Posts Tagged ‘Philosophy of Education’

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.

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.

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). 

The Purpose of Man in the Purpose of Education

Dear Reader,

I have made the argument repeatedly here that our approach to education inherently says things about our view of man’s nature and purpose. Today I would like to nuance that a little.

I am inspired by a remark made on the Mortification of Spin podcast. In their episode on the Davenant Institute (December 30, 2020), the hosts were interviewing two of the men behind that school, Brad Littlejohn and Colin Redemer. I am not sure which of the two made the remark [1], but the gist of it is that when we make education utilitarian, we make people utilitarian. The speaker emphasized that, while most colleges and universities lure students in with promises that their degrees will lead to jobs and money, they proudly make no such claim but educate for education’s sake with no practical end in view.

There is a circular-ness here. On one hand, our views of man’s purpose will inform our approach to education. On the other, our approach to education will influence how we view ourselves and others. When we say “this school will enable you to get a good job that earns a good salary” we are sending the message that a graduate’s value is in his ability to earn. Even with a slightly different emphasis — if, for instance, a school stresses service or contributing to the greater good — there is still some implied utilitarian purpose. We are telling students that their value is in what they give back. And giving back is good. Serving others is good. But the flip side is that those who cannot contribute — the old, the young, the sick, the disabled — are devalued.

In younger years, the emphasis is not so much on money or productivity, but it still tends toward utilitarianism. More often than not, each age is just seen as preparation for the next. High schoolers are prepared for college, middle schoolers are prepared for high school, and so on down the line till even three and four-year-olds must be prepared for kindergarten. The message that we send to children is that their life and their value are somewhere in the future. It is a good instinct in them to rebel against this.

To avoid this, we must turn the thing on its head and ask first what message we wish to send. Is it that the one who earns most is the most valuable? Is it that your value hinges on what you can contribute? Or is it that each person is inherently valuable? That knowledge for its own sake is good?

In my own philosophy of education, I have argued that what we do in education is to put before children the things of God. Our goal, what we hope for, is the transformation of the mind which, theologically speaking, falls under what we call sanctification, the renewing of man’s fallen nature. I recognize as I say this that there is something utilitarian here. There is still an end goal we are working towards, albeit an intensely personal, internal one. Yet because it is ultimately God who works and not us, we cannot be results-oriented. Our motivation — as teachers and students — must be about love — love of knowledge, truth, goodness, and beauty; and love of God from whom all these flow. If in how we educate students we are communicating to them something about their worth let it be this: your worth is found in Christ in whom you live and move and have your being (Acts 17:28).


[1] I find it hard at times when listening to discern who is speaking.

Stages of Development in Classical and CM Education

sDear Reader,

I am in the midst of a mini-series on developmental psychology. My goal with this series is to evaluate the major trends and ideas within this field from a (reformed) Christian perspective with an eye to seeing how we can appropriately make use of the insights of these mostly secular scholars.

The previous posts in this mini-series are:

Having looked last time as Jean Piaget’s theory of the development of the child’s intellect and reasoning abilities, I would like today to look at how the stages he delineates line up with both the classical and Charlotte Mason philosophies of education.

To recap, Piaget distinguished four stages of development:

  • birth-age 2: the sensory-motor period in which the major goal is for children to learn object permanence, the idea that things which we cannot see still continue to exist
  • ages 2-7: the preoperational stage which is characterized by transductive thinking. Children in this stage see things as belonging only to one category. Thus one’s mother cannot also be a sister and the person who is taller is assumed to be older.
  • ages 7-11: the stage of concrete operations in which children begin to be able to do things in their heads. At this point we begin to see that our knowledge comes not solely from the things themselves but also from our logic and the images we construct in our heads.
  • ages 12-15: the stage of formal operations in which children begin to be able to think about thinking. At this point they can handle grammar which thinks about words and algebra which uses abstract concepts.

Beyond these stages Piaget saw no further growth in intellectual ability though one could still acquire new knowledge.

We do not typically associate a Charlotte Mason education with stages of development.  I would suggest, however, that there is at least one major stage distinction she does make, that between school-age children and pre-school age children. A Charlotte Mason education did not begin until age 6 or 7 and she did not expect children to do formal schoolwork or to narrate books that were read to them until that age. Over the course of their school career, children would advance in some ways, moving to harder books, beginning harder subjects like Plutarch, and trading copywork for dictation. She did not in any way describe these as stages, however. They seem to represent more of an advancement of knowledge and ability than new intellectual milestones. Even with subjects like grammar which were delayed until middle or high school ages the concern seems to be not so much for the stage of development as the obtaining of background knowledge which is necessary to understand the subject. On the other end of the age ranges, Mason did very much believe in giving the youngest children real ideas to chew upon and not withholding meaty intellectual materials, albeit age-appropriate ones, from them.

Classical education has many definitions and many versions are available today (see this post and this one). I am going to speak today of what I would deem the most regimented of these modern varieties (at least in terms of staging), that first espoused by Dorothy Sayers in her Lost Tools of Learning and later carried on by Douglas Wilson and others. This version of classical education is characterized by its use of the Trivium [1]. The Trivium distinguishes three stages, each of which necessitates a different approach to education. In the early years, the Grammar stage focuses on memorization. In the middle years, the dialectic stage emphasizes logic and disputation. And finally, in the upper years the rhetoric stage focuses on language and making persuasive arguments. These stages roughly correspond to elementary, middle, and high school levels. In each stage there is a different kind of learning. Those in the grammar stage, for instance, learn mainly through memorization. The grammar stage is for obtaining the building blocks. In the middle, dialectic stage, the child begins to manipulate those building blocks and to make logical arguments. In the rhetoric stage the focus is on expressing oneself and communicating those ideas which have been formed. It should be noted as well that there would also be a pre-school stage, an age below which formal education begins.

“The Poll-parrot stage [= the grammar stage] is the one in which learning by heart is easy and, on the whole, pleasurable; whereas reasoning is difficult and, on the whole, little relished . . . The Pert Age [= dialectic] . . . is characterised by contradicting, answering-back, liking to ‘catch people out’ (especially one’s elders) and in the propounding of conundrums . . . The Poetic Age [=rhetoric] is popularly known as the ‘difficult’ age. It is self-centred; it yearns to express itself; it rather specialises in being misunderstood; it is restless and tries to achieve independence; and, with good luck and good guidance, it should show the beginnings of creativeness, a reaching out towards a synthesis of what it already knows, and a deliberate eagerness to know and do some one thing in preference to all others.” (Dorothy Sayers, “Lost Tools io Learning,” Kindle Loc. 169)

Comparing these three systems would give us the following:

Piaget Mason Classical [2]
0-2: Sensory/motor 0-6: No schooling 0-6: No schooling
2-7: Preoperational      “
7-11: Concrete thinking 6+ Schooling 6-12: Grammar stage
12-15: Formal operations 12-14(?): Dialectic
15-17: Rhetoric

The big commonality here is that all three agree that there is a stage (or 2) that lasts up until age 6 or 7 during which traditional, formal education is not appropriate [3].

One might think from this chart that classical education lines up fairly well with the modern scholarly theory of child development as exemplified by Piaget. I would like to suggest, however, that there are some profound differences.

The biggest differences come in the view of the young child. For Piaget the child does not think like an adult but he is always constructing his reality. That is, he is taking in information and responding to his environment, continually constructing and redefining his mental model of the universe.  For Sayers and those who follow her, the young child, up to age 12, is a memorizing machine. His storehouse, if you will, is being filled with information at this stage, information which he will only really start to utilize in the next stage. Mason does not directly address how the child learns but she presents to even young children what she would call vital or living ideas and she assumes that the child is able to take in, or digest, these ideas.

