Thursday, February 21, 2013

A Considerable Speck: Recognizing the Importance of Mind in the Life of a Child

by Megan Hoyt

Architect Antoni Gaudi's House of Mind in Barcelona, Spain
"We go round the house and round the house, but rarely go into the House of Mind; we offer mental gymnastics, but these do not take the place of food, and of that we serve the most meagre rations, no more than a bean a day! Diet for the body is abundantly considered, but no one pauses to say, "I wonder does the mind need food, too, and regular meals, and what is its proper diet?" (Charlotte Mason, vol 6, p 24) 

What does the mind feed on? Is the mind different from the brain? Charlotte Mason believed it was. Dr. Rodolfo Llinas, professor at NYU Medical School offers little to dispel her reasoning. Listen to what he says about creativity:

"The neural processes underlying that which we call creativity have nothing to do with rationality. That is to say, if we look at how the brain generates creativity, we will see that it is not a rational process at all; creativity is not born out of reasoning." (Rodolfo R. Llinas, I of the Vortex: From Neurons to Self)

The House of the Mind 

by Joseph Beaumont (1616-1699)

AS earth’s pageant passes by,
Let reflection turn thine eye
Inward, and observe thy breast;
There alone dwells solid rest.
That’s a close immur├Ęd tower
Which can mock all hostile power:
To thyself a tenant be,
And inhabit safe and free.
Say not that this house is small,
Girt up in a narrow wall;
In a cleanly sober mind
Heaven itself full room doth find.
Th’ infinite Creator can
Dwell in it, and may not man?
Here content make thy abode
With thyself and with thy God

Miss Mason wrote much about the life of the mind in her six volume series. Still more is discussed on blogs as we hash out together the meaning of "A child is a born person" or "Education is the Science of Relations" or one of the other catch phrases we commonly associate with Charlotte Mason's educational methodology. But did you realize that when she talks about the mind she does not mean the brain at all? Did you get that? I had such a vague understanding of her beliefs about the mind that I thought I'd take this week and ruminate on some of what she said in volume six about it. 

Miss Mason begins by talking about Self Education and the importance of stepping back and allowing the child to make connections and grapple with knowledge until he makes it his own. But within that delicate dance where we step in, offer a living book, step back, check in, ask for a narration, step back again, it's hard to know exactly what to do to nourish their young minds! And it's a little scary, too. I mean, you don't want to do it wrong, so there's this tension that's palpable. It hovers in the air above the home school room. Am I doing it right? Am I doing enough? Am I doing too much? Am I (gulp) spoon-feeding information rather than serving a broad banquet of ideas?

"It is no easy matter to give its proper sustenance to the mind..." (vol. 6, p. 25)

Oh, the pressure!
She goes on to say:

"Knowledge is not sensation, nor is it to be derived through sensation; we feed upon the thoughts of other minds; and thought applied to thought generates thought and we become more thoughtful. No one need invite us to reason, compare, imagine; the mind, like the body, digests its proper food, and it must have the labour of digestion or it ceases to function." (vol. 6, p. 26)

So, let me get this straight. We offer them thoughts and ideas rather than information? We don't need to trick them or cajole them or entertain them or beg them? They naturally want to: Reason, Compare, Imagine? They really will do the hard work of assimilating knowledge when it's fed to them by literary means and when the knowledge presented is alive? What a relief!

I did a quick google search on the mind and came up with some terrifically interesting research that's going on right now. Here in Wired Magazine something caught my eye. It's about how we assimilate and store memories. The research was done by neuroscientist
Joseph LeDoux:

"Memories are not formed and then pristinely maintained, as neuroscientists thought; they are formed and then rebuilt every time they’re accessed. 'The brain isn’t interested in having a perfect set of memories about the past,' LeDoux says. 'Instead, memory comes with a natural updating mechanism, which is how we make sure that the information taking up valuable space inside our head is still useful. That might make our memories less accurate, but it probably also makes them more relevant to the future.' "

It sounds to me like both Dr. LeDoux and Charlotte Mason are telling us the child needs to put forth effort or work for knowledge to be retained. Without this effort, they are only able to do that memorization and regurgitation that we're all so very familiar with and that leaves the child's mind starved for nourishment and his soulish man proud -- of his grades, his handwriting, his ability to memorize facts, anything but what is really worth being proud of. Charlotte Mason says the mind is spiritual, not physical. She's definitely not talking about the brain itself. But even if she got things a little muddy in that department, the proof is in the pudding, as they say. Children DO remember what they retell. And retelling it again and again keeps the memory alive. Modern science tells us that.

