16 Nov 2009

Charlotte Mason and Exams

Some people seem to almost deify Charlotte Mason. In much the same way as I study my Bible, these CM devotees study her writings, pouring over her every word, and attempting to make every line relevant and applicable to their lives in 2009.

Now I think Charlotte Mason was a brilliant educator, and I espouse her philosophy of education along with her teaching methods in our homeschool, but I do not slavishly follow her every word, thought and command. Some of her beliefs are merely a reflection of the time in which she lived - her comments about evolution, for example: as a deeply Christian woman in her words and actions, I do not believe that she would hold those same beliefs in 2009 herself. In other areas I just don't agree - I do not always follow Miss Mason's methods of discipline, as a case in point. Often I do, but not always.

Total disagreement between Miss Mason's writings and my own opinion is rare. Sometimes I will object to something on first reading only to discover that on reflection or after further study that I agree after all. If I don't, it is no big deal.

That said, it surprises me that when people who do claim to follow Charlotte Mason's educational methods go on to say that they don't believe in examinations or even say that they believe that a Charlotte Mason education is a test-free one. Even a cursory reading of her volumes shows that to be untrue:
The terminal examinations are of great importance. They are not merely and chiefly tests of knowledge but records which are likely to be permanent.

Charlotte Mason Towards a Philosophy of Education p 272
What Miss Mason did object to was "learning that we may know, not that we may grow" and therefore the parrot-like saying of lessons, the cramming of ill-digested facts for examinations and all the ways of taking in knowledge that the mind does not assimilate. (summarised from Charlotte Mason Home Education p172)

She would not have been surprised by this comment of Winston Churchill's:
I had scarcely passed my twelfth birthday when I entered the inhospitable regions of examinations, through which for the next seven years I was destined to journey. These examinations were a great trial to me. The subjects which were dearest to the examiners were almost invariably those I fancied least. I would have liked to have been examined in history, poetry and writing essays. The examiners, on the other hand, were partial to Latin and mathematics. And their will prevailed. Moreover, the questions which they asked on both these subjects were almost invariably those to which I was unable to suggest a satisfactory answer. I should have liked to be asked to say what I knew. They always tried to ask what I did not know. When I would have willingly displayed my knowledge, they sought to expose my ignorance. This sort of treatment had only one result: I did not do well in examinations.

Winston Churchill My Early Life 1923 p 156

Students in Miss Mason's schools had examinations that lasted a week, and the children covered from 20 to 60 sheets of paper with their answers. Surely she would not have 'wasted' this amount of time had she not found the outcomes of the experience worthwhile!

Of children in Jemimah's age group (Form Ib - 7-8 year olds) she say this:
The children narrate their...answers to the examination questions. They appear to enjoy doing this; indeed, the examinations which come at the end of each term are a pleasure; the only difficulty is that small children want to go on 'telling.' Their words are taken down literally. One is struck by the correctness and copiousness of the language used; but young children delight in words, and often surprise their elders by their free and correct use of 'dictionary words.' One notices the verve with which the children tell the tale, the orderly sequence of events, the correctness and fullness of detail, the accuracy of names. These things are natural to children until they are schooled out of them.

Charlotte Mason School Education p 276
Certainly this experience has been true for us. We love examination week. I am constantly amazed at the quality of the answers my 7 year old brings forth on books she studied almost 3 months prior. Obviously she is better at retelling some books than others - in fact it is often at exam time that I discover whether a certain book choice was in fact a Living Book or not. It is next to impossible to accurately retell a book if it is not 'Living', with Miss Mason's definition of the word. As in the quotation above, my only complaint is the length of some of the narrations...I have to type them, and I am not a touch-typist!! A narration of an A4 page or more of type is not unusual!!

If you've not yet found the time or inclination to attempt examinations in your Charlotte Mason inspired homeschool I would encourage you to do so. You may be pleasantly surprised.

