As far back as 1991 in their book, Making Connections, Renata and Geoffrey Caine were writing about an idea they called relaxed alertness, a term to which I believe we need to give some attention because it will help children become better learners. I want, first, to define relaxed alertness, and discuss why it is important; and second, to look at two situations that need to address the issue of relaxed alertness, and third show how relaxed-alertness could be designed into a Mason instructional day with narrating. There are lots of examples that could be used, but I have chosen to use narrating to narrow the focus and length of this blog.
The Caines are the first writers that I remember discussing this concept, back before websites and all the technologies of today were available. Like many of us they now have a website and from that website in the box I have placed their definition of relaxed-alertness.
It seems that relaxed alertness is defined as a “state of mind of the learner,” and “it consists of a combination of high challenge and high expectations with low threat in the learning community as a whole; and a state of mind that combines confidence, competence and intrinsic motivation.” Therefore relaxed alertness is controlled from within the student and influenced by external conditions and expectations in the classroom or school. (Always remember that when I write about the classroom it means both home and school.)
According to the Caines (and others) when we feel threatened the frontal lobe of our brain shuts down, and we cannot use our executive functions well. (You can find a definition of executive functions fairly easy by doing a search on Yahoo or Google or some other search engine.) We have all had this happen to us. For example, if someone is giving us down the country (a southern expression from my boyhood that means a good tongue-lashing), we feel threatened and then frequently can’t think of what to say and it is only later, after we have had the experience of thinking things over (in the absence of threat) that we think of all the things we wished we would have said.
Now let’s look at two school scenarios that I have concocted from various experiences I have had over 30 years of working in schools. These scenarios, I am well aware, also exist in families. Scenarios such as these might help us flesh out somewhat this “combination of high challenge and high expectation with low threat.” The first example that I give here is not the only way in which threat can exist. It can come in many forms in various types of schools. I am merely giving two examples for our consideration.
Consider School One which prides itself on high expectations and achievement for students. The visitor to School One encounters a lovely, orderly environment with well behaved children. The building and grounds are impressive with shrubs and flowers, pictures of great paintings; beautiful timelines; lovely furniture and decor; and classrooms that look like museums. A visitor enters a room and all the children are expected to stand, face and greet the visitor. Using Mason’s ideas of habit formation, children are expected to do a high level of work moment by moment and they are expected to reach the same level of perfection that is seen in the building and the decor. Over a period of several days, one notices that good narrators are called upon to narrate. Impatience seems to appear on the face of the teacher if a student stumbles during a narration. Further, apparently when a student is narrating and has difficulty in School One, the teacher doesn’t call on them and frequently children will hide to avoid being selected for narrating. Some children give that look of, “the teacher always calls on so and so.” School One can be very appealing to the outsider because the children look uniform, organized, well-groomed, and compliant.
Now let’s look at School Two. When walking into this older building, one notices pleasing pictures of great paintings, and generally an orderly, beautiful environment. There is a feeling of calmness, acceptance and comfort. In the classroom are desks, sofas, and large pillows. Children from time to time say something to one another. Timelines with student generated items are on the walls at students’ eye level. Relationships appear to be relaxed and interactive between teachers and students. It seems that the school administration and teachers foster a relaxed atmosphere where children feel cared for and respected based on the interaction of the learning community. There is no arguing or disrespect. During oral narration time students who are not called upon to narrate, seem to let their minds drift. A reoccurring challenge at School Two is that the children are so comfortable and relaxed that narrations get careless, meaning sequence can become weak and vocabulary is not assumed by the learner.
Most of us are drawn to School Two but I would suggest that both schools have weaknesses in terms of relaxed alertness. Let’s look first at “the atmosphere in the learning environment” in School One. While the school maintained the impressive looking atmosphere of clean, orderly, beautiful classrooms of lovely wood furnishings and pictures, and polished timelines, if one looks deeper one can begin to see signs of stress in the children. For example, when the class comes to the end of a lesson where students are asked to narrate, some of the children panic and literally pray that they will not be chosen out of fear that they will make a mistake. Ones sees a sign of relief on their faces when the teacher continues to call upon his or her favourite narrators. When children are told that if they pay attention and focus then their narrations will measure up, and they try hard to do as they are asked, but yet, their narrations are still not “perfect,” then anxiety and panic set in. Threat then shuts down the child’s executive functions. They can no longer make decisions, organize their thoughts, sequence and do the things that one needs to do in order to narrate well. What happens to the child is the same thing that happens to you when someone “gives you down the country.” Perfection is the goal for School One and students have an unspoken sense within themselves as to whether or not they can measure up to that perfection. When they do not because they cannot narrate as well as others (and narration is only one example) anxiety and fear begin to set in. Threat becomes a real issue for them. When this fear brought on by the threat of not measuring up sets in, children begin to want to stay home, avoid narrations and draw within themselves. They begin to do the things they need to “self-preserve.” If Caine and Caine are correct, children cannot function in an environment no matter how beautiful it might be, if they feel emotionally threatened. “High expectations” must always be developmentally and morally appropriate and reasonable for children. The point is that when expectations are too high or when the expectations are for the adults to show how perfect their school is, children have the same feeling of being threatened. When this happens, learning gets shut down and the children do not respond well or perform well. They begin to want to stay home. In fact, a more serious problems exists.
