Switching to Charlotte Mason from Classical

I’m often asked, “Is Charlotte Mason classical?” Homeschoolers can debate that question all day. Here’s my take on it: If by “classical” you mean appreciating and using classic literature; cultivating good character; focusing on what is good, true, noble, and beautiful; and spreading a wide feast that includes art and music and poetry and Shakespeare and time in nature, I would agree that a Charlotte Mason approach does include those characteristics.

But if by “classical” you mean an approach that is based on the trivium for school-age children, I would have to disagree. Charlotte Mason is not trivium-based. There are some foundational differences between those two approaches. (If you’re not sure what a trivium is, watch the video “Five Flavors of Homeschooling.”)

So if you have decided to move from a trivium-based type of classical homeschool to more of a Charlotte Mason approach, you may find that you need to shift your thinking in a few areas. Let me share three tendencies you might want to watch for—three areas of thinking in which you might find yourself leaning more toward a classical mind-set.

Three Tendencies

Tendency 1

You might find yourself focusing on facts without their informing ideas. It’s interesting that the Charlotte Mason approach is almost the opposite of a trivium-classical approach when it comes to facts vs. ideas. Charlotte Mason encouraged us to focus on giving the student living ideas, and the facts will come with them. She believed that ideas take up residence in the inner court of a person’s mind and heart, and once they are established there, they keep watch for any related facts and invite them in. So you may need to completely flip your thinking, especially in the younger grades. Be careful not to focus on memorizing bare facts. Focus on ideas. Any memory work should be focused on ideas, because ideas are what feed your student’s mind. The facts will come along for the ride.

Tendency 2

You could have a tendency to move too quickly. When you feed your student a feast of ideas, you need to give him time to digest them. Time to process deeply, to ponder fully, to live with an idea—that is what educates the whole person. Be cautious of moving too quickly through a topic, just skimming the surface. Chances are, when you move quickly, you’re just sharing pertinent facts. Remember, the focus is on living ideas. Schedule time to linger with a historical person through a living biography. Plan to spend lots of time getting to know the ideas that ruled that person’s life, not just the bullet points of what he is famous for. Allow several weeks to live with one person’s art or music or poetry and the ideas he was communicating through it. Don’t speed through history; take your time and really get to know those fellow human beings who walked this earth before we did.

Tendency 3

Be careful of emphasizing reason more than character and principles. A lot of classical education focuses on logic and reasoning. But be careful. Charlotte reminded us that we can reason ourselves into or out of anything if we want it badly enough. Reason cannot be depended upon. Yes, teach your children to think deeply and well, but perhaps more importantly, give them the timeless principles that will help keep their thinking on the right path. Make sure they know the core truths that should guide all that we say, do, and think. Principles are those unchanging truths that can be depended on regardless of how a person feels or what he wants. It is the principles that inform the reason. Help your children grow to depend on those solid truths more than a person’s often-faulty skills of reasoning.

Those are three tendencies that come to mind that could pull you off a Charlotte Mason path. Now let me give you three quick tips to help you stay on a Charlotte Mason path.

Three Tips

Tip 1

View your child as a whole person, not a developmental stage. Yes, teach the child. Don’t expect him to be able to do something that he cannot do at his age. But try to see past the skills he may or may not have and look at him as a whole person. It’s easy to compartmentalize education and only focus on skill sets. Charlotte Mason reminded us that education is about helping the child to grow in all areas of life. Even young children work hard at communicating their thoughts well. Sometimes young children come up with astoundingly logical arguments. And older children (and adults) can learn a lot from a good story. So I encourage you to look at each student as a complete person, with a mind, a will, emotions, character, habits, and tendencies that all need guided growth—at any age.

Tip 2

Remind yourself to feed your child’s mind, not just exercise it. Not all lessons need critical analysis. Some subjects are included simply to nourish your child’s mind and heart with a wholesome feast of ideas. Picture study does not need to become lessons in art criticism. Poetry can just be enjoyed, rather than dissected and analyzed. The wide variety of subjects in a Charlotte Mason approach will give your child a wonderful balance of enjoyment and effort. And balance is important.

Tip 3

Help your child find his personal writing voice. This tip came to mind because it seems like writing composition is a huge deal in trivium-classical education; whereas, Charlotte took a different approach. When you think about writing, there are really two distinct aspects involved: the author’s voice and the form of the writing. Of the two, a good writing voice is harder to cultivate. Once you have your voice and style, you can adapt to different formats pretty easily. But cultivating that writing voice takes time and freedom to experiment and lots of encouragement. Charlotte focused on developing each child’s individual voice in the elementary and middle grades. So try not to panic or push your child into writing in specific formats or insist that he follow a set of formulas so his writing sounds exactly like everybody else. Give him time to absorb a wide variety of great authors’ styles in his reading and to practice finding his own voice through lots of oral narration—years of time. Format can wait; focus on the writing voice.

I hope these thoughts help you better understand some of the differences between the two approaches and give you some ideas for smoothing out your path as you move from a trivium-based classical approach to a Charlotte Mason approach in your home school.

And remember, you can make that shift to Charlotte Mason in stages.