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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
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Charlotte Mason's Relevance to Current Educational Change

By L.C. Taylor
Volume 7, no. 1, new series, PNEU, January 1972, pgs. 6-13


(In what I am about to say there are one or two words which I should explain. Where I use the word 'school' I normally mean 'secondary' school. 'Boy' throughout embraces 'girl'I find 'boy or girl' or 'he or she' too difficult. To even up the score, 'teacher' is generally followed by the pronoun 'she'.)

In 1966 the Nuffield Foundation set up its 'Resources for Learning Project' to investigate how the resources available to education could be most profitably used, both to meet present needs and foreseeable changes. Those of us involved with the Project thought the best way to start was to travel far and wide to see the latest miracles in countries abroad as well as here at home. In consequence, we have consorted with all sorts of strange devices, with the latest in teaching machines, with computer assisted learning and so on.

Alongside this world-wide investigation it occurred to us that we might profitably travel in time as well as in space and I found myself spending a good deal of my day reading in the library of the British Museum. It was there that I came upon Charlotte Mason and realised that, though she had confined her resources for learning chiefly to the book (as well of course to the teacher, whoever that happened to be), she had enunciated key principles far more clearly than some of the innovators we had recently met whose talent for jargon and elaboration left one stupified. So I am very glad to be here to pay tribute to someone who, as far as I am concerned, is really of immense importance. Her ideas have ripened and, like apples in the loft, are now ready for us and we for them. If you have any thoughts in your mind about PNEU being Victorian, I hope what I have to say will convince you it is not merely the latest thing, but the next thing.

Let me explain to you why.

Small children learn in part from being told and in part from an active personal interaction with people and things; that active personal interaction with people and things we call play when children are tiny, and when they are older grace with the words 'discovery' or 'experience'. For severely practical reasons, not least economy, schools in the past emphasised 'being told' as a way of learning. We have established a teaching-based system of learning. If instead we were to arrange things to facilitate this active personal interaction with people and things, we would have what I shall call a resource-based system of learning, and you call PNEU.

Why do I emphasise the word 'system'? When we establish a school, we must know what sort of classroom activities to provide for. If there are several different sorts and we cannot provide for them all, we shall arrive at compromises in which whatever is most important or general, will predominate. In consequence, the details of a school's structure fit together into a coherent system supporting and accentuating its central assumptions. The arrangements in our schools at present - insulated egg-box architecture, desk furniture, period time-tabling, streaming and setting into classes by ability, prescripted syllabuses which all have to follow - a listener's kind of discipline - all these arrangements are functions of the assumption that children will get most of their learning from the lips of teachers. In consequence we spend very little indeed - less than 5 per cent of the annual education budget - on books, equipment, and every sort of learning material.

Within such a system there may be, of course, some opportunities for a more personal sort of learning, in private study or projects or by discovery methods, but these remain peripheral and often require awkward extemporisation. Thus, although recent curriculum development teams have laid emphasis on boys playing an active part and learning heuristically, their courses are still contained within the present timetable structure and remain essentially an appendage to the teacher. There has been no fundamental change in the system of learning nor, indeed, was any intended. What we have is a teaching-based system which provides some opportunities for independent learning. An alternative would be an independent learning system which provides opportunities for teaching. The way that we lean will have effects right through the structure, the organisation and the relationships in the school.

When members of the Resources for Learning Project looked in depth at the difficulties facing schools at present (and I can assure you they are very grave) they came to see that, for reasons examined later, a resource-based system had become more appropriate to contemporary and future needs than the teaching-based system, and during the last three years they have explored and designed, tested and costed a basic resource-based system, concentrating on the changes that are not merely desirable but critical if a shift is to be engineered gradually from the existing system to a new one. In fact, as Charlotte Mason showed, the central initial changes are neither very large nor very extravagant.

