Switching to Charlotte Mason from Unit Studies

Some people think that a Charlotte Mason approach is a unit study approach. But there are some key differences between the two methods. And if you’re making the change from unit studies to Charlotte Mason in your homeschool, you need to understand those differences. Let’s take a look at them by first exploring three tendencies that you might have in your thinking.

Three Tendencies

Tendency 1

You’re probably used to making the mental connections for the student. Usually in a unit study approach, the teacher picks one theme and tries to connect as many school subjects as possible to that theme. But in a Charlotte Mason approach, you don’t force those connections ahead of time. The focus is on giving your student a wide variety of subjects on different themes and allowing the student to make the connections for herself. It’s something that Charlotte called the “science of relations.” As we learn more about this wide world in which we live, we begin to form mental relations between the things we learn about. Perhaps you’re learning about Greek mythology in history and you read the story of Prometheus. A few days later, you read the next poem in the poetry book you’re reading by Longfellow. The poem is called “The Lighthouse”—a completely different topic from Greek mythology. But near the end, the poet calls the lighthouse “a new Prometheus, chained upon the rock, Still grasping in his hand the fire of Jove.” Suddenly your mind lights up! You’ve made a connection. You understand that relation for yourself; it is your own possession. And that’s when learning sticks: when your student is allowed to make those connections for herself. So focus on providing the wide variety of subjects, and give your student the opportunity to experience that personal joy of the science of relations.

Tendency 2

You might feel like learning didn’t happen if your student didn’t do a hands-on project. It’s easy to look at a finished project as proof that learning took place. But remember that busy hands do not guarantee that the mind is engaged. You will know how well your student’s mind is engaged when you hear her narration. Being able to retell or explain what you read, and put it in your own words, is a great test of what you know. And that is one of the foundational learning tools that you want your student to practice using. You see, a Charlotte Mason approach is about making the move toward self-educating, rather than teacher-focused educating. Self-education is the goal, and the methods that are used in all of the grade levels are designed to give the student practice with key tools for learning. Narration is one of those tools that can reassure you that learning did happen, even without cutting and pasting. Here is a link to a series I wrote about those tools for learning. (And if you read those blog posts only once and then try to narrate them to yourself without looking back, you will understand how powerful narration can be as a learning tool.)

Tendency 3

Perhaps you worry that your child will get confused with a wide variety of subjects and no common theme. Well, maybe it would help to look at it from the other direction. Variety is the spice of life. Rarely does life fall neatly into one common theme. Variety is what keeps life interesting. And variety in lessons can help to keep them interesting and enjoyable. Think of your lessons as meals for the mind. Just as you don’t serve all one type of food for your family’s meals, so you don’t want to serve all one theme in your family’s mental meals. In Charlotte Mason circles we often refer to “spreading a feast” of ideas. Wide variety will do that. Variety will also help your student, over time, get into the habit of looking for her own connections, and thus, mentally interacting more with what she is learning.

Now, over the past few articles in this series, we’ve looked at three tendencies and three practical tips. So let’s keep that trend going. Here are three tips that will help you make the change from unit studies to Charlotte Mason.

Three Tips

Tip 1

Make regular entries in a Book of Centuries. A Book of Centuries is basically a timeline in a book. Each two-page spread covers 100 years, a century. Every time you read about a person or an event, flip open your Book of Centuries to the appropriate page and make an entry. Over time, as you enter more and more people and events, you will start to see connections between them. When you flip open to a century to enter a new person, you will see all of the other people you have already studied who lived in that same century. That’s what will help tie everything together. You don’t have to tell your student who all lived at the same time in history. Just be faithful to make those Book of Centuries entries and your student will see it for herself. I recommend keeping a family Book of Centuries when the children are young, so they can see how it works. Then when each student’s handwriting is well-established, you can give her a personal Book of Centuries to start keeping. It is a key method to help her with the science of relations and with self-educating.

Tip 2

Simplify and trust the methods, especially narration. Narration sounds easy, but it’s harder than you might think. Read the passage in the living book to give your student those living ideas—for younger students, you read the passage aloud; older students can read it on their own—and then ask her to put that passage into her own words. Sometimes the narration might just be her talking. That’s okay. The mental process she is going through, in order to tell, will help cement that knowledge in her mind. Then sometimes you could ask for a narration in a different way—a more project-oriented way, if you will. You could say, “Draw a picture of your favorite part of the story, and tell me about your picture.” Or you could say, “Build today’s story with your blocks, and then tell me about it.” For older students, you could say, “Pretend you are the main character in the book and write three journal entries about what happened in our reading today.” Or you could challenge them to write and present a one-act play about the day’s reading, or to present the events from the reading as a news broadcast. The main difference between those kinds of narrations and many unit-study-type projects is that the narrations are very open-ended. You suggest the type of media (picture or journal or news broadcast) and then you let the student take it from there. There are no pre-printed pages to be filled out or pictures to make their project match. They have freedom to interact with the material that was read, to pull from it the ideas that they connect with, and to present them to you in their own words with their own personality involved. Trust that method.

Tip 3

Go ahead and provide resources that can be used for hands-on learning. Set them out where your children can access them. But don’t worry about coming up with teacher-directed projects using them. Instead, focus on giving your student lots of great living ideas in the morning lesson time and lots of free time in the afternoons. You will know your student has made that knowledge her own when you see her act out or play the history story or the poem or the art picture in her free time. But it should be her idea, not yours. You simply provide the capes and the swords or the building blocks for pretend play or the art supplies for drawing cartoons or whatever. When you see your student voluntarily create something out of her own mind that was prompted by a living idea in one of her books—when it is her own creation—you’ll know that she has made that knowledge her own.You see, reading, narrating, the Book of Centuries, and creating something of your own—those are all tools for self-education! Your student can use all of those tools on her own to learn about anything she wants to. Those methods are not dependent on someone else telling you what to do. And that’s one of the main goals of a Charlotte Mason education: to give the student the tools for self-education, and lots of practice with them, so she can continue to use them and enjoy learning for herself over a lifetime.

Remember, you can ease into those tools and using Charlotte Mason methods. Check out the articles that outline how to make the switch gradually, one step at a time, as you’re ready.

Next time we’ll talk about switching to Charlotte Mason from an unschooling approach.