EDUCATION IS A LIFE
“In saying that “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.” (Charlotte Mason, Educational Principles)
Our physical bodies cannot live and thrive on just any food; we require nourishing food. Like our bodies, the mind requires nourishment, what Mason called “living ideas.” Ideas are different than information. Information to the mind is like a multivitamin to the body; it is concentrated and unnatural. It rarely ignites curiosity and deep thought. Information does not require the work of mental mastication and digestion. A fact is there, void of the narrative and living idea that makes it appetizing.
“The mind is capable of dealing with only one kind of food; it lives, grows, and is nourished on living ideas only; mere information is like mere sawdust to the body; there are no organs for the assimilation of the one more than the other.” (Charlotte Mason, Philosophy of Education, pg 104)
One major difference between information and living ideas is that information comes from a lesser source and rarely inspires growth and change, while living ideas (or truth) comes from God; “In truth, a nation or a man becomes great upon one diet only, the diet of great ideas communicated to those already prepared to receive them by a Higher Power than Nature herself.” (School Education, 156)
We often hear the terms “prepare their heart” or “prepare thine heart” in the scriptures. (see Alma 16:16 and Psalm 10:17). A person’s heart (not matter what age) must be prepared to learn. Curiosity, questioning, and a craving for knowledge prepare our hearts for learning. Like with physical food, we cannot control what our child’s body needs or what it craves, we can simply set a wide feast and let our children digest what they are prepared to take in. Charlotte Mason expounds on this idea by saying “These indefinite ideas which express themselves in an ‘appetency’ towards something and which should draw a child towards things, honest, lovely and of good report, are not to be offered of set purpose or at set times; they are held in that thought-atmosphere which surrounds him, breathed as his breath of life.” (Philosophy of Education, pg 107)
Seeds Planted in Heart and Mind
Alma describes perfectly the formation of a living idea when describing how faith is a seed planted in the heart. A living idea, a truth, is planted in a child’s heart and mind, and you know it is living when it sprouts, grows, and produces fruit of its kind.
Poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge described ideas this way: “From the first or initiative idea, as from a seed, successive ideas germinate. Events and images, the lively and spirit-stirring machinery of the external world, are like light and air and moisture to the seed of the mind which would else rot and perish.” Sound familiar? This description is eerily similar to Alma’s description of faith in Alma 32:
“Now, we will compare the word unto a seed. Now, if ye give place, that a seed may be planted in your heart, behold, if it be a true seed, or a good seed, if ye do not cast it out by your unbelief, that ye will resist the Spirit of the Lord, behold, it will begin to swell within your breasts; and when you feel these swelling motions, ye will begin to say within yourselves—It must needs be that this is a good seed, or that the word is good, for it beginneth to enlarge my soul; yea, it beginneth to enlighten my understanding, yea, it beginneth to be delicious to me.”
Setting the Feast
“Probably he will reject nine-tenths of the ideas we offer, as he makes use of only a small proportion of his bodily food, rejecting the rest. He is an eclectic; he may choose this or that; our business is to supply him with due abundance and variety and his to take what he needs.” (Philosophy of Education, 109)
The teacher’s role in a living education is “setting the feast” of subjects and ideas and letting the child’s brain digest what it craves and needs at that particular stage. As soon as I heard this analogy, I immediately thought of the following study:
In 1926, Clara Davis conducted a study that would be one of the most influential studies on infants and nutrition ever conducted. Davis took orphans that were brought into a Cleveland hospital–many of them malnourished and some with rickets– and gave them complete control over what they ate. She provided a feast of 34 whole foods, from cod liver oil to oranges to ground liver, and let the infants/toddlers choose what they ate every day for six months. She recorded every food and amount they ate on a daily basis. What she found astonished even herself. The infants who had rickets would gulp cod liver oil with their meals until their rickets were cured, then never touched the oil again. One baby ate two pounds of oranges for a few days straight, along with a few other food items. When her analysis was complete, she found that overall the babies ate a near perfect ratio of calories averaged at 17 % protein, 35 % fat, and 48 % carbohydrates — much in line with contemporary nutritional science. The infants also intuitively knew which nutrients they were lacking and ate foods to compensate, like the infants with rickets drinking vitamin D-rich liver oil.
