Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Owning the Act of Knowing

I heard this quote at a business training seminar years ago...

No one waxes a rented car

The speaker was making a point about the difference between employee mentality and business owner mentality; that, generally speaking, people care more for something, in this case a business, when they are the ones who own it.

What about in Education? Do you think the same principle applies?

In Vol. 6, Chapter 7 Charlotte Mason talks about Herbartian Education. While I don't know anything about it myself, reading CM's notes it sounds very much like what we find in Unit Studies today (Konos, lapbooks, etc.).

She goes through an example of "A Robinson Crusoe Concentration Scheme," a series of lessons given to children in Elementary School.

First we have nine lessons in literature and language, the subjects being such as 'Robinson climbs a hill and finds he is on an island.' Then, ten object lessons of which the first is,––The Sea, the second, A Ship from Foreign Parts, the sixth, A Life-Boat, the seventh, Shell-Fish, the tenth, A Cave. ... The third series are drawing lessons, probably as many, a boat, a ship, an oar, an anchor and so on. Then follows a series on manual training, still built upon 'Robinson'; the first, a model of the seashore; then models of Robinson's island, of Robinson's house, and Robinson's pottery. The next course consists of reading, an infinite number of lessons,––'passages from The Child's Robinson Crusoe and from a general reader on the matters discussed in object lessons.' Then follows a series of writing lessons, "simple compositions on the subject of the lessons. ... the children framed the sentences which the teacher wrote on the blackboard and the class copied afterwards." Here is one composition,––"Robinson spent his first night in a tree. In the morning he was hungry but he saw nothing round him but grass and trees without fruit. On the sea-shore he found some shell-fish which he ate." ... Arithmetic follows with, no doubt, as many lessons, many mental examples and simple problems dealt with Robinson"; the eighth and last course was in singing and recitation,––'I am monarch of all I survey,' etc. "The lessons lasted about forty-five minutes each.

It seems like a great idea. There is so much that can be built upon any one of our books that we read. And why not?

Here is CM's view:

The whole thing must be highly amusing to the teacher, as ingenious amplifications self-produced always are: that the children too were entertained, one does not doubt. .. but of one thing we may be sure, an utter distaste, a loathing, on the part of the children ever after, not only for 'Robinson Crusoe' but for every one of the subjects lugged in to illustrate his adventures.

The conscientious, ingenious and laborious teachers who produce these 'concentration series' are little aware that each such lesson is an act of lese majesté. ... every approach to knowledge suggests avenues for boredom, and the children's minds sicken and perish long before their school-days come to an end.

That children like feeble and tedious oral lessons, feeble and tedious story books, does not at all prove that these are wholesome food; they like lollipops but cannot live upon them; yet there is a serious attempt in certain schools to supply the intellectual, moral, and religious needs of children by appropriate 'sweetmeats.'

As I have said elsewhere, the ideas required for the sustenance of children are to be found mainly in books of literary quality; given these the mind does for itself the sorting, arranging, selecting, rejecting, classifying...

In my afternoon's reading I came upon another very apposite remark in the letters of John Stuart Mill. Let me read it to you:

"What the poor, as well as the rich, require is not to be taught other people's opinions, but to be induced and enabled to think for themselves..."

Our chief concern for the mind or for the body is to supply a well-ordered table with abundant, appetising, nourishing and very varied food, which children deal with in their own way and for themselves.

Speaking about an 11 year old girl who had vividly told her mother about all the things she saw in a museum, CM writes...

It will be noticed that the child is educating herself; her friends merely take her to see the things she knows about and she tells what she has read, a quite different matter from the act of pouring information down the throats of the unhappy children...

and of the effort involved in teaching and learning...

Education is not after all to either teacher or child the fine careless rapture we appear to have figured it. We who teach and they who learn are alike constrained; there is always effort to be made in certain directions; yet we face our tasks from a new point of view. We need not labour to get children to learn their lessons; that, if we would believe it, is a matter which nature takes care of. Let the lessons be of the right sort and children will learn them with delight. ... As we have already urged,
there is but one right way, that is, children must do the work for themselves. 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'.

And there it is - the children must own the knowledge, it must be theirs, they must be the ones who perform the act of knowing. And when lessons are so contrived, so predigested and so prepared with all the connections already made, who is really the one doing all the work?

I recall at another time learning how CM's applies this same idea of ownership to training a child's will:

Every effort of obedience is valuable only in so far as it helps the child towards making himself do that which he knows he ought to do. ... invite his co-operation, let him heartily intend and purpose to do the thing he is bidden, and then it is his own will that is compelling him, and not yours; he has begun the greatest effort, the highest accomplishment of human life - the making, the compelling of himself. ~Vol. 1, p.328

How we balance this to ensure that they are the ones performing the act of knowing, while also being involved enough to ensure rigor and right direction is the topic of our local meeting this month, which I am very much looking forward to. I hope to post some of what we glean from our discussion here later this month.

In the meantime, Ambleside Online continues to provide subtle opportunities for my children to own their knowledge and experience excitement in their ability to make connections themselves.

The hymn we learned in January was O God, Our Help in Ages Past, which Isaac Watts wrote as a paraphrase of Psalm 90.

