When it comes to the modes of teaching within the classical tradition, there is mimetic and Socratic instruction. However, as I have continued to study classical teaching and writings from those steeped in this tradition -including Charlotte Mason- I have learned that there is another form of instruction that should be named and that is, narration.
When looked at closely, narration is a form of mimetic instruction and in my opinion, is the simplest way a student can hold a mirror up to nature before they even realize what they are doing.
To be clear and to the point, narration is practically, the expression of an experience.
The experience could have been a paragraph or chapter read or listened to from a book, a nature study lesson, or a picture study lesson. The expression is a telling back in one’s own words what they have just experienced. The expression is generally in words spoken or written, but could also be a variety activities or projects like acting out a scene from the book, drawing a picture, and the like.
The birth of narration as a form of instruction are found with Charlotte Mason, a classical educator who lived in Britain in the early 1900’s. Karen Glass, in her book, Consider This, tells us that Charlotte Mason studied the writings of the classical authors from Plato to Comenius to more Modern educational thinkers. Not only does Mrs. Glass say this, but Miss Mason tells us this throughout her 6 volume series on education and teaching. The predominant mode of teaching throughout all these writings is imitation, in one form, or another. It seems that narration, mimesis, and Socratic teaching are all applications of the same classical principle of imitation. It makes perfect sense then that narration closely relates with mimesis and Socratic instruction.
Much can be said about imitation, and I have only a couple thoughts about it at this point in my learning. Imitation is how we as humans hold a mirror up to nature. It is the process of taking something into our soul and then reflecting our version it back to God and to others. Our version may be any artifact we have the skill to create, a poem, painting, speech, a question, or something else.
Charlotte Mason says that education is the science of relations, and I have to say that I love that definition. Karen Glass went into the principle of relationship in her book Consider This and was very helpful for me in understanding it more. The reason I bring it up is because I believe this reality is the main reason we all need to use narration, and all the classical modes of teaching, as much as possible. Throughout Norms & Nobility, David Hicks talks about how the right end of education is right action, aka. Virtue, but how do you get there? It wasn’t until I understood education as the science of relations that I had an answer. It is through building right relationships with all things that we are led to right action on their behalf. The relationship precedes the virtue.
The classical modes of teaching in their very nature are the tools that lead the student in developing these necessary relationships.
Narration requires that a child take some information, story, or experience into their soul and then wrestle with it until they can name and express it, in their own words. Because of this it can also be said that narration provides evidence that a child has apprehended something of what was presented to them. A successful narration demonstrates the child has made the material their own, they have begun a right relationship with it.
So what are the stages of a narration?
The particular application and naming of them varies from person to person, but as I have studied a variety of approaches, there are always certain steps present. While they are not always called this and many times they are not always named, when people talk about narration you can definitely notice the following:
This stage of narration is very much like the invitation stage of the mimetic sequence. The length and depth will vary depending on what you are presenting to the child. The goal is to awaken them and invite them to attend to what you will present. It could be as simple as orienting them to where you are in the book. You could ask them to tell you everything they remember from the last reading. You could present certain words they may need to be aware or listening for or other contextual information that is needed. Let’s say you are about to do a lesson about a certain kind of bird; you could ask them to tell you what they know about birds. You could ask what do they remember about the last time they saw a bird in the backyard or if there was a particular experience with birds you could ask them to recall it. At some point, you will transition from this invitation stage to the presentation.
Just like in the Mimetic sequence there is also a presentation stage. The way it differs here is that rather than the teacher presenting three or more types of a single logos, the teacher presents the single reading, nature study lesson, picture study lesson, etc. that contains potentially many logoi. At the end of the presentation the teacher transitions to the expression stage.
The expression stage of narration is the equivalent of the comparison, explanation, and application stage combined into one. During this stage, you ask questions. The mot basic narration question is “Tell me back, in your own words, what we just read/experienced.”
Some other common ways to ask this question are:
What did I read
Tel me the story back in you words
Tell me what happened in order.
Tell me all you remember
Tell me what you understood
Here are a few more appropriate narration questions.
Tell me four/five things you learned from this page/chapter
What do you think about ___________?
Why did _______?
How is this (page/chapter/story/character/action) like _____ (another page/chapter/story/character/action)?
How is this (page/chapter/story/character/action) different than _____ (another page/chapter/story/character/action)?
Was _______ (quote or idea from experience) right? Why?
Should ________ (actor) have __________ (action actor took)? Why?
Describe _______ (character/setting)?
This is also the time where inconsistencies in the student’s thinking will be revealed, and a teacher would need to seek to direct the student’s thinking back to the truth. That situation is where the teacher would implement Socratic instruction. You can read more about that here. In order to answer these questions a student has to accept the invitation, be attentive to the presentation, compare, apprehend, and express. For narration, the act and process of doing this is the application stage.
Of course, other activities can be assigned depending on the goal and structure of the lesson or your narration session may develop into a lively discussion. Both are great extensions of a narration. That would be up to the teacher and not necessary for a completed narration.
In closing, relationships are truly at the heart of narrations, and any effort we can give in pursuit of using this teaching method will be well worth it.
What has been you experience with narration? What have you been contemplating lately about building relationships and virtue formation? Join the conversation in the comments section.
Expanding wisdom, extending grace,
A few more articles about Narration…
31 Days of Charlotte Mason: Narration by Karen Glass
Narration and the Single Reading by Brandy Vencel
Beginning Narration with Younger Children by Simply Charlotte Mason
5 Steps to a Successful Narration A Free E-Book by Simply Charlotte Mason