Does method matter? Charlotte Mason (Living Books method) vs. Classical

The more well-known of educational approaches (used in schools as well as homeschools):

The Different Approaches to Education may be broadly categorised as Textbook, Charlotte Mason, Trivium or Classical, Unit Study or Thematic, Principle, Waldorf, Montessori , Rational, Eclectic and Unschooling Approaches (Each approach will be dealt with in the series of articles to come. I will also review popular packaged curricula in use and Alternative Education and Distance Learning options.)


After looking around on the market you might think to yourself, “oh I’m going to get this curriculum — it’s popular, (it’s expensive so it must be good) it’s successfully produced homeschooled grads who got into college”. But wait, will it work for your student and will it work for you the teacher? To find a perfect fit between the student, yourself the teacher and the materials, consider the following:

— your child’s learning style:

Choosing a text/workbook approach requiring seatwork spells failure for a child who’s kinaesthetic and not inclined to sit still for more than a minute;

— the number of children you are homeschooling With more than 7 children, using a text-book based approach could mean you spend all morning trying to remember which page of which book for which subject which child is to do today .

— the resources available to you

If you do not have access to a library, your homeschool could be waiting for months for the books to arrive needed for your literature-based units lessons.

— your own energy level

Using a units approach like Konos curriculum could mean you are constantly frustrated at how many materials you are always having to put together before each lesson and the time expended in gathering them.
–your own temperament and style as a teacher

If you’re not particularly academically inclined and hate reading books, you will find the rigorous mental discipline required by the classical method torturous. Or you might not like having to put things together, but like having everything laid out step by step for you with manuals and lesson plans. Or you might not even like following any particular approach but choose the best of everything available with an eclectic mix of schooling materials.

–your values and beliefs

Every method has behind it certain ideals, rationale and principles. If you do not hold to anthrosophy, you will find the popular Waldorf approach to learning an anathema, and if you want straightforward academics done in your homeschool, you will likely not appreciate curricula built on the Principle Approach nor the moral doctrines permeating entire texts produced by some Christian curricula publishers.

–your academic goals

If you have set ambitious and high academic goals and want your kids to aim for sit for prestigious college/varsity entrance exams, you will probably not want to use the Unschooling Approach nor perhaps the Delayed Academics Approach advocated by Raymond and Dorothy Moore)


Core ideas of the Charlotte Mason method:

Ideas — According to Charlotte Mason, parents are to “sustain a child’s inner life with ideas as they sustain his body with food” by introducing children directly to literature, fine art and classical music. Charlotte Mason advocates that we draw from the “storehouse of thought wherein we may find all the great ideas that have moved the world”.

Delight Directed Studies — Children are expected to have plenty of free time and are encouraged to use part of their free time to research individual interests, often as part of their Journaling or expanding on a topic from their lessons

Discipline, good habits and concentration — CM advocated that parents train about 20 desirable habits starting from babyhood, one at a time. She believed in firm discipline and the need to develop good habits early:: “Deal with the child on the first offense and a grieved look is enough to convict the little transgressor; but let him go on until a habit of wrong-doing is formed, and the cure is a slow one; … To laugh at ugly tempers and let them pass because the child is small, is to sow the wind.”

Key features of the technique include:

Quality books “Living Books” — Children are to read quality books (avoiding what CM called “twaddle”). Textbooks and workbooks are deemphasised. Exposure to real biographies and great classics will impart ‘living Ideas” to our children and help them have an encounter with great minds. CM stressed depth of learning as opposed to a superficial understanding of any subject: “Let him, on the contrary, linger pleasantly over the history of a single man, a short period, until he thinks the thoughts of that man, is at home in the ways of that period. Though he is reading and thinking of the lifetime of a single man, he is really getting intimately acquainted with the history of a whole nation for a whole age.”

Narration — The parent reads to the child without interruption and the child tells the story back without prompting. Emphasis is always on what the child DOES know, not what the child doesn’t know. The parent draws out the ideas that caught the child’s mind and avoids demanding a formal book report approach. Impromptu testing is carried out by having the children sit down and write a paragraph or an essay on the books they have been reading. (For more on this see Narration ideas)

Copywork — This is the key to all studies, beginning at age 6 and continuing through High School. Copywork begins with careful penmanship, learning to make the letters and numbers correctly. Copywork of letters, is followed by simple words, then sentences, paragraphs, poetry, and so on according to the age and ability of the student. Parents assign copywork from their current daily reading. Copywork proceeds naturally into written Narration, Composition, and Creative Writing at the upper levels. By drawing on the background of past copywork examples, the children build upon the structure of what they have already been shown and know how to do, and proceed to use that structure for essays and compositions. For dictation, the child prepares for a sentence (small children or beginners) by practicing every word in it In this way, parents teach the concrete before the abstract. Quality of work is encouraged over quantity produced.

