Category Archives: Charlotte Mason Science

Will a Living Education Prepare My Child, Technically? by Don Rhymer

I met Nicole at CMI’s 2017 Eastern National Education Conference while participating in her science immersion. She asked me if I’d give a perspective about a Charlotte Mason educated high schooler and whether I thought they would “succeed” at the college level, especially a nationally-known technical college. Before I do, it’s important I do 3 things first, so bear with me. I need to tell you who I am, tell you my knowledge & experience with CM; and finally, tell you a little about my institution.

I am a Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Air Force, active duty now for 22 years. I am an Assistant Professor and Senior Military Faculty (essentially, tenured military) at the Air Force Academy, having taught Mechanical Engineering for 10 years of my career. My bachelor of science is in Engineering Mechanics from the Academy (’95) and I hold an MS and PhD in Mechanical Engineering, both from Georgia Tech. My subarea of interest is mechanics of materials (what things are made of and how they fail), but I have taught everything from core engineering fundamentals, to fatigue, to experimental mechanics.

My family is 3 years into implementing a full CM-based education for our 5 kids (ages 6 up to 14). In those 3 years, we have also participated in a CM co-op. Now, that may cause you to think, “Ok, so you’re a husband of a CM mom/teacher…what’s your involvement level? How much do you really know about the CM child and what he or she can do?” So, I’d say there are 4 levels of CM dads’ interest/involvement. A Level-1 Dad (L1D, need some military acronymns) is the “I can’t believe you’re homeschooling…let’s just send our kids to a  Conservative Charter Classical School so we know they’re getting the right stuff”-dad. An L2D is the “I’m good with homeschooling, but you’re exhausted, I want my wife back, and are we sure this isn’t a cult?”-dad. The L3D is the “Ok, I’m in…do you want me to build another bookshelf?”-guy. Finally, L4D means you’re probably a speaker at a CM conference. I’d say I’m between L3 and 4, probably 3.75.

When my wife and I took a diagnostic on homeschool curricula several years ago, we both independently pegged the meter in the survey for a Charlotte Mason educational model. Counting this year’s CMI, I’ve now been to 2 CM conferences, the last being the 2nd Colorado regional conference my wife has helped run. I have helped the kids narrate an assignment or two and have been working on getting a paper published on how elements of narration can be used at the college level in an engineering class. Finally, I’m almost a year into one of Art Middlekauff’s “Idyll Challenge” groups, where we read through all 6 of CM’s volumes in 2 years. I’ve not only drunken the Kool-aid, I also constantly find myself seeing CM’s principles resonate with truth in so many facets of humanity, leadership, and any form of education. Now, I also feel I can step back, look at the glass of CM that I’m on board to imbibe, yet remain critical in say a reflective skepticism sort of way. There are a few biblical passages I feel she applies beyond what the Holy Spirit does and when I narrate sections of scripture to my family at night, I may in fact read it (gasp)…a second time! My point is, I get Miss Mason, I feel her methods and principles are the most biblical, whole-person developing curricula that we know of, and I can see the impact it is having on actually ministering to my family (not just kids). But I’m able to take it for what it is, she didn’t write scripture, and the kids down the street doing Classical Conversations aren’t heretical and with their believing, loving parents can have a great and beneficial upbringing as well.

My school is, of course, a military academy. All graduates are commissioned as 2nd Lieutenants with an accredited Bachelor of Science in their given discipline and have a 5-year commitment to serve in the Air Force, with about half becoming pilots. The mission, in short, is to produce “Leaders of Character” for the nation. I’ll spend more time on the character piece in a bit, but like all academies, there’s a strict Honor Code and the Core Values are: “Integrity First, Service before Self, and Excellence in All We Do”, so there’s a character-laced aim in all the Academy, by the glossy brochures, attempts to do. Getting to the point, a Charlotte Mason-educated cadet would thrive at the Air Force Academy and not struggle with anything that can’t be quickly worked through once they are there, especially in the technical disciplines. What’s more, a CM educated officer will be recognized as a critical thinker and leader amongst other leaders and likely very quickly. Let me explain a little.

