Over the next several weeks I want to write blogs on narration. Narration is supposedly that simple little pedagogical tool that Mason used and that she called the act of knowing. Some educators wonder what all the fuss is about. Narration simply cannot do what she claimed. I hope to convince otherwise through these blogs.
I intend to start this series by looking into the past a bit in hopes that this will give us some grounding into why narration is important. There are many reasons and this blog will show a few of those reasons. To look back I begin with an article written by G. F. Husband in the Parents Review in 1924 soon after the death of Mason (1923).
In this article Husband (1924) begins his discussion of narration by bringing the reader’s attention to a comment made by one of “His Majesty’s Inspectors of Schools” who said, “The art of questioning is the whole art of teaching and if you persist with Narration methods your teachers will lose the ability to question. You must question to make the children think.” For those of us who are working (or have in the past) in many public and private schools (this has also happened in home-based education venues) there is much pushing of teachers to understand how to ask questions. Not much has changed since Mason’s time. Of course now the big push is to ask questions on the various levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy. But, as you will see later there are times when questioning can have a negative effect. If educators, whether school-based or home-based, use living books with living ideas the need for this kind of questioning diminishes. Many nonMason educators cannot truly conceive of how this can be true. But, I believe Mason (1925, 1954) is correct, given the proper food (living books with living ideas) the human mind does what it is suppose to do (p. xxix). In many educational venues today children are hurried from one cramming session to another without the time to process their learning and thus cannot ask the deeper questions they need to ask. I wrote about this in the blog on the Sabbath of Learning. It isn’t because the children are somehow deficient, but the educational system they are rushed through is the problem.
Apparently in England during Husband’s time, based on what he says in this article, elementary schools were doubling their efforts to teach children to think. They were trying to accomplish this task mainly by oral questions. He says, “Teachers pulse with joy when they find a nice sequence of facts for their scholars to negotiate. I recently witnessed a particularly vigorous display of rapid questioning. Each scholar was on tenterhooks, alert for the moment when the volley of questions might be directed at him. The questioner enjoyed himself and felt his power. With a glance in my direction–the glance was a challenge to narration–he said: ‘That’s stirred them up a bit: that’s made them think!’” (p. 611). Husband goes on to ask the question, “But had it made them think?” (p. 611). He then proceeds to answer his own question. He says, “It is quite easy, after a little practice, to question children along a line of thought or through a chain of reasoning and to get them to utter thoughts in expressly the phrases required: but the real thinking is done by the questioner. The questions that are of value are informative, they focus attention on a succession of details one by one. When the questions are recapitulatory they are merely mental jabs” (p. 611). And, he argues, when the child does not give forth the anticipated answer the teacher is expecting, the child is considered to be unintelligent. He gives an example from his own experience. During World War I, he, Husband, attends school in the army. He is quite startled by being dominated by a teacher in a classroom again. It reminds him of the years he taught and thought he should dominate the classroom. From the army experience he remembers clearly one teacher. He says,
He was extremely fond of questioning (dare I add that in civil life
he was an elementary school teacher?). Many of his questions
were very bewildering and when answers did not come readily
he waxed sarcastic about our mental attainments. Sometimes
the diatribe was delivered with an air of cold, calm, despair;
frequently, with rising choler. He generally concluded: “. . .and
now you can’t answer that? Why! it’s as plain as a pikestaff!”
Of course the answer was as plain as a pikestaff to him,
because he had read it the night before in his book.
We were very uncomfortable for the first few days of the
course of instruction, but learned eventually to shut our minds to
the expostulations and await his answer to the question.
(Husband, 1924, p. 611)
In schools today many teachers would never be sarcastic or demeaning especially in elementary schools. But even in a less threatening environment questioning can be meaningless for children, because, as Mason (1925, 1954) so aptly says, their questions must be their own questions (p. 16). The mind seeks to answer questions put to the mind by itself — not by other people (p. 16). Frequently in classrooms when teachers ask the questions what can really get promoted is 1) whose hand can go up the quickest to be first, 2) the same children want to answer the questions, 3) children who want to please (and most do) try to answer to please the teacher not because they truly want an answer to the question. There are many reasons why children try to answer the teacher’s questions and frequently, their own desire to know the answer isn’t one of them.
When reading Husband’s description of his class in the army, one clearly sees Richard Allington’s (1994) point of the questioning strategies used in schools. Frequently teachers are looking for “known-answer questions” (p. 23) that we use to “interrogate” (p. 23) children. Husband is making the point that the teacher’s questioning does not cause him (Husband) to think. It merely causes him to try to find the line of thinking the teacher is doing and match his thinking with the teacher’s so that the answer the teacher is looking for could be given. In this environment children are not analyzing information and transforming it internally to make it theirs; they are merely trying to find an answer that the teacher wants to hear. Husband explained that the significance of narration is not just the volume of information (although it does provide a means for a large volume of information to be learned) that can be remembered but the fact that through narration the information is transformed internally by the child and becomes knowledge. When this occurs the children own the new knowledge and, he says because of this ownership, “It is a fact worthy of very careful note that children trained in these methods pick up immediately the threads of their work after quite long absences from school” (p. 615).
Husband (1924) gave several examples of how narration can be done by impromptu drama. In the following example one can see how Mason’s belief that attention and reflection fit together like a hand in a glove. Husband’s example gives some insight into the automaticity of reflection through narration. He said,
A senior class had listened to a reading of that portion of
Plutarch’s “Life of Aristides” dealing with the quarrel between the
Athenians and the Spartans respecting the honour of victory
over the Persians. The whole class resolved itself into a Council.
A heated impromptu dialogue was carried on between Leocrates
and Myronides, Aristides intervened, and then Theogition,
Cleocritus, Aristides, Pausanias addressed the council. Finally
resolutions were passed respecting the cost and form of the
memorial. (Husband, 1924, p. 615)
In order for these young adults to assume the role of a character upon one reading required a tremendous ability to concentrate, absorb the information, consider its value and significance, organize sequentially, and take a position of agreement with a character in the story. This requires the children to transform the information in their minds. Husband (1924) said that children, “condense, classify, generalise, infer, judge, visualise, discriminate, labour with their minds in one way or another” (p. 616). This was Mason’s and Husband’s point about questioning children to make them think. Given the proper content (living books with living ideas) Mason believed that the child’s mind does its function naturally and its function is to think. Questioning on the part of the teacher causes the teacher to think. Questioning from without does not necessarily enable children to think. Husband makes it clear in his article that questioning from without is not totally obliterated from the classroom. There are times of its proper use.
In the next blog I will pursue some thoughts on narration by Elsie Kitching and Eleanor Frost. These educationalists from the past have interesting comments to add to this discussion. Even though they are from the past, what they add to this conversation 100 years later is still worth hearing.
Allington, R. L. (1994). The schools we have. The schools we need. The Reading Teacher 48 (1), 14-29.
Husband, G. F. (1924). Some notes on narration. Parents’ Review, 35(9), 610-617.
Mason, C. M. (1925, 1954). An essay towards a philosophy of education: A liberal education for all. London: J.M. Dent & Sons, LTD.
© 2013 Carroll Smith