It is the view of how learning happens and how the child reasons (or doesn’t) that is behind these differences. For Mason the child is able to reason; this is not a taught but an inborn skill and he simply must be given quality material on which to use this skill. An analogy which used to be used frequently in Charlotte Mason circles is that of pegs and things to hang on them. A Charlotte Mason approach says that children need pegs first; they need fixed points, so to speak, things they have relationships with and only when they have some connection can they take information and hang it on those pegs. A classical approach, on the other hand, starts with the information and only when there is a stockpile of facts learned does the child have pegs which allow him to sort it all and fit it all in (of course this analogy was provided by the CM folks, not the classical ones). Another way to say this would be to say that in Mason’s philosophy the facts and information do not make sense to us and will not be retained or be useful until and unless we have a context in which to make sense of them.

In a classical education, the early years, up to age 12, are largely for memorization and the acquisition of information. Reasoning as such is not done at this age and is a skill which must be taught.  The analogy for this would say that the child needs material to work with before he can build. Supplying the building blocks, in the form of facts and information, is the first stage. [4]

Piaget says that children do not reason as adults do but he does see their reasoning skills developing naturally given the right educational circumstances. It is not that young children don’t reason for Piaget but that they do so differently. He sees a process of disequilibrium and accommodation by which children learn. They begin with one view, a thesis, which is then challenged, the antithesis, so that they must adjust and come to a new view, the synthesis [5]. If there is an age before reasoning for Piaget, it is the 0-2 age bracket. The awareness of object permanence he sees as the foundation for all later learning. After it is in place, reasoning can begin. Elkind, who follows and expands upon Piaget’s ideas, sees the years between 7 and 11 as the period of “work” for the child [6]. This work, however, does not equal rote memorization which Elkind deems “anathema to critical, innovative thinking” (Power of Play, introduction). “Even at this stage children  . . . want to understand, not just repeat and imitate” (ibid., p. 7).

The role of the teacher also varies. The teacher in classical education is paramount. He is a mentor and guides the process of learning in a fairly involved way. Though modern applications vary, the process of dialectic which is characteristic of classical education involves a dialogue between teacher and student(s) in which questions are asked and answers elicited. Piaget’s approach, in contrast, sees the teacher as one who creates an environment in which the child can learn, but he would say that the teacher cannot in a real sense teach anything. The child must do his own learning as he builds his concept of the world. Charlotte Mason is a little closer to Piaget on this. For her, the teacher does not create an environment but spreads a feast of ideas, the focus being on intellectual materials more than physical ones, and the child has freedom to “ingest” these materials but cannot be forced to do so.

In the end, I am not sure that the specifics of the staging matter as much as our ideas about children’s ability to reason and how they may or may not develop over time. For both Piaget and Mason reasoning is natural though Mason would say that the child is born with all his faculties intact and Piaget sees reasoning ability as developing over time. For classical educators like Sayers, reasoning ability is something that is taught. The view of the role of the teacher in each follows upon the view of reasoning, with classical educators giving teachers the most involved role and Mason giving them the least. All three would agree that formal learning is best delayed until around age 6 or 7. What happens between ages 7 and 11 is perhaps the biggest divide. For Sayers this is a time of memorization. She calls this the “poll-parrot” stage and says that children of this age take pleasure in memorizing and have little desire to reason (see quote above). For her it is a time to gather materials but not to construct. For Piaget, the child is always constructing reality and takes little pleasure in memorization but desires to understand. Mason’s motto (or one of them) is that “education is the science of relations” which for her means that children must always build relationships with what they are studying.  Information without relationship or context is useless.

My quick take-away from all this would be that modern developmental psychology tends overall to support Charlotte Mason’s views more than those of Dorothy Sayers and the other classical educators who follow her with the caveat that it does lead to a more staged approach which it might be wise for us to take into account.



[1] There has been a movement in classical circles away from the Trivium as Sayers defined it. See Shawn Barnett, “Dorothy Sayers was Wrong: the Trivium and Child Development,” Circe Institute (Aug. 9, 2019).

[2] The ages here are somewhat fluid depending on whom one is reading. I am basing the specifics on “What is the Trivium”  by Harvey Bluedorn from Trivium Pursuit (1993).

[3] I say “traditional formal education” because Piaget would have schools for children below age 6/7 but they would not be doing seat-work and the other things that we think of as traditional schoolwork.

[4] It is a bit unclear to me why the age divisions given in Sayers’ Trivium are what they are. According to Elkind (The Power of Play, p. 122), the ancients, i.e. the original classical educators, saw reasoning as a necessity for formal education and since this education begins around age 6 or 7 we must posit that reasoning also does.

[5] We can see in this process the influence of the evolutionary mindset which assumes that the organism (a child in this case) must adapt to its environment when there are changes or any kind of conflict.

[6] See this earlier post on Elkind’s theories.

Applying Piaget

Dear Reader,

I am in the midst of a mini-series on developmental psychology. My goal with this series is to evaluate the major trends and ideas within this field from a (reformed) Christian perspective with an eye to seeing how we can appropriately make use of the insights of these mostly secular scholars.

In the first post we looked at how as Christians we should think about the social sciences. We then looked at some of the major thinkers in the field of developmental psychology with particular emphasis on their personal belief systemsAnd last time we looked at some of the major trends within the field and how we as Christians should approach the subject.

Today I would like to focus in on the ideas of Jean Piaget. As we saw last time, the various thinkers tend to concentrate on different areas of development. Piaget looked primarily at intellectual development and how we come to know things (i.e. epistemology). Since my on-going project is to create and refine a reformed Christian philosophy of education, this side of things is of particular interest.

Piaget distinguished four stages of development:

  • birth-age 2: the sensory-motor period in which the major goal is for children to learn object permanence, the idea that things which we cannot see still continue to exist
  • ages 2-7: the preoperational stage which is characterized by transductive thinking. Children in this stage see things as belonging only to one category. Thus one’s mother cannot also be a sister and the person who is taller is assumed to be older.
  • ages 7-11: the stage of concrete operations in which children begin to be able to do things in their heads. At this point we begin to see that our knowledge comes not solely from the things themselves but also from our logic and the images we construct in our heads.
  • ages 12-15: the stage of formal operations in which children begin to be able to think about thinking. At this point they can handle grammar which thinks about words and algebra which uses abstract concepts.

Beyond these stages Piaget saw no further growth in intellectual ability though one could still acquire new knowledge.

When we looked at how a Christian should approach the social sciences, we said that we are most likely to glean information from these secular scholars when they are speaking of mundane (=this-worldly) issues. Of the thinkers we have been considering, I find Piaget’s theory most intriguing and potentially helpful because it does seem to stick to fairly concrete matters. Though Piaget himself seems to have had a fairly materialistic outlook (in the sense of considering only the material universe and nothing of a transcendent or spiritual nature), we can still appreciate his scholarship as it touches on these concrete areas.

David Elkind, who largely follows Piaget, says that children do not think the way we do though they do feel as we do. Piaget gives us some guidelines for how children do think and what may be expected of them at various ages. As Christians we have to note that children are fully human. Spiritually they are as we are, accountable for sin and capable of a relationship with their Creator (dependent upon His grace of course). But this does not rule out the idea that their thought might be different than ours in some ways.

