Education is life: a call for more fabulous failures

Yesterday I had the privilege of attending a Charlotte Mason philosophy internship.  You know that you are doing what you are meant to do when the thought of a 8 hour day of education philosophy training sounds like fun.  I love the discussion of education, learning, and humanity.  I marvel when I read the works of Charlotte Mason, this is a woman ahead of her time.  While I don’t subscribe to all of the Charlotte Mason philosophy, at the core, much of what she believed holds merit and is important in the discussion of education.  As I read, narrated, discussed, and observed classrooms, I jotted down notes…of course, because I am a blogger, those notes look suspiciously like a post. 🙂

Before I get into the meat of my thinking, here is a little background on Charlotte Mason (1842-1923).  Charlotte Mason was a British educator who devoted her life to improving the quality of education.  Charlotte fought for education for all, believing that all children deserved a quality education regardless of their social status or class.  She believed that education was an atmosphere, discipline, and life.   The Charlotte Mason philosophy is most widely used as a home school curriculum but is also used in classrooms around the world.

First I have to put this quote out there because it is just so fantastic: “Textbooks are sawdust for the mind-children need food.”  Couldn’t agree more!

Every philosophy of education has two parts: an anthropology (a belief about human nature- what does it mean to be a person?) and an epistemology (understanding the nature of knowledge).  It was Charlotte Mason’s belief that children are whole persons (as opposed to limited beings who will one day arrive at person hood).  This is an important distinction because it drives what she believes about the nature of knowledge.

“The reason is, perhaps, that we regard a person as a product, and have a sort of unconscious formula, something like this: Given such and such conditions of civilization and education, and we shall have such and such a result, with variations.”

“We attempt to define a person, the most commonplace person we know, but he will not submit to bounds; some unexpected beauty of nature breaks out; we find he is not what we thought, and begin to suspect that every person exceeds our power of measurement.” (emphasis added)

For me this emphasized that children are not products. They are not widgets to be passed through a factory where they will be stripped of their individuality and person hood by being fed sawdust (boxed curriculum) and measured by a standardized test.  Every child exceeds our power of measurement. By measuring and tracking students in this way we are limiting them.  Measurement is quantification for purposes of classification. This type of measurement leads to the “carrots” and “sticks” that we see in education.  We dangle good grades, pizza parties at the end of the week, and graduation in front of students like carrots while at the same time using the “sticks” of failure to coerce students to act in a way that we have deemed acceptable.  Assessment on the other hand helps students formulate the next steps of learning based on current weaknesses.  Did you see the distinction there?  Measurement seeks to satisfy our insecurities by giving us information that can be used to classify.  Assessment seeks to inform our decision-making process for next steps.  The difference is that assessment challenges students so they can know the satisfaction of growth.

What we do right now is teach students to avoid shame by gaining praise.  Isn’t that the way our grading system is set up?  Kids play the game to win. Some decide they can’t win the game and stop trying (the C and D students who have so much more potential but refuse to play by our rules). Others decide that the certain failure isn’t worth even entering the game and drop out all together.  They think, “this game has nothing to do with me, I’m not playing anymore.”  Is it any wonder that some of our most creative, innovative minds couldn’t wait to get out of school or dropped the game all together?  What are we, as adults, showing students we value here?  It certainly doesn’t teach children that we value them as people.  They pick up on this.  This is precisely why Monika Hardy has to let her students “detox” from the system before they can fully enter into the Innovation Lab space.  We have to stop regarding students as “incomplete and undeveloped beings (who will one day arrive at the completeness of man)”.  Instead we need to see students as “weak and ignorant persons, (whose ignorance we must inform and whose weakness we must support, but whose potentialities are as great as our own).  The “ignorant” language may feel a little harsh from our cultural standpoint but all she means here is that they are uninformed and don’t yet know what they don’t know.  I love how she ends that passage she says, “We cannot do otherwise than despise children, however kindly or even tenderly we commit the offense.”  So many schools are committing that offense. Couldn’t this be a teachers job description?  It is our job to shed light to ignorance and support students in their weakness?  Isn’t that what learning is all about, discovering that there are things we don’t know and strengthening our areas of weakness?  Allowing room and opportunity for fabulous failures.

Because children are persons, they must have liberty.  Charlotte makes the distinction between liberty and license.  License says I get to do what I want all the time.  We all know this culture well. We are immersed in the “do it if it feels good” culture in the United States.  It isn’t that those things are always bad or wrong, but to live by chance desire makes us slaves to our own will.  What we must do is train children in such a way that they properly manage their freedom.  Understanding that they could do whatever they want to do but that they shouldn’t always follow those “chance desires”.  This is what it means to act as an adult, knowing our liberty while properly managing it.  Within this managed liberty, we introduce children to learning opportunities they may not have pursued on their own, knowing that sometimes deep satisfaction takes time and incubation.  The Green Dot that I mentioned in this post. Exposing children to what is good, true, and beautiful and encouraging them in their weakness to that place of deep satisfaction.  Struggle and delight…both are essential for growth.

I love Charlotte Mason’s careful attention to “Living Books”, the idea that children can enjoy and appreciate good literature. That we don’t need to water down and strip literature down to the facts for students to learn (i.e. textbooks).  As children read together they should narrate back what they are reading, to offer those ideas the chance to solidify and take hold.  This is the narration portion of reading. During narration teachers are not to “tease them with corrections”.  I observed this many times throughout the day, students narrate as a class telling back what they can remember from a passage.  After one student has narrated back as much as they can remember the teacher asks the group, “is there anyone who has an addition or correction to make?”  Students self-correct, collaboratively add to the narration and then return to the text.  At this time, students go back to key phrases, and ideas and follow-up with their own understandings, questions, and reflections as a class.  The important part to this process is that the object (in this case a book) must be worthy of study.

“…mere information is to it as a meal of sawdust to the body; there are no organs for the assimilation of the one more than of the other.”

“Look at any publisher’s list of school books and you shall find that the books recommended are carefully desiccated, drained of the least suspicion of an idea, reduced to the driest statements of fact.”

Don’t you love that language?  I don’t know about you but my education resembles that statement, particularly the history books that I encountered in school… carefully desiccated, drained of the least suspicion of an idea, reduced to the driest statements of fact.  That pretty much sums it up!

Charlotte Mason didn’t believe in coddling children.  In an age where over-protection is a culture and every effort is made to make sure that kids are safe (to an extreme), this is one quote that I especially appreciated:

“Let us hear Professor Sir Jagadis Chandra Bose, the Indian scientist on one of his conclusions concerning the nervous impulse in plants, ‘A plant carefully protected under glass from outside shocks looks sleek and flourishing but its higher nervous function is then found to be atrophied. But when a succession of “blows” (electric shocks) is rained on this effete and bloated specimen, the shocks themselves create nervous channels and arouse anew the deteriorated nature. Is it not the shocks of adversity and not cotton wool protection that evolve true manhood?”

This had me thinking about the way we carefully protect students from the outside shocks of technology and social media…only to later find students atrophied.  Part of learning is making mistakes in an environment where those “blows” are not detrimental to the point of demise, but rather cause evolution of thinking.  Later she follows with:

“But teaching may be so watered down and sweetened, teachers may be so suave and condescending, as to bring about a condition of intellectual feebleness and moral softness which it is not easy for a child to overcome. The bracing atmosphere of truth and sincerity should be perceived in every School; and here again the common pursuit of knowledge by teacher and class comes to our aid and creates a Current of fresh air perceptible even to the chance visitor, who sees the glow of intellectual life and moral health on the faces of teachers and children alike.”

Kids can smell watered down teaching from a mile away, they don’t want anything to do with it.  Kids curiously seek out active engagement and experiences that they can learn from.  Often what we offer is far from either of these because what we are seeking (certainly in U.S. education) isn’t a love of learning but for a love of marks. We build our classrooms around success and failure. The problem with this, is that children come to label themselves (as we have labeled them first) as either successes or as failures in school and consequently in life.  What we should be teaching children is that every day they have a new brain, it looks different from yesterday because new connections and relationships were made. This is a far different message because it lets students know that they are never finished growing. That every day there is growth to be made, something to be added.

Education is life.


Indiana Wesleyan University is a Christian College offering a range of courses including its popular Master in Education program.


  1. Kelly,
    Your reflections from yesterday’s event are an inspiration to me. Thanks for attending and adding your thought-full comments and questions to the day.

  2. Coming from a country (Greece) that is at least 3 decades behind the US in integrating new methods of teaching or any innovation at all (…. 😦 ) I have to congratulate you for the excellent post and sharing I have just read. These days here the gov is trying to organize our educational system in a way it resembles the Us ed system in the 80’s. And the weird thing is that most educators find too advanced….
    To share a clue here we have just discovered Vigotsky….. and e mails, as educators and our view over teaching is that students come to school to learn from us who know……
    And since we do not have mentors here, I consider you my mentor and a source not only of educational resources but also of attitude !
    Thank you!!!!!!!

    1. Thank you so much! Don’t be fooled, the US has definite spots that mirror just what you are saying with pockets of innovation. I am hoping to help that spread!

  3. So glad you shared all the wonderful things you gleaned!
    “Often what we offer is far from either of these because what we are seeking (certainly in U.S. education) isn’t a love of learning but for a love of marks.” – this is so terribly tragic and true…

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