Sunday, May 1, 2011

What Might Charlotte Mason have Said about 'Learning Styles'?

Many parents who are just beginning to look into a Charlotte Mason education are concerned with whether or not Miss Mason's methods are a good choice for their own children. Quite often, their questions revolve around the modern idea of children's 'learning styles'.

The reasons for such concerns are as varied as children themselves. However, as it turns out, Miss Mason really did understand children's 'educational needs' - whatever label one might put upon those needs.

Upon further examination, one begins to realize that Miss Mason respected all children's abilities and all children's needs, and she knew how to guide each of them from wherever they were yesterday, bringing them bit by bit towards increasing ability, discipline, and joy all at the same time.

How did she do that? She gently and naturally moved all children towards the same disciplines in learning. One might say that she studied the thinking patterns of the most natural of students, and then devised the means to help less 'natural' students learn how to work more and more 'naturally' and effectively. Through the study of her writings, we can learn to do the same today.

Using those principles which Miss Mason championed as a guide to assess any educational approach, we can also determine what methods might move students' abilities beyond those achieved even by Miss Mason herself (such as the many valuable aspects of Nanci Bell's work - a modern day educator whose work builds powerfully upon just some of specific aspects of the lesson options found in Charlotte Mason's broader educational methods).


Let's look for a moment at the example of the process of learning to read - and the concept of using manipulatives in the teaching of reading.

Some children might learn to read quite readily and joyfully with nothing but a lovely book in the hands of their mother, while other children must needs employ something like magnet letters and/or word cards in order to learn to read.

Now, magnet letters and word cards are 'kinesthetic tools' and those tools have helped some children learn to read. Thus, the use of 'kinesthetic tools' have left some people with the impression that such students are 'kinesthetic learners.'

However, the point isn't 'kinesthetic learning' in Miss Mason's perspective.

What's the difference in her point of view, and why does that matter?

In the case of the child who learns to read with nothing but a book in hand, that child already has a natural capacity to 'attend' effectively without significant assistance. That is a blessing for his mother.

OTOH, a child whose 'attention' skills (e.g. - visual attention, visual discrimination, and visual memory) are not as keenly attuned to the task of reading can learn to *apply his will* to learn to attend (visually) with great care and to great affect.

With practice and with guidance, he learns how to see and remember what was seen more effectively than he did yesterday. (he doesn't really learn how to touch manipulatives better....... *grin*)

The process of helping a child to apply his will to attend visually to letters and words on a page might require more discipline and effort on the part of the mother of this second type of child. However, that is not something bad by any means. Rather, the 'strength of will' gleaned by such a child is a lesson which was built into his life by his Creator..... If both the child's mother and the child uses the opportunity to stretch his will bit by bit until he is able to 'attend' (visually) as much as he needs to in order to read well, then he will achieve all of the accomplishments he was called upon to achieve in his reading lessons - and his whole person will have grown. There will be direct benefits from having done so.

In the future, such children will be more practiced in *willing* themselves to attend to anything which is a challenge to them, academically or otherwise.

If, on the other hand, the teacher is simply relying on 'kinesthetic learning' to take place somehow on its own, there will be specific, predictable outcomes.

The teacher who is relying on 'kinesthetic learning' to 'teach' is less inclined to specifically guide the child to apply his will to see a word with enough specificity that it makes an impression upon the child's visual memory. In such a case, the child often does do so in the end. However, surprisingly often, he did so more by accident than by learning how to apply either his will or even his mind to *chose* to do so, therefore he is not as fully prepared to do so again in the future as he could have been. He did not develop the consciously applied, targeted 'habit of attention' which he could have developed. He cannot then apply that 'habit of attention ' to other words by choice, nor to other subject matter. He does not realize that by applying a 'growing habit of attention', he can continue to grow in his reading skills (and spelling skills for that matter) whenever he is introduced to words anywhere in his little world.

