Posts Tagged ‘Charlotte Mason’

Mason vs. Montessori, addendum

Recently we compared the philosophies of Charlotte Mason and Maria Montessori with a focus on the principles behind each woman’s approach to education. Though we covered a lot of ground, there were a few smaller areas that I did not want to take the time to address in that post (it was long enough as it was). So today we are going to continue to compare the two philosophies, looking at some more minor issues.

Mason vs. Montessori: Miscellaneous Topics

How Time is Used

One very practical difference between the two approaches to education is how they use time. For Mason the emphasis is on short lessons with a lot of variety worked in. For the youngest students, lessons might range from 5 to 15 minutes. For example, 15 minutes spent on nature lore — that includes reading a section of a book and having the child narrate– followed by 5 minutes of picture study and then maybe another 15 minutes of history, again that time includes the time to read and narrate. Note that the kinds of activities alternate as well. One “long” session of reading is not followed immediately by another. As students mature, lessons get longer but they are always relatively short (compared to other approaches). One result of this approach is that many subjects get covered per day and many books get read.

Montessori’s approach is diametrically opposed to this. In a Montessori classroom the key is to let children chose their activity (from among a set of prescribed choices) and, as long as they are absorbed in it, not to interrupt them. Children are generally given a three hour chunk of time to work on their chosen task (Lillard, p. 109).


Interestingly, though their approaches were so different, both women structured the day with an eye to building the child’s habit of attention. For Montessori, this meant uninterrupted time. The connection here seems obvious — the child is able to maintain attention because he is given long chunks of time to do his chosen activity. Being able to regulate one’s attention is for Montessori one of the key skills children need to self-regulate and to become normalized (see “goals” in part 1 for more on what she meant by “normalization”).

For Mason, attention is equally important but it is built through short lessons which do not allow the child to get bored. As the lesson times are gradually increased over the years, the habit of attention is built up. Habit-training is one of the three pillars of a Charlotte Mason education and the habit of attention is a key one that all children must work on.


Which brings us to the subject of discipline. For Mason discipline is habit-training as in her motto, “Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life” (principle 5). Habit-training is a kind of pro-active discipline. Though it may be also used to redirect children when they have developed bad habits, it is ideally used before bad habits develop to instill good ones. The idea behind habit training is that we all have roads along which we travel — ingrained physical and mental ruts, if you will. If we do not work to establish good habits in children, they will default to bad ones. Either way they will develop habits. If good habits are established early, there will be no place for bad ones. If bad ones have taken root, the key is to replace them with good ones. The collection of one’s habits over a lifetime determine one’s character. Discipline for Mason is discipleship and training. She was not an advocate of physical discipline.

Montessori likewise eschewed physical discipline. Her solution to behavior problems in the classroom was to temporarily restrict the child’s freedom by keeping him closer to the teacher (Lillard, p. 98). She preferred redirection to punishment: “‘Interfere by all means to stop disturbances, but we need not punish or scold or admonish when we stop bad behavior; we can ask the child to come and pick flowers in the garden or offer a toy or any occupation that will appeal to [the child]'” (as quoted by Lillard, p. 283). Misbehaving children are thus given positive attention.

As mentioned in part 1, we can see a different here in the understanding of the child’s nature. For Montessori, there are no bad children. Children who act up are not having their needs fulfilled (Lillard. p. 283) or perhaps the teacher has lost control of the environment (p. 272). For Mason children have the possibility of good or evil (principle 2). If left to their own devices, however, they will inevitably turn to bad habits so good ones must be actively instilled.

Character-Building Stories

In addition to disciplinary measures, both women make use of stories as a part of character training. “The Montessori curriculum explicitly uses modeling and stories to teach social behavior” (Lillard, p. 199). These seem to be stories told by the teacher (rather than read from a book) which show heroes and heroines doing good despite adverse circumstances. Remember that imitation is integral to the Montessori system so these stories are designed to give children models to imitate. They also learn good behavior from older children in Montessori’s mixed age classrooms.

In a Charlotte Mason education, stories are read (from books) to provide some degree of moral instruction. These are not used in a pointed or preachy way — eg. reading a story on sharing to a child who is currently having problems with that skill — lest they turn the child off but are again used more proactively so that the child’s head may be filled with both good and bad examples from literature. The point is not to teach obvious lessons but to present children with great ideas in the form of stories of men’s lives presented without judgment so that the child can form their own conclusions. Plutarch is used for this in later grades: “Now Plutarch is like the Bible in this, that he does not label the actions of his people as good or bad but leaves the conscience and judgment of his readers to make that classification” (Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 186). With younger children other “hero stories” can also be used.

The Role of Narrative & Books

Beyond its use in character building, narrative has a role in both systems. The Montessori curriculum is structured around an overarching narrative called the Five Great Lessons which the teacher tells to the students every year (this was discussed more fully in part 1). This narrative provides continuity across the years and also across academic disciplines as all subjects are related back to the main narrative. It is a story that makes sense of the world. Note again that the story is told by the teacher. There is no such overarching narrative in Mason’s approach though she does make heavy use of narrative, usually delivered through the medium of books. [1]

It is not, of course, that books are not used in a Montessori curriculum but they certainly have a more minor role than in Charlotte Mason. Mason’s approach conveys ideas in literary forms (principle 13c). In practice this means that books are read by children or to them throughout the curriculum (which again begins around age 6). They are read for history and science and civics and literature. A student may easily have a dozen books going at once in a term. The rationale is that ideas are best conveyed in well-written language and in literary forms. Ideas, you will recall, are the food of the mind for Mason and the role of the teacher is to provide a feast of these ideas that the child’s mind may feed upon. Another aspect of this is that for Mason ideas are conveyed from mind to mind, in most cases the mind of the author to that of the student. It is not the teacher who mediates ideas but she puts students in touch with authors who are able to communicate ideas to them. Thus we see the importance of books specifically as the medium of education in Mason’s philosophy.

For Montessori, the teacher tells stories and therefore mediates the information or ideas in a way that does not happen with Mason. [2] “[I]n Montessori classrooms there is usually a well-stocked book corner” (Lillard, p. 333) and Montessori taught reading much earlier than her contemporaries, including Mason (Lillard, p. 271). Yet the books are not the primary medium of education, at least in the early years, as they are for Mason. For Montessori the physical always precedes the intellectual so hands-on activities are the main medium (again, this is discussed more fully in part 1).


On one particular genre, Mason and Montessori clearly disagreed. For Mason fantasy is a fitting food for young minds; for Montessori it is to be avoided. “For children under age 6, Dr. Montessori came to believe fantasy had no place” (Lillard, p. 183). because the goal of education is adaptation to the real world environment, fantasy, especially for younger children who are less able to distinguish fantasy from reality, undercuts the purpose. Which is not to say that Montessori did not value imagination; she just believed children need a firm grounding in reality first (p. 186).

Mason, on the other hand, argues for the use of fairy tales and fantasy. Interestingly, though Montessori argues against such things because kids need the real world, Mason argues for them as a way for kids to learn about the real world. Fairy tales present children with scary situations in ways that allow them to grapple with hard things before they have to face them in the real world. So Mason is able to say: “Some of us will not even let children read fairy tales because these bring the ugly facts of life too suddenly before them.” (School Education, p.184) Because Mason believes there is real evil in the world, she also believes children need fairytales to prepare them for this: “the very knowledge of evil conveyed in fairy tales under a certain glamour is of use in saving children from painful and injurious shocks in real life” (Parents and Children, p. 107). But fairytales do more than tell us of the evil in the world; they also tell us of the good, and, more than that, they point us to the spiritual world that goes beyond our own: “fairy-tales are so dear to children because their spirits fret against the hard and narrow limitations of time and place and substance; they cannot breathe freely in a material world” (Parents and Children, p. 47).

Here again we see a difference in underlying principles. Mason, starting from the ground of her Christian faith, seeks to educate not so much the material/physical aspect but the spiritual/intellectual in the child. Fairytales and fantasy, in her conception, point to both the good and the evil that go beyond the physical world we perceive with our senses. Montessori focuses on the physical and material, on the senses and what can be perceived, and so she feels no need (or at least less need) for fantasy and finds it a detriment to young children’s development.


[1] As Christians, of course, we do have an overarching narrative that explains everything, gives us purpose, and tells us how to live. Though Mason is Anglican and her approach reflects her religion, she does not explicitly provide this kind of overarching framework. It is perhaps something worth considering for those of us who are Christians and follow her approach. Though it has been a while since I looked at it, I was very impressed but the role given to narrative, and particularly the idea of a controlling story, by Sarah Clarkson of The Story-Formed Child.

[2] For Mason, stories are told to children before age 6; these are the years before formal education in her system.


Lillard, Angeline Stoll. Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Mason, Charlotte. Parents and Children. As published by Ambleside Online.

——————. School Education. As published by Ambleside Online.

——————. Towards a Philosophy of Education. As published by Ambleside Online.

Preparing for and Applying to College as a CM Homeschooler

As I write this I have two kids in college and two in high school. They were all homeschooled all the way through and mostly with Charlotte Mason’s methods. Below are some thoughts on how to do high school as a homeschooler, and particularly a CM homeschooler, and how to navigate the college application process. I also have a couple of older posts on this topic:

CM in High School: How We Do It

A CM Education in High School and College Prep

Preparing for College

High School Academics: What to Teach and How to Teach it

What to Teach

It is generally good to have some sort of plan of attack for high school before you begin. If your child plans to go to college or even might possibly some day decide they want to, you will want them to have the requisite classes under their belt. If you have an idea of where they might go, you can look at a few college websites and see what they require. I would say the summer before 9th grade is the time to do this. Things to look at in particular: if they require a foreign language and if so how many years, if they require lab sciences, and if they require any standardized testing beyond the SAT/ACT.

Typical college expectations are: 4 years each of English, Math, and History/Social Studies; 3-4 years of science with labs; 2-3 years of foreign language; 5-11 other courses (fine arts, PE, computers, etc.). The above is what colleges want to see on a transcript. That does not mean you need to do everything as discrete courses that fit these labels. What you need to do is turn what you have done into language they will understand. For instance, my children read a economics book at one point in high school and an American government one at another point. When creating their transcript, I lump these together and call them a half year of civics.

You will want to keep as thorough records as you can along the way. You will be glad you did later when you have to create a transcript. It is surprisingly easy to forget what your kid have read and studied. If you homeschool with the Charlotte Mason method, you will likely find that you have quite a lot of “classes” that you have done over the years. For example, if you read one or two Shakespeare plays a year that can be classified as an English or drama elective. While again you will want to plan for things like foreign language, I found that my CM-educated kids had way more than enough credits when I looked at everything they had done. Creating a transcript was mostly lumping things together and deciding what to call them and what year to assign them to (for more see “Transcripts” below).

How to Teach It

There is a big temptation for CM homeschoolers to change methods as they get to high school. This is not necessary. All the reasons you chose to use living books are still in effect at this point. In fact I would say they are even more so. Now is the time to expose your kids to living ideas in a literary format.

For science, I briefly tried something more traditional with my oldest in 9th grade and found it was boring and we still really liked living books. I did make a point of adding labs. I tried to outsource these as much as possible through local or national groups but one year I got together with other local moms and we did them ourselves. The good news is that there are many engaging, living books for this level. Don’t think school books; look for what is popular for adults. For example, one favorite that I read and made all my kids read for biology was How to Clone a Mammoth by Beth Shapiro. This is a fairly dense, scientific book but it is written in an engaging way by someone who knows and loves what she does. The same is true for history — there are a lot of good adult books out there for you to use.

I did outsource foreign language for all my kids. I let them pick a language (as long as I could find classes for it; one child wanted Swedish and that didn’t happen) and didn’t worry too much about whether it was taught with CM methods. One nice side benefit is that you then have a teacher who has had your child for a few years and can write an academic recommendation when the time comes (see below). If you do choose to use outside providers for certain classes, we found that almost all companies these days have decent platforms and that it is the teacher that matters most. For a list of places with online classes for homeschoolers see this document.

In a CM education, high school is the time to switch gears a little with writing. Up until this point your child will have done a lot of written narrations but not much else. Don’t panic. These narrations really are a good foundation for all other kinds of writing. I found that CM-educated kids tend to have their own voice in their writing (which is a good thing). My son came home from college his first year and told me very proudly that though I had always complained about his writing that his professors said it was very good (I still think he was not a stellar writer, at least in high school). I could tell you how we did high school writing but really the best thing is to get Karen Glass’s book Know and Tell and to follow her instructions. What she did is very similar to how I approached it but she explains it very well. Don’t worry too much about them knowing a certain method for citing things in academic papers. Their college will have its own chosen method and will make sure freshman know how to do it. Grammar can be done in one year in a CM education. If they haven’t done it in middle school, now is the time. My curriculum of choice is KISS grammar.

Standardized Tests

As I write this (in early 2021) the college testing world is in a time of flux. The SAT which just a few years ago made the essay optional will be dropping it altogether and SAT subject tests are also going away. Many colleges are temporarily not requiring SATs or ACTs due to the pandemic. It remains to be seen whether these temporary changes will become permanent and whether anything will arise to take the place of SAT subject tests (when my oldest was applying in 2018, Ivy League and other high level schools required SAT subject tests).

Because my kids never took standardized tests before high school, I had them take the PSAT in both 10th and 11th grade. These you register for through a local school. They are usually offered in October. We found the local Catholic school very accommodating. SATs and ACTs which are usually taken for the first time in the winter or spring of 11th grade you register for online through the College Board.

