Wednesday, March 21, 2018

What if my child doesn't remember?

by Karen Glass

A lot of times, I hear AmblesideOnline/Charlotte Mason moms lament, “What do I do when my child doesn’t remember?”

Maybe children don’t narrate well at the time, and maybe they don’t recall much about a topic later. We all hear the lovely stories and testimonials about the amazing connections that other children are making. What about the child for whom things don’t seem to stick? Who doesn’t remember?

You probably aren’t going to like the answer, but…that’s the way it’s supposed to be. It took me a while to come to terms with this, too, so I sympathize with your reluctance to accept this idea. Who follows an educational method that expects children to forget? And narration is supposed to help with remembering, so surely the children are expected to remember?

They won’t forget everything, of course, but in a Charlotte Mason education, remembering a lot of specific information is simply not the object.

Our first hint that this is the case is actually found in the principles:
Our business is not to teach him all about anything, but to help him make valid as many as may be of—‘Those first-born affinities.’ (From principle #12, A Philosophy of Education, p. xxx)
In other words, education is the science of relations, and relationship trumps information in our educational endeavors.

One day, I was happily reading through A Philosophy of Education, when I was arrested by this paragraph:
Education is a life. That life is sustained on ideas. Ideas are of spiritual origin, and God has made us so that we get them chiefly as we convey them to one another, whether by word of mouth, written page, Scripture word, musical symphony; but we must sustain a child's inner life with ideas as we sustain his body with food. Probably he will reject nine-tenths of the ideas we offer, as he makes use of only a small proportion of his bodily food, rejecting the rest. He is an eclectic; he may choose this or that; our business is to supply him with due abundance and variety and his to take what he needs. (Philosophy of Education, p. 109)
My mind suddenly re-shaped that word-fraction, nine-tenths, into a percentage.




“Probably he will reject 90% of the ideas we offer,” and if you flip that around, “Probably he will accept and remember (only!) 10% of the ideas we offer.”

Those are some staggering numbers—they’d represent failure on graded tests—and this is what Charlotte Mason is offering us? But passing tests isn’t the point of education in this paradigm—our object is to “sustain a child’s inner life,” and the only way that can happen is if he is offered an abundance and allowed to take what he needs. Charlotte Mason tells us that children hang the facts they remember on the ideas they take in, so if they are only taking in 10% of the ideas, they are also likely to remember only a portion of the associated facts.

If you want to educate your children using Charlotte Mason’s philosophy, the wisest thing you can do is embrace this concept. Your children are learning, but they are learning in a relational way, not a remember-all-the-facts way.
It is a great thing to possess a pageant of history in the background of one’s thoughts. We may not be able to recall this or that circumstance, but, ‘the imagination is warmed’; we know that there is a great deal to be said on both sides of every question and are saved from crudities in opinion and rashness in action. The present becomes enriched for us with the wealth of all that has gone before. (Philosophy of Education, p. 178)
It is very easy to lay hold of the idea that “it is a great thing to possess a pageant of history in the background of one’s thoughts” and gloss over the uncomfortable truth that “we may not be able to recall this or that circumstance.” If we are honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that we would, indeed, like our children to be able to recall “this or that circumstance.” And sometimes, they do. But other times, they do not. In either case, we have laid the foundation of that pageant, warmed their imagination, and enriched them by exposing them to the wealth of all that has gone before. This is true even if they can’t remember a single king from Our Island Story.

Along the same lines, parents often lament that a child doesn’t understand some things, and they feel compelled to explain. This is a fine practice if the child has requested an explanation, but something to forego if he has not.

In a very useful pamphlet shared with a group of PNEU schools (Notes for the Conference on PNEU Methods by H. W Household), quite a severe warning is given about the practice.
There are teachers who are not happy until they have made certain that there is not a line, not a word, that the child does not understand. Of course they are wrong. They are wasting time and hindering the child. The child has many years before [him], and [he] has [his] own times and ways of arriving at understanding. Next year, without our having said one word, [he] will understand much that [he] does not to-day. Let [him] do [his] own work upon the books.
He underscores this point by emphasizing that “it is not expected that the children will grasp everything.”

Viewed correctly, this should take a huge burden from the shoulders of the Charlotte Mason teacher. We should not expect children to grasp (or remember!) everything; we should expect something else, and if we understand the philosophy behind the educational methods we are following, we know what that is. Children are born persons. Education is the science of relations. We’re going to give children every opportunity to form relationships with a wide variety of knowledge. We’re going to ask them to narrate and tell us about the things they read and hear. And then, we’re going to get out of the way and let them go about the business of apprehending that 10% that is going to become a permanent possession for them.

Looking back on my own school days, I cannot remember one thing that I learned in second grade—not one. I do remember that on some days, I was allowed to leave the classroom and be a “helper” in the kindergarten room. That responsibility—I felt so important—I do remember. I don’t remember a single thing I learned in fifth grade, either, but I remember that my teacher read The Hobbit aloud to us, and I loved the story, so I borrowed the book from the library to read for myself…faster. My snippets represent less than 10% of what my teachers must have tried to teach me. Presumably I learned enough to move on the next grade. But the bits that are a possession to me, many decades later, are the things that “warmed my imagination” and caught my heart.

It will be the same for your children. Read the books together. Narrate to each other (it’s a relationship building activity). Take joy in the 10% that your child pockets as a personal treasure, and be willing to accept that the other 90% isn’t what he needed right now. When your child doesn’t remember, the right response is not to go back and retrace the same ground. Instead, go forward, so that your child can find new ideas—the ones that will enrich his soul and sustain his inner life.