Narration, Practical Application, Science
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Science Lessons from the Parents’ Review by Carroll Smith

After reading the two previous blogs by Beth Pinckney, “Preparing for a Year of Teaching Biology” and Jennifer Gagnon, “Ten Stages of Learning Science,” I thought it would be helpful to post a description from a Natural History lesson from the Parents’ Review dated August 1915 and written by K.M. Claxton.  Please notice that this is a Natural History lesson not a Nature Study lesson.  These are different subjects. While Natural History is probably more teacher directed, Nature Study is designed for students to develop their powers of observation and to gain early science knowledge.  In the first lesson I have commented on the instructional practises.  I hope they are meaningful and helpful. I believe these lessons were done during the summer conference for teachers and which, obviously were attended by children as well. The lesson description is in bold print and my comments are in italics.

The children first told me what insects they were taking this term, –i.e., Insect Sippers and Gnawers which change their bodies within their coats–and then, after naming the butterflies, moths, and beetles, as being some of these, they told me of the four stages of the Insect Sippers and Gnawers.  After asking one of the children to tell me the number of wings belonging to each of these insects, I told them that to-day’s lesson was to be about some of the Two-winged Insects, or “Flies,” several of which they were able to name.

Pay attention to how this teacher is reconnecting the children to previous learning.  Twentieth Century research (although apparently Mason had figured this out) taught us that new learning is connected to old learning (that chain that Mason refers to).

The teacher follows a progression of identification—insects, sippers and gnawers to specific examples within the group.  The children, because of previous narrating, can then describe the four stages of the life cycle of the Sippers and Gnawers.

Noticing carefully one sees the teacher moving from “the children” to asking one child.  This helps to keep the children on their toes (a form of relaxed-alertness that I hope to write about next week).  After bringing back to their minds the previous learning, she then tells them what they will learn in this lesson.  I suppose this is what happens when someone says, Look! There is a plane! When the teacher says “I told them that today’s lesson. . .” she directs their minds to what is to be learnt.

I now showed them two daddy-long-legs, which I had caught, in a jam jar, and made them notice the pair of little pin-headed stalks, or “balancers,” behind the wings.  When they had compared these with a drawing of a “daddy” which they had in their books, they read a paragraph from Life and Her Children, which told them that these “balancers” were really the second pair of wings, and had gradually diminished to their present state through disuse.  Then we read a few short paragraphs which introduced them to the distinguishing characteristics of the life of the house-fly, botfly, gadfly, bluefly, and gnat.

(I am making an addition here because Jeannette Tulis brought to my attention that what we think of as daddy-long-legs might not be the same as what this teacher is referring to.  Here is a helpful website: .)

I suppose my favourite thing about this lesson is the simplicity of the science and the tools.  The use of a jam jar is an example, but also, the ease of catching a daddy-long-legs for demonstration purposes.  There doesn’t seem to be a worry about having the latest gadgets as though children cannot learn without the latest technology.  To help with the learning process the children compare and contrast, further building those brain connectors. They can do this with previous knowledge and remember, children should not be asked to do something they cannot be successful at doing. The children through the teacher’s facilitation then read a literary, living book, which gives further explanation and details.  On this they add the distinguishing characteristics of the common house-fly. Again, the children are adding new learning to old learning.

After a short narration these two-winged flies we went on to the life-history of the gnat, which is the most wonderful of them all.

Voilà !  the narration.   The children–some probably have only been listening–in my opinion, must all narrate so that all of them complete “the act of knowing.”  Notice as well that there is more than one narration in this lesson.  This is crucial because lessons must be short enough, clear enough that the students can narrate the information without becoming confused or overwhelmed.  Sometimes I have seen children required to narrate long, detailed passages and the learning process breaks down so that details and sequence are lost which then creates general confusion.  This is NOT good.  It demoralises the child and confirms their belief that they cannot narrate.  If a lesson is too long, the teacher must have the wisdom 1) to pause at an appropriate point in the lesson, and 2) to know his or her students well enough to keep lessons manageable for the children.

