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Why don’t my children enjoy school?
How can I increase their curiosity and desire to learn?
What kind of subjects should I teach and how should I present them?
In this episode I discuss these questions and how they relate to the last instrument of education (and my personal favorite):
In Charlotte Mason’s 20 principles she says: “in saying ‘education is a life,’ the need of intellectual and moral as well as of physical sustenance is implied. The mind feeds on ideas, and therefore children should have a generous curriculum.”
In this episode I’ll discuss big ideas, like how the mind works, grows, and develops. As well as what is the best kind of mind-food, and how parents can provide a feast of ideas for their children.
If you’re new to the podcast, welcome! For the last few months I’ve been discussing the three instruments of education, as described by Charlotte Mason. Children are whole persons, and so education shouldn’t just develop one part of a person.
The first instrument is atmosphere. I like to think of it as the social-emotional instrument of education. Kids learn from the relationships they form with people and with things. And they learn best in their natural environment instead of an artificial one.
Second is discipline. I think of this as the physical/mental instrument. We educate the body and mind through habits, formed intentionally and thoughtfully. Habits of both mind and body. Good habits include beautiful handwriting, recalling multiplication tables, and paying attention to the task at hand.
The third instrument, and the one we’ll be discussing today, is life.
When I first began studying Charlotte’s volumes on education I thought this tool meant that education is a life-long pursuit. Its a lifestyle. Now that may be true, but it’s not what Charlotte meant when she said that education is a life.
In her 20 principles, Mason said “in saying “education is a life,” the need of intellectual and moral as well as of physical sustenance is implied. The mind feeds on ideas, and therefore children should have a generous curriculum.”
I had never thought of the mind and spirit as a living thing; one that needs daily nourishment, just like the body. But the more I’ve thought about it I see the genius in what Charlotte taught.
The mind is a living, growing organism. It needs nourishment to develop, just like the body. We see evidence of minds that are starved, desperately seeking nourishment. We see evidence of undernourished minds, ones that are fed are on a diet of mental “junk food.”
In Charlotte’s 20 principles she expands on this idea of the mind being alive, she said: “We hold that the child’s mind is no mere sac to hold ideas; but is rather, if the figure may be allowed, a spiritual organism, with an appetite for all knowledge. This is its proper diet, with which it is prepared to deal; and which it can digest and assimilate as the body does foodstuffs.”
The popular belief in education is that the mind is a vessel or a sac; empty and ready to be filled with whatever we (the educators) decide the child needs to know. But Charlotte rejects that idea and instead claims that the mind is like the body.
I’m aware this analogy may seem cheesy or stretched a bjt. But the more you think about it the more it makes sense. Our spirit and mind aren’t just a passive, dead thing. They grow and mature just like our physical bodies.
Let’s review a few facts about the body before we move on to the mind —The body grows and develops over time and, consequently, has different nutritional needs at different stages. It takes in the nutrients it needs at that time and discards the rest. Our body is best nourished on Whole Foods; we can’t survive on small amounts of concentrated synthetic nutrients. If there’s one thing we’ve learned in the field of nutrition the last century it’s that whole foods are the best to nourish our bodies. We also can’t survive on just one food source. We need a variety of fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, meat, etc.
And just like the body, our mind grows and has different needs for each stage. It is best nourished on a variety of living ideas, not just concentrated pills of information.
So, the big questions is “what exactly are ‘ideas?’” and “how do we prepare a feast for our child’s mind?”
Ideas = Mind Food
Charlotte said the mind feeds on ideas, not information. She said facts, or information, is to the mind like sawdust is to the body. But what exactly is an idea and how is it different from information?
She said an idea, “…is more than an image or a picture; it is, so to speak, a spiritual germ endowed with vital force – with power, that is, to grow, and to produce after its kind.” Volume 1, ph 173
She famously stated that living ideas are the meat on the dry bone of fact.
Like to think of ideas as a fresh fruit. It contains a variety of nutrients that are, what scientists call “bioavailable.” Meaning the nutrients are in a form that is easy for the body to use. An apple is complex and delicious.
Compare this to dry facts, or information: it’s like a supplement that has vitamins and minerals, but is not appetizing, contains no living elements, and most of it passes right through the body because it’s not easily used.
If you plant an apple, most likely it will grow until a new apple tree. If you plant a vitamin it will dissolve into the ground. Like an apple, living ideas are fed with more ideas and grow to bear fruit. This imagery reminds me of the scripture in Alma, about letting a seed be planted in your heart, then watering and tending it until it grows into a tree and bears fruit.
Speaking to the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus said, “If thou knewest the gift of God, and who it is that saith to thee, Give me to drink; thou wouldest have asked of him, and he would have given thee living water.
