Charlotte Mason (1842–1923) was an English educator, author, and thinker, committed to providing an educational approach that cultivated an optimal learning atmosphere; developed balanced relationships and habits; and provided students access to the best work of the best minds.
The unlikely pioneer of a social and intellectual movement, Mason dedicated much of her life to bringing “common thought on the subject of education to the level of scientific research.” Her theories were tested in thousands of English schools in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Teachers and children using her approach consistently flourished in knowledge and character.
Six tenets underpin her (and our) philosophy:
Children as persons
Who hasn't been defined by character or ability? “You're very musical, or athletic, or bright, or mathematically inclined,” says a teacher. “You're tone deaf, clumsy, average, and have no aptitude for math,” says a grandparent. Defining a child is a common way to identify who he/she is, to locate something he is good at, to bolster his self-esteem, to place him in the right track in school, to direct his extra-curricular activities.
Yet whenever we attempt to define a person, some unexpected beauty of nature breaks out that defies our definition. We find that he/she is not exactly what we thought. Perhaps every person exceeds our power of measurement.
At Ambleside, we do not define children by their strengths or weaknesses. Instead, we view all children as persons, created in God's image, with a vast potential for a fruitful life filled with a diverse array of interests and relationships.
As persons, all children at Ambleside thus experience a broad, rigorous curriculum. All can calculate, solve, attend, explore, ponder, recite, paint, and sing. All are held to a high standard in relationship to self, others, ideas, and work. All can learn without the external motivation of grades, rewards, punishment, or manipulation. All can master the habits of a life well lived, appreciate a wealth of ideas and knowledge in well-written books and complete tasks worthy of their attention, time, effort and thought.
The power of attention
We understand that the primary work of both student and teacher is to attend. It is the task that precedes all others.
Students everywhere attend to something. The question is to whom or to what do they attend? Is it a fleeting thought; self-consciousness; an interest or person outside of school? In a typical classroom, students' attention is often directed to a final outcome: “Do I have to know this for the test?” Students are trained to value knowledge and ideas chiefly related to how they pertain to examinations.
Ambleside students, however, learn to direct their attention to the “text” - whether the text is a well-written book, a musical composition, an algorithm, a great master's painting, a nature specimen, or instruction in a special skill.
Just as the body hungers for good nutrition, so does a student's mind. Ambleside students learn to study a text and then to narrate what they saw, heard, or read. During this process, their minds stir and grow as they seize ideas independently, or receive them from teachers or fellow students. Every Ambleside teacher strives to provide students with food for their minds, instead of simply 'fast food' for an imminent test.
As they encounter and feed on the many texts around them, Ambleside students become:
Education as relations
Parents and educators often put a child on the path of a single interest (sports, music or science for example), based on the child's environment or on cultural trends. But a true education lets children encounter and develop vital relationships with a diverse range of people, ideas and things.
True education, then, allows children to make the world their classroom. Children at Ambleside establish relationships with 16 to 20 areas of knowledge. Their studies provide them with life-giving knowledge, delight and beauty.
Children build vital relationships, and are thus better equipped for the world and their futures, when they:
Education as atmosphere
Ambleside teachers welcome students into an atmosphere of beauty and inspiration. Classroom furniture is the work of craftsmen. Natural light filters into the classroom. Children observe birds feeding outside the window. Walls display old masters' works, wise sayings, maps of faraway places, and nature objects the class has gathered.
At Ambleside, students encounter the past and present, the awe and wonder of science and mathematics, the frailty and nobility of humankind, the ebb and flow of life, and the relationship between authority and obedience. And - free from the burden of competing for ranks, grades or prizes - they learn for the joy of learning.
With the guiding hand of a teacher who is both loving and firm, students are allowed to face the natural consequences of their actions, experiencing the delight and the struggle of everyday life.
Ambleside teachers seek to cultivate an atmosphere that nurtures:
Education as discipline
Long before sophisticated imaging technology confirmed it, Charlotte Mason understood that the physical brain is shaped by its experiences. Mason knew life could be “duly eased” for children “by those whose business it was to lay down lines of habit upon which behavior might run easily.”
Thus, Ambleside teachers help students to cultivate lifelong habits that will support learning and mature living. During this formation, Ambleside teachers work alongside families, equipping students to live full, satisfying lives - rich in devotion to God, service to others, and continued personal growth.
Apart from the curriculum, students learn and practice many habits. To name a few:
Education as life
Charlotte Mason believed that minds are nourished when they engage with ideas. Sadly today, much that passes as education is actually data and technique, assessed by quizzes and tests. Day-to-day, week-to-week, even year-to-year, many contemporary students' hungry minds find only scraps of ideas to feed on.
Real learning happens when students engage novelists, poets, philosophers, scientists, mathematicians, artists, musicians, historians and explorers. Real learning happens when students wonder, ask why, discuss, grapple and see how. Ambleside teachers foster this engagement using carefully chosen Ambleside curriculum.
For example, a student gleans from the Psalmist the idea that one knows God in stillness. From composition, she receives the idea that silence emphasizes solitude or peace. From composer study, she learns that Mendelssohn copied St. Matthews Passion, without believing the work could be performed again. These ideas are seeds in the child's mind. As they germinate, others emerge, and a whole crop springs up from just one morning's sowing.
At Ambleside, children experience education as part of their life each day. They receive consistent intellectual nourishment via: