“The educational outlook is rather misty and depressing both at home and abroad…we have no unifying principle, no definite aim; in fact, no philosophy of education.”
Thus Charlotte Mason opened the preface to her Home Education Series. She was commenting on public education in Britain at the dawning of the 20th century, and she was making her observation in spite of the many and varied calls for curriculum reform in schools in the areas of science, maths, English and modern languages.
Why do we need a Philosophy of Education?
Because, if we do not have one, we may be setting ourselves up to fail. If we do not have one our efforts are like an arrow without a target. Why do we educate our children? What are we hoping to achieve? These are the sorts of questions to ask ourselves, so that the best methods will become evident. Jesus once asked the crowds who followed him:
“Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.”
In the same way, if we desire to educate our own children well (or indeed a nation of children), we need to sit down and plan. We need to draw up the architect’s plans, in order to cost out the building work. And I’m not talking about whether our kids learn two foreign languages, whether they meet set standards, or whether they sit A levels or get a University degree. These might be the brass tacks it boils down to in the end, but they just as equally might not. Surely these things are not essential to a life well-lived, nor to an education worth having? Mason concluded:
“As a stream can rise no higher than its sources, so it is probable that no educational effort can rise above the whole scheme of thought which gives it birth; and perhaps this is the reason of all the fallings from us, vanishings, failures, and disappointments which mark our educational records.”
What is a Philosophy of Education?
So, to be clear, the philosophy is distinct from the methods. It is possible to share elements of philosophy on, say, reading, yet differ totally in the methods of realising them. Suppose reading is a core tool valued highly: one family might include in their methods the use of a computer-based reading program, while another might begin by deliberately leaving lots of interesting books lying around.
A Philosophy might be short or long, simple or detailed, written, typed or (I suppose!) memorised. It matters not a jot whether it’s distilled to a few concise lines (hat’s off to you), an eloquent 25-point treatise, or if you can only think in 3-point lists (see below). The point is, whichever way it’s done, a Philosophy has been given a deal of thought.
Here’s Our (abridged!) Philosophy
Our overarching ethos is: Development precedes acquisition.
There are two major dimensions to education as we understand it. Development is the first and the second is acquisition. For example, it would be absurd to expect an infant without well-attuned fine motor skills to hold a pen and write an intelligible word, no matter how much teaching and training the child is given. Development leads to and enables acquisition, giving way to it progressively. Therefore we shall allow our children to learn at their own pace, and we shall resist setting attainment targets.
The core of our Philosophy of Home Education is that we desire our children’s education to be:
- An individual education, distinct from the uniformity of a school education, and tailored to their personal strengths and weaknesses.
- An holistic education – physical, emotional, spiritual, academic, moral, technical, social and creative – and responsive to their changing lives.
- An excellent education, providing opportunities to learn, the tools to learn with, and the support to facilitate ongoing learning.
To these ends, we aim to provide our children with three things in particular:
- An introduction to different disciplines, subjects, skill-sets, and bodies of knowledge. The purpose of this is to excite our children’s interest in those things which most suit them, and applies to all areas of learning and endeavour – whether our child wishes to be a surfer or a surgeon, a fisherman or a philosopher, a financier, a father of five, or all of the above. There are very few “non-negotiables”, such as numeracy, literacy and courtesy.
- The tools to learn what they need and want to learn. We believe the 3 Rs are a good core toolset: reading, writing and arithmetic. Self-knowledge is another essential tool. The purpose of these core tools is to release our children into further and deeper independent learning.
- Continued support for their learning, including emotional, practical and financial support. We are available on a daily basis to provide encouragement and comfort, to help answer questions, to provide and help locate the right equipment and materials, and if necessary to enlist extra assistance from others.
“A discontent (is it a divine discontent?), is upon us; and assuredly we should hail a workable, effectual philosophy of education as a deliverance from much perplexity.”
~ Charlotte Mason, Home Education