Now, what is wrong with the teaching-based system? Well, I think you should listen first to some words of Charlotte Mason on the subject:

'Too much faith is commonly placed in oral lessons and lectures. "To be poured into like a bucket", says Carlisle, "is not exhilarating to any soul...." Such oral lessons are titillating for the moment, but they give children the minimum of mental labour and the result is much the same as that left on older persons by the reading of a magazine. We find on the other hand that in working through a considerable book the interest of boys and girls is well sustained to the end.

They develop an intelligent curiosity as to the causes and consequences and are, in fact, educating themselves ... having found the right book let the master give the book the lead and be content himself with a second place. The lecture must be subordinate to the book. The business of the teacher is to put his class in the right attitude towards their book by a word or two of his own interest in the matter contained and of his own delight in the manner of the author. The boys and girls gain knowledge as they dig for it; labour prepares the way for assimilation, that mental process which converts information into knowledge and the effort of taking in the sequence of thought of its author is worth to the boy a great deal of oral teaching.

Do teachers always realise the paralysing and stupifying effect that a flood of talk has upon the mind? The inspired talk of an author no doubt wakens a response, and is listened to with tense attention, but few of us claim to be inspired and we are sometimes aware of the difficulty of holding the attention of a class. We blame ourselves, whereas the blame lies in the instrument we employ - the more or less diluted oral lesson or lecture in place of the living and arresting book. We cannot do without oral lessons - to introduce, to illustrate, to amplify, to sum up. My stipulation is that all lessons should be few and far between and that the child who has to walk through life - and has to find his intellectual life in books or go without - "shall not first be taught upon crutches".'

I think that a superb comment on the failure of the method that we use predominantly in our schools, the constant barrage of oral teaching. I want to add some slightly more detailed, if you like technical, reasons why it seems to me this oral method will not do.

First, our teaching-based system tends in the major academic subjects to result in a great deal of passive listening. Resource-based learning offers a more active sort of learning likely to be less dull and to engage children's interest more.

Second, thirty university students or thirty primary school children working in the integrated day (and how Charlotte Mason would approve of the best new primary school), may within guiding limits at any one time be learning thirty different things; thirty schoolboys being taught in class learn one thing and someone has to prescribe exactly what that one thing shall be. Doubtless, whatever system of learning is used, we shall require children to learn many things the purpose of which they do not appreciate, but it is our teaching method which makes us fill out our outline requirements with exact detail, compulsory item upon compulsory item, period upon period.

When the teacher speaks, you must listen exactly to the words that she chooses and there is no opportunity to make your own selection whatsoever. Not only the content, but the style of learning and the pace have to be decided by the teacher and fixed upon everyone. By allowing a reasonable choice in content, style, pace, resource-base learning breaks 'the lock-step of the class' (a useful American phrase) which contributes at present so much to low motivation (another Americanism!).

Third, if children have to learn the same thing at the same pace from a single source of instruction, then the argument for putting them into homogeneous groups is overwhelmingly strong. We are now disturbed by the effects of such selection, whether between schools by the eleven plus or within schools by streaming and setting. Such selection of children often reflects factors other than a child's real ability of potential, yet the selection, once made, tends to fix the expectations of both teachers and other children. However, unstreaming in itself is not enough, or even better. Conventional teaching addressed to an unstreamed classa common and growing practice nowadays - bewilders and exposes the least able children and frustrates the more able. Only if you have some system of resource-based learning, learning from 'books and things', as Charlotte Mason recommended, can you sensibly embark - at the secondary level - on a policy of unstreaming.

Fourth, when boys get their learning chiefly from the lips of a teacher, we are compelled to collect them in groups at fixed times and in fixed places to catch the teacher's words during their moment of fleeting life. The timetable has become a solemn 'Madhatter's teaparty'. No matter whathowwherever you are, when the bell goes, we must all move round and be faced in random order with one dish or another placed in front of us. However bizzarre (and I wonder how many of us would choose to learn like that) timetable constraints matter little if learning is seen as a pedestrian routine. But if, as curriculum reformers now intend, there should be room for genuine discovery, for personal exploration, for deeper experience, then a less peremptory timetable is needed. Resource-based learning makes a more flexible use of time within subjects, and between subjects, possible. Children do not all have to do the same thing at exactly the same time.