I see the brain as a complex human organ that we use to store memories, to store and sort knowledge, regulate emotion, etc. I believe human beings are complicated, with a spirit man that relates to God and the universe and ideas (whether we do that by using the brain as a vehicle or not). Charlotte Mason says the brain is like a piano and the mind is the music pouring forth. So it's the mind -- that inner essence of who we are -- that grapples with ideas and works to understand concepts and make connections. The mind does all the real work. It governs, loves, creates beauty, and more. And it's the mind we want to nourish. The brain, too, yes -- with lots of essential fatty acids through fresh, low mercury seafood, lots of fresh veggies and fruits, etc. Plenty of water, too. But the mind! Ah, the mind. That's an entirely different matter. The mind is nourished on living ideas.

So what is our duty as educators? Well, we know what NOT to do by now, don't we?

"But the children ask for bread and we give them a stone;
we give information about objects and events which mind does not attempt to digest but casts out bodily (upon an examination paper?)" (vol. 6, p. 26)

Then what DO we do?

let information hang upon a principle, be inspired by an idea, and it is taken with avidity and used in making whatsoever in the spiritual nature stands for tissue in the physical" (vol. 6, p. 26).

But wait, there's even more to digest here.

"We begin to see light. ... Our business is to give him mind-stuff, and both quality and quantity are essential. Naturally, each of us possesses this mind-stuff only in limited measure, but we know where to procure it; for the best thought the world possesses is stored in books; we must open books to children, the best books; our own concern is abundant provision and orderly serving" (vol. 6, p. 26).

Abundant provision and orderly serving. Now that's something we can hang our hats on, something solid to get us started. In order to help children, we need to offer them abundant provision and serve it to them in an orderly manner. That sounds doable, don't you think?

The best books. An abundant amount of the best books. A wide variety of the best books.

Filled with the best, most noble and magnanimous thoughts. Abundantly provided and served to them in an orderly fashion. I think I can do that!

"Now mind, being spiritual, knows no fatigue; brain, too, duly nourished with the food proper for the body, allowed due conditions of fresh air and rest, should not know fatigue; given these two conditions, we have a glorious field of educational possibilities; but it rests with us to evolve a theory and practice which afford due recognition to mind. ...

"We give them a 'play way' and play is altogether necessary and desirable but is not the avenue which leads to mind. We give them a fitting environment, which is again altogether desirable and, again, is not the way to mind. We teach them beautiful motion and we do well, for the body too must have its education; but we are not safe if we take these by-paths as approaches to mind." (vol. 6, p. 38)

So, to recap...

We give them living books filled with noble ideas to grapple with. 

They naturally reason, compare, and imagine.

They should play, but that doesn't necessarily reach the mind.

We should give them a fitting environment, but that doesn't lead to the mind.

We should teach them beautiful motion (exercise in various forms) but that doesn't lead to the mind.

So how
do we get to the mind exactly?

"It is still true that that which is born of the spirit, is spirit. The way to mind is a quite direct way. Mind must come into contact with mind through the medium of ideas. ...

"The mistress of an Elementary School writes,––'The father of one of my girls said to me yesterday, "You have given me some work to do. E. has let me have no rest until I promised to set up my microscope and get pond water to look for monads and other wonders." ' Here we have the right order. That which was born of the spirit, the idea, came first and demanded to confirm and illustrate." (vol. 6, p. 39)

Ideas come first. They demand to be confirmed and illustrated. 

So... We give them living books filled with noble ideas to grapple with. 

They naturally reason, compare, and imagine, because the ideas demand to be confirmed and illustrated. Now we're getting somewhere! But what does it look like in practice?

