November 16, 2012

The Best Work Is Not Visible

Via Tiny White Daisies Tumblr
"Miss Mason went on to say that the best work is not visible: it does not employ the reasoning here, the imagination there. It employs the whole mind, for the whole mind is a whole, not a parcel of faculties. One should not think that what is not seen does not exist: when the whole mind is at work, knowledge infallibly results." - Karen Andreola from A Charlotte Mason Companion pg. 149
Karen put this paragraph at the end of one of her chapters on narration. It was the idea that the entire goal of education is to nourish the mind and that the mind must be the one to do the work which recently has captured my interest. It was an idea I had up till now missed. Narration more than any other kind of lesson is a tool that uses the whole mind. We can not see how the mind is at work organizing the thoughts to put them in order to give a narration. As well, we can not see how the mind  is recalling names or dates or other specific info in the read passage. We are not allowed to interfere with the question it asks itself when narrating "What next?" In many ways this intrinsic necessity for our child's education is out of our hands and totally unseen. We can not quantify it or measure it as with other lesson types. But it does work. For the child must do the work to mine out the nuggets of nourishing knowledge he needs to feed his hunger by retelling it. We must trust him to do it, provide the opportunity, set the feast with nourishing foods and let him chew and digest it.

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"The day the child begins using narration is the day he begins to become an independent learner....when we trust in a child's ability to become self educated with the use of narration and whole books, we are not expecting them to go it alone. We have great expectations that they will go it along with the help of the holy spirit and our direction." Karen Andreola From A Charlotte Mason Companion pg 127,129
Although it is a simple tool that Charlotte Mason commends in her method of education I have not found it an easy one to implement. Honestly, it takes time to do narrations. You simply can not lay it over the top of everything else and expect it to work well. It is foundational to Charlotte's method and it alone is enough to feed the hungry child's mind. For myself the rub came here, if narration takes of "x" amount of time then there isn't really time left for other kinds of lessons. You see, I am very fond of hands-on-learning as I am crafty and visual. I like teaching lessons which display information visually and require the student to be doing something with their hands. It is (art or visual presentations) a powerful way of communicating and idea, but I have discovered that through out Charlotte's writings that it is conspicuously absent when nourishing the mind is mentioned. Narration however is mentioned everywhere as the tool that uses the whole mind, thus producing true self education and nourishment for the mind.
"Another certainty presents itself, that we have not time for short cuts: The training of muscle and sense, however necessary, does not nourish the mind; and, on the other hand, the verbiage of a lecturer is not assimilated. There is no education but self-education and only as the young student works with his own mind is anything effected." Towards a Philosophy of Education pg. 224
I was crushed, but I was also relieved. I have had inklings already that the lessons we were doing were not producing what I was seeing in Charlotte's writings and results I wanted. I could also sense our lessons were more my work than their work. Narration, living books, and using the hands on methods she used I can change that.

As I scoured through her writings to understand her views I learned that Charlotte did include hands-on-learning in these subjects: handicrafts is an obvious one, nature study and nature journalling, math in concrete things before abstractions, geography; geo walking, in making maps and doing map drills, in artist studies when they drew the picture studied, history when they added a drawing to their museum books or book of centuries. So that is quite a lot of hands-on-type lessons.

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However, as I read on I realized that her hands-on-lessons differ from mine in two respects: Firstly, her lessons are structured so that the child can do the work himself, not getting a predigested lap book and told to glue in the mini books and write what I or the lap book creator tells you. I am not saying that all lap booking does this, but that is how it went with my kids because the lapbook is a tool they cannot wield on their own presently. An older child may use this as a wonderful way to narrate in a written and visual form a certain bit of information. A nature notebook, a map drill etc they can do now. Secondly, my hands-on-lessons were replacing the act of retelling not in addition to narration. So my hands-on-lessons did not give them the knowledge they need, it simply worked the mind but it did not feed it. I needed to reschedule so that there was plenty of time allotted for nourishing meals of mind food to be served. Outside of that time we still do hands-on-projects the boys can do themselves.

Saving time is not one of my over arching goals, nourishing the hungry minds of children is. Time however can sneak in and persuade me to hurry up and then I  make decisions I regret later. However, putting this goal in front of me, to feed my boys good mind food, I have revamped my lessons to follow suit replacing time consuming busy work with time consuming lessons that nourish the minds of my boys. That inevitably includes narration of living books. I am loving the new focus and the disappointment I first felt is giving way to belief in the CM's methods as I see the hunger in my boys grow for more and more mind food and yippee skippy I am finally out of their way! They are educating themselves. Coincidently their joy regarding our lessons is taking off.
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In making this switch there lies another potential pitfall. My children did not take to narrating right off. They balked, they dreaded the lessons and in short complained about how much work it is. The enjoyable hours we spent reading aloud together had now become work. This does not yet line up with what Miss Mason says in her writings about how children take to it readily offering copious retellings. This can give way to discouragement or disillusion. The pitfalls lies in returning to the easy path thus abandoning the ideal.

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"Reaching our goal of having children acquire a wealth of knowledge and be able to to express it in good English seems distant-on some days utterly out of reach! Yet to have an ideal, to look onwards and upwards, is vital to our homeschooling endeavors."-Karen Andreola from A Charlotte Mason Companion pg. 144
I was encouraged to read that Karen's second daughter was a slow starter when it came to narration. Only is wasn't till after two years of hearing short, influent narrations that her daughter's narrating begin to really flow. That is good to hear, it is not something every child takes to readily or right off the bat.  So mine must be all right. I'll stick it out, keep the lessens short, go out on top, and above all trust. In our house I needed a good dose of patience and a firm hold on faith of the ideal applied daily to our lessons to continue along the way. After one year of beginning narrations my three boys have noticeable improvements. We began this year narrating one paragraph at a time, now we read three to four pages of good living books and they can do it. We are not yet like the children in Charlotte's writings but though I cannot see the invisible work that is happening in there, I embark on this journey into the invisible with a firm hold on the tiller of faith that Charlotte will be right once again and my boys will be getting the mind food they need and will enjoy their journey in self-education.
"Children brought up largely on books do better than those educated on fewer books and lectures. Wide reading produces children with generous enthusiasms, keen sympathies, a wide outlook, and sound judgement because they are treated from the first as beings of "large discourse looking before and after." They are persons of leisure too, with time for hobbies, because their work is easily done in the hours of morning school." Philosophy of Education pg. 305
UPDATE july 2013: more on Narration from Dr. Carroll Smith HERE. He is writing an entire series which is insightful and inspiring that you may want to read. In the post I linked you to above Dr. Smith discusses how to chose good living books for narration. Enjoy!


  1. It is good for you to talk about this because I think many (myself included) thought that it just wasn't working for our family if it didn't magically happen overnight. It does take time.

    1. You are right, and when it is such an integral part of the whole method it is easy to feel "what is the use?" I am right in the middle of the process of "watching" my boys learn this skill and so I have a bit to go before I can truly say we narrate passably well. However, we are certainly not where we used to be and that is great for them!

  2. Beautiful. Now, with the boys being 11 and 14, It gets easier day by day. We also use many parts of our day for narration practice - a retelling of events. Moving towards Notebooking in High School from Lapbooking in Elementary school was natural for us. But I still thought I needed workbooks. Last year I really learned that I didn't need them. ;)

  3. Charlotte Mason's approach always challenges me to "much more", and her methods can easily be upgraded as the child responds and masters certain skills.
    The early years with my junior high-schooler's verbal narrations have prepared her for the much more difficult task of her personal research and written narrations.
    We keep aiming high and working it out with God's grace. Blessings to you as you persevere!