I found that my CM-educated kids were fairly well prepared for these tests. We did do a practice test or two ahead of time. After one practice test, I was able to see what was confusing to them (just because they had never encountered questions done that way) and to explain what the questions were asking and how they should think about them. IMO practice tests are the best preparation. My second child also used the resources on Khan Academy. Susan Schaeffer Macaulay in For the Children’s Sake speaks of the passports our society requires and that is how I think of these things. They are necessary obstacles but one should not allow them to absorb too much of one’s focus and energy.

Other tests are not necessarily required. It depends on the colleges (and again that all is in flux due to testing changes in 2020/2021). It can be helpful for homeschooled students to have a little more to show for themselves so if they can do an AP class or two that may help. It can also get them some college credit if they do well. We found that AP tests are not a good way to learn a subject. A lot of it is learning how to navigate the test itself. Taking a licensed AP class (anyone who uses the AP label has to be licensed by the College Board), online or in person, can be very useful. It is harder to prepare for these on your own because there are tricks and tips a licensed teacher will know. Less subjective subjects like computer science and calculus may be a little easier. Humanities tend to be very political or trendy in their choices of what is important and needs to be known. As of about two years ago AP registration deadlines have moved to the fall. The tests themselves usually happen the first two weeks of May. You will need to find a local school to accommodate you on this. Often Christian and/or private schools are easier to work with. We found a little Christian school that would even do tests just for my child though public schools will often let your child join if it is a test they are already offering.

High School Timetable

  • Before 9th grade: Think about what you are aiming for and what you need to get there. Look at sample colleges to see what they require, esp. how many years of foreign language and science as well as testing requirements.  If your child will need accommodations to take college board tests, begin the process now.
  • Fall of 10th grade: Take PSATs for the first time. Consider doing an AP subject this year.
  • Fall of 11th grade: Take PSATs again.
  • Winter/Spring of 11th grade: Take SATs or ACTs. Repeat as needed.
  • Spring of 11th grade: Take AP tests if desired.
  • Late Summer/Fall of 12th grade: Begin FAFSA and college apps. Aim for 11/1 deadline for maximum financial aid.
  • Spring of 12th grade: Take AP tests. Reply to schools. Send in final transcripts and scores.

Applying to College

Financial Aid

Almost all schools use the fafsa (not Grove city and a couple more). This is mainly about parents’ finances and can be a pain in the butt if you have multiple checking/retirement/college accounts. It is usually available online around August. Start early. The good news is that in subsequent years it remembers your info and gets a little easier. Some schools also require the College Board’s financial form which isn’t much better; check the College Board site on this. I found out late that they wanted this extra form from me. Deadline for merit aid for many schools is 11/1 so aim to get all applications and financial documents in by then.

Transcripts and Course Summaries

As the homeschooling parent, you also get to function as guidance counselor. There may be slight differences among colleges in terms of what they ask for but generally you will need to provide: a transcript, course summaries (optional), a school profile, and a counselor recommendation letter. Many colleges today use the common app which allows you to enter all this information once and have it sent to participating schools.

A transcript is a once page document that lists the courses your child has taken and their grades. There is a fairly standard format for these and it is best to not be too creative. You want schools to be able to quickly look at your transcript and understand what it is communicating. You can format your own. I used a program that did it for me for $12/year (only one year is necessary). Such a program will also calculate the GPA for you. It seemed well worth the cost.

A traditional transcript lists courses by year, eg. all the ninth grade courses in one section, 10th grade in the next and so on. Some homeschoolers choose to group courses by subject — eg. all social science courses together and all science, all math, etc. I have heard of one parent who was asked for a more traditional transcript when she tried this.

The usual practice for high school is to assign full-year courses 1 credit and half year courses 1/2 credit. Ambleside Online has a section which discusses how many hours of work equal one credit. In general you can assume that one standard course — eg. algebra or 9th grade English — is one credit. Other subjects that you have spent less time on, perhaps Shakespeare or art history/appreciation, might be a half credit. Generally you want to aim for 22-26 credits.

As CM homeschoolers our courses did not always fit the standard categories. As noted above, I looked back at what we had done and grouped things together. If a course spanned multiple years, I just assigned it to a year. I tried to make the years fairly even so there would not be 3 credits in one year and 8 in another.

While my kids had a few classes that they had done with outside providers and had grades for, I had never given them grades so I assigned grades retroactively as I made the transcripts. Basically, I just thought back over the work they had given me. Had they done all the required work and done it diligently? That’s an A. If they didn’t quite get everything done or didn’t do their best work, that’s a B and so on. You can use your school profile (see below) to explain your grading strategy.

There is usually a place on the transcript to add notes about particular classes. If your student did a high school level class before 9th grade (eg. algebra), you can include it as an “early earned credit” (EEC). I also marked classes that were done with outside providers and noted which sciences had lab components. Be sure to indicate which classes are AP level even if your student didn’t take the exam but don’t use the AP label if it was not done with a licensed AP provider (again, they strictly regulate the AP label).

There will also be places in the application to list activities that your student has participated in. There may be some things that could be called a class or an outside activity. For example, my kids have done play reading with friends. This could be considered a drama class or a recreational activity or club. You can choose which category these go in but be sure to only use them once. It can’t be both a class and an activity.

The common app allows you to upload a few transcripts (I think the number is 3). If you have transcripts from outside providers, you can use one of these slots for them (you may want to combine them into one document). If you chose, you can also use one of these slots to upload course summaries. None of the colleges my kids applied to specifically asked for them but I had heard they might so I created and uploaded them proactively (it’s possible if I hadn’t done so that they would have asked). While this is more work, it is also an extra way to show what your student has done and give some idea of how your homeschool works. I created one document that listed all my children’s classes by school year (corresponding to their transcript). Two examples from my son’s course summary:

“English 9: American Writers

A year-long course covering literature, composition, grammar, and spelling. The emphasis for this freshman level course is on American essayists, poets and short story writers.  Discussion and identification of poetic devices including meter, rhyme, alliteration, anaphora, paradox, anastrophe, metaphor, personification and hyperbole. Assessment through class discussions, weekly assignments in writing and grammar, and essays and short answer assignments on works read.

Reading list: Selected poems by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, and T.S. Eliot; Selected stories by Washington Irving; “Self-Reliance” and “Nature” by Ralph Waldo Emerson; “Resistance to Civil Government” by Henry David Thoreau; Selected stories by Edgar Allen Poe; “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” by James Thurber; “Leader of the People” by John Steinbeck; “The Bear” by William Faulkner

American History: the 19th Century

A full-year course on 19th century American history with a mini-unit on Victorian England.  Assessment was through class discussions, oral presentations, and written reactions to reading assignments.

Reading list: A Volcano beneath the Snow: John Brown’s War against Slavery and Virginia’s General: Robert E. Lee and the Civil War by Albert Marrin; The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg by Rodman Philbrick; “The Red Badge of Courage” by Stephen Crane; Ghost Towns of the American West and Light for the World: Edison and the Power Industry by Robert Silverberg; Seven Fires: The Urban Infernos that Reshaped America by Peter Charles Hoffer; The Crimean War by James Barbary

Other resources: The Presidents, video series by the History Channel; The American Destiny, multi-volume series, edited by Henry Steele Commager; Civil War: America Divided, video series”

As you can see, the reading lists from CM homeschoolers end up looking quite impressive.

Recommendation Letters and School Profile

As the guidance counselor, you will provide one recommendation for your student. You will likely need 1 or 2 others, one of which must come from an academic instructor (this is where it is useful to have had at least one outside class). I acknowledged up front in my counselor letter that I was the homeschooling parent and just tried to be honest about their particular strengths. This is also a good place to explain any extenuating circumstances like learning disabilities.

The school profile is usually a standard document the guidance counselor would upload that would be the same for all the students in a school. It usually provides demographic information for the area and statistics on how many of its students take AP classes, etc. I found this was a good opportunity to explain a little bit about our philosophy of education. This is the basic format I used:

School Profile

Name of Homeschool

Parents’ names and contact info

Demographics: View brief info on our town and parents’ degrees.

Philosophy of Education: Use your own words here. I explained that we used “living books.” I used words like interdisciplinary to explain how we encourage connections across subject areas and said that our education was “liberal arts based.” I explained our use of narration because it allows the child to teach what they have learned to others.

Graduation Requirements: I provided a chart showing how many years I had required in each major subject area (ELA, science, math, etc.). I made this up retroactively.

Educational partners: I listed any outside providers we had used.

Grading: I explained how we graded — that we taught to mastery and that an “A” grade indicates that work was completed satisfactorily and that the student demonstrated a good understanding of the material, etc.

Other Parts of the Application

There are lots of other little bits to the common app (or other applications). One school required my son to upload a resume. They all ask about outside activities and awards. They will have places to enter in class rank and the like. I just always checked “not applicable” or “we do not calculate class rank.” Of course your student will also have to write an essay. Some schools will require extra essays and some scholarships may require them as well. The common app essay will go to multiple schools, but if a given school requires an extra essay, try to gear it to that school specifically.

Applying to Art Schools

My second child was aiming for an art school from a fairly young age so I thought I would add a note about applying to art schools specifically. While your child will likely have to do all the standard things as well, the biggest factor in their application will be their portfolio. It is good to start this as early as possible; 9th grade is ideal. A lot of their 9th grade work may not end up in the portfolio but you will want them to have a lot to choose from. Elite schools will want to see many media. Even if your child knows what they are aiming to do they will have to show that they are well-rounded art-wise. Trendy media like anime are not going to go very far towards getting them in. Schools will likely want to see 12-20 pieces. Some can show their ideas in progress but most should be finished pieces. You can find videos online of students who have been accepted showing their portfolios. You can also get portfolio reviews ahead of time. In non-pandemic years, there are portfolio days across the nation that multiple schools come to. Some schools will do a sample review for you ahead of time. It is not binding but gives you some feedback (my dd did this at MassArt; this is not the school she ended up at). There is also an online site that you can get reviews through (see here).

Charlotte Mason and Montessori: A Comparison of Principles

I have a great new yard sale find book I am reading: Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius by Angeline Stoll Lillard (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005). I read a fair amount of developmental psychology last year with an eye to seeing how it jibes, or doesn’t, with Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education [1]. This book essentially does the same thing for Maria Montessori. I will at some point return to the science, but for today I’d just like to start with a principle-by-principle comparison of the two women’s approaches to education.

The similarities and differences between Mason and Montessori are a frequent topic on CM forums at least. Mason herself wrote some articles objecting to aspects of Montessori’s philosophy [2] yet from our more modern perspective the two may seem similar in points. This is my attempt to do a systematic comparison. Mason boiled her philosophy down to 20 principles [3]. Montessori has eight [4]. They do not line up perfectly (that would be too easy), but we can attempt to compare them.

Before we get to their ideas, let’s take a minute to look at the ladies themselves. Mason and Montessori were contemporaries, though Mason was older and began her career first. Mason lived and worked in England; Montessori in Italy. Both worked as teachers and were fairly hands-on in the schools they established. Mason began her career as a teacher. Montessori began as a scientist and doctor (in fact, she was the first female doctor in Italy). Mason was a member of the Church of England. Montessori had leanings towards a spiritual movement called theosophy, especially towards the end of her life. Because they were near contemporaries and because in many ways they were reacting against the same trends in education, there is much that will seem similar between the two, but they did not agree.



There is a certain similarity between the two women when it comes to methodology. Both women were experimental in their approaches in that they adapted what was going on in their schools based on what was actually working. For Montessori, with her scientific background, this was a deliberate decision (Lillard, p. 186). Mason began her work when she as a teacher saw what was not working in the schools. Later as she trained teachers, she adapted the curriculum based on what was and wasn’t working. For example, she would reject books that students had not been able to remember well at their end-of-term exams.


Each woman tells us what she thinks the basis of her philosophy is. For Mason, the foundation is the gospels: “It may surprise parents who have not given much attention to the subject to discover also a code of education in the Gospels, expressly laid down by Christ . . .” (Home Education, p. 12; emphasis added) [5]. Montessori, on the other hand, strove to make her approach to education as scientific as possible: “‘The basis of the reform of education and society . . . must be built upon scientific study'” (as quoted by Lillard, p. 3). Now science and faith need not be at odds, but we can still say that in terms of motivating principles, there is a fundamental difference.

Worldview/Religious Foundations

The framework of a Montessori education, from which it arises and to which it returns, is a set of five stories called “the Great Lessons.” These stories, which are told regularly to children and to which all the curriculum is related are five key developments in human civilization as Montessori saw it. They are: the creation of the universe, the beginning of life, the rise of human beings, the development of language, and the development of numbers (Lillard, p. 130). Note the evolutionary structure. Children are taught that it all began with a Big Bang and that life evolved on earth (p. 132). These events certainly could be told in a Christian or biblical way, but the underlying beliefs are not inherently Christian but are based in an evolutionary mindset. All learning is connected to these stories so that children receive a “Cosmic Education” (p. 144).

Though Mason does not have an equivalent, overarching narrative, her Anglican theology clearly influenced her philosophy. As Montessori’s approach can be adapted to Christianity so Mason’s can and has been adapted to other religions and to a secular worldview. In its essence, however, Mason’s approach is at the very least inherently theist. It assumes a “Divine Spirit” who is not distant but actively involved in the lives and the educations of children and who has access to their hearts and minds (principle 20).

The Child and His Nature

The Child as a Person

When we think of the child as a person, we can distinguish a few different issues: uniqueness/individuality; the parts of the child (body, mind, soul); innate abilities and stages of development; and his moral nature.