With these ideas in mind, I would make a few observations about the specifics of Piaget’s schema. Though the very youngest children may not think as we do, we should not underestimate their intelligence. The thing they have to learn in their first years which Piaget sees as the foundation of all later intellectual effort — that objects continue to exist even when they disappear from our sight — is huge. This is a giant intellectual leap and it is taken largely without any help from older people. We seem naturally to want to play peek-a-boo with small children and we delight in their delight in the game, but the cognitive leap that is made here would be made even if we did not do so. Though this is not an idea we directly teach to children, I would venture to say that very nearly 100% of them learn it [1]. And this is a major intellectual accomplishment. We could look at a one-year-old and say: “How stupid! He does not know his mother still exists when she leaves the room” or we could look at the same situation and say: “How brilliant! These very small people accomplish a major intellectual paradigm shift, larger than any that will occur later in life, without any direct aid from us.”

One last note on this first stage — the realization that objects and people still exist when we can’t see them is the huge intellectual advancement that characterizes this stage. It is nothing less than a paradigm shift which allows further logical thought. But it is far from all that these little people are learning. The attainments they make in understood and to a lesser degree spoken language in their first two years are astounding and we should not underestimate that degree of real intelligence that is at work there, largely without intentional teaching on the part of adults.

If we all come to understand object permanence, yet many adults seem to be stuck in various ways in the other stages. Most of us are able to accept that one person can be both a mother and a sister, but we are often fooled by the bigger=better mentality even as adults. Elkind gives the example of a glass that is short and wide versus one that is round and tall. Once she has learned some degree of abstract reasoning (ages 7-11), a child will be able to discern that the taller glass does not always hold more [2]. And yet restaurants use this glass trick to give us less for more money all the time. We may know the truth if we stop to think about it but even as adults we are not always aware of the truth.

My own very unscientific observation would be that, beyond the acquiring of object permanence, there are ways in which we all — and some more than others — fail to fully demonstrate that we have mastered these stages. On the other end, the students in my Sunday school classes (ages 2-6) have at times demonstrated reasoning beyond their stage (though this varies a lot from child to child). This would lead me to a much more fluid understanding of the stages.

I would add to this Lev Vygotsky’s understanding that as we progress we are often able with help to do that which we cannot yet do on our own. This leads to a mindset which says not “don’t expect this child to do X task yet; he is not yet at that stage” but “we need to push the child a little; he may be able to do more with some help.” [3]

There are a number of implications here for how we approach education–

We must acknowledge that children will not always see the world as we do. Piaget said they think differently. The things which matter to us will not always be the things which stand out or matter to them. I believe this supports Charlotte Mason’s technique of narration rather than more traditional reading comprehension as it allows the child to tell what he knows and does not expect him to get from a text what an adult would.

We must also be patient. There are some subjects which the child will not be ready for until they have achieved certain intellectual milestones. Grammar instruction is wasted on the very young. Subjects like grammar and algebra should be saved until the child is at least 12.

Yet, following Vygotsky, I do not think it is wrong to push children a little beyond what they may think of for themselves. Some children will progress faster than others and some will be able to grasp ideas if we give them a little direction that they may not have thought of on their own. Practically speaking, an example would be that when we are reading a story which raises issues of morality it is okay to ask questions which get the child thinking about nuances that would not have occurred to him on his own.  I also think it is okay to do some level of literary analysis that introduces terms like protagonist and antagonist and thereby gives children the vocabulary and categories to discuss concepts that they would not otherwise have grasped. [4]

One might conclude from all this that it is good to teach logic in a formal way. I am not sure I am ready to go there. The attainments which Piaget describes, if they are not gained naturally, can be taught through casual, conversational methods. Formal instruction in logic as it is often done is not necessarily going to match these stages or to aid the individual in moving along from one to the next.

The Charlotte Mason approach, which my own philosophy of education largely follows, does not speak of stages of development whereas the classical approach, which I have been fairly critical of, does delineate stages. Next time I would like to address this issue head-on and to look at how the stages of development delineated by modern scholars line up with each of these philosophies.



[1] One question I have is whether this stage, the discovery of object permanence, is ever missed. When Bowlby discusses attachment, we can say that there are young children who fail to attach to any caregiver and who are scarred for life by this lack. Do any children, even the most developmentally delayed, ever fail to obtain the idea of object permanence? That’s a sincere question; I don’t know the answer.

I would also note that, ironically, many adult scholars and philosophers have operated on the assumption that we cannot know anything that our senses and direct experience do not tell us. They seem by this to start by jettisoning this very first stage of human intellectual development.

[2] David Elkind. Giants in the Nursery (St. Paul: Redleaf Press, 2015) p. 170.

[3] This is a point which Carol Mooney makes in her book Theories of Childhood (St. Paul: Redleaf Press, 2013).

[4] For introducing literary analysis, I highly recommend the book Deconstructing Penguins. See this post for an example of how we have used it in our homeschool.

Trends in Developmental Psychology

Dear Reader,

As a part of my ongoing quest for a Reformed Christian philosophy of education (see this page), I have decided that I really need to read some developmental psychology. I want to get a sense for what the world has to say about how kids develop and what their needs are.

Not long ago we looked at how as Christians we should think about the social sciences. The short version is that the social sciences as a whole tend to rest on secular, materialistic presuppositions. Because we believe in common grace and we believe that all truth is God’s truth, we do believe that secular scholars can provide us with some good insights, but we always need to take these with a good heaping dose of discernment. In terms of child development in particular, we would expect more truth when the subject is on the smaller scale and deals with temporal matters but we should use more discernment when big picture things are in view.

Last time we looked at the big thinkers in the field of child psychology, with a particular emphasis on their personal beliefs with an eye to how these might affect their scholarship. This post also contains a bibliography of the sources I have used in all of this.

Today I’d like to give an overview of the big trends in developmental psychology (as I have read up on it thus far) with some observations thrown in.

Overview: Big Ideas and Trends

On the most fundamental level, developmental psychology makes one big assumption: that there is development. Children are not merely short adults but they are different in some way and develop over time. Though it is perhaps not necessary that it do so, this assumption often comes from an evolutionary mindset which assumes change, adaptation as a response to environmental stimuli, and a certain trajectory.  Change says that there are differences — the child is not the same as the adult. When we speak of adaptation, we are talking about how change happens. Evolution itself assumes a linear trajectory (as opposed to a cyclical understanding or some other model). Inherent in the idea of evolution is progression. There is progress, movement in a particular direction toward some defined goal or limit. Like a limit in the field of math, the end game may be a limit which is never reached, but when we talk about child development, there is often a goal which can be achieved. There is some point at which, if all goes well, the individual is an adult with all the capacities and skills an adult is expected to have (of course, if something goes wrong in the development the individual may never reach some of these goals).

Here then are some major trends and distinctions:

Stages of Development

As far as I can tell, every major theory of child development assumes that this development happens in stages. That is, there are not just two places one can be, childhood or adulthood, but there are degrees of development along the way. A normally developing 10-year-old is closer to the adult standard than a 2-year-old and not so close as a 14-year-old.

Though the various theories all contain stages, they vary greatly in how many stages they distinguish. Some tie the stages to particular milestones (eg. Steiner of the Waldorf philosophy ties one to the loss of baby teeth), others divide the stages more loosely. If I had to generalize, I would say the common divisions are infancy (birth to age 2), early childhood (ages 3-7, possibly with one more division within that stage), the middle years (8-12 ish roughly), and the teens.

