Monday, September 28, 2015

Stop Teaching to the Test and Start Cultivating Affinities...

Principle 12: 

We, believing that the normal child has powers of mind which fit him to deal with all knowledge proper to him, give him a full and generous curriculum, taking care only that all knowledge offered to him is vital, that is, that facts are not presented without their informing ideas.  Out of this conception comes our principle that,– 

"Education is the Science of Relations"; that is, that a child has natural relations with a vast number of things and thoughts: so we train him upon physical exercises, nature lore, handicrafts, science and art, and upon many living books, for we know that our business is not to teach him all about anything, but to help him to make valid as many as may be of--

"Those first-born affinities that fit our new existence to existing things."

Charlotte Mason's words are more relevant today than ever.  In this time of public school standardized state testing, it's important to be reminded that Education is the Science of Relations.  Although, apparently, teaching to the test is nothing new, as Charlotte opens Chapter X of A Philosophy of Education with these words...
Few things are more remiss in our schools than the curriculum which is supposed to be entirely at the options of the Head: but is it?  Most Secondary schools work towards examinations which more or less afford the privilege of entry to the Universities.  The standard to be reached is set by these and the Heads of schools hold themselves powerless.
Though Elementary schools no longer work with a view to examinations results yet as their best pupils try for scholarships admitting them to secondary school, they do come indirectly under the same limitations.  
....In both cases, the education we offer is too utilitarian, - an indirect training for the professions or for a craftsman's calling with efforts in the latter case to make a boy's education bear directly on his future work.  
Nearly one hundred years later, we have come full circle.  Common Core and standardized state testing currently rule the Heads of elementary public schools as well as secondary schools.  I spent six years on our local public school board.  One of the famous lines from administration when faced with the fact that Investigations Math is not working was, "We're training kids for future jobs that don't yet exist today"....what?!?!!  I think this mentality is exactly what Charlotte was referring to when she said, "Education, no doubt, falls under the economic law of supply and demand; but the demand should come from the children rather than from teachers and parents..." 

Don't be confused, a Charlotte Mason education is not child led or unschooling.  Rather, Charlotte advocated a broad and generous curriculum so that kids could develop their natural affinities.  She said, "...the unspoken demand of children is for a wide and very varied curriculum" and "They require a great variety of knowledge,  - about religion, the humanities, science, art; therefore, they should have a wide curriculum with a definite amount of reading set for each short period of study."  Her idea was to spread a feast before the child so they could take what they needed and leave the rest.

We also must be careful not to pick and choose for the child as she explains below...

Education is the Science of Relations. - We consider that education is the science of relations, or, more fully, that education considers what relations are proper to human being, and in what ways these several relations can best be established; that a human being comes into the world with capacity for many relations; and that we, for our part, have two chief concerns - first, to put him in the way of forming these relations by presenting the right idea at the right time, and by forming the right habit upon the right idea; and, secondly, by not getting in the way and so preventing the establishment of the very relations we seek to form.  (Vol. 3 School Education, p. 65-66)

