Seven Keys to Learning

Key 1—Children are persons

“Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God.”—Mark 10:14. KJV

Children are born persons—complete and full of endless possibilities. Children are not incomplete adults; they become adults. What they lack is not maturity but guidance, nurture, and opportunity. Your role as their teacher is to provide those things.

Key 2—Children love to learn

“Knowledge ‘nourishes’ the mind as food nourishes the body… A child requires knowledge as much as he requires food.”—Charlotte Mason, A Philosophy of Education

Children are born with a love of learning. It is an essential part of being human. Charlotte Mason felt that a love of learning was a function of being a person.

The fundamental idea is, that children are persons and are therefore moved by the same springs of conduct as their elders. Among these is the Desire of Knowledge, knowledge-hunger being natural to everybody. Histories, Geography, the thoughts of other people, (in other words), the humanities is proper for us all, and are the objects of the natural desire of knowledge. So too, are Science, for we all live in the world; and Art, for we all require beauty, and are eager to know how to discriminate; social science, Ethics, for we are aware of the need to learn about the conduct of life; and Religion, for …we all ‘want God.’—Charlotte Mason, A Philosophy of Education, p. 4

Key 3—Children need a supportive atmosphere for learning

Charlotte Mason said “education is an atmosphere.” By this she meant that the learning home is more than books and pencils; it is the feeling of love, expectation, enjoyment, appropriate discipline, and spiritual grace covering all.

There is a common idea in educational thinking that brightly colored posters and pictures on the wall and “instructional toys” make children want to learn. While this has some educational value, it is not what is meant by atmosphere. Atmosphere is to learning like air is to plant life. Without air, the natural process of germination and growth cannot take place. Without a supportive atmosphere in the homeschool, ideas cannot germinate and grow; the mind cannot develop its God-given abilities.

Key 4—Orality is essential to literacy and learning

Literacy is the ability to read and write; orality is the ability to speak and listen. All four modes—reading, writing, speaking, and listening—make up human communication. In language arts instruction, the emphasis is usually on literacy—reading and writing. This is unfortunate because orality is an equally necessary competency. In fact, without it, a child cannot learn to read or write well. Orality must precede literacy.

The first language skill a child learns is to listen, then to speak and only much later to read and still later to write. A very young child is pre-literate and has what is called a complete primary orality. That is, the child experiences the world by seeing, touching and hearing.

In that time before formal instruction, the child and parent engage in “baby talk” that includes rhythms, rhymes, and most of all stories. Through these oral experiences, the infant or toddler learns patterns of language. Gradually the child understands the world through hearing and imitating sounds. In other words, the meaning of words is associated with the sound.

Key 5—Living ideas are the natural food of the mind

Living ideas are the natural food of the mind. Just as bread and milk are food for the body, living ideas are the proper diet of the mind. Charlotte Mason expressed it this way:

“The mind of a child takes or rejects according to its needs, whether in taking or rejecting, the mind is functioning for its own nourishment; that the mind, in fact, requires sustenance as does the body, this mind is not to be measured or weighed but is spiritual, so its sustenance must be spiritual too, must in fact be ideas.” —Charlotte Mason, A Philosophy of Education, p.10

Living ideas are seldom found in a textbook, which Charlotte Mason calls “dumbed-down,” but found in their full force and vigor in a book by a single author who has a passion for the subject. Literature and science abound with such books.

Key 6—Active involvement is vital to learning

Active involvement is a key learning element if a child is to truly learn. As an infant and toddler, a child’s means of learning was through his senses. When a child begins formal schooling, he is ready to use his senses—unless he is prevented. Many teaching methods insist children—even very young children—sit still for a long period. It is extremely difficult for a child to sit still all day (though some discipline in sitting still and attending is needed).

Consider using any means at hand to create active involvement for your children. For example, if you are teaching him word recognition they will be far more willing to learn if you teach him words to which he has an emotional tie. “Mother,” for example, is a word he can remember better than, say, “the” or “at.”

The word “mother” is not just a word but also an experience. This is called creating context for the content. In other words, find those things the child is most familiar with and make them the basis for instruction. Give your child a reason to remember and use what you are teaching him.