The Academy pulls from everywhere in the nation with relatively high admissions standards. But even those high admissions standards, you might say, can give a false impression of the level of entry of all cadets…especially technically. The core curriculum requires cadets to pass 3 Math classes (2 calculus and 1 statistics), Chemistry, Physics, and 4 Engineering classes—that’s core, whether you decide to major in History or Electrical Engineering. As such, the Academy certainly looks for and “gives points” in admissions for high school AP classes like physics, chemistry, and calculus. But these are not required. A significant percentage of cadets have taken and scored well in those high school or even college preparatory classes. But they admit MANY who have not. What’s more, many of those cadets who did get good marks in AP Physics still find themselves struggling in the Academy’s math courses. They may have been admitted with high leadership, community involvement, language and verbal skills, with barely enough math. So what does this mean? It means the program of study must be set up so that a cadet who gets in (say as a recruited athlete) may need help to get through the technical core of the Academy. And there are plenty of cadets who struggle with them that succeed and do well.

From a science perspective, as long as a student understands the fundamentals of how the world works, how animals and plants survive, how to investigate them, how forces on earth and in the universe govern basic motion and lack of motion, they will do fine. From their mathematical abilities, they should know algebra and trigonometry. If they don’t have calculus, they’ll be able to learn it. If they don’t have a computer programming class, they will figure it out with the other cadets in the same boat. Is it best that they see as much as they can? Maybe, but only to the level they really learn it. As Nicole mentioned in the immersion, if a student dives deep into a few good science subjects during high school and sees the beauty in it, the wonder in it, the “Wow, our Great Creator’s ways are truly higher than ours,” then they can do without the extra topics they would get in a textbook-based class.”

Let me get back to my premise though. You may ask, “But you said a CM student would thrive? It sounds like they will just be barely getting by?” Yes, they will thrive. A CM student that has had a rich, relational education, where they have had to narrate, both verbally and in written form, will thrive. All classes involve 53 minute periods of oral lectures. They will be ahead of most of their peers in being able to attentively discern the important points of a lesson. They will also retain it. They will go back and go over their notes and be able to store it away. And in those areas where they didn’t understand all of the material, because perhaps they didn’t have as much Isaac Newton in their CM-doused living room, they will know how to go ask for help. They will find the instructor and regurgitate the exact framework in their mind they have and where that scaffold ends and do so in an articulate, respectful, and thoughtful way. What instructor doesn’t love responding to a thoughtful question? The Academy has a very low student-faculty ratio and essentially office hours all week for help when the instructor isn’t teaching. The Academy Professor longs for the question of a student like this; and what’s more, the CM student will be more apt to ask the questions soon after the lesson in which they were confused as opposed to right before the exam.

Now if you’re asking, “What if my student doesn’t want to go to the Academy?” If they want to go to another technical university, say like a Georgia Tech, then they will likely have a strong aptitude for math and science. If they have that aptitude and propensity, they probably will enjoy those subjects more and do better in their high school years, to where they will want to prepare themselves more. Simply put, if your CM-taught teen knows they want to be technical, they will prepare as they (and their parents) are led. If they know they have an interest in being an engineer, it’s likely their dad will email someone he knows (like one did me this past year) and ask, “Hey, you teach engineering in college…if my son has done all the math and physics in high school and really wants a good engineering based intro subject, what should he take?” To which I’ll respond, “Statics! See if he can do some statics!”

What’s more, I know Charlotte Mason would highly question our pushing the “just turned 18-year old” out the door and say, “Biologically, you’re an adult so you must be ready for college right now; figure out what you want to do and go study it!” I believe the most viewed TED Talk is Sir Ken Robinson’s on education, where he questions the sending of kids into batches through our system solely based on their age. So you send them to a community college or even a vocational school. You may just keep them at home an extra year in that rich, relational, living education with all the other buzzwords that really shouldn’t be considered shibboleth because they need redeemed for what they are. It’s a REAL education that you don’t want to miss a minute of if God allows you to continue it. The world will wait and they will still be salt and light if the home is everything the Spirit can be as their co-educator.

