For most people, Charlotte Mason’s name brings to mind living books, narration, and artist study. Throughout her life and her written works, she campaigned to give all children an education full of beautiful literature that inspires children with a generous feast of ideas. In this light, it’s easy to see why we hear little about teaching math the Charlotte Mason way.
Math, with a structured curriculum and sometimes even workbooks, seems to be an outlier in the world of Charlotte Mason. Especially if we found mathematics difficult or dull as students, we may find it difficult to see the connection between math and Charlotte Mason’s educational feast.
In reading Charlotte Mason’s writing about math, though, I have found that there are ample connections between math and the rest of a Charlotte Mason education. In fact, math is an integral part of a Charlotte Mason curriculum, not an outlier. Here’s what you need to know in order to teach homeschool math the Charlotte Mason Way.
Math is a Living Subject
For many people, it’s hard to imagine math as a life-giving, living study. Charlotte Mason, however, believed that teachers should only include “living, vital” subjects in the curriculum. Lessons are no place for “that which is dead, dry as dust.” Math is no exception, and she spends part of her book Towards a Philosophy of Education exploring why math is a living subject.
In that volume, Charlotte Mason shares her belief that math is teeming with living ideas. Living ideas inspire children to think and help them grow intellectually. Math also offers our children the chance to engage with the idea of unchangeable rules and laws. No matter how hard we try, one plus one cannot equal three. This alone is an inspiring idea. However, the living ideas of mathematics extend to the patterns in number and shape that make up the discipline.
Take, for example, the associative property of addition (a + b = b + a). This is a basic pattern in arithmetic. When our children learn this, they will notice it, recognize it, and eventually use it to solve their own math problems.
My six-year-old did this recently. He told me he prefers to add smaller numbers to bigger ones. When he adds two numbers, he often switches them around in order to do this. This makes addition simpler. As a Charlotte Mason educator, this shows me he has engaged with the living idea of the associative property. This is precisely what makes math a living subject.
Living Books Not Required
But while math is a living subject, Charlotte Mason did not think that we needed to use living books in order to teach math. While living books are the hallmark of Charlotte Mason lessons, she thought that we should teach math directly and orally, like a foreign language. Ideally, we learn a new language from a young age, from a fluent speaker. This allows us to immerse ourselves in the language until we can speak, read and even think in that language.
Math is similar. We don’t need a lot of books when the teacher can help students think mathematically about a problem, introduce and use mathematical language, and help students learn and apply new concepts.
We use many wonderful living books in my Charlotte Mason homeschool. These books are living because they contain living ideas. While Charlotte Mason believes that books usually communicate living ideas the best, this isn’t always the case, especially with math.
No Special Charlotte Mason Math Curriculum Required
While some homeschool moms might feel a little nervous about the teacher-centered math lessons Charlotte Mason proposed, her method gives a lot of freedom. When we realize we don’t need to find narrative books to teach math lessons, that gives us a lot more options, many of which are mainstream and readily available. The truly math-phobic might even find solutions with online teaching and support!
I find it helpful to remember the few principles Charlotte Mason gave us about the teaching of math. First, for Charlotte Mason, the reason to teach math is to introduce students to principles of law and order. We should teach math in a way that is logical and structured. The patterns and rules of mathematics build carefully on one another, and our math curriculum should reflect this.
Second, children should show their understanding of mathematical concepts by using them. Students can use manipulatives to solve a problem, show work, write a proof, or explain how they reached a solution. In Charlotte Mason’s terms, this is like narration, because in using a mathematical idea, they are engaging with the concept and developing their understanding.
Fortunately, there are many math curricula that are carefully structured and that help students show what they know through various means. The best place to start is with the math curriculum you already use and looking for these principles at work.
Charlotte Mason wrote little about teaching mathematics. What she did write, however, is refreshing, and brings this discipline in line with the rest of her method. Personally, I find the most encouragement in reading her words and uncovering her principles myself, and I’ve made a workbook on Charlotte Mason and Living Math to help you do this, too. As we explore her ideas on math, we are better placed to make math a living, vibrant study in our homeschools.