There are several key words and phrases which quickly lend themselves to thinking about Charlotte Mason and her education philosophy. When we hear “Living Books”, “Narration” or “Nature Study”, we associate these words with her. In general, many home-educators, teachers and parents know at least a little of Charlotte Mason and a smattering of words which we group under her name. “Short Lessons” is another one of these signal phrases. What are short lessons? In what way are they significant? How should they be implemented?
We learn about Ms. Mason’s thoughts on short lessons through her own writings. In Home Education, she writes: “When a child grows [dazed] over a lesson, it is time to put it away. Let him do another lesson as unlike the last as possible, and then go back with freshened wits to his unfinished task” (141). She continues by writing that if the teacher “… [has] been unwary enough to let the child “moon” over a lesson, she must just exert her wits to pull him through; the lesson must be done, of course, but must be made bright and pleasant to the child” (141). The essential message in short lessons is that the length should match the development of the child. Younger children have shorter attention spans; if we want their best attempt, this need must be respected. The emphasis is on quality over quantity. If the requirement to focus extends past their available ability, then we trade their attention and comprehension for one of lesser quality. Children, who lose focus part-way into a lesson, will have essentially wasted time –lesson time, the teacher’s time and their own time. This isn’t really fair or effective.
How might these lessons be made more attractive? Ms. Mason writes: “The teacher should have some knowledge of the principles of education; should know what subjects are best fitted for the child considering his age, and how to make these subjects attractive; should know, too, how to vary the lessons, so that each power of the child’s mind should rest after effort, and some other power be called into play” (141). Firstly, teachers should consider a child’s age and individual development when writing lesson plans, since this recognition will help avoid the onset of a child’s wavering attention. If the lesson does go on too long, then teachers should note when children have reached their limit and have a plan for either revitalizing the lesson (with a plan to end it as soon as possible) or pivot away from it. If a teacher is reading, then perhaps finding the nearest end of scene within the selection should be the immediate goal. Following this with a little discussion –questions which allow children to consider their own thoughts and feelings brought on by the events of the reading– might offer enough of a break in the lesson to “complete” it. The reading can continue either at another time that day or on another day. Involving children through pictures, discussions, moving outside, demonstrations, activities, etc. can be utilized to make lessons more “bright and pleasant” for the child.
Charlotte Mason gave the habit of attention so much weight in her overall philosophy, that she included time tables –similar to a weekly schedule– in her programs. One example time-table shows 10-20 min. allotments for Form I children; 10-30 min. allotments for Form II; 10-45 min. allotments for Form III; 30-45 min. allotments for Form IV and above. This time table was not the only example, but it gives a general illustration. Her design reinforces the idea of short lessons and also illustrates how children should move from lessons which require more of their focused attention to lessons which do not –in a somewhat alternating pattern. This approach gives children built in “breaks”, so that their minds have a chance to relax and refresh.
In Home Education, we read:
In the first place, there is a time-table, written out fairly, so that the child knows what he has to do and how long each lesson is to last. This idea of definite work to be finished in a given time is valuable to the child, not only as training him in habits of order, but in diligence; he learns that one time is not “as good as another”; that there is no right time left for what is not done in its own time; and this knowledge alone does a great deal to secure the child’s attention to his work. Again, the lessons are short, seldom more than twenty minutes in length for children under eight; and this, for two or three reasons. The sense that there is not much time for his sums or his reading, keeps the child’s wits on the alert and helps to fix his attention; he has time to learn just so much of any one subject as it is good for him to take in at once: and if the lessons be judiciously alternated––sums first, say, while the brain is quite fresh; then writing, or reading––some more or less mechanical exercise, by way of a rest; and so on, the program varying a little from day to day, but the same principle throughout––a “thinking” lesson first, and a “painstaking” lesson to follow,––the child gets through his morning lessons without any sign of weariness (143).
It should be noted that even very young children are aware when they are not able to give a lesson its full attention…it is this awareness that creates the frustration they feel. They may know or want to attend to the lesson or task at hand, but are simply unable to do this. In an effort to complete the task, they begin to hurry –leading to mistakes. This, in turn, leads to feelings of frustration, insecurity and resentment. These are not feelings which are conducive to an atmosphere of learning. Ms. Mason writes: “But truly, one of the most fertile causes of an overdone brain is a failure in the habit of attention. I suppose we are all ready to admit that it is not the things we do, but the things we fail to do, which fatigue us, with the sense of omission, with the worry of hurry in overtaking our tasks” (147). When teachers ask more of children than they can give, we are essentially setting them up for failure.
It is important to recognize that these time-table limits are not meant to be adhered to as absolutes. There is certainly room for flexibility. Not every child, nor every situation, calls for a stringent abidance to these time allotments. You will notice in the allotments described above that as children grown older, the lesson “times” increase, matching their growing maturity. The time-tables illustrate the importance of keeping lessons short and give teachers the structure they need to implement this very important idea. Flexibility can also be created in rearranging the order of the subjects –as long as the teacher remembers to alter “thinking” lessons with “painstaking” lessons. This gives teachers and parents the ability to create a daily and weekly flow which better fits their own family. Lesson times can also be adapted as long as teachers are “reading” each child’s individual reactions as the lesson progresses.
Short lessons reinforce the idea that a child’s attention should be fully given so that lessons are then meaningful. This approach also helps build a child’s security while learning and allows them to build the skills needed to lengthen their attention time. This, in turn, permits them to grow as a student, tackling bigger ideas and assignments with confidence.