Charlotte Mason

Charlotte Mason
Charlotte Maria Shaw Mason
Born 1 January 1842
Bangor, Gwynedd
Died 16 January 1923(1923-01-16) (aged 81)
Residence Ambleside England (from 1891)
Alma mater Home and Colonial Society
Occupation Educator
Employer Bishop Otter Teacher Training College, self-employed
Home town Worthing, England
Religion Christian

Charlotte Maria Shaw Mason (1 January 1842 – 16 January 1923) was a British educator who invested her life in improving the quality of children's education. Her ideas led to a method used by some homeschoolers.



Charlotte Mason was born in Bangor. An only child, she was mostly educated at home by her parents.[1][2] Her mother died when she was 16. Her father died the following year. Mason enrolled in the Home and Colonial Society for the training of teachers and earned a First Class Certificate. She taught for more than ten years at Davison School in Worthing, England. During this time she began to develop her vision for "a liberal education for all." The word "liberal," as it related to education in Mason's time, implied a generous[3] and broad curriculum for all children, regardless of social class.

Between 1880 and 1892, Charlotte Mason wrote a popular geography series called The Ambleside Geography Books:

  • Elementary Geography: Book I for Standard II (1881)
  • The British Empire and the Great Divisions of the Globe: Book II for Standard III (1882)
  • The Counties of England: Book III for Standard IV (1881)
  • The Countries of Europe Their Scenery and Peoples: Book IV for Standard V (1883)
  • The Old and New World: Asia, Africa, America, Australia: Book V (1884)

Mason was soon invited to teach and lecture at Bishop Otter Teacher Training College in Chichester, England, where she stayed for more than five years. Her experiences there convinced her that parents would be greatly helped if they understood some basic principles about bringing up children. So Mason gave a series of lectures, which were later published as Home Education,(1886), a book explaining how to apply her principles to children from birth to nine. From this beginning, the Parents' Educational Union was formed and quickly expanded.

A periodical was launched, the "Parents' Review", to keep in touch with PEU members. Charlotte Mason edited the Parents' Review from approximately 1890 until her death. It was published monthly. Each issue included feature articles on educational topics related to Miss Mason's vision of a liberal arts education for all children, as well as regular monthly columns on nature, health, parenting, book reviews, letters to the editor and PNEU Notes about news from various districts.

Mason moved to Ambleside, England, in 1891 and established the House of Education, a training school for governesses and others working with young children. By 1892, the Parents' Education Union had added the word "National" to its title, and a Parents' Review School had been formed (later to be known as the Parents' Union School), at which the children followed Mason's educational philosophy and methods.

Miss Mason wrote and publish several other books developing and explaining her theories of education:

  • Parents and Children, published in 1896. Parents and Children is a collection of her articles and essays previously published in various sources.
  • School Education published in 1904, outlines her methods for educating children from approximately age 9 to 12.
  • Ourselves, was also published in 1904. In it, Miss Mason addressed herself directly to the children, or for parents to read aloud with their children, to help them learn to examine themselves and develop high moral standards and self control. The first part is for children under age 16. Book two of Ourselves is written for students over 16[4].
  • Formation of Character, published the following year, in 1905, was developed from a revision of earlier volumes. Miss Mason explained in the preface to volume 5 (Formation of Character) that "In editing Home Education and Parents and Children for the 'Home Education' Series, the introduction of much new matter made it necessary to transfer a considerable part of the contents of those two members of the series to this volume, Some Studies In the Formation of Character." Her purpose with this volume, she said, was to demonstrate how her methods should assist children to naturally develop and strengthen good character traits.

"We may not make character our conscious objective," she wrote, but she believed that parents and teachers should "Provide a child with what he needs in the way of instruction, opportunity, and wholesome occupation, and his character will take care of itself: for normal children are persons of good will, with honest desires toward right thinking and right living. All we can do further is to help a child to get rid of some hindrance––a bad temper, for example––likely to spoil his life."

Miss Mason's last book, Towards A Philosophy of Education was published in 1923, nearly forty years after her first book. It is written primarily to address the application of her methods and principles with high school students, but she also revised a summary of her principles, and in some cases revises and refines what she had written in previous volumes. Many home educators who read her volumes recommend started with volume 6.

In addition to the geography series and her six volumes on education, Miss Mason also wrote and published a six volume work called The Saviour of the World (published between 1908–14), a study of the life and teaching of Jesus in verse.

