By Catherine Levison
The idea of short lessons is often approached with skepticism by parents. I understand this completely, as I was a doubter myself. I have often asked parents this question, “Do you have anything to lose by trying it? If you were to try short lessons and find they did not work for you, couldn’t you just go back to long lessons?” I cannot even count the number of parents who tried this and now rave about short lessons.
One of the most common complaints I hear from moms and dads about home schooling is the amount of time it can take a child to complete fairly straightforward subjects such as math. Charlotte Mason used an old-fashioned term, “dawdling.” What I find is that the children are unconcerned and frankly could not care less about dawdling. In other words it does not bother them in the least. I cannot exactly explain why children seemingly prefer to sit and doodle, stare into space and try every trick in the book just to stall and waste time. But I do know this — it is the parent who cares, is concerned, and would strongly prefer to start a lesson or topic and finish it in a timely way.
Short lessons help to get the child’s attention and that appears to be half the battle. Mason put it this way, “You want the child to remember? Then secure his whole attention,” Home Education. (Vol. 1, p. 156) Her definition of attention is summarized as “the whole mental force is applied to the subject in hand. This act of bringing the whole mind to bear, may be trained into a habit at the will of the parent or teacher who attracts and holds the child’s attention by means of a sufficient motive.” (p. 145) Moms and dads want to know how to do this. What is our part in getting the child’s attention? How can we help the child to want to buckle down and concentrate?
One way to help with this is by recognizing the power of habit and how that can work to our advantage. The formation of good habits is one of the crucial teachings of Charlotte Mason. Although it is not our topic in this article it does apply to our use of time in our school day. Charlotte teaches us that adults should not waste time and neither should children. One very practical way to teach this is to set the example. Mason told parents to teach their children that there is “satisfaction to do the day’s work in the day, and be free to enjoy the day’s leisure.” Ourselves (Vol. 4, part 1, p. 173) What that means in the 21st century is this: If you have work to do, whether it is grocery shopping or laundry, you can try to goof off and have fun and somehow pretend that you do not have anything more pressing to do, but it rarely works. For instance, I am working on the computer right now when perhaps I would rather be outside walking or enjoying a hobby. But the truth is, if I finish my work now, I can truly enjoy my fun time later today. If I play and have fun now the joy of it will be somewhat lessened, because I will have my undone work on my mind.
The power of attention is a very useful resource for any person to develop. As a parent, you want your children to listen to and retain the information you communicate to them. Charlotte Mason once pointed out that educated professionals such as lawyers for example have to be able to listen (pay attention) and react. “Contrast this with the wandering eye and random replies of the uneducated — and you see that to differentiate people according to their power of attention is to employ a legitimate test.” (Vol. 1, p. 137) Do not depend upon a sudden decision on the part of the child to start paying attention. Depend upon habit. If your children are still young and you are interested in Charlotte Mason’s philosophy, then I recommend you read her first volume all the way through as soon as possible. You will find by reading it that these habits can and should be started in infancy. It is the parent who can help the children to play with one toy for a little longer span of time than they would have without your guidance. Train the children at a young age to really look at things.
When they get older, “never let the child dawdle over a copy-book [penmanship] or sum, sit dreaming with his book before him. When a child grows stupid 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 . . . the lesson must be done, of course, but must be made bright and pleasant to the child.” (Vol. 1 p. 141)
In the Charlotte Mason method we always vary the lessons to keep them fresh and to avoid boredom. It is invigorating to go from math to poetry, from penmanship to history. Choose the school subjects so that they alternate between routine practice and subjects that take serious thought. With each day’s schedule we would want to vary the order somewhat to avoid any drudgery of a strict routine.
If the word “schedule” makes your blood run cold then give me a moment to prepare you. Clearly there are structured homeschooling families and relaxed un-schooling families and every possible combination in between. It is my firm belief that anyone will be able to strike a balance, while still happily leaning toward the side they are most comfortable with. A strict “school at home” parent could benefit from borrowing some key ideas from the unschooling method. And the ultra relaxed unschooling parent could benefit from utilizing a small amount of structure. Why? Do we need to be balanced for balance’s sake? No, not really. The better answer is because some parents, as they lean too strongly toward one extreme or the other, wind up either in heavy burnout from too much structure or in unbearable guilt from not achieving their own homeschooling goals. Chronic guilt is no way to live. It is a burden and many feel the need to hide it from everybody. There really are moms who have not covered fairly important educational areas and they see the years going by one by one. I know because they have met with me and shared the pain of guilt that they have successfully kept hidden from their friends.
Moving on, the CM method does include the posting of a schedule. This would include what to do and how long each lesson will last. She writes, “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 is length for children under eight.” (Vol. 1, p. 142)
Short lessons consist of 15 to 20 minutes in length during elementary school. They increase to 30 minutes per subject in junior high and to 45 minutes in high school. Remember, the CM students were in school six days a week, and they were covering 15 to 21 subjects per week (not per day) even as early as seven and eight years of age. If you need additional time for any subject because you only homeschool four days a week, you may want to add another short segment at some other time in your day or weekend. You can also try teaching some of the material that will be new to the child during other times and then using short lessons for practicing what they do know.
Now you can see why I prepared you — this does not sound much like unschooling does it? A method that includes the posting of a schedule, which should indicate what to do and how long each lesson will last, has helped my homeschooling experience and in fact makes it so that I can unschool all afternoon, evening and weekend. Because I have found that it is true that we all function at our best when we know what is going to come next and what is expected of us. It helps to set a certain time for the less attractive subjects like grammar, foreign language and math. After that type of learning is out of the way for the day then the field trips and pottery can occur, guilt free.
