Narration – it’s time to bring back this simple, low-stakes, scalable assessment method

What is Narration?

Narration is a key feature of the Charlotte Mason Method. Mason was an English educator and reformer who set up a network of schools that hoped to provide a “liberal education for all.” Although her dream was forestalled after the death, her story is a fascinating and uplifting one – and there remains much that can be learnt from her. Her writings continue to inspire some of the most interesting schools in the UK and US, not to mention many millions of homeschool families around the world. 

How does Narration work?

In its basic form, narration is “retelling in your own words”. It is akin to a trick that many teachers already use (perhaps put to its most extreme use in Joseph Lancester’s Monitorial System) of having children explain things to each other. In this sense, it is also collaborative.

In sequence, the instructions to a teacher would run like this:

  1. Read a portion of a book to the class; or, if they are able to, have the class read it silently to themselves.
  1. Ask a child, or several in turn, to tell you all she can recall about what was just heard or read.

Some important extra explanatory points:

  • The retelling can be oral or written. Teachers often start with oral narrations for younger year groups and move increasingly to written narrations as children grow older.
  • The books that are read have to be judiciously chosen. This is the hardest part of the method. Textbooks, lacking vitality, rarely work. The best books are those that connect with a child’s curiosity and whose narrative verve make the ideas easier to remember. They have mostly been written for a wide audience, not specifically for children (see below for an example).
  • In order to reinforce the habit of attention, teachers must try only to read the portion once.
  • Try to keep interruptions – by the class themselves but also by the teacher – to a minimum; they can quickly dampen a narration.
  • Teachers should discourage pupils from simply repeating the words you just read. As Mason wrote, “narrations which are mere feats of memory are quite valueless.”
  • Instead, pupils should aim for originality. Teachers should encourage their pupils to narrate in their own words, inserting their opinion and any mental connections they might have made.
  • Never foreseen by Mason were the advantages opened up by digital collection and the low cost of storage. Pupils can now record individual narrations in audio / video on their own devices and upload them to the school VLE. Thus would be created a beautiful treasure house of knowledge over many years of schooling that could be revisited for instruction or delight.
  • This storehouse could then form the basis of assessment, as students showcase the knowledge they have accrued in the months and years previous.
  • In this way, the method is low-stakes and can be used to replace high-stakes one-off exams in at least a number of subjects. Students would be able to add this ‘knowledge showcase’ to other learning passports or skills profiles called for in innovations like the Mastery Transcript Consortium.
  • If schools wanted more formal exams to supplement this approach, they could do written or oral viva voce exams on what has been covered, e.g. “tell all you know about volcanoes.” Here is a description of the assessments Mason sat her pupils, “upon which all these subjects the children wrote as freely and fully as if they were writing to an absent sister about a new family of kittens!”

If the uses of the method look at all narrow, check out the many and various ways it is currently used by the Charlotte Mason homeschooling community.

Why is the method needed?

Notwithstanding other important benefits of the method, such as the way it strengthens children’s powers of attention, narration’s power comes in the important critique it makes of the learning of knowledge. It suggests, in Mason’s words, that “knowledge is not assimilated until it is reproduced”. In the degraded and deeply dreary educational debate about knowledge vs skills, this simple truth often evades us. We think a child knows something if he can answer a comprehension question on a topic he has been taught. We forget that such knowledge is often fragmented and patchy, and that much work still remains to be done before the patches can be assembled to make the quilt.

Let us see the distinction in real terms through a short thought experiment – how should we teach a primary class about volcanoes?  

A project-based or student-led teacher might suggest that the children make their own volcano based on watching a video like this one. A more knowledge-rich or teacher-led approach might look very like this deliberate practice lesson shown by ARK. The teacher starts with the knowledge she wants her class to know, and then explicitly teaches a lot of vocabulary (crust; mantle; tectonic plate; pyroclastic flow etc); names and dates of case studies; backed up with loads of quizzing and fill-in-the-blanks comprehension. The former runs the risks of project work identified by Tom Bennett and Daniel Willingham in that, without a lot of care from teachers, students are likely to spend more time thinking about papier-mache than about volcanoes. The latter, however, which is arguably more in the ascendancy these days, runs the risk of being too fragmentary. In the teacher’s words, it is avowedly “bite-sized” and does little to present knowledge of volcanoes with the sort of narrative avidity that connects with a child’s curiosity. As is clear from the recording, the lessons shown in the video encourage in primary age children a certain priggish desire to get the answer right but little vitalising interest in volcanoes themselves.

The Narration method would instead start by prioritises the choice of book, perhaps Volcano: The Eruption and Healing of Mount St. Helens by Patricia Lauber (link here) or even this older one, which starts,

WHAT is a volcano, and by what is it caused ?

As most persons of ordinary education have

a general idea of the meaning of the term, we may

be aided in any attempt to answer the latter clause

of the question, if we gradually work up to our

definition by describing in some detail the physical

features and the phenomena which are generally as-

sociated with the word volcanic.

