Friday, August 24, 2012

Ambleside Summer Institute, Part I

I was blessed this summer to be able to attend the Ambleside Summer Institute conducted by Maryellen and Bill St. Cyr in Denver, Colorado.  It was a tremendous learning experience, and I came away with a deeper and clearer appreciation of Charlotte Mason's philosophy and methods.  In this series of posts, I hope to be able to share with my readers some of what I learned.  During the conference, we did not take notes, so this is narration at its purest!

Although I learned many specific techniques, which I will share a bit later on in the series, the most important concepts presented were the underlying philosophy and attitude toward learning and the learner upon which Charlotte Mason based her approach.  Dr. St. Cyr described three different fundamental educational philosophies.  Any method of instruction is based on one of these three philosophies.  The three philosophies are:

I.  The Mastery Approach

In the Mastery Approach, the teacher is the primary force in the educational model.  The student and the text are subordinate to the teacher, whose job it is to impart ("download") facts and figures into the student by use of a text.  The goal of this model is for the student to attain mastery of factual material in order to excel on tests and advance to higher levels of achievement.  Higher scoring students are rewarded by entry into prestigious schools and by awards, teacher approval, and letter grades; lower scoring students are punished by teacher disapproval, receiving low grades, and being assigned to remedial classes.  This model requires the teacher to assume the role of "expert".  It is the model commonly used in our school system.
The difficulty with this approach lies in the way in which it teaches some of our young people to value ambition, approval of others, and arrogance while at the same time teaching others that they are unworthy and unable to learn.  Love of learning is eradicated as the students strive, successfully or unsuccessfully, to earn rewards (or, possibly, avoid punishment and shame).  This approach does not form godly character; it does not teach the values of humility and of caring for others; it does not instill a love of learning.

Charlotte Mason noted the damage done by the use of a teacher's approval/love as a reward in Towards a Philosophy of Education:

vol 6 pg 82
...we have methods more subtle than the mere terrors of the law. Love is one of these. The person of winning personality attracts his pupils (or hers) who will do anything for his sake and are fond and eager in all their ways, docile to that point where personality is submerged, and they live on the smiles, perish on the averted looks, of the adored teacher. Parents look on with a smile and think that all is well; but Bob or Mary is losing that growing time which should make a self-dependent, self-ordered person, and is day by day becoming a parasite who can go only as he is carried, the easy prey of fanatic or demagogue. This sort of encroachment upon the love of children offers as a motive, 'do this for my sake'; wrong is to be avoided lest it grieve the teacher, good is to be done to pleasure him; for this end a boy learns his lessons, behaves properly, shows good will, produces a whole catalogue of schoolboy virtues and yet his character is being undermined....Where we teachers err is in stimulating the wrong Desires to accomplish our end. There is the desire of approbation which even an infant shows, he is not happy unless mother or nurse approve of him. Later this same desire helps him to conquer a sum, climb a hill, bring home a good report from school, and all this is grist to the mill, knowledge to the mind; because the persons whose approbation is worth having care that he should learn and know, conquer idleness, and get habits of steady work, so that his mind may be as duly nourished every day as is his body. Alas for the vanity that attends this desire of approbation, that makes the boy more solicitous for the grin of the stable-boy than for the approval of his master! Nay, this desire for approval may get such possession of him that he thinks of nothing else; he must have approval whether from the worthless or the virtuous. It is supposed that outbreaks of violence, robbery, assassinations, occur at times for the mere sake of infamy, just as deeds of heroism are done for the sake of fame. Both infamy and fame mean being thought about and talked about by a large number of people; and we know how this natural desire is worked by the daily press; how we get, now a film actress, now a burglar, a spy, a hero, or a scientist set before us to be our admiration and our praise.

vol 6 pg 85
Emulation, the desire of excelling, works wonders in the hands of the schoolmaster; and, indeed, this natural desire is an amazing spur to effort, both intellectual and moral. When in pursuit of virtue two or a score are 'emulously rapid in the race,' a school acquires 'a good tone' and parents are justified in thinking it the right place for their boy. In the intellectual field, however, there is danger; and nothing worse could have happened to our schools than the system of marks, prizes, place-taking, by which many of them are practically governed. A boy is so taken up with the desire to forge ahead that there is no time to think of anything else. What he learns is not interesting to him; he works to get his remove.

vol 6 pg 86
...another natural desire whose unvarnished name is avarice labours for good government and so-called progress cheek by jowl with emulation. "He must get a scholarship,"––is the duty of a small boy even before he goes to school, and indeed for good and sufficient reasons... It is hard to say what better could be done and yet this deliberate cult of cupidity is disastrous; for there is no doubt that here and there we come upon impoverishment of personality due to enfeebled intellectual life; the boy did not learn to delight in knowledge in his schooldays and the man is shallow in mind and whimsical in judgment.