I want to go back to the Academy one last time. I want to stress the “Leaders of Character” mission again because it encompasses everything a service academy wants in a graduate. Character is what the senior leaders of the Air Force want in every young officer. They want their Lieutenants to understand the democracy, to embrace that the military is an instrument of power that must be wielded at last resort but with courage, resolve, and commitment. And they must know they have to carry the vision for what that entails for a mission to their subordinates and inspire them to do much in the face of adversity. While many (like myself) may never see a battle, they must have the character to act and lead if, by God’s hand, they are led into it.

When I talk with my son, who’s had 3 years now of reflecting on Poetry, on Plutarch, on planets, I see in his eyes what I didn’t even dream to know. He’s acted out Shakespeare, he’s observed the Roufus-sided Towhees feeding off of our deck, and he’s carried back elk bones from a Spring Break trip to Durango. He’s thought deeply about life and doesn’t miss much. The week before we came to CMI, he served as a counselor at a horse camp for kids. Before we watched the culmination of the week, where most kids show they can do various stunts or poses on a ridden steed, we asked him if he was doing any tricks himself. He said no. Later, my wife told me, “All he’s concerned about is making sure he’s there to help the younger boys he’s counseling in safely getting on and off their horse.” I don’t know yet if my son will want to go to the Academy. But if he does, I know I’d want him leading my other kids. And if he was in the Air Force, you can better believe I’d be willing to serve with, if not under him. And finally, if he never touches a uniform his whole life, there’s nothing wrong with that “Leader of Character” entering into society and serving our country and world in whatever profession the Lord leads him.

Science Textbooks – Why Not?

I frequently use the following quote when pleading that people not subject their child to science instruction by way of a textbook:

“The mind is capable of dealing with only one kind of food; it lives, grows and is nourished upon ideas only; mere information is to it as a meal of sawdust to the body; there are no organs for the assimilation of the one more than of the other.” (Towards A Philosophy Of Education, p. 218)

Sawdust. That should close the book on this question, right? But you might think your child can handle a bit of sawdust in their meal, as long as it comes with a side of real food. I hear this is the case with packaged grated cheese these days, after all. But Mason tells us not to bother because our kids’ minds will reject it:

“Again, we have made a rather strange discovery, that the mind refuses to know anything except what reaches it in more or less literary form.“ (Towards A Philosophy Of Education, p. 256)

I suspect it’s the same with the cheese. The manufacturers know it will just pass right on through us, and they assure us that it won’t hurt us, so how can it be a big deal? I suspect it’s a very big deal – both the wood coated cheese and the textbook.

Just in case you need convincing that Miss. Mason held this same opinion of science books, and not just the books in other subjects, she makes herself clear:

“Books dealing with science as with history, say, should be of a literary character, and we should probably be more scientific as a people if we scrapped all the text-books which swell publishers’ lists and nearly all the chalk expended so freely on our blackboards.” (Towards A Philosophy Of Education, p. 218)

Still, some people persist. Possibly because they cannot see how their students can gather all the facts needed to pass a test someday and secure their future if they only read living books. Mason eases these fears by confirming that our children will remember all the facts they need to:

“A first condition of this vitalising teaching is that all the thought we offer to our children shall be living thought; no mere dry summaries of facts will do; given the vitalising idea, children will readily hang the mere facts upon the idea as upon a peg capable of sustaining all that it is needful to retain.” (Parents and Children, p. 277)

Charlotte Mason is so good at saying what she means to in so few words. In that single sentence, she tells us what we must do (only offer living thought,) what we must not do (offer dry summaries of facts,) and she settles our mind that the children will be able to gather the information they need. She gently appeals to us as loving and concerned parents. But in the next sentence she lays down the hammer:

“We begin by believing in the children as spiritual beings of unmeasured powers––intellectual, moral, spiritual––capable of receiving and constantly enjoying intuitions from the intimate converse of the Divine Spirit.” (Parents and Children, p. 277)

If you are like me, you needed to read that last sentence a few times. Our children, children of God, are capable of receiving intuitions from the Holy Spirit. Would we stand in the way of that? Charlotte Mason tells us that “to accept and invite the daily, hourly, incessant co-operation of the divine Spirit in…the schoolroom work of our children.” To do that we must recognize “that the Spirit is life; therefore, that which is dead, dry as dust, mere bare bones, can have no affinity with Him, can do no other than smother and deaden his vitalising influences.” (Parents and Children, p. 277)

If we cannot bring ourselves to quit the textbook because our children cannot mentally digest it, and will, in fact, refuse to digest it, and if we cannot quit just because Mason says so, maybe we can quit because the Holy Spirit, the Divine Educator of our children, is life. To stand in His way with that which is dead would be a terrible lack of cooperation on our part.

Science Writing Can’t Survive on Charm Alone

I was asked to do a one-hour science immersion class at the In a Large Room Retreat last month, and it turned out to be one of the most enjoyable classes I’ve ever done. I was asked to spend 25 minutes doing one lesson with the attendees, and then answer questions for 25 minutes. I used a lesson from my form 3 astronomy guide about the sun.

I set up the lesson by telling them what a student would have learned in the last lesson, and showing them an image they would have seen. My immersion students were picking up right in the middle of the book, and even in the middle of a chapter, so I wanted to give them some foundation. I also prepared them with a few vocabulary words they would see as they read.

I had hoped to read the assigned text aloud because the author of The Planets uses very poetic language, and I thought the parents might have a hard time with it as they may not be used to the style. But I lost my voice on the first day of the retreat and could barely be heard, so I asked the participants to read it to themselves. I think I allowed 10 minutes to read the four-page passage, but I requested that they take it slowly, reading for understanding even if they didn’t get to the end of the section by the time we needed to move on.

When they were through, I asked for an oral narration for the sake of time. I suggested that instead of narrating the passage in order, participates should just tell all the facts they could remember. What did they learn? I had written down six things I thought they might comment on, but the class narrated about fifteen ideas or facts they had read!

I then read aloud a passage from Writing to Learn by William Zinsser.  Zinsser had just quoted two pages of Archie Carr’s So Excellent a Fishe, when he commented:

That’s pleasant writing; we’re there on the beach at Tortuguero, rooting for the turtles and hoping they won’t meet a wari on their crawl to the surf. But the writing couldn’t survive on charm alone; it works because it’s grounded in scientific observation and fact. What sticks out in our mind is the hundred eggs, the digging buzzards, the returning coyotes, the signaling sea.” (p. 129, emphasis mine.)

The students in my immersion class had a similar experience. Dava Sobel, the author of The Planets, has a way with words. It’s pleasant writing. But what stuck out in the minds of my students that day was the facts.

We were not done with the lesson because I always allow a few minutes for students to dig deeper into one idea before ending a lesson. This time we learned a bit more about the counter-intuitive way the sun rotates and how the solar wind creates the northern and southern lights. But an idea was distracting me while we were completing the lesson.

What if I gathered each of the facts that the participants narrated, and I explained them. Maybe I enlisted the help of a colleague to get my explanations just right, and I included a diagram or picture where it might aid the student’s understanding. Is that not the precise description of a textbook? They start with the facts they think the students should learn and then build out. A living book is quite the opposite. The author starts with a big idea and then through charm, as Zinsser says, or simply passion, they tell what they know. The facts glide through, but they are clothed in gripping ideas.

Additionally, how many pages do you suppose it would take me to explain fifteen facts about the sun? I think it might be more than the four standard size pages my students read for this lesson. So not only would I have to lengthen the reading assignment but I wouldn’t have the narrative to carry the reader along.

Some of you might have thought that if your student is to learn the massive amount of common scientific information, he must forgo the living book to make better use of his time. In other words, more can be learned in a shorter amount of time by using a textbook than can be learned when rambling through a living book. I would assert that the opposite is likely true. If you want your student to learn as much as possible, with the added benefit that he may even care about what he learns, you really must avoid textbooks and use living science books instead.

How I Modify Mason’s Streams of Science (forms 3-6)

I mentioned in my last article, that I diverge from Charlotte Mason’s science plan, a bit, starting in form 3. I want to explain why and how I do that.

