Charlotte Mason and Comenius #5–Narration

This discussion is especially interesting, because narration is quintessentially associated with Charlotte Mason (and rightly so). For the sake of space (because this is a blog post), I have to assume my readers are familiar with narration and the way that Charlotte Mason used it. Nevertheless, she makes no claim to have invented the method. Quite otherwise, she tells us:

The method is as old as the mind of man, the distressful fact is that it has been made so little use of in general education. (Philosophy of Education, p. 160)

She does not tell us precisely where she encountered the idea for using narration as a general practice in education, but she could have found it mentioned in The Great Didactic of Comenius, if she read it in full, because he may be numbered among those who recommended the practice (although history does not suggest he ever had the opportunity to practice it on more than a small scale).

We may learn the most suitable mode of procedure by observing the natural movements that underlie the processes of nutrition in living bodies, namely those of collection, digestion, and distribution.…These three elements are to be found in the well-known Latin couplet: —

To ask many questions, to retain the answers, and to teach what one retains to others;
These three enable the pupil to surpass his master.

…With the two first of these principles the schools are quite familiar, with the third but little ; its introduction, however, is in the highest degree desirable. The saying, “He who teaches others, teaches himself,” is very true…because the process of teaching in itself gives a deeper insight into the subject taught. (The Great Didactic, p. 308-9)

This idea of telling/teaching what has just been learned seemed very valuable to Comenius, and he explains at length what the use of narration might look like in a classroom, and while his suggestions are by no means identical to Charlotte Mason’s (although did you notice he uses the same “digestion” analogy that she did?), it would appear much the same in practice. One of the things I found interesting is that both Comenius and Charlotte Mason recognized that this method was the ideal means to secure attention.

Another point should be borne in mind; the intellect requires a moral impulse, and we all stir our minds into action the better if there is an implied ‘must’ in the background; for children in class the ‘must’ acts through the certainty that they will be required to narrate or write from what they have read with no opportunity of ‘looking ‘up,’ or other devices of the idle. (Philosophy of Education, p. 17)

Comenius makes the same point, and like Charlotte Mason, takes note of the fact that the habit of attention, once developed in this way, becomes a power in every area of life.

The teacher is certain to have attentive pupils. For since the scholars may, at any time, be called up and asked to repeat what the teacher has said, each of them will be afraid of breaking down and appearing ridiculous before the others, and will therefore attend carefully and allow nothing to escape him. In addition to this, the habit of brisk attention, which becomes second nature if practised for several years, will fit the scholar to acquit himself well in active life. (The Great Didactic, p. 309-10)

Narration as a method may have been recognized as a powerful tool by some educators throughout history, but Charlotte Mason applied it on a wide scale, and showed the results of using it, in a way for which no earlier record exists. Doubtless some teachers used it to good effect, but we can thank Charlotte Mason for lifting this method out of all the others that might be available, testing it, and refining it in practical ways that encourage higher-level thinking in all areas of study.

I mentioned in the last post in this series that both Charlotte Mason and Comenius preferred education to focus first on synthetic thinking, which might be called “relational” thinking. And narration is a practice that allows those relationships to be formed. This, I think, is one of the more interesting points of intersection between Comenius and Mason–including both synthetic thinking and narration at the core of their ideas, and recognizing that they go hand in hand.

They also both recognized that narration is not a one-dimensional exercise, but also promotes the acquisition of vocabulary, reinforces memory, and develops a sense of style gleaned from the authors being narrated.

The scholars must be taught to express in language whatever they see, hear, handle, or taste, so that their command of language, as it progresses, may ever run parallel to the growth of the understanding. (The Great Didactic, p. 329)

Literary taste should therefore be taught by means of the subject-matter of the science or art on which the reasoning powers of the class are being exercised.…I have shown that it is possible for the scholars to give instruction in the subject that they have just learned, and, since this process not only makes them thorough but also enables them to make progress more rapidly, it should not be overlooked in this connection. (The Great Didactic, p. 330-31)

Charlotte Mason’s method of narration was used in scores of schools in Great Britain, and has been practiced faithfully in many homeschools for the last couple of decades. Of all the things you might glean from her, this particular practice ranks at the top of the list as one of the most effective educational methods ever developed. While I doubt many of what we call “classical” educators used it as faithfully or scientifically as Miss Mason did, it is in perfect harmony with their highest aims and ideals. Comenius, at least, along with Charlotte Mason, appreciated the way that this natural exercise developed the skills of thinking, speaking, writing, attention, and recollection in each young scholar.

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