What to Do When Charlotte Mason Methods Don’t Work

Perhaps you’ve been in a situation where you’ve been applying Charlotte’s methods with great expectations—maybe in narration or dictation or nature study—and you find that it’s just not turning out the way you thought it was going to work. It’s not measuring up to what you expected. What do you do then? Well, we want to talk about that today, and here to join me is my friend, Amber O’Neal Johnston.

Sonya: Amber, has that ever happened to you?

Amber: Oh, a time or two? (laughs) Sure, there have been times where I have been sitting there wondering, “What have I gotten myself into?” and it’s hard.

Sonya: It is; because you’re not sure, “Did I make the wrong decision? Is Charlotte wrong here?” And we’re not saying Charlotte is infallible, not by any means. But many times when one of her methods didn’t seem to be working in home school, at least in my experience, usually the problem was that I was doing it wrong or I was not understanding it completely, and when I went back and tweaked it, things started to kick in.

Amber: That has happened to me several times, and I think it’s an incomplete understanding of how to work through a lesson in different subjects. I know for me, my biggest example is dictation. I read it, I felt like I understood it: I’m going to give my child this passage. The child is going to study it. I’m going to read it aloud one time slowly, and he or she is going to write it perfectly because they studied it so well, and everything’s going to be fine.

Sonya: We’ll move on.

Amber: Yes, I was like, “Check! That sounds good. I like this.” I did that, I provided the passage, and I was like, “Let me know when you’re ready.” And I read it. And what they wrote was not what I read. Words were misspelled; punctuation was missing. In some cases it was almost like they had never seen it before, and I had seen them looking at it. We tried this for a while and it didn’t work any of the times. I was like, “Okay, dictation is not for us. She was wrong. We need to go back to the good old spelling test, the spelling list.”

Always, though, before I move away and do something like that, I like to really make sure that I understand. When I went back and looked and read for myself, there were some key points I was missing. One was that I did not go over the passage with my child ahead of time. That alone changed everything for us. So now we run over it together, read it together, look at what words might need special attention, and point out special punctuation, especially things they hadn’t seen before. Then I can say, “Okay, now I would like you to study this.” So everything else I thought was right, but I missed the initial bit, and that really threw us off. That’s an example of where there wasn’t a problem with the method, but my understanding of the method was incomplete.

Sonya: I had the same experience with nature study. My understanding of nature study was, “Okay, it’s time for nature study. Here are your nature notebooks. Go outside and find something to draw.” That was it. And it was not kindling a love for nature in them. I was getting pictures of mailboxes. It was like, “Something’s not working here.” But when you go back, as you said, and study for yourself, and learn more about it, you can say, “Okay, maybe I’m missing something here, and I need to learn more about how this should look. Learn more about how to actually do this, the way Charlotte had it in mind.”

Amber: You talk about nature study, that’s another example. For me, it was the sending them outside versus taking them outside, and what a big difference that made. I felt like I was afraid to go out with them, because I thought I had to know everything. I had to know the name of every flower, of every tree. But then I realized, “Oh, I had to know everything because I was talking too much.” So again, it was the more that I read . . . I know some people are like, “Oh, you’re going to tell me to read the volumes.” And it’s like, “I am, only because every time I read through, I gain a deeper understanding.” I like to use the word “incomplete.” It’s not necessarily that I was doing something wrong. It wasn’t harmful. I just didn’t have a complete picture of what Charlotte intended for that type of lesson.

Sonya: That’s a great way to put it. We need to go back to the principles. Charlotte often talked about when you have a question, first, back up to the principles. What is the principle behind it? Then move forward from there. Sometimes what this looks like in our heads is a combination of the way Charlotte described it as well as what we’ve seen in other people and what we’ve heard on podcasts from other people, and how they applied those principles to their own families. Some of the subjects we might not have a blow by blow, “This is exactly what you do and what you say.” When there are those points, make sure you’re following them. But if we can get back to the principle, the timeless guideline, “This is what we’re trying to accomplish, and this is why we’re going at it from this direction,” then you can tweak to fit your family as you go along.

Amber: I think that’s so important. We talked about spending time in nature study, but specifically nature journaling. I thought it was supposed to be a work of art. That came from me looking at what other people were doing, and thinking that that was the end goal. The end goal to me was to have a very beautiful watercolor picture.

Sonya: Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady.

Amber: Yes, that’s what it was supposed to be. Ours was so far off of that, that I was like, “Oh this doesn’t work. We’re doing this all the time, and we’re never getting to that, and so therefore this isn’t working.” There, I had misplaced expectations, and I didn’t have a full understanding of the principle behind it. The idea that the child’s documenting what is happening and what they’re observing, and sometimes it may just be words. It might not even be pictures at all. I didn’t get that. I was like, “We’re making beautiful art. And my kids are not doing that, and I’m not doing that. It doesn’t look like that.”

