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Charlotte Mason Principle 3: Authority & Teachability

kid with magnifying glass looking at grass with words authority & teachability

Charlotte Mason Principle 3

And so we continue in our study of Charlotte Mason’s 20 Principles: this post looks at Principle 3, Authority & Docility (aka teachability). I’m taking a closer look at Volume 6 of the Homes Education Series by Charlotte Mason, in particular, Chapter 4: Authority and Docility.

Authority & Docility (Teachability)

The principles of Authority on the one hand and Docility on the other are natural, necessary and fundamental.

—Charlotte Mason

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By this principle, CM means to impress that authority is there whether you obey it or not. She’s referring to the authority of God who set up a natural order of things where there is authority in all levels of life. Children are under the authority of their parents and teachers; workers are under the authority of their bosses, etc. You can choose not to obey, but consequences usually follow.

She also notes that children can see when the teachers themselves are not following some authority – kids are quick to point out arbitrary rules or impositions.


When CM says docility, she means “teachableness” or teachability. It is not a blind obedience.

“That subservience should take the place of docility is the last calamity for nation, family or school. Docility implies equality; there is no great gulf fixed between teacher and taught; both are pursuing the same ends, engaged on, the same theme, enriched by mutual interests; and probably the quite delightful pursuit of knowledge affords the only intrinsic liberty for both teacher and taught.”

—Charlotte Mason Volume 6: Towards a Philosophy of Education, page 71

Furthermore, she notes:

“It is the part of the teacher to secure willing obedience.”

—ibid, pg. 70

This will lead the child to a form of self-governance – who is “making” the child do his work? The child should be because he is under authority and sees that the teacher is also under authority and is working toward the same goals. Thus, Charlotte Mason ties authority and docility back into self-education.

Hortatory methods

Hortatory, according to the American Heritage Dictionary:

1. Marked by exhortation or strong urging.

Yes, I had to look it up, so I thought you might also. For a side note: reading Charlotte Mason is a bit like Shakespeare because we have become so sloppy in our language! We just don’t talk like that anymore.

Ok, back to our story…

So the teacher should not have to “strongly urge” the student to “Do your math!” or “Focus on your work!”.

And how does the teacher avoid “hortatory” methods?

“Our chief concern for the mind or for the body is to supply a well-ordered table with abundant, appetising, nourishing and very varied food, which children deal with in their own way and for themselves. This food must be served au naturel, without the predigestion which deprives it of stimulating and nourishing properties and no sort of forcible feeding or spoon feeding may be practised. Hungry minds sit down to such a diet with the charming greediness of little children; they absorb it, assimilate it and grow thereby in a manner astonishing to those accustomed to the dull profitless ruminating so often practised in schools.”

— ibid, pg. 72

So the theory is that by supplying a generous feast you give the student ample interesting things to think about and so it makes it easier for them to apply their will and focus on the subject matter.

The theory is easy to understand, but the application can be difficult. In discussing this, my fellow homeschool moms like to talk out the nuances of the practice whenever we make time to discuss CM’s methods.

Conflict of wills?

Two Conditions for Proper Teachability

So not being “hortatory” is nice in theory, but practically, how do you avoid a conflict in will? CM suggests only two conditions are needed to get kids to be properly obedient to the teacher:

  1. The teacher cannot be arbitrary. The kids must see that the teacher does things that she ought to do also. It shows they are all under authority.
  2. Children need a sense of freedom to choose how much they learn.

That second one was a bit tough for me to grasp. Read this quote and mull on it for a minute:

“The other condition is that children should have a fine sense of the freedom which comes of knowledge which they are allowed to appropriate as they choose, freely given with little intervention from the teacher. They do choose and are happy in their work, so there is little opportunity for coercion or for deadening, hortatory talk.”

—ibid, pg. 74

Practical example: Sense of freedom in how much they learn

Let’s say you, the teacher, are in the habit of presenting living books for the child “to appropriate”. And let’s say you have three kids and the book is Paddle to the Sea. You read it together, taking some narrations along the way.

Your kids are not going to respond the same way to the same material.

One kid might become enthralled with boats and want to carve out small boat-toys; one kid might enjoy making maps of the story; and the last kid might just want to read a different book or go play Lego.

It’s okay for each kid to take what they want from the story.

You don’t have to force all the kids to carve boats while listening to you lecture about the history of canoes. That would be hortatory.

You might have to help them build skills to do some of the things they want to pursue because of the story. So demonstrating how to carve or make a map with your geography studies might not be hortatory.

Finally, you might have to help your Lego-obsessed kiddo point his thoughts toward the story by asking him to make a Lego model of a scene from the book. Also, not hortatory. A suggestion, a pointer. The kid then turns around, makes a model based on something heard in the story, and then can explain exactly what is what even though it kind of looks like a bunch of Lego bricks stuck together.

Side note: All of those pursuits: boat model building, map-making, and Lego dioramas can be used to “narrate” the story.

