Comments 9

The Place of Illustrations in a Mason Context by Dr. Carroll Smith

Let’s juxtapose two of Mason’s ideas:  a) Don’t use books with illustrations, and b) children must labour with their own minds.  She (1954) says,

Great confidence is placed in diagrammatic and pictorial representation, and it is true that children enjoy diagrams and understand them as they enjoy and understand puzzles; but there is apt to be in their minds a great gulf between the diagram and the fact it illustrates.  We trust much to pictures, lantern slides, cinematograph displays; but without labour there is no profit, and probably the pictures which remain with us are those which we have first conceived through the medium of words; pictures may help us to correct our notions (emphasis mine), but the imagination does not work upon a visual presentation; we lay the phrases of a description on our palette and make our own picture; (works of art belong to another category) (p. 340). 

There seems to be a contradiction here.  Children love pictorial representations, and yet they don’t need them to labour with the mind.  As we have all been brought up to believe that well illustrated books are a fine possession, several points need to be made. 

First, it seems to me that the imagination is one of the primary tools for integrating knowledge so that it becomes a part of ourselves; our senses, on the other hand, are simply a means by which we take in information.  Taking in information does not necessarily require a labour of the mind.  Mason gives examples of this in the quote above:  “We trust much to pictures, lantern slides, cinematograph displays; but without labour there is no profit. . .”  Elsewhere she speaks of reading the morning paper and forgetting most of what was read later in the day.  In other words, passively receiving information through pictures, reading or any host of ways is not the same as labouring with the mind. 

Our senses, it seems to me, are some of the tools we have for taking in information, but they are not the primary tools for learning.  This is a major problem in much of the world of education today.  There is much talk about learning styles, and I suppose it is helpful to know one’s learning style, but the fact is, taking information in is not the same as processing that information, or, as Mason said, “labouring with the mind.”   This is the step that many children never get to take in their learning process.  This is the purpose of narration, which Mason called “the act of knowing” (p. 17).  In fact, we may have preferences as to which sense we prefer to take in information (visually, kinesthetically, aurally, tactically, or odoriferously), but this is not the same as owning new information.  Mason says, “We trust much to pictures, lantern slides, cinematograph displays; but without labour there is no profit.” 

Second, if pictures, illustrations and other forms of representations are not tools of learning, then why would we bother with them?  I believe these are an important part of any child’s education.  Let me tell you a story that I believe demonstrates why they are important.  In the 1990s, when I was a principal at Oakland School in Roanoke, VA, I remember being in a third grade classroom.  There was a conversation going on among the students and teachers about animals, stables and straw.  As the conversation continued I noticed one student (I’ll call her Kelyn) who seemed very puzzled.  Someone mentioned animals using the straw for sleeping and eating.  Kelyn seemed even more puzzled.  I went over to her to ask what was concerning her.  She said to me, “You mean they put a whole bunch of straws (drinking straws) on the floor for the animals to eat and sleep on?”  At this point someone might suggest that in whatever text was being used (and since we didn’t use textbooks, it must have been a children’s trade book), it would have been well for this child to have had an illustration of straw.  However, I suggest that the illustration should come before the reading and narrating.  

The situation with Kelyn could happen to any unsuspecting teacher.  Who would have thought that a child would not have known what straw was?  Once you know that this was an inner city child who was growing up in a government housing project, then it makes more sense.  Her life experience had been limited to the neighborhood in which she grew up, where there were no pastures for animals, and there was no straw used in stables.  Kelyn was not stupid; she just had very narrow life experience.  She needed to understand what straw was, how it was used, and to have seen a picture ahead of time.  This is the scaffolding she needed before the lesson began.  This can be done very quickly and without a lot of fanfare:  a simple picture could do, though this scaffolding could also have come from the teacher or another child giving a definition or sharing their experience.  Looking the word up and writing down the definition (and all the tricks students are frequently asked to do today) is not necessary. 

However, in the situation described above, with Kelyn in the middle of a lesson with no idea as to what is meant by straw, it would be important at that moment if possible to correct her notions of straw by showing her a picture.  This would enable her to carry on with the lesson and not be hindered in the use of her imagination as a tool for learning. 

Part of the scaffolding process In a Mason context is to present ideas and vocabulary that are necessary for comprehension prior to reading.  Then children can listen or read with the correct pictures in their minds.  (Of course, sometimes teachers overlook a vocabulary word or explanation that is needed to understand a passage.  No one is perfect!) When the child narrates the passage, she uses the correct image of straw to recreate in her mind (the labouring of the mind) what she has just learned.  Her imagination is then allowed to be the primary tool for learning.

There are two more points that need to be made.  First, Kelyn didn’t necessarily need a hands-on experience to understand straw.  There are many situations that hinder us from seeing in real life many of the things we want to share with children.  While we want children to have many experiences in nature and we recognize that that should be our first line of defense if it is available, there are options that can help us if the inner city child cannot get out to the farm.  In this case, other types of books or technologies can play a role.  Second, the correct mental picture is not enough; she also needs the life-sustaining ideas that come with the narrative.  It isn’t enough to feed children a diet of hands-on, experiential learning; Kelyn’s mind needs ideas and ideas come to us, especially children, best through the narrative or story.  Montessori’s use of diminutive kitchens and other plays things brought down to the children’s size, Dewey’s use of hands-on learning and the classical movement’s idea that young children are only good for memorizing are not sufficient for the child that we perceive as being a person.  A person needs to be fed ideas.  

