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Ambleside Method FAQs

The Charlotte Mason-inspired Ambleside Method is unique and countercultural. We are not like even other Christian schools. The Ambleside vision is to renew Christian education across the globe with our Holy Spirit-infused model of education. Please take a look at the questions below and the answers we provide about how we differ, and why. We hope they give you food for thought as you make profound educational decisions for your children. And if you have additional questions that you would like us to answer, feel free to reach out any time!

Why does your mission statement call for the renewal of Christian education, rather than just for the renewal of education in general?

By the renewal of Christian education, the intention is to revive an authentic Christian philosophy of education with the pedagogical practice informed by the philosophy.  It is not just the teaching of another worldview; it is the teaching itself which is founded/established upon the worldview. Every educational system has an underlying philosophy informing its pedagogy. The models of education we have grown up under are largely products of the Enlightenment.

 

One thinks of Locke, for whom knowledge was the sensible apprehension of data which one mastered. The human mind was considered a blank slate. The process of education consisted of data and techniques being transcribed onto the blank slate, beginning with the young child through adulthood. Another Enlightenment thinker, Rousseau, believed that human persons have innately within them all they need, and the role of education consisted of self-expression and self-discovery. These philosophies are the foundations of the two primary systems of behaviorism and constructivism, which underlie education today.

 

In their experience as K-12 students and in their university training, the great majority of Christian educators have been educated according to behaviorist and constructivist principles. These secular principles have informed their philosophy and pedagogy, their individual practice on which Bible class, prayer, and the entire syllabi are simply added.

 

Every philosophy of education involves both an anthropology (an understanding of the nature of persons, including student and teacher) and an epistemology (an understanding of the nature of knowledge and its acquisition). The pedagogical practice in most Christian schools is based upon a secular anthropology and an epistemology. While there may be uniquely Christian content (Bible class, chapel, etc.) and faithful Christian teachers, still the fundamental pedagogical practice remains the same as the secular school down the street.

 

Distinctly different from either behaviorist or constructivist pedagogies. Charlotte Mason based her pedagogy on the conviction that all Good, True, and Beautiful Ideas are but expressions of the Eternal Logos. Therefore, all coming to know Truth is a coming to know something of the work of God. The preeminent teacher in an Ambleside classroom is the Holy Spirit.

 

Every worthy idea, whether in grammar or history, poetry or science, reveals some aspect of our Creator. Therefore, it is the well-chosen text that is the focal point in an Ambleside classroom, be it a classic book, a math algorithm, a work of art, a science diagram, or a musical composition. The teacher’s role is to direct the student’s attention to the mind of the author, artist, composer, algorithm and so on.

 

Given this power of mind, it is essential that every student independently perform the act of knowing. Nothing can be truly learned by teacher activity alone. The primacy is with the student, who must perform the act of knowing. The teacher is not to be a lecturer. It is not her responsibility to write on the alleged “blank slate” of a student’s mind.   Rather, the teacher must be the facilitator of a mind-to-mind meeting between students and ideas presented in a well-chosen text.

How does an Ambleside education differ from other models of education such as the classical, Christian education?

The term classical is claimed by schools as unique and diverse as the numerous Christian denominations. Perhaps the primary point of unity is that in most classical schools, fundamental learning objectives are divided according to three proposed stages of learning, the grammar, logic, and rhetoric stages. These proposed stages define the kinds of learning to be expected and are alleged to build upon one another.

 

Ambleside insists that every grade incorporates all three of these aspects of learning and that students in kindergarten and first grades can grasp not only facts but a broad array of ideas and compose their own cogent responses to them. At Ambleside, children of all ages are seen as having a great capacity. What distinguishes the young from the old is not capacity but experience and needed background.

 

Classical schooling often begins with the quantifying of student skills and abilities. Some will only accept students of “above average” ability, at age five! When students of “normal” or “below average” ability are accepted, children are assessed and grouped into ability levels. What does a five-year-old begin to believe about herself when she is placed in the lowest reading group and continues year after year, without the expectation of real growth and without the kind of support that transforms weakness to strength?

 

An Ambleside education begins with the conviction that Children are Persons1, that every child defies our capacity for measurement. Other school models would not argue with this foundational truth at face value, but in the application of this principle they veer in the wrong direction. At Ambleside, teachers are keenly aware of each student’s strengths and weaknesses, but no child is ever defined or labeled by his or her weaknesses. Students are not grouped according to ability, for Ambleside recognizes that optimal growth for all occurs when the strong and weak face life together.

 

In most classical schools, one finds the same competitive grind that is present in traditional public and private schooling. Students strive to win awards, get the highest grades, be the best, outperform their peers, and tend to live in a high-anxiety, competitive atmosphere rather than a high-joy, life-giving atmosphere. Some play to win the competition. Others refuse to play the game.

 

Ambleside considers this competitive structuring of school life to be very counterproductive. The brain works 30% better when it’s running on joy rather than anxiety. Students at Ambleside are not complacent but possess a fervency that is born of the joy and delight of learning and growing together.