Sonya: “It should just magically happen.”

Amber: Yes, like, “Poof, it’s happening.” There are the principles, and each family, each mother, has a different talent that she brings to the table, different gifts. As she lays those things out with her children, each child has a different manifestation of the lessons and ideas that they’re getting. The idea of going back to the principles: What’s the point of what we’re doing? The point is not for whatever we’re doing to look like our neighbors. We might get some great ideas from them, but that’s not the point. Making sure we have good expectations as to what we’re doing and why we’re doing it can help when we feel like the method might be failing us.

The point is not for whatever we’re doing to look like our neighbors. We might get some great ideas from them, but that’s not the point. Making sure we have good expectations as to what we’re doing and why we’re doing it can help when we feel like the method might be failing us.

Sonya: Yes. When we have gone back and we’ve studied more, we are not just assuming the method is at fault. Our first assumption should be that maybe we have an incomplete understanding. I love how you use that term “incomplete.” So we go back and we study more. Then we have to be faithful to try and tweak what we’re doing. Maybe we don’t make huge changes. Maybe that’s not what’s required. But we need to come at it from a teachable spirit and a humble heart. We can even tell the children, “Okay, I learned more about this, and I know you’ve been frustrated with how we’ve been doing dictation,” for example. “I found something that I think is going to help us, so here’s what we’re going to try next as an experiment.” Be faithful to try those changes that you’ve discovered over several weeks.

Amber: You have to give it long enough. It needs a chance.

Sonya: Because you’ve learned incorrect habits, if you will. It’s going to take a few weeks to get those habits replaced.

Amber: Yes. Sometimes it’s easier than it may even seem, because I know for me, sometimes I’ve added too much to the method, and I need to pull back. I remember the first time I sat down with my children and said, “We’re just going to listen to this composer’s music today.” They were like, “And what else?” “We’re just going to listen.” Because I had layered so many things. “Now I want you to always notice this, and you see the crescendo that’s coming.” I basically had given them way too much information.

Sonya: Commentary all the way through.

Amber: Yes, and I was talking over the music. They couldn’t even understand or get lost in it, or really come to know the music. When I said, “Let’s just sit here. You have your snack, and we’re just going to listen,” it was a simplification that I feel like brought us closer to the principle or the idea behind why Charlotte had the students listening to this music. I love it when I’ve been doing too much and the correction is actually to relax a little bit and to go back to the basics.

Sonya: Yes. If you are going to try to implement a new habit, change what you were doing, tweak it a bit, I would highly recommend that you put a note on your calendar six weeks out to come back and check in on that. Because I don’t know if you’re like this, but with me, if the wheel isn’t squeaking, I don’t pay attention to it. So if we were having a hard time with the music study, for example, and we simplified it, now we’re just listening to it, after a couple of weeks of that, it’s like, “Oh that’s running fine.” And now I’ve turned my attention to something else and completely forgotten about it. With that reminder in a few weeks to check in on it and see how it’s going, it’s almost a continual process of evaluating.

Amber: It is, and it’s also celebrating. Because if it worked and the tweaks are going well, you almost forget to celebrate, like, “Hey, we really got this! Now I understand, and now it’s all coming together,” because like you said, you’ve moved on to something else. Then you’d be in a constant state of pointing out all the problems that you have without celebrating the successes. That’s another reason to put that note in the calendar.

Sonya: We’re all going to have good days and bad days.

Amber: Yes. That’s so important. That’s the biggest one for me, looking at those days and really focusing on them and saying, “This isn’t working. We had a bad day. It’s because this isn’t working.”

Sonya: It’s easy to panic. Especially if it seemed to be going all right, and then suddenly, boom! It’s like, “What happened? The wheels fell off the wagon. What now?”

Amber: “Nothing’s working.” It feels like that.

Sonya: It compounds, doesn’t it? If one thing goes south, suddenly you think, “I’m a failure. Nothing’s working at all.” We so generalize those moments.

Amber: It’s coming out of feeling overwhelmed, the diligence, and really wanting to give your child this beautiful education. When it feels like it’s not all coming together, we tend to panic. Now that I have some years under my belt, it has been very helpful to look back over the years, instead of focusing on just the days. Because if I pick out certain days, there are plenty of times where I would’ve set this aside. I would’ve quit. But as I look at the years, I can say, “Oh, wow, I see the wisdom in what she said about this.” Oftentimes staying the course, being diligent, and being willing to have a long view of what we’re doing can cover over a lot of the anxieties and those moments where we’re feeling overwhelmed.

Sonya: We often think about evaluating how our children have grown over the years, but we don’t often look back at how we’ve grown in learning more about the methods and implementing them more faithfully.

Amber: Oh, wow. That’s really good.

