Monday, September 01, 2008

Waldorf and Charlotte Mason -- Alike or Different?

Typically, I consider myself a "Waldorf-Inspired" home educator. However, I have spent a fair amount of time researching other methods. When one comes to the idea of Waldorf home schooling, it is not long before the reality that Waldorf was designed for a classroom setting hits home -- no pun intended! There are a number of things in the Waldorf approach that just don't "fly" when you are working one-on-one (or on-two or -three, etc.!).

Early on, I read about Charlotte Mason (CM) and her approach to education. She was a late 19th Century educator who lived in England and designed an approach to education specific to the home environment. I even checked out several volumes of her Home Education series from the library. In so many ways, her approach to children is similar to Rudolph Steiner's. The clearest difference, from the outset, however, is CM's use of short lessons vs. Steiner's idea of the "main lesson," (ML) which in a "regular" classroom, lasts one to two hours, depending on the ages of the children.

Yet, on closer observation, the ML reveals some interesting similarities to CM's short lesson approach. The ML actually involves several components, that when looked at individually are in actuality -- "shorter" lessons! First there is the opening verse (less than 5 minutes for sure!); there is singing (maybe 10 minutes?); there may be flute playing (another 5-15 mins.); there is movement (15-30 minutes or so); there may be mental math (about 5 mins.), etc. Then there is the "work" -- artistic, or written, or project-based -- this can be 20-60 minutes long, depending again on the age of the children. The story portion of the lesson, often near the end of ML, and then the "meat" for the work the next day, will be perhaps 10-20 minutes.

Now, in a ML, these are all woven together beautifully, with a unifying theme --typically the story genre or history period that is being studied, or it may be a science block.

As home educators, this may or may not work for you and your children. I had read of the CM approach back when my son was in kindergarten. However, I didn't really try it in earnest until he was in third grade. MLs were beginning to feel very much 'dragged out' and by the time we were done, there wasn't much energy left for any shorter lessons. Switching to more of a CM lesson length made a tremendous difference! My son was much more alert and enthusiastic about his lessons. He knew how long each would be and he was ready to move on to the next lesson. I have found that this approach can be successfully interwoven with Waldorf themes and ideas. To varying degrees, you may or may not be able to keep the lessons tied to the unifying "block" theme. And of course, some things are not necessarily going to tie to that theme, such as mental math or tongue twisters.

One mustn't be fooled by the idea of short lessons, however. The intent is to have 100% focus -- without any "dawdling," as CM called it. Also, as the children get older, the length of the lessons do increase. So subjects that may have started out to be 5-10 minutes long will grow to be 20-30 minutes long as the children get older. By high school, the students may work as long as 45-60 minutes per subject.

CM also advocated for lots of time out-of-doors; she understood the healing, nurturing and educational benefits of simply immersing ourselves and our children in nature. Waldorf, too, cherishes this aspect of education, even bringing bits of nature in to the home or classroom, often with a Nature Table.

CM also valued handwork and "handi-crafts," suggesting that the afternoons be reserved for this type of more leisurely activity, while the mornings were used for the more mentally active pursuits of reading, writing and arithmetic.

One difference to the CM approach was her 1x per week lesson called "picture study." This was when the children were exposed to a print of an artist's work -- say Rembrandt or Van Gogh. The children were given a few minutes to look at the print, and then it was put away. They were then asked to narrate what they had seen. This was an exercise in the power of observation. CM thought it important that we train children to focus their attention. At the same time, the children "learned" about famous artists -- not because the teacher instructed them as such -- but more because they were simply exposed to the artist (sticking with the same artist for a month or so). The teacher did not lecture or giver her interpretation, etc.

On the other hand, this type of exposure to famous artists is not found in Waldorf schools, until high school. However, CM's gentle, simple approach can be a nice addition to your home education efforts should you feel so inclined. Listening to Catherine Levison and her experience with this approach has inspired me to try taking it up this year with my almost-12-year-old son.

