Charlotte Mason

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Charlotte Mason (January 1, 1842January 16, 1923) was a British educator who invested her life in improving the quality of children's education. Her ideas led to one of the primary methods of homeschooling.


Charlotte Mason was born in Bangor. Her mother died when Charlotte was 16. Her father never recovered from this loss and died the following year. Charlotte enrolled in the Home and Colonial Society for the training of teachers and earned a First Class Certificate. She taught school for more than ten years at Davison School in Worthing, England. During this time she began to develop her vision for "a liberal education for all." English children in the 1800s were educated according to social class; the poorer were taught a trade, and the fine arts and literature were reserved for the richer class. By "liberal," Charlotte envisioned a generous and broad curriculum for all children, regardless of social class.

Charlotte was soon invited to teach and lecture at Bishop Otter Teacher Training College in Chichester, England, where she stayed for more than five years. Her experiences there convinced her that parents would be greatly helped if they understood some basic principles about bringing up children. So Charlotte gave a series of lectures, which were later published as Home Education and widely received. From this beginning, the Parents' Educational Union was formed and quickly expanded. A periodical was launched to keep in touch with PEU members, the "Parents' Review."

Charlotte was nearly fifty when she moved to Ambleside, England, in 1891 and formed the House of Education, a training school for governesses and others working with young children. By 1892 the Parents' Education Union had added the word "National" to its title, and a Parents' Review School had been formed (later to be known as the Parents' Union School), at which the children followed Miss Mason's educational philosophy and methods. After her death the training school became Charlotte Mason College and was run by the Cumbrian Local Education Authority. In the 90s, due to financial pressure, it became the tenth college of Lancaster University before an unfavorable Ofsted report four years later, led to a merger with St Martin's College to become the Ambleside campus of St Martin's College.[1]

The following years brought more collections of writings by Charlotte, which were eventually published under the titles of Parents and Children, School Education, Ourselves, Formation of Character, and A Philosophy of Education. More schools adopted her philosophy and methods, and Ambleside became a teacher training college to supply all the Parents' Union Schools that were springing up. Charlotte spent her final years overseeing this network of schools devoted to "a liberal education for all."

Teaching philosophy

Charlotte's philosophy of education is probably best summarized by eighteen principles given at the beginning of each book mentioned above. Two key mottos taken from those principles are "Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life" and "Education is the science of relations." She believed that children were born persons and should be respected as such; they should also be taught the Way of the Will and the Way of Reason. Her motto for students was "I am, I can, I ought, I will."

Teaching methods

Living books

Probably the most well known of Charlotte's methods is her use of living books instead of dry, factual textbooks. Living books are usually written by one person who has a passion for the subject and writes in conversational or narrative style. The size of the book does not matter nearly as much as whether it is "alive" and engaging. Textbooks are allowed if they meet that criteria. "Twaddle" refers to books or information that is dumbed down and insults the child's intelligence. Living books should be used with as many subjects as possible.


Children are expected to tell about what they have read. The narration can be oral or written or drawn and should be performed after only one reading of the material. This method requires the child to synthesize all he has read, organize it in his mind, and determine how best to communicate all that he recalls in his own words.

Habit training

Children need to learn how to govern themselves. Charlotte encouraged a child's learning the habits of attention, perfect execution, obedience, truthfulness, an even temper, neatness, kindness, order, respect, remembering, punctuality, gentleness, and cleanliness, among others. Usually, a child would work on a specific habit over a four to six week period.

Short lessons

Charlotte advocated short lessons for younger children, growing progressively longer as the child matures. Elementary-age children's lessons should be no longer than fifteen or twenty minutes on one particular subject before moving on to something else. In this way, the habit of full attention is encouraged and children receive a broad education filled with many varied subjects.


Charlotte used prepared dictation to teach spelling and reinforce grammar and composition skills. In prepared dictation, the child is given a sentence or passage to study until he is sure he knows all the spelling, capitalization, and punctuation. The teacher then dictates the passage to him, one phrase at a time, watching carefully as he writes to catch any misspelled word and correct it immediately. In this way, spelling is taught within the context of great thoughts and rich language instead of static lists.


Handwriting was also taught within the context of ideas, not isolated letters repeated over an entire line or page. For copywork, children are given a phrase, sentence, or paragraph to copy in their best handwriting. The exercise should take only a few minutes each day so as to encourage the habits of attention and perfect execution without becoming tiring.

