Charlotte Mason on Standardized Testing

Dear Reader,

As I make my way through Charlotte Mason’s original homeschooling series, I am continually amazed at how her observations address current issues. In these posts, I am about half-way through the second volume, Parents and Children [my edition was published in 2009 by Seven Treasures Publication], and I have come to a section dealing with motivation in education.

It is a common question I hear from other homeschooling parents, how do I keep my kids motivated to do their work? Charlotte has this to say:

“In the first place, people rarely accomplish beyond their own aims. Their aim is a pass, not knowledge: ‘they cram to pass and not to know; they do pass and they don’t know’ . . . ” [p.109]

In other words, when addressing the topic of motivation, we need first to look at goals (I have begun that in an earlier post). I think the parents’ goals are the place to start. Charlotte is addressing parents who send their children to school. She says this of them:

“Why is Tom Jones sent to school? That he may be educated, of course, say his parents . . . But never a word about the delights of learning, or of the glorious worlds of Nature and of thought to which his school studies will presumably prove an open sesame.” [p.108]

Most of us here I assume are homeschoolers, but we can still ask ourselves how we set the stage for learning. Do we communicate the love of learning to our children or do they only see that we care about academics? And this love I would venture to say is best communicated when they see it in us and don’t just hear us jabber on about it.

So when inspiring our children to a love of learning, we must begin my examining our goals and theirs. But then we must also look at our methods of evaluation. These days there is much talk of standardizing public education, of making sure that children across the country learn the same things. And what better way to do this than with common core requirements and common methods of evaluation?

But these things stifle the process of education itself. As Charlotte pointed out in the first quote above, when we study to pass the exam, we may pass but that is all we get out of it. This was my own experience in public school and is a huge part of why we homeschool now.

There are a couple of downsides to standardized testing. There is the problem of teaching to the test which then leaves no time or inclination to teach for the sheer love of learning. Charlotte says:

“Whatever public examinations a given school takes, the whole momentum of pupils and staff urges toward the great issue. As to the manner of study, this is ruled by the style of questions set in a given subject; and Dry-as-dust wins the day because it is easier and fairer to give marks upon definite facts than upon mere ebullitions of fancy or genius. So it comes to pass that there is absolutely no choice as to the matter or manner of their studies for most boys and girls who go to school, nor for many of those who work at home. For so great is the convenience of a set syllabus that parents and teachers are equally glad to avail themselves of it.” [pp.109-110]

For those of us who have rejected the public school system, we must still watch ourselves that in the name of convenience we do not again stifle learning. This is done often when we choose programs which do not allow for individuality. A curriculum that lays everything out for one is very tempting, especially for new homeschoolers. But over time, it is better to find a path that allows for more flexibility so that the students do have some choice and say in what they study. This allows them to develop their own interests. And when we evaluate their learning, if we ask fact based questions, perhaps multiple choice or true-and-false or fill-in-the-blank type questions, we also tend to suppress the learning process. When called upon to give facts, one gives facts. But this is not real learning, and it does not push the student on to something more. Charlotte preferred instead open-ended examination questions along the lines of “tell me what you know about . . .” Fill-in-the-blank questions tell the student what facts we think they should know, but open-ended questions let the student tell us what they have found interesting. And so they begin to form relationships with the material before them. And they develop that love of learning which we so desire them to have. This method respects the personalities of the individual students. As Charlotte says:

“[T]he tendency of the grind is to imperil that individuality which is one incomparably precious birthright of each of us. The very fact of public examination compels that all who go in for it must study on the same lines.” [p.109]

I don’t know what the answers are for public schools that are also concerned that all children get good educations. But for us homeschoolers, I think we must ask ourselves: are we stifling true learning? How are our goals and methods affecting how our children perceive learning?



4 responses to this post.

  1. […] my earlier post I talked about Charlotte Mason’s comments on standard curricula and standardized testing. I […]


  2. […] many times have I observed that Charlotte dealt with the same issues we face? It’s a lot (see this post on standardized testing for an example). And here too she observes that children are not reading […]


  3. […] force learning. I also don’ think that standardized testing benefits students (see this post and this one) or that focusing primarily on the STEM subjects is the right way to […]


  4. […] A large part of Gatto’s book is about describing how the schools have undercut true education. Charlotte would agree, I think, that this is done largely by the use of incentives which elevate one human desire, usually that for recognition and success in competition, above that which hould motivate education, the inborn desire to learn. The end result is that one’s innate love of learning is suppressed (Gatto, pp. 100, 123; and see this post on the use of incentives). Testing, and particularly standardized testing, largely contributes to this atmosphere. Gatto says that true education is not testable (p. 27). Testing subverts one’s standards. It “correlates with nothing very real, it mis-identifies winners and losers in a reckless fashion” (p. 152). Charlotte also was down on standardized testing as you can see in this post and this one. […]


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