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“Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life” – the Charlotte Mason method at Ambleside School of Hout Bay

| June 17, 2015 | 0 Comments

By Natalie Thomson

At Ambleside School of Hout Bay in Cape Town in the Western Cape, we embrace an educational philosophy that takes the very nature of the child into consideration.

British educator Charlotte Mason1 devoted her life to understanding how children learn best. The directors of Ambleside Schools International (ASI)2 take this philosophy of education and equip their schools to apply it. Here in Hout Bay, we have the privilege of being part of ASI annual training and ongoing support. What a privilege it is to see our students grow – not only in intellect, but also in habits and maturity – as they advance through the grades.

Heralding habits

Charlotte Mason believed that “The formation of habits is education and education is the formation of habits.” Her first proposition was that children are whole people who think, act and feel as adults do and are worthy of adult respect. Children are not merely something to prune or mould, and are not born either good or bad, but rather with the possibilities for doing both good and evil. It is what they experience in their formative years that develops their character with a bent for good or evil.

Mason believed further that the principles of authority and obedience are natural, necessary and fundamental to the process of educating children. However, according to her, children’s personalities should never be curtailed by adults’ direct use of fear or love, suggestion or influence, or by undue play upon any one natural desire. Children should be taught to respect authority and teachers to respect the children.

For Mason, education requires three key instruments: the atmosphere of environment, the discipline of habit, and the presentation of living ideas.

Atmosphere in education

Those who subscribe to her ideas, say that “education is an atmosphere”. We do not mean that a child should be isolated in what may be called an especially adapted and prepared ‘childfriendly environment’, but that we should take into account the educational value of their natural home atmosphere, both as regards people and things, and should let them live freely. Mason explained it thus: “The atmosphere in which a child gathers his unconscious ideas of right living emanates from his parents. Every look of gentleness and tone of reverence, every word of kindness and act of help, passes into the thoughtenvironment, the very atmosphere which the child breathes; he does not think of these things, may never think of them, but all his life long they excite the vague appetency towards things sordid or things lovely, things earthly or divine.”

To maintain a healthy learning environment, we discourage competition, prizes and marks, stress and comparison, thus freeing the child to engage in learning for the joy that it is.

Discipline in education

Mason advised that habits are acquired through discipline, definitely and thoughtfully. Physiologists tell us of the adaptation of brain structures to habitual lines of thought, i.e. to “Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life” – the Charlotte Mason method at Ambleside School of Hout Bay Independent Education • Winter 15 57 our habits.3 Mason was adamant concerning training in habit. She went as far as to say that almost anything could be accomplished through correct and consistent training, a discipline based on relationships with oneself, one’s world, one’s God and others. The parent and/or teacher either discourages or encourages the child’s weakness or affinity through “instruction of conscience and the will”. At Ambleside, we work on intellectual habits (attention, thoroughness, accuracy, rapid mental effort, remembering and perfect execution); moral habits (sweet thought, obedience, truthfulness, reverence and temper); physical habits (self-restraint, self-control, self-discipline, alertness, service and courage); religious habits (the thought of God, a reverent attitude, devotions and praise) and miscellaneous habits (physical exercise, good manners and musical ability). The children will have habits, and we as parents and educators are engaged in forming these habits actively or passively every day, every hour.

Living ideas in education

Mason fervently believed that “education is a life”. The mind feeds on ideas, and therefore children should be exposed to a generous curriculum. A morning on which the child receives no new idea, is a morning wasted. This wasteful existence goes on in many a classroom every day, as the student and the teacher passively interact with information. At Ambleside, however, ideas, experiences and knowledge are richly interwoven, showing our students how they can live their lives. We hold that the mind is no mere sac to hold ideas, but a ‘living organism’ with an appetite for all knowledge.

The nature of knowing (learning) begins with ideas – the live things of the mind that strike, impress, seize and catch hold of one. Ideas are the initiators of habits of thought and of habits of action. We believe that a child has powers of mind to deal with all knowledge properly presented to him from a full and generous curriculum. The Ambleside teacher takes care to offer the student only the knowledge considered to be vital. Facts are not presented without their informing ideas. Mason put it this way: “The educator’s part is to place before the child the daily nourishment of ideas by way of living books that promote ‘living thought’. Scores of thinkers will meet the children mindto- mind in books of literary quality. This ‘mind food’ is not served up in dry bits, diluted, or pre-digested. Instead it is offered in abundance with all its savoury delights. Each child eats what he will and leaves nourished and contented.”

