Saturday, September 1, 2012

Masterly Inactivity

Not exactly "masterly"

One concept of Charlotte Mason's that I never felt I really understood until the Summer Institute is the idea of "masterly inactivity".  Having gone over the ideas of her teaching philosophy, I now have a better understanding of masterly inactivity. At least, I think I do!

What it isn't:
--failing to preparing lessons
--being lax in directing student learning
--waiting for your children to "grow out" of bad behaviors
--sitting elsewhere while children do their work

What it is:
--preparing and directing learning times
--not imposing my ideas on the student, not "downloading"
--not using approval or criticism as means of coercion
--allowing silence and time for thought
--being your child's ally in developing good habits
--allowing the child to develop a relationship with the text

So, let's consider each point separately.

1.  Preparing and directing learning times

Charlotte Mason had  a distinct method for structuring lessons . I plan on doing a whole post on that, but for now I want to note that every lesson is prepared in advance in order to facilitate learning and allow the student to more fruitfully interact with the text (whatever kind of text).  The teacher retains full authority in choosing the material and structuring the lesson.

2.  Not imposing my ideas on the student

Here is a challenge!  ASI emphasized the idea that the teacher does not express his/her own opinions and thoughts on the material of the text.  It matters not whether the teacher likes or doesn't like the material, the students' ability to develop their OWN relationship with the text is affected if the teacher's opinion is stated.  The teacher is to guide the student in engaging the text directly and get out of the way of that process.  So, in narration, the teacher does not ask leading questions to produce a certain answer, but rather asks open questions or gives direct commands. 

 For example, after reading a paragraph in one of the Little House books which describes Laura's home, an acceptable directive from the instructor might be: "Describe the cabin Laura lived in.  Use the author's words."  Or, that could be phrased as a question: "What did Laura's home look like?  Use Laura's own words to describe it."  An example of NOT using masterly inactivity in this case would be: "I love this description of Laura's cabin." This is imposing your own opinion.  "Do you think it would be nice to live there?"  This is a "closed" question, answerable only with a yes or no.  Also, it  might be leading the student to think they ought to want to live there.  "What is your favorite part of this description?" Now you are encouraging the child to analyze based on their own opinion and not to directly engage what the author is actually saying.  This falls over into the child-directed teaching philosophy described in an earlier post.

3. Not using approval or criticism as a means of coercion

When the child gives a narration or expresses an thought, do not either approve of it, as in, "Good job!" or other such comments, or disapprove of it, as in, "That's wrong," kind of statements.  In the first case, using approval produces a student who is learning in order to gain your love and not in order to engage the text.  Secondly, for a student this encourages pride and instills the idea that performance is more important than actually learning.  Therefore, Ambleside uses no grades at all.  As we all did our practice teaching, we found this to be the hardest habit to overcome.  We all had a kind of reflexive "praise" habit... good job! very good! well done! etc., came flying out of our mouths pretty easily!  The teacher really does not need to comment on the students' narrations.  The toughest idea for me to accept was that "Thank you" also is not a wise way to respond to a narration, as it conveys the notion that the student is doing something for the teacher, when he is really doing something for himself...that is, faithfully narrating.  So, silence or a pleasant nod can be used.  Also, you can say, "Would you like to add anything else?", even after a thorough narration.  

Withholding criticism is a little easier for me, but I struggled with the idea of withholding direct correction.  However, as we will discuss later, the correction can come directly from referring back to the text: "What does the text say about that?"  Also, if you have more than one narrator, the other narrator(s) might give correction.  Sometimes someone would say, "Well, I don't agree with that," or, " I didn't get that out of the text," and then we'd go back to the text and check and clarify.

4. Being your child's ally in developing good habits

Masterly inactivity does not mean ignoring poor habits and behaviors.  As I understand it, in this case it means setting a standard of behavior and then holding the child to this standard in a firm fashion.  I don't say "firm yet loving", because you are being loving when you help your child develop good habits.  Charlotte Mason portrays the mother as being the ally of the child.  For example, a child is doing sloppy work as a result of laziness and a desire to just "get it done" in a hurry.   The mother sets a specific standard: "Johnny, I see your letters are not sitting on the line.  When you write the next line, pay careful attention to making your letters sit on the line.  If I see you writing too fast, I will help you remember to be careful by reminding you to slow down."  In this example, the mother has allied herself with the child as his/her aide in accomplishing the goal.  It is not mother vs. child, but mother with child working toward developing a good habit.  It is masterly in its wisdom  and in the parent setting the standard and holding the child to it.  It is "inactivity" in the broader sense that the parent is not doing FOR the child that which the child is capable of doing for himself,  but rather the child is responsible for working to develop his own good habit with the aide and support of the parent.

  5.  Allowing silence and time for thought

One thing that really struck me was the peaceful and calm aura during the narration/class times.  I think that was produced by two factors.  The first was the absence of praise or criticism, which relieved any performance pressure.  The second was quite a bit of silent time for thought and reflection.  The instructors allowed time for the students to think and did not pressure them into response.  They did call upon students directly.  If the student didn't come up with any response after a period of silence, the instructor had a few techniques to sort of "prime the pump", including reading a sentence from the text as a sort of starter.  The point I want to emphasize here, however, is the value of silence and patience.  Allowing those times of silence really creates calm if the teacher is remaining calm himself.

5. Allowing the child to develop a relationship with the text

Masterly inactivity produces the "space" for  children to develop their own relationship with the text.  They are not influenced by the teacher's opinions, or concerned about her approval or disapproval.  They have time to think and reflect.  In the event of confusion, they are directed back to the text itself.  The teacher does not position herself between the text and the student as the interpreter of the text.  The next post on narration will develop these ideas a bit more and give a few more specifics on narration techniques used at ASI.

I do want to apologize for not having enough time right now to find and copy a lot of direct quotes from Charlotte Mason herself.  Maybe if you know of pertinent quotes, you could include them in the comments.  I do want to get these posts up and I'm trying to get ready to start up our own school year on Monday, so my time is very constrained right now.  As the year goes on and I am reading CM, I may add on some quotes to each of these posts.


  1. I love this! I have always struggled with the concept of masterly inactivity. This helps immensely.

  2. This was so helpful...but obviously a lot to practice.

  3. Dear Caroline,
    This is such a thoughtful and detailed narration of the training you received! I met Mary Ellen about 12 years ago when she had just started her work in Fredericksburg. She came to little ole Windom and did a weekend seminar. While I have never been to the teacher training program, I am thrilled to see what you have learned from it.

    (Lovely blog - love the title! See this old post of mine -

    From joy to joy,

  4. Thank you, Nancy, for your kind words. I loved the post you linked. Our joy in learning is such an important model for our children, and it is the source of great richness and value in our own lives. How many adults really are able to delight in the life of the mind? I am sure that the kind of education we receive as children and the joy of our own teachers in the subjects they teach are the main contributors to whether or not we will become joyous life-long learners. Also, just want to say, I love your blog!