Key 7—The formation of effective habits leads to a productive life

“Education is fully one-third habit.” —Mary Woodis, Habit Revisited

“Habit is ten natures.” —Charlotte Mason

Each person assumes habits as they grow. Habits are behaviors repeated until they are done without making a conscious decision. Habits originate in the mind. Science shows us that the body’s tissues form in the direction of the repeated action so as to support it. Each repeated action of the body or the mind, whether good or ill, produces a physiological effect on the nervous system and the brain. There is literally a new “neural pathway” formed in the brain to accommodate the new habit. Therefore, it becomes easier to do the thing for which there is a pathway laid down in the brain.

How does the formation of habit affect the educational process?

It affects it in every way. For example, if we teach children through repeated action to attend to our words, they will do it without effort from you. The child will have harnessed his or her will to attend when you speak. The opposite is also true. The child can be taught not to listen through wrong teaching methods.

Six Tools of Learning

Tool 1 Narration

“Narrating is an art, like poetry-making or painting, because it is there in every child’s mind, waiting to be discovered, and is not the process of disciplinary education.” Charlotte Mason, Home Education

Most children enjoy telling you what they know about a subject. It delights them to tell about an incident, however small it may seem to us. Charlotte Mason believed that this love of telling could be used as a foundation for self-education. Narration is retelling in one’s own words what has just been read (either aloud or silently). It is a natural way to demonstrate and organize what one has learned from the reading. Charlotte Mason’s idea of narration as a tool for education and assessment was far broader in intent than mere “parroting back” of information. It involves really knowing what has been read.

Tool 2 Literature

“Children have a right to the best we possess; therefore their lesson books should be, as far as possible, our best books.” Charlotte Mason, A Philosophy of Education

We call “classic” or “great” those books that have endured and made a contribution to our understanding of what it means to be human. They have shaped our view of the world and ourselves. They are the great books of world civilization. In many cases, we have them only because wise individuals have preserved them for us. They have survived war, politics, famine and fire. The range and scope of this literature is staggering.

There is no subject of human nature that these books have not touched. Literature encompasses six thousand years of human history. They range from the profoundly simple fables of Aesop to the complex novels of Leo Tolstoy.

Tool 3 Storytelling

One day naked truth went walking. Everywhere she went people scorned her for her nakedness and would not hear her words. Finally, imagination saw her difficulty and offered to accompany naked truth whenever she journeyed. When people saw how beautiful imagination was, they desired her and welcomed her words. Naked truth, of course, was welcomed everywhere imagination went. Adapted by Sheila Carroll from a folktale.

Storytelling can communicate living ideas just as written words can. Think of the Bible stories and the truths they communicate. Remember the story of Moses or Joseph? Both of these men’s lives make an engaging story and yet contain the eternal truths of the eternal God.

Tool 4 Nature Study

“Stand still and consider the wondrous works of God.” Job, 37:14

“If we give children regular opportunities to get in touch with God’s creation, a habit is formed that will be a source of delight throughout their lives. Many people know little of the natural world because they never take time to observe it. Once our senses are on the alert, though, nature yields treasure after treasure.” Karen Andreola, A Charlotte Mason Companion

The wonders of nature wait at your doorstep. Even if you live in a busy, crowded city, there are birds, insects, and plants to be found. Finding them is half the fun. Natural wonders are everywhere. When you make exploring and appreciating the natural world a priority, it will transform your homeschool.

Tool 5 Short Lessons

“Children no more come into the world without provision for dealing with knowledge than without provision for dealing with food. They bring with them not only that intellectual appetite, the desire for knowledge, but also an enormous, an unlimited potential for attention to which the power of memory seems attached.” Charlotte Mason, A Philosophy of Education

Children are persons born with a desire to learn and to acquire knowledge in a wide variety of subjects. They are also born with an enormous capacity for attention and remembering. These two statements may seem to run counter to experience in the classroom. We have all seen children as inattentive as magpies. We have also seen their distaste for certain subjects expressed in inattention. How does the teaching parent harness that desire for knowledge together with the capacity for attention?

The answer lies in the length of the lessons themselves. Charlotte Mason recommended lessons be no more than ten minutes in length for a child under the age of eight (Home Education, p. 142). When the lessons are short and varied, your child’s interest is always fresh and ready for what comes next.

Tool 6 Local Resources

A Living Books education makes use of all that is within reach the library, your home, friends and family, your community. In the seventeenth and eighteenth century in America, it was accepted that learning was in relationship to the people, places and events at hand.