"Narration" is another aspect of the CM approach that is similar to Waldorf. In Waldorf classrooms, the children "drink" in the story, sleep on it, and then re-tell it the next day. The "sleeping" on it is seen as an important aspect of the approach. In the CM approach, the children listen to the story or other material (from a "living" or "whole" book), and then narrate back what they have heard, typically right after the listening period. They are not urged or questioned or coached in this re-telling. They tell what they know or remember. In the beginning, they may not be able to narrate much of it back. But over time, and as they learn to pay attention, more will come.

Both approaches lead the child gently into the realm of written composition/narration, by first exercising his powers of oral narration. Learning to put the pieces of the story in place, in sequence, and pulling out the highlights are all integral aspects of learning to write well.

I have tried both of these approaches to "re-telling" with my son. I'm sure there are lots of folks in the Waldorf camp who will give many good reasons for the "sleeping" on it approach. I suggest you try both ways -- not flip flopping day to day of course! But perhaps a few weeks one way, and then a few weeks the other.

Intuitively, I think the sleeping on it approach is better for young children. They are really drinking those stories in to their soul lives deeply and I sense that working with them during sleep time is a significant part of the process. But now my son is approaching age 12, and we have moved from the Ancient Mythology of Greece to actual Ancient Greek History, and will begin Ancient Rome this week. We are clearly moving out of the realm of dreami-ness into the solidity of actual history, events and people. There is a feeling of "awakeness." So I have taken to more of a CM approach with narration. I am learning to 'bite my lip' and not urge him on or give him little hints. I find that when I am simply silent-- and patient, he eventually says more and more.

There is a lot of food for thought in both of these approaches. I suggest reading up on both CM and Steiner's reasons for their approaches, experimenting a bit, and noticing the effects on your children. CM focuses quite a bit on the child's ability to "pay attention." She says that when we repeat information over and over again, the child learns not to pay attention as well, knowing that the information will be given again (much of mainstream education works in this way). They learn to be lazy. In fact, I have found at least one Waldorf ancient mythology/history author DOES often repeat what he's have said at the beginning of each new chapter -- much in the way a class teacher would remind the children of what they have just learned the day before. I don't claim to know the answer to this seeming controversy! I think there is merit on both sides and will continue to explore these two modes of narration.

For more information on the CM approach, take a look at:, and

There are many, many resources on Waldorf Education, and many folks who design and sell "Waldorf" curriculum for home educators. Many of these can be quite helpful. But I suggest reading from the Foundations of Waldorf Education series, translated from Steiner's many lectures; ingest his thoughts and ideas, and use your inner guidance in applying his ideas to your home education environment.


Jewels said...

I just found your blog this morning and I am so happy I did! I've never heard of Charlotte Mason before so I look forward to learning more about her philosophy on educating children. We are looking into a variety of different schools of thought about how to best educate our little one. Even though I have an advanced degree I'm finding that being a first time mom at almost 44 I have so much to learn.

Tiny Apples said...

Thank you for this thoughtful and informative post! I am a homeschooler who uses the CM approach but my neighbor sends her daughter to a Waldorf Kindergarten so I am curious about Waldorf after hearing about it from her.

Brooke said...

Thank you for the post. I'm in the process of deciding "between" Waldorf & Charlotte Mason, so it's nice to see you incorporate both.

Terri said...

I, too, am a Waldorf-inspired homeschooler. I am just now delving into the study of Charlotte Mason and googled to see if anyone had written about the similarities between Waldorf and CM.

Thank you! I believe you said it so well.

Amy Sey said...

This is so perfect. For several days, I've been diving into both CM and Steiner readings and have made so many connections between the two, but to see them spelled out in such a way is fantastic! I had learned of CM a few months ago but had brushed it off as too old and stodgy for my tastes and the needs of my children. Yet the more I read, the more I love it. I even ordered a small, 5 term curriculum comprised of public domain works (for quite a discount). Regarding Waldorf education, I had dismissed it as well because we live in the desert and it's just not a place I associate with nature. That was my misconception that Waldorf is "best" in a nature-filled location. But again, the more I learn from the actual author, the more I see its application in our lives.

Anyway, I'm printing this post out to add to my resources. You did a great job with it! :D

I know it's been a few years since you wrote it, I do wonder if and how your curriculum and method changed.