Monday, April 21, 2014

Narration Through the Ages

by Karen Glass

One of the hallmarks of a Charlotte Mason education is narration. Everyone who inquires into the method bumps into narration almost from the very first, because it is so central. Read and narrate, read and narrate. Because narration is not a widely-used technique today in any other method of education, it is easy to imagine that it is an invention of Charlotte Mason, something particularly her own, but in fact, the practice of narrating goes back for centuries. The preliminary exercises of classical rhetoric, the progymnasmata, include narration as one of the first things young learners would do, beginning with fables or relating simple historical events, and these early rhetorical lessons were sometimes begun even with children. But even narration in the form that Charlotte Mason recommends it--retelling immediately what has been read or heard--is not an invention of her own, but was recommended centuries before by some of the Renaissance educators (and I believe Charlotte gleaned a great deal from them). Consider this advice from Erasmus:
The master must not omit to set as an exercise the reproduction of what he has given to the class. It involves time and trouble to the teacher, I know well but it is essential. A literal reproduction of the matter taught is, of course, not required - but the substance of it presented in the pupil's own way.
Perhaps, reading that advice, or something like it, Charlotte Mason decided to give it a try and found it very effective! Other teachers from the same era, perhaps influenced by what they knew of rhetoric, recommend the same practice. Comenius outlines similar guidelines in his Great Didactic:
Every pupil should acquire the habit of acting as a teacher. This will happen if, after the teacher has fully demonstrated and expounded something, the pupil himself is immediately required to give a satisfactory demonstration and exposition of the same thing in the same manner. Furthermore, pupils should be instructed to relate what they learn in school to their parents or servants at home or to anyone else capable of understanding such matters. This practice will serve various useful purposes: In the first place, pupils will be more attentive to every part of the teacher's exposition if they know that presently they will have to repeat the same matter and if each one fears that perhaps he will be the first to be asked to do so. Second, by restating exactly what has been taught, everyone will imprint it more deeply in his understanding and memory.
So what does it mean? Did Charlotte happen to stumble by chance over an ancient practice or did she discover it in the course of her wide reading on the topic of education? She doesn't tell us, but those of us who make narration an integral part of our educational efforts are not just following the advice of an obscure 19th-century British schoolteacher. We are sharing in a traditional practice of the past, and giving our students a share in the education of Quintilian, Erasmus, and well as Charlotte Mason!

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