Both Mason and Montessori reject the idea common in their age that the child is a blank slate or an empty vessel to be filled up. Inherent in this image is the idea that each child can be molded or filled up the same way. That is, what a blank slate or an empty vessel becomes is not a factor of how it began but of what is done to it. All empty vessels are essentially equivalent until something is done to them.

Mason’s first principle states her view that “Children are born persons.” This is not a primarily statement about the child’s individuality and uniqueness but is meant to express that the child is a fully formed human being sharing all the faculties and abilities of adults. Nonetheless, it is clear that Mason does acknowledge the uniqueness of each child. She says that “the child’s mind is no mere sac” (principle 9). His education is not dependent upon his circumstances or environment (principle 15), but each will attain such knowledge as is fitting to him (principles 11 and 19). Each will develop relations that are unique to him because he is born not as a blank slate but with certain affinities (principle 12).

Montessori also clearly rejects the idea of the child as a blank slate or empty vessel. Relative to her time, she gave the child quite a lot of freedom to choose to do as he would wish (Lillard, p. 80), an implicit acknowledgment of his uniqueness. For Montessori the child is “a motivated doer, rather than an empty vessel” (p. 28).

Physical, Intellectual, Spiritual

Though both Montessori and Mason would say that they seek to educate the whole person, their perception of the person and how his parts relate to one another differs.

Mason calls the child a “spiritual organism” (principle 9) [6]. Inherent in this phrase are two parts: the organic or physical and the spiritual. The spiritual for Mason is closely tied to the intellectual [7]. In practice, the physical is not ignored but seems to fall into a secondary role while the intellectual is paramount.

For Montessori the child is “a motivated doer” (Lillard, p. 28). The first principle of a Montessori education is that “movement and cognition are closely entwined, and movement can enhance thinking and learning” (p. 29).”‘Mental development,”‘ Montessori tells us, “‘must be connected with movement and be dependent on it'” (as quoted by Lillard, p. 38). Though the two are closely linked, it is the physical which must come first and leads to the intellectual. “Cognition is born from manual movement” and “the body is an active entity that moves in the service of the mind” (Lillard, p. 57). There seems again to be an evolutionary ideology underlying this belief, at least as Lillard presents it. “The mind and hand are closely related,” she tells us, “and we learn best when we can move our bodies in ways that align with our cognition. This is no wonder since our minds evolved for action, for behaving in an environment” (p. 326).

Thus while both see the child as some combination of physical and intellectual, they weight them differently. For Montessori the physical is emphasized because all education must spring from it. For Mason the intellectual (which is also the spiritual) is paramount. It should not surprise us then that Montessori’s approach is more hands-on than Mason’s. Yet we must not push this distinction too far; Mason also incorporates hands-on elements and Montessori moves toward the intellectual as the child progresses, but there is a clear difference. [8]

The difference in approach can be seen in how they teach reading and writing. For Montessori, writing is taught first because it is physical. The child manipulates letters before his mind processes them (Lillard, pp. 23ff). In the process of learning to write, the child is given certain manipulatives which he is to use in a certain order and in prescribed ways. Each is designed to break down the task of learning to write into distinct motor skills which build into the actual writing of letters. It is a very detailed, orderly process at the end of which “[r]eading emerges spontaneously during the months after writing begins” (p. 27). [9]

For Mason reading is first. When writing is taught, there is a hands-on element — children are taught to trace letters in sand for instance — but there are many fewer manipulative activities throughout the curriculum. Thus while handicrafts are considered part of education, one does not engage in hands-on activities as a part of one’s history lesson.

The Child’s Nature, Good and Evil

Mason’s second principle says that children “are not born either good or bad, but with possibilities for good and for evil.” As I have argued elsewhere, Mason applies this principle to the whole person. She is speaking of both moral and intellectual ability when she says that the child has “possibilities for good and for evil.” [10]

Montessori does not offer a corresponding principle. She approaches education from a materialistic point of view [11] and does not directly address the child’s moral nature. Lillard argues, however, based on Montessori’s approach to discipline [12] that she “believed there was no such thing as a bad child, only children with unfulfilled needs” (Lillard, p. 283).

We may also compare the two on the question of what we might call intellectual goodness. For comparison’s sake, let us consider another thinker into the mix for a moment — Rousseau held that the child left to his own nature would develop along the proper lines (as he defined them) and that it was adult interference that corrupted his nature. [13] So we may ask for Mason and Montessori, what is the child’s nature? How would he develop if left to himself?

For Mason, as her second principle states, there are two possibilities before the child. He is neither naturally good nor naturally evil but either is possible. As we will discuss in the next section, he has certain innate abilities but whether he turns out good or evil depends on what is put before him. If he is presented with good, wholesome materials then they will act as nourishing food to his mind and he will develop along good lines. If he is presented with the intellectual equivalent of junk food then he will not. [14] There is no middle ground here. The child who is presented with nothing will stagnate and wither for lack of sustenance.

For Montessori, education is a natural process and the child will develop along the right lines given the right environment. “‘All we have to do is set [the child’s developmental] energy free . . . It has a guiding principle, a very fine, but unconscious directive, the aim of which is to develop a normal person.'” (as quoted by Lillard, pp. 106-7) And again: ‘”education . . . is a natural process which develops spontaneously in the human being'” (p. 255). There is for Montessori a natural, inborn trajectory which leads the child to develop along the right lines though, in contrast to Rousseau’s ideas, there is a role for the teacher to prepare the right environment that will allow this development to happen as it should. Lillard speaks of the child in evolutionary terms as an “organism . . . particularly primed to develop in certain ways, given certain environmental stimulations” (p. 33).

It is important to note before moving on that for both Mason and Montessori, all children are educable. Even the most “backward” child can and will develop along proper lines if given the right education. Montessori, you may know, began her work with those children who had been deemed hopelessly uneducable by her society due to physical and mental delays. Mason too advocated for the education of those children whom her society despised, among them the poor and illegitimate.

The Child’s Abilities and Stage of Development

As stated above, Mason’s first principle that children are born persons, is primarily meant to convey that they have all the abilities and faculties an adult has. They have, as she says in principle 11, the powers of mind to deal with the ideas that are given to them. Still there is no doubt that Mason saw some sort of progression in the child’s ability to learn. Formal education did not begin until age 6 and she was not teaching seven-year-olds algebra or even formal grammar. Nonetheless, hers is not a staged approach that sees distinct changes in mental ability as the child grows [15].

Montessori, on the other hand, divided the child’s development into four distinct stages, each six years long (ages 0-6, 6-12, 12-18, and 18-24). Within each of these there are further subdivisions as well as “sensitive periods” in which the child is more responsive to education. The major stages are distinct enough that we can speak of the infant becoming the child and later the adult: “From 0 to 6 the infant is forming the child, and from 6 to 12 this person consolidates; then from 12 to 18 the child is forming the adult, and from 18 to 24 this person consolidates.” (Lillard, p. 254).

The Role of the Senses

The different views of the child as a person come together when we look at how each woman viewed the development of the child’s senses. Mason, with her emphasis on the intellectual/spiritual over against the physical, is explicit that the child comes equipped with the abilities he needs to learn and that his senses do not need to be trained. In fact, this is one point of which she is critical of Montessori [16].

Montessori’s approach, on the other hand, quite deliberately spends considerable time training the senses (Lillard, p. 57). For her the senses are linked to intelligence. “Sensory intelligence feeds into a multitude of higher-level abilities” (p. 318). Practically speaking, one needs a high level of sensory discrimination to, say, appreciate music or to distinguish fine gradations of color which may have practical applications to things like diagnosing disease. Thus the Montessori manipulatives are designed to train the senses more and more precisely (p. 323).

In practice we should say that there is some overlap here. Mason does not ignore the senses altogether. Her curriculum would include ear training which teaches the student to distinguish musical notes accurately. Other parts of her curriculum also, among them picture study and nature study, also aim to sharpen the child’s observational skills.

How Education Happens

Motivating Learning

Both Mason and Montessori spend three principles on what we might call “motivating students” or “how we get kids to learn.” Both women were reacting against a culture in which children were highly controlled and had little choice and in which their interests were not considered.

Both clearly reject rewards as a kind of external motivation. Montessori’s fourth principle says that “tying extrinsic rewards to an activity, like money for reading or high grades for tests, negatively impacts motivation to engage in that activity when the reward is withdrawn” (Lillard, p. 29; cf. p. 116). And in her own words: “‘The prize and punishment are incentives towards unnatural or forced effort, and therefore we certainly cannot speak of the natural development of the child in connection with them'” (as quoted by Lillard, p. 152). It should be noted that grades also are a kind of reward and are to be avoided. Mason likewise speaks of not playing upon the child’s natural inclination to best his schoolfellow or to look good in the eyes of others. She speaks of the use of “prizes, praise, place, success, distinction, whether in games or examinations” (Formation of Character, p. 124) as government through the child’s desires and says that the schoolboy thus educated will have a crude character and “develops into a person, devoid of intelligent curiosity, who hates reading, and shirks the labour of thought” (Ibid., p. 125).

Montessori says that children learn best when they have control (principle 2) and when they are interested in what they are learning (principle 3; Lillard p. 29) and find meaning in it (p. 50). She rejects the controlling nature of her society and says of her schools that: “‘These children have free choice all day long'” (as quoted by Lillard, p. 80). It should be noted that this this not an unlimited choice, however, but choice within certain parameters. Lillard speaks of a “sense of control” (p. 84) and to some degree this is what Montessori’s approach gives. Too much choice can also be debilitating (p. 93). Children in Montessori schools are given access to certain materials which have been carefully selected for them according to their abilities. Among the things a given child has access to, he may choose what he wants to use, but he is to use these materials only in the prescribed ways and without disturbing the other children (p. 332).

For Mason, the core principle is that we must not trespass upon the personality of the child in manipulative ways. We cannot, for instance, say things like, “If you love mommy, you will do your math worksheet.” Mason’s fourth principle says that one must not “encroach” upon the child’s personality “by the direct use of fear or love, suggestion or influence, or by undue play upon any one natural desire.” Her fifth principle states what methods we may use which she defines as “the atmosphere of environment, the discipline of habit, and the presentation of living ideas.” [17] She clearly here rejects the degree of control and even manipulation imposed by her society. She seems less invested in giving the child free choice — in her approach children have a common curriculum though they all get different things from it.

While both women speak of interest as being a factor in education, they do so in very different ways. For Mason it is not the child’s individual interests which are considered. The material itself is assumed to be interesting and the child is believed to be born with an innate desire for knowledge so that he will be attracted to what is given him. Though Mason speaks of “first-born affinities” (principle 12), her curriculum is a common one. Each child reads the same books or views the same art. His individuality is expressed in how he relates to what is given. This is the meaning of her maxim: “Education is the Science of Relations” (principle 12). Each will form his own relationships with the material. Though some may have unique and particularly strong interests, Mason cautions against catering to these as they lead to eccentricity. She argues instead for a broad, well-rounded curriculum (principle 13b) for all students regardless of their particular interests.

For Montessori all motivation is intrinsic, that is, it comes from within the child. As Lillard explains, she distinguishes two kinds of interest, general and personal. The former, as its name suggests, is shared by most people while the latter is personal and includes things like hobbies (Lillard, p. 114). Personal interests tend to come at certain ages known as “sensitive periods” (pp. 122-23). There are also periods when the child is more sensitive or receptive to learning more universal concepts like language and math (p. 126). While there is a common process in Montessori education, the child is allowed to choose his daily activities and to pursue individual interests as they arise. “The Elementary child invests a great deal of time researching and writing about topics of personal interest” (p. 326). For older children, “Going Out trips” (something like field trips) emerge from personal interests (pp. 253, 327).

Though it is assumed that there is a general interest which all children share, much effort in a Montessori education seems to go into generating children’s interest in what is taught. Lessons are “made interesting via connections to other aspects of the world and curriculum, hands-on activities, and personal involvement” (Lillard, p. 135). Note the language used: Lessons are made interesting. This is in contrast to Mason’s approach which assumes that lessons are inherently interesting. There is a much greater role for the teacher here (see below). She connects material to the child’s interests (p. 150) and even she herself must be interesting! (p. 141)

Facts and Contextualization

Montessori’s sixth principle is “that learning situated in meaningful contexts is often deeper and richer than learning in abstract contexts” (Lillard, p. 29). Facts are not presented without some context for, in Montessori’s words: “‘The mind of the child . . . is not satisfied with the mere collection of facts; he tries to discover their causes'” (as quoted in Lillard, p. 271).

Again there is a rejection of the common practice of her day here. Both Mason and Montessori reacted against a factory-like model which saw the child as an empty vessel into which facts could be poured. In their day, as in ours, school subjects were often disconnected — one teaches history and another science and another Latin. The result is that learning becomes very compartmentalized. Both women sought connections across academic disciplines, though again there are differences in how they went about it.

For Montessori there was the overarching framework of the Five Great Lessons to which the whole curriculum was tied. Each year the child would be brought back to these Lessons so that there would be a structure both across disciplines and throughout his academic career (Lillard, pp. 130-31). The structure of Montessori schools also supports connections. Rather than having multiple teachers every year, the child is in the same classroom with the same teacher for three years. This provides continuity. The curriculum itself was devised by one person, Maria Montessori, and is applied in all Montessori schools. This “lends Montessori education a remarkably high degree of rationality and coherence . . . An advantage resulting from having a single person develop the entire curriculum across topics and age span is that knowledge is connected” (p. 235).