We Have More Common Information to Deal With

While it was most important to Mason that students come to feel a sense of wonder and admiration for the world, she also felt strongly that it was important for students to acquire scientific literacy – the common information. However, there is more common information to learn today than there was at the turn of the twentieth century. These days we vote on topics such as Stem Cell Research and GMO labeling. With this in mind, we might find some of the books Mason assigned are a little too light to carry us through all of the material we need to cover. We cannot turn to textbooks to cram more information, she was clear about that, but we probably can’t spend a whole year on a book such as The World of Sound by Bragg either. We are going to need to be very deliberate with our choice of books if we want to adhere to Mason’s page count (and word counts) per term but also manage to cover the common information of our day.

We Can’t Fire-Hose our Students with Four Heavy Science Subjects

With that said, I am hearing more and more reports from parents whose kids are feeling burned out by covering three or four difficult science topics each week. Mason assigned a variety of books each week, some light and some harder, but none equal to Chem 101. When we assign a day of each of the big four, we run the risk of overburdening our students.

Consider this example. In the same year that a form 3 students read The World of Sound, they also read half of The Study of Plant Life, a little less than half of Winners In Life’s Race, and three-quarters of The Fairyland of Science. That was all for the whole year! Compare that to four days of today’s physics, chemistry, biology, and earth science. I won’t even touch on the books you might use for those subjects because I don’t think it’s necessary to make the point.

The Popular Science Topics Have Changed

The topics of botany, geology, and astronomy were popular in the 1800s, and after Darwin’s book On the Origin of Species, natural selection, and evolution became popular as well. Mason included a bit of everything that was popular during her time, and I think we can accept that as a principle when deciding what topics we should cover in our schools. At the same time, even though chemistry, physics, formal biology, technology, and engineering are more popular than the earth sciences or general biology today, we still need to present our students with the whole feast. That’s a lot of subjects! We need a plan to adequately cover the common information in all of these subjects.

Students Can Attempt Experiments in Far More Subjects

After form 2, and Holden’s book The Sciences, the only experiments we see assigned to P.U.S. students were in the field of botany. These were quality experiments that crossed disciplines to some extent, so I do not mean to downplay their value. However, Mason was impressed by Holden and the experiments in his book, and she said, “The only sound method of teaching science is to afford a due combination of field or laboratory work, with such literary comments and amplifications as the subject affords.” (A Philosophy of Education, 1925, p. 223) So why didn’t she assign experiments in other fields? My guess is that there were not many books besides Holden’s, written to students to guide them through the process. That is not so today. Our students can look up experiments in any scientific realm as easily as they can look up a recipe for no-bake cookies. But here is the catch, if we are studying several science topics each week, it can be hard to know which subject to draw our experiments from.

Biology is a Far More Robust Subject These Days

After Life and Her Children was completed in form 4 (grade 9,) the study of formal biology was dropped until form 6 (grade 12,) at which time a book about animals was added. Botany was continued until grade 11, and students were still expected to make special studies. That sounds nice, but frankly, there has been a lot of common information amassed in the realm of biology in the last 100 years, and much of it is the common information we are going to be required to know to vote. Therefore, I think we should continue one day a week with some study of biology. After a general survey of the subject, we can choose from any of the following topics: anatomy, biochemistry, health, neuroscience, cell biology, genetics, medical ethics, botany, ecology, evolution, paleontology, zoology and animal behavior, or marine biology. Our choice might be determined by what is important to the family or what is interesting to the student. Either way, after six years of studying various aspects of biology once a week, in addition to special studies, nature walks, and an occasional book of nature lore read during their free time, a student should have a good store of common information.

How I Schedule Science

Due to the above arguments, I limit our science studies to two subjects per term: biology and one other topic. Our experiments are pulled from the reading each week. Then, as each term ends, we switch to a new topic. My students are still studying four topics per year, so I feel good about the feast they are sampling from, but they don’t have all four subjects on their plates at the same time.

Below is a sample schedule for a week of science for students in forms 3-6 (grades 7-12).

