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Image of Ben Sytsma with Calvary Schools of Holland high school students.

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Forming the whole child, not just the mind.

It’s a truly Christian model of education.


I think schools often focus on information as the outcome of what they’re trying to do. Test results. What makes a “living education” is that we focus on the work of formation. It’s not just passing the test. We’re trying to form the child for every aspect of their future life.


I often tell parents, “We care just as much about your child when they’re 25 and what they’re going to choose to do in their free time, as we do about what they’re going to choose to do for their occupation.” It’s all part of a flourishing life. It’s a way of living. And with the Charlotte Mason philosophy and Ambleside Method, you have a way of doing life that you learn through being a member school.


Students are learning a way to live that’s True and Good and Beautiful. So much of what we do is forming the whole child, not just the mind. We are forming their hearts and desires and training their affections.


I think you see the results of this over time. A lot of formation isn’t going to happen in two weeks. From my seat now as principal, I can think of one student who, when he entered the school, had a pretty poor relationship with learning … not really making eye contact with teachers. But through years of working with that student and trying to reform some of those habits, you’d see a completely different person today. He looked me in the eyes when I opened the door for him at the beginning of school. I was greeting a different student. He waited and turned back and made sure that he greeted me before walking in. You see the change in the long term.


One of my favorite stories is from when we took our high school students to DC this past spring. I could see very clearly a living education while we were there. When we went to the Holocaust Museum, we prepped our students to go in thinking of this personally. Know that God has something to share with you as you’re walking through this museum. You’re going to see lots of hard things. We actually encouraged them to not talk at all and just to go through on their own, quietly.


The hour and a half discussion we had with our students afterwards was pretty incredible. You can tell it wasn’t the normal high school student experience going through a museum. They were bringing up consistencies they had seen and fears they have of our current world. They considered the thoughts they have about the way they engage with something that is difficult. It was like talking to 30-year-olds. They have this maturity about them already at high school.


One of the thoughts that I remember them talking about was how difficult and how sad it would’ve been to be a child during that time in Germany. You have these camps that are promoting Nazism and Nazi ideas, and that’s just the norm. They were thinking how awful for the children of that country at that time and how much propaganda these children were being fed. But that’s all they knew for 10 to 20 years. Our students found that very saddening.


There was one point in the museum where they had listed all the names of people who helped people during the Holocaust. Lots of students were realizing they were Dutch and we’re from a Dutch community in West Michigan. They even saw names they knew or their own last name. The students took the time to notice things that other schools going through the museum were missing.


Charlotte Mason says in her writing that “life is sustained by ideas.” And I think what she means by a living education is that we’re piquing students’ interests in many different things, and we’re filling their mind with ideas. Similarly, in the same way the body needs food and digests food to function, our mind functions on ideas. Our way of education is presenting to students many good ideas that they can think about and ponder and talk about for the rest of their life.


I received my undergraduate and graduate degree from a Christian college, and I think highly of my experience there in many ways. But even there, my philosophy of education class presented me two main options: behaviorism or constructivism. Behaviorism at its core is manipulating behaviors through extrinsic rewards, using pain and pleasure to control behavior. Constructivism gives all choice to the child. They’re the ones finding their own knowledge and forming their own truth. I was mostly taught to choose one of those methods and was told to try to add Christianity to it. This seems to be the norm at most education programs across the United States.


Charlotte Mason created a philosophy and method that’s truly Christian. It’s not taking something that’s secular and trying to switch it or mold it. She came up with a base foundation of principles that allow you to teach in a Christian way and actually help you disciple students. This is what should draw teachers to Ambleside. It’s a truly Christian model of education.


Ben Sytsma

Principal | Calvary Schools of Holland, an Ambleside Member School

Ambleside Magazine