This study on physical nutrition is applicable to mind-food as well. If we are providing our children with an abundant feast of wholesome ideas, they will choose certain ones to chew and digest based on their intellectual needs.
When it comes to bodily food, we know better than to feed our child processed food, exchange whole foods for potent doses of multivitamins, or feed them baby food past infancy. This would result in serious health problems. Yet we do those same things to mind-food: we feed children processed, junk ideas (Charlotte Mason called this “twaddle”); we feed them concentrated facts with no substance; and we blend up ideas into an unappetizing puree of dumbed-down knowledge that no person of any age actually enjoys.
In regards to both bodily food and mind food, parents and teachers are responsible for what is presented and when. Students are responsible for if they partake and how much.
When we read primary sources, or whole ideas, and then explain them to our children, we are giving them nothing to chew on and essentially giving them potent sources of unappetizing mind food. Children need whole food for the mind. They need to work on the rich ideas they receive by filtering through what is important, making connections, and finding answers to questions. By over-explaining, lecturing, dissecting, and dumbing down information, we are essentially doing this important work for our children and creating passive learners with weak constitutions. There will be times when our children will not comprehend what is read. And if they don’t understand they will ask. It is important to let children do the work of discovering truth on their own. We have all experienced the joy that comes from solving a difficult problem or answering a question on our own. Excellent teachers guide students to find answers and are available to help when needed, but they know their responsibility is not to do the important work of digesting knowledge for the students.
As discussed in the Teacher’s Role article, our responsibility is to provide a feast of ideas, and trust that our child will digest what they need. The Holy Ghost knows our children, he knows what they are ready to learn, and he has prepared their hearts and minds to receive the ideas you present. They may not be the ones you expect or want, but they are the ideas your children.
Dry Bones of Fact
Now the question is, what exactly is living ideas and where can we find them? Mason answer this questions simply, and quite vaguely: “children are most fitly educated on books and things.” Dry textbooks and worksheets should only be used as a spine or “bones” in an education. “Living ideas are the flesh on the dry bones of fact” she famously stated.
How do you recognize “sawdust” information and non-living educational materials? Mostly it depends on if they spark ideas and begin to grow and bear fruit (going back to Alma’s definition of faith). But if you need hard-and-fast rules, ask yourself these questions:
If it’s a book:
- Is the book written by many authors?
- Is it void of narrative, personal stories, ?
- If so, does the story or plot flow and continue through the chapters?
- Are there side bars with information unrelated to the main text?
- Are there lists or bullet points?
- Is the text interrupted by questions? Are they closed or open-ended questions?
If you answered yes to most of these questions then you have a textbook on your hands, use sparingly or discard completely.
If it’s an activity:
- Does the activity come from a source with the word “workbook” or “lesson” on it?
- Was the activity copied from a textbook?
- Does the activity look like a multiple-choice quiz?
- Does the activity require students to fill in a blank space by copying information found in a textbook or from a lecture?
- Do you currently or have you ever called the activity a worksheet?
- Can the child gain the same knowledge using real things or engage in real experience?
If you answered yes to these questions then the activity is a worksheet, aka “busywork.”
“But my child loves worksheets!” I hear this especially from mothers of girls; the clear expectations and organized structure of worksheets is very appealing to our feminine nature. However, our children love and want lots of things, but it doesn’t always mean it’s the best thing for their development. Worksheets are not inherently bad, the problem lies in the fact that worksheets keep your child from doing more meaningful learning, like creative play, formulating their own questions, and synthesizing ideas. If they like worksheets because they are bored, well, boredom is good. It forces children to be creative and use their imagination. If you can review a subject or practice a skill without a worksheet, then get rid of it! If there is no other way to practice the skill (such as math), then keep it.