Day 1 Day 2 Day 3 Day 4 Day 5
biology
40 min.
other science
40 min.
other science
40 min.
experiment
40 min.
another book
20 min.
(12th grade only)
Men, Microscopes, and Living Things For the Love of Physics For the Love of Physics cont. physics experiment Letters to a Young Scientist
(12th grade only)

If you would like to see how this looks across several years, take a look at the following pages:

Forms 3 (grades 7-8) Two-Year Plan
Forms 4-6 (High School) Four-Year Plan

Mason’s Streams of Science

You may know that Charlotte Mason assigned her children multiple streams of history each term, but did you know that she assigned them several streams of science as well?

Form 1 (grades 1-3)

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Form 1 students did not do any formal science yet. All of their science education fell under the category of nature lore. However, they already had various streams presented to them. They were always reading (or being read to,) from two different science books. One fell under a category I would term general, meaning it focused on a region, such as Plant Life in Field & Garden by Buckley. This also included regions that were far off, such as Animal Life in Africa by Duncan or Tommy Smith’s Again at the Zoo by Selous. The other was about a specific plant or animal group, such as Birdland’s Little People by Pike or Trees and Shrubs by Buckley.

Form 2 (grades 4-6)

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Form 2 students continued reading one nature lore book. Across 39 terms of programmes (from 1921 to 1933,) P.U.S. students were always assigned one of two nature lore books: Life and Her Children by Buckley or Madam How and Lady Why by Kingsley. I’ve read some interesting articles attesting to the fact that Buckley and Kingsley were two of the only science writers for children of their day who stood by their faith, however, they both believed in the theory of evolution. Unfortunately, neither one of these books would be my pick today. Despite Buckley’s faith

Unfortunately, neither one of these books would be my pick today. Despite Buckley’s faith, Life and Her Children is essentially a catalog of evolutionary biology, which might not be the best fit for every family, and I have a love-hate relationship with Madam How and Lady Why. I really think everyone should read it at some point in their lives, but because we are so limited in the number of books we can fit into our children’s science education feast, while still adhering to Mason’s page counts, I prefer to use The Story Book of Science by Fabre. It is not quite like either of the two books listed above, but neither are they like each other. On the schedules, Mason specifies a time of reading “nature lore”, so I feel like that is the common principle.  The Story Book of Science is definitely nature lore, while still teaching an ample amount of science, in a wide variety of subject areas.

A formal science book was added at this time as well. Students spent two years reading The Sciences by Holden and then third-year students read An Introduction to Elementary Botany by Laurie. The Sciences includes sections on astronomy, physics, chemistry, weather, geology, so students were getting a good sampling of all of the formal science subjects. Most of the subjects were taken over a single term. Today I do not use The Sciences, but rather several small books that are a bit more up to date.

Form 3-5 (grades 7-11)Screen Shot 2016-08-13 at 2.07.01 PM

Form 3 and 4 students continued to read one nature lore book, Winner’s in Life’s Race by Buckley. This was the sequel to her book Life and Her Children, where she dealt with backboned animals. While I think it is important to use a book with literary power in this spot, I also think it is important four our students to take up the study of biology in earnest at this point.  Hence, I suggest the book Men, Microscopes, and Living Things by Shippen, which offers an overall survey of the field of biology, while maintaining a beautiful narrative style.

In the first half of the 38 programmes I studied, students in form 3 were reading two different science books, but I noticed that in the last half of those programmes, the first year students (grade 7,) had dropped back to two science books most of the time. (Three if you count their nature lore.)  These extra two or three books covered subjects such as botany using The Study of Plant Life by Stopes, general science using Fairyland of Science by Buckley, earth science using Geikie’s Physical Geography Primer, or a book about one specific topic such as The World of Sound by Bragg.

This is where I diverge from Charlotte Mason’s plan, a bit. I have my reason, which I will explain in my next article.

Form 6 (grades 12)

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Form 6 students were assigned an additional title, making their total five books. They read The Study of Animal Life by Thomson, The Romance of the Human Body by Macfie, a general science book, a geology book, and an astronomy book. An interesting discovery I made is that she used a textbook for 12th-grade geology – gasp! 😀 I’ll talk more about that another time. Suffice it to say that the textbooks of her time didn’t look anything like the textbooks we talk about today.

I mentioned above that I diverge from Mason’s plan for students in form 3 through form 6. This article was getting so long already, that I thought it would be better to move that explanation to a separate article.