Switching to Charlotte Mason from Textbooks

We all come to Charlotte Mason from different backgrounds. Perhaps your homeschool background has been mainly using traditional methods and materials like textbooks and workbooks, study guides and worksheets. If that’s the case, you may find that you have a tendency to think about education in certain ways, and those thoughts might trip you up as you transition to a Charlotte Mason approach.

So let me offer three possible tendencies that might crop up. I’m not saying that you will definitely have to deal with them—you might or you might not. But I think being aware of these different ways of thinking about education can be very helpful.

Three Tendencies

Tendency 1

Confusing information with education. There’s a huge difference between the two. In fact, Charlotte Mason wrote, “It cannot be too often said that information is not education” (School Education, page 169). Yet many people today have that mistaken view. Their focus is on “What should the child know?” But true education looks at much more than just dumping facts into a child’s brain. The focus of education should be: “How is my child growing . . . as a person?” Yes, part of growth is mental growth, and he should be learning new things, but be careful not to get tunnel vision. Education is much, much more than just learning facts. Look at the bigger picture. Look at the whole person.

Tendency 2

Depending on busywork in order to feel like you’re doing enough. Usually a textbook and workbook approach relies heavily on having a paper trail. So it’s easy to start to think that learning is not happening unless something is put on paper. Such is not the case. A lot of growing happens down deep where we can’t see it. And just because something is going onto a piece of paper does not guarantee that the child is learning. So try to recognize busywork for what it is and let go of it. Turn your focus to two things: First, your emphasis in a Charlotte Mason approach is not on quantity but on quality. Make sure your student is spending time on assignments that are worthwhile, not just filling time, mindlessly coloring or copying something over and over or playing little puzzles. Encourage the habit of best effort by requiring a high standard of quality on short, meaningful assignments.

It seems like one of the hardest places to make that switch away from paper is with oral narration. If the idea of having no record of your child’s narrations is causing you some anxious hours, feel free to record those oral narrations—either with an audio recorder or video. Then you’ll have a record without additional busywork tacked on to “show” that he is learning something.

Then the second thing to try to focus on, if you have this tendency to depend on busywork, is, don’t be afraid of giving your child the gift of time to think. Growth comes from taking in great ideas and having time to process them.

Learning can happen without a paper trail and without busywork.

Tendency 3

Thinking in terms of grade levels for everything. I often hear parents make a blanket statement, “My student is in this grade, but she’s behind.” I would encourage you to stop thinking of your child as being in a certain grade for everything. Start thinking, instead, in terms of topic-based subjects and skill-based subjects. Skill-based subjects are dependent on the student’s learning one particular skill before she can move on to the next. Skill-based subjects can be labeled with grade levels. The skill-based subjects are basically math and language arts.

(Now, let me insert here, that even though skill-based subjects can be labeled with grade levels, please don’t allow those labels to handcuff you. It is not uncommon for a child to be at one grade level in math and a different grade level in reading or writing. Every child is an individual, and it’s not realistic to expect every child to grow at the same rate—in every area of education—as all the other children his age. Show respect for the persons living in your home by allowing each one to grow as an individual at his own pace in the skill-based subjects.)

But all the other subjects are topic-based: history, geography, picture study, music study, and poetry, for example. Those subjects don’t have to be covered in a particular order or at a particular age. Topic-based subjects are not grade dependent. They just present topics that you can choose to cover whenever. If you can make that distinction in your mind, you will have more freedom to teach each child as an individual. Plus, you will be able to save a lot of time and money by teaching the whole family together for those topic-based subjects. Loosen your mental hold on grade levels.

So keep an eye out for those three tendencies. And let me also offer you three practical tips to help make the transition from a traditional-textbook approach to a Charlotte Mason approach smoother.

Three Tips

Tip 1

Many people that I talk to, who use the traditional approach of textbooks and workbooks, also follow a traditional school-year calendar. Many follow the same calendar as their local school system. That’s fine IF that is what works best for your family. My first tip is just a reminder that you can set your own school-year calendar. Think through what would work best for your family during this season of life. Perhaps a year-round school year would give you more flexibility. Some families I know do schoolwork for 3 months, then take 1 month off; or you might do 3 weeks on, 1 week off. You might even do four days a week, all year round. Or maybe a traditional school year does work best for your family. The purpose of this tip is mainly to encourage you to consider all the options and make an intentional decision. It’s nice to know that we have the freedom to approach our yearly calendar in whatever way fits best.

Tip 2

I encourage you to spend some time getting familiar and comfortable with living books. If textbooks are all that you’ve known up to this point (and that could have been many years, if you include your own education and your children’s), you may feel a bit uncertain when it comes to these very different “living” books. So spend some time educating yourself. Make sure you can tell the difference between a textbook-style of writing and a living book-style of writing. Remember that a living book is usually written by one author who has a passion for the subject. A living book will touch the emotions and fire the imagination. You’ll be able to see in your mind’s eye what is being described in the book. It will contain ideas, not just bare facts. The facts will be there, but they will be clothed in living ideas. Educate yourself on the difference between a textbook and a living book.

It’s important to know the difference, because it is very difficult to narrate a textbook—almost impossible. So if you don’t know the difference, you might be making the transition to narration harder for your student. And speaking of narration, that brings us to Tip #3.

Tip 3

Remember that fill-in-the-blank is easier than narration. Narration requires a much higher level of thinking. You are asking your child to give you an oral composition. After a single reading. That’s a tall order, and it might take a little getting-used-to on the part of your student. So give her lots of encouragement and give her the gift of time to make that transition. Don’t expect perfection from the very first day. The motto of “much grace” will help you both, as your student begins to use the tool of narration for self-education.

And don’t forget that you can ease into the Charlotte Mason approach if that would work better for you. Read, listen to, or watch these episodes that will help you make the switch in smaller stages.

Making the switch from textbooks to Charlotte Mason has its challenges, just like all of the other scenarios. But rest assured that you are not the first one, nor the only one, to do so; homeschoolers make that switch successfully all the time. I hope these ideas reassure your heart and smooth the way as you take the first steps of this transition.