Before I had children, I studied education in school. That’s when I learned about hands-on teaching & learning. Research actually shows that students who are taught with hands-on methods outperform those who are not.
So when my children came along and we decided to homeschool, I set out to dig a little deeper into hands-on approaches. Knowing that the Charlotte Mason, Montessori, and Waldorf methods are all experiential in nature and honor the individual child, I wanted to compare these three approaches for our family.
And today, I’m sharing what I’ve discovered with you.
My Personal Experience
I have varying degrees of experience with each of these methods, so that’s where I’ll start.
I worked in a Montessori 3 to 6-year-olds classroom for a year after grad school and then sold handmade Montessori materials to teachers and schools for a few years after that.
I’ve loved using some Charlotte Mason materials in our homeschool as my children reached middle school and beyond.
But the bulk of my experience is with the Waldorf approach because that’s what we ultimately chose for our family. I’ve homeschooled three children for over twenty-five years and led quite a few small groups in Waldorf-inspired lessons.
Historical Roots of These Three Methods
So that’s the personal perspective. What about the historical perspective and the methods themselves?
The founders of the Charlotte Mason, Montessori, and Waldorf methods all shared the desire to counteract “industrialized schooling,” the common practice of training a child for a specific job from a very young age.
None of them advocated the use of textbooks or testing.
The three founders are German, Italian, and British, respectively. And each founder had a deep desire to contribute to bringing about a better world through education.
They each created a method that honors the child as both a physical and spiritual being, built on a liberal arts foundation.
For these reasons, I have a deep respect for all three of these approaches.
The Charlotte Mason Method
The Charlotte Mason method came first with Ms. Mason’s publication of Home Education in 1886. She created a Parents’ Educational Union (PEU) in England to help parents educate their children at home or in small groups prior to their entering school.
Charlotte Mason believed that parents were their children’s first teachers and therefore might benefit from understanding basic principles of child development. She published a monthly newsletter to help parents teach at home.
Today, there are charter and private schools using the Charlotte Mason method. And after her writings were re-published in the 1980s, this method really took off in the homeschooling world.
The Charlotte Mason method is characterized by short lessons of 10-20 minutes each to keep things fresh, and the use of “living books” that teach “noble ideas” rather than relying on teachers to do the teaching directly.
The Montessori Method
Maria Montessori opened Casa dei Bambini, the “house of children,” in Rome in 1907 to bring “real work” to children who had little structure or security in their lives.
She had noticed that when she gave these children from low-income families child-sized but “real world” materials to work with, they stayed focused for hours and thrived.
In fact, she concluded that children prefer real work over fantasy play.
The Montessori method is characterized by beautiful learning materials that have a “control of error” built in (a way for children to check their work) so that children can work independently.
Montessori children teach themselves in a “prepared environment” after the teacher has set up the materials and instructed the child in how to use them. Children learn through their senses at an individual pace. And in the elementary years, children work on independent research projects.
The Waldorf Method
Rudolf Steiner founded the first Waldorf School in 1919 for the children of factory workers. His aim was education toward freedom and to open the heart forces through the arts in post-WWI Europe.
His approach incorporates the arts into all lessons as a way of strengthening the will and bringing joy to learning.
A Waldorf kindergarten classroom has many natural playthings and open-ended toys that children can use to recreate scenes from real life and from stories.
In the elementary years, subjects are taught through stories, then children record their learning by drawing and writing in their own handmade books called main lesson books. These handmade books replace the use of textbooks and worksheets.
Similarities & Differences Among Methods
Interestingly, all three of these methods advocate for a home-like environment in the kindergarten years, with lots of time spent outdoors. We can certainly do that at home!
In the elementary years, the main differences are in the amount of time a child works independently and who or what does the teaching.
Montessori encourages the most independent learning and the materials do the teaching.
With the Charlotte Mason approach, the books do the teaching.
And in Waldorf, the human connection is key and personal interaction is where the learning happens.
I have found that the amount of independent work can be adjusted at home according to each family’s situation. Generally speaking, the more children and/or more responsibilities Mom has, the more she needs to find at least some ways for the learning to happen independently, particularly as children get older.
And this is not a bad thing. After all, becoming an independent learner is the goal by the time a child goes off to college!
Of the three methods, Waldorf and Charlotte Mason are the most similar from the perspective of learning.
In Waldorf, the arts are a big part of each lesson and help to strengthen a child’s will. Charlotte Mason believed that habits train the will.
In both methods, lessons are built around “living books” and rich stories.
Their main difference is in the length of the lessons. Charlotte Mason lessons are short and switch often from one subject to another often. Waldorf main lessons are generally around one and a half to two hours long and go deeply into one subject for weeks, similar to unit studies.
How does this all translate to homeschooling?
My experience has shown me that Waldorf main lesson block learning incorporating the arts really makes for memorable lessons. Children are engaged and retain the learning in a deep way. If you want to read more about this approach, check out my series here: What is a Main Lesson Block?
I’ve found that shorter lessons then work well in the latter part of the morning or early afternoon, such as skills review for math or foreign languages, exposure to the work of particular artists or composers, and independent projects on a topic of the child’s choosing related to the main lesson.
With an understanding of child development and knowledge of the roots of each of these approaches, we can set about taking the best from each to help our children blossom into adults who will contribute to a better world.