Educating by Faith, Not Fear
Many a home teacher has developed a discriminating eye for learning materials. She sifts through catalogs. She walks the aisles of the homeschool conference. Soon the rooms of her house become inundated with stuff.
To create a neat environment, I organized our stuff. Art supplies and math manipulatives were kept in an antique pie safe within reach of the dining room table, where most lessons took place. Our picture for art appreciation was propped up on the oak buffet. The library books were nestled in a folksy basket by the sofa.
Learning materials and environment are two visible things that contribute to the contented hum of the intellectual life. Something else is also needed, something not so obvious. That something is atmosphere, the atmosphere of education. The atmosphere of education promotes learning as much as the best learning materials do. In fact, it reflects the difference between faith and fear in home teaching.
Atmosphere Is a Tool
The idea of atmosphere being an indispensable tool of the educator is one I discovered in the pages of Miss Charlotte Mason’s book, A Philosophy of Education. Miss Mason was a nineteenth-century British educator. As a Christian she was deeply hurt by the way children were treated in schools. The novels of Charles Dickens give us a peek at the way education was administered in Victorian England. David Copperfield is a somewhat autobiographical story of Dickens’ boyhood. In this story Dickens provides us with the perfect example of teaching by terrorism in a British boarding school with the character Mr. Creakle, who is young David’s schoolmaster. Mr. Murdstone, David’s heart-of-stone stepfather, is guilty of the same sin of intimidation in the homeschool. (As in A Christmas Carol, David Copperfield has its dark scenes and mean characters, but its kind characters turn it into a morally redeeming tale.)
Charlotte Mason spent a lifetime working to reform education in her day and, joined by others (mostly committed Christians), she did a pretty impressive job of it. It was the pleasant intellectual atmosphere of learning that nobody in Miss Mason’s day seemed to take pains to create. Yet, atmosphere is always with us. Miss Mason tells us that it is always there, surrounding the child, precisely as the atmosphere surrounds the planet Earth.
Fear is a strong motivator. It definitely gets things moving. It is used to motivate children in schools today, though more subtly than the Victorians used it, when it was common for a child to receive a caning of his fingers as swift punishment for a blot of ink on the page of his copybook.
Fear also motivates the home teacher. She worries. She worries that her children aren’t learning enough—or fast enough. Anxiety hangs in the air. It is natural to want children to learn. But love and faith must be stronger than our fears. Without faith it is impossible to create a peaceful, pleasant intellectual atmosphere.
The Child Is a Person
“So Karen, show us the way to walk by faith, not by fear,” you might respond. We start here. Foundational to Miss Mason’s philosophy is that the child is a person. He is not one of Pavlov’s dogs or merely a subject for Skinner’s behavior modification. He is created in the image of God and he has a soul. Education is a spiritual matter. Nowhere do we see the spiritual aspect of education evidenced more clearly than in atmosphere.
To educate by faith is to have an understanding that God has endowed our little persons with curiosity. It is calming to realize how big a part curiosity plays in a child’s learning. It is not the only feature, but it is capable of doing the lion’s share of the teaching. When a baby reaches his tiny hand for the colorful rattle you hold out to him, he does so out of curiosity. His first steps from crawling to walking are taken out of curiosity. Throughout the day my 2-year-old grandson can be heard to ask, “Wus tha?” as he points to one object after another, inside and outside the house, for the pleasure of hearing his mother name the bird at the feeder, the rain on the windowpane, the car in the driveway. His mother is, in a sense, cooperating with curiosity. She is cooperating with the work of the Holy Spirit in the child’s life.
Curiosity is so precious, so valuable, that it needs to be safeguarded. Sadly, more often it is “schooled out” of children. How do educators do this? It is done when the emphasis is on the following:
• Prizes and Contests
• Fun and Games
• Praise and Approval
• A Profusion of Quizzes and Tests
These incentives all motivate the student to work, but his work becomes mechanical. For instance, he will study for and receive an A on a test even if it demands midnight cramming for what he soon forgets. His schooling trains him to work for a list of reasons except the reason that matters most—knowledge for the sake of knowledge.