Art appreciation

Art is another place where living ideas are found. The great ideas of men and women of history are revealed in their works, whether paintings or writings or music. Art appreciation is taught through Picture Study, which introduces the child to the works of a great artist one at a time, allows her to look at it undisturbed, then asks for a narration of what she has observed. Music Appreciation is taught in much the same way, listening to the works of great composers.

Nature study

In Charlotte's schools one afternoon each week was devoted to spending time outdoors. For nature study, children take along a sketchpad to draw and label the different aspects of nature they observe. Regular nature study paves the way for meaningful science instruction.


Charlotte emphasized the importance of children's understanding math concepts before ever doing paper and pencil equations. They should be encouraged to use manipulatives and to think through the whys and wherefores of solving word problems -- in other words, how math applies to life situations.


Poetry was an integral part of daily life in Charlotte's schools. However, poetry is not presented in order to be analyzed, criticized, and told what to think about it. Poetry, as in other subjects that introduce the child to great ideas of the past, is shared together and allowed to stand on its own, encouraging the child to develop his own relationship with that poet and his thoughts. Students in Charlotte's schools studied Shakespeare regularly, as well.


Since grammar is the study of words, not of things, Charlotte thought it is a difficult concept for young children to grasp. She recommended postponing the formal study of grammar until the child reached the age of ten. Consistent practice in narration, dictation, and copywork lays the foundation for grammar study.


Charlotte's method of studying the Bible was simple: read it every day. She gave children credit for being able to understand passages directly from Scripture, and she assigned several large portions to be memorized and recited each school year.


History is considered most relevant to children through the use of living books, biographies, autobiographies, and narration. In addition, Charlotte's students kept a Book of Centuries that was similar to a personal time line in a notebook. They added people and events to the pages as they studied about them.


Just as history is the story of what happened to a person, geography is the story of where he was and how his surroundings affected what happened. Geography is best taught through living books, also. Short map drills can supplement.

Foreign language

Since Charlotte lived in England, her students learned French as a second language. Consistent with her philosophy, a foreign language is best taught in a living setting.


Charlotte Mason was the first person to perceive the educational potential of Scouting applied to children. In April 1905, she added Aids to Scouting by Robert Baden-Powell to the syllabus of the Parents' Union School. Later, Baden-Powell credited a governess trained by Mason, coupled with the reputation of Mason herself, for suggesting the educational possibilities of scouting. This, amongst other influences, lead to Scouting for Boys and the formation of the Scouting movement.[2][3]

Mason and her teachers organised the Parents' Union Scouts for boys and girls around the country, both those educated at home and those at schools using the P.N.E.U. system (date?). When the Girl Guides were established, Mason suggested that the P.U. Scouts amalgamated with national organisations for boys and girls respectively.

Differences between Charlotte Mason and classical education

  • Classical puts less emphasis on the fine arts; i.e., music, art, poetry.
  • Classical Education can be described as rigorous and systematic, while Charlotte Mason's approach is more gentle and flexible, especially with younger children.
  • Classical introduces writing composition earlier and teaches it as a separate subject, while Charlotte Mason depends on oral narration and a smooth transition into written narration in later grades without studying composition as a separate subject.
  • Classical Education also introduces grammar at an earlier age than Charlotte Mason does.
  • Classical advocates more parental explanations and distilling of information than Charlotte Mason does.

See also


  1. History of St Martin's College
  2. "Aids to Scouting" (html). Johnny Walker's Scouting Milestones. 2006. Retrieved 2007-01-22. 
  3. "Be Prepared" (html). DGS: Scouting, Interview from Listener magazine. 1937. Retrieved 2007-01-22. 
  • Bell, Debra (2005). The Ultimate Guide to Homeschooling (3rd Edition ed.). Tommy Nelson. ISBN 1-4003-0566-7. 
  • Cholmondley, Essex (1960). The Story of Charlotte Mason, (1842-1923). 
  • Gold, LauraMaery; Joan M. Zielinski (2002). Homeschooling Your Child Step-by-Step: 100+ Simple Solutions to Homeschooling's Toughest Problems. Prima Lifestyles. ISBN 0-7615-3588-8. 
  • Griffith, Mary (1999). The Homeschooling Handbook (Revised 2nd Edition ed.). Three Rivers Press. ISBN 0-7615-1727-8. 
  • Kerr, Rose (1976). Story of the Girl Guides 1908-1938. London: Girl Guides Association. 

External links