Over the years between the publication of volumes 1 and 6 of her education series, other schools adopted her philosophy and methods, and the Ambleside establishment became a teacher training college to supply all the Parents' Union Schools that were springing up, as well as to assist with correspondence programs provided for British parents living overseas. Mason spent her final years overseeing this network of schools devoted to "a liberal education for all."

After her death, the training school became Charlotte Mason College and was run by the Cumbrian Local Education Authority. In the 1990s, due to financial pressure, it became the tenth college of Lancaster University. An unfavorable Ofsted report four years later led to a merger with St Martin's College to become the Ambleside campus of St Martin's College.[5]

The buildings now form part of the University of Cumbria and a health centre. There is also a museum attached. In March 2008, the University announced plans to end teacher training in Ambleside, developing the campus for postgraduate work and a conference centre.

Teaching philosophy

Mason's philosophy of education is probably best summarised by the principles given at the beginning of each book mentioned above. Two key mottos taken from those principles are "Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life" and "Education is the science of relations." She believed that children were born persons and should be respected as such; they should also be taught the Way of the Will and the Way of Reason. Her motto for students was "I am, I can, I ought, I will."

Teaching methods

Living Books: Probably the best known of Mason's methods is her use of living books for every subject possible instead of dry, factual textbooks or books that are 'written down' to children. Rather than books written by committee, as most textbooks are, living books are usually written by one person with a passion for the topic and a broad command of the language as well as the ability to write in an engaging, literary style while communicating great ideas rather than mere facts.[6][7][8][9] The size of the book is not as important as the content and style- it should be alive and engaging.[10]

Miss Mason did use textbooks when they were the best books she could find to meet the above criterion.[11]

Miss Mason dismissed as 'twaddle' materials that are dumbed down and insulting to children.[12]

Narration: Children are expected to tell about what they have read; this is referred to as narration. Narrations can be oral, written or drawn and should be given after only one reading of the material. This method requires the child to intentionally train his powers of attention, to synthesise all he has read, to organise the material it in his mind, and to determine how best to communicate all that he recalls in his own words. "Corrections must not be made during the act of narration, nor must any interruption be allowed."[13][14][15][16][17][18][19]

Habit Training: Miss Mason believed that formation of good habits was a vital part of her educational method. It is such an important part of her educational philosophy that it forms the seventh point in the 'short synopsis of the educational philosophy' she included in the preface of each of her six volumes on education: "7. By "education is a discipline," we mean the discipline of habits, formed definitely and thoughtfully, whether habits of mind or body. Physiologists tell us of the adaptation of brain structures to habitual lines of thought, i.e., to our habits." She believed that a proper education included "the discipline of habits formed definitely and thoughtfully".[20][20][21][22][23][24][25] She believed that habit training was a powerful force in helping children to take charge of their own education. Miss Mason specifically encouraged a child's learning the habits of attention, perfect execution, obedience, truthfulness, an even temper, neatness, kindness, order, respect, recall, punctuality, gentleness, and cleanliness, among others.[26]

Lessons: Mason advocated that lessons be kept short and focused for younger children, seldom more than 20 minutes in length.[27] As children mature and develop greater mastery of their powers of attention, lessons grow progressively longer.[28] Students were given a schedule so they knew they had a limited time to complete the lesson. Miss Mason believed that dreary or dawdling lessons 'stultified a child's wits' and blocked his intellectual progress at the start.[29] Mason believed these short, concentrated, focused lessons encouraged the habit of full attention, and securing such a habit early in life equipped the children to receive a broad education encompassing a well-ordered feast[30] of subjects. Miss Mason also recommended alternating lessons so that children were doing a variety of work so as not to fatigue the brain- sums would be followed by a lesson in writing, for instance, rather than two history readings back to back.[31]

Prepared Dictation: Once children had mastered the basic mechanics of handwriting, Miss Mason introduced them to prepared dictation.[32] She used copywork and dictation to teach spelling and reinforce grammar and composition skills. In prepared dictation, the child is given a sentence, a passage, and eventually a few pages to study until he feels confident that he is prepared to accurately reproduce all the spelling, capitalisation, and punctuation in the passage.[33] Younger students would reproduce a short passage as the teacher dictated. Older students, given two or three pages to study over the course of a week, would transcribe or reproduce a selection chosen by the teacher once each week.[34] The teacher dictates to him from the passage, one phrase at a time,[35] watching carefully as he writes to catch any misspelled word and correct it immediately.[36] Miss Mason believed in immediately correcting misspelled words so as not to let a misspelled word imprint itself on the student's memory. Miss Mason believed that before learning the rules of spelling, punctuation, and syntax, children should first become familiar with fine writing and see the mechanics of grammar and spelling within the context of great thoughts and rich language. They also used dictation for practical skills, such as writing out a recipe from dictation.[37]

