Last week I encountered a young woman weeping in – of all places – the entry area of the girls’ bathroom our university education department shares with the elementary school to which we are attached. I had never seen her before; it is my guess she sought out this place to cry because it is at the periphery of the school and only used by children coming to or from the school gymnasium. I could have just walked by and pretended not to notice, which is perhaps my natural inclination. Instead, I stopped and asked if she was all right. I thought she might turn away or otherwise indicate it was none of my business, but she did not. Rather, she continued to stem the flow of tears with the tissue in her hand and shared briefly. I still do not know her name or exactly what her job is at the school, but she told me she was crying because of what she had just learned about one of her young students. My impression is that this child has been abused or neglected or treated in some abhorrent way. The last thing she said was, “You just wish you could take them home with you.” Not just him or her – but other children she knows also have difficult lives.
I live and work primarily in the world of American public education. Much of my time is spent on tasks required to teach future elementary, secondary, and special educators; some of these tasks keep me in my office or in a university classroom, but others send me into general and special education schoolrooms attended by K-12 learners at all levels. I can say without exaggerating that every time I visit a school I hear of increasing concerns about the life circumstances of students and the behaviors they exhibit as a result.
Just as our fall university term was starting in late August, I found myself spending one day in an educational setting with a manifestly different atmosphere. Melissa Deane had invited me to be one of the speakers at Charlotte Mason Connection3, the third annual conference planned and presented by the Mason group in the Sioux Falls, South Dakota, area. It was a wonderful day. When I think back, two lasting impressions immediately come to mind: the tables full of living books used in the homeschools represented by the organizers and the wonderful young people – children of those organizers – who facilitated the event in many ways such as helping in the kitchen and running the technology. The schools represented at this conference contrast in diverse ways to typical American public schools. These Charlotte Mason educated students and their families are truly blessed.
Mason’s statement that “education is the science of relations” is one of the principles that accounts for the effectiveness and – I would say – peacefulness of her educational approach. This principle is similar to the principle “children are born persons” in that there are layers of meaning and manifold applications of each. In conjunction with each other, these two principles are foundational to implementing an educational process that leads to more than “college and career readiness.”
College and career readiness is a phrase that can be found many times on the website of the Common Core State Standards (Common Core State Standards, 2017), mission statements of many public schools, in promotional materials for textbooks, and throughout the current educational milieu. If promoters of college and career readiness are to be believed, the goal of an education is utilitarian only and content taught and tested is limited to that aligned to state standards, primarily in mathematics, English language arts, and to a lesser degree science. The South Dakota Kindergarten English language arts (ELA) Standards document for reading, writing, speaking, listening, and language is 41 pages in length; for first graders, there are 46 pages of standards. Subjects other than the three tested receive scant attention in any amount that would allow a child to develop a relationship with them.
Outside of school, parents often tend to encourage a child to pursue a single interest such as music or sports, for example, based on the family situation or on cultural trends. Many opportunities, ideas, creative pursuits, and interests are not noticed, acknowledged, or explored. Recently I attended a theatrical production on our campus. One of the talented actors is in his junior year; his major area of study, however, is not related to the affinity for the theatre he has recently realized. When I talked to him after the final curtain call, he sounded regretful and said it was “too late” to change his mind about his future. In Charlotte Mason terms, an aspect of his personhood was somehow not recognized earlier on, and he did not have the opportunity to develop wide relationships that would have allowed him to lay hold of his affinity for theatre.
However much I sometimes desire to be more directly involved in learning and teaching the Charlotte Mason way, I am grateful for the online Study and Facebook groups, the Connection3 Conference, the Living Education Retreat, and other opportunities that remind me that education is a life. I can continue to apply Mason principles in my current setting while being watchful for “Mason sightings,” inadvertent application of Mason principles in current educational practice. Two such trends that may warrant examining are project-based learning (PBL) and gentle teaching.
Problem (or project) based learning has been used in K-12 schools for close to a quarter century. “In problem-based learning courses, students work with classmates to solve complex and authentic problems that help develop content knowledge as well as problem-solving, reasoning, communication, and self-assessment skills” (Problem Based Learning, 1994). In the instances I am familiar with, some of the concerns related to teaching based on multiple overly-focused content standards are set aside as a real-life problem is addressed, using content from whatever subject or skill area becomes needful. Once the problem is solved or the project completed, the teacher analyzes which standards have been met. There are many iterations of this model, and in some cases, the teaching and learning may recognize both the personhood of the learners and relationships to a wide variety of ideas and content.
Just recently, one of my students made me aware of gentle teaching, an approach to teaching children and supporting adults with special needs that seems to focus more on relationships and less on modifying behaviors and developing functional skills. There does not seem to be much literature as yet about gentle teaching. Both gentle teaching and PBL need to be considered carefully before any claim can be made that they implement Mason principles and contribute to understanding of the way knowledge is related to the world, to others, and to God’s truth.
In Parents and Children, Mason writes about Wisdom, the Recognition of Relations:
It is curious how the philosophy of the Bible is always well in advance of our latest thought. ‘He grew in wisdom and in stature,’ we are told. Now what is wisdom, philosophy? Is it not the recognition of relations? First, we have to understand relations of time and space and matter, the natural philosophy which made up so much of the wisdom of Solomon; then, by slow degrees, and more and more, we learn that moral philosophy which determines our relations of love and justice and duty to each other: later, perhaps, we investigate the profound and puzzling subject of the inter-relations of our own most composite being, mental philosophy. And in all these and beyond all these we apprehend, slowly and feebly, the highest relation of all, the relation to God, which we call religion. In this science of the relations of things consists what we call wisdom, and wisdom is not born in any man,––apparently not even in the Son of man Himself.
Wisdom increases; Intelligence does not––He grew in wisdom, in the sweet gradual apprehension of all the relations of life: but the power of apprehending, the strong, subtle, discerning spirit, whose function it is to grasp and understand, appropriate and use, all the relations which bind all things to all other things––this was not given to Him by measure; nor, we may reverently believe, is it so given to us. (p. 258-59)
Mason encourages us to continue to pursue the science of relations and grow in wisdom in all our lives and circumstances. There is much to be gained in settings that fully apply Mason principles. There are also blessings in places that may not know of Charlotte Mason, but through the Holy Spirit and common grace, exemplify relational concern for children and teaching that recognizes the personhood of each learner. The young woman I met that day last week was truly saddened by the plight of a misused child and through her tears, meant to be private, expressed “relations of love and justice and duty to each other” as well as care and wisdom that will inform her relationship with that child.
Common Core State Standards Initiative. (2017). Retrieved from http://www.corestandards.org/
Gentle Teaching. (2013). In Gentle Teaching Netherlands. Retrieved from
Mason, C. M. (1989). Parents and children (Vol. 2). Wheaton IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. (Original work published 1925)
Problem Based Learning. (Winter, 1994). Speaking of Teaching. Stanford University Newsletter on Teaching 5(2): 1-3.