“Whosoever drinketh of this water [from the well] shall thirst again:
“But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.” (John 4:10, 13–14, italics added.)
When students obey the truths learned through the Spirit, that flow of living water will continue. “But unto him that keepeth my commandments I will give the mysteries of my kingdom, and the same shall be in him a well of living water, springing up unto everlasting life.” (D&C 63:23.)
The word of God is the original, and most vital, living idea our children will ingest.
But remember that all knowledge is of God; religious and moral ideas aren’t the only things we feed our children. Ideas include mathematical and scientific principles, language, music, art, and more. Pretty much anything that can take a hold of your mind and give you something to ponder and “digest.”
It took me a while to really understand the difference between ideas and mere information, so here is another example:
Think back to your high school history class. You may have read in your history textbook that the California Gold Rush began in 1848 and lasted until 1855. Your textbook probably threw out some more numbers, like the fact that around 300,000 people migrated to the west in hopes of striking it rich.
Compare that to the story of a young Jewish immigrant who came to San Francisco in the height of the gold rush. He listened to the miners complain of their pants falling apart. They desperately wanted a pair of pants that would last longer than a couple of months. He went to work inventing a pair of pants made with a strong cotton fabric reinforced with double seams and metal grommets. The miners loved them and they soon became popular all over the country. That young man was Levi Strauss.
How about the story of a young woman who came with her husband to California and was baking dinner over the campfire when a miner approached her and offered her $5 in gold for a biscuit (for perspective that’s about the same as $190 today). She gladly made the trade and continued selling dinners to hungry miners over the next couple of years. She saved up enough to open a restaurant, and eventually a hotel.
Another money making venture during the gold rush was laundry service. Miners actually sent their dirty clothes to Hawaii and China to get them washed, then get them back 6 months later. Many women noticed this great opportunity and came to California to start laundry services, earning much more money than most of the gold miners.
So, if I asked you what you remembered about the California Gold Rush, what would say? What will you ponder about later? What are you eager to tell to a friend? Is it the dates and statistics? Or is it the stories?
A living idea piques your interest, inspires questions, and ignites emotions. Facts, on the other hand, pass through your mind and are forgotten as quickly as you read them.
Ideas Are Vital
In an attempt to help parents and teachers understand the importance of ideas in education, Charlotte said “give your child a single valuable idea, and you have done more for his education than if you had laid upon his mind the burden of bushels of information.” Pg 174
And she continues:
“If the business of teaching be to furnish the child with ideas any teaching which does not leave him possessed of a new mental image has, by so far, missed its mark.” Home education pg 173
This is the purpose of school lessons: to furnish the child’s mind with fruitful ideas. Ones that will inspire imagination and ignite curiosity. Mere information and facts just won’t do, and here’s why:
Scientists are finding that the human mind deals in narratives. Or in other words, stories. No wonder why Jesus taught eternal truths using parables. He knew that the human mind understands and remembers truth when it is wrapped in a story.
The mind remembers information much better when emotions are stirred and connections are made. The human soul is multi-faceted, and When the heart and mind are both involved we remember and are changed from the inside out.
This is so vital that Heavenly Father teaches parents this principle in the Scriptures. He says in Matthew 7
8 For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.
9 Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone?
Our children are asking for bread. They want nourishing food for their mind, but how often do we give them a stone?
The last thing
Laying the Feast
In the 1920’s, a Chicago pediatrician conducted an unprecedented study in nutrition. For six years (1), Clara M. Davis oversaw an experiment in which infants were offered a variety of foods and then allowed to eat whatever they wanted. The children, age six to 11 months, were housed in an orphanage and selected for the study because they were just weaned and had no previous prejudices or experiences with food.
The infants were set in front of 34 bowls, each with a different food in it (nutritious foods). The foods ranged from oranges, cod liver oil, beef, spinach, and oatmeal.
From the selections offered, the 15 infants created 15 different eating patterns. “Every diet differed from every other diet,” Davis said, “and not one diet was the predominantly cereal and milk diet with smaller supplements of fruit, eggs and meat, that is commonly thought proper for this age.” The children’s tastes changed unpredictably and they often chose strange combinations of foods, such as a pint of orange juice and liver for breakfast or eggs, bananas and milk for supper.
Yet despite the unorthodox meal choices, the children all managed to piece together a nutritious diet. “They achieved the goal, but by widely various means,” Davis told her audience at the CMA meeting. “Like the lives of the happy, the annals of the healthy and vigorous make little exciting news,” Davis said. “There were no failures of infants to manage their own diets; all had hearty appetites; all throve.”