 

Christian classical schools have as central to their mission the formation of the minds and hearts of students. But beyond the use of inspirational classical texts in the older grades and the use of classroom management techniques to order student behavior, most classical schools have little understanding of the dynamics of human formation.

 

At Ambleside, there is a very clear, applied philosophy of human transformation. The tools of atmosphere (culture), discipline (the intentional training in habit), and living ideas (the intrinsic relations of persons and things) form a mutually reinforcing triad of human transformation.

 

1 See blog on Children as Persons.

How do you evaluate your students without grades or competition?

In most schools, assessments take the form of assigning a grade to some form of work.  The validity of this kind of assessment is very questionable. Often what is being assessed is the ability to take the test or complete the assignment, not knowledge. Then, there’s reporting—if a parent gets a document that says A, A, B, B, A, A, the parent really does not know what this means. What do students know? What do they not know? How are they growing? How are they not growing? The traditional report card does not answer these questions. More problematic still is the fact that what a community values becomes the focus. If getting the grade is the value, students undervalue the learning itself.

 

Ambleside believes that a teacher gains real knowledge of her student’s growth in learning by attending to every bit of work a student does, both orally and in writing. Students’ knowledge and understanding are continually assessed in every class. Teachers frequently call upon every student, ensuring active participation by all. Records are kept of student responses, both oral and written. Because class sizes are limited to sixteen, teachers know their students intimately and know their capacities, where they are strong, and where they are weak. Ambleside focuses on accountability for growth giving consistent feedback, in a small class size which allows for relationships with one another, and the subjects studied.

 

Students use copybooks in many subjects, including Bible, composition, history, grammar, literature, mathematics, science, transcription, etc. These can be referenced at any time for accuracy, neatness, and thoroughness. Rather than filling out worksheets with true and false, matching, or multiple-choice questions, students tell what they know both in word and illustration.

 

This kind of global focus gives a much more accurate assessment than a percentage of correct answers on the weekly test for which they crammed. Twice a year, Ambleside parents receive a 12-14-page written report on their child detailing growth and need for further growth in both the varied content studied and relational maturity.

How does the role of a teacher in an Ambleside School differ from that role in other schools?

At Ambleside, teachers are given twelve to sixteen disciples for the year. The teacher’s primary responsibility is formation in the largest sense of the word. Formation includes the relationship with science, history, literature, and art, but it also includes much more. It includes the kind of person you’re being in relationship to self, others, and God. Teaching is both a ministry of discipleship and instruction, the formation of habits of skill and knowledge, equipping them for learning for a lifetime.

 

In many schools, teacher roles are departmentalized. An eighth-grade literature teacher might have a hundred or more students. This makes discipleship quite impossible.  At Ambleside schools, elementary and junior high students have a primary teacher with whom they spend most of the school day. Ambleside high schools use a team approach to discipleship, with primary teachers meeting regularly to discuss how the growth of each high school student can best be facilitated. Limiting class size to sixteen makes this possible.

 

Most teachers, with all good intentions, find it difficult to support students who are weak or who lack understanding in a particular field of knowledge, because they have not been trained in the art of bringing up a student in academic work or behavior. This common teacher weakness is often not addressed in education classes or at schools in general.

 

Because of this lack of understanding, students are divided into groups according to ability, specifically in disciplinary subjects such as reading and mathematics, making it easier for both the teachers and the students. Under such conditions, students have reason to equate challenge with failure in a particular area of study. More often than not, the student never rises above the lifelong struggle in those subjects. They hardly ever overcome it. At Ambleside Schools, teachers are instructed to support weaknesses in students’ knowledge and abilities through practice which is purposeful.

Our college system is predicated on standardized entrance exams. Are your students prepared to take those exams?

Because they are so well educated, Ambleside students have tended to do exceptionally well on standardized tests. Just given the breadth of their studies and curriculum, their vocabularies and math skills tend to be far above the norm. Our students have done very well on standardized tests. The rigorous thought they have learned helps prepare students for varied aspects of learning. Because of Ambleside’s focus on “soft,” relational skills, Ambleside graduates tend to shine even more brightly in the interviews many colleges require.

 

In terms of practical preparation, Ambleside high schools offer after-school workshops to prepare for standardized tests. A teacher stays with students and helps with the practice and instructs in the varied kinds of testing. Ambleside recognizes that standardized tests are a hoop through which college-bound students must jump and prepares them to jump well.

Do you have a STEM focus at an Ambleside School?

We have a broader than “STEM” focus, one that builds on these topics and also includes the arts, literature, and music. One of Ambleside’s fundamental convictions is a broad curriculum inclusive of science, mathematics, technology, and mastery of the humanities preparing one for all kinds of relationships in a wide curriculum.

How can the ideas of a 19th-century British educator be relevant today?

Charlotte Mason gave expression to truth, in much the same way that the 1st-century ideas of a man from Tarsus, the 5th-century B.C. ideas of a man from Athens, or the 5th-century ideas of a Bishop from Northern Africa might be relevant in the 21st century.  They are relevant because they give expression to truth, and truth is timeless and always relevant.