Thy Word commands our flesh to dust,
“Return, ye sons of men:”

At the same time, in reading Chapter X of Children of the New Forest, Jacob Armitage, a sort of father figure to four children, dies and leaves them with the task of placing him in the grave and saying a few words over him. In trying to find a proper portion of the Bible to read, the children recall Psalm 90 "that the days of man are threescore years and ten."

A connection my daughter was perfectly capable of making herself.

We also read in Our Island Story, Chapter 78 how Charles I was Brought to his Death, which is the history set as the backdrop for the story Children of the New Forest.

Admittedly, my daughter did confuse the story a bit thinking that in Children of the New Forest they burned the King's house - which they didn't, they burned the children's house and beheaded the King as they did in real life, so I did clarify that.

But what I love is that she is thinking on these connections. She is pondering, comparing and bringing up the topic to point out her perceived discrepancies without my pointing it out for her.

It is a matter of respecting the child as a person and not undermining what they are capable of; something that I am continually in the process of learning and re-learning.

In Charlotte Mason's 20 principles, I believe point 11 and 12 touch on this very idea:

11. But we, believing that the normal child has powers of mind which fit him to deal with all knowledge proper to him, give him a full and generous curriculum; taking care only that all knowledge offered him is vital, that is, that facts are not presented without their informing ideas. Out of this conception comes our principle that,––

12. "Education is the Science of Relations"; that is, that a child has natural relations with a vast number of things and thoughts: so we train him upon physical exercises, nature lore, handicrafts, science and art, and upon many living books, for we know that our business is not to teach him all about anything, but to help him to make valid as many as may be of––

"Those first-born affinities
"That fit our new existence to existing things."


  1. "The conscientious, ingenious and laborious teachers who produce these 'concentration series' are little aware that each such lesson is an act of lese majesté. ..." (injured majesty, an offense against the dignity of) Kind of hurt my feelings when I first learned that Charlotte did not endorse unit studies, which I had done in previous years.

    When we respect the sacred personalities of another, and humble ourselves then we know we must serve them the food and step back as they partake of if and decide what they think of it. Great post, Naomi

  2. Good post! We do make lapbooks from time to time. This is definitely something to think about. I wonder if the child is the one choosing everything she wants in there, the where, the what, and we have blank components if it would be something that could be for good?! Could it almost be used as a visual way to narrate kinda like drawing a picture?

    Thanks for sharing these thoughts and Miss Mason's perspective! :-)

  3. I don't know that CM would have been opposed to lapbooks in and of themselves. It seems that what she was opposed to is the parent or teacher providing all the connections for the child as described in the example of the lessons surrounding the book Robinson Crusoe mentioned in the post.

    I believe she was (or maybe I got this from Childlight) also against scrappy learning that occurs when everything is taught in random units, rather than along the sequential spine of history, where learning builds upon previous learning. For example, a unit study around knights might teach the child many things about the middle ages, etc. but what a loss of opportunity not to continue on then to the invention of the printing of books and the compass and gunpowder and how those things affected much of humanity, bringing on the renaissance, the reformation and the age of exploration. I think history, literature, art; human thought develops from age to age and idea to idea so I don't see how separate unit studies or lessons prepared around lapbooks on various subjects could adequately provide that greater view and understanding. Even with the Bible, it seems that we could have different topics and stories that teach particular points we may want the children to learn, but it is as a whole that it teaches the entire Gospel of Jesus Christ.

    I know many children are visual learners as well. I'm not sure if CM ever talked about different learning styles (visual, auditory, kinesthetic, etc.) it seems she believed her methods worked well for all children. That would be an interesting topic to look into further.

  4. Thank you for submitting this to the next Charlotte Mason Blog Carnival.

  5. I find the study of Herbartianism fascinating and rather difficult. Ms. Mason helps us isolate some facets of it and analyze. I wrote a little about it here:
    I am so excited for your daughter and the connections she is beginning to make! You are doing such a wonderful job teaching them, Naomi!
    Ring true,

  6. Shannon - thank you for posting it to the Blog Carnival!

    Nancy - I remember reading your post a while ago - How could I ever forget that painting?! It really is the crux of the difference - how we view the child. It has been such a revelation for me along this process of learning about CM's philosophy. Thank you for your encouragement and example!

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  8. I think that I first read the CM idea that all the extras are not necessary in "For the Children's Sake." I felt such relief. When teaching Sunday School classes, I was always delighted when the craft idea was provided for me because I so lack that kind of creativity and usually resort to construction paper and scissors. When I read Susan Schaeffer McCauley's book, I wanted to run back to all those Sunday School supervisors that insisted on craft-time for every session and say, "See!!!!" :)

    It is hard to let go and trust that my son is taking the responsibility on himself. I want to force the diligence sometimes --- which, of course, is an impossible thing. Narration is such a key in all this. I am learning this more and more. There are times when he is more compelled to "tell back" than others. When he's struggling to narrate, I wonder what has failed -- me or the story.

  9. Kay, you're so right, there is an element of letting go and trusting. Easier said than done sometimes, especially when we don't have benchmarks to compare progress to like in schools. I don't think a child struggling to narrate sometimes is necessarily a sign of failure. Some things lend to easier narrating, like stories or events. Other things like royal genealogy, or dates, foreign names, or the technical workings of particular inventions etc. are not so easily narrated. And our children are persons just like like us, we have good days and bad days. If a child is consistently struggling with narration over a period of time, then that's a different story, but I've seen your son's narration video - he seems to be doing just fine!