Another question that arises relative to stages is: What happens if a developmental milestone is missed? For almost all the stages are sequential. That is, one must achieve the developmental milestones (whatever that person defines them as) in order.  Some would say that one can make up for lost ground, others that more permanent damage is done if a stage is missed. For most, if not all, some degree of developmental delay is involved when stages are missed.

Trends across Time

In my list of the various the thinkers and their ideas (again see this earlier post), I discussed them more or less chronologically. Seen this way, we begin to distinguish broader trends. Many of the earliest thinkers tended to be philosophers. Their interest was in what man knows and how he knows it. In this, they were rejecting earlier modes of thinking which would have relied on the Scriptures and divine revelation as sources of knowledge. Instead, they turned to more mundane (in the sense of being earthly, not heavenly) sources. Their approaches tended to be sensory and experiential, looking to man’s senses and experimentation as the means of knowledge. They did not necessarily deny man’s spiritual nature, however, or turn completely to scientific explanations.

The next generation of thinkers began around 1850 and was much more materialistic. No longer do we have philosophers but scientists of various sorts providing the theories. The men of this generation were heavily influenced by Darwinian evolution. They tended to view the world and man as entirely physical. Man’s desires and his development can all be traced to biological forces. The interplay between a man and his environment was assumed to be pivotal in his development (much as in evolution an organism is influenced by and responds to its environment). They also tended to view people, and children especially, as animals upon whom one can experiment. Which is not to say that they were cruel but that they assumed that as you can conduct an experiment on animals and get standardized results so experiments on people can and should work the same way.

At the same time, or very soon after, there was a counter-trend, a move toward spiritualism. This spiritualism was not a return to historic Christianity but it was a rejection of pure materialism and an acknowledgment that there is more to man than the physical. In the cultural realm, this was characterized by the rise of theosophism, a movement/belief system which sought deeper and often hidden spiritual knowledge. It was a time when people were conducting seances and seeking our spirits. Maria Montessori turned to theosophism later in her life, and Rudolf Steiner, of the Waldorf movement, initially turned to theosophism and then developed his own, equally bizarre, philosophy/religion known as anthroposophism.

The more modern thinkers on the list tend to be materialistic in their assumptions but less biologically based than their predecessors. That is, they do not acknowledge a spiritual side to man but they do take into account other, not purely physical factors, such as man’s emotions and his need for relationship.

The Parts of the Person

Which brings us to the next point: Human beings are multi-faceted. They develop physically of course but they also have mind and emotions and relationships. The various theories tend to focus on one aspect of development. When they delineate different schemas, it is often because they are addressing different areas of development.

To those from the most materialistic, Darwinian mindset, the physical is all there is. For Freud the driving force behind everything is one’s desires which are all rooted physically in the body. Piaget’s theory focuses primarily on intelligence while Erikson is concerned with the formation of identity and Bowlby looked at the attachments (i.e. relationships) a child forms. Though they may focus on more than the physical, yet these theories are often still at their base materialistic. Bowlby, for instance, in discussing the attachments that babies and children form argues that these are done because they give an evolutionary advantage — the adult is more likely to protect and provide for the child who is attached to him.

These need not be contradictory theories. Because they look at different aspects of the individual, many of these theories can be combined and, looking at Elkind and other modern writers, this does seem to be a current trend.

A Developing Nature

Many, if not all, of the thinkers we are considering would say that there is a natural, inborn tendency for development in the child. This potential may need to be helped by education or it may be subverted by various detrimental forces, but it is to some degree the way a child is programmed.

Rousseau stands out on this point as one who believed society was the corrupting influence on the child. That is, like others he toured the child’s natural state and tendencies but whereas they saw education as a good which would develop the child’s own potentialities, he saw traditional education as a negative societal force which corrupts the naturally good person.

The Origin of Evil

For Rousseau, the child’s natural state is good and it is society which corrupts him. Most of our other thinkers would not agree about the effect of society but they would agree that the child is either naturally good or at least has the potential for good. Comenius, one of the few professing Christians on our list, said that the seeds of virtue are in the child (obviously, he was nor reformed; he was in fact a Brethren pastor). Pestalozzi said the child is naturally good and will develop along good lines in the absence of negative outside influences. Froebel specifically denied the existence of original sin and believed the child’s inner self is naturally good and that the bad comes from outside and from the adults in his life. Montessori’s views were also along these lines.

Erikson seems to have what might be termed the most dualistic understanding of development. Each of his stages — and he posits some 8 of them — is characterized by two options, the first being trust or mistrust. If the child gets what they need, they develop along the positive line but if they don’t they developed mistrust and later guilt and shames. (Though Erikson was also one who said that it is possible to undo the bad that has occurred in previous stages.)

Locke famously saw the child as a tabula rasa, a blank slate, neither good nor bad, but he did believe character was formed early on and, contrary to Rousseau, that the influence of society through education was necessary to make sure that good character and not bad was the result. Herbart as well saw the child as a blank slate with possibilities for good or evil. He believed morality could be taught.

There is no one on this list who says that there is naturally evil within children or that the evil which might come into their personalities comes from within them. For all evil is external to the person, whether it comes from the environment, society as a whole, or individual adults in the child’s life. I will reiterate here that the role of environment and experience in development tends to be significant for all our thinkers. This, as I have said, reflects an evolutionary mindset but perhaps also simply a godless one (by which I mean one in which God Himself is not a player). With no spiritual component, and in particular no spiritual actor, there are only so many forces and factors one can look to. There is the individual, other individuals, society, and the environment (which may include these others) as well as the individual’s interactions with these players which constitutes his experience. There is no God to act and there is no inner conflict. The forces which act on the individual are largely external to him.

Conclusions and Observations

Every one of our thinkers has his own personal belief system which influences his theories about the development of children. As Christians, we also have convictions which are going to influence how we view these issues. This is not my field and I don’t feel competent to propose a brand new Christian theory of child development, but I would offer some guidelines and questions to consider:

  1. Any Christian theory of child development needs to account for the child’s spiritual nature. We are not purely physical and our theory must reflect that reality.
  2. There is a Force beyond nature which affects our growth. That Force is a Personal God (meaning He is a Person, not a vague power).
  3. Children are not fundamentally different beings than adults. (Though we didn’t touch on it here, some of our thinkers did see children as different creatures, Steiner being the most prominent example.)  They are fully human with all that entails.
  4. Evil comes not from our environment or society or other people but from within ourselves.
  5. In fact, we are born with sinful natures. Children are not innocents.
  6. Sin is always serious, even if it is inadvertent. The fact that a person may not understand their sin as sin or may “not know better” does not make it not sin.
  7. We require a Savior. We cannot be educated out of our sinful nature or into godliness.
  8. Guilt and shame are not inherently bad things. They serve a purpose which is to drive us to our Savior.
  9. Self-esteem is not inherently good. What we need is to see ourselves in our true relation to our Creator. This stance acknowledges both the value of each human life and our fallenness.
  10. While fully human, children are in need of instruction. As they grow physically, so they also need to grow in wisdom and knowledge. (See this post on children in the Bible.)

These points fall far short of a theory of child development and say nothing about the particulars of the stages involved, if indeed there are stages. They do not answer questions about how children think or how we should teach them.

As I said in my post on how we deal with the social sciences, particularly on more mundane matters, there is a lot we can learn from secular scholars. Next time I would like to look a little more specifically at Piaget and his theories regarding intelligence.