"History must afford its pageants, science its wonders, literature its intimacies, philosophy its speculations, religion its assurances to every man, and his education must have prepared him for wanderings in these realms of gold." (vol. 6, p. 43)

Maybe what we're really after is a different way to convey knowledge to children. After all, the knowledge within a textbook for fourth grade social studies is the same whether taught via that dull, dry textbook or through lush, living books. The information is the same, I mean. But one student, the one who reads the textbook, will likely not retain the information longer than he needs to in order to pass a test. The other student will reminisce longingly about the days he spent lingering over Horatio Hornblower and will never forget the nautical terms he learned, the sailing techniques he looked up on his own after reading the book. His imagination will long after entertain him (and his friends) through play, storytelling, and more. Which would you rather do? Educate by temporarily dropping facts into the brain's storage facility or draw out a child's mind and inform it by allowing for endless connections to be made and delight to be stirred within?

This is what I love about a Charlotte Mason education.

I'm not suggesting that our efforts don't require any work on the part of the child. That's not what she's saying at all. There is real work to be done while grappling with the ideas our students find in their living books! To understand this, I went back to google and found another interesting explanation of how we retain memories. This is from the March 6, 2012 entry in the House of Mind blog:

"Every memory begins as a changed set of connections among cells in the brain. If you happen to remember this moment—the content of this sentence—it’s because a network of neurons has been altered, woven more tightly together within a vast electrical fabric. This linkage is literal: For a memory to exist, these scattered cells must become more sensitive to the activity of the others, so that if one cell fires, the rest of the circuit lights up as well. Scientists refer to this process as long-term potentiation, and it involves an intricate cascade of gene activations and protein synthesis that makes it easier for these neurons to pass along their electrical excitement. Sometimes this requires the addition of new receptors at the dendritic end of a neuron, or an increase in the release of the chemical neurotransmitters that nerve cells use to communicate. Neurons will actually sprout new ion channels along their length, allowing them to generate more voltage. Collectively this creation of long-term potentiation is called the consolidation phase, when the circuit of cells representing a memory is first linked together. Regardless of the molecular details, it’s clear that even minor memories require major work. The past has to be wired into your hardware."

He calls the process long-term potentiation. I call it narration.

Here are a few tips from Miss Mason to get you started. The example she gives is from a Geography lesson (vol. 6, p. 40):

"A map of the world must be a panorama to a child of pictures so entrancing that he would rather ponder them than go out to play; and nothing is more easy than to give him this
joie de vivre. Let him see the world as we ourselves choose to see it when we travel; its cities and peoples, its mountains and rivers, and he will go away from his lesson with the piece of the world he has read about, be it county or country, sea or shore, as that of 'a new room prepared for him, so much will he be magnified and delighted in it.' All the world is in truth the child's possession, prepared for him, and if we keep him out of his rights by our technical, commercial, even historical, geography, any sort of geography, in fact, made to illustrate our theories, we are guilty of fraudulent practices. What he wants is the world and every bit, piece by piece, each bit a key to the rest."

"He reads of the Bore of the Severn and is on speaking terms with a 'Bore' wherever it occurs. He need not see a mountain to know a mountain. He sees all that is described to him with a vividness of which we know nothing just as if there had been 'no other way to those places but in spirit only.' "

I love what she says next:

"Who can take the measure of a child? The Genie of the Arabian tale is nothing to him. He, too, may be let out of his bottle and fill the world. But woe to us if we keep him corked up." (vol. 6, p. 42)

Woe, indeed! 


The teacher who allows his scholars the freedom of the city of books is at liberty to be their guide, philosopher and friend; and is no longer the mere instrument of forcible intellectual feeding. (vol. 6, p. 32) 

That's so encouraging! I don't have to be the shoveler of facts or the dumper of facts into my students' brains. I can be their guide, philosopher and friend. Whew! Relieved again. 

As I was preparing for the blog this week, I came across this Robert Frost poem. It's so perfectly appropriate for this moment that I had to share it:

A Considerable Speck


A speck that would have been beneath my sight

On any but a paper sheet so white
Set off across what I had written there.
And I had idly poised my pen in air
To stop it with a period of ink
When something strange about it made me think,
This was no dust speck by my breathing blown,
But unmistakably a living mite
With inclinations it could call its own.
It paused as with suspicion of my pen,
And then came racing wildly on again
To where my manuscript was not yet dry;
Then paused again and either drank or smelt--
With loathing, for again it turned to fly.
Plainly with an intelligence I dealt.
It seemed too tiny to have room for feet,
Yet must have had a set of them complete
To express how much it didn't want to die.
It ran with terror and with cunning crept.
It faltered: I could see it hesitate;
Then in the middle of the open sheet
Cower down in desperation to accept
Whatever I accorded it of fate.
I have none of the tenderer-than-thou
Collectivistic regimenting love
With which the modern world is being swept.
But this poor microscopic item now!
Since it was nothing I knew evil of
I let it lie there till I hope it slept.