Narration provides nourishment

Our syllabus is carefully devised by ASI. Three points are considered in this process: (1) The child requires much knowledge, for the mind needs as much food as the body does; (2) Knowledge should be various, for sameness in mental diet does not create appetite (i.e. curiosity); and (3) Knowledge should be communicated in well-chosen language, because a child’s attention responds naturally to what is conveyed in literary form.

We use the powerful tool of ‘narration’ or ‘telling back’ after a single reading to develop the power of attention. We find that the educability of children using this method is far greater than has been supposed, and is only minimally dependent on circumstances such as heredity and environment. This method is not limited to clever children.

Attention all important

At Ambleside, we understand that the primary work of both student and teacher is to attend. In the words of Mason: “It is the task that precedes all others. Each must attend to literature, science, mathematics, history, and geography; attend to insights received from texts and from one another; and attend to the practices of thinking, speaking, writing, seeing, drawing, singing, playing, and relating. Moment by moment, hour by hour, day by day, students and teachers attend and thereby perform spontaneous ‘acts of knowing’.”

Students everywhere attend to something. The question is to whom or to what do they attend? Is it a fleeting thought; self-consciousness; an interest or person outside of school? In a typical classroom, students’ attention is often directed to a final outcome: “Do I have to know this for the test?” Students are trained to value knowledge and ideas chiefly because they pertain to examinations.

Ambleside students, however, learn to direct their attention to the ‘text’– whether it is a well-written book, a musical composition, an algorithm, a great master’s painting, a nature specimen or instruction in a special skill – and to the acts of knowing.

Food for thought

Just as the body hungers for nutrition, so does a student’s mind. Ambleside students learn to study a text and to narrate what they have seen, heard or read. During this process, their minds stir and grow as they seize ideas independently, or receive them from teachers or fellow students. Every Ambleside teacher strives to provide students with food for their minds, even as they train students to direct their attention to texts and to acts of knowing.

As they encounter and feed on the many texts around them, Ambleside students become:

  • consistent in habits of directing attention, learning and working with effort
  • engaged in understanding and expressing substantial ideas
  • proficient in reading rich text, writing essays and speaking publicly
  • eager to encounter great works of literature, science, music and art
  • proficient in conversing and reading in at least one foreign language
  • mature in relating to themselves and to the challenges they face
  • mature in relating to, caring for, forgiving and supporting one another
  • engaged in a life of devotion to God.

Realising responsibility

Children should be taught, as they become mature enough to understand such teaching, that the chief responsibility which rests on them as people is the acceptance or rejection of ideas. To help them, we give them principles of conduct, and a wide range of the knowledge fitted to them. These principles should save children from some of the loose thinking and heedless action which cause most of us to live at a lower level than we need to.

We allow no separation to develop between the intellectual and spiritual life of children, but teach them that the divine spirit has constant access to their spirits, and is their continual helper in all the interests, duties and joys of life.

Authentically Ambleside

Ambleside School of Hout Bay offers an Independent Examinations Board (IEB)4 school leaver’s certificate. While using the ASI curriculum from preschool through to Grade 9, we align our curriculum with the IEB requirements for grades 10 to 12. Being affiliated to IEB gives us the advantage of its core skills testing in grades 3, 6 and 9, and international benchmarking. While following IEB guidelines, we continue to apply the philosophy and methodology of an Ambleside School throughout our grades.

Ambleside School of Hout Bay aims to be authentically Christian in our philosophy and our practice. We have a vision to see our children grow to maturity in all areas of their lives, in relation to self, God, others and knowledge.

1. Mason, C. (1993) Charlotte Mason’s Original Homeschooling Series. Portland: Charlotte Mason Research & Supply Company.
2. See:
3. See, for example:
4. See:

Category: Winter 2015

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