For examples of Charlotte Mason styled examination questions that we have used with our Australianised version of the Ambleside Online curriculum, see here. If you look down the page you'll find exams for terms 1-3 of AO1 and terms 1 and 2 of AO2. If you click on Examinations under Categories in the right sidebar you'll find examples of Jemimah's answers to many questions as well.

We finished Term 3 of AO2 on Friday, and the exams for this term will be up in the next day or so.

Just as soon as I stop think about exams and start writing it instead!!


  1. You always give me something to think about! I started CM style examinations for the first time this year and like you mentioned, I was pleasantly surprised. It does take a lot of preparation though! Looking forward to reading some of Jemimah's narrations. x

  2. Hi Jeanne, what an informative post - thank you! So far I have avoided any form of examinations with my children..well so I thought! After reading your post I see that we actually do very informal and often impromptu tests of comprehension - usually in the form of oral and written narrations. My 11 and 12 year olds write their own, as does my 9 year old at times, while the younger ones narrate aloud to me. I do keep them all in our 'book of centuries' (CM inspired I think?) However I'm now toying with the idea of organising some end of year tests....won't my children be pleased!;) I'm off to bed now, but will check out these links in the morning. x

  3. The end of our first term is a couple of weeks away. I'm planning on doing our exams very gently and informally, also orally, since their writing skills aren't strong yet. I'm just wondering if you have any suggestions for examining two kids in the same grade. Would you do it at the same time? Or would you do them individually?

  4. We pretty much love CM exam week here as well, which you inspired in our school.

    Do I remember correctly that chocolate is somehow involved in yours?

    Also, I do believe Winston Churchill had little quotation marks that floated out of his mouth as he spoke. I always delight in reading them.

  5. oops I made a mistake on the first comment, so here it goes again:

    I am looking forward to starting CM style exams next year with Rebekah.
    and oh how I love Churchill's quote except that for me it would read as follows:

    "These examinations were a great trial to me. The subjects which were dearest to the examiners were almost invariably those I fancied least. I would have liked to have been examined in geography, maths and French. The examiners, on the other hand, were partial to history, poetry and writing essays:)"

    How does one such as me do CM - we'll wait and find out:)

  6. And I also meant to say:

    I think I know what you mean about deifying CM. I call them CM purists.
    I tend to follow that which I agree with and what works for us and leave the rest.

    I better go now before I take over your blog!

  7. Lol! I'm glad that the gremlins get into your typing too, Joyfulmum!!

    I think you'll do great with CM, you know. I truly do.

  8. Hi Spesamor,

    Do let us know how you get on with your exams! I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I do.

    We do all of ours orally too - except maths (and copywork of course!!).

    I would probably recommend examining separately if you can manage it. Could one do maths in one room or entertain the youngies while you spend time individually with the other?

    My reasoning is that although CM allowed children to narrate together in a classroom setting she still examined them separately. Imaging examining a whole class room one-on-one!!

    What do others think?

  9. Great post! We haven't done exams this way, but it's one of many things I plan to do... once we're settled a bit! Thanks for contributing this to the CM carnival. :)

  10. Jeanne, here is the comment I put on my blog:Jeanne, first the only name on your submission was your first name so I was trying to be safe. Second, you have nothing to be sorry for...I do. While trying to get this carnival together I allowed my daughter to read off the posts to me. Silly mistake...when you were simply making a point her tween voice add in sarcasim. I wish I would have caught it sooner but with three out of four kids sick, I wasn't thinking. After going back and reading it on my own, I see what point you are making and I agree. I also now see your tone was not sarcastic. Geesh..I am so sorry and I am going to rewrite my comments on your submission before it gets anymore views. Please forgive me, I was in error.

    AGain, I am sorry. I promise to give that daughter of mine 3 extra exams today! LOL. At any rate, I sincerely apologize and I did change my comments on the blog post.

  11. I would have loved to study with Charlotte Mason, but it didn't work out that way - wise in hindsight.


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