What Do You Know?: Thinking about Thinking

“The mind can know nothing except what it can express in the form of an answer to a question put by the mind to itself.”

— Charlotte Mason

Let’s begin with a thought experiment.

Think about some topic that you know, and I mean really know — something that you could speak on, extemporaneously, without any notes, without any trouble, with total confidence, and with almost perfect accuracy, for a sustained period of time. 

Have something in mind? 

Now, ask yourself this: how did you come know that, and as well as you do?

Think about the process by which you came to possess such knowledge. It’s most likely the case that someone introduced the topic to you — a parent, teacher, friend, etc. And that introduction could have taken many forms. When it comes to the practical arts, it usually takes the form of an apprenticeship. Maybe you know about small engines because you watched your grandfather restore classic cars. Maybe you know the fundamentals of economics because your parents owned a small business. But if the topic you’ve mastered falls under the broad intellectual category that goes by the traditional term “Letters” (History, Literature, Philosophy, Theology, Classical Languages), you almost certainly acquired that knowledge, after an initial introduction, through reading

In Mind to Mind: An Essay Towards a Philosophy of Education, Charlotte Mason defines this phenomenon as “the act of knowledge.” Mason describes the mind as a spiritual organism, requiring proper, daily, healthy intellectual nourishment in just the same way the body requires a steady diet of good food to maintain its vitality. It’s more than mere “mastery”, which can often be limited to focusing on the acquisition of knowledge in order to apply some skill. Rather, Mason argues that the aim of education is the enrichment of existence, a kind of expanding of our humanity, an expansion that happens primarily, though not exclusively, through the reading of good books. 

A simple illustration of the “act of knowledge” can be seen when a child becomes enamored with dinosaurs. Shortly after having been introduced to dinosaurs, he’ll devour every book he can get his hands on, and will go about proclaiming his new-found knowledge to all those willing to listen, and to many who aren’t. He’ll also be able to provide a level of detail that’s nearly as thorough as the contents of the books themselves, and often with a bit of creative flare and natural storytelling.

How has this happened? Three factors seem to be at work here. 

First, we immediately recognize, but often forget in the classroom, that children are naturally curious creatures. Their intellectual interests are as wide and varied as a field of wildflowers, a fact we can often miss because they tend to pursue those interests in a rather narrow way, often fixating on a single topic obsessively and refusing to engage otherwise. Parents: how many times have you read Little Blue Truck or But Not the Hippopotamus?

Secondly, because teachers find themselves locked into a specific curriculum, they may also forget that every topic of intellectual inquiry is endlessly fascinating and impossible to exhaust. While some discretion and direction on the part of parents and teachers may be in order, adults must also cultivate in themselves a level of intellectual humility, recognizing that what might begin as a fascination with Velocoraptors on the part of a child, with gentle guidance and encouragement, could easily translate into a love for geography and geology, for biology and meteorology, for dirt and bones and genetics and history.

Third, and most importantly, the child has — in effect — taught himself about dinosaurs. And he’s able to demonstrate his knowledge by being able to communicate a huge portion of the contents of the books he’s been reading without ever referring back to books themselves. Charlotte Mason refers to this action as “narration”, which requires the skills of attention, assimilation, retention, and reproduction. 

To that end, Mason proposes a seemingly radical method of instruction, one with which she found tremendous success in a variety of educational settings in England in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Having established a set of principles of education, she implemented the following instructional method. She would provide students with a brief reading on some given topic, or a series of brief readings that would eventually add up to the entirety of a larger work. The selection would either be read aloud by the instructor or silently by the students. Upon completion of the reading, which would only ever be done once, the students would immediately “narrate” the content of the reading back to the instructor, either in written or (ideally) oral form. This narration would serve as a formative assessment. Then, a few months later, without ever re-reading or reviewing the selection, the students would be asked to complete the narration again, which served as a summative assessment.

That’s it.

No introduction, No anticipatory sets. No list of reading questions or lesson objectives written on the board. And here’s where it gets really interesting, and may cause my colleagues in education to squirm a bit. The students were allowed to ask questions of the text, but not the teachers. The teacher was deliberately instructed not to pause in the middle of the reading to pose comprehension questions or to check for understanding. By doing so, Mason argued, the teacher trains the student not to pay attention while they are reading, because they soon come to realize that the teacher will eventually tell them what they are supposed to know anyway. And when a student takes this to its logical conclusion, he or she realizes that no actual close reading of any text is required, because again, the teacher has not only told them ahead of time what they are supposed to know (anticipatory sets, objectives written on the board), and told them what they should be knowing as they read (pause for checks for understanding and discussion questions), but will also tell them again what they should have learned by providing a study guide for the upcoming assessment.

