There have been significant developments regarding our understanding of Charlotte Mason's approach to math in the past year or so that have rightly garnered a lot of attention. Richele Baburina's publication of the first "true" CM math program has rocked the Mason world like nothing I have seen before--at least not in this context. Where I did see it was in my years as a public school teacher. Does that alarm you? If not, maybe it should. Let me explain. Any classroom teacher who has been around for a while can attest to the fact that, every few years, a program or technique takes the educational world by storm. It seems to come out of nowhere, and then, once a few key players endorse it, everyone jumps on the bandwagon, classroom practices are upended as the new program is implemented, and then, a few years later, it suddenly disappears and another perceived panacea takes its place. This phenomenon of "educational fads" tends to make teachers feel pretty cynical whenever the next "newest thing" comes out, because they feel they have seen it all before, and it didn't really seem to make anything better.
"So, Jen, are you saying that Baburina's book is a Charlotte Mason educational fad?" Well, the truth is that we don't know yet. It is very new, only the first book of the series has actually been published, and the only evidence we have of assessing its effectiveness is purely anecdotal, despite the ringing endorsements of CM celebrities. Those things, to me, are enough to warrant tapping the brakes for a minute. There is just too much we don't know.
Here are a few things that I think I do know:
1. Baburina did a great job recreating what Mason actually did...
Her depth of research into Mason's approach to math is evident, as is her passion for the subject.
2. ...but that is only half of the research needed in order to create an excellent Mason math program for our own time.
The other half has to be current. Mason learned Pestalozzi's math methods at the Home and Colonial teacher training college, and she does not seem to have strayed very far from them in her own programmes. Granted, Pestalozzi's ideas were revolutionary for the time, but he did live in the 18th century, and we know a lot more now about how humans learn mathematics. The last 15 years in particular have been a time of exponential growth in our understanding, as neuroscience and brain imaging have allowed us insights that were not possible before. Mason stayed on top of the research that was happening in her own day, and I have no reason to think she would do otherwise if she were still living. That doesn't mean she would have embraced every new idea; it simply means she would have known about them, considered them carefully, and then either intentionally rejected them or allowed them to inform her practice. I strongly believe that, as Mason educators, we have an ethical responsibility to follow Mason's example regarding current research. This is a key piece that is missing in Baburina's work and, as a result, I fear her program will be stuck firmly in the 1920s.
3. The first Elementary Arithmetic book does some things really, really well...
It is a lovely book full of meaningful story problems. It is organized in a way that makes it easy to keep math lessons short. It demonstrates the recognition that manipulatives are crucial (although I do feel she encourages children to put them away too quickly; most children put them away naturally once they fully understand a concept). The exercises in the book will likely result in a strong concept of number and agility in manipulating numbers, which is foundational for mastery of arithmetic.
4. ...but the exercises are too repetitive, and many skills typically taught early are missing altogether.
One idea that keeps coming up as significant in current research is that programs that contain lots of variety show more promise than those that don't. The redundancy of the lessons in Book 1 is likely to result in loss of interest and less ability to approach novel problems with success. As I read the book and reflected on my years in the classroom, I thought that the concepts covered in the book could likely be mastered to the same degree in much less time. Also, mathematics instruction is more than just arithmetic instruction. I'm aware that this could turn out to be an unfair assessment once the rest of the program is published, but I can only go on what I have before me.
So what is one to do? We all want to remain true to Mason's principles, but we have to decide what that means. Some lean more towards a legalistic view that if we are not exactly recreating Mason's techniques, then we are off track. I challenge that notion. Techniques are not the same as principles. I argue that it is far more important to follow Mason's own example of continuing to refine our understanding of the personhood of the child by staying abreast of current research trends.
One good resource I found that lays out the body of current research in a readable way is How the Brain Learns Mathematics by Dr. David. Sousa. As I have time, I am comparing Baburina's book and Right Start Math, about which Baburina has been quite vocal in her criticism, with both Mason's principles and current research as presented by Sousa. The photo below shows the beginning of this effort. The picture seems striking even at first glance, though it is far from complete. While there is no question that Elementary Arithmetic accurately reflects the program Mason used, it will take a lot more time and analysis before I will feel like I can give a truly informed opinion on whether or not these books are a solid choice as a stand-alone math curriculum for the modern day.
"We must feel our way to some test by which we can discern a working psychology for our own age; for, like all science, psychology is progressive. What worked even fifty years ago will not work to-day, and what fulfils our needs to-day will not serve fifty years hence; there is no last word to be said upon education; it evolves with the evolution of the race." (School Education, pp. 45-46)