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When you understand this difference, it can revolutionize your home school.
When I was in grade school, a practical joke was popular. The jokester would find an unsuspecting and cooperative child to listen carefully and repeat these nonsense syllables:
As the syllables became more and more familiar, the child would be encouraged to repeat them faster and faster until he inadvertently formed an unintentional announcement about himself: “Oh, what a goose I am.”
It was a silly little joke, but it came to mind when I was pondering something Charlotte Mason described in A Philosophy of Education, pages 173–175. She contrasted two kinds of memory: word memory and mind memory.
She was writing about the practice of narrating:
The teacher reads and the children ‘tell’ paragraph by paragraph, passage by passage. . . . The first efforts may be stumbling but presently the children get into their ‘stride’ and ‘tell’ a passage at length with surprising fluency.
If you’re familiar with Charlotte Mason at all, those practices are nothing new. But then she brought up an objection that some people in her day, and some in ours, sometimes mention: They think that narration is merely an exercise of memory. So Charlotte drew a distinction between what is happening in the brain during memorizing and what is happening during narration—one depends on word memory and the other on mind memory.
Here’s how she explained it:
Now a passage to be memorised requires much conning, much repetition, and meanwhile the learners are ‘thinking’ about other matters, that is, the mind is not at work in the act of memorising. To read a passage with full attention and to tell it afterwards has a curiously different effect. . . . Trusting to mind memory we visualise the scene, are convinced by the arguments, take pleasure in the turn of the sentences and frame our own upon them.
Simply recalling or reciting syllables, whether they mean anything or not, is word memory. Charlotte used the term “conning,” which means “learning by heart.” And she said that many times the child’s mind is somewhere else as his teacher uses tricks and repetition to get him to remember certain words. You may have experienced that with your own child, or perhaps you did it yourself when you were in school.
Sadly, that’s what many children’s “education” consists of. Sometimes they recite or sing the words; sometimes they are required to write the words in blanks to prove that they remember them. But too often they have no clue what ideas are behind the words they are using.
For example, they may read, “Tobacco was colonial Virginia’s most successful cash crop. By 1776 it was producing 55 million pounds per year.”
At the end of the chapter they might encounter these questions:
- What was colonial Virginia’s most successful cash crop?
- How many pounds was it producing per year by 1776?
So they do a scan of the chapter and search to find the related words amid the sea of text, and they find the syllables that will answer the questions correctly. But, sadly, they often have no concept of all the potential ideas that are contained in “colonial Virginia” or what a “cash crop” is or how greed for that profit nearly destroyed Jamestown.
It’s just word memory: Give the teacher the correct word when asked.
Now contrast that mental experience with the kind of memory that activates when you hear this one word: Thanksgiving. Chances are a flood of ideas, images, and emotions fill your mind and heart. If you live in the United States, you may be picturing the holiday of Thanksgiving Day and how your family celebrates it. You might be recalling the story of the first Thanksgiving celebration and all that led up to it.
Your whole mind has been activated because you are recalling living ideas. And you can express those memories in a variety of words and sentences, describing them in various ways and focusing on one part or another. That is what Charlotte meant by mind memory.
And that is why she used living books. We remember narratives and stories because they touch our emotions and fire our imaginations. You can see the scene in your mind’s eye, and from that scene you can pull memories with your whole mind: sights, sounds, smells, emotions. Then you can communicate those memories, those ideas, with freedom in a variety of ways. That’s much different from just memorizing words.
As Charlotte put it:
Narrating is not the work of a parrot, but of absorbing into oneself the beautiful thought from the book, making it one’s own and then giving it forth again with just that little touch that comes from one’s own mind.The Story of Charlotte Mason, p. 125
Living books and narration activate whole-mind memory.
Which one are you emphasizing in your home school: mind memory or word memory? It’s quite a difference! Charlotte believed that once we realize the force of the difference between the two, it will “bring about sweeping changes in our methods of education.”