A Charlotte Mason Education, Curriculum, High School, Living Books, Middle School, Science
Comments 5

Science and the Burning Bush by Jennifer Larnder Gagnon

“All the thought we offer to our children shall be living thought; no mere dry summaries of facts will do.” The very first word in this quote from Mason is “all”, not some, not in special cases, and not all but when dealing with science. “All” means “the whole of; every; entire; full; all of a particular thing, amount, group, or area is involved or affected.”2

There are many sites that have recommended living science books for the early years. The stumbling block is those middle and high school grades.   We go the way of the public system and default to the text book. Mason states that “books dealing with science (as in history, say) should be of a literary character, and we should probably be more scientific as a people if we scrapped all the textbooks which swell publishers’ lists.”3 Did you notice which textbooks Mason was referring to?  All the textbooks. Not some or to use just when dealing with science, but all textbooks.  If we, students and teachers, want to become more science literate we need to continue our Mason education right through to year twelve with living books for science.

Every Fall I excitedly watch for the transformation of the burning bush:

It starts with just a hint of color; the red creeps in from the very tips of the leaves but we cannot see yet why it is called the burning bush.  If we switched mid-stream from living books to textbooks this is all we’d get; another plant with a name that doesn’t make sense.  Much like calling it a Charlotte Mason school but only using her philosophies for a few of the subjects.  You are only getting a hint of the incredible potential.

“The burning bush will display the most brilliant red colors if it is planted in full sun.”4   The feast of ideas found in living books is the full sun. “Planting it in shaded areas will prevent the red color from developing.”4 Introduce a textbook and you’ve cast a shadow over what could continue to be a thriving learning environment.  “The older the plant gets and becomes established, you will see a better fall color.”4 Don’t think that as a student approaches high school that textbooks must be used in order for it to be a serious and demanding course.  We know that a Mason education starts slow and builds exponentially. It is a rigorous study that is comparable and I would dare to say surpass what is happening in mainstream schools. The marked difference is the passion for the knowledge acquired for the majority of students compared to the very few who are able to “’get up’ the driest of pulverized textbooks.”5

Facts, nomenclature, definitions and formulas are important to a full science education but are not central. The second part of the first quote continues; “given the vitalizing idea, children will readily hang the mere facts upon the idea as upon a peg capable of sustaining all that it is needful to retain.”1 It is the idea that must fundamentally be the center then from the idea all the facts and formulas make sense.

“Make sure to water regularly, as a lack of water or drought conditions will hinder their fall display.”4   We, as teachers, do not want to hinder the intellectual growth of our students by sudden abandonment of ideas in the curriculum. With confidence and freedom we can continue on the joyous and challenging path of a Mason education knowing the full glorious pageant is promised to come. The burning bush given all the right conditions becomes blazing red. Our students given all possible advantages of a Mason education become afire with passion for knowledge.

A Mason education looks very different from most other types of instruction and can’t help but stand out in a crowd of typical greenery. Get the full transformation and expect to know why it is called the burning bush.

 1 Charlotte Mason, Parents and Children, pp. 227

2 Encarta Dictionary

3 Charlotte Mason, A Philosophy of Education, pp.218

4 Backyard Landscape Ideas, burning bush shrub

5 Charlotte Mason, A Philosophy of Education, pp.256

© Jennifer Larnder Gagnon 2012


Carroll Smith has spoken on various topics related to Charlotte Mason. Currently he teaches at Gardner-Webb University and enjoys working with children, teachers, college students, and Charlotte Mason Institute. He was a teacher and a principal for 21 years before coming to Gardner-Webb University where he has been for six years. Having grown up in eastern North Carolina, he attended East Carolina University for his undergraduate degree and his master's in school administration. He completed his terminal degree and wrote his dissertation on Charlotte Mason at Virginia Tech. Carroll enjoys reading, gardening, and discussing ideas with friends. He and his wife, Andra, and their two young adult college-age children, Corban and Anna, enjoy living, working and playing in North Carolina.


  1. Suzanne says

    I’d love to hear more. I am seriously thinking, “I’ve been homeschooling for 8 years and we’ve used an eclectic mix but I need to veer more towards Charlotte Mason for my children to enjoy learning.” So how do I, practically speaking, do this for a child (my oldest) that will be in high school next year? It’s a lot easier, in my mind, said than done when it comes to science. Charlotte Mason, in other subject areas, seems not to be as complicated as science. I need suggestions for Charlotte Mason science with an older child. HELP!

  2. The simplest way to look at this ‘switch’ is to think of how we all used to do history. We memorized dates and names of people and places of events. With a CM education you read a living book about one key war or king. This living book gives you an in depth look at that place in time, really knowing the character of the man and why he acted the way he did and what details brought about the event. You know a time in history really well and can recall the events and dates and names in detail, even after the test because the living ideas came first. The same goes for science. There are so many important scientists and facts and discoveries that you could memorize. But a CM education gives you the living book first. Read a book about William Harvey or better, the book he wrote, and get to know who he was, why he was driven to get answers to questions no one else had. Doing dissections from that idea of wanting to know how the body works makes sense. I could talk for hours and this little box is not enough. The living idea first then the narration by experiment.

  3. I completely agree that it seems much easier to follow Charlotte Mason ideas in grade school science. Does anyone have a list of good living books for middle/high school science?

    • Jennifer Gagnon says

      http://www.amblesideonline.org has slowly been switching their curriculum to reflect more closely what Mason said about education, including science. Look at their book suggestions, if your child has not read the years 6,7 and 8, but is in high school, it is a good place to start.

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