I want to preface this by saying that I’m not a homeschool philosophy expert. I’m not someone who has pored over volumes of educational methods. I’m not someone who religiously follows one specific way of doing things. But as I’ve been reading Charlotte Mason’s Home Education for my homeschool book club, much of what she says resonates with me.
Today, I’m writing about Part IV, which is the section on cultivating habits of mind and moral habits. Specifically, I’m focusing on the habit of attention (giving the task at hand your undivided attention).
There are so many nuggets of wisdom in this section. This is by no means comprehensive and it’s somewhat personal at times, but these are some of the things that stood out to me as I read through Part IV of Home Education.
Cultivating the Habit of Attention
Cultivating attention begins with consistency.
“In the first place, there is a time table, written out fairly, so that the child knows what he has to do and how long each lesson is to last.” (Home Education, p. 142)
Children thrive on routine. Studies show that routine is linked to emotional and social health. Knowing what the day holds provides children with a sense of security and allows them to engage in lessons more fully.
In our home, we do not stick to as rigid a schedule as Charlotte Mason recommends. However, we follow the same routine each day: Morning Time followed by independent lessons. Afternoons may vary, as we have science class on Wednesdays and French class on Fridays, but for the most part, our schedule is the same from week to week. The girls know what to expect and when to expect it.
On days that we don’t follow routine? Life is chaotic. Kids need routine. It’s much easier to give a task your undivided attention when you’re not busy trying to adjust to chaos.
Short and Sweet Lessons
Routine is all well and good, but how do we fit everything in? Composer study, picture study, handcraft, nature study, poetry memorization, Bible, copywork and dictation, math, reading, geography, history, and more—I’ve often been overwhelmed by the thought of trying to fit all the riches of a well-rounded education into our day.
As I read through Home Education, I see that the book encourages twenty-minute lessons for children under the age of eight. Twenty minutes? You can cover a lot of interesting and beautiful things in twenty minutes. It’s usually fairly easy to keep a young child’s attention for twenty minutes at a time, which is why beginning with such short, focused lessons is integral to developing the habit of attention.
Alternating “Thinking” and “Painstaking” Lessons
Charlotte Mason recommends alternating “thinking” and “painstaking” lessons. What does she mean by this? Math is the perfect example of a “thinking” lesson. Copywork is the perfect example of a “painstaking” lesson. Why? Because math challenges the brain, whereas copywork requires a different type of concentration.
We do this quite naturally in our homeschool. During Morning Time, we begin with devotions and stories. Next, we do a grammar drill, followed by a hymn study, followed by a math drill, followed by geography or history. Each of these subjects engages the brain differently.
During independent work time, it’s the same thing. The girls alternate between math lessons, handwriting practice and language arts. This truly does keep their brains fresh and alert, focused on the task at hand and ready to move onto the next lesson when it’s time.
“What is the natural consequence of work well and quickly done? Isn’t it the enjoyment of ampler leisure? […] This possibility of letting children occupy themselves variously in the few minutes they may gain at the end of each lesson, is compensation which the home schoolroom offers for the zest which the sympathy of numbers, and emulation, are supposed to give school work.” (Home Education, p. 143)
On a shelf upstairs, I have a wad of my elementary school report cards. Every now and then, I go through them and chuckle a little at the comment section. I was a good student, but almost every single report card (from every single year) says the same thing: “Mary-Ann tends to rush through her work. She needs to slow down.” What my teachers didn’t realize was just how much I loved to read. I knew that if I finished my work quickly, I would have more time to read. So I rushed.
Charlotte Mason recommends using free time as a motivator. I love this idea (obviously). One thing, however, that she required (which my teachers didn’t) was that work be done meticulously. If work wasn’t done well, the student would need to redo it. Rushing haphazardly through a lesson, therefore, was of no benefit.
This is brilliant.
Marks for Conduct
…”good marks should be given for conduct rather than for cleverness.” (Home Education, p. 144)
One of the things I love the most about home education is that we are able to teach for mastery rather than “teaching to the test”. As a result, marks don’t matter because we don’t move on from a subject area until it has been mastered.
According to Charlotte Mason, children should not be rewarded for their intelligence but rather than for their behaviour: “punctuality, order, attention, diligence, obedience gentleness…” (p. 144). Isn’t it discouraging when, no matter how hard you try, you struggle to master something? Children are more motivated to continue working towards mastery when they are marked on their effort rather than their achievement.
Knowledge Should Be Attractive
According to Charlotte Mason, lessons should be designed to whet a child’s appetite for knowledge. Rather than simply feeding a child lists of dry facts, lessons should encourage children to think, to imagine, to grow the mind and to gain ideas. How beautiful is this?
I used to spend afternoons volunteering in a school where children had to work independently and quietly in little cubicles. The children spent much of that time filling out booklets upon booklets of lessons, silently trying to memorize information in order to pass a test and move on to the next booklet. It seemed incredibly sad to me that these kids weren’t able to discuss concepts or wrestle with the knowledge that they were trying to acquire. Dry facts do not grow the mind.
Do I still teach dry facts in my homeschool? Yes. We’re eclectic homeschoolers. I need the freedom that workbooks bring so that I can teach multiple ages at once. Are they retaining the information? Not nearly as well as they do when we discuss the concepts. Do my children love their workbooks? No. Is it ideal? Probably not. But it’s life.
In Home Education, Charlotte Mason encourages parents to ask their children questions that make them think: “Every walk should offer some knotty problem for the child to think out…” (p. 154). She encourages lessons that stimulate imagination: “Their lessons … should cultivate their conceptive powers” (p. 153).
It’s much easier to retain knowledge when facts come alive. How refreshing to have the opportunity to engage in discussion, to teach with living books, and to discover the beauty of knowledge together. (Note: This can be done even if your children are in a traditional school system during the day.)
“The soul of the sluggard craves and gets nothing, while the soul of the diligent is richly supplied.” (Proverbs 13:4)
“Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men.” (Colossians 3:23)
“As the child gets older, he is taught to bring his own will to bear; to make himself attend in spite of the most inviting suggestions from without.” (Home Education, p. 145)
What is the goal of a parent? To train up a child to become an independent, productive member of society. Everything we do as parents is with this goal in mind: to teach independence.
Spiritual, moral and academic lessons are all, therefore, taught with this goal in mind. We teach our children to focus wholeheartedly on the task at hand because “whatever the natural gifts of the child, it is only in so far as the habit of attention is cultivated in him that he is able to make use of them” (Home Education, p. 146).
In other words, Charlotte Mason would propose that the habit of attention is a launching point. Training a child so that diligence becomes second nature is essential to training a child, period.
I can agree with that.