There has been a lot of snow in the UK this past week. With illness on our staff team it has been a challenging week; I was rather hoping for six inches to fall here in Cambridge so we could close for the day. Alas! Only a few light snow showers came our way.
Yet every week, hectic or not, seems to affirm the enduring wisdom of Charlotte Mason’s educational vision.
Mystery of personhood
I was covering in our Year 2 class (age 6-7) most of the week. A boy in that class has delayed language skills and, it would appear, some processing difficulties. He finds narrating extremely difficult. He struggles to link two coherent thoughts in the wake of a reading. He struggles to hear and retain instructions.
In other areas, it became clearer to me, he has real strengths. During some spelling practice on ‘wh’ words, he offered to spell ‘watch’. Not a ‘wh’ word, but off he went. Did he know about ‘tch’, I wondered? “w – a – t – c – h”. Perfect. I gave a big cheer and told him that I have children in the Year 6/7 class I usually teach (OK, they have dyslexic tendencies) who would struggle to spell that word correctly. As I said that his big, disbelieving smile was heartwarming.
I am reminded how important it is to retain an open mind about the possibilities within a child; to be ready for surprises; to be able to wonder. Otherwise we diminish a child. This is a profound matter touching our deepest attitudes to children. Charlotte Mason was right to place “the child is a person” at the centre.
“We attempt to define a person, the most commonplace person we know, but he will not submit to bounds; some unexpected beauty of nature breaks out; we find he is not what we thought and begin to suspect that every person exceeds our power of measurement.” (The Story of Charlotte Mason, p.221)
Education is a discipline
Another boy in that class, although bright and academically able, is unusually lacking in self-control, finding it very difficult to continue in obedience to a simple instruction. He needs intellectual feeding – and does well with a robust diet – but his most pressing need as a human being is to form the habit of self-government.
Crystal clear class rules and fair consequences for misbehaviour are what he needs. Our hope is that as we consistently impose reasonable demands upon him from the outside, he will develop the capacity better to govern himself from the inside.
The ‘way of the will’, however, also requires ‘diversion’. The rhythm of the subjects studied during the day is key here, but so are playtimes. Roughly, our Year 2 boys can manage about an hour of concentrated activity before the ‘figits’ grow to epidemic proportions! With regular diversion their wills are re-energised they can apply themselves afresh. They were delighted to have a new playmobile set to enjoy by the end of the week thanks to my father-in-law who spent four hours assembling it!
Education is a life
Discipline without inspiration is manipulation. In the case of this second boy we felt it was important to try again to sow the idea of why self-conquest matters. Charlotte Mason gives the example of a Great Duke who had learned the habit of promt rising. The progression goes like this: idea, act, habit, character. The key point is that the initial idea matters. It is an appeal to the spirit of the person. “The idea of self-conquest must be made at home in the boy’s mind until it becomes a chivalric impulse which he cannot resist.” (The Story of Charlotte Mason, p.210)
Inspiring ideas are, of course, the beating heart of every subject across the entire curriculum: history, composer study, science and so on. I was heartened by a story from the father of another boy in this same class last week. He told be that they were all most impressed by James on their recent holiday. He had naturally and confidently spoken about a bee they saw on a walk (a beekeeper had come in weeks earlier as part of our enrichment progamme) and he also made some interesting comments about Giotto, the artist they are studying this term. Although this boy is new to our school and is struggling with core skills, his mind is alert and engaged because he is fed by a rich curriculum.
None of this is new to those familiar with Charlotte Mason’s ideas. I often think of education as an art. First, It requires a clear definition of priorities. The art comes in the judicious balancing of them day by day. My confidence in Charlotte Mason remains as strong as ever. If the goal is – as I take it to be – human flourishing, she is an exceptional guide.
My own view is that British schools have the wrong priorities and some profound systemic flaws. That is why we started Heritage School just over three years ago. Our hope is that we can model a bigger vision of what education can be.
© Jason Fletcher, 2010