In the introduction of An Essay Towards a Philosophy of Education, Charlotte Mason describes her journey of establishing a working philosophy of education. She provides the reader a narrative of the circumstances, thinkers, and writings that led to the educational principles that she is now known for. She could have just solely put forth the conclusions she arrived at, but she chose to present a narrative account and include the reader in her thought processes, her observations, and her questions. She chose to not just tell us, but to show us.
Narrative can simply be defined as a real or fictional story that has a sequenced order of events and includes setting, action or plot and character. The narrative form invites the reader inside the story where one can weave in and out as both a spectator and a participant. Narrative is universal and emerges early in the communicative development of children. Narrative is also a tool that helps us make sense of the world, make sense of our experiences, and make sense of others.
In the Bible, we are not presented with a theological outline of who God is and a list of dos and don’ts we should live by. Narrative is the dominant form of the Bible as evidenced by the use of stories, poetry, visions and letters. Leland Ryken asserts that the Bible joins two characteristics of narrative that have strong appeal to humans. These characteristics are realism that appeals to our sense of reason and mystery that appeals to our imagination. He asserts, “The stories of the Bible nourish our need for both down-to-earth reality and the more-than-earthly . . . . Truth is more than propositional, and the Bible implicitly acknowledges this by giving us truth partly in a literary medium” (1992, p.39). The narratives of the Bible allow us to imaginatively participate and experience truth at a level that engages both our minds and our hearts.
Mason understood the appeal that narratives have to children. She writes, “As for the question of literary form, many circumstances and considerations which it would take too long to describe brought me to perceive that delight in literary form is native to us all until we are ‘educated’ out of it” (1925/2015, p.13). Her thoughts about the power of narratives are echoed in the writings of many modern writers who view narratives as an essential way of understanding reality and our experiences as humans. One of those modern writers was Arthur Applebee who spent years studying the way children of different ages understand the elements and structures of stories. He views children’s lack of ability to sort out what is real versus what is make-believe as an asset and not something to fret about. Applebee writes, “The stories they hear help them to acquire expectations about what the world is like—its vocabulary and syntax as well as its people and places—without the distracting pressure of separating the real from the make-believe. And though they will eventually learn that some of this world is only fiction, it is specific characters and specific events which will be rejected; the recurrent patterns of value, the stable expectations about the roles and relationships which are part of their culture, will remain” (1978, p. 52).
Mason used narratives for both her curriculum (living books) and her instruction (narration). In Mason’s time, many educationalists promoted a theory of education designed to exercise the mind, as if it was a muscle, by promoting a school culture of monotonous drills, harsh discipline and mindless verbatim recitation. While others in her day were advocating for mental gymnastics that would produce the faculties of the mind, Mason knew that children’s minds had all they needed (attention, imagination, curiosity, reflection) and our goal as teachers was to provide the proper nourishment to feed it.
In a Parent’s Review article, Miss Pennethorne also comments about the depth that narratives provide as opposed to simply filling children’s minds with facts. She writes, “We want the children to learn their history lessons, not ‘William the Conqueror, 1066,’ but God’s dealings with humanity, the sequence of cause and effect; we want to train their moral judgment, that they may put the motive before the deed, nor dub all men with neat little labels of good or bad. In short, we want them to see peering out through the mists of long past times ‘the purpose that is purposed upon the earth,’ so that they may bear their part in forwarding, and not retarding, the ultimate development of God’s world” (1899, p. 549).
Narratives are part of every subject even if the material is not presented in a narrative manner. Behind every scientific principle or mathematical theorem is an interesting story. Mason writes, “How interesting arithmetic and geometry might be if we gave a short history of their principal theorems; if the child were mentally present at the labours of Pythagoras, a Plato, a Euclid. Great theories, instead of being lifeless and anonymous abstractions, would become human, living truths, each with its own history, like a statue by Michelangelo, or like a painting by Raphael” (1989b,p. 128). These discoveries were not made in a vacuum and knowing the context, the culture and the worldview of historical figures may illuminate one’s understanding and appreciation for their contribution.