“Our chief concern for the mind or for the body is to supply a well order table with abundant, appetizing, nourishing and very varied food which children deal with in their own way and for themselves. This food must be served au natural, without the pre-digestion which deprived it of stimulating and nourishing properties and no sort of forcible feeding or spoon feeding may be practiced. Hungry minds sit down to such a diet with a charming greediness of little children.” (Charlotte Mason, Philosophy of Education, p. 72)
“Therefore, go ye unto your homes, and ponder upon the things which I have said, and ask of the Father, in my name, that ye may understand, and prepare your minds for the morrow, and I come unto you again.” (3 Nephi 17:3)
Albert Einstein spent over a year in Italy “loafing around aimlessly” dividing his time between attending lectures and being bored. Soon after this vacation he discovered the law of relativity. That time spent in boredom was just what his mind needed to sort through information, make connections, and form new ideas. Just as our bodies require nourishment, exercise, and rest, so do our minds. When we have eaten a large, nutrient-rich meal, our desire for food decreases as our body prepares to digest what we have just eaten. India’s ancient Vedic tradition states that “rest is the basis for all activity.” Just as our body craves rest after eating and exercise, so does our mind. Interestingly, the brain has at least forty neural networks that are dedicated to a resting-state. The fact that so much of our brain activates when we are at rest says a lot about the importance of taking time to ponder. What constitutes a state of rest? Anytime you are not being externally stimulated in the form of tasks, socializing, electronic devices, reading a book, etc. Being at rest literally means being alone and bored, and it can be very uncomfortable for most of us because it requires our brain to go into a deep reflective mode.
As difficult as this may be for our children, this is the time that the brain digests the information they have consumed and makes knowledge of it. This is the time that the brain solves problems, reflects on self, and makes connections. It is also when you consider what other people may be thinking or analyze their actions. This is the time that we receive personal revelation. The most powerful forms of pondering are daydreaming, meditation, and sleep (see chapter six of The Self-Driven Child by Stixrud and Johnson for more information on meditation and sleep).
Imagine the state of your body if you were constantly eating or exercising all day long, with no breaks to rest. Now imagine the state of your child’s brain if it were constantly being stimulated by socializing with friends, being tested, and consuming information all day long. This analogy makes the high rates of childhood depression, anxiety, and stress much more understandable. When a child loses focus during school it simply means they are full and need time to digest. We can literally see their mind preparing to digest information by entering a day-dreaming state. Sadly, too often children are punished or incorrectly diagnosed as having Attention Deficit Disorder simply because their mind craves rest from stimulation.
Mary Helen Immordino-Yang describes two alternating brain systems: 1) a task positive or “looking out” system that’s activated when we’re engaged in goal-directed tasks, and 2) a task-negative or resting system that is for “looking in.” School lessons and projects are task positive and are an essential part of education. We are taking in other people’s ideas and discoveries. But too often we neglect the second brain system which is just as important as the first. The resting system involves formulating our own ideas and making discoveries. I cannot overstate this enough: all people need a liberal amount of unstructured time to ponder and be at rest.
In the scriptures we are frequently told to “ponder” on the things we have learned. Information does not become knowledge until the individual’s mind has had time to act on it. The most important thing for parents to do is to let their children do nothing. Give your child the gift of a few hours each day of unscheduled time to be bored and ponder, because this is when the act of self-education truly takes effect.
Strengthening the Mind
Not all subjects are driven by ideas, and vitality does not come from nourishment alone. The mind needs to be strengthened through exercise–by reasoning, logic, creativity, and problem solving.
Formulating questions, experimenting, solving mathematical problems, narrating, and playing are all forms of mental exercise. Most of these mental “exercises” are actually skills that are developed line-upon-line, precept-upon-precept. Math, writing, engineering, drawing, and other handicrafts are all skills people develop to express ideas and solve problems.
A healthy, strong body requires eating healthy foods and exercising. The mind requires the same: a feast of living ideas along with exercise that strengthen the minds faculties. You cannot draw out ideas of children (through mental exercise and skills) who have had nothing put it. And constantly putting in ideas without drawing them out produces weak minds with no true purpose of education.
The next few posts will explore and explain how to teach with living ideas and which exercises/skills are best suited for strengthening your child’s mind: books and things, narration, questions, play and projects.
Are my homeschool materials living or dry? How can I tell?
Do they allow my children to learn directly from great minds? Do they allow children to choose their projects and activities?
How do I “chew” or “digest” knowledge for my children?
What do I need to change to allow my children opportunities to wrestle with knowledge on their own?
Replace these materials with high-quality, living books and real things. (See Books and Projects posts)
Develop the habit of allowing your child to grapple with big ideas on their own without explanation, moralizing, or lecturing (See Narration post).
Develop the habit encouraging your child to ask their own questions, and, when you do ask a question, only ask open-ended ones (See Question post)