Montessori’s “Going Out Trips” are one way that contextualization is provided. “‘Let us take the child out,'” she said, “‘to show him real things instead of making objects which represent ideas and closing them in cupboards'” (as quoted by Lillard, p. 252; cf. p. 327). Inside the classroom, contextualization can be seen in the study of vocabulary and spelling. Words are not learned in an abstract way in lists and from workbooks but “Montessori children learn words they personally need to know, because they misspelled them in a report or other writing . . . not just the spelling and vocabulary, but all facts and relationships, are learned at the point of need” (Lillard, p. 240).

Mason likewise spurns traditional spelling tests and teaches such things in the context of real writing. In her approach spelling and vocabulary are taught through the reading of “living” books and through copywork and later dictation of passages from such books. Mason’s 11th principle instructs that “facts are not [to be] presented without their informing ideas.” ” Knowledge,” she says, “should be communicated in well-chosen language, because his attention responds naturally to what is conveyed in literary form” (principle 13c).

Though both reject the memorization of facts for their own sake and argue for contextual learning, there is a fundamental difference in how they view these contexts. For Montessori, the emphasis is more on practical, real-world contexts while for Mason the context is primarily intellectual — facts are enclosed, if you will, in ideas which are presented in a literary format and are communicated from mind to mind (though for some subjects such as geography she may also have understood “context” more concretely).

The Teacher’s Role

When we look at the role of the teacher, we again find that both women reject the common practice of their day in which the teacher was the font of knowledge, lecturing and spewing out facts and information that the child was expected to take in. When the child is an empty vessel, it is the teacher who pours forth knowledge and the vessel simply receives. If we view the child as more than a vessel, we must ask what his role in his own education is and what is left for the teacher to do.

For Mason, the role of the teacher is to select good materials and to lay them before the child. This is often referred to as “spreading the feast.” Unlike Unschooling in which it is assumed that the child can select what is best for him, the role of the teacher in a Charlotte Mason education is a vital one, but yet it is less than we are perhaps used to. In a Charlotte Mason education learning happens when the child takes in what is put before him (principle 9), admitting some ideas and rejecting others (principle 19), through the help of “the Divine Spirit” (principle 20). The child makes his own connections with the material before him (principle 12).

For Montessori, the main role of the teacher is to create the proper environment for learning. In Lillard’s words, “particular forms of adult interaction are associated with more optimal child outcomes” (Lillard, p. 29). Specifically, adults provide clear limits or boundaries within which children are free (pp. 32-33). These limits are changing as the child’s needs and abilities change so the teacher must be observant and responsive (p. 34). In a Montessori education learning happens when the child responds to his environment. It is not through the teacher’s words (p. 196) but through the materials he is exposed to in his environment that the child learns (p. 148).

Yet there is a fairly large role for the teacher here. In contrast to Mason’s model, the teacher often makes connections for the student (Lillard, pp. 115, 146). She must be interesting (p. 141) and model interest to the child (p. 131). She herself must be a generalist (p. 146). Though her delivery of information may be somewhat personalized, as in the telling of the Five Great Lessons, the curriculum itself is independent of the teacher, being originally prescribed by Montessori herself (p. 235). In Montessori’s words, “‘The teacher’s task is not to talk, but to prepare and arrange a series of motives for cultural activity in a special environment made for the child'” (as quoted in Lillard, p. 255).

Assimilating Knowledge

We have seen that in a Charlotte Mason education the child makes his own connections while in a Montessori education the teacher makes these connections or at least guides the child in making them. We may ask as well how the child assimilates material, learning it and making it his own. Both women would say that children do not learn simply by being told information.

In a Charlotte Mason education, the child narrates what he has read (or what has been read to him). Mason believed that “knowledge is not assimilated until it is reproduced” (principle 14). It is through the process of verbalizing (or writing) a version of what he has read that he “digests” the material.

For Montessori, children learn by watching and doing (Lillard, p. 198). Imitation plays a large role in their education. Montessori placed a strong emphasis on peer interaction. One way this happens is when older children tutor younger ones (remember that Montessori classrooms include a range of ages). With regard to the older child, the one in the role of the tutor, Montessori says, “‘teaching helps him to understand what he knows even better than before. He has to analyze and rearrange his little store of knowledge so he can pass it on'” (as quoted by Lillard, p. 209). The principle behind this is the same as in Mason’s narration, though narration for Mason happened after every reading, multiple times a day whereas the Montessori-educated child only tutors his fellows occasionally.

Environment or Atmosphere

As we have seen, for Montessori the role of the teacher is largely to create an environment in which learning can happen. This concept of environment may sound a lot like the atmosphere which Mason speaks of in her sixth principle (“education is an atmosphere . . .”). However, there are some distinct differences between the environment of Montessori and the atmosphere of Mason.

For Montessori, the proper environment is essential to children’s healthy psychological development (Lillard, p. 107). Environment is “carefully prepared” (p. 91) and always under the adult’s control (p. 272). Order, both in the physical environment and conceptually, is essential (principle 8; p. 33). This order, it should be noted, applies to the things in the environment. The child is free to make use of his time as he wishes, within broad parameters (p. 292). But the classroom is kept orderly, with everything in its place, and the materials are to be used in only the prescribed ways (p. 300). It is clear when Montessori speaks of such a controlled orderly environment that she is talking primarily about the classroom. Older children may also venture out to work on a small farm, “a protected yet real-world context” (p. 254) or the like as part of their education. The purpose of all this order is so that the child may “develop an appreciation of precision” through the “articles and routines” of the “artificial environment” (p. 304). “‘The underlying structure and order of the universe must be reflected in the classroom if the child is to internalize it, and thus build his own mental order and intelligence'” (quoting Paula Polk Lillard, in Lillard p. 309).

In contrast, Mason says that: “When we say that ‘education is an atmosphere,‘ we do not mean that a child should be isolated in what may be called a ‘child-environment’ especially adapted and prepared” (principle 6). This seems to be specifically a rejection of Montessori-like environments which Mason saw as artificial. “It stultifies a child,” Mason says, “to bring down his world to the child’s level” as Montessori does with her child-sized implements. Instead Mason aims for a “natural home atmosphere” where the child may “live freely among his proper conditions.” In elucidating this principle, Mason speaks of the relationships the child has both with his family — “how he shares household ways with his mother, romps with his father, is teased by his brothers and petted by his sisters” (Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 96) — and with other members of society, both “his betters” but also the “cook and housemaid, blacksmith and joiner” (Ibid., p. 97). Atmosphere is above all “the thought-environment of the child, from which he derives those enduring ideas which express themselves as a life-long ‘appetency’ towards things sordid or things lovely, things earthly or divine” (Parents and Children, p. 37). Such an atmosphere is capable of inspiring “habits of gentleness, courtesy, kindness, candour, [and] respect for other people” (Home Education, p. 137). It is “the air [the child] lives in and must grow by” (Ibid.).


As we near the end of our comparison, it seems fitting to discuss the goal of education as each woman saw it. One’s goal will reflect and be influenced by one’s principles so as we look at goals we can begin to draw together some of the principles that inform each philosophy.

For Montessori, the purpose of education is for the child to “normalize” (Lillard, p. 112), that is, for optimal development to occur so that he will be a normal, psychologically healthy person (p. 107). Normalization includes making good, constructive choices (pp. 95, 112). “[D]eviations and misbehaviors go by the wayside” and children “become kinder and more interested in work” (p. 102). They learn to self-regulate, to concentrate and to avoid impulsivity (p. 103). Over time they are able to have more and more freedom until ultimately they achieve independence.

Every child has the potential for right development. He is biologically programmed to develop (Lillard, p. 126) as he adapts to his environment (p. 342). We can see in this the importance of environment in the Montessori system and why the main role of the teacher is in constructing the environment and helping the child to interact with it in appropriate ways. We can also see the emphasis on the physical. Because education is about the child interacting with his environment, the cultivation of the senses, through which he perceives his environment, is very important as is the hands-on element. It is through physical action that he first interacts with his environment. The intellectual follows the physical.

Almost every philosophy of education involves goals on two levels, for the individual and for the society. As we have seen, for Montessori the goal for the individual is that he develop properly. But she also speaks to the benefit of the society as a whole: “‘Our principal concern must be to educate humanity — the human beings of all nations — in order to guide it toward seeking common goals . . . The efforts of science must be concentrated on [the child], because he is the source of and the key to the riddles of humanity.'” (as quoted by Lillard, pp. 345-46). The larger goal, then, is to educate humanity for the common good. Living as she did in the wake of World War I, Montessori’s concern was no less than world peace — a large goal indeed. Like many of her time she believed that education was the key to preventing future devastating wars (“Montessori’s Message of Peace through Education,” Age of Montessori).

Mason also has goals for the individual and the larger society though the individual takes precedence [18]. We begin to find the goal of education hinted at in her 20 Principles. Principle 19 says that children’s “chief responsibility which rests on them as persons is the acceptance or rejection of ideas.” In other words, one goal of education is for children to gain the wisdom to know which ideas to let in and which to reject. Principle 12 tells us that  “Education is the Science of Relations” and speaks of the need for the child to form as many relationships as possible. We might say that they are to let in as many good ideas as possible. Mason herself expressed the goal of education thus: “The question is not,––how much does the youth know? when he has finished his education––but how much does he care? and about how many orders of things does he care? In fact, how large is the room in which he finds his feet set? and, therefore, how full is the life he has before him?” (School Education, pp. 170-71). [19] In this idea of the wide room, we find the reason for Mason’s insistence on a broad education. If the child is to make as many relations as possible, he must have a broad exposure. The ultimate goal for the individual is not purely utilitarian but that the individual have fulness of life: “how good it would be if we could devise an education which should be not only serviceable in making a living, but should enable young people to realise, use, and enjoy fulness of life!” (Formation of Character, p. 296). This concern Mason locates firmly in a biblical understanding of the person and his spiritual needs: “As for his own use, what he should be in and for himself, why, what matter? Because, say we, if we fit him to earn his living we fit him also to be of service to the world and what better can we do for him personally? We forget that it is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God shall man live,––whether it be spoken in the way of some truth of religion, poem, picture, scientific discovery, or literary expression; by these things men live and in all such is the life of the spirit. The spiritual life requires the food of ideas for its daily bread.” (Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 125).

Summing Up

If you were to print out this post, you would see that it is almost 12 pages long (not including footnotes!). That’s a lot to have thrown at you. If I had to sum up the differences and similarities we have seen between the two women, I would say this:

Both Maria Montessori and Charlotte Mason reject the idea prevalent in their day that the child is an empty vessel into which information can be poured with no concern for the individual’s personhood or uniqueness. They reject as well any kind of direct manipulation in education as through the use of extrinsic motivations.

In broad strokes, the two women have similar approaches to education. Both see the role of the teacher in providing what is needed for education and trust that the child himself is equipped to make use of what is given him.

Yet there is a profound difference in their philosophies. Maria Montessori treats the child as a physical being who is educated first and foremost through his responses to a carefully controlled physical environment. Charlotte Mason assumes the child is a “spiritual organism” who is educated by the ideas — spiritual/intellectual things — to which he is exposed.

As we bring this long post to a close, I have a few smaller topics I have not had time to address but will save for additional posts. One will look at Mason’s criticisms of Montessori and one will look at a few other smaller areas of disagreement between the two including their views of fantasy, books, and discipline, and their use of time in the classroom.


[1] To find those posts go to this page on reformed theology and education and scroll way down to the developmental psychology section.

[2] See for instance Charlotte Mason. “The Montessori System,” The Parents Review (1915) pp; 30-35 as transcribed by Charlotte Mason Poetry (April 10, 2018). In modern times, I have no idea if Montessori educators ever discuss Mason’s philosophy. Since Mason is less well known, especially beyond homeschooling circles, I doubt it is as frequent a topic of conversation.

[3] Just as God’s law cannot be entirely summed up by the Ten Commandments, so Mason’s philosophy cannot be entirely contained in her 20 principles. Nonetheless, she did give us these principles so they are a useful starting place for understanding her ideas. You can find them conveniently laid out in the beginning of each of the six volumes of her Home Education series as well as on Ambleside Online here. (In truth, they were not originally 20 but after some revisions, that is how they ended up.)

[4] While Mason herself boiled down her philosophy to a number of principles, Montessori did not (as far as I know). Montessori’s ideas have been summed up in various ways by others. The list I am using is Lillard’s and can also be found online here.

[5] I discussed Mason’s “gospel principles,” as she calls them, in this post.

[6] Though the words are Lillard’s and not Montessori’s, it is interesting to note that the child is referred to as an “organism” multiple times (Lillard, pp. 33, 122). This would seem to highlight the emphasis on the physical. He is an “organism” but not as Mason would have it “a spiritual organism.”

[7] I discuss the interplay of the intellectual and the spiritual in Mason’s philosophy in this post.

[8] A Montessori education really begins at birth while Mason does not begin formal education until age 6. Until that time children should have freedom. In her words: “certainly, no child under six should go to school unless with full freedom to run or squat or lie face downwards if the mood seize him” [Charlotte Mason. “The Montessori System,” The Parents Review (1915) pp; 30-35 as transcribed by Charlotte Mason Poetry (April 10, 2018)]. In her first volume, Home Education, Mason encourages some degree of hands-on activity for younger children, saying, for instance, that they should all be well acquainted with mud and sand and the like. Mason also had children learning to write do some hands-on activities such as tracing letters in sand. We have to remember as well that, though this seems very basic to us, in their day it was a bit revolutionary. Any amount of hands-on was a new concept. Just as Mason includes more hands-on education than she is often given credit for, particularly in the early years, so Montessori also includes more books as the child progresses while still maintaining that movement precedes cognition. We can say three things then: (1) both Montessori and Mason seems to have introduced more hands-on activity for young children than was generally accepted at the time; (2) it is hard to compare what they did in early childhood, before age 6, as Mason’s education did not cover those years; and (3) nonetheless, Montessori’s approach is more hands-on than Mason’s and continues to emphasize the physical element as the child grows.

