Feeding the Mind of the Child, or Why “Focusing on the 3 R’s” is Not the Best Approach

“Education is lighting a fire, not filling a bucket.” 

When a homeschool mom has a struggling reader, she is often advised to let content subjects take a back seat while she works on the basics. As one of those moms, I tried that approach. But a basics only approach is lifeless. I found no joy, school was a chore to check off the list. Just like doing the dishes. Not only was the bucket not being filled, but the fire was in danger of being put out. Even I, the teacher, was dissatisfied. In one of my darker moments, I stopped and asked myself: what if my son never learned to read well? Or, what if he could read ‘well enough’ for life, but could never read the good and great books for himself? How long would I make him wait? And I knew – I had to find a way to open the world up, despite his ability to read on his own. You can’t stay in emergency mode for long: it ignores the beauty of life.

Education is about growing the mind.

The way to mind is a quite direct way. Mind must come into contact with mind through the medium of ideas. (Charlotte Mason, Volume 6, Chapter 2)

Books. That’s how you connect to another’s ideas: reading. But teaching a struggling child to read is not the most important thing. By all means, keep working on phonics and fluency, but skill work alone isn’t enough. You need to kindle the flame, and then feed it. The food of the mind is ideas.
Some of my favorite speakers are “The Two Andrews”. First I heard Andrew Pudewa (IEW) talking about how his son, who was unable to read, developed a wonderful vocabulary by listening to audio books. Then Andrew Kern (Circe) pointed out there are stages of reading. What we call reading, he calls independent reading, or “reading with your eyes”. But before that is dependent reading, or “reading with your ears”.
Around the time I was struggling to put this new information to use, God led me in a circle back to Ambleside Online. Many of AO’s books were available in audio format, free, from Librivox. Many of the others I already owned. Due mainly to my personality, I wanted the kids in their own years. But I’m only human, not super organized, and I didn’t want to bite off more than I could chew. I didn’t know if I could prepare and teach 3 different AO years. I’d been playing with another curriculum that required a lot of teacher involvement: I would have to learn first, and then present to my children. But Charlotte Mason’s principles again came to my rescue.

If they do not, it is not for lack of earnestness and intention on the part of the teacher; his error is rather want of confidence in children. He has not formed a just measure of a child’s mind and bores his scholars with much talk about matters which they are able to understand for themselves much better than he does. How many teachers know that children require no pictures excepting the pictures of great artists, which have quite another function than that of illustration? They see for themselves in their own minds a far more glorious, and indeed more accurate, presentation than we can afford in our miserable daubs. They read between the lines and put in all the author has left out.  (Charlotte Mason, Volume 6, Chapter 2)

For Charlotte Mason, the teacher’s job is to spread the feast before the child, then step back, and let the author speak. And she doesn’t require busy work. No work is to be given except what the child can accomplish perfectly. So I wouldn’t have to prepare, then give a lecture, then help them form answers to comprehension questions, then help them write out those answers. No, read the book with them (or assign it to them) and have them narrate. Perhaps a discussion afterwards, and some copywork or dictation for writing.

Our business is to give children the great ideas of life, of religion, history, science; but it is the ideas we must give, clothed upon with facts as they occur, and must leave the child to deal with these as he chooses.  (Charlotte Mason, Volume 6, Chapter 2)

How freeing. I estimated the time. I had a year 1 student, but he would only have 2-3 short readings a day. My year 3 student was a fairly good reader. My struggling reader I placed in year 4, and divided his work between reading with me and audio books. The test for him was “Robinson Crusoe“, a very challenging book. He listened to it, and loved it. Together we read “Ben Franklin of Old Philadelphia“. He loved that as well, Ben the inventor and problem solver appealed to my hands-on son who loved to help others. My younger sons also enjoyed their readings. And I started to enjoy homeschooling again.
It wasn’t just school time either. Ideas penetrate the mind, they are mulled over and become part of us, changing our thoughts and actions.