I had managed to get several empty pupa cases and one pupa, but as it was impossible to let the children examine the whole four stages of the gnat direct from nature, I showed them large charcoal and chalk drawings, on brown paper, of the little raft-like mass of eggs, the larva, the pupa, the insect emerging from its pupa-case, and the fully emerged insect.

There are a couple of issues here that I noticed.  Since the ideal situation is not possible,  the teacher uses the next best thing (although just getting the empty pupa cases and one pupa is a major feat!)  Mason wanted as much as possible for science, natural history, nature study to be done outdoors as field studies in nature.  However, if this cannot be attained then on to the next best thing—in this case, “charcoal and chalk drawings on brown paper.”

After letting the children examine these for a minute or so, and after trying to help them to realise the wonderful construction of these four stages, I asked two children, in turn, to read the life-history of the gnat.  In these paragraphs, the children learnt of the way in which the gnat leaves her wonderful raft of eggs to float on the surface of the water, and how, when the eggs are hatched, the larvæ swim head downwards in the water, keeping the little air-tube on the 8th segment just above the surface, while they sweep microscopic animals down into their mouths by means of a fringe of hairs.  Then we learnt how the larvae, after several moults, change into pupæ, which, though they no more need food, yet still need air, and therefore have two air-tubes, which, instead of being on the 8th segment, are now outgrowths from the “head” of the pupa.  Lastly we read of the great wariness which the gnats shows when emerging from the pupa-case.

There is a combination of books, drawings and insects used in these lessons.  Children are using more than one of their senses to collect the “data” or “information” about this group of animals.  The use of the various senses causes different parts of the brain to work; however, the brain is still working as a whole developing those connections to which children can add new knowledge day by day.  Remember that while the physical brain is actually making connections, the mind is growing and developing as well on these rich ideas.

After showing the children a bottle containing several empty cases, I ended the lesson by asking them to narrate the life-history of the gnat, this being done fluently and with great detail.  They all promised, too, to look for gnat-eggs, larvæ, etc. for themselves.

Again the teacher ends the lesson with a narration.   Here we must remember that it is not enough to take information in, but we must give it back in order for it to be internalised.  Mason gives an example of our reading the morning paper which we typically quickly forget.  One of the important points to remember about narration is that it allows us to complete the learning cycle; that is, we take in through our senses but for it to be truly internalised we must reproduce in our minds and using language we must give it back.  If we do not internalise and give back, then we have not completed the learning cycle or “the act of knowing.”

Notice that the children are encouraged to “look for gnat-eggs, larvæ, etc. for themselves.”   A couple of important issues here:  1) learning must go beyond the classroom to the real world; 2) children were encouraged to go out doors and find what they had learnt in the classroom; 3) thus, the child is encouraged to go from teacher directed learning to self-directed learning; 4) through this encouragement children are building a relationship with their local “nature;” and 5) through this enticement into nature, children’s minds are growing and they are consuming themselves with nature rather than popular culture.

Using a book that is living or of literary quality in science is important because children must continually remember that the important part of science is to recognise the beauty and magnificence of God’s creation which points them to the holiness and greatness of God.  It is not enough to understand science for utilitarian purposes only (that is, that the world is only matter and we use it fulfil our needs and to make us happy), but we must help our children see its beauty and to worship the God that made it so.

I hope this has been helpful.  I will try soon to write this for the journal putting in documentation for the references I make to Mason and other research.

© 2010 Carroll Smith All Rights Reserved

This entry was posted in: Narration, Practical Application, Science


Carroll Smith has spoken on various topics related to Charlotte Mason. Currently he teaches at Gardner-Webb University and enjoys working with children, teachers, college students, and Charlotte Mason Institute. He was a teacher and a principal for 21 years before coming to Gardner-Webb University where he has been for six years. Having grown up in eastern North Carolina, he attended East Carolina University for his undergraduate degree and his master's in school administration. He completed his terminal degree and wrote his dissertation on Charlotte Mason at Virginia Tech. Carroll enjoys reading, gardening, and discussing ideas with friends. He and his wife, Andra, and their two young adult college-age children, Corban and Anna, enjoy living, working and playing in North Carolina.

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