Handwriting Miss Mason used A New Handwriting for Teachers, by M. M. Bridges (Mrs. Robert Bridges[38]) to teach handwriting to her students.[39] Miss Mason's approach to handwriting was based on her belief that "No work should be given to a child that he cannot execute perfectly, and then perfection should be required of him as a matter of course".[40] In keeping with her theories about short lessons and focused attention, she thought it more important that the student produce six perfect strokes than an entire slateful of slovenly work.[41] Once a child had mastered the formation of individual letters,[42] children were given a phrase, sentence, or paragraph to copy in their best handwriting. These copywork exercises should take only a few minutes each day so as to encourage the habits of attention and perfect execution without becoming tiring.[43]

Art: Charlotte Mason believed that children deserved direct contact with the best art.[44] The great ideas of men and women of history are revealed in their works, whether paintings or writings or music. Art appreciation is taught through Picture Study, which introduces the child to six works of a great artist one at a time over a sixty day term.[45][46] The children study the print for several minutes undisturbed, then the parent or teacher looks at the print and asks the child or children to describe it. Another approach is to have the children sketch a general outline of the picture, or to pose a tableau in imitation of the picture- done from memory first, and then compare the sketch or tableau to the print.[47][46]

Music appreciation: Miss Mason's students would listen to a few works by a single composer over a term. The composer was chosen to correlate with the period of history the children were studying that term. The goal is for the children to learn to appreciate classical music[48] and to have enough familiarity with major works and composers that they recognise them when they hear them.[49] "About six works by some great composer are chosen for study each term. These compositions are played or sung to the children constantly and studied carefully. The children are taught something about the form, harmonic structure, thematic development of the composition and some information is given about the life of the composer." Where possible, children were taken to live concerts as well.[46]

Nature Study and Outdoor Education: Miss Mason believed that young children should spend several hours outdoors every day that the weather permitted.[50][51] In Mason's schools, one afternoon each week was devoted to spending time outdoors. For nature study, children take along a sketchpad to draw and label the different aspects of nature they observe. Students kept a calender of the first finds of each season- birds, flowers, and other species were sketched, described, and dated.[52] High school aged students continued to keep nature notebooks, but they were more complex. In addition to their lists of birds and plants observed throughout the year, they kept records and drawings in their books and made "special studies of their own for the particular season with drawings and notes."[53] They would study habitats and ecosystems as a whole rather than the individual plants and species of their younger years, enabling them to complete exam questions such as "Make a rough sketch of a section of ditch or hedge or sea-shore and put in the names of the plants you would expect to find."[54]

Mathematics: Mason emphasised the importance of children's understanding mathematical concepts before ever doing paper and pencil equations. They should be encouraged to use manipulatives and to think through the whys and wherefores of solving word problems—in other words, how mathematics applies to life situations.

Poetry was an integral part of daily life in Mason's schools. However, poetry is not presented in order to be analysed, criticised, and told what to think about it. Poetry, as in other subjects that introduce the child to great ideas of the past, is shared together and allowed to stand on its own, encouraging the child to develop his own relationship with that poet and his thoughts.

Shakespeare and Plutarch: Students in Mason's schools studied Shakespeare and read Plutarch regularly, as well.

Grammar: Since grammar is the study of words, not of things, Mason thought it is a difficult concept for young children to grasp. She recommended postponing the formal study of grammar until the child reached the age of ten. Consistent practice in narration, dictation, and copywork lays the foundation for grammar study.

Bible: Mason's method of studying the Bible was simple: read it every day. She gave children credit for being able to understand passages directly from the Scriptures, and she assigned several large portions to be memorised and recited each school year.

History is considered most relevant to children through the use of living books, biographies, autobiographies, and narration. In addition, Mason's students kept a Book of Centuries that was similar to a personal time line in a notebook. They added people and events to the pages as they studied about them.