Let us transport ourselves in imagination to a

period rather more than eighteen centuries ago — the

year, for instance, of the destruction of Jerusalem —

and to the Bay of Naples. Let us view the scene

from the deck of a vessel which is too far away from

land for us to distinguish whether the buildings be

classic or mediaeval or modern. Villas seem mere

specks, villages and towns only pale blurs and streaks

on the hillslope or by the waterside. The larger of

these occupy positions much the same as they still

do. To the left hand of the longest and most im-

portant mass of buildings the hills seem to present

the familiar outlines. To the right a mountain rises,

as it still does, but this looks very different from the

modern Vesuvius.

As per our method, children would read two or three pages of this much more vivid work and be encouraged to reproduce it in their own words. In this way, they “make it a part of them” and make it secure. Not only is it more secure but surely it fixes more of an interest in, more of a relationship with, the world of volcanoes and, by extension, the world more broadly. Mason often uses the metaphor of food: children partake of knowledge; chew it over; digest it; assimilate it. Let us make sure that we are providing them with a feast!

Recent pieces: woke private schools; elite schools; flipped classrooms

I have had three pieces published recently.

  1. On woke private schools for The Critic: In Praise of Post-Liberalism.
  2. On elite schools: a study of the schools of those in Who’s Who on the Keystone blog.
  3. On flipped classrooms for the Eton journal for research in education: It’s time to rescue the flipped classroom.

Scoop – back to school edition

My termly newsletter,

We have all been besieged by articles on ‘how x will change post COVID-19’. I am yet to read anything really convincing on what will change in education: teaching; curriculums; exams; schooling in general: I’m not saying they shouldn’t change but I’ve seen little to convince me that they will. 

Keystone Scholarship

We successfully ran our first Keystone University Programme, helping bright children from under-resourced backgrounds apply to some of the UK’s top universities. One participating student wrote,

“I just want to say a big thank you to you and the rest of the team for the abundance of support, time and dedication in making the course intriguing, beneficial and educational, but also the time that has been spent simply on calls with me trying to help me make the best decision for myself! I really do appreciate the time you all have taken out of your busy schedule to help me.”

Having a team of full-time tutors allows us to pursue and commit to such projects, as well as support others. We were delighted to partner with Godolphin & Latymer’s Bridge Programme over the summer too.


Over the next few weeks, we have webinars on,

Please do push through that Zoom fatigue and come; and please feel free to pass on to anyone who would find them interesting.

We’re attracting good audience numbers, and are really keen to do more – so please let me know if you’d be interested in being involved in further events and we’ll do our best.

Homeschooling / Learning Pods

Are these an indication of innovations to come?

The New York Times and BBC reported on the phenomenon in the US of families setting up their own small schools with their neighbours, bringing in their own tutors and teachers. 

Our own homeschooling is growing, and we are offering our own version of the Pod service; it will be interesting to see what uptake is like.

Some pieces in the Critic

I took advantage of having a bit more time in lockdown (and the fact that the Critic is a new magazine on the lookout for new writers) to try to crystallize some inchoate thinking on the direction of independent sector today. They provoked a good response: mostly favourable but some trenchantly hostile! Do shout if you want to discuss any of them further,

If you want to read really good writing on education, David James, newly appointed Deputy Head of LEH, wrote some blistering pieces in the Critic here.

Career Education

I’ve been reading more about education & employability skills since a webinar we ran on the subject over the summer. I remain skeptical as to what employment has to say to the -18 curriculum for most schools, though David Goodhart’s recent book and Gavin Williamson’s rejection of Blair’s 50% university target does herald some fresh thinking on the subject of vocational education. 

My #1 source for all things graduate recruitment, James Darley, provides this update: 25% of Graduate Employers (ISE, June 2020) say they will be reducing their intakes in 2021. Let me know if an introduction to him would help with your work.

More broadly, with respect to the nexus of higher education and career support, it is hard not to conclude that HE faces headwinds on almost all fronts. I thought this news that Google is getting into the degree certification game was fascinating, but spells more trouble ahead for a beleaguered sector. 

David Attenborough in your classroom – first come first served opportunity!

I have been closely following, and in a very small way assisting with, the development of a new educational service for families called Itza. Here is an opportunity to get involved in their initial launch. Says the Founder,

“We’re about to launch Get Set, which includes a fun online quiz for schools – the GET SET GLOBAL CHALLENGE – which teaches children about sustainability and how to preserve the natural world.  Students prepare independently online by using footage from the new David Attenborough movie A LIFE ON OUR PLANET which is in cinemas next week and then comes out on Netflix next month.

We’re selecting 100 schools from around the world for this test and plan to have only 40 schools from the UK.   School registration is now OPEN and it’s first come, first served:

Materials are released to children in November and the final quiz will be on Friday December 4th and can be staged in the classroom as a live event or completed by students in their own time later that day.”  

