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What To Look For In Living Book History Curricula

What To Look For In Living Book History Curricula

Two notebooks, pencils, coffee and headphones. The notebooks are white and brown.

Are you interested in using a living book approach to teach history to your child? The living book method is ideally suited to studying history. What better way to learn about the past than to become enthralled with its twists and turns through a great story and fascinating characters? After all, young learners love a good story and it’s only a short step from sympathising with a great character from a key moment in history to understanding how this moment in history is relevant to their lives.

But what should you be looking for in a living book history curriculum?

Let’s start by diving into what Charlotte Mason, the educationalist who came up with the term ‘living book’ had to say about studying history with living books.


Charlotte Mason And The Power Of Living Books To Inspire A Love For History


Charlotte Mason was a British educator from the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries. In her work, she was concerned to see too many uninspired kids. Specifically in the study of history (check here for a discussion of other subjects and her ideas more generally) she saw too many dry textbooks that bogged students down with dates, vague outlines of battles and reigns – all of which did little to truly interest a child. Instead, she promoted the use of ‘living books’. These books were narrative driven and human interest centred, whilst also being set in a key moment of interest in history. After all, for Charlotte Mason, the human element was key for children:

[children] want to get at the living people behind the words of the history book, caring nothing at all about progress, or statutes, or about anything but the persons, for whose action history is, to the child’s mind, no more than a convenient stage.

By truly engaging a child through sympathising with the people from history, these books would inspire them with a love of history. By encouraging them to sympathise with characters from that period of history – they would be shown how history could be relevant to them.


Charlotte Mason And How To Use Living Books To Study History


Once a child’s imagination had been warmed by a great living history book, educators could harness this newly found interest in more formal study. Charlotte Mason suggested, as an example, making timelines of the events they read about. In materials and courses made by Living Book Home School, we compare the portrayals of events in the classic stories being read (e.g. Anne of Green Gables or A Christmas Carol) to other perspectives taken from primary or secondary historical sources. In these ways, educators can channel a child’s engagement with the living history book into studying the techniques and practices used by real historians.


The Role Of The Educator In Forming Opinions On History


Another key issue close to Charlotte Mason’s heart when it came to studying history with living books was: how should we help students to form their opinions about history?

For Mason, this was an area where educators should tread lightly – particularly when children were still young. She didn’t believe in spoon feeding students with opinions. Instead, as their knowledge on the topic grew, children should be allowed to develop their own critical thinking skills to reach opinions by themselves.

When looking for a good living book history curriculum, it’s therefore essential that the curriculum doesn’t present interpretations of history in a heavy-handed way. Instead students should be guided more gently towards forming conclusions themselves.


Other Things To Look For In Living Book History Curricula


Whilst not always specifically discussed by Charlotte Mason in her writings, here are some more things to consider when looking for living book history curricula.

Clear Learning Objectives

It’s important that the curriculum you choose for your child has clear aims. Too many curricula out there simply try to cover too much ground in one course and thereby provide a superficial education at best. This being so, it’s better if the course keeps its objectives fairly narrow in order to get the right balance between breadth and depth.

After all, if the course tries to teach too great a chunk of history then the student will know a lot but only at a surface level. For instance, they might know the names and key features of a lot of different historical events that happened, but have they had any chance to think critically about the different historical interpretations of those events? Or have they had the opportunity to reach their own opinions about which interpretation they agree with? Charlotte Mason knew all too well the dangers of filling students up with pointless facts without inspiring them to engage with them, or as she put it:

Here, as elsewhere, the question is, not how many things does he know, but how much does he know about each thing.

Inquiry-Based Learning

Charlotte Mason believed in the power of asking good questions in education. In her discussion on how to teach natural philosophy, she claims that children instinctively ask questions when they’re interested in something. The educator’s job is then to guide the child as they think through these questions without ‘coming to the rescue’ with the answer too quickly:

And do not hurry to answer his questions for him; let him think his difficulties out so far as his small experience will carry him.

In this way, Charlotte Mason encouraged teachers to develop the natural reasoning abilities of a child through strategic use of questions.

This being so, an inquiry-based history curriculum is particularly well-suited to living book history curricula. In the Anne of Green Gables Living Book History Course, for example, the course is designed around answering the big question ‘What was it like to be a child without your parents in early twentieth-century Canada?’. Similarly, in the A Christmas Carol Living Book History Course, children try to answer the big question: ‘Did Charles Dickens invent Christmas?’.

Through the units, students are encouraged to think through different answers to this question and develop critical thinking skills as they reach conclusions.

Summary And Question

And so, during this post we’ve identified some key elements to search for when selecting your living book curriculum. Namely:

  • A narrative-driven and human-interest-centred living history book.
  • Opportunities to lead students towards formal study of history on the back of the inspiration drawn from this living history book.
  • Students should be guided towards forming historical interpretation themselves – not presented with set historical interpretations in a heavy-handed way.
  • There should be clear learning objectives that go deeply into a study of history instead of too broadly.
  • Ideally, the curriculum should utilise children’s natural tendency to seek answers to their questions. An inquiry-based curriculum would therefore be an excellent choice.

But what about you? Are there any other features of a good living book history curriculum that you look for?

I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

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