Until then,


Major Theories in Developmental Psychology

As a part of my ongoing quest for a Reformed Christian philosophy of education (see this page), I have decided that I really need to read some developmental psychology I want to get a sense for what the world has to say about how kids develop and what their needs are. Last time we looked at how as Christians we should think about the social sciences. The short version is that the social sciences as a whole tend to rest on secular, materialistic presuppositions. Because we believe in common grace and we believe that all truth is God’s truth, we do believe that secular scholars can provide is with some good insights, but we always need to take these with a good heaping dose of discernment. Much has been written of the various theories of child development and I am not the best person to rehash them all (but see the reading list at the end of this post). What I would like to do is to give a brief introduction to each of the major contributors with a particular focus on the underlying beliefs which affect their overall philosophy. This will be the fodder for future posts in which we delve a little more deeply into the trends in child psychology and how we as Christians should view them. (I also have an earlier, less detailed post, similar to this one which you can find here.)

Major Thinkers in Developmental Psychology

(roughly in chronological order)

John Amos Comenius (see also this earlier post on the history of Christian education)

Who, Where and When:  a Brethren pastor from Moravia (1592-1670) Major Contributions: Tried to create a universal education system which was “pansophic,” i.e. in which all extant knowledge was included (a goal which probably seemed more possible in his day and age). Education should follow the stages of mental development, happen through the medium of the senses, and take into account children’s interests (common ideas, as we will see). He saw language enrichment as a pre-requisite for learning and interest and attention as indicators of readiness to learn. The goal of education is to give the individual a happy, productive life and to ensure the continued morality of society. Beliefs and Assumptions: Comenius believed education should be begun before the mind is corrupted (which tells us that he did not believe in total depravity) and that the child has a predisposition to learn. He speaks of the “seeds of knowledge, of virtue, and of piety” being within children (Elkind, p. 35). John Locke (Locke is also mentioned in this post) Who, Where and When: Enlightenment philosopher (1632-1704). Though his family was Puritan and Lockerbie argues that he was Christian, it is not at all clear he was. Major Contributions: The mind is blank at birth (the so-called tabula rasa idea). What we know comes to us through our senses. Character is formed early on. Children should learn early to deny themselves their own desires. Children learn best when their minds are in tune. Formal education should be delayed so as to not kill the love of learning. Learning is done through scientific experimentation. The goal of education is primarily to preserve the status quo. Beliefs and Assumptions: There are no universally accepted truths. Our reason leads us to the knowledge of self-evident truths (think the Declaration of Independence here) including the belief that there is a being we call God, but a God who would have the same attributes no matter what we call him. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (discussed in this post on the origin of evil) Who, Where and When: A French philosopher (1712-1778) and a really bad parent who abandoned his own (illegitimate) children. Major Contributions: Education should be natural — preferably in the country, away from society. Learning is through direct experience and the child will have a natural inclination to learn. Books are downplayed (except Robinson Crusoe). The goal is to enable natural man to be able to live in society without being corrupted by its influences. Proper education is for the individual, not the society. Beliefs and Assumptions: Man is naturally good and it is society that corrupts him and makes him evil. Our first, natural impulses are good. Formal education is corrupting and bad. Nature is best.  Organized religion is unnecessary, most governments are bad and adults should not exert authority over children. (And, by the way, he said females’ only role is to please men.) Johan Heinrich Pestalozzi Who, Where and When: Swiss educational reformer (1746-1827). The famous Prussian schools which in turn influenced American ones were based upon his model. Major Contributions: The goal of education is the development of the individual, not meeting society’s needs. Education is not the imposing of knowledge but the development of potential. All human activity must be self-generated, not imposed from the outside. He emphasized the child’s experiences rather than verbal instruction.  The best model for education is the first — that is, the family and especially the mother-child relationship. He emphasized a home-like environment and teachers who truly loved each child. Movement from the simple to the complex, eg. from hands-on manipulatives to theoretical ideas. The goal of education is primarily social in that it deals with the child’s relationships and interactions. Beliefs and Assumptions: The sacredness of personality and the potential of the child.  Education can create responsible citizens who know right from wrong and ultimately lead to the happiness of humanity. The child is basically good and will naturally develop in good lines without negative outside influences. Friedrich Froebel (see this post specifically on Froebel) Who, Where and When: (1782-1852); studied under Pestalozzi; known as the founder of modern kindergarten Major Contributions:  He stressed the importance of the early years and thought young children could learn much more than had been thought possible. Though he invented kindergarten which implies children are hothouse flowers (hence the garten of kindergarten), he actually had studied crystal formation and thought of their development as like that of crystals — just as each element will develop a certain form and structure as it crystallizes, so the child’s natural development is contained within himself.  He believed there were some perfect forms that children could learn from through life so he gave them spheres, cylinders, and cubes. The goal of education is metaphysical unity of man, nature, universe and spirit (see below). The role of the teacher is very important and he also emphasized the role of the mother in infancy. Beliefs and Assumptions: Froebel denied the existence of original sin but believed man in his natural state is uncorrupted. If there is bad that enters into the child, then it comes from the adults in his life interfering in what is naturally good. Each one has an inner self which is good and an outer self which is the source of the bad in him. Children need to realize their good inner selves (which they do by playing with his perfect forms). All is Unity (big “U”) which is identified with God; this Unity is the goal of education. The child goes through an evolution which mirrors that of humanity. Johann Friedrich Herbart Who, Where and When: (1776-1841) Major Contributions: Herbart devised a method of teaching called Herbartianism which was influential in America in the 19th century. He was the first to connect psychology and education. He developed a five-step pedagogy in which teachers select a topic, connect it to what the students already know, encourage their interest and perception of it, coalesce that they have learned and apply it to daily living. Herbartianism has been compared to the modern Unit Studies approach (see this post). In terms of goals the emphasis was on one’s social contribution and morality; true purpose is found in being a good citizen.  Education (which at the time meant moral training) is done through teaching (which is the conveying of knowledge). Beliefs and Assumptions: Pluralistic realism. He saw children born as something like blank slates with no innate ideas or categories of thought and not inherently good or evil. Moral character (the goal of education) is a gradual acquisition. Ethics is subsumed under aesthetics. Morality can be taught. Horace Mann (see this post and this one) Who, Where and When: Father of the common school movement in the US (1796-1859) Major Contributions: The goal of education is to turn unruly children into disciplined, judicial citizens. Education should be public and non-sectarian and administered by trained teachers. Common schools with all classes of society to equalize men’s conditions. Moral education was also the domain of the school. Though his schools were to be religiously neutral they did include Christian morals and Bible teaching, though at essentially the lowest common denominator. Beliefs and Assumptions: Unitarian. He believed children should decide for themselves what to believe. Humanitarian optimism: the gradual advancement of the human race in dignity and happiness. John Dewey (I have discussed Dewey a lot — see especially this post and this one) Who, Where and When: The father of the modern American school system (1859-1952); Major Contributions: The purpose of education is not to convey knowledge but to share a social experience and integrate the child into democratic ideas. Education serves democracy which is almost a spiritual community. Children participate in their own learning, but he is not entirely child-led. Material should be presented in a way that allows the student to relate it to previous knowledge. He advocated progressive education in which children are given educative experiences which they then react to and thus adapt and progress (but not all experiences are good; some are miseducative). The teacher guides this process and selects the curriculum and experiences based on the child’s interests. Beliefs and Assumptions: Secular idealism. Morals are social and pragmatic. Democracy is almost a religion with him. His ideas are based on an evolutionary mindset (see links above) and he believed there is no transcendence, i.e. there is no super-natural. Rudolf Steiner (see also this post on Waldorf education) Who, Where and When: Steiner (1861-1925) is the founder of the Waldorf school movement and also the creator of a philosophy known as anthroposophism. Major Contributions: In contrast to others, Steiner did not believe we know only through our senses but that the mind can grasp truth directly. Children advance through stages. In the first they are dominated by willing, in the second by feeling, and finally they are able to think. The goal is to integrate these three. Steiner included a lot of the arts and music in education. Beliefs and Assumptions: Steiner essentially created his own philosophy/religion. Anthroposophism comes out of the spiritualism of the late 1800s (which was itself a rejection of materialism). In contrast to theosophism Steiner did not believe in hidden spiritual knowledge only for a select group but believed that the spirit world could be known through observation and meditation. People have a three-fold nature consisting of thinking, feeling, and willing. Because