Episode 8: Narration, The Act of Knowing



The work in a Charlotte Mason lesson is in reading and narrating. How this is implemented practically is the focus of this episode. The discussion addresses when, what, and how to narrate, and above all, why narration is effective.

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“What we have perhaps failed to discover hitherto is the immense hunger for knowledge (curiosity) existing in everyone and the immeasurable power of attention with which everyone is endowed; that everyone likes knowledge best in a literary form; that the knowledge should be exceedingly various concerning many things on which the mind of man reflects; but that knowledge is acquired only by what we may call "the act of knowing," which is both encouraged and tested by narration, and which further requires the later test and record afforded by examinations.” (Vol. 6, pp. 290-91)

“This, of getting ideas out of them, is by no means all we must do with books. ‘In all labor there is profit,’ at any rate in some labor, and the labor of thought is what his book must induce in the child. He must generalise, classify, infer, judge, visualize, discriminate, labor in one way or another, with that capable mind of his, until the substance of his book is assimilated or rejected, according as he shall determine; for the determination rests with him and not with his teacher.” (Vol. 3, p. 179)

"Bobbie will come home with a heroic narrative of a fight he has seen between 'Duke' and a dog in the street. It is wonderful! He has seen everything, and he tells everything with splendid vigour in the true epic vein; but so ingrained is our contempt for children that we see nothing in this but Bobbie's foolish childish way! Whereas here, if we have eyes to see and grace to build, is the ground-plan of his education." (Vol. 1, p. 231)

“They must read the given pages and tell what they have read, they must perform, that is, what we may call the act of knowing. We are all aware, alas, what a monstrous quantity of printed matter has gone into the dustbin of our memories, because we have failed to perform that quite natural and spontaneous 'act of knowing,' as easy to a child as breathing and, if we would believe it, comparatively easy to ourselves.” (Vol. 6, p. 99)

“Long ago, I was in the habit of hearing this axiom quoted by a philosophical old friend: "The mind can know nothing save what it can produce in the form of an answer to a question put to the mind by itself." I have failed to trace the saying to its source, but a conviction of its importance has been growing upon me during the last forty years. It tacitly prohibits questioning from without; (this does not, of course, affect the Socratic use of questioning for purposes of moral conviction); and it is necessary to intellectual certainty, to the act of knowing. For example, to secure a conversation or an incident, we 'go over it in our minds'; that is, the mind puts itself through the process of self-questioning which I have indicated. This is what happens in the narrating of a passage read: each new consecutive incident or statement arrives because the mind asks itself,––"What next?" For this reason it is important that only one reading should be allowed; efforts to memorise weaken the power of attention, the proper activity of the mind; if it is desirable to ask questions in order to emphasize certain points, these should be asked after and not before, or during, the act of narration.” (Vol. 6, pp. 16-17)

"It is not wise to tease them with corrections." (Vol. 1, p. 233)

"Narrations which are mere feats of memory are quite valueless." (Vol. 1, p. 289)

“[I]t is not a bad test of education to be able to give the points of a description, the sequence of a series of incidents, the links in a chain of argument, correctly, after a single careful reading. This is a power which a barrister, a publisher, a scholar, labours to acquire; and it is a power which children can acquire with great ease, and once acquired, the gulf is bridged which divides the reading from the non-reading community. ––But this is only one way to use books: others are to enumerate the statements in a given paragraph or chapter; to analyse a chapter, to divide it into paragraphs under proper headings, to tabulate and classify series; to trace cause to consequence and consequence to cause; to discern character and perceive how character and circumstance interact; to get lessons of life and conduct, or the living knowledge which makes for science, out of books; all this is possible for school boys and girls, and until they have begun to use books for themselves in such ways, they can hardly be said to have begun their education.” (Vol. 3, p. 180)

“Education...demands a conscious mental effort...the mental effort of telling again that which has been read or heard. That is how we all learn, we tell again, to ourselves if need be, the matter we wish to retain, the sermon, the lecture, the conversation. 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.” (Vol. 6, pp. 159-60)



If you would like to study along with us, here are some passages from The Home Education Series and other Parent's Review articles that would be helpful for this episode's topic. You may also read the series online here, or get the free Kindle version from Fisher Academy.

Vol. 3, Chapter XVI

Vol. 6, Introduction, Chapter X



Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, Betty Edwards

Writing to Learn, William Zinsser

(Contains affiliate links)

Carroll Smith on Narration here, here, and here.

Jen Spencer

One study on effectiveness of narration found here.