Fifth, in a teaching-based system the expertness of a teacher in her subject is of critical importance; less so when boys are learning from resources. Packages of materials (books, if you like, sent out from PNEU headquarters)can support people who are excellent with children, but relatively inexpert in a subject or in its latest developments. A resource-based system may then ease the ominous shortage of suitably qualified teachers in certain key subjects.

Finally, if all the boys in a class are to hear the teacher's words, they must be not only generally passive, but exactly quiet and still. Teaching forces us to impose upon adolescents, by threats and commands, a docility which few of us as adults could sustain. You know what it is likeyou start teaching, when somebody over there picks up a ruler and taps it on the desk and immediately, perhaps in the middle of a flight of fancy, you have to stop and say 'Oh Smith, for heaven's sake put that ruler down'. You are forced to insist on absolute quietness because otherwise other children will not be able to hear what you say.

The situation, of course, is very different when we are learning from resources - say, from books in the library. If we feel inclined to stand up and stretch, or even whisper to our neighbour or walk out of the door or, when adult, to go and have a cigarette perhaps, then that is possible, but so long as we are learning from oral lessons, a rigid discipline is essential, unavoidable. It is one of the most striking effects of resource-based learning (as an integrated day in primary schools displays) that a nagging confrontation ceases to be the common classroom condition, and the relationship between teacher and taught, on which ultimately so much depends, is thereby greatly improved.

For my part, it was from Charlotte Mason that I began to understand the accretions, the system that had developed around our habit of conveying information constantly through the words of the teacher. If we intend to change some of the things which now cause so much trouble in schools, we will first have to change our method of learning.

If you want to see a resource-based learning system in operation you can go to a PNEU school or to an integrated day primary school. However, the primary school is concerned with the development of fundamental learning skills; content therefore matters relatively little. Collaborating with other children, understanding numbers, resorting to books. manipulating and making objects, using line and colour, learning how to listen carefully, observing accurately, expressing ideas well - such skills as these can be practised without much worry about what particular subject matter is learned. A single teacher can look after almost all the varied activities of a class of children throughout the day and can hope to provide the resources the children need.

But the situation is wholly different in secondary schools, hemmed in by social and competitive pressures of which examinations are the symbol. Customarily subject content matters in its own right and teachers become specialists. If resource-based learning is to be the general method used, then not one teacher, but several, will have to produce the materials that are needed. Moreover, at secondary level the ratio between the time taken to produce resources and the time taken for children to consume them is far less favourable to the product than at the primary level.

Sometimes individual teachers, a department in a school, some enthusiasts in a teachers' centre, devise materials for their children's use, but the voluntary labours of willing and burdened teachers will not suffice to provide a regular and reliable supply of resources in all the principal academic subjects, and for a succession of years. Home manufacture can only hope to supply a smatter of individual bits of independent learning and no real change in the style and quality of schooling occurs. The first essential for a resource-based system of learning is a suitable supporting agency. Without such provision, talk about resource-based learning in secondary schools is wasted breath.

You will see then the second thing that I learned from Charlotte Mason was that it is unreasonable to rely on teachers to produce all the materials they need. Teachers sometimes think they can do so and set off in high hopes but they soon fall by the way. Thus the Dalton Plan, of which I am sure most of you have heard, relied absolutely on teachers in schools producing their own material. In the first flush of enthusiasm, all went well, then the originating generation moved on and the next came and the Plan lost some of its impetus. They were not very keen to use the materials left by their predecessors, materials that were seldom very good because the teachers had had to produce them only in their spare time. The result was that the Dalton movement which had waxed so vigorously - there were at one time fifteen-hundred schools in this country using the Dalton Plan - as quickly waned.