Mason observed that children had a proclivity to tell narratives and therefore used narration as an instructional tool where children tell back what they have read or heard allowing room for originality, interpretation and opinion. “Narrating is an art, like poetry-making or painting, because it is there, in every child’s mind, waiting to be discovered, and is not the result of any process of disciplinary education” (1989a, p. 231).
Facts such as “William the Conqueror 1066” may count as cultural literacy to some, but that statement has a starting point and an ending point. It does not appeal to the emotions, or allow a student to connect to the stories that are beyond that statement. Only by getting to the narratives can one enter the story that comes before that statement, and the story that follows that statement. In fact, without the story, there is nothing to think about or allow us to internalize or wonder about. Narratives allow everyone an entry point into the story. Everyone is coming to the story with different background knowledge, different experiences and different levels of understanding. It is through narratives that people come to define who they are and what kind of person they want to be. A transmission model of education is satisfied with inputting knowledge into children’s minds and viewing events as an end result. But if we practice the art of standing aside, we allow the students to form their opinions of the material from the place where they are. Each individual has an opportunity to engage with the narrative at their level by offering up their own narration that allows their mind to deal with the knowledge through their own self-effort.
Narratives can also be found outside of the living books that we read. Narratives are found in the folk songs and hymns we sing, the story portrayed through a composer’s music, and the narrative depicted in the paintings we observe. The notebooks that are vital to a Mason education such as a commonplace book, book of centuries and nature journal can also contain a narrative of the ideas that impacted a child throughout his school years. Narratives are found in nature as we follow the seasons of the year or even in our own personal experiences in nature as we build relationships with living things.
The other week, our homeschool community group was hiking in a local forest preserve with our nature journals in tow. As we came to an area with a fallen tree, the children threw off their backpacks and started crawling along the massive trunk like a row of marching ants. When a younger child fell, my son who was right behind him lost his footing as well. To avoid the younger child, my son rolled into a patch of Greater Burdock. When he got up he realized he was covered in burrs from head to toe. He didn’t have to look for something to paint that day, the object found him. Now every time he looks at that painting in his journal, that humorous story of picking burrs out of his hair and clothing will come to mind and create a memory of his time in nature. These positive memories in nature will contribute to his relationship with nature and hopefully be a foundation of a lifetime of outside adventures.
Narratives can help scaffold our learning. Narratives include more descriptive figures of speech such as image, metaphor and simile which can help us understand new ideas and establish similarity between two concepts. Psalm 119:105 reads, “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.” Those metaphors create images in our minds and help the abstract concepts to become more understandable and experiential. Ryken asserts these figures of speech “possess arresting strangeness that both captures a reader’s initial attention and makes a statement memorable (1986, p.168). In the Storybook of Science, Jean-Henri Fabre, uses cows, udders, milk, and pastures as a metaphors to explain how ants get their nourishment from the tubes of plant-lice and even create a sort of enclosure for them to be contained. By using familiar concepts that children would understand, Fabre allows the children to make images and transfer their knowledge of cows providing milk to man to the new concept of plant-lice providing sweet liquid to ants.
The narratives that our children encounter as well as the narratives they tell will help shape their thoughts, their expectations and the choices they make. Narratives for both curriculum and instruction are a wonderful meaning-making tool that will affect children’s lives way beyond their school years.
Applebee, A. (1978). A child’s story of concept. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Mason, C. M. (1989a). Home education. Wheaton IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. (Original work published in 1925).
Mason, C. M. (1989b). Parents and children. Wheaton IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. (Original work published in 1925).
Mason, C. M. (2015). An essay towards a philosophy of education. Pennsylvania: Riverbend Press. (Original work published in 1925).
Pennethorne, R.A. (1899). P.N.E.U. principles as illustrated by teaching.
The Parent’s Review, 10, 545-555.
Ryken, Leland. (1992) Words of Delight: A Literary Introduction to the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.