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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.

This blog series is now available as a short digital book in the “Encore” series. The original material from the series, plus bonus content, is collected in one place where you can easily refer to it. Read the Kindle version of Charlotte Mason and Comenius or purchase an epub version to read on a platform of your choice.

Charlotte Mason and Comenius #2—Eternal things

One of the hardest things to decide about this series is the order in which to present topics. I’m still not sure, but I think I will continue in this post to look at a few broad principles that Charlotte Mason and John Amos Comenius shared, and which informed the way that they shaped their educational practices.

Our purpose in life should be focused on things of eternal value.

There may be educational methods that give lip service to this idea without actually implementing it, but I think most modern systems of education gloss right over it. The bulk of our educational endeavors tend to focus on measurable results (test scores), “success” which is defined as the gain of material advantages, or the child’s personal feelings of self-worth. The idea that there is more to life than this life on earth, or even that our earthly life can be enhanced by focusing on eternal things does not enter in. Our two educational philosophers knew what was important.

Comenius expresses this idea by saying that there are three pursuits only which are worthy of our position as the rational creatures God created us to be: Erudition (which he uses interchangeably with “learning”, Virtue, and Religion (or “piety”).

Under Erudition we comprehend the knowledge of all things, art, and tongues; under Virtue, not only external decorum, but the whole disposition of our movements, internal and external; while by Religion we understand that inner veneration by which the mind of man attaches and binds itself to the supreme Godhead.

In these three things is situated the whole excellence of man, for they alone are the foundation of the present and of the future life. All other thing (health, strength, beauty, riches, honour, friendship, good-fortune, long life) are as nothing, if God grant them to any, but extrinsic ornaments of life, and if a man greedily gape after them, engross himself in their pursuit, occupy and overwhelm himself with them to the neglect of those more important matters, then they become superfluous vanities and harmful obstructions. (The Great Didactic, p. 190)

I have not been able to find one place where Charlotte Mason was as succinct as Comenius about the whole thing, but she, too considered that education should be more than just preparation for making a living. If you have read Charlotte Mason’s volumes, you will have encountered, again and again, the emphasis she places on these higher things.

This, too, belongs to the disrespect in which we, as a nation, hold knowledge. To know is not synonymous with with to do; but we should not leave our young people to stumble on right action without any guiding philosophy of life; the risks are too great. We who bear the name of Christ do not always give ourselves the trouble to realise how His daily labour was to make the Jews know; how ‘ye will not understand’ was the reproach He cast upon them.” (Formation of Character, p. 383)

And like Comenius, she holds the pursuit of lesser things unworthy of our full potential. For example:

If the worlds you conquer be those of academic distinction, why, there is no spirit in you for further labours, unless as more such worlds present themselves. (Ibid.)

And again:

We live in times critical for everybody but eminently critical for teachers because it rests with them to decide whether personal or general good should be aimed at, whether education shall be merely a means of getting on or a means of general progress towards high thinking and plain living and therefore an instrument of the greatest national good. (Philosophy of Education, p. 180)

The desire for these higher things–the desire to know, the desire to do good, the desire to know God–are innate and natural in every person.

This has very definite implications when it comes to education, and you will find both Comenius and Mason making sure the point is clear.

It is not necessary, therefore, that anything be brought to a man from without, but only that that which he possesses rolled up with himself be unfolded and disclosed. (The Great Didactic, p. 194)

Which does not imply that no educational direction is needed! Comenius makes sure we understand that:

The seeds of knowledge, of virtue, and of piety are, as we have seen, naturally implanted in us; but the actual knowledge, virtue, and piety are not so given. These must be acquired by prayer, by education, and by action. (Ibid., p. 204)

I think this view–that children come to us with natural powers of mind and a natural appetite for knowledge–is a crucial point when it comes to education; because if you don’t recognize this truth explicitly, a great deal of educational labor can be expended–wasted, even–in trying to “teach children to learn” as if they did not know how, or in trying to “make things interesting” as if knowledge were an unpalatable medicine we have to disguise with a bit of jam.

Basically, the better you understand the exact nature of the person you must educate, the more likely you are to strike upon effective methods.

A child requires knowledge as much as he requires food.

He is furnished with the desire for Knowledge, i.e., Curiosity; with the power to apprehend Knowledge, that is, attention; with powers of mind to deal with Knowledge without aid from without––such as imagination, reflection, judgment; with innate interest in all Knowledge that he needs as a human being; with power to retain and communicate such Knowledge; and to assimilate all that is necessary to him.

…The natural provision for the appropriation and assimilation of Knowledge is adequate and no stimulus is required; but some moral control is necessary to secure the act of attention; (Philosophy of Education, p.18)

Like Comenius, Charlotte Mason recognized that the natural desire to be virtuous is present in children.

Children are born Law-abiding.––’Naughty baby!’ says the mother; and the child’s eyes droop, and a flush rises over neck and brow. …But what does it mean, this display of feeling, conscience, in the child, before any human teaching can have reached him? No less than this, that he is born a law abiding being, with a sense of may, and must not, of right and wrong. (Home Education, p. 13-14)

And Charlotte Mason, too, recognized the inborn hunger to know God and have a relationship with the Infinite.