[9] It is easy for us, in a day when manipulatives for math and other subjects are standard, to take this for granted. In Montessori’s own day, the use of such things was quite revolutionary. In fact, much of what we know today in early education comes from Montessori, even such basic things as child-sized chairs and tables.

[10] On this point I disagree with Mason. I believe she goes much beyond reformed theology in her assessment of the ability of the child, apart from saving grace, to choose and do good. I have discussed this issue at length; see this post and this one.

[11] By “materialistic” here I mean that she considers the physical world only and does not address the child’s spiritual nature.

[12] I will discuss each woman’s approach to discipline in a subsequent post.

[13] See this post. In modern times, it is the unschooling movement which best reflects Rousseau’s beliefs.

[14] Mason uses this analogy of food in principles 8 and 9 and expands upon it in her other writings.

[15] For some discussion of stages in CM versus classical education see this post.

[16] Mason’s criticisms of Montessori will be discussed in an upcoming post.

[17] For Mason these are her “gospel principles” on which she founds her philosophy. See note 5 above.

[18] My own opinion is that in her sixth volume, which was written after WWI, Mason, like many of her contemporaries, went into a bit of a tail-spin and began to see education more as the solution to the world’s problems. I don’t think this was as large a theme in her earlier work. See this post for a little more on that.

[19] I find that “caring” tends to be used in a slightly different sense in modern contexts, as when we talk of caring for the environment. I understand Mason here to be speaking simply of the relations one forms. This may of course lead to more tangible ways of caring such as environmentalism but I do not think this is her primary intention.

Myth: Charlotte Mason is Interest-Led

As more and more people turn to homeschooling and as a number of them are also drawn to Charlotte Mason’s methods, one of the biggest misconceptions I see is the idea that a Charlotte Mason education is interest-led and/or child-centered. It is not. But that does not mean that there is no place in it for interest or for the individuality of the child to come through.

I think it is helpful in discussing this point to compare CM with Unschooling INSERT LINKwhich is perhaps the most interest-led, child-centered modern approach out there. Unschooling says that the child will naturally gravitate toward what is right for him, toward what he needs, and that we should follow his lead in all areas. If he wants to study turtles, we go to the library and gets books on turtles and go to the local pond and maybe even get a pet turtle. If he needs to learn fractions, he will at some point also discover that need himself and ask to learn about fractions.

Charlotte Mason, on the other hand, said that children will not necessarily be drawn to what is best for them. In fact, if left to their own devices, it is quite likely they will choose the intellectual equivalent of junk food. The main role for the teacher in a CM education is to spread a diverse and wholesome intellectual feast (CM herself used the food analogy and I think it is a very helpful one). She believed all children need a broad education covering a wide range of subjects. So in a CM school all the children would be exposed to the same materials — living books, art, music, etc. The curriculum is not determined by their individual interests.

That does not mean that the material is not interesting to them. CM did think interest was important but she saw the material itself as being inherently interesting. She believed children would have a natural appetite for knowledge. I believe this idea was rooted in her Christian faith which said that all knowledge comes from God. It is His general revelation to us and should naturally be attractive.

The individuality of the child comes through in a CM education not in the curriculum but in the response to it. The teacher spreads the wholesome, varied feast, but each child takes from it what he is able. One child may latch onto one idea and another to another one. As they learn, they build their own unique relationships with what is set before them. That is why we do narration. Traditional reading comprehension questions ask the child to parrot back what the adult thinks is important. Narration asks the child what he got from his reading and values his contribution even if it is not what an adult would think is important.

Charlotte Mason FAQs

This document is a work in progress. If you have other questions or other resources to suggest, please comment below or contact me.

What is the Charlotte Mason approach to education? How can I learn more about it?

For a brief introduction, see this post introducing CM and her principles.

I recommend everyone read CM’s own writings: CM’s 20 Principles and her 6-volume Home Education series (there are also many good new published editions of her books if you like a hard copy)

Books about the CM approach:

A Charlotte Mason Companion by Karen Andreola

A Charlotte Mason Education by Catherine Levison

For the Children’s Sake by Susan Schaeffer Macaulay

Where should I start reading CM’s volumes?

CM wrote 6 volumes. Numbers 4 and 5 are a little different and can probably be skipped in the first go through. The big debate is usually whether to start with volume 1 or volume 6. The argument for the latter is that because it was written last it is the most complete version of her philosophy. Personally, I think her emphasis had changed by the time she wrote it so it is not my favorite. My general suggestions would be to start with volume 6 if you have older kids but with volume 1 if you have elementary aged kids. Even better start with Brandi’s Start Here guide at Afterthoughts blog which will take you through topically. It is great for study groups too.

Is a Charlotte Mason education a good fit for my child? Can CM work for my child with learning challenges? Will it work for my visual/auditory/kinetic learner? What about a child with dyslexia, autism, . . . ?

The answer to all these question is : Yes! Though is is heavy on books, a Charlotte Mason does incorporate different learning styles. More importantly, it views each child as a unique and valuable person who deserves a rich and varied education. It can be flexible as well — children who can’t read or write well can listen to their books and narrate orally. This is not my area of expertise but here are some great resources:

“Dyslexia: Our Homeschool Story,” from Sabbath Mood Homeschool — This site is a wonderful resource for living science books and now the author shares a bit about homeschooling her dyslexic son using CM’s methods. A favorite quote:

“On the contrary, by homeschooling, he got a one-on-one education tailored to his level in all areas. And by using Charlotte Mason’s philosophy, he had a feast laid before him. An accessible feast, but not one that was dumbed down.”

Another great, but older, resource is Aut-2B-Home in Carolina, a blog chronicling one mom’s journey using the CM method with her autistic daughter.

A Delectable Education also has episodes on CM and Special Needs and CM and Dyslexia

Curriculum questions: What curriculum should I use? Is ….. curriculum CM? How do I put together my own curriculum?

There are lots of CM resources out there these days and even more than claim to be CM and/or CM-inspired. This is a chart I put together to get you started. It lists tons of CM curricula and tells you how CM they are and what their religious affiliation is. It will help you narrow down your choices and also contains links to find out a little more about each one.

CM, CM-Inspired, and CM-Adaptable Curricula

Of course, you don’t need to buy an all-in-one CM curriculum. You can use CM’s methods by completely putting together your own things. In fact, the approach lends itself fairly well to that. How do you begin? Check out:

Getting Started with a CM Education

How do I transition to CM if I have been using another method?

If you are looking for a more gradual transition from another homeschooling approach to CM, check out these posts:

How to Switch to Charlotte Mason Homeschooling by Sonya Shafer

Getting Started with a CM Education

What is a living book? What is twaddle?

Living books are the core of a CM education. Living books are the nutritious food of the mind. They are written in a literary way and contain ideas which CM called the food of the mind. Twaddle is a word CM herself used for books which are not living but are basically the junk food of the book world. Check out these posts on living books for more:

Living Books and Language Arts in a CM Education (link coming soon)

Myth: Twaddle and Light Reading are the Same Thing by Lizzie Smith

What is a Living Book? by Brandi Vencel

What a Living Book Sounds Like by Sonya Shafer

Can you recommend a good living book on . . . ?

There are lots of great resources out there for finding living books on every subject imaginable. Over time you may develop your own list of favorite authors. Until then, check out these resources:

Truthquest history guides are very dense bibliographies. They are not cheap but IMO are well worth the cost. We used them for a number of years. Their only drawback is that they are so thorough you end up feeling like you need to be covering every little subject. Don’t. You need to be discriminating.

Christine Miller’s All Through the Ages is a one volume guide to good books on history and geography. I found that not all the selections were the most living but it is still a great resource.

There are many people who have published lists on living books online.

You can find all my booklists here: history, science/nature, fiction/literature, and other subjects.

Sabbath Mood Homeschool has lots of great lists for science.

Simply Charlotte Mason has a bookfinder function.

Of course many of the CM curricula use good, living books and even if you don’t use their whole curriculum you can often see the books they use online. Check out Simply Charlotte Mason, Ambleside Online, and Sonlight (Sonlight is not a CM curriculum but does have lots of good lists available) for their lists.

Heritage History has lots of older books in a digital format. Most can be downloaded for free.

Literature by Grade is a nice, short list for fiction from Charlotte Mason Home.

And don’t forget the power of your local library. I have often found books by doing a subject search on my library’s system and sorting it to see the oldest books first. I then check out a number of the older books, skim them, and keep the ones that seem good.

How long should lessons be? What is meant by short lessons?

This varies by age and experience Brandy Vencel has a good article on it with some specifics: “What Did Charlotte Mason mean by ‘Short Lessons’?”

“How to Finish Lessons by Lunch” by Sonya Shafer also contains some useful timetables for comparison

How much should my kids be reading?

There are various answers to this question. Some go by page count and some by time. I have also heard that words per page in CM’s day are not the same as in ours (there were fewer words per page in older books) so we need to take that into account.

“How Fast Do We Read Books in a CM Education?” from Juniper Pines

“Scheduling Books and Pages” — a chart from Wildflowers and Marbles

“A Schedule vs Page Counts” from Sabbath Mood Homeschool

Language arts questions: What about spelling? Why doesn’t CM teach grammar?

It is a myth that CM does not teach grammar or writing in the early years. Her method does work on these things but does so in non-traditional ways. We can think of language arts as a group of skills: reading comprehension, writing, vocabulary, spelling, and grammar. All of these skills are taught form the beginning in a CM education using a group of tools: living books, narration, copywork, and prepared dictation. The general idea behind all language arts education in CM is that things are taught in the context of real, good writing. To find out how all this works and why it works, check out these resources:

Living Books and Language Arts in a CM Education

Know and Tell by Karen Glass — This is my new go-to resource for narration and more. Glass explains how and why narration works, how to transition to other kinds of writing, and why it is counter productive to add extras.

Charlotte Mason Language Arts from the Common Room

Spelling by Dictation,” by Art Middlekauff at Charlotte Mason Poetry — Middlekauff reveals that even in CM’s day, teachers were asking this question. He talks about the pitfalls of spelling curricula and how to do dictation in an effective way.

What is Copywork? by Jen Snow

How to Do Dictation

On Grammar by Brandi Vencel

The Natural Progression of Language Arts

My goal here is not recommend particular curricula but I am going to break that rule this time and point you to my favorite grammar curriculum which is KISS grammar. I like it because it takes a functional approach ro grammar which I think gels well with CM’s principle. Becase it can be hard to navugate, I created this getting started guide.

How do I do narration? Is it enough? What about reading comprehension?

Again, my go-to resource for all things narration is Know and Tell by Karen Glass. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. But to answer your other questions — yes, narration is enough. It takes the place of traditional reading comprehension in the curriculum. Reading comprehension questions pre-determine what should be learned. The adult decides what is important and asks the child directed questions. If the child can’t answer those questions, they fail. Narration asks “what did you get out of this?” It allows the child to show what they have learned, even if it is not what an adult would expect. Narration is actually a lot of work. It is composition, first orally and then in writing.

Other articles on narration:

What a Lesson Looks Like” by Jen Snow

The Method of Narration,” by Stanley Boardman in The Parents Review (1927), transcribed by Charlotte Mason Poetry

How do I teach writing, especially high school level essay writing and research papers?

Narration is the beginning of writing in a CM education. Nothing else is needed until high school and adding on extras can actually be counter-productive. Again, Know and Tell by Karen Glass is going to be your best resource on this. She discusses how to transition to other kinds of writing in high school.

What about high school science?

High school science is one of those points when many are tempted to abandon CM methods and to go to something more traditional. My own experience is that we tried this when my oldest was in 9th grade and discovered that it was boring and we really liked living books still. You can do high school science with the same methods you have always used — living books and narration. You may want to add labs (many colleges want to see at least a couple of years of lab science). We found various ways to get the labs in depending on the child and the year — a local coop that offered labs only, 2-day science lab intensives, and once even getting together with other local families and doing it ourselves. Some on the more purist end of the CM spectrum advocate for doing the major sciences simultaneously — so some biology, chemistry, and physics gets done every year for three or four years. I never tried this but find it a very intriguing approach.

Resources for high school science with living books:

Sabbath Mood Homeschool

My lists of living science books

How do I do artist/picture study? How do I do music?

This is not my area of expertise so I am going to go right into the resources:

“Artist Study, Picture Study” by Brandy Vencel

“How to do Picture Study” and “How to do Music Study” by Sonya Shafer

“Picture Study,” by Marjorie Evans from The Parents Review (1913), as transcribed at Charlotte Mason Poetry

Harmony Fine Arts: “Homeschool art and music plans for busy families”

Picture Study and Composer Study from Charlotte Mason Help

Musical Appreciation,” by Mrs. Howard Glover from The Parents Review (1922), as transcribed at Charlotte Mason Poetry

The Mason Jar #32: Megan Hoyt on Composer Study” (podcast)

What we study and why: fine arts (includes bibliography of resources at the end)

Why study poetry? And how?