A Captain Idea for us,––Education is the Science of Relations.––A child should be brought up to have relations of force with earth and water, should run and ride, swim and skate, lift and carry; should know texture, and work in material; should know by name, and where and how they live at any rate, the things of the earth about him, its birds and beasts and creeping things, its herbs and trees; should be in touch with the literature, art and thought of the past and the present.  I do not mean that he should know all these things; but he should feel, when he reads of it in the newspapers, the thrill which stirred the Cretan peasants when the frescoes in the palace of King Minos were disclosed to the labour of their spades. He should feel the thrill, not from mere contiguity, but because he has with the past the relationship of living pulsing thought; and, if blood be thicker than water, thought is more quickening than blood. He must have a living relationship with the present, its historic movement, its science, literature, art, social needs and aspirations. In fact, he must have a wide outlook, intimate relations all round; and force, virtue, must pass out of him, whether of hand, will, or sympathy, wherever he touches. This is no impossible programme. Indeed it can be pretty well filled in by the time an intelligent boy or girl has reached the age of thirteen or fourteen; for it depends, not upon how much is learned, but upon how things are learned.
A Wider Curriculum.––Give children a wide range of subjects, with the end in view of establishing in each case some one or more of the relations I have indicated. Let them learn from first-hand sources of information––really good books, the best going, on the subject they are engaged upon. Let them get at the books themselves, and do not let them be flooded with a warm diluent at the lips of their teacher. The teacher's business is to indicate, stimulate, direct and constrain to the acquirement of knowledge, but by no means to be the fountain-head and source of all knowledge in his or her own person. The less parents and teachers talk-in and expound their rations of knowledge and thought to the children they are educating, the better for the children. Peptonised food for a healthy stomach does not tend to a vigorous digestion. Children must be allowed to ruminate, must be left alone with their own thoughts. They will ask for help if they want it.
We may not Choose or Reject Subjects.––You will see at a glance, with this Captain Idea of establishing relationships as a guide, the unwisdom of choosing or rejecting this or that subject, as being more or less useful or necessary in view of a child's future. We decide, for example, that Tommy, who is eight, need not waste his time over the Latin Grammar. We intend him for commercial or scientific pursuits,––what good will it be to him? But we do not know how much we are shutting out from Tommy's range of thought besides the Latin Grammar. He has to translate, for example,––'Pueri formosos equos vident.' He is a ruminant animal, and has been told something about that strong Roman people whose speech is now brought before him. How their boys catch hold of him! How he gloats over their horses! The Latin Grammar is not mere words to Tommy, or rather Tommy knows, as we have forgotten, that the epithet 'mere' is the very last to apply to words. Of course it is only now and then that a notion catches the small boy, but when it does catch, it works wonders, and does more for his education than years of grind.
Let us try, however imperfectly, to make education a science of relationships––in other words, try in one subject or another to let the children work upon living ideas. In this field small efforts are honoured with great rewards, and we perceive that the education we are giving exceeds all that we intended or imagined. (Vol. 3, School Education, p. 161-163)
Charlotte further cautions us in different areas of her writing about confusing this principle in the Herbartian sense or unit study approach.
We do not use this phrase [Education is the Science of Relations} in the Herbartian sense, that things or thoughts are related to each other and that teachers must be careful to pack the right things, in together, so that, having got into the pupil's brain, each may fasten on its kind, and, together, make a strong clique or apperception mass. (Vol. 3, School Education, p. 217)
Once again, Charlotte relieves the educator from being the fountain head of all knowledge.  Also, when we teach to the test or try to teach toward a trade, I believe we are standing in the way of the unique plan our Creator has for each individual child.  Instead we should teach from a variety of subjects and the best living books letting children cultivate their affinities. 
We may not even make choice between science and the 'humanities.'  Our part it seems to me is to give a child a vital hold upon as many as possible of those wide relationships proper to him....Because the relationships a child is born to are very various, the knowledge we offer him must be various too.  (Vol. 3, A Philosophy of Education, p. 157)
We talked at length in our monthly CM Book Study group about affinities, which ones we're developing right now and which ones we've neglected.  Every year I try to add subjects to expose our children to a varied curriculum.  This year, I've added things like church history, missionary study, composer study, and Plutarch.  Some of it is trial and error, but the key is to keep trying because you never know which affinity your child will develop. 


  1. Excellent! I love the way you put this together.

  2. I typed a response, a comment, and if this a repeat I'm sorry. I'm not sure if my original comment is awaiting moderation or if google swallowed it because I wasn't logged in when I started the comment.

    I want my children to learn and love things for the sake of learning. I want them to remember and recall things later on in life. I want them to truly learn. I don't want them to remember something long enough just to get a good grade on some test.

  3. Thanks for your kind words Kathy :)

    To my knowledge, there were no other comments Nikki. It must have gotten lost in space, sorry. ...and, yes, it's true, I also want our children to develop a love of learning.