Fall is coming quickly, which means the aroma of pumpkin spice and apple pie will soon fill kitchens across America. Pictures of smiling children picking the perfect pumpkin will fill up my Instagram feed. And cute ways to study apples and pumpkins will fill up Pinterest boards. My eye often catches on those sweet little unit studies, but then I think of some Charlotte Mason ideas that keep me scrolling along. Charlotte Mason wrote specifically about an apple unit study, and how it doesn’t feed a child’s desire for mental nourishment.
Before I go on, I want to reiterate that the mission of this blog is not to tell you how you should do things in your home. My mission is to teach you about the Charlotte Mason philosophy, plant ideas, and let you work on them on your own.
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Apple Unit Study
In Parents and Children , Charlotte Mason mentioned a much lauded unit study in which students-
- Made an apple of clay
- Painted it
- Stitched an apple into cardboard
- Poked at it
- Laid it on sticks to represent seeds
- Made a model apple tree with a ladder
We have, too, in our possession, a test for Systems that are brought under our notice, and can pronounce upon their educational value. For example, some time ago the London Board Schools held an exhibition of work; and great interest was excited by an exhibit which came from New York representing a week’s work (on ‘Herbartian’ lines) in a school. The children worked for a week upon ‘an apple.’ They modelled it in clay, they painted it in brushwork, they stitched the outline on cardboard, they pricked it, they laid it in sticks (the pentagonal form of the seed vessel.) Older boys and girls modelled an apple-tree and made a little ladder on which to run up the apple tree and gather the apples, and a wheel-barrow to carry the apples away, and a great deal more of the same kind. Everybody said, ‘How pretty, how ingenious, what a good idea!’ and went away with the notion that here, at last, was education. But we ask ‘What was the informing idea?’ The external shape, the internal contents of an apple,–matters with which the children were already exceedingly well acquainted. What mental habitudes were gained by this week’s work? They certainly learned to look at the apple, but think how many things they might have got familiar acquaintance with in the time. Probably the children were not consciously bored because the impulse of the teachers’ enthusiasm carried them on, But, think of it-
‘Rabbits hot and rabbits cold,
Rabbits young and rabbits old
Rabbits tender and rabbits tough’–
no doubt those children had enough of apples anyway. This ‘apple’ course is most instructive to us as emphasising the tendency in the human mind to accept and rejoice in any neat system which will produce immediate results, rather than to bring every such little course to the test of whether it does or does not further either or both of our great educational principles.” Parents and Children, pages 255-256
The Rabbits and Charlotte Mason’s First Principle
The last line of the nursery rhyme, which Charlotte Mason excluded, explains a little more of why she used it to describe the possible attitude of the children-
“‘D— the rabbits! we’ve had enough!'”
I can also see why she left it out 🙂
Presenting the same information, in different ways through tangential crafts and activities, is what Charlotte Mason believed to be an encroachment on a child’s personality. Her first principle says, “Children are born persons.” According to this principle, children have a natural desire to learn, and are capable of learning without having information forced on them. In the case of the apple unit study that Charlotte Mason described, the appearance of an apple is reinforced over and over again, but there are no inspiring ideas to think about that help them gain “mental habitudes.” I can imagine the children saying, “We’ve had enough!” after weeks of these “lessons” that didn’t challenge them or encourage them to think deeply.
Charlotte Mason’s Views on Unit Studies
- Literature and language
- Object lessons of caves
- Drawing lessons
- Model making
- Reading from abridged versions of Robinson Crusoe
- Writing prescribed sentences
- Math lessons
- Singing and recitation
The teacher was probably at her best in getting by sheer force much out of little: she was, in fact, acting a part and the children were entertained as at a show, cinema or other; but of one thing we may be sure, an utter distaste, a loathing, on the part of the children ever after, not only for ‘Robinson Crusoe’ but for every one of the subjects lugged in to illustrate his adventures. We read elsewhere of an apple affording a text for a hundred lessons, including the making of a ladder, (in paper), to gather the apples; but, alas, the eating of the worn-out apple is not suggested. (Emphasis mine.) The author whom we quote for ‘Robinson Crusoe’ and whom we refrain from naming because, as a Greek Chorus might say, ‘we cannot praise,’ follows the ‘Robinson’ series with another interminable series on the Armada.
The conscientious, ingenious and laborious teachers who produce these ‘concentration series’ are little aware that each such lesson is an act of lese majesté. The children who are capable of and eager for a wide range of knowledge and literary expression are reduced to inanities; a lifelong ennui is set up; every approach to knowledge suggests avenues for boredom, and the children’s minds sicken and perish long before their school-days come to an end. I have pursued this subject at some length because we, too, believe in ideas as the proper and only diet upon which children’s minds grow. We are more in the dark about Mind than about Mars! We can but judge by effects, and these appear to point to the conclusion that mind is a ‘spiritual organism.’ (I need not apologise for speaking of that which has no substance as an ‘organism’, no greater a contradiction in terms than Herbart’s ‘apperception masses.’) By an analogy with Body we conclude that Mind requires regular and sufficient sustenance; and that this sustenance is afforded by ideas we may gather from the insatiable eagerness with which these are appropriated, and the evident growth and development manifested under such pabulum. That children like feeble and tedious oral lessons, feeble and tedious story books, does not at all prove that these are wholesome food; they like lollipops but cannot live upon them; yet there is a serious attempt in certain schools to supply the intellectual, moral, and religious needs of children by appropriate ‘sweetmeats.'” Towards a Philosophy of Education, pages 116-117
Charlotte Mason holds no punches here.
She thought the ‘concentration series,’ which we call unit studies, would bring disinterest in learning, boredom, and the lack of sustenance for a mind that needs food.
As I have said elsewhere, the ideas required for the sustenance of children are to be found mainly in books of literary quality; given these the mind does for itself the sorting, arranging, selecting, rejecting, classifying, ” Towards a Philosophy of Education, page 117
Instead of making activities around one concrete thing, or one abridged version of a story, read living books with your child. The ideas presented will inspire your child to keep thinking, learning and growing. A few months ago I wrote The Case Against the Pinterest Preschool, to share with you my thoughts on the cute activities that often make up preschools. With all the printing, cutting, and coloring often involved, the return of investment is low. Presenting children with living books does not take much preparation.
Learning About Apples
So how can a young child learn about apples? Charlotte Mason said this might take a little more time, because the ideas are formed gradually and grow. These are things you can do, organically, over the course of the fall:
- Read The Seasons of Arnold’s Apple Tree by Gail Gibbons
- Read Apples by Gail Gibbons
- Observe apples with all the senses- touch, taste, smell, sight, and maybe even hear the sound of an apple falling from a tree! Cut an apple open and observe it, too.
- Visit an apple orchard
- Make a recipe involving apples
These things might not be as cute as a Pinterest apple unit study, but they are so meaningful! Through different experiences, your child will make their own connections and strengthen the ideas that they acquire from nature. That is a truly valuable education!