences as unique persons.

What Charlotte Mason advocated for was a generous and broad education that spread a feast of ideas for all the children, so they could form relations in the vast variety of directions that is due them as persons; for growth as a person is the goal of education, not just job training. And our responsibility is to help each child become the best version of himself or herself as an individual. Those are core values of a Charlotte Mason approach. If we keep those core values in mind, they will help us evaluate any educational idea that comes along. 

If your child does have a bent toward science, technology, engineering, or math, I can think of at least ten ways that a Charlotte Mason education will give him or her a solid foundation and prepare that child well to pursue a STEM career. I’ll cover those in the next post.