Please do let me know any feedback.

Did you know?

Biden/Harris is the first Democratic ticket without an Ivy League degree since 1984.

(Biden was at the University of Delaware and Syracuse; Harris at Howard University and UC Hastings College of the Law.)

Educational Dispatches

  • Wild Research has a new report out on Exporting Educational Excellence featuring articles from many of the leading figures who have opened UK schools overseas.
  • I much enjoyed Harry Mount praising of ‘useless knowledge’ in the Spectator: how to avoid ‘the sort of mess you end up in if you’re constantly adapting your child’s education to a constantly changing world.’ (And this was a good, rare paean for Year 12!)
  • I find Daniel Markovits’ critique of meritocracy so compelling (he’s not the only one at it: David Goodhart and Michael Sandel’s recent books make similar points). Here is he talking about competitive schooling in the age of human capital. 
  • Ashbourne College is offering 100% bursaries for talented students in Music, Drama and English Literature. Very generous of them, and what a civilized choice of subjects. 
  • It was sad to see the passing of two titans of UK education, from somewhat opposite ends of the spectrum (although, in many ways, not as much as you’d think), Sir Eric Anderson and Sir Ken Robinson
  • Oh and it seems ages ago now but this was the best piece I read on The Mutant Algorithm. But will lessons be learned for next year? Hmmm.

Transforming the Elite

Rather than fear the return of the spectre of public benefit, the aim of the sector should be that when the subject is raised, it is laughed at by all but the most militant vandals – no one but a fool could see what a service they and their products are doing. These schools and their alumni are interwoven with this country’s history. It is time that they take up the mantle and interweave themselves with its future.

Read the rest of the piece at The Critic here.

The National Tutoring Programme

Last week the government announced a new £1bn package for schools. £350 million will pay for the establishment of a National Tutoring Programme, which will give schools access to subsidised tutoring sessions. The rest will be spent whichever way headteachers best believe will catch their pupils up on education missed during the pandemic and might itself be put towards further tutoring.

Read the rest of the piece at The Critic here.

We should celebrate, not mourn, the cancellation of exams

“Surely now is the golden opportunity for schools, untrammelled by all that gruesome nomenclature of ‘exam specification’, ‘assessment objective’, ‘rubrics’ and so on, to set their pupils’ ‘love of learning’ truly ablaze.”

Full piece published on Medium here.

Private Education & Public Benefit

Institutions inextricably bound up with their localities. National treasures with long histories of public service. Sites of collective memory and ritual, loyalty and love. What’s a communitarian not to love about private schools?

Regrettably all too much.

Read the full piece at The Critic.

Scoop – COVID edition

Below is my termly newsletter,

Online teaching and learning webinar

We have been teaching online for 10+ years and stand ready to help any educators who are doing it for the first time. We shall be putting on a webinar, hosted by me and our Director of Education Ed Richardson, on Friday 24th April at 3pm to answer any questions you or colleagues might have about online teaching. Click here to register

Ed has put together this acrostic summarising 10 tips for teaching online and this infographic with suggested ground rules for students. Please feel free to use them if helpful.

GCSEs and A levels 2020

We are trying to keep an FAQ on the changing picture, to the best of our knowledge, here. I hope it’s helpful; do get in touch if you spot any errors or want to discuss any implications.

Small group classes (free for children of key workers)

Branching out from 1-on-1 classes, we have been running live small group lessons to children aged 7-16. These have been priced at a considerable reduction of our usual rate, and free for children of key workers, so as to help the widest number of families. Do pass on to any friends or colleagues stuck at home with the children who might be interested. More details here

Keystone University Scholarship Programme – going ahead 

In my last Scoop, I mentioned that we are offering 12 fully-funded scholarships on our Top University preparation programme. Details here. As above, we have fully tested our online teaching capacity and so will be delivering this online if we are still in lockdown in the summer. Please do continue to forward on to anyone who might be able to put the opportunity in front of the right candidates.

Tutor News

Our English tutor Imogen is having her debut novel The High Notes, about a young singer struggling to make it in London, published by Bloomsbury after a 4-way auction. Well done her.

Other educational dispatches

  • EdTech. Covid has led to much discussion of the future of education. I have found Ben Williamson’s research especially on point: he shows that the big technology companies are already using the crisis to disrupt the school and university sectors perpetually in their favour. I have also been really benefiting from Daisy Christodoulou’s newly published book Teachers vs Tech. This blog, on why remote learning hasn’t worked in the past, and this interview with Craig Barton, are especially good.
  • I had long suspected that the Sugata Mitra’s research on the ‘hole in the wall school’ looked like wishful thinking, even to a Romantic like me. These articles demolished any lingering doubt.
  • My colleague, Harriet, drew this beautiful Easter picture puzzle about London private schools. How many can you get? 
  • The amazing story of a wonderful school I’ve visited in New York that is ‘more English than the English’ and the plot to oust its much-loved headmaster.