A helpful article on narration from the Parents' Review

18 comments:

  1. I finally got a chance to listen! :) Very helpful! :) I can't tell you how good it is to hear experienced CM moms wisdom on the practical aspects of narration. I love when Liz mentioned that narration is part of a child's nature...so true. :) I also love the part about narration not being about getting it "right" persae, but about what YOU got out of it. A couple of questions...when doing group time, I used to have everyone narrate each reading...needless to say that didn't work ;) they piggy backed off each other etc...now we roll a dice...1 for my oldest and so on...6 for ME. They love when they roll that one. ;) This seems to help a bit as they all listen not knowing who will get rolled, yet not having them all narrate at each reading. Do you have any ideas for narrating when in a group? Any tips?

    I really love the thought in the quote from Vol. 3 pg 179...she doesn't say the teacher is doing all that for them...THEY are doing all of that! However, I love at the end how Nicole talked about the open ended sort of questions that we CAN ask. :)

    Another wonderful podcast! :)

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    1. Hang in there just a few more days, Amy! Our next episode should answer your question about narrating in a group.
      ~Nicole

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  2. Great episode again! Love the balance of theory and application. This may be addressed in another Narration episode, but I would like to know how you organize your children's written narrations. Specifically, do you have a separate spiral notebook for each subject being narrated. Are all Term narrations in one spiral notebook or binder?

    We use various "tools" in our schooling, which I'll share below and I'm wondering if you have any considerations for me to think about to improve efficiency or to streamline. My daughters are 6th/8th grade.

    1. Subject Spirals - Each subject in spiral notebook and all written narrations / assignments (ie: vocabulary) are completed in appropriate notebook. Since I'm increasing the amount of narrations next term, I'm wondering if it's more effective to keep all narrations together.

    2. Science Journal - A half-page Watercolor Journal for showcased and best work narrations. Using handlettering, charts/graphs, key concepts for select Science lessons. (It has been wonderful to see my children's interest in Science soar becuase they are carefully narrating in this way.

    3. History Journal - Letter sized MIxed Media Journal for select time periods (ie: Civil War) that serves as a showcase/portoflio and includes artwork, quotes, maps, timeline and "final draft" narratives

    4. Book of Centuries

    5. Commonplace Book - Special keepsake journal for student led quotes from readings and memory work (My oldest never leaves home without it because she always has a book in hand! Filled with Tolkein, Alcott, Dickens, Shakespeare, Dickinson...and so much more!)

    6. Binder with scriptures/poems/shakespeare memory / morning time work, fine arts subject content, maps, supplemental worksheets, etc.

    Would love any feedback on things to keep in mind. So far it's working for us, but I'd love insight as to how to keep things minimal and streamlined or just to know what you've done!

    THANK YOU!!!!

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    1. Hi Melissa,

      It sounds like you are trying to make meaningful aids to your children's reading and oral work. We will be addressing written narration questions, timelines, and nature notebooks in future episodes, but for now, I would recommend you consider the why of each recording tool you use. These records should not make lesson times too long, nor interfere with the continued skill of oral narration. Valuable as each idea seems, having children be responsible for their own recordings is more important than you managing their notebooks for them. Also, my own experience is that needs change as the children reach new levels of study. My own children move from their nature notebook and one binder for all subjects to multiple books for various subjects as they grow. I also have found it helpful to have them make the decisions about which writings and pictures they have done are
      most important to keep, so have them periodically review their papers and select their favorites. You mention "final drafts," and we would remind you that at your girls' ages, written narrations in general should not be corrected by you or necessarily rewritten; you may not mean this at all, but as they reach high school level, there will be more opportunity for polished compositions.

      Thank you for your feedback and we applaud your diligence in ensuring your children's best educational feast.

      Liz

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  3. Thank you so much for taking the time to share this great advice! Definitely going to consider the why behind these methods. My girls write a lot for instance, my 6th grader averages 1-2 pages per narration and I can see it being cumbersome after awhile...I look forward to those future episodes! Can't tell you how much they mean to me!

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    1. Melissa,

      We can't tell you how much it means to us that these podcasts are helpful to you. It keeps us going. Thanks for sharing--and keep them narrating, oral and written.

      Liz

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  4. Can anyone tell me how they have gone about narration at the upper levels? I know that for older students Charlotte would ask exam questions that involved comparing, contrasting, synthesizing, etc. At one point do you go past just "tell me what you read" from one book and expect more analysis. Would love any insight.

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    1. Lady Bute,

      Oral narrations continue throughout the school years, but more written narrations are required every year. I think the older student appreciates the challenge of a more directed prompt to narrate, such as you have mentioned. Those more directed prompts, or more creative narrations, can take more thinking and may take up more of the lesson time. Most of my experienced high school CM moms only require special narrations like that once or twice a week. We will address this question on an upcoming Q&A, too.