 

Charlotte Mason built a pedagogy on a philosophy of education shaped by a Christian anthropology, convictions regarding who the student is and who he/she is becoming. She also makes specific claims about the nature of knowledge and learning, claims that fit with a Christian epistemology (philosophy of knowledge).

 

Distinctly different from modern and post-modern philosophies of education, Charlotte Mason believed that all Good, True, and Beautiful Ideas are but expressions of the Eternal Logos. Therefore, all coming to know Truth is a coming to know something of the work of God. The preeminent teacher in an Ambleside classroom is the Holy Spirit.  Every worthy idea, whether in grammar or history, poetry, or science, reveals some aspect of our Creator. Therefore, it is the well-chosen text that is the focal point in an Ambleside classroom, be it a classic book, a math algorithm, a work of art, a science diagram, or a musical composition. The teacher’s role is to direct the student’s attention to the mind of the author, artist, composer, algorithm, and so on.

 

Given this power of mind, it is essential that every student independently perform the act of knowing. Nothing can be truly learned by teacher activity alone. The primacy is with the active, not passive student, who must perform the act of knowing. The teacher is not to be a lecturer. It is not her responsibility to write on the alleged “blank slate” of a student’s mind.   Rather, the teacher must be the facilitator of a mind-to-mind meeting between students and ideas presented in a well-chosen text.

Do your schools have sports teams?

Ambleside promotes lifelong sports, the kinds of activities that don’t require a large team and one can do for most of one’s life. Some of our schools have track and field, swimming, golf, tennis, and cross-country skiing. We don’t have a football team or a baseball team, even though we are not opposed to these activities. Some of our schools field basketball teams at times, but it’s for the joy of the sport and for the physical conditioning that comes along with them. We don’t have high competition in terms of trying to beat everyone else. It’s for the joy and love of the sport and the building of healthy bodies. We do have Ambleside Schools that have won state championships in golf, tennis, and cross country, but that’s not a goal.

Ambleside Schools International’s Mission Statement mentions the renewal of Christian education. What is your critique of Christian education, and what about it needs to be renewed?

After looking at dozens of different Christian schools, Ambleside’s founder, Maryellen St. Cyr, failed to find anything which could be described as a consistent educational philosophy and applied pedagogy.  She saw a Christian understanding of God presented in Bible classes and chapel services, but the same pedagogical practices found in secular schools. All too often, children were not treated as persons but as products. Teachers were trying to get through in the best way they knew, but if the children displayed any weakness, they were rarely given the needed support. Instead, students were placed in the lowest reading group or taken to the lowest math class. Students rarely grew out of their weaknesses, rather they were identified by them. Those who were strong stayed strong. Those who were weak stayed weak.

 

There are many sincere and committed Christian teachers in private and public schools. One must not underestimate the power of such a teacher being the fragrance of Christ in any school. However, people do what they know, and most educators at Christian schools have been educated in a reductionistic system grounded in a secular anthropology and epistemology. In most cases, if one videotaped what was happening in the 4th grade Christian School classroom and went down the street to the public school class from of the same socioeconomic grouping and videotaped the class, they would look largely the same. What was being done would be largely the same in both classes. While most Christian schools have in their mission statement a noble vision, there’s little thought on how that might actually be worked out in the classroom.

 

When Ambleside’s founder began to read Charlotte Mason, her eyes were opened to a whole new approach, one built the philosophy and practice of education that is grounded in the truths that the child is a person and that we have been given three tools—atmosphere, discipline, and life—to educate the child.

What do you mean by the phrase a living education?

What Charlotte Mason meant by a living education is the conviction that our minds require nourishment in the same way our body does. Minds are not just products, they’re dynamic and alive. A living education seeks to provide what a living mind needs to flourish. Charlotte Mason talks both about living books as a gateway to the mind, and then she also speaks about living ideas in the living books, which furnish the mind with nutriment, real food for its growth and learning. There’s reciprocity in a living education, both teacher and students share in accessing the text in similar and diverse ways.

How would one distinguish one of these living books that Charlotte Mason referenced?

Living books are idea-rich and inspirational in language, thought, and picture.  They participate in the transmission of the Good, True, and Beautiful.  They are formative in ways of thinking and being, facilitating a mind-to-mind engagement with the author. They are potent.

 

If a book is not living; it is twaddle, a thing void of inspirational ideas. If a story does not capture the mind such that one idea gives birth to another idea and then another and another, it is lifeless, possessing nothing that engages the heart or the mind of the reader. This is not to suggest that living books lack humor, suspense, sadness, and exhilarating plots. But there is so much more, and the author engages readers through artistry in the use of language and the elements of literature.

 

During Charlotte Mason’s life, children’s literature was not so common as today. Books were not as available. Parents and teachers read books to their children and students. They read books filled with living ideas, books like Robinson Crusoe. And the books spoke into the lives of readers. The children became accustomed to well-crafted language and inspirational ideas. Today, we underestimate the capacity of a young child to share in an author’s profound thoughts and to use an author’s language after listening to a story. Children used to be fed from the earliest years on a diet of living ideas. Today, too many only offer children twaddle.