Charlotte Mason on Teachers Who Talk Too Much
One of the things I most appreciate about Charlotte Mason is her deep understanding of how children learn, and how curiosity and creativity can be stifled by certain teaching norms, including talking too much, being repetitive, and giving tests and quizzes. I remember the frightful tedium of being in thrall to teachers who believed in assigning reading, then “telling them what you going to tell them, then telling it, then telling them what you told them.” That’s usually not going to spark interest or learning — it’s more like an invitation to nap!
3 ways to kill intellectual curiosity
As a homeschool teacher, I appreciated the practical teaching principles in Mason’s books. I’ve revisited these passages from A Philosophy of Education (beginning with page 52) many times, and they are underlined and bookmarked in my copy of the book. The context is a discussion of why children lose intellectual curiosity:
“…the more the teacher works, the greater the incuria of the children, so the class is prodded with marks, the boys take places, the bogie of an oncoming examination is held before them. Some spasmodic effort is the result, but no vital response . . .”
1: Talk too much
“I can touch here on no more than two potent means of creating incuria in a class. One is the talky-talky of the teacher. We all know how we are bored by the person in private life who explains and expounds. What reason have we to suppose that children are not equally bored?
“They try to tell us that they are by wandering eyes, inanimate features, fidgeting hands and feet, by every means at their disposal; and the kindly souls among us think that they want to play or to be out of doors. But they have no use for play except at proper interval. What they want is knowledge conveyed in literary form [emphasis mine] and the talk of the facile teacher leaves them cold.
2: Be repetitive
“Another soothing potion is little suspected of producing mental lethargy. We pride ourselves upon going over and over the same ground ‘until the children know it’; the monotony is deadly . . . Children are not ruminants intellectually any more than physically. They cannot go over the same ground repeatedly without deadening, even paralysing results, for progress, continual progress is the law of intellectual life.”
3: Give quizzes and tests
“Of the means we employ to hinder the growth of mind perhaps none is more subtle than the questionnaire. It is as though one required a child to produce for inspection at its various stages of assimilation the food he consumed for his dinner; we see at once how the digestive processes would be hindered, how, in a word, the child would cease to be fed.
“But the mind also requires its food and leave to carry on those quiet processes of digestion and assimilation which it must accomplish for itself. The child with capacity, which implies depth, is stupified by a long rigmarole on the lines of, —”If John’s father is Tom’s son, what relation is Tom to John?” The shallow child guesses the riddle and scores; and it is by the use of tests of this kind that we turn out young people sharp as needles but with no power of reflection, no intelligent interests, nothing but the aptness of the city gamin.”
Of these three ways to kill student interest, I believe it’s no coincidence that talking too much heads the list. If children zone out when a teacher talks on and on, the teacher is likely to feel that the student isn’t “getting it,” and start repeating. If there’s no opportunity for narration, supremely forgettable, useless quizzes or tests might be substituted in order to be sure that the students have “mastered” the material. If students are instead allowed to interact quietly with living books and narrate what they have read, they will well and truly learn.
If you need teacher training, I can’t think of anything I’d recommend more highly than the original Charlotte Mason series of six books. I have them, read them, and return to them regularly for inspiration. They are available free online, and that can be useful when searching for a specific passage or topic, but I would strongly recommend purchasing print copies so that you can mark them up and refer to them often. The older reprints that I have (pictured above) are hard to find, but abundantly worth searching for, and there is also a paraphrased modern version.