II.  The Child-Centered Approach

This second philosophy is oriented to the child.  The student is the dominant element in the learning approach, and the wishes and desires of the student drive the curriculum.  The teacher's role is as an assistant to the student to plan a curriculum that the student is interested in and to provide resources such as texts, materials, etc. that the student can use in learning whatever he chooses to learn. Teacher and text are both subordinate to the student.

The outcome of this method can be a student who is self-centered,  narcissistic, and unable to discipline himself to do those difficult or unpleasant tasks that are necessary in every life.  Basing the entire education on the interests of the student does not lend itself to the forming of a self-controlled, mature adult, but rather to the encouragement of childish behavior and self-indulgence.  Furthermore, weak areas of learning and thinking are not addressed or developed, resulting in a rather lop-sided person--very strong in areas of interest, and very weak in other areas.  Under this type of learning approach, the child is never challenged to overcome difficulties, but rather avoids them as much as possible.  

III.  Charlotte Mason's Approach

The last philosophy that Dr. St. Cyr presented was that of Charlotte Mason.  In this educational approach, the dominant role is played by the text itself.  Both the student and the teacher are subordinate to the text.  Each of them must respect the actual text and treat it truthfully.  They must be in an attitude of "submission",  humbly learning from the text and its author.  The role of teacher is to facilitate the student's direct engagement with the text (which could be a work of literature, a science or history text, a musical composition, a painting, a nature study subject, or a poem) through reading (or observation) and narration. 

This approach creates an attitude of deference and respect in the student.  The student is challenged to learn and understand a great deal of material outside of his natural strengths.  He learns to attend honestly to others, respect other students' comments on the text, and receive correction (from the text itself).  The teacher does not use ambition, approval, self-indulgence, or shame to instruct, but allows the text itself in an impartial manner to teach both factual and philosophical ideas. This direct contact with the text is a primary feature of Charlotte Mason's philosophy, as she states in 
School Education:
vol 3 pg 66  
Half the teaching one hears and sees is more or less obtrusive. The oral lesson and the lecture, with their accompanying notes, give very little scope for the establishment of relations with great minds and various minds. The child who learns his science from a text-book, though he go to Nature for illustrations, and he who gets his information from object-lessons, has no chance of forming relations with things as they are, because his kindly obtrusive teacher makes him believe that to know about things is the same thing as knowing them personally; though every child knows that to know about Prince Edward is by no means the same thing as knowing the boy-prince. We study in many ways the art of standing aside. People sometimes write that the books set in our school constitute much of its usefulness; they do not always see that the choice of books, which implies the play of various able minds directly on the mind of the child, is a great part of that education which consists in the establishment of relations.
The Art of Standing Aside.––I have even known of teachers who have thought well to compose the songs and poems which their children use. Think of it! not even our poets are allowed to interpose between the poor child and the probably mediocre mind of the teacher. The art of standing aside to let a child develop the relations proper to him is the fine art of education, when the educator perceives the two things he must do and how to do these two things. The evolution [growth] of the individual is a natural sequence of the opening up of relations.

In this philosophy, the primary task of the teacher is to choose excellent materials, organize the structure of engaging with those materials directly (more on this later), and then step back and allow the student to learn as much as he or she is capable of learning directly from the text itself.  

Understanding Charlotte Mason's philosophy allows us to understand how and why certain teaching strategies such as "masterly inactivity" and narration are important.

IV.  Summary

Charlotte Mason believed the ultimate purpose of all education was to develop persons who are fully capable of knowing, loving, and serving God and one another.  To summarize this teaching on the philosophy of education,  both the mastery approach and the student-directed approach lead to the development of persons who are less than fit to know, love, and serve God and others. These approaches produce the fruits of ambition, self-interest, competition, pride, and self-indulgence.  Charlotte Mason's approach seeks to develop humility, honesty, and self-discipline by faithful engagement with the beautiful, the true, and the good.


  1. A great summary, thank you for taking the time to type it up. Having those terms defined so clearly is helpful. I am looking forward to further installments!

  2. I so enjoyed your thorough review and journaling of this portion of your summer training! I can't tell you how much I am looking forward to your further sharing, remembrances and narrations of the Ambleside training with us, Caroline!

    1. And I am looking forward to getting all of my thoughts on "paper", as it were!