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    Educational Philosophy, Home Education

    The Habit of Thinking

    April 25, 2017 by Brandy Vencel

    This is the sort of thing that the children should go through, more or less, in every lesson — a tracing of effect from cause, or of cause from effect; a comparing of things to find out wherein they are alike, and wherein they differ; a conclusion as to causes or consequences from certain premisses.
    -Charlotte Mason (Vol. 1, p. 151)

    I ‘ve been pondering this thought of Charlotte Mason’s, that children should have what she calls the Habit of Thinking, and that our lessons should encourage it. I think this jumped out at me in a recent re-reading of Home Education for a couple reasons. First, I read it shortly after recording a podcast episode with Karen Glass (and Mystie, of course) in which she said something about not allowing narration to just become this thing we do always in the same way.

    Do we remember that the habit of thinking is under our care, and that we have not only the right, but the responsibility to initiate and enforce it?

    Goodness, isn’t it so easy for that to happen? Especially when you’re listening to 13-16 narrations per day (that’s my average for this week) or more?

    It also caught my attention because, in Charlotte Mason Boot Camp, we spent a day on the general outline of a narration-based lesson:

    1. “The teacher should talk a little (and get the children to talk) about the last lesson, with a few words about what is to be read, in order that the children may be animated by expectation; but she should beware of explanation and, especially, of forestalling the narrative…” (Vol. 1, p. 232-233)
    2. “[S]he may read two or three pages, enough to include an episode…” — but also “As soon as children are able to read with ease and fluency, they read their own lesson, either aloud or silently…” (Vol. 1, p. 233)
    3. “[L]et her call upon the children to narrate, — in turns, if there be several of them.” (Vol. 1, p. 233)
    4. “[W]hen the narration is over, there should be a little talk in which moral points are brought out, pictures shown to illustrate the lesson, or diagrams drawn on the blackboard.” (Vol. 1, p. 233)

    I was re-reading a bit in Volume 6 as well, and I think it gives us more to consider in regard to step four:

    [I]f it is desirable to ask questions in order to emphasize certain points, these should be asked after and not before, or during, the act of narration.

    Vol. 6, p. 17

    Also this, from Volume 3:

    The teacher’s part is, in the first place, to see what is to be done, to look over the work of the day in advance and see what mental discipline, as well as what vital knowledge, this and that lesson afford; and then to set such questions and such tasks as shall give full scope to his pupils’ mental activity.

    Vol. 3, p. 180-181

    It’s that fourth step that we forget, isn’t it? In the bustle to get it all done, we let it go. The child is ready to run off to the next thing, and, frankly, there are now people standing in line for help with other lessons.

    It happens.

    And yet … what if the very act of treating narration as the end — rather than one of the middle steps — of the lesson leads us to a habit of thoughtlessness? Of rushing the end?

    Are we dispensing with the thinking?

    There is a critical moment at the end of narration when we could secure that habit of thinking that Miss Mason is seeking — when we set them to a simple task, or ask one perfect question, that might make all the difference.

    Are we missing it?

    Do we have to ask a question after every single reading? I don’t think so. Some readings have a natural task that follows that already encourages a bit of extra thought — an entry in one of their notebooks, for example.

    It’s true, thought, that we Charlotte Mason mamas have a mortal fear of talking too much. Charlotte Mason warned us that nothing creates incuria like the talky-talky of the teacher and so we remain tight lipped. We take this to such an extreme that we think we must remain literally silent. And yet, we see here that the teacher has a job to do — while “all education is self-education,” we do not take this to mean that teachers are dispensable.

    We know we need to set a schedule. We know we need to assign appropriate amounts of work. We know we need to receive the narration. But do we know — do we remember — that the habit of thinking is under our care, and that we have not only the right, but the responsibility to initiate and enforce it?

    I realized recently that I had slipped into some bad habits. I was letting a desire for efficiency crowd out this habit of thinking. It’s so easy to do, you know. It starts on a day when we’re crunched for time, or when we’re sick. And then we think that it’s okay, because the child narrated. But suddenly we find ourselves wondering when was the last time we had a good discussion with a certain child who seems to be falling through the cracks.

    How does this happen? How does this child always manage to narrate at the worst possible time, when we cannot possibly follow it with conversation? Or how does he seem to slip away at the end, before we even realize he has gone?

    A homeschooling mother has to continually repent, doesn’t she?

    Over the past month or two, I’ve begun to make some deliberate efforts. It’s easy to ask a good question or two during Circle Time — I have them all captive, and there is no line of people demanding assistance. But in addition to Circle Time, it’s become my goal to ask one good question per day of each child (bonus if the child asks a good question himself instead).

    This has been going quite well. It’s funny; I thought there’d be some resistance or annoyance on the part of a couple of my children. Instead, these questions seem to invest the subject with greater interest. (Of course, I’m sure it helps that I’m not belaboring the conversation — it really only adds a handful of minutes.)

    What about you? Have you lost the habit of thinking at your house, too? And, if so, how will you recover it?