What ought to motivate us to direct our children to open the pages of history, to observe the wonders of nature, to admire a painting, to appreciate a piece of music, to learn by heart the words of a hymn or a poem? Miss Mason believed that the primary motive of the educator must be the same as the command our Lord Christ gave to Peter: “Feed my lambs.”
Homeschooled children will learn for the sake of knowing, for the sake of growing. Feed them well and they will grow in wisdom and favor with God and man. This is the education of persons.
A New Atmosphere
“My children have lost their curiosity,” is a mother’s sorrow. If your children have lost their natural appetite for knowledge, take heart. Curiosity recovers when a new atmosphere fills the air.
Trust in your calling.
An article on my website is titled “The Majesty of Motherhood.” You are the queen of your household. The day your little one was placed in your arms was your coronation day. You were crowned with authority from God. Your duty is to rule with a firm, loving hand while your children honor and obey.
Trust in your children.
Focus on feeding your lambs at least one new idea per day. Children eventually learn and grow, although perhaps not as evenly as we would like, or as the teacher’s planner is laid out. When lessons are of the right sort, when hunger is satisfied by wholesome intellectual food, children will delight in lessons. Then you will see signs of a gentle curiosity, and a quiet contentment.
Trust in “living books.”
Charlotte Mason coined this term more than one hundred years ago. The typical schoolbook with its stiff and dry treatment of a subject was avoided. She advocated the use of real books, lavishly written interesting books—books that would enliven the mind with ideas. Using books of good literary quality enables students to more brilliantly tell in their own words what an author is saying. Rather than giving lectures that bore, whereby a teacher’s explanation does the thinking for the child, Miss Mason let the children read and connect directly with the authors of good books.
Trust in narration.
Miss Mason believed that narration is the best way to gain knowledge from books of good literary quality. To narrate is to tell the passage back in one’s own words. Take courage to use this method in place of multiple-choice quizzes and tedious textbook questionnaires. As he forms his narration, a child ponders. He forms a train of thought; he digests and reflects upon what he has read. Miss Mason calls narration the “act of knowing,” and knowledge is deliciously satisfying.
Trust in shorter lessons.
Miss Mason insisted upon keeping lessons on all subjects short so that optimum attention was achieved, especially with what she called the disciplinary subjects, such as math and spelling. Alternate these with poetry, history, art, or nature study to keep minds bright. It isn’t the number of subjects but their duration that tires the mind. Curriculum designers think their particular subject is of supreme importance. Thus, a first-grader might be faced with a weighty math lesson one hour in length. To shorten math lessons I reduced the number of word problems that a child was required to complete. We also did a quick drill every morning and a little more drill just before supper. A better memory of math facts was the result.
Trust in habit.
Habit draws us forward to do the “next thing.” Children will readily do what is customary. “I can see how practical good habits are,” one mother shares. “When math is completed, the children always look forward to a mid-morning snack, then to hearing an episode of history. After this refreshment, spelling is tackled automatically, with drawing anticipated next.” During the first months of homeschool this mother made every effort to keep to a regular schedule of short lessons. Now, with less effort, habit carries her children smoothly and pleasantly through their morning schoolwork, more smoothly than at the start of the year.
May you be encouraged always to keep growing into the people God is making you and your children to be.
Dean and Karen Andreola are the pioneers of the Charlotte Mason movement in the United States. Karen homeschooled their three children through the twelfth grade. To get in touch with Karen and read more of her writings, visit her website: www.homeschoolhighlights.com. Living among Amish farms in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Karen enjoys gardening, knitting sweaters, and stitching reproduction samplers for the walls of her center chimney home.
Copyright 2010. Originally appeared in The Old Schoolhouse Magazine®, Summer 2010. Used with permission.
Visit them at theoldschoolhouse.com.