The first infant to enter the study had a severe case of rickets (a disease of vitamin D deficiency) and he was offered cod liver oil along with the other food selections. He took it “irregularly and in varying amounts,” Davis said, until his rickets had healed and then he never ate it again.
Although it’s not perfect and it leaves some unanswered questions, I think it teaches a couple of important principles applicable to both body and mind.
First, the parents responsibility is to provide a variety of healthy foods at meal times. A feast, as Charlotte Mason would say.
Second, the child’s responsibility is to choose what to eat and how much.
Third, parents should trust the child’s intuition and appetite to eat according to their needs.
Think of formal lesson time as the meal time. Parents and educators are responsible to provide a variety of life-giving subjects for the children to learn from. The children are responsible for what knowledge they internalize and how much they remember.
If children aren’t hungry (I.e. curious and eager to learn) then maybe we need to stop feeding them junk food between meals. Boredom, like hunger, is a great way to instill a desire to eat (and learn!)
One more analogy before we move on. When dealing with the mind, the traditional method is to make a list of topics and facts that must be learned at certain grades. We break down interesting knowledge into dry facts and force children to memorize these facts by rewarding or punishing them, then administer very specific worksheets and multiple choice quizzes to ensure they remembered the exact things we want them to know.
What if we did the same thing to children’s mealtime and bodily health?
We’d make a list of nutrients they need on a daily basis and at certain ages. Since it’s difficult to ensure they’re getting enough through whole food sources, we’d probably replace real food with supplements so we know exactly how much the child is getting of each nutrient. When the child complains that the food is gross (which it probably is) we’d find ways of forcing them to eat it, either through rewards or punishments. When they say they aren’t hungry, we force them to take the pills because we know better than them. Then we’d evaluate our success by the nutrient levels on blood tests we’d take regularly.
If we took this approach, Do you think children would have a healthy relationship with food? Would they enjoy mealtime? Do you think they’d actually have healthy, strong bodies?
I don’t think so.
But what if we fed the mind like we do the body? By Providing a variety of interesting subjects on a daily basis, allowing children’s minds to take in what they’re craving to know, then giving them time to digest what they’ve learned. Most importantly, trusting their mind to take in the knowledge it needs at that stage.
Instead of testing them on exact facts we want them to know, we ask them to tell us what they’ve learned and remembered from their reading. We’d evaluate the effectiveness of their education not by their ability to output exact facts, but by their overall mental vitality. In other words: Their capacity to understand ideas from their reading, to formulate questions, and ability to synthesize new knowledge to previous knowledge.
Preparing the Feast
How we present knowledge is just as important as what we provide. Instead of compelling we should Invite and entice.
“All that the teacher does should be inviting to the student. Again Alma counseled: “Behold, he sendeth an invitation unto all men, for the arms of mercy are extended towards them, and he saith: Repent and I will receive you.
“Yea, he saith: Come unto me and ye shall partake of the fruit of the tree of life; yea, ye shall eat and drink of the bread and the waters of life freely;” (Alma 5:33–34, italics added.)
Since we as teachers should invite but not compel, the nature of our invitation becomes exceedingly important, especially when the student isn’t seeking as much as he should be. Our message must be both inviting and enticing.” (From Hungering, Thirsting, and Teaching)
“We cannot force a child to learn but we can awaken that desire within him by making what we teach interesting and valuable to him. Our teachings should be seasoned with items of interest to our students much like our food, should be seasoned to make it palatable and interesting.” Theo McKee, Hungering, Thirsting, Teaching)
Jesus didn’t teach his disciples eternal truths by stating them outright as dry facts and then asking them to regurgitate them on a worksheet. He taught living ideas through parables and asked them open-ended questions to ensure they understood. Charlotte Mason, a true disciple of Christ, recommended the same method: teach through narratives, or stories.
My favorite ways to teach virtue and eternal truth is through:
- Well-written books
- Family History
- Real objects and things
In regards to daily lessons, Charlotte advised that “Children’s lessons should provide material for their mental growth, should exercise the several powers of the mind, it should furnish them with the fruitful ideas and should afford them knowledge, really valuable for its own sake, accurate, and interesting, of the kind that the child may recall as a man with profit and pleasure.” Home education pg 177
So let’s recap:
The mind, like the body needs, nourishment and exercise. It is not a vessel or sacked we filled, but I’m living organism that feeds and grows and matures. The mind feeds on ideas, not information or dry facts. The educators responsibility is to provide a feast of living ideas and the student is in charge of what they remember and how much. Curiosity or in other words, an appetite for knowledge is born out of variety and living ideas.
The best source for living ideas are real things in their natural environment and well-written books.