A Charlotte Mason Education, Educational Reform, Habit Formation, Imagination, Observation, Philosophy
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Observation Number 3 by Carroll and Anna Smith

My daughter, Anna and I batted around ideas about observation and why it is one of the foundational principles of a Mason education.  This blog is the result of that conversation.

The past couple of blogs I have written have focused on the practice of observation as key to a Mason paradigm.  The first engaged with the organic nature of observing on a farm.  The second considered a few ideas regarding nature study and observation in an urban setting.  This blog is part 1 of 2 that continues to explore observation as a key component of a Mason educational paradigm.  In today’s writing, I explore the nature of ‘observation‘ as defined by Mason.  In Part 2, I build on that exploration to consider the implications of that understanding of ‘observation’ in an educational paradigm.  Unusual though it may seem, today’s blog does not mention the classroom at all – and barely mentions children.  Today’s blog lays the philosophical foundation upon which in Part 2 we consider the concrete building blocks of Mason’s educational paradigm.

Let me begin by raising the two main questions before us regarding ‘observation:’ what is ‘observation’ and what’s the point of it? Or, in other words, what does it mean to observe something  and why should we do it?

Some synonyms for ‘observation’ are ‘monitoring,’ ‘watching,’ ‘examination,’ inspection,’ or ‘consideration.’  My imagination immediately draws images of white-haired scientists in lab coats scrutinizing glass containers bubbling with brightly colored liquids.  A quick Google search of the question ‘why is observation important’ brings images of science classes and posters with color-coded boxes explaining the scientific method. Following this notion, observation is then a process that is lived out through the scientific method: create a hypothesis, complete the experiment, draw conclusions. It implies a deconstruction – taking apart the thing or phenomenon being observed or monitored to analyze its component parts and draw conclusions.

This brings us to the next question: why do it?  One option that is all too common in our current culture, implicit though it may be, is derived by understanding ‘observation’ as a means to knowledge, knowledge as a means to power. The intent for observing then is to know the ‘observed’ completely: to master, to own as a commodity that brings wealth, power, etc.

However, Mason argues that ‘observation’ as a practice is more than simply a process of deconstructive analysis.  She also presents us with a very different intent that is derived from a relational, theological perspective.

Mason certainly doesn’t reject the importance of scientific observations.  Instead, she distinguishes ‘observation’ referring the activity of scientific study as only a part of a whole.  She argues that ‘observation’ actually encompasses a much richer spectrum of meaning.  Mason (1953) connects observation to her idea of the large room: “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” (p. 170)?  She identifies ‘observation’ as part of living a full life.  Now this may seem like a big jump.  What does the practice of observing have to do with living?

As we know, Mason’s paradigm is born out of a relational theology: God is a relational Being, we are made in his image, therefore we are relational.  We know through relationship. Therefore, living a full life is the exercise of developing relationships: relationship to our Creator, relationship with ourselves, relationship with others, relationship with the rest of creation. In this worldview, power is not and cannot be the ultimate goal.  Therefore, observation is not simply a detached process in which the ‘observer’ is completely detached from the observed. And it is not an exercise in domination in which the ‘observer’ consumes the ‘observed.‘

‘Observation’ is a process in which the ‘observer’ develops a relationship with the ‘observed.’ It is the cornerstone to knowing: the starting place for the ‘observer’ developing a relationship with the ‘observed.’  This relationship develops through the sensory experiences of seeing, hearing, smelling, touching or tasting.  However, observation as Mason presents is not purely the sensory experience but demands the attention, care and direct engagement of the observer to the details of the observed.  The intent behind the experiential nature of ‘observation’ is not merely empirical data input as a means to power, but it is learning as a practice of enjoyment and wisdom.

Learning, as understood by Mason, cannot happen outside of relationship. She (1953) says, “The child who learns his science from a textbook, though he go to Nature for illustrations, and he who gets his information from object-lessons, has no chance of forming relations with things as they are, because his kindly obtrusive teacher makes him believe that to know about things is the same thing as knowing them personally” (p. 66).

By rejecting the implicitly matterialist* assumptions of ‘observation’ as an exercise in deconstructive analysis, Mason opens the door for a much richer understanding of ‘observation’ as a practice.  Her understanding is not divorced from the physicality of our existence, but it also does not reduce us to purely physical, atomic beings.  In this, as in many other ideas, she pushes back against false dualisms that pervaded her time and continue to shape ours.

But what does this all mean for the classroom?  If you, like me, need to root the abstract in concrete to really grasp its depth and breadth, this blog has probably left you wanting.    I can only conclude by saying this is not the end!  There is a Part 2 on its way that will plant the ideas explored throughout this blog within Mason’s broader educational paradigm and explore their implications within the classroom.

*Note – Remember that I spell the word materialist as matterialist to remind the reader that I am speaking of the philosophy of life that believes people are only matter.

Mason, C.M. (1953). Home and School Education:  The Training and Education of Children over Nine.  Oxford:  The Scrivener Press.

© 2013 Carroll and Anna Smith


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. Caralee says

    Wow! God is so amazing and good to us in how he teaches us. This article has stated exactly what I learned this weekend.

    This past weekend, I learned in a real experiential way (not just head knowledge) what Charlotte meant when she said that children are real persons with their own individuality, their own personality, their own thoughts and feelings, and should be treated with respect. That they are not “made” by us the way we want with what we put into them, but rather, we can only train them, guide them, and build them up through the ways that Charlotte describes in her writings.

    I came to this revelation through observing my children narrating to me their thoughts on a particular reading we had this past week. In slowing down, being quiet, and intently watching and listening to them, I gained more insight into who they are than ever before. I came to know them as their own persons.

    Then in reflecting on what I experienced this weekend, I saw that the only way to really ‘know’ my children personally, and thus have a strong and healthy relationship with them, will come about as I quiet my own thoughts and talk and take the time to really pay attention and listen to what my children say and do. To really observe them. This knowing will change how I care, train, guide, and homeschool my children. It will make my role as a mother that much more effectial and easier. It will ignite positive change in me as a person too. And I will cherish and enjoy the time we have together and our relationship that much more.

    You are right in saying that our 5 senses are forms of observation. I would even dare say that many of our thinking capabilites are forms of observation. Would you agree?

    A person misses out on so much wonderful life –so much “living”– when they do not observe.

    Your article resonated within me and gave me joy as I read it for I knew what you were saying. I am looking forward to hearing your next post on this.


  2. Thank you, Caralee. I will be working this week some on ideas for Part II. One cannot live in theory but must get to practice. That is where we all live. Glad to see your experience with both caused you to resonate with this blog. We learn a lot through observation! Carroll

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