children do not have all three yet (at least not in equal measure) they are more potential than actual human beings. Maria Montessori (see this post) Who, Where and When: First female, Italian doctor (1870-1952). Worked initially with “backwards” children. Major Contributions: Children can do much more for themselves if their environment is scaled to their size (it is thanks to Montessori that we now have kid-sized chairs). Believed the main part of education was to create an environment in which children can learn through self-directed activities. Children thrive in an uncluttered environment (I wish someone would tell my kids this . . .). Education through muscular and sensory education, not direct instruction. Not a big fan of play for its own sake. Beliefs and Assumptions: Especially at the end of her life, Montessori was into Theosophy, the spiritualism of the age. The child is born with potential for positive qualities but needs education to develop them. The goal of education is to promote civilized society, even to achieve world peace. Sigmund Freud Who, Where and When: The major psychoanalyst (1856-1939) who proposed a psychosexual theory of development. Major Contributions: Sexuality, even in infants, is a major contributor to psychology. This term is understood very broadly and one goes through developmental stages. Infants are controlled by their oral and anal desires. The goal is mastery of instincts and emotions in healthy ways. Beliefs and Assumptions: The human is another animal who can be studied using scientific methods and theories. Psychological determinism: our psychology is a product of the influences on us; it is not subject to chance or to our free-will. Human behavior is the product of unconscious fears, emotions, etc. It is our physical, bodily desires which drive our development. Jean Piaget Who, Where and When: A teacher and educational thinker (1896-1980) known for his work on the development of human intelligence. Major Contributions: Piaget’s work is mainly about epistemology — how we know what we know and particularly how children get knowledge and intelligence. He said that we learn through a dialectic of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis — that is, we have an idea (thesis) which is then challenged (antithesis) and thus we come to a new understanding (synthesis).  Children do reason but their reasoning is different than ours. Children start out egocentric and must learn to see others’ viewpoints. Children have unique worldviews; they do not view the world as adults do. Ideas that seem wrong to us are often age-appropriate thinking for children (eg. thinking whoever is taller must be older). Children construct their own reality based on what they know (constructivism). In the first stage (ages 0-2) children’s learning is sensory-motor and the main thing they need to learn is object permanence. In ages 2-7 they engage in transductive thinking. They must learn that things can be more than one thing (dog and animal) and have multiple relationships (mother and sister).  Between ages 7 and 11 they engage in concrete operations and only get to formal operations — being able to think about thinking and this learn grammar and algebra — at ages 12-15. After this there are no new mental systems. The goal of education is to make people who can create new things and think new thoughts. Beliefs and Assumptions: I have found very little on Piaget’s personal beliefs. He was a student of Freud and a follower of Darwin. One can see the evolutionary influence in his theory — the sequence of thesis, antithesis, synthesis is a kind of adaptation to a new environment.  There is also a natural development. Teachers do no really teach as such but children react to their environment and thus develop along natural lines (though abnormalities can occur to derail that natural progress). Though Piaget rejected the idea that the individual’s evolution mimics that of the human race, yet his ideas are clearly evolutionary in terms of the natural progression and the ways in which it is said to occur. David Elkind (see this post) Who, Where and When: A modern scholar (1931-) of child development and a student of Piaget. Major Contributions: Elkind largely follows Piaget but also blends in aspects from others. He sees a triad of elements which work together in education: play, love, and work. Each major stage is dominated by one of these — play first for young children, then work, then love in the teenage years. The goal is to integrate them to form a well-rounded individual. Beliefs and Assumptions: I don’t know a lot about Elkind’s belief system. It is clear from reading him that he is materialistic in his world view. Erk Erikson Who, Where and When: (1902-1994). A German who ended up working largely in the US. A student of Anna Freud (Sigmund’s daughter) and a trained Montessori teacher. Major Contributions: Erikson delineated no less than 8 stages of human development. He saw identity crises as the key to development. He was particularly interested in how one person’s identity crisis might have larger societal implications and wrote on Martin Luther and Gandhi. His 8 stages each represent a choice in which the child can end up going one way or another. Infants will either trust or mistrust, depending on whether their needs are met. Toddlers will either become autonomous (=self-mastery) or face shame and doubt. In the third stage the child will either begin to have initiative or face guilt. Education creates individual identity. Beliefs and Assumptions: Humans have a long childhood in which there is, if all goes right, a lot of development. Erikson is essentially hopeful about such development whole acknowledging that the negative can happen. He does see it as possible to catch up later in life, however, if one stage has gone wrong. Though he may be using the words differently than we would, he paints shame and guilt as negatives to be avoided.  Positive mental health is equated with self-esteem. Lev Semenovich Vygotsky Who, Where and When: A Russian (1896-1934) with no formal training in psychology. Major Contributions: The major forces in education are not biological but societal and cultural. People internalize the societal tools they are exposed to, things like language and mathematics. These tools then shape their higher mental processes. Thus one can imagine him saying that a peasant who may seem stupid to others is so because of his cultural circumstances not do to any genetic or biological fault in himself. He also believed in the zone of proximal development (ZPD) which says that we are able to do things with help before we can do them independently. There is always a new skill which is not yet fully achieved but which one is progressing toward (this is in contrast to others who saw the stage of development more as sudden leaps). Children should thus be put in situations which stretch them and push them on to the next level. Beliefs and Assumptions: Heavily influenced by Marxism. Unlike others he did not see the maturing process as a natural trajectory but as entirely societal. B.F. Skinner Who, Where and When: A behaviorist (1904-1990). Major Contributions: Behaviorism looks at environmental influences and sees all behavior as driven by outer stimuli and by rewards and punishments. His goal for education, as depicted in a fictional book he wrote, seems to have been to create a utopian society through operant conditioning which reinforces behavior. Beliefs and Assumptions: Skinner took into account only the material; no consideration was given to man’s spiritual or even emotional nature. Children were experimented on in the same manner as lab rats. John Bowlby Who, Where and When: A researcher and child psychiatrist known for his attachment theory (1907-1990). Major Contributions: Children are born with a need for attachments. These attachments serve an evolutionary advantage as they would get the child cared for and protected. These attachments play a role in later development, particularly if they do not form normally. Infants need to know that their mother is available and reliable. Again there is a staged development as attachments form and progress. Beliefs and Assumptions: Again there is a distinct evolutionary basis. Though relationships are at the core of Bowlby’s attachment theory, even here they are given evolutionary justification. Albert Bandura Who, Where and When: A cognitive psychologist who advanced a social learning theory (1925-). Major Contributions: Learning can happen not just through doing but through observation and modeling. Not all learning is related to rewards and punishments (vs. Skinner). Internal reinforcements such as pride and a sense of accomplishment are also important. Social influences are important. Internal mental states are part of the learning process (again vs. Skinner). One’s mental state and motivation will affect whether one learns. Beliefs and Assumptions: I didn’t find much on his personal beliefs. Reuven Feuerstein Who, Where and When: A modern (1921-2014), Israeli cognitive psychologist Major Contributions: Feuerstein is a student of Piaget but also bears many similarities to Vygotsky. Both may be considered to have environmental theories of child development. His big contribution is the idea that intelligence is not fixed but modifiable. He worked with children who had endured very hard circumstances including the holocaust and immigration and saw that though they began culturally deprived they could advance. He believed that all children can learn to learn. Feuerstein divided all learning into direct or mediated through another human being. Mediated learning helps children get the prerequisites they need for direct learning. This is Mediated Learning Experience (MLE). He believed that this mediation, or interpretation of the environment, is the key for learning for all children, not just those with challenges. Learning problems may also be prevented through early interventions. He rejected the idea that there are critical periods for development which if missed make certain developmental milestones impossible. He rejected standard intelligence tests which assume intelligence is fixed and can be measured and provide nothing for the test subject. There is of necessity a large role for the teacher in his system though ultimately the goal is for the student to be able to learn directly, to modify himself. Beliefs and Assumptions: Feuerstein was a Orthodox Jew. He seems to have been a very compassionate man with an optimism about the potential of each person. He believed that all children “‘are human beings who have a Divine spirit in them’” (). He also believed that God cannot change anyone without that person’s help. He seems to have believed in a close connection between the physical and the intellectual or spiritual. He believed that the changes he saw would have physical components in the neurophysiology of the brain. Learning, in his system, seems to be about modification of the individual, not about absorbing a fixed body of knowledge. ——————————– Those are the major contributors to the field of developmental psychology as I understand them. Next time we will make some more general statements about the trends among them and how we as Christians should view their work.

