Cultivating a Scientific Habit of Mind


Flannel Flowers (Actinotus helianthi) 

Charlotte Mason’s Ourselves, which is Volume 4 of her Original Homeschooling Series, is fast becoming one of my favourites in the series, although I tend to say that every time I read one of her books. I’ve been reading Ourselves aloud over the last four and a half years and have enjoyed sharing her wisdom with my children whilst gleaning some for myself at the same time.

One of her ideas that impressed me recently was her connection between the inability to form a scientific habit of mind, and the habit of generalisation in our speech.
There are behaviours or attitudes in my children, and in myself also, that I don’t automatically connect to other areas of life or learning. Some aspects of learning seem to be dependent on individual ability or innate talent and the tendency is to conclude that a lack in certain areas stems from the fact that there is no natural affinity for them. Charlotte Mason turns that idea on its head.

So what does it mean to generalise?

The habit of generalising, of stating something about a whole class of persons or things which we have noticed in only one or two cases, is one to be carefully guarded against…’All the cups are cracked,’ when one is so…’Oh, no, I can’t bear Rossetti’s pictures’: the critic has seen but one. ‘I love Schumann’s songs’: again, the critic has heard one.

Charlotte Mason called it ‘loose’ talk, and observed that it disables us in accurate observation:

Let us stop generalisations of this kind before they escape our lips. They are not truthful, because they give the idea of a wider knowledge or experience than we possess; and by the indulgence of this manner of loose statement, we incapacitate ourselves for the scientific habit of mind – accurate observation and exact record.

At times I’ve talked to a couple of my children about not embellishing their nature or science notebooks with art work, or using unrealistic colours – a pink butterfly when the one they’d seen was orange and black etc. My aim is not to stifle their creativity but to teach them to accurately observe and record what they are, in fact, seeing. The embellishments were a sort of generalisation; a space filler. By drawing something they are not actually observing, in a notebook designed to depict what they have observed, allows the habit of inattention or ‘looseness’ to develop.


With the increase of the habit of observation comes an increase of the power of observation, that is, in fact, the power of accurate observation. More is seen, and the ability to discriminate between similar objects rapidly develops. Use of the power increases the power, even as the muscles of the body are developed by their frequent employment.

12 thoughts on “Cultivating a Scientific Habit of Mind

  1. Very good thoughts and yes, I was challenged by those parts of Ourselves. I'm still not all the way through it, but it made me think about my speech. This is an excellent reminder as truth is water down more and more…Lovely nature journal entries!


  2. I appreciate these quotes and applications. I think it is similar to how we remain as children who cannot get past drawing a symbol of a house rather than learning to draw what their or another house actually looks like. Same with flowers, trees, etc. Getting past the symbolic and into the actual observed thing.


  3. That's a really fitting analogy, Heather! I was thinking of my eldest girl who considered herself unartistic & was always unsatisfied and embarrassed with her drawing. I gave her the Drawing Textbook by Bruce MacIntyre to work through – learning the 7 laws of perspective & building skills step by step & by the end of the book she was quite confident. She learnt to use her 'muscles of attention' & so wasn't restricted by a lack of innate talent.


  4. Very interesting what you said about not embellishing their notebooks. When the aim is to teach them to accurately observe and record what they are seeing, it makes sense 🙂 I am sure I will still see lots of pink butterflies elsewhere.Thanks for another great post.


  5. I bought that book as well for the same reasons for myself and have used it to teach my oldest drawing. We are both still looking to 'see' so we can draw correctly. We are also using one that Brandy mentioned as well, 'Art for Kids: Drawing' by Kathryn Temple


  6. This reminds me of Christy's comment of paper sloyd over on the forums, and how the act of sloyd makes clear any lack we have of \”intellectual truthfulness\”–a bit funny but oh so true. Great food for thought in this post, Carol. And the nature drawings are delightful too.


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