Practical example 2

One of the ladies in my moms group said on this point: You can’t decide for your child when the switch happens from just going along with doing what you say to really taking hold of their own learning. But it does happen with each kiddo. Sometimes more eventually than other times! Hang in and keep working the concepts.

Practical Tip: Don’t repeat lessons

Don’t repeat lessons. CM goes into more detail on the importance of this in a later chapter, but it’s worth mentioning in this context.

“All school work should be conducted in such a manner that children are aware of the responsibility of learning; it is their business to know that which has been taught. To this end the subject matter should not be repeated. We ourselves do not attend to the matters in our daily paper which we know we shall meet with again in a weekly review, nor to that if there is a monthly review in prospect; these repeated aids result in our being persons of wandering attention and feeble memory.”

— ibid, pg. 74

Why is this hard?

Not repeating goes against everything I was ever taught about learning.

But learning and teaching can be opposite perspectives, can’t they?

As students, we learn a subject. As teachers, we teach a subject. The first talks about absorbing knowledge, and the latter refers to distributing knowledge.

To be more direct, if I as a student need to learn the material, I may use repetition in how I retain information. But I usually don’t get much out of listening to a lecture the second time.

What about spaced repetition?

Yes, spaced repetition can be an essential tool in learning. For instance, if I want to learn the botanical names for my essential oils, I might choose to make a list and review it at specific intervals. It’s also a great way to memorize recitations or other items — we’ve used it for memory scriptures or in our habit box.

I may even go to a book a second time to “read for instruction” if I’ve missed details. However, I probably only have to do this because I haven’t used internal narrations to take in the material on my own the first time.

And this is precisely what Charlotte Mason is getting at.

The student needs to learn how to apply his will or focus his attention the first time through a reading.

Extraordinarily difficult today

Everything about our society goes against the self-discipline of focusing attention.

Use the time when your kids are young to help them learn to become self-learners who can manage their own will to turn their attention to their studies.

One more obstacle today

With the explosion in dyslexia and ADHD today, we sometimes feel helpless in this area. With my dyslexic son, we did have to use all kinds of repetition when he was younger for particularly difficult subjects. And today, he navigates college classes without having to have the same repetition.

Use your common sense and know what works for your family. The Charlotte Mason police don’t come knocking if you are having a bad day and have to repeat yourself. But even there, CM gives potential solutions. She talks about the Way of the Will in Chapter 8 of Volume 6, and we will look at that another day!

Tips on Things Not to Do as a Teacher

Kids can sense when you as the teacher are not acting under the same authority that they are. Here are areas that CM says to avoid in order to be a better teacher:

  • Avoid being superior in attitude
  • Don’t talk down to the students (remember Principle 1: Children are persons)
  • Avoid trying to entertain them by making lessons “more” attractive — this is difficult the more screen time they have.
  • Avoid the pitfall of thinking that all they need from education is how to earn a living and how to be a good citizen. She believes every child deserves “reading or thinking which should make the pupils better men and women and better citizens.”

Charlotte Mason was non-secular

A note on secular Charlotte Mason homeschooling: Many people use CM’s methods because they work. They can easily get by with narration, short lessons, living books, nature study, et al., and never mention God and STILL end up with well-educated young people. Kudos to them.

But since we are discussing Charlotte Mason’s 20 principles, we will be clear: Charlotte Mason bases all of these 20 principles on the foundational belief in the natural order of the world which God made. She is not shy about her reasoning:

“I am assuming that everyone entrusted with the bringing up of children recognises the supreme Authority to Whom we are subject; without this recognition I do not see how it is possible to establish the nice relation which should exist between teacher and taught.”

— ibid. pg. 73

Authority & Docility (teachability)

How to satisfy a growing child’s need for delight in knowledge

This third principle we have been discussing refers directly to Charlotte Mason’s underlying assumption of the supreme Authority in this world.

“To return to our method of employing attention; it is not a casual matter, a convenient, almost miraculous way of covering the ground, of getting children to know certainly and lastingly a surprising amount; all this is to the good, but it is something more, a root principle vital to education. In this way of learning the child comes to his own; he makes use of the authority which is in him in its highest function as a self-commanding, self-compelling, power. It is delightful to use any power that is in us if only that of keeping up in cup and ball a hundred times as (to the delight of small nephews and nieces), Jane Austen did. But to make yourself attend, make yourself know, this indeed is to come into a king––all the more satisfying to children because they are so made that they revel in knowledge.”

— ibid. pg. 77

Related articles

For more study


What are the top habits of Charlotte Mason?

The top habit to encourage in your young learners in Charlotte Mason circles is the habit of attention. Cultivating this habit is a “root principle vital to education” and is part of this concept of authority and teachability.

What is teachability in education?

Charlotte Mason answered this by equating “docility” with teachableness. Ultimately, proper teachability “makes use of the authority which is in him [the student] in its highest function as a self-commanding, self-compelling, power.”

kid in tree with binoculars pin for teachability & authority