Reading List

“25 Things Research Says about Child Development,” Washington, D.C.: Child Trends, 2004. Cherry, Kendra. “Child Development Theories and Examples,” Very Well Mind (accessed 7/8/2020). ~~ This site contains many other good articles by Cherry as well. “Child Development, History of the Concept of,” (Updated 7/4/2020). Elkind, David. Giants in the Nursery. St. Paul: RedLeaf Press, 2015. ____________ The Power of Play. Da Capo Press, 2007. Lockerbie, Bruce. A Passion for Learning: A History of Christian Thought on Education. Colorado Springs: Purposeful Designs, 2007 (first published 1994). Mooney, Carol Garhart. Theories of Childhood. St. Paul: RedLeaf Press, 2013 (2nd ed.). Murk, Donald. “Piaget, Erikson, Kolhberg, & Jesus: Growing the Soul,” Messiah College, 2017. Oswalt, Angela. “CHILD & ADOLESCENT DEVELOPMENT: OVERVIEW,” Gulf Bend Center (accessed 7/8/2020). Steinberg, Beth.  “Intelligence Is Modifiable: A Q&A with Dr. Reuven Feuerstein,” Brain World Magazine, Jan. 27, 2020 “‘We cannot afford to lose even one child’: Rabbi David Ariel Sher on the life of Professor Reuven Feuerstein,” The Psychologist, June 28, 2019.

Sin & Theories of Child Development

Dear Reader,

I recently discussed David Elkind’s Power of Play (Da Capo Press, 2007) with a particular eye to how his views on child development coincide with those of Charlotte Mason. Today I would like to return to the book but with a different emphasis.

Though I like a lot of what Elkind has to say, we do come at these issues from different places and this raises some questions. These have mainly to do with how we view rule-following and perhaps especially rule-breaking.

Elkind argues that children below a certain age are incapable of understanding rules. He is not an unschooler (speaking here of unschooling as a philosophy which says adults should not impose their will on children). He does believe that children do not always do what they should and that they need limits (p. 181). He also gives examples of disciplining children with humor, a lot of which comes down to redirection rather than discipline as such, which I find somewhat charming and which I think a lot of parents could benefit from. Yet his understanding is not mine because it does not include the category of sin.

As Christians we believe that children of all ages, even infants, are moral beings who are responsible to their God. They are capable of faith but they are also morally responsible for their actions, even for their thoughts and desires. In my denomination, parents promise to teach their children of their sinful nature, and my observation of humanity tells me that, though this sounds a bit depressing, it is one of the most important lessons every individual needs to learn.

So the major question I come away from this with is: How do we deal with sin as sin and yet account for the child’s development? Or do we reject secular theories of child development because they do not account for such things? (In this post I discussed the very un-Christian basis of much of the social sciences and how we should approach such secular scholarship.)

I don’t have all the answers but there are some random thoughts:

  • Ignorance of the law is no excuse. As reformed Christians, we believe that even infants in utero are sinful people (Ps. 51:5). One’s ability to understand the law of God and to recognize the rightness or wrongness of one’s actions is really irrelevant to whether they are sinful or not. On the flip side, I would add that God also saves His people before they are able to recognize their own sinfulness and, in the case of those who die young or who are mentally challenged, they may be saved even if they never are able to articulate an understanding of these things. This is because God’s saving of us is not dependent upon our own actions nor is it dependent upon our belief as a prerequisite.
  • Elkind speaks of children’s understanding of rules, both moral rules and the rules of games, as dependent on their developing reason but he does not deny that they have some sense of right and wrong at an earlier stage. If anything, he describes younger children as having stricter moral codes. In games, “[t]hey assume that the rules were created a long time ago by adults and cannot be changed” (p. 154). When asked to choose which is worse: accidentally breaking a whole stack of dishes or breaking one plate on purpose, young children always say whatever broke most is worse and they do not take into account intentions (p. 155). As adults we may evaluate the situation differently, but we must acknowledge that these young children do have a moral sense. If anything it is often the case that adults attribute too much to circumstances and intentions and thereby minimize sin.
  • Which brings us to — there is a way in which we are told to be more like children in our faith (Matt. 18:3). This is one of those passages which I really wish told us more. I am hesitant to put children on a pedestal; I do not think they are little innocents by any means. Yet there is something about them that we are told to emulate. Perhaps this is one possibility: “Young children are curious about extremes of weather like hurricanes, tornadoes, and earthquakes. In answering children’s questions about this subject, we need to remember their mythic thinking. Young children assume that everything has a purpose” (p. 131). One might argue that we should all be looking for the greater purpose in such events.
  • Elkind argues for the power of games in developing children’s moral sense. “Games provide a set of rules that govern how to behave under certain circumstances” (p. 148). When they play games, particularly games in which they must negotiate the rules with other children (as opposed to games in which adults set the rules), “children are learning to subordinate their personal wishes — not to be chosen It — to the rules of the game” (p. 153). Fantasy role playing also teaches one to put onself in another’s shoes (p. 162). These are very valuable and desirable skills and if games are an easy way to practice not putting oneself first, I say we should play a lot more games.
  • The Bible has a lot to say about disciplining one’s children and, while I do believe that the rod language it uses refers to physical discipline, it is not the case that physical discipline is our only option. Sin is so serious that it is far better to avoid the sin if possible than to discipline after the fact. Elkind’s suggestions on how to parent with humor, though he might not see them that way, provide ways that both parent and child can avoid sin: “When we discipline lightheartedly, we accomplish three important goals. First, we manage our own negative feelings in a positive and constructive way. Second, we provide our children an effective and constructive way of handling their own emotions. Third, we provide a healthy model for parenting for our children to use . . .” (p. 177). Note that there is a temptation for the parent in these situations as well. I suspect most of us who are parents are all too aware of that.
  • I like Elkind’s suggestions. At the same time, I think we need to be careful not to always make sin a joke. If humor and lightheartedness can help us avoid sin, particularly if we can use it to defuse a situation which could turn worse, then it is all well and good. But we also need to communicate that sin is serious and is to be taken seriously. So I do think there is a time for punitive discipline.
  • Charlotte Mason includes habit training in her philosophy of education which, as she uses it, is largely about avoiding sin before it happens as well. We need to be careful not to think that good outward behavior is all we need but at the same time we should not scorn the importance of those good habits, whether they be picking up one’s toys or not snapping an annoying sibling. Elkind’s humor addresses sins once they have happened or are happening. Habit training is a proactive approach that identifies stumbling blocks and seeks to address them before they recur. Both are good and necessary.
  • When the proactive and humorous approaches are not enough, we do need to address sin head-on and we need to identify it as sin and help our children to know that this comes from their hearts and that they cannot will their way out of their own sinful nature. In other words, they need a Savior. And at the same time we need to acknowledge that we are in this together. Our nature and our need is the same as theirs. We hopefully have a little more perspective and insight on it and so we help along those who are further behind, whether due to their youth or spiritual immaturity, but we are all on the same road.

