Process over Product
If you’re familiar with some of the main points of a Charlotte Mason education, then you’ve probably heard or read a little about narration. Narration is the act of telling or retelling what is seen, heard and understood as it relates to the interaction with a lesson, a literary work, an art piece, a song, the natural world and more.
Narrating also notably underscores Ms. Mason’s belief that “Children are born persons” (V6). This belief is important, because it recognizes that children exist as individual human beings, with their own personal thoughts and feelings –a mind of their own. We know this as well from Mason’s sixth volume in her Home Education series where she writes: “If we have not proved that a child is born a person with a mind as complete and as beautiful as his beautiful little body, we can at least show that he always has all the mind he requires for his occasions; that is, that his mind is the instrument of his education and that his education does not produce his mind.” (36).
Narrating is a natural extension of this belief because it allows children to be their own person as they share what they know and how they know it. It is the most reasonable way for children to demonstrate that what they have taken in from the physical world has connected to their inner spiritual and intellectual world and the given narrations are a true reflection of those connections. It sounds so simple, but yet it is so extraordinary.
Laurie Bestvater, author of The Living Page, relays through her book the message that Mason’s expectations for students to narrate and keep notebooks is partly hinged on the this main principle. Children are born persons and the most natural way for them to organize and share their connections with the world are through narrations and through their creations on “the living page”.
If we actually believe this principle and respect it, then we cannot fail to see how equally important it is as the teacher to allow this process to unfold without placing our own limitations and hindrances upon it. It is too easy to fixate on what I call the “finished product” rather than focusing on all that is involved in creating it. Bestvater shares this view when she writes: “Moreover, these various notebooks are means by which we teachers unwittingly learn the humility and art of respecting the children, of paying attention to each individual’s learning process” (64).
She continues with “The main principle, the hard one to keep in view in our end-gaining society, is that Charlotte Mason’s various paper activities are essentially instruments as opposed to artifacts; for process, more than product” (Bestvater 64). This modern world of ours tends to hyper focus on what can be held up as proof of a process that is hard to quantify. As teachers and parents, it is especially difficult to avoid the temptation to portray the learning process as something that is tangible. We want to share the beauty of this process, since often we are the only ones who can really see it. These amazing young hearts in front of us are growing and learning and it’s so beautiful that we feel compelled to share this.
However, we must be careful to moderate our desire to partake in our children’s creations and claim too much for ourselves. In this social media driven age, it is all too easy to want to requisition this and share it with the world. It’s proof that our children are learning and that this learning process is beautiful. But, this should be handled delicately; otherwise it is too easy to move down a slippery slope of choosing the appearance of learning over the reality of learning.
Charlotte Mason wished for students to narrate, because it first asks children to notice and absorb something from their world and then gives them the freedom and respect to ask them what this was. Adults stand before them as ones who guide, set structure and provide wisdom. Children are then free to explore their world, but learning occurs because they fit this within the wise adult structure given to them.
Narration was such a key component to upholding and promoting the principle that children are their own persons that Ms. Mason attached this process to many different aspects of her curriculum. This, in turn, led to the keeping of many different types of notebooks. Children keep notebooks and charts for nature study, history, literature, science and language. These notebooks and charts include nature notebooks, notebooks for copywork, commonplace books, century charts and the Book of Centuries. This doesn’t even account for the individual narrations given for other subjects such as art appreciation, geography, citizenship and music appreciation.
These “living pages” and “living notebooks” give children the opportunity to share their interactions of new knowledge with their own personal connection to it in a way that is wholly and uniquely their own. No two narrations or notebooks are exactly alike. This is why we must support the process and not the product! Each product is inherently going to be different and there is no set “look” for this end result. It’s the process that is set in motion by children as they narrate and keep their notebooks that is to be emphasized.
Bestvater’s The Living Page supports this idea as well. She writes: “The various paper activities proceed from Mason’s philosophy that children are persons; the notebooks are tools for supporting the learning process of persons rather than products in and of themselves. Although some do eventually become keepsakes and the children should have guidelines and habitually do the best work they are able to do, our goal is not beautiful notebooks. The emphasis is not on the product but the formative process” (63). Children still need direction when giving narrations, but teachers need to set up the structure and then step back and allow the students to fit their own connections within it.
Maintaining a good balance between these two needs is especially tricky with young children, since they need more scaffolding, but yet also need to enjoy the process of narrating as well. This can be easier than it seems. Don’t get overly caught up in following a structure strictly, but instead follow your instincts as they arise for each child and each situation. Flexibility is really important, but be sure that as the teacher you are prepared for the learning process which will take place each day. This gives you the confidence to maintain that structure and the foresight to know when to bend a little. Ultimately, knowing your educational principles is so important in knowing when to give and when to ask.
The Living Page focuses on how the acts of narrating and keeping notebooks play their role in implementing a Charlotte Mason education. These activities uphold Mason’s desire for children to be respected as individuals who interact with the world and whose connections created from that interaction are all their own. The liberty that we give children to do this and the respect we give this process is our gift to them. The beautiful minds that are developed because of this will later give back to us-and to the world.