The early years with each of my children has been delightful. We spend lots of time outside, read great books, and I simply follow my child's lead when it comes to academics. This laid-back approach to the early years is the reason that I think people confuse Charlotte Mason homeschooling as unschooling. During the early years, there ARE some similarities, but when a child turns six, the two paths diverge like that famous one in a snowy wood.
So, let's take a look into how Charlotte Mason homeschooling and unschooling are not the same.
Related: The Complete Charlotte Mason Preschool Guide
What is Charlotte Mason Homeschooling?
In case you're new around here, let's take a moment to talk about Charlotte Mason homeschooling. This is a homeschool philosophy that was assembled by British educator, Charlotte Mason, in the late 1800's/early 1900's. Mason dedicated her life to studying philosophy, psychology, and Christianity. In turn, her philosophy combines all three. The cornerstone of her ideas is that children are born persons, meaning that they are inherently people from the start, not waiting to become them at some point in time. Because children are inherently persons, this changes the way we educate them.
- We don't try to stuff them with facts or dumb down knowledge for them, because they are capable learners
- We use beautifully written, inspiring books to educate them, rather than worksheets or lectures because they desire knowledge
- We trust that a child can make sense of what they've read, and require them to narrate what they've listened to or read in order to help them process it
- We view a child as a spiritual being, and therefore should be in touch with God and His creation
- We think that living books and ideas represent education as a life, but Charlotte Mason said that education is a discipline (habit training) and an atmosphere (the daily happenings that educate)
Related: Education is a Life Course from Thinking Love Podcast
While this is a quick overview, you can find lots more resources on my site. The bottom line, and most important purpose of this post, is that Charlotte Mason's philosophy is intentional. She gives examples of rigorous curricula and sets high standards for children's learning, experiences, and habits.
What is Unschooling?
I recruited my friend Katrina from Rule this Roost to come share a little about unschooling with us, since I'm no expert!
Unschooling is a homeschooling approach that doesn’t lend itself to any single curriculum, however that’s not to say that it doesn’t have structure or goals. In unschooling, the child chooses what areas he or she wants to pursue and the parent provides resources and guidance while the child dives into the topic.
There is no time limit on how long a child can spend learning about a certain topic and there isn’t a test or exam when that topic has been exhausted. If a child loves learning about outer space and wants to learn about the planets, the parent might take him the library for books on the topic, buy a beginner telescope or find documentaries on the subject. The parents’ job is very important for successful unschooling. Unschooling is more of a way of life than anything and will look very different in each family.
Unschooling.org gives some principles that I'm paraphrasing for you here:
- Children are naturally learners
- Interest drives learning
- Learning is a by-product of play and pursuing passions
- A parent's role is not to teach, but to connect with their child
Comparing Charlotte Mason and Unschoooling
These two philosophies both revolve around the fact that children are capable and interested learners. Both methods don't try to stuff a child full of knowledge but either offer up the knowledge, or help them explore it themselves.
This is really where the similarities stop, though. In the early years and during free time, a child is encouraged to follow their interests, but the ideas behind how and why a child learn are different.
Contrasting Charlotte Mason and Unschooling
Teacher led vs. child led- While unschooling is child led, Charlotte Mason is teacher led. A set curriculum is laid out before the child, and books are chosen to be read out loud or by the child alone. Since unschooling relies on a child's interests, the child chooses the books, or the family relies on a method called "strewing," in which books are casually left around the home and children can pick them up when they wish.
Formal learning vs play- In the early years, Charlotte Mason's philosophy relies on play and exploration, but during formal lessons, which begin at six, play is not the sole means of learning. With unschooling, however, learning happens because of play, and this extends beyond the early years.
Narration vs. no assignments- In Charlotte Mason's method, narration is used to solidify what a child learned from a book, and also to quickly assess if a child understands. In unschooling, when children read a book, they are trusted to make meaning from it on their own, and any follow-ups regarding the book are child-led vs. parent-assigned.
Schedule vs. no schedule- Depending on how devoted you are to following Ms. Mason's ways, a Charlotte Mason education uses a schedule to guide homeschool lessons. There are pages and pages of schedules that Charlotte Mason used which many people follow or use as a guideline! In contrast, unschooling doesn't use a strict schedule and often counts on the child to manage their time or guide their days.
Choosing a homeschool philosophy that's right for your family is important, so I thought clarifying the differences between these two popular methods would be helpful. If you're interested in learning more about Charlotte Mason's philosophy, join the Thinking Love Podcast in their Education is a Life course for practical and philosophical applications of this method of education.
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Sarah J Monnier says
Hi! I really appreciate this article. As somebody raised on Frost, I wanted to point out that the snowy wood and the roads diverging are different poems. The roads diverged in a yellow wood so I always imagined it in fall. But I am so glad somebody said “Charlotte Mason is not unschooling” because I do feel like there’s a lot of confusion. I’m a schedule addict so I love Charlotte Mason now but was very trepidations at first because I worried it would be unscheduled freedom and I can’t be trusted to be responsible with unscheduled time. Thanks for writing this!
Nice post! Thanks for sharing.