Just as history is the story of what happened to a person, geography is the story of where he was and how his surroundings affected what happened. Geography is best taught through living books, also. Short map drills can supplement.

Foreign Language: Miss Mason's students studied French as a second language as well as learning some Latin and German. Foreign language lessons began with children's songs and stories. Consistent with her philosophy, a foreign language is best taught in a living setting.

Handicrafts: Miss Mason's students practised "various handicrafts that he may know the feel of wood, clay, leather, and the joy of handling tools, that is, that he may establish a due relation with materials..."[55] About the role of daily handiwork in her schools she wrote: The points to be borne in mind in children's handicrafts are: (a) that they should not be employed in making futilities such as pea and stick work, paper mats, and the like; (b) that they should be taught slowly and carefully what they are to do; (c) that slipshod work should not allowed..."[56]


Charlotte Mason was the first person to perceive the educational potential of Scouting applied to children. In April 1905, she added Aids to Scouting by Robert Baden-Powell to the syllabus of the Parents' Union School. Later, Baden-Powell credited a governess trained by Mason, coupled with the reputation of Mason herself, for suggesting the educational possibilities of Scouting. This, amongst other influences, lead to Scouting for Boys and the formation of the Scouting movement.[57][58]

Mason and her teachers organised the Parents' Union Scouts for boys and girls around the country, both those educated at home and those at schools using the P.N.E.U. system (date?). When the Girl Guides were established, Mason suggested that the P.U. Scouts amalgamate with national organisations for boys and girls respectively.

Differences between Mason's theories and the modern Dorothy Sayers inspired Classical Education movement

  • Some versions of the Classical education movement put less emphasis on the fine arts, especially visual art.[citation needed]
  • Classical Education can be described as rigorous and systematic,[59] separating children and their learning into three rigid categories, Grammar, Dialectic, and Rhetoric.[60] Charlotte Mason believed that all children are born persons, and should be educated on real ideas, through their natural environment, the training of good habits and exposure to living ideas and concepts from the beginning.[61][62]
  • Classical introduces writing composition earlier and teaches it as a separate subject, while Mason depends on oral narration and a smooth transition into written narration in later grades without studying composition as a separate subject until the upper years.[63][64]
  • Classical Education also introduces formal grammar at an earlier age than Mason does, and Miss Mason believed in beginning grammar lessons with whole sentences rather than parts of speech.[65]
  • Classical advocates more parental explanations and distilling of information than Mason does.[66]
  • The version of classical education developed by Dorothy Sayers relies heavily on rote memorisation for young children.[67] Miss Mason's students memorised scripture, poetry, and songs,[68] but Miss Mason did not value rote memorisation for the sake of rote memory. She believed that children should be fed upon the best ideas, which she called 'mind-food.' She believed even the youngest children should be given 'ideas, clothed upon with facts' as they occur, inspiring tales, and worthy thoughts.[69][70]
  • The Classical Education approach in The Well Trained Mind relies on abridged books and simplified version of the classics for younger children in what this version of Classical Education terms 'the Grammar Stage'.[71] Charlotte Mason believed that children should be introduced to subjects through living books, not through the use of "compendiums, abstracts, or selections."[72] She used abridged books only when the content was deemed inappropriate for children. She preferred that parents or teachers read aloud those texts (such as Plutarch and the Old Testament), making omissions only where necessary.[73]