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  • Reply Homeschooling High School: Organic Writing Instruction | Afterthoughts January 30, 2018 at 4:21 pm

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  • Reply Leslie July 19, 2017 at 10:15 pm

    Such a thoughtful, helpful, well-written post, Brandy, thank you!!! And I, too, have been pondering this very topic for some time!
    I’m curious… how can this idea of asking a question be incorporated into the independent reading + written narrations of older students…. For me personally, it would work best logistically in our homeschool to include the question with the reading assignment ahead of time to that student who works independently, but Charlotte said that “these should be asked after and not before, or during, the act of narration”…So, I’m a little perplexed in how to work this in….Any thoughts/experience of using this wonderful principle into real life with high-schoolers?…;-)
    Also, how do you manage hearing all those narrations? Have you used the method of having the child record themselves giving an oral narration with any success?

    • Reply Brandy Vencel July 20, 2017 at 8:13 am

      Ooh! Good question.

      One thing I did this past year was to put little question marks (whenever a good question occurred to me) in the margins of my high schooler’s books when I was pre-reading. Usually, it worked out that that particular book was going to be orally narrated and so he’d narrate and then remind me that there was a question mark somewhere. 95% of the time I could still remember my question. 😉

      When he decided to do a written narration, he still had to come to me to read his written narration aloud and so we’d cover the question then. This worked really well!

      Managing the narration line can be a crazy thing, I know! I wrote about recorded narrations here. I have a rule: your narrations have to be Good or you lose your recording privileges. As long as I stay on top of listening, this works out okay.

      Did you see Michele’s post yesterday? She talked a bit about managing the narration line as well.

  • Reply HC... May 19, 2017 at 7:11 am

    OOOOhhh, this has been constantly niggling at the back of my mind for a good number of months, and I’ve been too afraid to confront it, and it feels like you’ve just done it for me! Thank you.

  • Reply Tiffany May 10, 2017 at 7:05 am

    Thank you! Yes, I will find that.

  • Reply Jeannette April 26, 2017 at 9:06 am

    That would require some serious digging about what Charlotte said about morals and moralizing. I know there must be a distinction to be found. Let me know if you come up with anything!

  • Reply Jeannette April 25, 2017 at 7:31 pm

    This is so timely. I just got back from some CM teacher training and it was so good to be reminded of the content of the lesson. Little talk, read the lesson, narrate, then little talk. My question is how does one bring out the moral in the lesson without the falling into the dreaded trap of moralizing?

    • Reply Brandy Vencel April 26, 2017 at 8:14 am

      I really do think that IS the question! I’m still pondering it. Do you have an answer?

    • Reply Tami April 26, 2017 at 9:53 am

      This question about moralizing came to my mind a couple of weeks ago after doing some reading in Vol 1.
      I am so glad you wrote about this Brandy. I have been pondering how discussion after narration fits with the stop talking and get out of the way quote.

    • Reply Lynette August 21, 2017 at 10:30 pm

      The first thing I thought about was listening to Andrew Kern talk about “should” questions – and I can hear him saying, “For heaven’s sake, don’t moralize them!” I think at least part of the answer is that if you’re trying to get them to see some certain moral that you think they should see, you’re moralizing. That’s much different from asking open-ended questions which allow the child to discern, compare, judge, etc.

  • Reply Hillary April 25, 2017 at 6:39 pm

    I’ve pulled out our narration jar again, to help give us some variety with narrations and ask some of those actually-need-to-think-about-it questions. As the quote from Vol. 3 suggests, when I have pre-read lessons, I can pull narration prompts or notebook assignments that I know will be especially suited for a particular reading.

    Wendi made a helpful comment on the AO Forum recently with illustrations of the sorts of questions that living books cause readers to ask and seek to answer. I found that when I do the pre-reading a little more slowly and with an eye to searching out these questions and topics, they are (of course) right there.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel April 26, 2017 at 8:16 am

      Ah, the narration jar! I think you’re right — the variety there helps the thinking happen. And yes! The prereading helps so much. I used to preread with a paper next to me just for jotting down possible questions. It’s funny … I didn’t use many of them, but the act of raising those kinds of questions was good for ME as well.

    • Reply Tiffany May 9, 2017 at 4:38 am

      Would you mind linking to Wendi’s post on the forum?

      • Reply Hillary May 10, 2017 at 4:57 am

        I’ll tell you how to find it. The thread is called “Families CM works for and families it doesn’t,” and it was active around 4/23/17. Wendi’s post is on page 2 of the thread. I know the Forum is password-entry so not sure how a link would transfer here. You can search for all posts by a Forum user, as well, and it would come up that way.

  • Reply Julie Zilkie April 25, 2017 at 5:51 pm

    I love this, Brandy. Thank you for the gentle exhortation. I never stopped to add up all the narrations I receive per day, but I would say it is about the same as your load, and many times, I am honestly trying to do something else at the same time, thinking that the narration is really just for them, not for me. Thank you for changing that pattern of thought for the better. I stopped today and asked both of my boys a follow up question today, so progress made and a change in the right direction.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel April 26, 2017 at 8:18 am

      Oh, good job, Julie! One thing that has surprised me is how much more I like my day if I bother to put forth that extra effort…I hope it blesses you that way, too! ♥

  • Reply Rosemerry Blash April 25, 2017 at 5:28 pm

    I really enjoyed your post. I was very excited to see the quote from Vol 1 at the beginning of your post. To me it answers the demands of common core or any previous state standards that we see in the typical school setting.

