A Charlotte Mason Education, Narration, Testing
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The Testing Effect, Oops, I Mean: The Charlotte Mason Effect by Jennifer Gagnon

The Province of Ontario, Canada has some interesting elementary and high school traditions.  One is called standardized testing. Every year, every child in grades 3 and 6 write a week’s worth of standardized tests in reading, writing and math.  Every year the grade 9 students write one mandatory test and every year every grade 10 student must write and pass a literacy test in order to receive their high school diploma upon graduation.

According to a recent article in The Windsor Star,

“There is new and growing research that testing actually helps them learn. It’s called the ‘testing effect’.  The key is what happens when the brain retrieves information to answer a question.”1

But ‘the key’ was pronounced by Charlotte Mason, and she said it much more eloquently, stating that narration is ‘a question that the mind puts to itself’.  This is not new research, it is 100 year old research!

“‘Measuring an object doesn’t change the size, shape or weight of the object,’ Purdue University psychology professor Jeffrey Karpicke wrote in the journal Science recently.

“Similarly, educators assumed that measuring learning doesn’t change it. But they were wrong.

“In two experiments with a total of about 200 university students, Karpicke found that those who read a passage and then took a test on it retained about 50 per cent more of the information a week later than students who used two other methods of study.

“This wasn’t light reading. It was several paragraphs of a science text describing the sequence of events in digestion and the properties of different muscle tissues. And it wasn’t just regurgitating facts. The test evaluated meaningful learning with questions that assessed comprehension and required students to connect multiple concepts and make inferences.”

Amazing!  A student is told that there will be a test.  They have one chance to retain that information and so they read with rapt attention. Does this mean that if it is not on the test there is no need to listen with eager and attentive ears?  Go, Charlotte, go!  Her educational philosophy states that ‘a single reading is insisted on because children have naturally great powers of attention; but this force is dissipated by the re-reading of passages, and also, by questioning, summarizing, and the like.’  Students who have been learning by a single reading and narrating can retain those ideas one week later, one month later and up through their lifetime.

The two other methods of study were extra time to study and drawing ‘concept maps,’ detailed outlines of the information.”

And we know this to be true.  Any amount of fruitless studying that involves cramming and memorizing (re-reading) is not productive.  Dissecting a paragraph and making a ‘concept map’ (summarizing) does not help a student internalize the ideas of the information assigned.  Only with narration can an individual ever hope to retain anything beyond the buzzer marking the end of a test.

“No one seems to know exactly why retrieving information improves learning, but there are several theories. It could be simply that the brain is practicing what it will have to do later on the bigger test. Or maybe more is happening; maybe the brain is reconstructing the information, organizing it and creating connections and cues that it remembers later.”

We certainly know exactly why and how.  There is no maybe this or maybe that and it is not a theory.  Charlotte Mason spent years observing, researching and practicing her educational philosophies. She trained teachers. She recorded and celebrated the results seen in children who were given her full and generous curriculum.  Many of us have kept to as pure a Mason education as possible and seen the results with our own eyes in our own children. Narration is the process where the mind is constructing ideas, organizing them and creating connections to other ideas their mind has already formed.

“Whatever it is, Karpicke told the New York Times, ‘We’re tapping into something fundamental about how the mind works.’

“Another interesting point is that we’re not talking about true or false and multiple choice tests. Tests must be difficult, psychology Prof. Nate Kornell and writer Sam Kornell wrote in the magazine Miller-McCune. In two studies, they asked students questions that the students could not answer because the questions were too difficult or the students hadn’t read the information yet or the information was fictional.

“One group was given the answers at the outset; the other group was given the answers after first struggling to come up with answers themselves.

“On a later test, that group performed better than the group that received the answers right away.

“‘It’s remarkable just how dramatically a challenge inspires focus and memory,’ the authors wrote. ‘When we struggle to learn something, and fail, the moment we finally get the answer it imprints itself more deeply on our mind than it would have had the struggle and failure not preceded it.'”

Indeed. This ‘new and growing research’ is remarking on the effects of challenging the mind to think. Struggling to learn is thinking. It is not the challenge that inspires focus and memory, it is the atmosphere, the discipline and the life of the education that inspires thinking. For Charlotte Mason educators it is not the test that induces a student to learn, it is the introduction of ideas through living books that they then must narrate. This is what makes a student think and form his own ideas, which is his learning. Narrating ideas is real thinking, real learning and not just for a test but for every day in all subjects. If you are given the answers there is no reason to think!

“There should always be feedback after a test to correct wrong answers and direct further study. But a test doesn’t have to be a traditional paper and pencil exercise.

“It can be anything that forces students to retrieve and use the information they’re learning, even a classroom version of the game show Jeopardy.”

There is no ‘traditional’ narration either.  Students can be asked to tell back what was read, debate with fellow students or teach what he learned to someone else.  Students could be asked to write a narration, sketch what he sees or replicate an experiment. He could act out a part in a play, copy a historical speech or construct a machine. Narration is how we learn and it happens naturally in a Charlotte Mason school.

“All this has the potential to change the way we design curricula and lesson plans and to change the role of testing.

“Critics of testing say it forces teachers to “teach to the test,” taking time away from real learning. Now we know it is part of learning.”

This article was printed in our local city newspaper on April 13, 2011.  It deserves a response.  The educators who are now waiting with bated breath for more new research and a new curriculum can be directed to solid, true and tried research and curriculum now.   Charlotte Mason, a 21st century girl.

1Putting learning to the test      By Anne Jarvis,  The Windsor Star April 13, 2011   ajarvis@windsorstar.com or 519-255-5587Read more: http://www.windsorstar.com/Anne+Jarvis+Putting+learning+test/4606099/story.html#ixzz1JRlhD4Bb

© Jennifer Gagnon 2011

This entry was posted in: A Charlotte Mason Education, Narration, Testing


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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