Finally, what are those books and technologies that can help?  Let’s return to our two ideas juxtaposed to each other:  Don’t use books with illustrations, and the child must labour with their own mind.  Children can be well served by books that show pictures of various items (or the use of Smart Boards or other technologies that might achieve the same purpose), especially clothing and other objects that existed before their time or that exists currently but outside their context.  Such books can be useful for showing children quickly what an item they may not know looks like and how it might be used. As one friend recently said to me, “I don’t want my children imagining George Washington dressed like their father!”  An example might be the DK books, but these are not living books and should not be used as such.  Living books are literary or narrative in style and not a list of facts or a set of pictures.  Living books provide the life of the child with living ideas.  A book such as a DK book or a technology that shows a picture or diagram should be used to, “correct our notions,” but these books don’t live in the mind with ideas such as the books My Brother Sam is Dead or Tales of Troy and Greece

There is much more that could be said on this topic.  For example, the imagination is not the only tool for learning.  Language is a powerful tool for learning, and I am sure there are others.  Or, is there never an occasion to read a well-illustrated book?  I would think there are times to share with children such books.  However, when a child is about the serious business of his/her education, it is the labour of the mind that must happen, regardless of our feelings or thoughts about using books with pictures.  This we must keep in mind.

Mason, C. (1925, 1954) An essay towards a philosophy of education, (3rd ed.). London: Lowe & Brydone Limited.

© Carroll Smith 2012

This entry was posted in: Philosophy


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.


  1. creativepowerhouse says

    Brilliant! Thank you so much for saying this. We as a nation are saturated with images. Soaked completely through.

    And as a children’s picture book author, I appreciate the caveat at the end! We use illustrated books at bedtime when the mind is winding down and the goal is not education. ; )

  2. Thank you Megan! There are many nuances to education that can so easily direct or misdirect us. Can you imagine not reading Beatrix Potter to your children? I can’t. There is nothing better in life than reading to little ones (and I must confess this big one enjoyed it as well) Beatrix Potter’s little books. I so enjoyed it when our children were small.

  3. A very interesting article, However, Charlotte Mason wrote that in one of her six letters to The TImes in 1912 when she was hoping to launch the Liberal Education for All campaign, so she kept emphasising ” Letters” as the only way to get knowledge. She rather cast aside the other subjects the “things” of education feeling that schools agreed on how to teach them but neglected “letters”

    Pictures and illustrations are necessary, indeed essential, It reminds me of the story of how to describe an elephant in a dark room – each person was only describe the part they could touch & I think a child would need to see a picture of something beyond their experience. My son who is an artist used to spend ages looking at the illustrations to stories when he was little,

    CM may not have had a strong visual imagination. The pictures for picture study were all monochrome ( even after colour photography came in possibly after her time) She would follow Ruskin in getting the children to study a picture line by line which I don’t think is necessarily the best way of looking at fine art!

    Pooor CM, she failed all five parts to her drawing exam taken for the certificate and got ” no competency in drawing!”

    More positively, she was blown away by the frescoes in the Spanish Chapel at Santa Maria Novella in Florence and it was the illustrations that gave the initial impact – the interpretation came later.

  4. Kendra Barrow says

    I had the benefit of hearing your Narration lecture at the conference this summer, where you talked about using pictures to give a context before reading a story. I was so struck by that point, that I’m incorporating it into the way I’m writing a Sunday School series about Jesus interacting with children in the Bible. I’m trying to start each lesson with pictures of clothing that might have been worn, buildings of that time period, and maps so they can see where Israel is located in relation to America.

  5. Kendra Barrow says

    I forgot to mention that the lesson itself is told like a story. You had said that a story is how children learn best. So this series is my attempt to narrate what I heard you say about narration!

  6. creativepowerhouse says

    Margaret, thank you so very much for giving us a backdrop for this information. I truly appreciate gleaning from your research! I have often wondered, as a musician with a deep fondness for composer study, whether she may have missed the mark a bit in the area of the arts. Perhaps since it wasn’t her forte? I remember her saying it had to be brought to her attention that listening to music might have a positive impact or somesuch. At the time I read that, I thought, “It was brought to her attention? She didn’t recognize the importance of music on her own?”

  7. creativepowerhouse says

    While researching something totally different, I came across this passage from an Australian education thesis:

    “Picture books are fundamentally different from ‘illustrated texts,’ that is literary or non-literary tests with illustrations that accompany the written text (Lynch-Brown & Tomlinson, 1999). Picture books have been widely used in the early primary grade classrooms for many years. Graham (2000) suggests that these resources are ‘simple vehicles’ & useful as an entry point before students engage with more complex tests. Miller (1998) also suggests that picture books can be used as an introduction to topics, activate students’ background knowledge & stimulate curiosity about subject matter. Whilst sharing the intended platitudes for these resources, I steer clear of labeling them as ‘simple vehicles’ or categorizing them as resources for ‘introductory’ activities alone.”

    Sounds very much like what Miss Mason was saying about using pictures only when introducing a topic rather than using illustrated texts. Very interesting!

  8. creativepowerhouse says

    That quote should have said “texts” where it says “tests” in a couple of places.

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