Such a student might actually be inadvertently or wcwn specifically taught to think that he might always struggle to learn unless he has a chance to learn 'hands on.' Rather than that, he can be taught the tools of effective attention.
Though some children who are 'taught kinesthetically' do finally break through and simply learn naturally, not all children do. Of those who do, many will struggle with spelling more than they need to. Those children who are less inclined to break through in learning to read via 'random attempts at learning kinesthetically' are predictably at risk.

Unless those children are specifically taught to (1) apply their will in order to (2) ramp up their *visual attention* effectively enough to (3) make *visual impressions* upon their *visual memory* solidly enough to be able to (4) apply that knowledge with automaticity, they will utterly miss the opportunity to grow naturally and with greater ease - threatening the degree of literacy they might achieve. Perhaps they will miss the opportunity to be literate in any sense of the word.

That predictable outcome should be avoided, and it can be, by understanding 'educational law' and how it helps us both interpret a child's needs in regards to the child's alleged 'learning styles' and how to plan and/or adjust a lesson for a specific child's needs in order to: help the child learn more and more how to think via the most effective and efficient means available to him, and help him apply his will to do just that, through gentle guidance.

If, thanks to a teacher who is knowledgeable in regards to educational law, the student knows the specific goals of a lesson and how to achieve those goals, he is in a better position from which to apply his will more directly in achieving those goals. In the case of a Charlotte Mason styled 'Visual Impression Reading of Spelling Lesson' (aka: a CM styled reading-or-spelling-lesson - my terminology, not Miss Mason's), the child learns how to apply his will to take in a specific visual image for two specific functional purposes (a) to know the 'face' of that word in any 'crowd of words' in order to know the 'idea' of that word at sight, *&* (b) to know the parts of that word for the purposes of spelling, with the ability to recall the whole made up of those parts from the visual memory.

Though the ability to recognize the 'face' of the word might come a little while before the ability to recall the parts of that 'face' with enough clarity to spell readily while writing whole sentences, in a lesson developing the student's abilities in line with 'educational law', the skills required for the one goal are directly related to the skills required for the other goal - thus spelling skills build up comprehension skills, and comprehension skills build up spelling skills. It is an entirely efficient use of the mind from all aspects of both developing specific skills and applying those skills which have been learned.

If children do not apply their will in this way, it is quite predictable that some of them will weary from the effort of 'simply going through the material again and again and again' wondering when, how, and if they will finally take in certain words. Rather than learning to value the power of reading, they merely learn as many reading skills as they feel they absolutely must to in order to get through their immediate future, if they learn any at all. - - -

If instead, by following CM principles, the child is brought to understand how to specifically target his attention upon what he knows will work, he becomes more empowered, and if he is challenged in small ways, then a little bit bigger of ways, and then a little bigger ways than that, he experiences the benefits of setting and achieving very specific goals.

More importantly, he gradually feels the strength of the power of 'the will to do what is right' rising up inside of himself.
Thus we observe the 'predictable outcomes' suggested by Charlotte Mason's understanding of 'educational law': Not only does the child learn specific knowledge and specific skills, he grows as a person.

We see, then, that there is a stark contrast which develops between those children who will struggle in spite of kinesthetic tools vs. children who are successful because their education is specifically guided, one little step at a time, by CM principles and methods.

Okay, before we wrap this up, let's look one more time at the idea of 'kinesthetic learning':

The child who learns words using tactile objects does not learn to read because he was 'touching' letters or word cards.

The child, while touching tactile objects, somehow managed to apply HIS ATTENTION enough to really SEE letters and groupings of letters to the point that he remembers what he has SEEN.

Ultimately, the child has only learned when his will has helped him ATTEND TO WHAT HE SEES. Touching things might have helped him APPLY HIS WILL TO ATTEND MORE FULLY TO WHAT HE IS SEEING, but he didn't learn by touching.

*****Rather, he learned by finally seeing more and more clearly what was right before him in the first place.*****

That is not 'kinesthetic learning' - not really. That is bringing the attention more and more towards 'visual learning'.