Two points I love from the articles below: that exposure to poetry should start early and that poetry is meant to be heard.

“On the Teaching of Poetry to Children, ” by M.H. Simpson from The Parents Review (1908), as transcribed at Charlotte Mason Poetry

“On the Teaching of Poetry,” by M.A.W. from The Parents Review (1919), as transcribed at Charlotte Mason Poetry

What is nature study? Why do we do it and how?

Again I don’t feel like this is my area of expertise, but I will add a couple of tips that I learned over the years– Focus more on the nature and less on the walk. You don’t have to go far to do nature study and it is often a distraction. Having one environment that you come back to throughout the year and really get to know is invaluable. Nature Journaling does not have to be all about drawing. For those (like me) who are poor at it, a few quick sketches and more notes can make a far more satisfying journal.

For more advice from the experts, see:

“The Teaching of Nature Study,” by V.C. Curry from The Parents Review (1925), as transcribed at Charlotte Mason Poetry— This Parents Review article covers it all — nature lore, nature walks, and even science experiments. Because the last of these is not often discussed it is worth quoting here:

“We are apt to overestimate the value of experiment . . . But Miss Mason does not set Chemistry at naught. She would have us do all the experiments possible. But the experiment needing a well-equipped laboratory is probably something for the few, while the common-sense experiments are for the many—the answer to all the many whys of to-day. Why do we build a fire in a certain way, what is a vacuum, why do leaves fall in the autumn? I think practically all the experiments described in books we use can be done without more apparatus than can easily be obtained in an ordinary household—until the more specialised work of Forms 5 and 6 is taken.” In other words, do what experiments you can with household objects and materials until high school when they will begin “real” experiments.

“Nature Study,” by Christine Cooper from The Parents Review (1909), as transcribed at Charlotte Mason Poetry

“Nature Study,” by Agnes Drury from The Parents Review (1913), as transcribed at Charlotte Mason Poetry

Will CM prepare my child for college? How do CM-educated kids do in college?

The answer to the first question is a resounding yes. As I wrote this, I have two in college who were educated (mostly) with CM methods (as well as two in high school). Everyone — no matter how they were educated — has gaps and deficits in some ways. Homeschooled kids may be prone to certain ones, perhaps not being adept at navigating classroom discussions, but they will also have some advantages. They are often sued to managing their own work which serves them well. They are comfortable talking to adults. And perhaps most importantly they like learning and it shows (and so their professors like them). CM’s methods of listening to books read and narrating them back lends itself pretty well to the college lecture format. CM-educated kids are good at remembering what they have learned, even if they haven’t been taught traditional study methods. They also tend to be good writers who have their own voice.

CM speaks somewhere of the passports one needs in society to advance to the next level. That is how I have thought of the requirements our society imposes like SATs and AP tests. They are necessary so we obtain them but we don’t waste any extra time on them. My two oldest ever took standardized tests before they did the PSATs but they both did fine on the SATs with minimal prep and explanations.

Ambleside Online has a useful discussion of credit hours and how to figure them

What should early education look like?

Formal education does not begin until age 6 for Mason yet we may ask what we should be doing with our children before that age. Mason herself argues that young children should have freedom when she says: “certainly, no child under six should go to school unless with full freedom to run or squat or lie face downwards if the mood seize him” [Mason, “The Montessori System,” from The Parents Review (1915), as transcribed at Charlotte Mason Poetry].

Mason says that young children should spend a lot of time in nature — hours a day — and become acquainted (first-hand) with mud and sand and the like. See: “Nature in the Nursery,” by J.R. Smith from The Parents Review (1917), as transcribed at Charlotte Mason Poetry

We must also read to them: “Reading in the Nursery,” by V.M. Hood from The Parents Review (1917), as transcribed at Charlotte Mason Poetry

And begin to train them: “Babies’ Habits,” by A Grannie from The Parents Review (1917), as transcribed at Charlotte Mason Poetry

What is habit-training and how does it work? What did CM have to say about discipline?

When CM says that “education is . . a discipline” she is talking about habit-training. CM herself was not a parent. She was opposed to physical discipline. Habit-training is a proactive kind of training in which (hopefully) one nips bad habits in the bud or even prevents them before they can start. Done rightly, habit-training should produce a calm, orderly household in which parents don’t even feel the need to yell.

One side note I’d like to add: though CM aims to teach character through the use of living books featuring characters that display good character (or sometimes ones that display bad character and it comes back to haunt them), she was never targeted or preachy in how she did this. If you wait until your child has a certain problem — let’s say he’s having issues sharing — and then read books about siblings sharing he is going to be wise to you and it will backfire (or it will go completely over his head). These books are meant to form a kind of background to what we do, not to be targeted lessons when needed. Remember kids need to make their own connections; we can’t do it for them and they will resent it if we try.

Resources on habit-training the CM way:

What CM had to say about discipline

Formation of Character — CM’s fifth volume is a compilation of essays, many of which deal with habit-training.

Habit Formation 101″ by Brandy Vencel — be sure to click the links at the end for her other articles on this topic

“Why Nagging Doesn’t Work” by Sonya Shafer

How is CM different from Montessori/Waldorf/Classical/Unschooling? Can I combine CM with unit studies/interest-led learning/ Montessori/Classical etc.?

Let’s answer the second half of this one first. You can combine CM with anything you like. It is your homeschool and you can do what you want. Some approaches are going to be more compatible with CM than others. Sometimes there are fundamental philosophical disagreements underlying the differences in methodology that we see on the surface. It is possible you will undermine what CM if you mix things up too much. That is why is it quite helpful to understand the theory behind any approach to education, so you can understand what it is trying to do and not inadvertently short-circuit yourself.

Which brings us to the first part of the question. What are the differences between CM and various other philosophies of education? Here are some resources to check out:

CM relative to other philosophies of education

The Montessori System” and “The Three Educational Idylls,” by Charlotte Mason from The Parents Review (1915 & 1912 respectively), as transcribed at Charlotte Mason Poetry –CM and Maria Montessori were contemporaries. Mason was critical of Montessori’s methods.

Is CM Classical?

This gets asked so often it deserves its own answer. The short answer is: it depends who you ask. This is actually a big, on-going debate in CM circles. On one side Karen Glass in Consider This argued that CM should be included under the label classical. On the other, Art Middlekauff at Charlotte Mason Poetry has argued that CM is not classical. A large part of the battel centers on how we define classical. You can read my own take on how to define classical and if CM fits the bill here.

Charlotte Mason & Other Philosophies of Education

Charlotte Mason Relative to other Philosophies of Education

In trying to grasp Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education, it can be helpful to compare and contrast it to other popular approaches. 

CM and Unschooling

What they have in common: A view of the child as a person (CM’s 1st principle) and a belief in his or her innate ability to learn without having to be taught to think or to use or develop his/her faculties (principle 11). Education is (largely) self-education.

Where they differ: Unschooling assumes a natural goodness that enables the child to gravitate towards and choose what is good and needful for him. CM says that children have possibilities for good and evil and may not naturally choose what is good (principle 2). Therefore the work of the teacher is largely in placing good things before the child. 

Bottom line: Unschooling is child-led in the choice of materials but in CM the teacher chooses the materials. In both the child does the work of education, taking in what he can and will from what is before him. 

CM and Unit Studies:

The modern unit studies approach is akin to Herbartianism, a philosophy popular in CM’s day which she discusses and rejects in her 10th principle.

Where they differ:  In unit studies, the teacher groups subjects together and presents them to the child in that form. For example, in a unit on amphibians, a child might read Frog and Toad books for literature, study frogs and toads for science, studying the plagues of Egypt (and particularly the second one) for history, and count frogs for math. CM believed strongly in making connections across subject areas but thought that the child needed to make these connections for himself (principle 12) and not have them spoon-fed by the teacher. Unit studies essentially have the teacher doing the work that the child needs to be doing. CM often uses the analogy of a feast for education so we might say that unit studies pre-digest the student’s food for him. 

Furthermore, there is often an assumption behind unit studies that they will encourage education by making the subject matter fun and interesting for the child. CM believed that education is inherently interesting and that we do children a disservice when we try to dress it up and make it entertaining. Using the food analogy again, if we always hide the child’s veggies in his brownies, he never learns to appreciate the flavor of veggies in their own right. 

Bottom line: Some take CM’s avoidance of unit studies to an extreme and never allow subjects to naturally overlap but it is not anti-CM to allow one’s geography or artist study to be on the same period as one’s history. The important thing is not to make the connections for the child. 

CM and Montessori

CM and Montessori worked at the same time (though Mason was older). CM knew Montessori’s work and wrote against it. Because they reacted against some of the same societal trends, from our modern perspective they perhaps have more in common than they realized. For a much longer discussion, see CM vs Montessori, A Comparison of Principles.

Where they agreed: CM and Montessori both reject the Victorian models which precede them and in particular the idea of the child as a blank slate or an empty vessel that needs to be filled. They both rejected the use of rewards and grades as motivating factors in education (principle 4). They were both teachers who observed what went on in their classrooms and adjusted their educational models to fit what they saw working or not working. Both seek to some degree to educate the “whole child.” The role of the teacher also differs. In CM the teacher primarily selects materials and the child is trusted to incorporate or ingest them according to his innate abilities. In Montessori the teacher seems hands-off compared to traditional schools but in reality is quite involved in directing and shaping activity. 

Where they disagreed: Montessori saw her ideas a coming from science while Mason saw her unique contribution as coming from her “gospel principles.” Montessori’s use of environment is often compared to CM’s atmosphere (principle 6), but the two are fairly different. Montessori’s environment is very much a physical thing. For Mason an atmosphere is intellectual above all else. Montessori always begins with the physical which in her philosophy precedes the intellectual. Mason gives ideas, the food of the mind, to even young children. Montessori encourages long chunks of uninterrupted time (three hours) while Mason keeps lessons short to maintain attention. 

Bottom line:  In practice Montessori education often begins with young children while Mason’s did not begin formal education till age 6 so much of what they may have done in the early years may have been similar, or at least more similar than they are given credit for. A Montessori education also becomes more intellectual and book-based as the child ages so in that way again narrows the gap between them. But there are some fundamental differences in the theory behind these two that play out over time. Above all Mason is focused on the spiritual and intellectual and Montessori on the physical first and then the intellectual. 

CM and Waldorf

Waldorf is a philosophy of education created by Rudolf Steiner circa 1919. Though he would have overlapped with Mason, there is no indication (that I know of) that they knew each other’s work. 

What they have in common: An interest in educating the “whole child” and a large role for the arts. 

Where they differ: Like Montessori, Waldorf sees the physical as preceding the intellectual. Waldorf makes heavy use of imitation, especially in the early years, through the use of story songs and finger play which Mason does not seem to discuss or use at all.  Waldorf teaches subjects in chunks before moving on to the next topic. CM teaches many subjects at once, keeping each lesson short. Steiner believed that children develop – even evolve — through various stages from willing to feeling to thinking while Mason sees even young children as fully equipped to deal with intellectual matter. 

CM and Classical

There is some debate in CM circles as to whether Mason should be included under the heading “classical.” Karen Glass on one side argues that CM is classical while Art Middlekauff on the other argues she is not (see also my take on CM and classical here). Complicating the discussion is the fact that classical is a widely used term these days that does not have just one meaning. We will look today at CM relative to that variety of modern classical education evidenced by Dorothy Sayers’ “Lost Tools of Learning,” The Well-Trained Mind, and Douglas Wilson

What they have in common: A use of good books, especially older books and some techniques like narration. Both encourage the study of ancient languages and the reading of older sources like Plutarch. Both have some level of acceptance of the idea that there is a common body of knowledge which each child should be presented with. 

Where they differ:  Though they may overlap in books and methods, yet these things are often used or applied in different ways. CM tends to have more books going at once but to read them more slowly. Narration is done differently as well and towards different ends. Modern classical education is based on three stages — grammar, logic, and rhetoric — through which the child advances (see also: stages in classical and CM). Mason has nothing equivalent but believes even young children are equipped to take in ideas (principle 9) and not just facts. In fact, she argues very much against the memorization of facts for their own sake (principle 11). Though both accept that there is some core body of knowledge, classical presents the knowledge and expects all children to learn it while Mason presents knowledge but acknowledges that not every child will take in the same things but each will get what he can and what he needs from it.  In terms of goals, there is some degree of overlap but classical speaks more of inculcating virtues while Mason speaks more of the relations that the child forms with what he studies (principle 12). 

CM: Living Books and Language Arts

Previously I gave an overview of Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education through her 20 Principles. Today I’d like to look at one of the subjects that seems hardest to adjust to in a CM education: language arts. It can seem very counter-intuitive to those of us who were educated in more traditional ways and often one feels like one is not doing enough. 

Living Books

Let’s begin with one of the cornerstones of a Charlotte Mason education: “living books.” Living books are used in almost every subject from history and science to literature and art history. Because they form the basis of so much of what we do, we must begin by looking at these living books, what they are and why we use them.

As we saw, Mason’s 13th principle states that knowledge should be conveyed “in well-chosen language . . . in a literary form.”  The main criteria for living books, why Mason chose to use them, is that they convey ideas from one mind to another. Ideas are “caught” in this way from the authors of our books and become our own. One helpful analogy, which Mason herself uses, is that of food.  Ideas are the food of the mind (principle 8). Just as there are different kinds of foods, so there are different kinds of books. The best ones, these living books, are well-written and contain the vital ideas our minds need. Just like wholesome, tasty foods nourish our bodies, so they nourish our minds. Books which contain facts but in a dry, textbook-like form are more like dry fiber bars. There may be something in them but they are not enjoyable and we will not thrive on them. The junk food of the book world are what Mason calls “twaddle.” Twaddly books may be enjoyable; kids often like them, especially if they have not developed a taste for the finer things, but there is no real nutrition in them.

