Friday, November 16, 2012

Part V: The Matter and Method of Lessons

"Three Questions for the Mother.––But if the mother is to inoculate the governess with her views as to the teaching of writing, French, geography, she must, herself, have definite views. She must ask herself seriously, Why must the children learn at all? What should they learn? And, How should they learn it? If she take the trouble to find a definite and thoughtful answer to each of these three queries, she will be in a position to direct her children's studies; and will, at the same time, be surprised to find that three-fourths of the time and labour ordinarily spent by the child at his lessons is lost time and wasted energy." (171)
These are useful questions indeed for any homeschooling mother to ask herself.  If "smooth and easy days" require a careful training in habits (as we found in the last chapter), then the rich education of a child requires a careful consideration of the matter and method of his lessons.  Our goals should direct our methods, so we must start there.  And on a practical level, there are only so many hours in the school day, and and we cannot afford to waste them.  We want to be sure that each lesson works toward these goals.

In this first section, Miss Mason talks about why children should learn.  Her reasons come as no surprise for those familiar with her work; indeed, she beats the same drum through all her volumes, contrasting herself to the utilitarian and what we might call the neo-classical models of education.  The purpose of education has nothing to do with performing well on standardized tests, or keeping up with one's peers, or being able to get a job.

:: Children learn to grow.  Just as the body grows with a combination of food and exercise, the mind grows with a combination of ideas and intellectual effort.  We do not learn primarily to know, but to grow.  The brain is capable of memorizing facts, cramming for a test, or binge-reading for information, but it does not grow as a result.  And although we do want to sharpen the mental faculties mentioned in the last chapter, we do not do so by working each faculty individually through artificial skills-based exercises (a lesson to develop the imagination, then one to work the memory, and so on).  We give the child a diet of ideas, and the processing of those ideas naturally strengthens the mind. This reminds me of the lessons in visual memory that Charlotte Mason advises in the course of reading instruction and in developing the habit of attention.  When we want to develop our visual memory, we exercise that faculty in the context of idea-laden lessons, such as picture study or sight-seeing in nature.  The goal in these educational methods is to strength and grow our mental muscles without starving the mind of the ideas it hungers for.

:: Children learn to get ideas. "It is not too much to say that a morning in which a child receives no new idea is a morning wasted, however closely the little student has been kept at his books" (172).  Miss Mason definitely isn't mincing words here!  Our lessons must be rich in ideas, which she describes as "spiritual germ[s] endowed with vital force" (173).  And not just ideas, but new ideas.  First, we must ask: Does the education we are providing each and every day produce vivid mental images that can grow in the mind of the child and can inspire their souls?  But second, and just as important: Are their minds "in an attitude of eager attention" (174).  This is tied to the development of attention in the previous chapter--as always, it comes down to habits.  When a child's brain is taxed or the lesson drags, the ideas, no matter how new or inspiring they are, are not fruitfully sown.  More "wasted mornings."  Ideas are the matter, the fruitful mind depends partly on habits already formed and partly on the methods used to sow those ideas.

:: Children learn to get knowledge.  This seems so obvious, but her thoughts here touch on both what kind of ideas and how many of them.  The children should learn to know, but only if that knowledge is of the proper kind and the proper amount.  Of the amount, Miss Mason warns us, "the child's capacity for knowledge is very limited; his mind is, in this respect at least, but a little phial with a narrow neck; and, therefore, it behooves the parent or teacher to pour in only of the best" (175).  

And of the kind:
"Not so long ago the current impression was that the children had little understanding, but prodigious memory for facts; dates, numbers, rules, catechisms of knowledge, much information in small parcels, was supposed to be the fitting material for a child's education. We have changed all that, and put into the children's hands lesson-books with pretty pictures and easy talk, almost as good as story-books; but we do not see that, after all, we are but giving the same little pills of knowledge in the form of a weak and copious diluent. Teachers, and even parents, who are careful enough about their children's diet, are so reckless as to the sort of mental aliment offered to them, that I am exceedingly anxious to secure consideration for this question, of the lessons and literature proper for the little people." (176-7)
Does this not sound quite a lot like two of the schooling systems alive and kicking today?  They may be in opposition to each other, but they are both in opposition to what Charlotte Mason is proposing.  The minds of children should not be taxed with "much information in small parcels," but neither should they be underestimated with "pretty pictures and easy talk."  Both approaches are flawed not only in their goals for the child but also in their methods.

From here, Miss Mason considers the kindergarten, which I have already touched on--this section is such a clear articulation of her goals for our youngest students.  Next, as she promises, she gets to the other two questions proposed at the start: what should they learn and how they should learn it.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, confirms my thoughts on the issues of feeding the mind and what lesson really do this. I love how CM is so clear on the point and thus we are able to find a clear path forward to accomplish this.