Charlotte Mason saw very clearly that if you were to have a system whereby people learnt from resources, somebody had to sit down and work out what those resources were going to be. The fact that she was supplying harassed mothers looking after their own children or, in those Victorian times, inexperienced governesses, doesn't alter the principle: in exactly the same way teachers need the support of materials worked out and supplied to them from a centre. That was the second thing, at 'Resources for Learning' we learnt from Charlotte Mason.

If I describe to you some of the materials we have been producing, you will see how in their design too we have learnt from Charlotte Mason. If children are generally to be the active agents in learning, then certain basic conditions must be met. First, the resources must be physically there for them to get at. Second, if they are to use the resources independently, then these must be so designed, so chosen, so selected, that children can understand them directly - they mustn't need constant explanation by the teacher as most text-books do; they have to be, in Charlotte Mason's phrase, 'living books for the children themselves'. Third, the resources must be so arranged that the children know what to do next.

Starter packages of materials meeting these requirements have been compiled by the Resources for Learning Project and used in a variety of Comprehensive Schools experimentally. These packages include printed guides, but the teacher is at liberty to alter the rough sequence of suggestions. Further, teachers are specifically encouraged - by adding to, or subtracting from the package - to modify it to suit their own tastes or their pupils' needs. In using these materials the class teacher teaches less than in the past, though she may well decide to include some lessons for the whole class.

She still needs to guide, to encourage, to organise. She has increased opportunities to act as a consultant, to tutor individuals, to help small groups. It is not essential for teachers to work constantly within the framework provided by these packages. Some choose to do so, others prefer to set aside a regular period each week, or a block of periods from time to time, for topics they consider best handled by class teaching. In using these packages children work sometimes as individuals, sometimes in pairs or small groups, in part according to the selected activity, in part by their preference or the teacher's decision.

It is important to realise that the total environment of Resources for Learning is very much larger than the visible original starter package we send out. For the teacher makes additions, some in permanent, duplicated form, others verbally in period teaching to the whole class or to a group or to an individual. Similarly, the children themselves contribute additional information and ideas to their working partners, and research far beyond the materials supplied in chosen projects. I want to emphasise that the kind of starter packages we have produced encourage variety and choice. The more that teachers and children, having received something to begin with, mix in their own labour, the happier we are.

In this respect we are, I confess, very much out of fashion. The fashion nowadays is for what is called educational technology, something Charlotte Mason would not approve. Technology is the application of science to a given end. In education, as in dealings with physical matter, the technological process runs like this: a particular need is identified. Next, the technologist defines the need as a set of specifications. In education those specifications are called objectives, 'behaviour objectives' usually. Now, having precise specifications, or objectives, the technologist selects from existing knowledge techniques, and materials, those that seem most appropriate to achieve his objectives. This in educational technology would be described as making the first draft of a learning system. Now the educational technologist ensures that it is tested and modified and re-tested until the specifications that were originally laid down are as nearly fulfilled as human ingenuity and the available resources permit. That is known as the 'evaluation and feed-back cycle'.

When you look at some of the new courses, 'technologically' produced, you have the impression that they have not emerged from the point of a pen but from the end of a screwdriver. The educational technologists have produced courses which at first sight seem to have much in common with those from PNEU, that is to say, they are designed for children to get on with and work from direct. But for the technologist the importance of these individualised or independent learning materials is their self-contained, exactly processed efficiency, by-passing the unreliable filter of the teacher (or, it might be, a PNEU mother acting as a teacher).