      -Liz

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  5. Thank you for these wonderful podcasts. You don't know how many dishes you have been doing with me. I have a question about a statement Liz made during this podcast. She said when a child first formally starts school, I would assume age 6, that the child could start out with as little as one narration a week and work up. I was wondering if this idea comes from Liz's own experience as a technique which works well or if it is something Charlotte Mason herself has said.

    Gratefully,
    Dawn

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    1. Dawn,

      It is excellent that you ask about where Mason said something and to always be careful you are not adopting practices that others "say" is "Mason"--including comments we may say publicly.

      She does say, "slow and steady progress," and I believe would not overwhelm a child by having them formally narrate, overnight so to speak, all of their subjects. I have often encountered mothers who say their children "hate" to narrate, are in tears over it, or refuse, so have gotten into the habit of exaggerating that slow beginning to the practice, to win a child to this work of their own education gently. Narration is natural to a child, but I think we tend to make it seem like a demand and our urgency for our child's success or performance is conveyed by undue pressure on little ones. Mason did write in her chapter on narration in volume one, that first narrations should be from stories. As a beginner, this would be Bible, fairy tales, Aesops fables, the early history lessons. She also says they love to tell about pictures, so it would include picture study time as well. If an older child is being introduced to narration, I again believe we should go about it patiently and gently--and again, from stories, so Bible and literature primarily at the beginning. Slow and steady progress speeds up for older children beginning the practice of narration, so they may more quickly move to narrating more subjects and more frequently. Certainly, the goal is narrating anything, but care must be taken not to spoil the art. I have never read where Mason said "once a week for beginners," but occasionally make that recommendation because of our own weakness, not the child's.

      Liz

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    2. Liz,

      I thank you for this. I do like the words, "slow and steady." Miss Mason was applying these words to reading lessons, but we can see the words "slowly" and "carefully" used in other various areas--handwriting, math, and handicrafts. Do you know of a spot where she talks about this principle in general? I think it makes complete sense that "slow, gentle, careful" would all define a CM education which so greatly respects the child, so perhaps this idea is not so much spelled out but rather a principle we take from looking at the whole.

      I also really like your words, "but occasionally make that recommendation because of our own weakness, not the child's." It is all too true that often we, the parents, are the source over the tears and frustration, and not the child.

      Gratefully,
      Dawn

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    3. Dawn,

      I also think I have received that concept from reading through the Parents Review articles over the years--it just seems to be a general approach by CM educators. I'm sure I could come up with several other quotes, but am buried in CM work right now and barely able to keep up my own reading in her volumes at the moment.

      Thank you for your gracious words and for understanding. The more you yourself continue reading Mason, the more you will delight in the cohesiveness of all the subjects and how interrelated they are. No practice does not spring from a principle.

      -Liz

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  6. Wow! I loved this podcast but I can't believe how much MORE I learned when I paused the recording at the end and narrated to myself what I heard. As I did, that I started to make connections between the things I just learned and truths I already have. Those connections make the new information and the old information so much richer! That one activity has helped me to understand so much better why Charlotte Mason taught this method. Thank you so much!

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    1. Amy,

      Thank you for sharing that practical experience. Another thing practicing narration does is give us more sympathy for our children, because it is not always easy. I wish I narrated everything I learned, but our children will grow up with that habit. It is such a simple idea and so revolutionary.

      -Liz

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  7. Hi there
    Nicole - I think it was you who mentioned that your older students were willing to narrate once you had explained to them why they were being required to do it. You mentioned reading from the Drawing book - could you please tell back what you read? ;) Thanks! Karen

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    1. It's been a while, so I hope I do it credit. When we read or listen, information enters our brain on the right side. It's generally the quiet side, hence the listening side. The left side is the talky side, and can even butt-in and talk about stuff it thinks it knows, but doesn't. There is a wonderful story about a study done on people who had seizures so often that they eventually cut their Corpus Callosum, the small section of the brain that connects the two sides of the brain. They asked the person to reach behind a screen and pick up a fork, but really there was only a spoon back there. They picked it up anyway. When asked if they were holding a spoon they answered "yes", but shook their head no at the same time! You've heard the saying that the right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing, well this was the left brain not knowing what the right brain knew. SO, the point is that when we take in information on our right side, our listening, observing side, and the verbalize what we have heard or seen, the information has to pass from the right side to the left side through the Corpus Callosum. The bonus is that when information passes through this center section of the brain, the ideas are stored in long term memory. The whole section was so moving because for one, when you know how your brain works, you can USE it! and two, the fact that we CAN use our brain, and some can't is a powerful motivator. Anyway, I might have mixed up the utensils and some of the details. I would highly recommend getting a copy of the book, if only to read this section. But the rest of the book is very good as well.
      ~Nicole

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  8. Thanks Nicole- that is very helpful!

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