But, the dutiful teacher asks, “what of reason, judgment, imagination, discrimination?” Or, to put the question in modern terms: what about teaching the students critical thinking skills? Mason argues that “these take care of themselves and play as naturally and involuntarily upon the knowledge we receive with attention and fix by narration as do the digestive organs upon duly masticated food — stuff for the body” (emphasis mine). As the mind “digests” the intellectual food — which it can potentially do throughout the course of a lifetime if the content has been truly assimilated — it will recruit the imagination to put flesh on the bones of the ideas: playing, pausing, and rewinding scenes and scenarios and in so doing, make judgments, the kind of judgements that have implications far beyond the content of the book itself. 

G.K. Chesterton puts it this way: “A man who thinks hard about any subject for several years is in horrible danger of discovering the truth about it.” And perhaps that’s precisely the thorn in the side of so many modern pedagogical models. To what extent does the common core curriculum provide the mechanism whereby students spend years thinking about something? Not merely being taught something several times over the course of many years, but really thinking. What is perhaps most troubling about the modern approach to curriculum and instruction is that it never really provides occasion for students to think about anything for very long. And its most common instructional sequence: introduction of the topic, instruction, review, assessment, actually works against the training of a student’s greatest intellectual asset: the ability to wholly harness and direct the attention toward the subject at hand.

Think about it. Once you take ownership of some idea or concept or historical event (recall the thought experiment at the beginning of the article); once you know it forwards and back, and it becomes a permanent part of you, you can chew on it all you want. It’s always with you. And this is where Mason’s teaching philosophy shines. She argues that the business of learning belongs exclusively to the students. And, as the lead quotation of this article contends, the act of knowing only occurs when the mind takes in some object of the intellect (an idea, a concept, a historical event, etc.), chews on that idea, poses questions about the idea to the mind itself, and comes up with an answer.

Now, perhaps that answer is not nearly as satisfying or complete as the teacher might hope or expect. We’d rather the student recast the answer in more or less the language we’d provided it — either in the form of a lecture, a study guide, or listed among the bullet-pointed “main ideas” at the beginning or end of a textbook chapter. And when it comes to scoring the answer provided by the student, we measure its correctness based upon a set of criteria, often laid out in the form of a rubric. But for all that: what if the students who are able to successfully reproduce the five-point answer on the test immediately and indefinitely forget the substance of the answer

There’s a difference between “cramming to pass” and learning. Unfortunately, many current pedagogical models favor the former over the latter – not necessarily in principle, but in practice – because the former provides an immediate tangible metric to evaluate, while the latter may neither show up immediately nor ever, at least in the form it was given. What’s more, teachers find themselves constantly going back over the materials, spending more and more instructional time reviewing and reassessing to make sure the students “get it.” But why? In that scenario, what does the student finally, actually, know, and at what cost to everything he doesn’t?

Imagine spending two months reading Macbeth with a group of sophomores. What’s more beneficial to the students at the end of the unit: that they remember the characters, the setting, and the order of events, or that their minds and hearts acquire a deeper and richer and more nuanced understanding of the concepts of jealousy and honor, and the dangers inherent in unchecked ambition? And what if, rather than spending two months on Macbeth, a teacher were able to introduce King Lear and Othello and Coreolanius, too? 

Of course the most important question remains: what sorts of things do we want our students to own, intellectually speaking. That’s a far more difficult question, one I won’t attempt to answer here, though people of good will can and should argue vigorously about the potential answers. But perhaps it’s sufficient to return to the boy and his dinosaurs, drawing out two key conclusions. 

  1. Our burgeoning young paleontologist has acquired an encyclopedic knowledge of dinosaurs without ever having encountered so much as a T-Rex’s toenail, let alone a living King of the Tyrant Lizards.
  1. What immediately follows the acquisition of this knowledge is, among other things, a desire to share that knowledge with others in the form of storytelling. 

Charlotte’s Mason’s strategy is to give students access to a variety of rich literary texts, not merely literature, but texts that present ideas, concepts, historical events, etc., in narrative form, instruct them to read the text carefully, and then, rather than summarizing the story, retell it. And in the end, what Mason spent her career arguing is made plain to us: to the extent that you can teach someone else about it, so you know it yourself. 

It’s rather easy and quite common to forget something you’ve learned. But you never forget something you know.

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