Teachers are a source of 'noise' or 'static': by avoiding them you can beam the machinery of this world, directly and efficiently, into children's heads. Charlotte Mason, in producing materials for independent learning, had an entirely different vision. She thought that they would allow children more time for their private agenda, for their own development, for their own choices, for their own 'affinities'. To the educational technologist materials should be tooled and re-tooled to the closest possible tolerance: to Charlotte Mason the compilation of materials should stop at the loosest acceptable fit. Let me just read you something from her:

'Education is a life, that life is sustained on ideas. Ideas are of spiritual origin, and God has made them so that we can get them chiefly as we convey them to one another whether by word, or mouth, written page, scripture word, musical symphony; but we must sustain a child's inner life with ideas as we sustain its body with food. Probably he will reject nine-tenths of the ideas that we offer, as he makes use of only a small proportion of his bodily food, rejecting the rest. He is an eclectic; he may choose this or that; our business is to supply him with due abundance and variety and his to take what he needs. Urgency on our part annoys him.

He resists forcible feeding and loathes pre-digested food. What suits him best is pabulum presented in the indirect literary form which our Lord adopts in those wonderful parables whose quality is that they cannot be forgotten, though while every detail of the story is remembered, its application may pass and leave no trace. We too must take this risk. We may offer children as their sustenance, the Lysander of Plutarch, an object lesson, we think, showing what a statesman or a citizen should avoid. But who knows, the child may take to Lysander and think his cute ways estimable! Again, we take the risk, as did our Lord in that puzzling parable of the Unjust Steward. One other caution, it seems to be necessary to present ideas with a great deal of padding as they reach us in a novel or a poem, or history book written with literary power.

A child cannot in mind or body live upon tabloids however scientifically prepared; out of a whole big book he may not get more than half a dozen of those ideas upon which his spirit thrives; and they come in unexpected places and unrecognised forms, so that no grown person is capable of making such extracts from Scott or Dickens, or Milton, as will certainly give him nourishment. It is a case of "in the morning sow thy seed and in the evening withhold not thine hand, for thou knowest not whither shall prosper either this or that".'

Now this acceptance of the individual mystery of learning lies close to the centre of Charlotte Mason's thinking. She used to quote Matthew Arnold: "knowledge is information touched with emotion". What information a child would invest with an active response and so transmute into knowledge, is a personal matter. "We grow by our affinities", said Charlotte Mason. Each child has his own and they occur at varying moments. A child should have therefore she said "a generous curriculum full of books and things with which the child must build his own relations".

Her objection to the normal process of teaching was that the teacher too narrowly intruded his ideas, his affinities, his relations, upon children. How much more would she object to the current stress by educational technologists today on 'target populations' whose measurable 'behavioural change' reveals whether the precisely defined 'objectives' of the set of learning materials have been met. Such men would actually trim materials until all inefficient redundances are removed!

Where cold fact or mere technique holds sway - perhaps: but as a habit, a basic approach in education, the technologist's style is procrustean and dangerous. Their vision is of a cultivated land, watered neatly by sluice and dyke and lock; Charlotte Mason's vision is of the teeming sea. Children, being young, need direction to those waters which experience has shown to be profitable, and some instruction in the use of a net; thereafter let them cast and draw in freely.

Now here we touch, I think, upon the final problem. It is whether technology will be used to release us from past constraints, to allow us more freedom, or whether it will be used to fetter us with more powerful shackles than ever before. We have noted the constraints of class teaching; but at least teaching was not always efficient; and while the teacher nattered on, children could dream their dreams, their private agenda could continue infrequently interrupted.

The materials produced by educational technologists allow for none of this. These are precisely formulated; learning is effectively controlled; you can see exactly when children are not attending, exactly where they have gone wrong, and so on. Between those who want to leave as much as possible in life open, personal, unresolved, and those whose instinct is to structure all creation in the name of efficiency, and then to act upon others in the light of their dubious findings, there is, I think, a final and a fixed enmity.

It is very clear where Charlotte Mason stood. In our work at Resources for Learning, I feel we have enlisted, as it were, under her banner and are fighting, in more threatening times, the same battle for the greater freedom of the individual child. You will see why in writing my book about the Project's work, at the end I wrote this:

'because a more independent and active style of learning is no new aspiration, I have been conscious in writing this book of the amiable ghosts of a number of predecessors, finding special pleasure in the company of Charlotte Mason.'