 Throughout her volumes, Mason expands upon the notion of living books and gives us some guidelines as to what are and aren’t living books and how to recognize them. 

  • Above all, living books are known by their effect; they are living because they give life to the mind.
  • Living books are well-written. They use fine language.
  • Living books have a literary style. This can be true whether they are fiction or non-fiction. They tell things in a narrative fashion.
  • Living books usually have only one author. Books written by committee are almost never living.
  • In general, books should be whole books, not abridged, excerpted, or children’s versions. (One notable exception is narrative versions of Sakespeare’s plays.)
  • Living books are written by someone who knows and loves their subject. 
  • Living books can be of any level from picture books to Shakespeare and Moby Dick
  • A helpful test for picture books can be whether the adult wants to read it, or to read it more than once. If you as the adult are sick of it quickly, it is probably not living. 
  • Living books are true. This applies to non-fiction, of course, but even fiction can convey truth through completely made-up stories. 
  • Living books are not preachy. If a moral lesson is very obvious to you, it probably is to your child as well. Messages that lie on the surface are not the same as ideas which must be dug out of books. Remember that reading and narrating living books is meant to be work. 
  • Living books are worth reading more than once. If you can read a book a second or a third time and get something new out of it, it is probably living.

Language Arts in a Charlotte Mason Education

Language arts itself involves a few different skills or knowledge areas including: reading comprehension, grammar, spelling, and writing. In a Charlotte Mason education, all these areas are covered through living books, narration (oral first, then written), and copy work and later prepared dictation. 

Living books are the key to CM language arts. Children who are educated with such books will develop a taste for and an innate recognition of what makes good language. As they read their school books, children slowly imbibe good writing. They come to understand harder and harder texts (reading comprehension) and they develop and feel for what makes good, well-written language (writing, grammar, and spelling).  As with many elements of a CM education, this is a gradual process that takes place over a number of years so that one may not see progress on a day-to-day or even a month-to-month basis but progress is being made. 

Narration in a Charlotte Mason education takes the place of reading comprehension and builds writing skills. Rather than asking a child to answer set questions about what he or she has read, narration lets the child tell what they have gotten from their reading. When we pose questions to a child, they fail if they don’t get the answers. They may actually have gotten quite a lot from the reading, it just wasn’t what we expected them to get. Narration lets the child tell what he has gotten in a positive way rather than measuring him by adult expectations of what is important. At times one may guide narration to some extent by asking open-ended questions or allow a child to narrate in other ways, eg. by drawing a picture or acting out a story, but the most basic form of narration is just to say “tell me what that was about.” Living books, again, are key. It is hard to narrate form bad books. Well-chosen books give the child some meat to dig their teeth into.

Narration is really composition, first oral composition and then as the child progresses, written composition. While some children love creative writing, many find it hard to know what to write. Narration gives the child a subject, because they are composing based on what they read, and takes off some of the pressure many feel when faced with a blank piece of paper. Narration is not easy. It is meant to be challenging and to require one to dig deep and to learn to put one’s thoughts together and to communicate them. One usually begins with oral narration and transitions to written after a few years. Oral narration never completely ceases, however, but continues alongside written narration. In the high school years, narrations can become more guided and a transition to other kinds of writing can occur. Karen Glass’s book Know and Tell is a wonderful resource for all narration questions and describes the process of transitioning to other kinds of writing. 

Young children begin copying short passages, at first even just a couple of words, and then move on to longer passages and then to prepared dictation. Again these passages may be taken from living books, either from their school books or from other good writing. As always, the idea behind the CM method is to provide language in context. Spelling in particular is very visual and prepared dictation teaches children to see words so as to be able to recognize if they are written correctly in their own writing. One helpful resource for how to do prepared dictation is Sonya Shafer’s video at Simply Charlotte Mason

Introducing Charlotte Mason & Her 20 Principles

The following is an edited version of a project I have been working on for a different forum. I thought it could also be worth sharing here.

Introducing Charlotte Mason

Charlotte Mason was a British educator who lived at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century (1842-1923). Her training was as a teacher. In working with students, she became frustrated with their lack of progress and retention of material and began to develop her own approach which blossomed into a full-blown philosophy of education. 

In her own day, Charlotte Mason established a teacher’s training college and many schools using her philosophy existed and were quite popular. She also ran a kind of correspondence program for those teaching their own children at home. Though her influence died out for a time, it saw a resurgence due to the modern homeschooling movement. Her work is preserved for us in a number of articles and shorter works and above all in her six-volume Home Education series. [1]

Though there is no doubt that Miss Mason both reacted to and made use of what had come before her, [2] she saw her unique contribution as being bound up in what she called her “gospel principles.” At the core of Mason’s philosophy are a respect for the child as a person and a belief in his or her ability to take in the good things which are presented to them. A Charlotte Mason education has been described as the spreading of an intellectual feast — an array of good, living books, fine art, and good music are put before the child and he takes in what he can and will. 

Charlotte Mason’s 20 Principles

Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education is encapsulated in her Twenty Principles. [3] These principles can be said to capture the spirit of a Charlotte Mason education. There is a natural progression among them as one principle leads into the next. Our goal today is simply to give an overview of the principles and to explain some of their logic. There is certainly much more that could be said (Charlotte herself took six long volumes to do so).

Charlotte Mason’s first principle is that “children are born persons.” This principle is first not just in order but in importance, forming the foundation of much of what follows. Though our tendency today is to see this principle as a statement of the child’s individuality and uniqueness (which might lead one to a more interest- or child-led philosophy of education), for Mason what this principle meant was that the child was not an empty vessel or a blank slate (popular conceptions at the time) but a fully formed human being sharing all the faculties and abilities of adults. A child, for instance, did not need to be taught to use his senses or to think. 

Charlotte Mason’s second principle says that the child has “possibilities for good and for evil.” This statement is a little more controversial. [4] Suffice it to say, Miss Mason believed that all children — even those her society labeled as inherently defective  — which would have included the children of the poor and illegitimate children — were able to make use of their faculties and to become educated. 

The third principle acknowledges the role of authority and obedience in the teacher-child (or parent-child) relationship, but it is quickly limited by the fourth principle which states that those in authority may not use any means at their disposal. They may not use children’s natural desires — for praise, for love, for success — against them as motivating tools. [5] 

Instead, the fifth principle tells us, we may only use three education instruments. These are summed in the maxim: “Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life.” She goes on to expand upon each of these in principles 6 through 8. “Education is an atmosphere  . . .”  is not about creating an environment but about allowing the child to live freely in a natural intellectual atmosphere. [3] At atmosphere may have physical manifestations in things like the artwork that is on the walls and the music that is playing but above all it is about a concern for truth, beauty, and goodness and a love of knowledge for its own sake.

“Education is  . . . a discipline . . . “ speaks to how children are trained. For Mason this is habit-training, a pro-active kind of discipline which seeks to shape the child’s character from an early age, one habit at a time. She eschews physical discipline and employs natural consequences with an emphasis on training and discipleship.

“Education is . . . a life” encapsulates the idea that children need intellectual food. For Mason ideas are the food of the mind. She expands upon this idea in the following principles. In principle 9, she tells us again that the child is not an empty vessel but that he is born with the ability to digest and assimilate intellectual food. In principle 10, she rejects a school popular in her day, the Herbartian school, which was something akin to modern unit studies, because it  essentially predigests the child’s intellectual food for him, making connections that he should make for himself and regurgitating knowledge in discrete chunks. In principle 11 she again states that the child is able to digest his own intellectual food — to assimilate ideas for himself. Knowledge, she says, must not be presented as isolated facts but in context. When we present knowledge to the child within the proper context, he is able to connect with it and to gain the knowledge for himself. Thus in principle 12, we find another famous CM maxim: “Education is the science of relations.” The goal of education is for the child to form relationships with as many things as he can. In order to facilitate this, principle 13 tells us, we much give him a diet that is plentiful and varied, a broad education. 

The latter part of principle 13 tells us that this knowledge must come in a literary form. Books may be fiction or non-fiction, easy or hard, but they must be well-written, living books which contain ideas.

The child takes in the knowledge that is in these living books and assimilates it. They do this by telling back, as principle 14 says. This is narration. In narration the child tells back, either orally or in writing, what they have read or heard. Narration is meant to be work and it is the child’s own work. It is how they “digest” their books, how they get knowledge and ideas from them. 

Principle 15 expresses again that all children are capable of doing this work. It adds that they should narrate after a single reading. Things should not be repeated for them. This builds the habit of attention. 

Principles 16 through 18 deal with the Way of Reason and the Way of the Will. To will, for Mason, is to chose and do that which one should do. It is the opposite of being wilful which is insisting on one’s own desires. For Mason one first accepts a proposition and then uses one’s Reason to defend and justify that proposition. This is why so many are led astray by their reason. The key is to let in the right ideas first and not to give free reign to reason which is fallen can justify evil things as well as good.

Principle 19 continues this thought, that it is so important what ideas and thoughts we let in. The responsibility of children as persons, Mason tells us, is to discern which thoughts to let in and which to exclude.

Finally, principle 20 tells us that children are not alone in this thing called education. Their intellectual life is not distinct from their spiritual life but there is a Divine Helper, God the Holy Spirit, that aids them and whom Mason elsewhere calls the Great Educator.

Looking for more? See this page for all by Charlotte Mason posts listed by topic.


[1] There have been a number of editions of this series, including some more recent, very well-done ones. They can also be found for free online at Ambleside Online

[2] There is some ongoing debate in CM circles as to whether her approach should be called “classical” or not. Personally I am of the “not classical” school as I discussed in this post.  

[3] There are some slight differences in the number and wording of these principles. You will notice differences in her earlier volumes, but it is customary now to speak of the 20 Principles. These can be found at the beginning of each of her six volumes and online at Ambleside Online

[4] To the best of my knowledge, I am the main holdout in the Charlotte Mason community arguing that when she wrote her second principle Charlotte really did mean that children are capable of both moral good and evil. I have discussed her theology extensively in a number of posts which can be found here.

[5] These are Mason’s “gospel principles.” Looking at the biblical book of Matthew she finds that we may not offend, despise, or hinder children. (Home Education, p. 12) 

[6] It is on this issue of an environment versus an atmosphere that Mason disagrees with her younger contemporary, Maria Montessori. I am planning a more extensive post in which I will discuss the similarities and differences between Mason and Montessori. 

Scientific Evidence for the Power of Fiction

Dear Reader,

Just a few random thoughts today from books I have been reading.

First from Virginia Woolf, a feminist writer of the 1920s:

“Fiction is likely to contain more truth than fact.” A Room of One’s Own (Leonard Woolf, 1957) p. 4

And Abigail Marsh, from a secular professor of psychology and neuroscience:

” . . . books are windows into the minds of the people who wrote them and the people who are written about. Fiction, in particular, represents what the psychologist Keith Oatley calls ‘the mind’s flight-simulator’ — a vehicle for exploring the rich mental and emotional landscapes of people, we have never met.

” . . . fiction enables us to become emotionally invested in the characters we encounter, to care about their plights and their fates.” The Fear Factor (Basic Books, 2017) pp. 243-44

Marsh goes on to argue that written fiction does this better than other media because it requires the use of the imagination in a way visual media do not. She cites studies which show that reading fiction increases people’s compassion and empathy and further says that:

“People who read fiction (but not nonfiction) are better at identifying complex and subtle emotions in others’ faces. And when subjects in one study were experimentally assigned to read a work of literary fiction, they reported increased empathetic concern for others even long after they had closed the book.” p. 245

If you are uncomfortable with these non-Christian sources — and even if you are not — I also highly recommend “Christians and Lit,” a recent episode of the Mortification of Spin podcast in which the hosts discuss the value of fiction, and give lots of good book recommendations.

Off to do some reading!


Charlotte Mason: the Intersection of Her Theology and Her Philosophy of Education

Dear Reader,

Note: I am developing something of a series on Charlotte Mason’s theology. You might also want to check out:

Charlotte Mason, Anglicanism, and You

Was Charlotte Mason Reformed?

Was Charlotte Mason Arminian?

Charlotte Mason’s Theology: The Scale How Meditations


I recently wrote on Charlotte Mason’s theology, and particularly her soteriology (i.e. theology of salvation) as delineated in her Scale How Meditations (edited by Benjamin Bernier,, 2011; see link above for that post). These meditations, which are on the first part of the Gospel of John, also highlight some interesting connections between Mason’s theology and her philosophy of education. Having read them, I have a new appreciation for how the one led to the other. Art Middlekauff at Charlotte Mason Poetry has also written recently on The Scale How Meditations [1]. He observes that “the Gospels were at the heart of her philosophy” and that “the key ideas of the Sunday meditations were none other than the key tenets of Mason’s philosophy of education.”

The question before us today is how Mason’s theology influenced her approach to education and how we, as reformed Christians who may not share her exact theology, can incorporate her educational ideas.

Mason’s Philosophy and Theology

The key theme that tuns through both Mason’s theology and her philosophy of education is that of ideas. Ideas for Mason are the stuff of education as well as  the beginning and end of faith.