That is both more powerful, and more capable of helping the whole child grow as a person. That power and capability is a possible and predictable outcome when one understands and applies educational law.

Furthermore, that knowledge can guide the teacher in his attempts to help the student know when and if it is appropriate for him to move away from reliance upon manipulative tools and thoughtfully and intentionally move towards increasingly effective attempts to 'will to attend' by more naturally effective, and efficient means of attending (visually or via other appropriate means, depending on the skill at hand). [That it not to say that manipulatives are never useful in quickly conveying information, one person to another. The use of manipulatives can also be invaluable in the course of high minded discussions. However, in spite of the long term, adult-level benefits of manipulatives, the ability to visualize ideas, words, etc. without the use of manipulatives is an especially empowering capability which can be intentionally nurtured with valuable benefits.]

With that said, I hope it makes sense to you that I truly believe that Miss Mason would think of the term 'kinesthetic learning' as a misnomer.


Both the example of using 'manipulatives' to learn to read, and the example of Miss Mason's use of pennies and dimes to learn basics in decimals, as well as many other examples suggested by Miss Mason, help to express a different point of view, and a more powerful one, than the idea of 'learning styles.'

Miss Mason worked towards helping students develop *the will to attend* - and then *the habit of attending* as an outgrowth of applying the will to attend.

As we more and more specifically
help our children to 'apply their will to attend', and once we begin to understand the power of 'the habit of attention', and once we understand what disciplines the child should employ 'to attend' to each specific task in the learning process, we are free to help guide them around OR through any struggles, and ultimately beyond them towards a joy of learning.

So what is this 'educational law' which Charlotte Mason valued so much?

Though Charlotte Mason never codified a formal thesis on 'educational law', there are a few specific things which Miss Mason has said about 'educational law'.

For example, in the preface to her series, she says that 'educational law' is:

"a basic concept with various details working in harmony with it. This workable, effective theory of education ... wouldn't think of education as an isolated, shut-off compartment, but as a natural part of life, like birth, growing, marriage, or work. It would create a bond between the student and the great wide world, connected at many different points where interest was sparked."
At other times, she said that one of the tools to identify 'educational law' would be to identify what we as parents and teachers ought not do. To help us know what we 'ought not do', her writings eloquently illuminate how to assess educational efforts according to the gospel, which teaches us that we should hinder not, despise not, and offend not one of the least of these.

She also taught basic principles supporting the 'basic concept' of helping children to learn to attend. She went on to teach that children can in and of themselves naturally attend to that which is their proper diet, yet, that it is the purpose of the educator to help children to gradually discipline that natural ability to attend. In order to do so, the children are called upon to apply their will in order to gradually increase their attention sufficiently enough to help them grapple effectively with any matter at hand which is worthy of note, in order that the children themselves will be able to allow the subject at hand to 'make an impression' upon their heart and minds.

Further, Miss Mason taught that life itself and living things (including 'living books') worthy of note in the life of a child are sufficiently suited to help empower all children to come to their studies with appropriate levels of attention. She went on with sage guidance on many points, such as principles to suggest that requiring too much attention of a child would be an offense to the child, and such as her eloquent instruction regarding other principles which guide one to know when the child has attended sufficiently and when he has not, and what to do in response to the child in the case of either circumstance.

So, why should such 'principles' be called 'educational law'?

The 'laws of education' are much like 'the laws of physics'. Once one begins to understand the basics of gravity, one can plan to build a hut, but once one knows more of those principles, one can move towards the ability to vault a sky-scraper.

Each of our children can achieve more than they would otherwise if we understand how the laws of education should guide us in their development as individuals.

It might seem quite a horrific challenge to think that one needs to 'engineer' a child's education, but Miss Mason points out that once the principles are understood, they become natural in their implementation.

Without the 'educational principles' as a guide, sometimes parents and teachers try the latest fad or a long held idea without knowing how to assess the validity of those trends. The results are typically good for some children, but not for all.

