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!

Published by willorrewing

I run Keystone Tutors, and a summer nature + creativity camp called The Imaginarium.

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