Short lessons motivate the child to finish because he knows that there is not much time to complete his assignment. This helps to keep the child alert. This is particularly helpful when dealing with the child’s least favorite subject. It’s sort of the “eat-your-spinach” concept. If he doesn’t like it, at least he knows once it is finished he won’t be asked to do it again until tomorrow.
I’ve never seen this advice in any of Charlotte Mason’s books, but I know from personal experience that some people, both young and old, are motivated by being able to cross tasks off a list, or drawing a line through the completed assignment of the planning book. Some parents like to use the motivational charts that are sold at teacher stores, which include the use of stickers. Even if this has never appealed to you, there is a chance that one of your children might be highly motivated by the satisfaction of filling in a chart or crossing assignments off the list.
What we can know is that Charlotte did recommend the use of natural rewards. The example she gives in Home Education on page 143 is of a child being allowed twenty minutes to complete his math. If he gets it done quickly and correctly then the “natural consequence[s] of his good conduct” is that he has a few minutes of leisure time. Charlotte says that he can choose any activity including a quick trip outside or drawing. I don’t necessarily send my kids out to the yard right in the middle of short lessons but I do give the remainder of the allotted time to draw or work a crossword puzzle or whatever they like to do. In fact, I keep that type of fun-yet-quiet stuff near them so they can pick it up and occupy themselves while other children are still finishing.
The older the child becomes the more we expect him to pay attention, therefore, we want to keep working at the habit of attention slowly but surely. Help them with this by seeing it as your job as the homeschooling parent. Try to make sure that your “child never does a lesson into which he does not put his heart.” (Vol. 1, p. 146). This will build the habit of finishing that Charlotte writes about in Ourselves. One of my favorite quotes of hers is, “What is worth beginning is worth finishing, and what is worth doing is worth doing well.” (Vol. 4, pt. II, p. 172) She knows it’s tempting to start something new, but she insists that “It is worthwhile to make ourselves go on with the thing we are doing until it is finished.”
To use natural consequences to our benefit we sometimes need to set up a somewhat artificial situation. If dragging out math time has become the biggest problem of your entire day then wait and do math right before the child’s favorite television show comes on or a few minutes before all the neighborhood children show up to play basketball in front of your house. Show him or her the exact math problems you want done. Be clear about how much time there is to do them whether it is fifteen minutes or sixty. Then if, and only if, he gets his math done and done right does he go ahead and do the activity he has been wanting to do. Another thing that works for extreme cases is to set up a chess board, some clay, whatever his current passion is and have it there on the table next to him but out of reach. Yes, you may have to play a game of chess with your child in the middle of the day, but hopefully it will not be long until he sees the benefits of short lessons for himself.
The goal is not bribery. The goal is to teach “real life” and in real life we sometimes have to do things we do not want to do. I do not enjoy computing my annual taxes at all but there are consequences already in place if I do not file them by a certain well-known date each year. I can keep dreading the day and put off the necessary preparation work or I can get it done and not have to face that chore for an entire year. Even better is the feeling of having it off my mind so that it does not weigh on me mentally.
In addition, we have a responsibility to provide very interesting materials for the children to learn from. Once the life lesson is learned and the habits are established, then you will find that it is the materials themselves that motivate a child to stay focused and finish the school day. I’m not suggesting that you remain stuck in anything that resembles bribery.
If your best efforts still leave you with a dawdler on your hands then it may be a case of obstinate refusal to cooperate. If, after sufficient motivation and interesting school work has been provided, you are still frustrated, then try considering it a discipline problem and handle it as such. That would mean dealing with the problem in whatever manner with which you usually train your children when they have directly defied your authority.
I have devoted an entire article to parenting for an upcoming issue so I will not go into detail at this time but I will leave one quick suggestion that has worked for me. I sometimes use the demerit system at our house. It is a lot like receiving a speeding ticket in that it is simply a piece of paper, but it is what the paper represents and the fact that you got one written about you. Have you ever pled with a police officer upon being pulled over? Well, the children have the same reaction; they want to get out of the demerit and will usually stop misbehaving and start doing what you asked. What consequences should a demerit hold? Be creative. Taking away a privilege usually works with children, but you do have to use what works for the individual.
Do not make using short lessons more complicated for yourself than it has to be. It can be very simple, and it allows you to get around to all those really good books, art prints and music you’ve collected. It allows you to go on a field trip or a trip to the beach guilt free. It is really only a matter of a written schedule created by you to fit your daily life. Couple that with a simple kitchen timer and give it a chance. You may find what I found, children positively loving the ticking of the timer just as if they were on a game show; thriving by knowing exactly what is being asked of them. And most importantly, children knowing that a fast-paced morning with interesting materials leads right into a relaxed afternoon.
As a parent, you may find the sense of satisfaction that comes from not neglecting certain subjects and be pleasantly surprised by how much more time you have to do what you want to do. Most of all I hope you’ll discover the happiness of retention. If you are going to spend that much time each day — and ultimately that many years with your children — it would be very satisfying to know that they had learned to concentrate and they were able to hold on to some lasting knowledge.
Catherine Levison resides in Seattle. She is the mother of five and began homeschooling in the 1980s, using creative and effective techniques supplied by Charlotte Mason. Catherine gives practical advice while encouraging parents to think for themselves and develop a style that fosters individuality. Her book titles include, A Charlotte Mason Education—A Home Schooling How-To Manual and More Charlotte Mason Education—A Home Schooling How-To Manual. Her latest book is A Literary Education—An Annotated Book List. For more information visit www.catherinelevison.com.