And, that problem is more insidious than one might think. The desire here is to always look good in the eyes of others–or, perfection is the goal–being the best. In this environment children loose their interest in learning and become performance oriented. They will frequently shut down and not want to go to school. The love of learning is diminished and suppressed by the undue influence of the wrong desire. Expectations become a threat rather than life-sustaining. (The issue of desires and their affect on learning is for another whole blog.)
Now let’s consider School Two. Here, “the atmosphere in the learning environment” does not threaten the children; quite the opposite–they are relaxed and comfortable, but so relaxed that their minds can wander. In other words the challenge is not quite high enough and as a result children are not challenged to stay focused, while at the same time being relaxed and ready to learn. For example, when one child begins to narrate the other children can think, “Thank goodness the teacher didn’t call on me!” and tune out. Their minds can begin to wander, which means that in their own minds they do not complete the act of knowing. School Two can apply an understanding of relaxed alertness to strengthen the narrating and learning ability of its students.
The beauty of a Mason curriculum is that it is designed to hold the child’s focus by its careful selection of engaging, living books with its limited amount of pages read in one setting. New ground is covered in whatever subject is taught on a given day, and this is new learning prevents boredom. The literary style texts provide children the emotional engagement they need to remain connected to the learning. Along with these principles, a wide curriculum with short lessons is designed to be compatible with the sustainability of attention for the various levels of the learners (ages, for example). With these principles in place, how else can we have the right amount of challenge and expectation in a Mason setting that maximizes students’ learning? This blog could easily turn into an article which hopefully I can do later with all the citations, etc. For now, I want to mention some ways that I have used relaxed alertness to keep the challenge and expectations at the proper level, yet assist each student with completing the act of knowing.
Children should always be narrating individually, either in their heads or externally. In a group oral narration, children cannot feel as though they can drift while another student is narrating. Each student must keep that flow of narration to complete the act of knowing or sometimes what I call the learning cycle. Each child must complete her own “act of knowing.” The learner must:
- Take information in (preferably from a living book or a field study, etc.);
- Internally engage with it emotionally (activate the amygdala using the literary style);
- Internalise it by going through the process of giving it back (narration);
- Close loose ends by asking questions and clarifying understandings.
(For more detailed description, see my article in the Charlotte Mason Educational Review, Vol 2, Winter 2007 – 2008, Issue 2 and please don’t turn the steps above into a behaviouristic how to!) During a group narration if a student is not narrating the whole piece in her own head, then her learning will be incomplete. Students must not expect that when another student is narrating that they are “off the hook” and can therefore let their minds wander.
While we simply cannot always be aware of what each student is doing within their minds, here are some suggestions that I have used to help ensure that each child will narrate each lesson. You might find them helpful.
1. Oral narrations
To keep each child in the group narrating I consistently stop a child and ask another to pick up where the previous child left off. If she were not narrating along with the other student, then she would not know where to pick up the narration. This creates just enough challenge to help the children not let their attentions diminish. Children are always able to pick up without a problem and move the narration forward and quite honestly find it a fun challenge to be ready. The challenge of being ready to be called on creates enough alertness to keep the children ready to learn, but yet, not so much that it creates a sense of defeat. The class and I always take the narrations as they are delivered without criticism and add at the end anything that is left out. Frequently, I ask several children to narrate during a given narration. Students never know if they will be called upon. One more point, teachers and parents (co-opt leaders) must not fall into the trap of calling on the children who always narrate well. (In another blog or article I or someone else can write about how to include a poor narrator into the narration process and strengthen their narration skills.)
2. Oral narration pairs
Because oral language in the early years is so important to writing in the later years, frequently I pair children and have them narrate to each other. At the word “switch” the student listening would need to pick up the narration and go forward. The responsibility of the listener is to add details that are left out at the end of the narration.
3. Written narrations
If you use a written narration each student is telling back then each student is completing the act of knowing, and this is quite doable with students who can write their narrations.
4. Drawn narrations
Having students draw their own series of pictures (scenes from the reading) is another way for each child to complete the act of knowing. Another way is to ask each child to draw the scene at the end of the reading selection.
I am sure there are other ways. My colleague Rebekah Brown Heirholzer could list even more than I have here. The point is that our children’s minds should be engaged continuously or challenged in a healthy, life-sustaining way and not in a way that creates poor habits of mind or ways that threatens or intimidates (which is life depleting, not sustaining). We must be careful to avoid perfectionist expectations, even done in the name of “high standards.” Threats and intimidations, subtle or overt, are created by the use of fear. Fear is a result of the fall and not the way God ordained things from the beginning. It should never be a tool used to manipulate children. Nor should we allow our children to develop lazy habits of mind. Neither the over-relaxed environment nor the over-stressed environment are good learning environments for children.
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