Crowned kings have thrown up dominion because they want that which is greater than kingdoms; profound scholars fret under limitations which keep them playing upon the margin of the unsounded ocean of knowledge; no great love can satisfy itself with loving; there is no satisfaction save one for the soul of a man, because the things about him are finite, measurable, incomplete and his reach is beyond his grasp. He has an urgent, incessant, irrepressible need of the infinite. “I want, am made for, and must have a God;”––not a mere serviceable religion,––because we have in us an infinite capacity for love, loyalty and service which we cannot expend upon any other. (Philosophy of Education, p. 54)

It’s quite a starting point for an educational philosophy, isn’t it? Nothing about test scores or making a living, although it isnt suggested that those things are of NO value–simply that they are unworthy of primary consideration. Both Mason and Comenius took Eternity into account at the beginning of their educational thinking, and recognized that the seeds of the eternal things were there in the children they wanted to teach. Their job was to help the children realize the possibilities within them.

We’ll be looking at what that looks like in practice over the next few weeks!

This blog series is now available as a short digital book in the “Encore” series. The original material from the series, plus bonus content, is collected in one place where you can easily refer to it. Read the Kindle version of Charlotte Mason and Comenius or purchase an epub version to read on a platform of your choice.

This is release week for Mind to Mind and we have winners!

I used a random number generator to pick our two winners:

Random Integer Generator

Here are your random numbers:


Timestamp: 2015-09-04 16:10:21 UTC

And I thought the comments were numbered, but they are not, so I had to manually count down (the first comment you see is #1, the last comment is #50) to find the winners, but I triple checked it, and the winners are:

Krista and ChristineH!

Congratulations to you, and thank you everyone for participating. I’ll keep an eye on Amazon, and if Charlotte Mason achieves “Hot New Release” status, I’ll generate numbers for a couple more winners!

And I’m going to be giving away two free copies. (Sadly, not signed, because that involves shipping them to Poland first. But still. Free.)

All you have to do is leave a comment on this post letting me know why you’d be interested, or why you think someone else might be interested, in reading an abridged copy of Charlotte Mason’s final book. Any reason will do, including “I can it finish more quickly.” Each comment is one entry, and I’ll use a random-number generator to select the two winners on Friday, September 4th–the official day of release, although Amazon might be ready before then.

A goodly portion of Mind to Mind is my work, but the bulk of it is still Charlotte Mason’s. For that reason, the Kindle version is priced a little lower, and if you purchase a physical copy, the Kindle Matchbook will always be free.

In honor of launching Mind to Mind, the Kindle Matchbook for Consider This will be free all week as well. If you’ve ever purchased this physical book through Amazon, you can take advantage of the free Kindle version this week.

And don’t forget: if you plan a book study and want to do a bulk order (at least 5 copies), I can offer a discount. Just use the contact form to let me know.

If you’d like additional chances to win a free copy of Mind to Mind, share this post on Facebook, on your blog, via Twitter, or anywhere, and leave a separate comment for each one, telling me where you shared it: “I shared on Facebook!” Each comment is an additional entry for you, so don’t combine them. (And don’t worry if they don’t show up immediately–I have to approve comments, and only if you’ve commented before will they show up without approval.)

Entries close at 12:00pm (that’s noon!) Eastern Time, on Friday, September 4th. I’ll announce the winners shortly after.


A Book Worth Reading

I’m so pleased to announce that Anne White’s new book, Minds More Awake: The Vision of Charlotte Mason is now available. Anne is a dear friend and long-time colleague, but that is not the reason I recommend reading her book. If you are homeschooler interested in Charlotte Mason’s ideas, you will want to read this book. If you are teacher who works with children, you will want to read this book. If you are a parent, you need to read this book, and the sooner the better.

The book is deceptively simple. One minute you are reading about making chili in the crock pot, and the next moment you realize that the discussion has turned to integrating principles of education with a sharp focus on the key elements that will make those principles most effective. How did that happen? It is Anne’s gift—the gift of chatting comfortably and relating even hard-to-grasp principles to real-life situations that you will recognize.

She has a knack for spotting principles in unlikely places, and when she points them out, you may blink hard and wonder how it is that you didn’t spot that for yourself. This is a book that will encourage, not discourage you. These are important principles, but they are achievable. Anne doesn’t even leave you wondering what  they will look like in practice—she brings the principles to the table and shows you what a math or reading lesson might look like when the principles are put into action.

Minds More Awake is a book to read once, and then again and again. It’s a little bit like fertilizer.  There are Charlotte Mason’s own books to read, of course, and a few secondary sources that illuminate or illustrate how to make her ideas work. There is enough soil, air, water, and sunshine in them to grow an education. But adding a little Minds More Awake is going to be like a judicious sprinkling of fertilizer. There’s something here that will support and strengthen what we already know about Charlotte Mason’s ideas, and make the whole process a little more vivid, a little more vibrant. Anne White encourages us to make Charlotte Mason’s principles real in our own lives.

…there is a need in the world for the wisdom-made-practical that we have benefited from ourselves, even if it’s not labelled “C.M.” or packaged in the way we expect. Susan Schaeffer Macaulay includes a description in For the Children’s Sake of an arrangement where young girls (probably those who would be labelled at-risk) came to someone’s house together, learned homemaking skills, and had discussion times over cups of coffee. They might not have been interested in nature walks, but they did have ideas and questions. We need more people who can create safe, friendly spaces.

I highly recommend carving out a little space of time to read this book. As we get ready to begin a new school year, it will be rejuvenating.

Study Guide for Consider This

Download the PDF file and print, or read with any PDF reader.  As of February 2, 2015 a new file with corrections has been placed here. Earlier versions contain typos.

Study Guide for Consider This US-Letter