Sonya: I like how you just brought that out, how, when we look back at those years, let’s not just celebrate where our children have grown, but let’s also celebrate what we have learned and the ways we have grown in understanding the principles, in getting a more complete picture, and being faithful in applying those as well.

Amber: That’s such a good point. One of the things I find funny is that the more we understand and the more faithful we are, that often brings freedom with it. Because when I understand the point, and I understand the principles so well, I actually have the freedom to maneuver within there, to create something that works well for my family, for me as a teacher, for my children. When I’m not certain of the reasons why or the principles, or what’s underlying, I tend to be very rigid, very legalistic. A lot of the problems have been born out of that. I’m like, “Nope, I can’t make any changes. I can’t make any small alterations, because this is how it has to be done.” I find that the more I understand and the more I study, the more I realize that there is actually freedom built in to those principles.

Sonya: It’s the whole difference between a system and a method. Charlotte talked about how we want a system. Our human hearts just tend toward a system, where if you do A, B, C, and D, steps 1, 2, 3, and 4, you will churn out this result. Boom! But that’s not what a method is. A method is when we have the goal in mind, and we use these principles to guide us toward that goal. As you said, we can make little adjustments along the way so that we are teaching each child in a way that works best for that particular individual. Respecting that child, and also giving ourselves grace to keep learning.

Amber: I remember reading that Essex Cholmondeley wrote about Charlotte, and wrote specifically that she did not give a recipe. I remember when I read that, it felt a little emotional for me, because I had been trying to follow a recipe. It meant a lot to see someone speak of her as a third person and say that was not what she was really doing. You can elevate where you’re spending this time and really elevate up to the principles and the ideas behind them, and move away from the system and look at it as more of a method. It was very life-giving for me.

Sonya: To get there, though, you need the experience and the confidence. It’s never going to be 100%, but it will be growing. It’s about experience and confidence, along with the study, continuing to educate yourself in the methods, and learning more about the principles. It’s a continuous process.

Amber: It is. We’re lifelong learners.

Sonya: There you go.

Amber: It’s that, and being in community has really helped me along the way. With places where I have been a little fuzzy in my understanding or had started to become very legalistic and systematic, it has been nice to have other mothers nearby say, “Well, have you looked at it this way?” Or to even say, “Hey, check it out, I was thinking of you when I read the volumes this weekend. Look at page 237,” or “See what she said about this.” And I’m like, “Oh wow, that’s really eye opening.” That has been very helpful. And I’ve done that for other mothers. There’s a lot of value to growing yourself and within the structure of your family, but also growing within community.

Sonya: That’s a great point. We don’t need to fear that we’re going to ruin our children just because we haven’t done it 100%. I was going to say “correctly,” but it’s because we have not done it “perfectly” from the beginning. We don’t need to fear that. Any of Charlotte’s methods that we can give to our children enrich their education, enrich their experience. The methods also enrich them as persons. It’s part of their education as persons to watch us walk through those hurdles. How do we handle the situations where we are not seeing the results we thought we would see? What do you do in that situation? Do you throw up your hands and say, “I give up?” Do you blindly keep pushing, hoping that somehow this brick wall is going to disintegrate in front of you? Or do you, with an open mind and heart, go back and learn more and talk to people in your community and look at it from different angles and get back to the basics, to the principles, and see how we need to tweak things? Then try that and reevaluate and keep going that way. That whole process is so important for our children to see us do.

Amber: It’s an iterative process. They can see it play out right in front of them, that real world experience. We can talk about it, and they can get ideas from the things they learn, but sometimes, as the parent, we’re their first example. This is a problem, if we want to call it that, of continually learning. People who stop learning and stop getting new ideas, well, they’re not going to have these issues. Maya Angelou always said something similar to, “When you know better, you do better.” It was a longer quote than that, but essentially that’s what she’s saying. You don’t need to beat yourself up about it because you didn’t know. Now that you know, you’re going to do it differently and then that’s all there is to it. There’s beauty in that. I also find comfort in thinking about the generations of moms who have been using Charlotte Mason’s methods long before I was, their children didn’t have the benefit of all of the Parents’ Review articles that we have, and all of the archives and schedules and things that are still being digitized right now and being made available, and yet we look to them as examples. And I think if they were to do it all over again, there would be expansion in some of the ideas, things that they would implement differently. But does that mean that their children didn’t have a beautiful education? No.

Sonya: Not at all.

Amber: I look at that and I think, “Okay, so, right now I’m living somebody’s yesterday. There are going to be people coming behind me, and they’re going to have more information, and they’re going to deliver lessons differently based on what they’ve learned or how they’ve grown, but there’s still value in what I’m doing today. It isn’t all on our shoulders to begin with. Those ideas bring me peace.

Sonya: Thanks.

Amber: You’re welcome.