    It is good to know that the Charlotte Mason approach actually will help children to think deeply and more efficiently than a typical education. I have hope for the future.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel April 26, 2017 at 8:23 am

      I think that is a good point! It’s funny — the modern education movements seem so focused on “teaching children to think” that they forget to give them interesting things to think about in the first place. But then again, if they started from the position of children being born persons, they would know that children already know how to think, they just need practice refining their thoughts. 🙂

      • Reply Sarah Jonnalagadda April 28, 2017 at 7:13 am

        Yes yes yes, to everything you said here, Brandy. You summed up the problem with the current education system in two sentences (though, after spending a few years teaching high school, I would add that discipline-not punishment- and habits are also a factor. But perhaps if the content was richer and they weren’t treated like cattle, perhaps their habits wouldn’t be so scary. Don’t have any teens of my own to compare). Anyway…I remember all those posters about “critical thinking” and “how to read” and “standards we met today”…ugh. It made the classroom look smart and official and serious when the parents came for open house. But the kids didn’t care. I doubt they read them. I doubt most of the teachers read them. So much wasted energy we spent coming up with processes and rubrics and nonsense for the thinking process, when we could have been taking those kids to plays, reading out loud with them, going on hikes and just thinking and observing. Oh my…now I’m all riled up. 😉

        • Reply Brandy Vencel April 28, 2017 at 3:59 pm

          Ha! I’m pretty sure I have met you before and I can envision you getting all riled up! 🙂

          • Sarah Jonnalagadda April 30, 2017 at 6:55 am

            ? yes, we met at CM West! I must’ve made an impression ?. Haha!

          • Brandy Vencel May 1, 2017 at 2:46 pm

            What can I say? I enjoyed talking with you. 🙂

  • Reply Lisa April 25, 2017 at 3:36 pm

    Convicted! Drat! 😛
    And I know exactly why narration has become routine in our house – because it’s so EASY (on me) to just say tell me what you read, listen/read and call it good. If I do it this way it means *I* have to think and put in some effort as well.
    But I know it’s worth it, so I will make the effort. Thank you for reminding me that I ought to do it.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel April 26, 2017 at 8:24 am

      He he he…maybe my emails should give conviction warnings when I am preaching to myself? 😉

  • Reply Mama Rachael April 25, 2017 at 10:13 am

    In this house, we are always thinking! I’m a natural deep thinker, Hubby is too, and he is a professional philosopher (for at least 2 more weeks, then we are changing ‘careers’). Little Man, 6 in May, is always thinking about something, though lately, I’m sure, it’s mostly been about how life isn’t fair, or how can he get me to turn on the Ramona audio book or convince me to let him turn the water on outside. Mr Wigglesworth, at 8 months, is always noticing it seems and considering whatever he is noticing (totally different from Little Man at the same age, who never seemed to notice much at all!) I want to turn our thinking more towards the good, true and beautiful, and the beneficial. I think I need to work more on asking good questions, I’m trying, but its not a strength of mine. Thank for the ideas to think on!

    • Reply Brandy Vencel April 26, 2017 at 8:26 am

      You know, when I was first learning to ask good questions, it was helpful to have some formulas to work from. For example, “Does this remind you of anything else?” always gets an interesting answer (Wendi Capehart taught me that question). Charlotte Mason suggested asking what they would do if they were there. Also there is, “Should x have done y?” Where x=a character in the reading and y=something x did.

      Maybe that helps?

      • Reply Mama Rachael April 26, 2017 at 8:31 am

        Thank you! Yes, having a formula is nice. I’ve appreciated Sarah M’s set of questions you can ask about a book even if you’ve never read it. Its helped me ask better questions. I’ll note those down, too, and see how Little Man reacts. He is really good at seeing through my motivations. If I’m genuinely interested, he happily answers. If I’m trying to see what he knows, he shuts down. It’s a bit scary at times!

        • Reply Brandy Vencel April 26, 2017 at 10:27 am

          Ha! I’m sure this is why Miss Mason never asked 5-year-olds to narrate! 🙂

  • Reply Heather April 25, 2017 at 9:54 am

    this is SPLENDID!!! “the habit of thinking is under our care, and that we have not only the right, but the responsibility to initiate and enforce it”

    just this morning I repented to my children about being so busy that grumpiness had crept into our entire home. it’s a real struggle because there are A LOT of us but we not stoppping to think or ENJOY the work, if I’m not stopping to truly listen- all that work is rubble!

    • Reply Brandy Vencel April 26, 2017 at 8:30 am

      Grumpiness is a dark cloud, isn’t it? I’ve had to repent of that a number of times over the years! It’s so easy to let the bustle get to us, isn’t it?

      I love what you said: “If I’m not stopping to truly listen, all the work is rubble!” — SO true!

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