Journal keeping — Children are encouraged at about age 10 to keep uncorrected Journals to encourage the child to express their own thoughts, and collect favorite quotes or copywork, write or research on a theme of their own choice.

Nature Diary — Actual observations made during nature walks recorded in a notebook/diary is regarded as the best way to study Nature.

A handmade Book of Centuries — A timeline is kept in a notebook, which becomes the child’s resource over the years. One page of writing selected events and one sketching page per century was recommended. An expandable folder could hold cutouts of important historical figures, essays, bookreviews and sketches, besides the staple chronological dates, names, and events.

Short lessons and free time — CM advocated short periods of learning so that children would have plenty of free time to pursue their interests. Children also thrive in school when they know there is a definite amount of work to be completed in a definite amount of time. To avoid tedium after reading and writing classes, the children would get a stimulating brief period of aerobic exercise, usually accompanied by singing, marching, exercises, floor exercises, gymnastics.
Highlights and strengths of this method:
It is a flexible way to teach. It’s a great way to introduce literature, fine art, and classical music to children. It’s adaptable to any curriculum. Narration and notebooking are effective ways to retain information. Since the child’s interests are encouraged, a lifetime love of learning is developed. With short lessons, the method promotes concentration as opposed to dawdling and avoids educational burnout. Mastery of skills and depth of learning in various subjects is achieved through narration, copywork and dictation. The training in essay-style examination effectively prepares children for adulthood and success in college.

Readings and Resources: Charlotte Mason method

For the Children’s Sake by Susan Schaeffer Macaulay (Crossway) A Charlotte Mason Education A How-To Manual by Catherine Levision Charlotte Mason Companion by Karen Andreola

Living Books curriculum

A Charlotte Mason education Detailed information on the Charlotte Mason method at this website

Ambleside Online curriculum

Simply Charlotte Mason

Charlotte Mason Help

The Official Website of Catherine Levison

Charlotte Mason & Home Education Twaddle-Free Literature reading list by grade level


Core ideas:

Classical education is a traditional method dating back to the Middle Ages. The goal was to train students in the basic skills of learning, ie to teach them how to teach themselves. They were given the basic tools of learning to master any subject on their own: 1) Knowledge, 2) Understanding, and 3) Wisdom. These basic skills were called “the Liberal Arts,” because they “liberated” the student from his teacher by giving him the tools to teach himself. These three skills were called the Trivium (from the Latin meaning “where three roads meet.” )

The liberation of a child’s mind is accomplished by teaching according to three stages — grammar, logic, and rhetoric. During the three-part training process we seek first to supply the child’s mind with facts, then offer it the logical tools for organization of facts, and finally equip it to express conclusions.

(1) Grammar stage — During the first years of schooling children learn the elements of language, absorb and memorise facts and exercise observation skills. study. Rules of phonics, spelling and grammar, poems, the stories of history and literature, descriptions of plants and animals and the human body, the facts of mathematics. Foundations for advanced study are laid.

(2) Dialectic stage — During the second stage, children use facts to draw conclusions, debate opinion, argue logic and to think through arguments. Around middle school, the student begins to think more analytically and to ask “why” questions. He develops an ability for abstract thinking. He begins to pay attention to cause and effect, see how different fields of knowledge relate and the way facts fit together into a logical framework. It is a good time to begin algebra, the study of logic and the application of logic to all academic subjects. Logic is applied to writing and the student learns to support a thesis. Applied to reading, it involves the criticism and analysis of texts. During history studies, the student will ask why a war was fought while the logic of science requires the learning of the scientific method.

(3) Rhetoric stage (Roughly during the high school years) — Children learn the art of effective communication, ie to use language to express themselves elegantly and persuasively. Applying the rules of logic to the facts learned earlier, the early grades the student learns the ability to persuade others in any given situation. The student learns also to organise and incorporate the knowledge he gained into his own worldview but with a view to conveying his opinion to others with clarity, force and originality. The student may also begin to specialize in whatever branch of knowledge interests him. It is the time for picking up art, music or college courses, apprenticeships, etc.

