Switching to Charlotte Mason from Unschooling

If you’re switching from an unschooling approach to the Charlotte Mason Method, here’s a little advice to keep in mind. If you’re not sure what “unschooling” is, it might help to take a moment and watch the video, Five Flavors of Homeschooling. But if you know what unschooling is, you’ve had first-hand experience with unschooling, and you’re ready to switch to a Charlotte Mason approach, here’s my advice.

First, I want to talk about three tendencies you might discover within yourself—three actions or mind-sets that may unknowingly come along with you from your unschooling days (or years) and make the transition to the Charlotte Mason approach a bit bumpy.

Three Tendencies

Tendency 1

You may find yourself automatically looking at your child’s current interests to give you direction when you are making your plans about what to teach. Unschooling depends a lot on following the child’s lead. But a Charlotte Mason approach is different. A Charlotte Mason educator is careful to give the student a wide variety of ideas, including several subjects he probably doesn’t know about yet. We have to remember that a child doesn’t know how much he doesn’t know. He doesn’t realize the multitude of topics and ideas that are available to us, because he has a limited experience in his few years so far. So a large part of your role as teacher will be to introduce to your child a wide variety of subjects and lots of living ideas that will broaden his horizons and feed his mind. Spread the feast.

Tendency 2

Depending on how spontaneous your unschooling days were, you might find it a challenge to make a plan and work that plan. Some moms forget to plan the work; others might go ahead and make plans but then they neglect to do the work. They are so used to spur-of-the-moment activity each day that they aren’t in the habit of following a carefully laid-out plan. May I encourage you with this one thought when it comes to planning your work and working your plan: You will be helping your child to cultivate a valuable life-habit if you guide him in this kind of self-discipline. Charlotte defined self-discipline as doing something even when you don’t feel like it. That habit is so crucial for accomplishing anything in life. So, model self-discipline for your child in this area of planning and doing the work. Help him learn firsthand how beneficial it is to put forth—as Charlotte said, “regular prescribed effort“—consistent effort toward a plan, and also help him experience the principle of alternating work with regular rest and recreation. If you don’t plan it, that balance can get off one way or the other. So plan your work and work your plan.

Tendency 3

This tendency also depends on what your unschooling looked like. If your days were spent mainly in hands-on activities, then you might struggle with this tendency: it is the tendency to devalue book-learning. If your children (or you) are not in the habit of reading much, the emphasis on good books might seem a little different, and you might wonder how valuable book-learning can be. Well, let me reassure you that the books we use in a Charlotte Mason education—living books—will “take your child there.” He will experience events and historical lives through those readings. And don’t forget that living books are used for only some of the subjects. Your child will still have opportunity for firsthand experiences with nature and art and music and handicrafts and more. Books and life experiences complement each other. The best education offers both.

You might find that you have one of those three tendencies or all of them or perhaps none of them. Whatever your situation is, let me give you three practical tips that I hope will help you make the switch from unschooling to a Charlotte Mason approach smoothly.

Three Tips

Tip 1

Remind yourself that, in a way, you’re giving your child the best of both worlds. You are spreading a wide feast of new ideas, working your way through a well-thought-out plan systematically, but you are also giving him time to further pursue his personal interests. Charlotte Mason lessons are usually done by lunch time, so your student should have the afternoons for exploring the topics that interest him. You are helping your child cultivate the habit of self-discipline with teacher-directed learning in the mornings and helping him cultivate the habit of initiative by allowing time for child-directed learning in the afternoons. That’s a great combination!

Tip 2

Remember that you don’t have to switch everything at once. You don’t have to go from fully unstructured to completely structured all in one day. You can ease into a full schedule of lessons in the morning. Maybe it will work better for you to focus on getting each plate spinning one at a time rather than try to get everything going at once from Day One. If it would work better for you and your family to make the transition in stages, check out the series I did on that topic.

Tip 3

Gather your materials and books the night before and set them out. This new way of planning and teaching is basically requiring you to form some new habits. And new habits come easier when there is a “trigger” or “cue” that reminds you of what you want to start doing. So having that visual reminder of a stack of books, set where you will see them in the morning, should help you to form that new habit of teacher-directed learning in the mornings. When you walk into the kitchen or the living room and see that stack of books, it will help fire the neuron path in your brain: “Oh yes, we’re doing teacher-directed learning in the mornings.” And the more often that path fires, the more it will become a habit and the easier it will get. So just take three or four minutes the night before to take a look at your plan for the next day and gather the resources you will need. Set them out where you will be sure to see them in the morning, and you’ll be starting your day on the right track for a smooth transition.