What does all this mean for our theories of child development? It is okay for us as reformed people to say both that children can be too young to understand their sin and that they are still responsible for it. At times, because they have fewer abstract thinking skills, children are often less likely to justify away things that shouldn’t be justified away. Children can be very black-and-white in their thinking (especially about other’s wrongs I have found). So I don’t think we need to automatically conclude that they are in a worse place than we are (and the Scriptures imply that this is not so). But they are immature and we need to make sure that they understand their sinfulness and their need for a Savior. This can and should be done in a compassionate and not a harsh way, as ones who are in the same boat (ark?).



The Power of Play: Elkind & Mason

Dear Reader,

I first encountered David Elkind through his book The Hurried Child which I was quite pleasantly surprised to like (see this post and this one). More recently I picked up his Power of Play (Da Capo Press, 2007) in which he tackles issues of child development and how learning happens in a more head-on fashion.

Elkind is a secular scholar and an expert in child development. He comes at the issues we will be looking at from a different place than I would, yet there are many similarities in where we end up that I find quite intriguing. Though I have my differences with her I largely follow the ideas of Charlotte Mason, a late 19th/early 20th-century educator. She was a teacher and her ideas of children and their natures come from her experience but also from her Christian faith.

As its name suggests, The Power of Play is a call for the return of play to the lives of children and especially the youngest children. Play, for Elkind, springs from the child’s “inborn disposition for learning, curiosity, imagination, and fantasy” (introduction). “Play is our need to adapt the world to ourselves and create new learning experiences” (p. 3). Though it is play Elkind stresses, he sees it as but one of a triad of drives that all people have. The others are love and work. These three work together. Play, without love and work, “is simply entertainment” (p. 4). There are times as the child grows when one or another of these drives dominates. From birth to age 6 or 7, play is the main thing. In childhood, work dominates and for teens love does. Yet education, at any age, is most effective when all three work together.

Because play is the driving force for infants and young children, their education should be largely self-directed. Elkind does not favor traditional, formal learning before age 6 or 7. From that age on, the child turns more toward work which he defines as adapting to the external world. Education as we know it is then more appropriate, though it should still not be rote memorization. Children, he tells us, want to understand (p. 7). In the teen years love becomes dominant until there is finally an equilibrium between the three in late adolescence (p. 10). For adults, play is still a part of life but tends to come in the form of hobbies.

On the surface, this may not sound much like Charlotte Mason’s philosophy but I do think there are some key connections here. Mason did not incorporate games in her curriculum and found it counter-productive in the long run to make schoolwork into entertainment. I would not call her methods playful. And yet as Elkind discusses play, I do feel there are some profound similarities. Play for Elkind is about creativity, interest, and imagination and all these Mason too incorporated.

Here are some points of connection which I see:

  • Mason would have said that learning does not happen without interest and relationship with the material. So Elkind says, “Formal instruction is work. For it to be effective, play [which includes interest] and love [relationship] need to be made part of the process” (p. 126).
  • A Charlotte Mason education is heavily reliant on books but they are books by people who love their subject matter and communicate their passion for it (aka living books). So Elkind urges parents to share their passions with children (p. 182) and says that teaching is more effective when the teacher shares his or her passions (p. 185).
  • Elkind talks about how children see the world and how they think. It is not in the same way adults do. Because of this “the child may be attending to something quite different than what the adult had in mind” (p. 102). This idea supports narration as it happens in a Charlotte Mason education. When we ask children reading comprehension questions, we ask them to tell us what we think is important. When we ask them to narrate, we let them decide what is important. As parents and educators, this often means that we have to bite our tongues and accept that these are two very different things.
  • And again, following Dewey, Elkind says that we only learn from our experiences when we represent them in some way. By doing so we make them our own (p. 191). This too calls to mind narration in which the child must tell back what he has heard or read, putting it in his own words, putting together his own thoughts, and making unique connections.
  • Elkind says that science begins with observation while experimentation is best introduced later. “Children are natural observers and classifiers” (p. 142). So too Mason kept science in the early years to nature study and used it to build observational skills and a love of creation.
  • Elkind says that rote learning is good for multiplication tables and for memorizing poetry but should not be the primary mode of education (p. 201). I think Mason would have agreed here too.
  • Quoting Smilansky, Elkind says that “‘History, geography and literature are all make-believe'” (p. 211). I love this idea. These subjects can be said to be make-believe because learning them requires imagination. We have to see in our minds what is being talked about. We form our own impressions and on some level again make the subject matter our own. Again, though I don’t have a specific quote to point to, I think Mason would have agreed.
  • Both emphasize the habit of attention. For Mason this is built through short lessons that do not tax the child. Elkind says that young children in particular should be allowed to complete the tasks they have set for themselves. When we interrupt their play, we teach them that their interests are not important and rob them of the power of attention. In the long run this leads to bored, unmotivated children. The emphasis is a little different here, but there is common ground in the value of building the habit of attention, and I think that Mason might have agreed that when children set a task for themselves it is better not to interrupt.
  • Though their brains are growing quickly, Elkind says, little children are not sponges. They take time to absorb information and throwing a lot of information at them will backfire. Mason did not throw facts at young children (as certain other approaches **cough, classical, cough** do). Having an interest in and relationship with the material was more important to her.
  • Both would delay formal education until around age 6 or 7. Elkind says that young children cannot learn to follow rules or complex verbal instructions until about age 6. Even though a younger child may learn their letters and some sight words eagerly, they may not be ready for formal reading lessons until later.
  • Elkind’s description of letting children play without adult interference but with some degree of oversight sounds a lot like Mason’s idea of “masterly inactivity.”

I have some other big thoughts that arose in my reading of The Power of Play but as they change the topic a bit I think I will save them for another post. My short take on Elkind’s book is that it is easy to read, enjoyable, and well worth the time. Though he comes to issues of child development from a different starting place, I am pleased to find that many of the techniques he ends up with are not so far apart from Mason’s (and mine as far as they echo hers).