Classical studies organize its lessons and subjects with chronological history as its outline. It begins with the ancients, then moves towards the modern epochs in history, science, literature, art and music.

Practically, most classical educationists recommend the division of twelve years of education roughly into two or three cycles of studies of the Ancients, Middle Ages, Renaissance and Reformation, and Modern Times. As he progresses through the grades, the child studies these four time periods at increasingly difficult and complex levels . For eg, in the later elementary years, the student will work from original sources of literature and in the high school years, he may pursue a specialised field of interest (music, dance, technology, medicine, biology, creative writing) in depth.

Highlights of the classical method:

A classical education is language-focused. Learning is accomplished through words, written and spoken. Language-learning requires a different habit of thought from image-learning from CD-Roms, videos and television. The mind is exercised harder in reading and analytical thinking since it’s forced to process written words on the page into a concept, idea and to work out its relevance and context. Learning that takes place through video and television, on the other hand, is passive.

Classical education offers a coherent, systematic and orderly approach to the study of history, science, and literature. To the classical mind, all knowledge is interrelated. History studies are integrated with literature,art and music. The sciences may be studied according to the periods of scientific discovery: biology, the human body, classification of living things(ancients); earth science and basic astronomy (early Renaissance); chemistry (the early modern period); and then basic physics and computer science (relatively modern subjects). Since the student learns to find connections between fields of study and between past events and current ones, he is able to make sense of the world around him. Schoolmaster David Hicks wrote “The beauty of the classical curriculum, is that it dwells on one problem, one author, or one epoch long enough to allow even the youngest student a chance to exercise his mind in a scholarly way: to make connections and to trace developments, lines of reasoning, patterns of action, recurring symbolisms, plots, and motifs.”

The rigour of classical studies develops “virtue” in the sense that the student is trained in the habit of exercising his mind, overcoming laziness and the distractions of TV and other media while learning to take satisfaction in achieving the mastery of a subject.

Classical education (according to Wes Callihan) produces a student who is able :

• to listen and read carefully;

• to think clearly and express himself persuasively;

• to comprehend his position in space, time, and culture and his relation to other places, times, and people;

• to appreciate and learn from the difference between his own and those other places, times, and people;

• to enjoy a wider range of beauty as a result of that wider exposure;

• to devote himself to continued learning on his own, using the tools of learning acquired;

• to evaluate, and ascribe the proper significance to, all of the above in the light of a transcendent, absolute standard;

• to construct and defend a coherent, biblical worldview as a result of his education.

Source: Preparing Younger Children for a Great Books Education by Wes Callihan:


The Well-Trained Mind by Jessie Wise and Susan Wise Bauer (W. W. Norton)***

Trivium Pursuit By the Bluedorns

Veritas Press a curriculum and classical homeschooling materials provider

(Resource catalog for classical books) Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning by Douglas Wilson (Crossway)

Designing Your Own Classical Curriculum and The Harp and Laurel Wreath by Laura Berquist History Links (a history unit study program covering Creation, Mesopotamia, Ancient Egypt, Ancient Israel, and Ancient Greece using the classical approach ) by Jennifer Alles and Barbara Little (also Catholic). Available at their website.

The Pursuit of the Trivium

especially the article “Preparing Younger Children for a Great Books Education” by Wes Callihan

Related Literature:
“The Lost Tools of Learning” by Dorothy Sayer

Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning by Dorothy Wilson

In the news:

Teaching Kids to Think for Themselves By Lee Webb, CBN News

May 21, 2007



The two approaches above need not be mutually exclusive and I include below an example of how a clever homeschooler can incorporate any method into her homeschool (Source: Classically Yours: A Review of Resources for the Classical Christian Educator Mary Jo Tate Reprinted by Classical Christian School Digest Volume 4, Issue 2, January 29, 2000 Part 4 of 4)

For several years I have been looking for ways to mesh the Charlotte Mason approach with the classical approach to education. The first breakthrough came when I heard Harvey & Laurie Bluedorn of Trivium Pursuit speak at a nearby conference. They put something of a CM twist on classical education, especially up to age 10. Reading The Well-Trained Mind was the next “aha” moment. [I should point out here that the Bluedorns’ approach differs from The Well-Trained Mind in several ways, though there are many similarities. Laurie detailed the differences in a recent post to the Trivium Loop, and I would imagine you can find that in the archives on their website Trivium Pursuit Online .