We receive [ideas] with appetite and some stir of interest. It appears to feed in a curious way. We hear of a new patent cure for the mind or the body, of the new thought of some poet, the new notion of a school of painters; we take in, accept, the idea and for days after every book we read, every person we talk with brings food to the newly entertained notion. ‘Not proven,’ will be the verdict of the casual reader; but if he watch the behaviour of his own mind towards any of the ideas ‘in the air,’ he will find that some such process as I have described takes place; and this process must be considered carefully in the education of children. We may not take things casually as we have done.   (Charlotte Mason, Volume 6, Chapter 2)

My older son, Jonathan, would think of things Robinson Crusoe had done when we talked about camping. We talked about true friends after he listened to the second chapter of “The Jungle Book“. When the Happy Scientist posted an eagle for his daily photo, and asked which founding father had wanted a different bird as our national symbol we could connect to why Franklin would have wanted a different bird.

My second son remembered “The Princess and the Goblin” when he saw other books by George MacDonald. We talked about the cruelty in “King of the Wind“, and the root of that instance of cruelty: uncontrolled anger. I hope next time he starts to loose his temper, he will remember the pain caused to the horse, and control his anger. (No, he doesn’t get angry at our horse – it’s usually his younger brother. And yes, I had a hard time not over-moralizing the incident.)

And the benefits of an ideas approach to education continue. Not only the intellect, but the conscience is trained.

It is not only a child’s intellect but his heart that comes to us thoroughly furnished. Can any of us love like a little child? Father and mother, sisters and brothers, neighbours and friends, “our” cat and “our” dog, the wretchedest old stump of a broken toy, all come in for his lavish tenderness. How generous and grateful he is, how kind and simple, how pitiful and how full of benevolence in the strict sense of goodwill, how loyal and humble, how fair and just! His conscience is on the alert. Is a tale true? Is a person good?––these are the important questions. His conscience chides him when he is naughty, and by degrees as he is trained, his will comes to his aid and he learns to order his life.  (Charlotte Mason, Volume 6, Chapter 2)

Andrew Kern’s favorite thinking question (perhaps something CM would use for the grand discussion) is “should X have done Y?” Should Bilbo have gone with the dwarves? Should Bowane have waited for each of his friends? Reading – stories – they develop the whole child.

Reading does open the world, and my advice is don’t wait until a child can do it with their eyes! Read to them. Use CM’s principle of short lessons: fifteen minutes of phonics, ten minutes to work on reading fluently, twenty minutes of math. In between, read with your child. Give them an audio book to listen to and narrate. Listen to fairy tales in the car or at breakfast. At quiet time let them use an MP3 player. Read aloud before bed. And read the best books: you’ll be surprised what children understand.

As for literature––to introduce children to literature is to install them in a very rich and glorious kingdom, to bring a continual holiday to their doors, to lay before them a feast exquisitely served. But they must learn to know literature by being familiar with it from the very first. A child’s intercourse must always be with good books, the best that we can find.   (Charlotte Mason, Volume 6, Chapter 2)

My ultimate guideline for education is Philippians 4:8 “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

I know tough times hit, sometimes all you can do is tread water (I’ve been there). But when you think of “must do” schooling, include ideas – be they fairy tales, biographies or the wonders of nature. And don’t let a lack of reading skill be a barrier to presenting the best books to your child.

5 thoughts on “Feeding the Mind of the Child, or Why “Focusing on the 3 R’s” is Not the Best Approach

  1. I had the same experience… I still have it at times when I neglect those important things that do not fall into the 3 R’s, such as nature study, art, music… my girls say, oh, mom, it is always reading, writing, and math, LOL. Then it is time for some CM to the rescue!

  2. Continuing to offer The Feast is important too for special needs children and those struggling with language. What they manage to glean feeds them, too.

    One of my favorite videos on reading is by Daniel Willingham: Teaching Content Is Teaching Reading. http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=RiP-ijdxqEc It is worth ten minutes of your time. Offering wide and varied books and things provides background knowledge, which boost comprehension. A child who knows of nature, poetry, art, music, mythology, the Bible, classic literature, Shakespeare, etc. are far more equipped to read than someone who has been fed twaddle.

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