I have a mind myself and recognize

Mind when I meet with it in any guise
No one can know how glad I am to find
On any sheet the least display of mind.

Robert Frost

Thanks for reading! Please feel free to leave comments, narrate, ruminate, give us your thoughts on these weighty matters of the mind. I'll leave you with one last meaty quote:

"The educable part of a person is his mind. The training of the senses and muscles is, strictly speaking, training and not education. The mind, like the body, requires quantity, variety and regularity in the sustenance offered to it. Like the body, the mind has its appetite, the desire for knowledge. Again, like the body, the mind is able to receive and assimilate by its powers of attention and reflection. Like the body, again, the mind rejects insipid, dry, and unsavoury food, that is to say, its pabulum should be presented in a literary form. The mind is restricted to pabulum of one kind: it is nourished upon ideas and absorbs facts only as these are connected with the living ideas upon which they hang. Children educated upon some such lines as these respond in a surprising way, developing capacity, character, countenance, initiative and a sense of responsibility. They are, in fact, even as children, good and thoughtful citizens. (vol. 6, p. 21)


  1. A couple of thoughts come to mind: first, Makoto Fujimura found the same disconnect between reason and creativity. In his blog on Jefferson's Bible and the Tears of Christ, he found that reason (reductive thinking--reducing things to parts) got in the way of creativity. Those who are less creative have a steep hierarchy of associations, meaning that they tend to hard-wire the links between facts. I wonder if shoveling knowledge worsens the situation. People who are more loose in associating facts tend to be more creative.

    Thus, if you teach subjects through highly compartmentalized textbooks, creativity is killed. Living books have more wide and varied material, therefore, inspire more creativity. A good example: Pamela and I are reading The Boy Scientist. We are reading about Galileo who timed the pendulum using his heart beat. It really has nothing to do with our nature reader book (on the human body). We are reading about blood right now, so you can see the loose connection between the two books, which would not normally exist between a book on physics and a book on nature.

    I was also thinking that, perhaps, the reason why Pamela is more creative and imaginative than most persons with autism (who tend to be very reductive thinkers) is because she has spent a lot of time with living books and in living live.

    Finally, I also think that stepping back and letting children do the work is vital. It took almost a month for Pamela to decide that a sunflower seed was really a dud. I could have told her two weeks ago that she should try another seed. I wanted to give her the chance to observe, consider, observe, and refine her thinking. Teachers cannot do that when they are dispensers of knowledge. There is no point in wasting time if your duty is to parcel out facts.

  2. I just read an interesting book about how teachers used to (just after WWII) be considered transmitters of knowledge. And the point of training teachers was to make them BETTER transmitters of knowledge so that the children would retain the knowledge better (assuming it had been given more appropriately). That whole idea just doesn't work (as we know) because, according to this author, the transmission of ideas is not the only thing taking place during a school lesson. The student has to be actively engaged in the material, too. Learning is, in this case, receiving. And what child in school is eager to receive transmitted knowledge, no matter how suitably applied (dumped).

    This reminded me of something I learned early in my writing career about the "info dump." We were taught that most new writers spew out a whole lot of information about their characters in the first chapter via plain old telling. Great authors show. They don't tell. So you can always tell a newbie by how telly their work is. How do great authors show without telling? You have to drop hints here and there and seamlessly, while the story is unfolding, slip in description throughout the whole book. Teaching is like that, too. If you drop all of the Civil War on the class in a "unit" form, they can't retain it all. Especially the big ideas and motives. If you trickle out ethics throughout a child's years in school, one day they grow up and have assimilated all the character qualities you hoped they would. Would they have if you had shoveled it in? Probably they would have offered some pushback. Just musing...