If you know her educational philosophy, you will know that for Mason ideas are the food of the mind. In her motto “education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life,” ideas are the “life” part of the equation. They are living things which are passed from mind to mind  — often through “living” books but also through art and other media as well as personal contacts. Like food, ideas must be digested. In education this is usually done through the work of narration which requires the student to interact with what he has read (or heard or seen) in a unique and personal way. Thus a relationship is built with the material (“education is the science of relations”). The end goal is for the student to have relationships with as many things as possible.

All these elements we can see in Mason’s theology as well. We can look at the “food” of faith, how we digest the things of God, and what the end goal is.

Ideas as sustenance

For Mason, God in Christ is the source of “all that nourishes men in body, soul, and spirit” (p. 170). Just as our daily bread ultimately comes from Him, so too He is the source of the nourishment of our minds. And the mind, for Mason, feeds on ideas, ideas that are communicated through books and poetry and art and music. When discussing a Charlotte Mason education, we often say that she saw no distinction between sacred and secular, and here we find the justification for that claim: all is of God because it all ultimately comes from Him.

These ideas that we consume are powerful things. It is through ideas that we are “transformed by the renewing of our minds” (p. 35; cf. Rom. 12:2).

“We know that a great idea seizes hold of a man, has power to modify the tissues of the material organ by means of which he thinks, has power to alter the whole course of his life.” (p. 95)

Mason speaks of the power of ideas to alter the life and career of the poet, painter, and philanthropist, but also of their power in our spiritual life. For Mason, it is by acceptance of an idea that we are saved:

” . . . that master thought which should have the power to subdue the hearts of all mankind — the idea of Christ lifted up upon the cross, as presented to the soul of each man with overpowering and all subduing force by the intimate Spirit of our God . . .” (p. 95) 

Thus in both our intellectual and spiritual lives, it is the ideas we take in which nourish and transform us.

Ideas must be digested

As our physical food must be digested, so ideas must be incorporated into our being. This is an active process which requires some volition on our part. In education, the work of ingesting the ideas we get from our books (and art and music) is done through the process of narration. Karen Glass explains the value of narration:

“As the mind works on the material it has read or heard, and the child tells it back, the knowledge is being digested — becoming a part of the child’s own experience and self.” [2]

In our spiritual life, it is not enough to hear a sermon or to read a passage of Scripture, again we must do some work or the ideas we encounter will simply wash over us and their power will not be realized. This process Mason calls meditation:

“Indeed, this spiritual process [meditation] is analogous to that of digestion. It is not what we read or what we hear that sustains us, but what we appropriate; what we take home to our minds and ruminate upon, — reading a passage over and over, or dwelling, again and again upon a thought, rejoicing in a ‘fresh thought of God’ as a thing to be thankful for, a quickening influence to make us alive and active when a palsy of deadness and staleness  appears to be creeping over us. We all have a spiritual life to sustain and we all need the periodic nourishment of new, or newly put, thoughts of God.” (p. 36)

In Middlekauff’s words: “Here Mason explicitly equates meditation with “mental narration,” an act that is by definition an act of solitude. I like to call it “narration of the heart.”” [3]

We may note as well that for Mason this act of incorporating ideas through narration or meditation is a thing of the mind, not the emotions:

” . . . an idea received by the mind works itself out in the life, whereas a mere wave of emotion passes without a mark.” (p. 141)

” . . .we must believe with our understanding, with our reason; the things of religion must be received by the mind before they can be felt by the heart . . . ” (p. 142)

Ideas produce abundant life

So we see that ideas, properly digested, are the sustenance of one’s mental and spiritual life. We can extend the analogy further: just as bread gives life to the body so ideas give life to the mind. Mason connects the life-giving power of ideas to the full life which Christ promises His disciples when He says: “‘I am come that they might have life and that they might have it more abundantly.'” This abundant life is one of those now-and-not-yet things; it is fulfilled both in this world and in the next.

In this world, an abundant life, for Mason, is one filled with interests and relationships:

“It is not difficult to distinguish between ‘eternal’ life and that life of the hour with which men seek to full the void when the eternal life is not theirs. Eternal life is like the life of God, because it is the life of God. It is outgoing, generous, always giving, never grasping and seeking: nature and art, literature and history, all men every where, — these are its interests; these offer the wide field for its expansion.” (pp. 134-35)

The good things we create in this world do not pass away but are as “treasures” stored up for the next:

“No heroic impulse, no inspiring thought, no conception of beauty, no act of service to each other, no single thing instinct with the life of Christ, shall be lost; but all this ‘treasure laid up in Heaven will go to the fulfilling and enriching of the broader, deeper life.'” (p. 175)

Thus the good things of this life are continued into the next. Our resurrected life will also be characterized by the same things, by productive work and a variety of interests:

“We shall all hear the voice of the Son of man, and shall come forth, ‘they that have done good unto the resurrection of life’ to the fulfillment of all aspirations, the unlimited expansion of interests, to work, perhaps, which shall be without labour, and which shall accomplish its intent, to fullness of love and of light an [sic] of joy.” (p. 137)


Middlekauff sees The Scale How Meditations as the key to understanding Mason’s philosophy of education:

“But the links in the chain of Mason’s reasoning from the Scriptures to the volumes is not always self-evident. Why did Mason say that children are born persons? Why did she believe knowledge is so important? What makes nature study so special? We can guess at the answers when we guess at Mason’s sources. But in the Scale How Meditations, the guesswork is taken away. She reveals the core Scriptural principles from which the rest are drawn.” [4]

While we have by no means exhausted Mason’s thought in her Meditations, we have seen that ideas are a key concept which ties together her theology and her philosophy of education. There is little separation in her thought between the mind and the spirit, between the intellectual life and the religious life. The same processes are at work in both. The idea of Christ is for Mason necessary to salvation, but other ideas, while less vital,  are also spiritual in nature. They all come from God and they all nourish both mind and spirit.

There is a lot here to appeal to the reformed mind, but there are perhaps also some areas of concern. 

The role of God

One of the things that first attracted me to Mason’s philosophy was the role of God in it — we place truth before children but we have no power to make them accept it; that is His work. Mason’s 20th principles sum up her philosophy of education. The final one, one might say the culmination of them, reads as follows: 

“We allow no separation to grow up between the intellectual and ‘spiritual’ life of children, but teach them that the Divine Spirit has constant access to their spirits, and is their Continual Helper in all the interests, duties and joys of life.” [5]

Note that education here is the work of the “Divine Spirit” (i.e. the Holy Spirit) whom Mason elsewhere calls the Great Educator.

As we have seen, Mason in the Meditations ascribes power to man to will his own salvation. Yet in her educational philosophy, God is the prime Actor. I find this discrepancy a bit odd, but the important thing for our purposes is that Mason in her philosophy of education espouses a good reformed principle — that God is the Prime Mover and the source of knowledge

The role of sin

For any given subject we are trying to teach, we may expect some children to “get it” and some not to. Mason’s philosophy allows for individual variation in this acknowledging that not every child is going to take in every idea. Having said which, there are still going to be times when students just don’t seem to be learning much of anything or connecting with the material in any way. We see the same thing in our spiritual lives. Obviously not everyone accepts that one great idea, the idea of Christ, as Mason puts it.  So we may ask whose fault is it when people don’t “get it,” whether in the intellectual or the spiritual realm?

The blame for human failings can either fall on our environments, things external to our selves, or on the individual, things internal to the person. Under the category of environment, we may include other people, perhaps teachers or parents, or circumstances, a lack of access to the proper materials or to necessary information, for example. If we lay the blame on the person, we are speaking of more internal causes, things inherent to one’s nature.

Mason seems to place externally. If a child does not develop interests, it is the fault of the teacher and/or the educational program:

“When governess or nurse, aunt or uncle, even mother or father, fails to get hold of children, it is usually because he or she is a person of unsimple character.” (p. 21) [6]

The flip-side of this is to say that given the right education any child will develop in the ideal way. In the spiritual realm, we would say that if the gospel is just presented in the right way, if the person’s circumstances do not interfere, then they will come to faith which is indeed what Mason says:

“The reason why any soul of man is not subdued before the love of Christ is that the idea has never been presented at all or that the presentation has been poor and inadequate.” (p. 95)

What I don’t see in Mason, either in her theology or her philosophy, is a discussion of the effects of sin. I do not doubt that Mason believed in Original Sin — this is a point of discussion often in CM circles so I think it is worth noting — but Original Sin can mean many things in the many different Christian traditions [7]. The question before us is what goes wrong when someone doesn’t “digest” a good idea that they should have taken in. The reformed answer is that the fault lies in the individual whose nature has been corrupted by the effects of the Fall. Man no longer responds as he should to the things of God, whether those that relate directly to faith or those that are of a more peripheral nature. The cause of our failings is not external but internal. 

Here then we see a clear difference between Mason’s thought and traditional reformed theology. This lack of consideration for the effects fo the Fall is, I think, the major deficiency in Mason’s thought. [8]


In both her theology and her philosophy of education, Mason acknowledges the capacity of even the youngest children to respond to the things of God. Her first principle reads simply: “Children are born persons.” Mason does not withhold ideas, which as we have seen are the sustenance of the mind, even from young children. So too in her theology, she says, “no thought is too deep for any human being if it is only put in the right way” (p. 112). Since ideas are of God for Mason her offering of them even to young children and her confidence that they can accept them shows that she sees them as persons, as beings able to having a relationship with their Creator [9].

Man: body & soul, heart & mind

I am intrigued by Mason’s emphasis on the mind as paramount to both faith and learning. This is in sharp contrast to most modern approaches to education which focus very much on the physical. I am convinced that this emphasis in the latter comes from an evolutionary mindset that assumes only the material world and does not take into account the spiritual. With young children in particular, modern approaches emphasize things like “sensory-motor” learning in which everything is believed to be learned through bodily sensations and experiences. Mason does not ignore the hands-on element in her approach to education, but true knowledge, for her, comes through the mind. There may be temptation here to fall too far the other way and to discount the body altogether (this is the gnostic mistake), but I do not think Mason goes that far. 

As we have seen Mason emphasizes the role of the mind in faith. To believe for her is an act of the will and faith is an intellectual acceptance of an idea (though not without practical outcomes in one’s life). I am a little torn in how to understand this idea. On the one hand, there is much that can go wrong when faith comes from a very emotional place and I agree with Mason that what comes by “waves of emotion” (p. 141) will tend to pass quickly. On the other hand, I think when we separate the heart and the mind we make a false, unbiblical distinction. I have argued that the two are really one in biblical language. Though Mason does not talk much about the role of the emotions, I think we mischaracterize her if we take this to mean that she discounts them altogether. In truth her approach to education relies greatly on feeling as both the motivation for and the end of education. It is through interest that the child is first drawn in and producing relationships, making the child care, is the aim of education. These are perhaps not transitory emotions that sweep one away, but they are feelings, and so we may say the heart is not neglected in Mason’s philosophy. 

The Interplay of the Intellectual and Spiritual

For Mason man’s intellectual and spiritual lives are closely linked. Experientially, we often find this to be true. I think many believers have had the experience that studying some aspect of God’s Creation deepens their faith. Indeed, this is the purpose of general revelation, that we may know our Creator (cf. Rom. 1:20). [10] Yet we must also use some caution here. As with so many things in the Christian life we must be careful not to overcorrect. In this area the danger is that we exalt the intellectual to such a degree that it supplants the spiritual. Intellectual knowledge can easily become the primary goal and special revelation with its message of salvation is pushed to the background. This is, for example, what we see in Transcendentalism, an exaltation of general revelation (nature) as a source of knowledge but a dismissal of special revelation and with it the need for salvation.  


As we look at the big ideas or trends in Mason’s thought, overall I am impressed by how much lines up with reformed theology. There are a lot of potential pitfalls here, places where one can easily slide off too far in one direction or the other, but I do not think Mason does so.  She manages to steer a middle course, acknowledging man’s physical nature and his spiritual side, balancing the emotional and the intellectual, and incorporating both intellectual and spiritual knowledge. Her emphasis on the personhood of the child I find to be quite biblical. While I am less enamored of her (Arminian) theology, in her philosophy of education, Mason acknowledges God as the Great Educator and Prime Mover. He is the source of all knowledge and it is He, not the teacher and not even the student, who acts in the process of education. The one big flaw in Mason’s ideology is in her lack of acknowledgment of man’s sinful nature and its effects on his ability to discern good and to know. This omission is a big one and I don’t think we can ignore it. It has implications for how we educate that need to be worked through. 


[1] Middlekauff, Art. “The Story of the Scale How Meditations,Charlotte Mason Poetry (August 25, 2020).

[2] Karen Glass. Know and Tell (2018) p. 20. 

[3] Middlekauff, “The Story of . . .”

[4] Ibid.

[5] “CM’s 20 Principles,” Ambleside Online. These principles are also given at the beginning of most of the volumes of her home education series (there is some variation, especially in earlier volumes). 

[6] Being of “unsimple character” perhaps needs some explanation. Mason discusses this idea a bit. The short answer, as far as I understand it, would be that to be of simple character is to be single-minded in the good sense of having one (godly) devotion. 

[7] For some discussion of this, see this post on Original Sin. 

[8] Much debate has focused on Mason’s second principle which says that “[Children] are not born either good or bad, but with possibilities for good and for evil.” I have discussed this at length in previous posts so I will not rehash it here. See especially Was Charlotte Mason ReformedIs CM’s 2nd Principle Biblical (part 3) and Why Not Charlotte Mason. 

[9] For more on the biblical view of the child see this post

[10] That this is not the case for the non-elect is the fault of their fallen natures but does not negate the purpose of general revelation.