With the educational principles as a guide, we can each begin to redirect our views of parenting and teaching bit by bit, moving each of our children's 'education' more and more in line with the principles of educational law.

That might look a little different for Johnny than it does for Jane, but the principles behind the educational choices for both children will be the same principles.

This idea of implementing the same 'laws' differently in different circumstances is readily illustrated in the fact that building a foundation for a skyscraper on the bedrock of NYC is accomplished differently than the building of a foundation on the soil structure found in Mexico City, where there is no such thing as bedrock. In and around Mexico City, there is no effective bedrock. There is so much water in the earth in and around Mexico City that foundations for skyscrapers there are actually designed to 'float' to a certain extent. That's a totally different type of 'foundation' than the ones employed in NYC, but the purpose is still the same, 'to vault a skyscraper'.

Both the 'bedrock' foundation and the 'floating' foundation are effective implementations of 'physical law'. The foundations are different, but the principles which guide to the one foundation are the same principles which guide us to the other foundation as well.

In the same way, implementing 'educational law' might look different for different children, but the goals and aims are the same for each child. Best of all, as we implement educational law more and more effectively, the results will be an increasingly natural, increasingly beneficial, and increasingly joyous education.

If something is not working in your homeschool, with the help of prayer and the principles of CM, it is possible to make adjustments as needed.

We have corrected course many times in our homeschool, and in doing so, my oldest in particular watched the changes move us more and more towards grace and ease in learning (he being my most dysgraphic and dyslexic, BTW).

We have never 'arrived' at a perfect implementation of CM principles, however, each time we move closer, more of our life is blessed.

So if no one ever 'arrives', is it really that difficult to understand the principles?

No, not really. The principles, once understood and valued - become free to work for you in your home. They literally work naturally in and of themselves once we get out of the way and allow that to happen.

We do need to direct and guide activities to help our families move in line with the principles, but it is the act of trusting, honoring, and following the principles that provides confidence, peace, faith, joy, and increasing love for each other and for learning, bit by bit, in our homes.

Sometimes one or more family member might reject a principle here or there, or we might misunderstand a principle's direct application here or there, but once such resistance and once those misunderstandings are addressed, the principles become free to work for our families again.

Here is a quote from the early pages of CM's Vol I that relates to that idea:

It is worth while to point out the differing characters of a system and a method, because parents let themselves be run away with often enough by some plausible 'system,' the object of which is to produce development in one direction––of the muscles, of the memory, of the reasoning faculty––were a complete all-round education. This easy satisfaction arises from the sluggishness of human nature, to which any definite scheme is more agreeable than the constant watchfulness, the unforeseen action, called for when the whole of a child's existence is to be used as the means of his education. But who is sufficient for an education so comprehensive, so incessant? A parent may be willing to undergo any definite labours for his child's sake; but to be always catering to his behoof, always contriving that circumstances shall play upon him for his good, is the part of a god and not of a man! A reasonable objection enough, if one looks upon education as an endless series of independent efforts, each to be thought out and acted out on the spur of the moment; but the fact is, that a few broad essential principles cover the whole field, and these once fully laid hold of, it is as easy and natural to act upon them as it is to act upon our knowledge of such facts as that fire burns and water flows. My endeavour in this and the following chapters will be to put these few fundamental principles before you in their practical bearing. Meantime, let us consider one or two preliminary questions.

As you begin to learn about the basic principles, you will see that each one begins to bless your family.

As you begin to add more principles and/or fine tune the first ones you began to implement at the beginning of your CM journey, you will find that the principles do not merely add to each other, they multiply the overall benefits exponentially.
May God grant us more and more faith to trust in all of His laws. May we meditate on them day and night, be they spiritual law, moral law, social law, or even educational law. May we respond to those laws as we meditate upon them and are led by them in such a way that we praise Him through our faithful obedience, trust, and joy in those laws - magnifying His name in all we do and say.