See also


  1. ^ Cholmondley, Essex (1960)The Story of Charlotte Mason, (1842–1923)
  2. ^ " "
  3. ^ liberal. (n.d.) The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. (2003). Retrieved 20 August 2009 from
  4. ^ Preface to Ourselves, by Charlotte Mason
  5. ^ History of St Martin's College
  6. ^ Mason, Charlotte Home Education pp 6, 229, 281
  7. ^ Mason, Parents and Children, pp 263, 279
  8. ^ Mason, Charlotte School Education preface pp 81, 84, 124, 125, 178, 227, 246
  9. ^ Mason, Towards a Philosophy of Education preface, pp 7, 13–30, 53,90, 91, 109, 117, 154,172
  10. ^ Mason, [ School Education] p 178, "A fit book is not necessarily a big book."
  11. ^ Booklists and Programmes from PNEU Schools
  12. ^ Mason, Home Education, pp 176, 188, 205, 226, 229, 281,
  13. ^ Mason, Charlotte Towards a Philosophy of Education, see 'narration' in index.
  14. ^ Amblesideonline, Narration
  15. ^ Parents' Review Volume 35, 1924 p. 610 Some Notes on Narration by G.F. Husband
  16. ^ Parents' Review, Volume 39, 1928 p058 Concerning Repeated Narration by Elsie Kitching
  17. ^ Parents' Review Volume 68, 1957 p. 061 Some Thoughts on Narration by Helen E. Wix
  18. ^ Parents' Review, Volume 2, 1967 p. 170 We Narrate and then we Know by E.K. Manders
  19. ^ Parents' Review, Volume 31, 1920 Lawe, Clouston, and Millar, A Liberal Education in Secondary Schools
  20. ^ a b Mason, Home Education, preface
  21. ^ Mason, Charlotte Parents and Children, preface
  22. ^ Mason, Charlotte School Education, preface
  23. ^ Mason,Charlotte Formation of Character, preface
  24. ^ Mason, Charlotte Ourselves, preface
  25. ^ Mason, Towards a Philosophy of Education, preface
  26. ^ Mason, Charlotte Home Education pp 96–169
  27. ^ Mason, Home Education p 142
  28. ^ PNEU Programmes, Compare programmes for the younger years with those for the upper years.
  29. ^ Mason, Charlotte, Home Education p 17
  30. ^ Mason, Towards a Philosphy of Education, pp 51, 183, 189, 302
  31. ^ Mason, Charlotte Towards a Philosophy of Education p 158
  32. ^ Mason, School Education, page 286
  33. ^ Mason, School Education page 307
  34. ^ Mason, School Education page 305
  35. ^ Mason, Home Education pp 241–243
  36. ^ Parents' Review, Volume 17, no. 6, June 1906, pg. 467 Notes of Lessons by Stephanie Wilkinsin
  37. ^ Mason, School Education page 358
  38. ^ Designing Letters
  39. ^ Home Education, pp 236–338
  40. ^ Mason, Home Education page 160
  41. ^ ibid
  42. ^ Mason, Home Education page 236
  43. ^ Mason, Home Education p. 239
  44. ^ Levison, Catherine A Charlotte Mason Education
  45. ^ Levison, Catherine; A Charlotte Mason Education
  46. ^ a b c Parent's Review Volume 34, 1923, pgs. 75–84
  47. ^ Picture Study
  48. ^ Parents' Review, Volume 14, no. 7, July 1903, pgs. 535–537, Music and Art in Schools by L. Winifred Nicholls
  49. ^ Music
  50. ^ Gardner, Penny; Charlotte Mason Study Guide
  51. ^ Mason, Charlotte; Home Education, pp 42–95
  52. ^ Mason, Charlotte; Towards a Philosophy of Education page 223
  53. ^ Mason, Charlotte; Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 219
  54. ^ Mason, Charlotte; Towards a Philosophy of Education, pp 219–220
  55. ^ Mason, Charlotte; Towards a Philosophy of Education p. 31
  56. ^ Mason, Charlotte Home Education pp.315–6
  57. ^ "Aids to Scouting". Johnny Walker's Scouting Milestones. 2006. Retrieved 22 January 2007. 
  58. ^ "Be Prepared". DGS: Scouting, Interview from Listener magazine. 1937. Archived from the original on 20 January 2007. Retrieved 22 January 2007. 
  59. ^
  60. ^
  61. ^ AmblesideOnline, Charlotte Mason's 20 Principles: A Synopsis of her Educational Method
  62. ^ Mason, Charlotte; School Education, chapter 19, "Educational Manifesto"
  63. ^ Mason, Charlotte; School Education page 286
  64. ^ Mason, Charlotte; Towards a Philosophy of Education, pp 15, 108, 154, 190,
  65. ^ Charlotte Mason, Mason, Charlotte; Home Education, page 295-300
  66. ^ Mason, Charlotte; School Education page 229
  67. ^ Sayers, Dorothy; "The Lost Tools of Learning"
  68. ^
  69. ^ Mason, Charlotte, Parents and Children, p. 263
  70. ^ Mason, Charlotte Towards A Philosophy of Education, pp.88–90 109, 253, 256
  71. ^ Bauer, Susan Wise; Wise, Jessie; The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home page 61
  72. ^ Mason, Charlotte; School Education, page 247
  73. ^ Mason, Charlotte, Home Education Home Education page 233


External links

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