The Well-Trained Mind (TWTM) presents a very systematic method for educating your child at home using a classical approach. The hallmark of TWTM’s approach is using history as the organizing principle for most subjects. The student goes through all of history chronologically 3 times (once at each level) in 4-year cycles. The three divisions of a classical education are:

(1) Grammar Stage (kindergarten through 4th grade): The emphasis at this stage is on collecting facts “to supply mental pegs on which later information can be hung.” TWTM places a good deal of emphasis on memorization, and this is clearly the stage at which strict devotees of Charlotte Mason and/or the Bluedorns will disagree most with TWTM. However, the method can be adapted to suit your own style (more about that later).

(2) Logic Stage (5th – 8th grades): In the logic or “argumentative” stage, “the student begins to connect all the facts she has learned and to discover the relationships among them.” Formal logic study is introduced at this stage, but there is also an emphasis on evaluation and analysis in all subjects.

(3) Rhetoric Stage (9th-12th grades): The student “actively engages with the ideas of the past and present…evaluating them, tracing their development, and comparing them to other philosophies and opinions.” In rhetoric the student focuses on learning to express himself “with fluency, grace, elegance, and persuasiveness.” History and literature focus on great books; and one aspect of science study is reading original sources, such as Copernicus, Euclid, Lavoisier, and Einstein.

TWTM divides history into four periods: Ancients: 5,000 B.C.-A.D. 400 (studied in grades 1, 5, 9); Medieval-early Renaissance: 400-1,600 (grades 2, 6, 10);Late Renaissance – rarly modern: 1,600-1850 (grades 3, 7, 11); Modern: 1850-present (grades 4, 8, 12)

TWTM emphasizes “living books” and primary sources as opposed to textbooks, and links literature / reading assignments to the historical period being studied. One of the best features is the lists of books and important people for each historical period. Interestingly, TWTM also links science to the historical period, focusing on scientific topics which predominated during the time: Ancients: biology; Med.-early Ren.: earth science and astronomy; Late Ren.-early mod.: chemistry; Modern: physics

One of my favorite lines in all of TWTM is found on p. 169: “The only books more boring than basic history textbooks are standard science textbooks”! Charlotte Mason fans will applaud TWTM’s use of copywork, narration, and dictation in the grammar stage. In the grammar and logic stages, students use 3-ring binders to create their own notebook for each subject.

A good summary of the notebooks is on TWTM’s website. “TWTM uses texts such as The Usborne Book of World History (grammar stage) and The Kingfisher Illustrated History of the World (logic stage) as the jumping-off point to delve into living books on related topics. An example of the method: A third-grader studying history 3 days a week would spend the first day reading a two-page spread in The Usborne Book of World History (in the late Renaissance-early Modern period), looking up locations on the globe, and making a narration page for the history notebook. On the second day he would review the pages and draw something that interests him, as well as reading 1 or 2 library books on the subject. On the third day he would read more library books or do some sort of history project or activity. Some critics have suggested that TWTM requires too much writing of grammar-stage students, but this could be adapted to suit the student (e.g., by not writing down narrations). TWTM also doesn’t make much provision for family read-aloud time, choosing instead to have students read children’s versions of classic literature at the grammar and logic stages. The program outlined in TWTM is fairly rigorous, but the authors often comment that not everything has to be finished, and that parents can adapt the program as needed. If you keep this in mind, you can make great use of their overall method and resources even if you don’t us their specific text recommendations or do all the writing they recommend. I personally do not intend to follow the program exactly (for example, I’ll keep using the math program I already have, even though they don’t mention it), but it will be a wonderful resource, and I plan to adapt the method to suit my children.”- Mary Jo Tate

Limitations or flaws of the Classical Education

The False Promise of Classical Education” by Lisa VanDamme is a must-read if you are interested in or are already using the classical curriculum such as Well Trained Mind.

This article is from TOS Vol. 2, No. 2. The full contents of the issue are
listed here.
Lisa VanDamme gives her assessments about what she says are the flaws of a classical education.

From a slightly different angle, “Osama bin Laden & Frameworks for Understanding History” also states what are the shortcomings of the classical method.

Notwithstanding the flaws with the method, the WTM still is one of the best hsling materials around, and if you can just bear in mind the difficulties, you can still incorporate or integrate her materials into your kids’ studies at home and achieve great success.

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