Narration as a Tool of Learning

Nov 25, 2019

The concept of a tool of learning will be familiar to many from Dorothy Sayers’ famous essay “The Lost Tools of Learning.” The underlying idea is derived from the medieval conception of the liberal arts as rational skills or practices that enable a person to fashion knowledge. Just as a skillful carpenter can use the tools of his trade to produce a beautiful and serviceable chair, so the master of the liberal arts can produce new knowledge by means of those arts.

Of course, there must be the right material to work with—the stuff of knowledge—but the central activity is the mind working upon it by means of the tools. One of Sayers’ unique insights was to apply this traditional claim pedagogically to the process of learning. While she doesn’t explicitly state this, the implication of her essay is that what the tradition had claimed for the production of new knowledge should be applied equally to the young student’s learning of traditional knowledge.

In other words, since the producers of knowledge (magistrī artium) use the tools to discover knowledge, students on the road to mastery should use the tools in their learning process. Only in this way will they learn how to learn. The activities of producing new knowledge and of learning are one and the same, at least in kind, if not necessarily in degree. Getting the feel of the tools of learning, the liberal arts, is therefore the pathway forward for students.

Now my goal in this article isn’t to criticize Dorothy Sayers’ appropriation of the liberal arts tradition. Others have done that and no doubt will continue to do so. Instead I’d like to build off of her essential pedagogical insight that we should put the tools of learning into students’ hands. This claim is not only still valid but far-reaching in its applications.

And so, without in any way questioning the validity of the traditional seven liberal arts, I’d like to propose a novel addition to the sacrosanct tools: Charlotte Mason’s practice of narration. If you’re new to narration, first, you’ve been missing out on one of the most powerful and foundational tools of learning in existence. But second, you’ll want to pay close attention to this three-part series for how to implement narration in your school or homeschool practice:

Part 1 – Narration as a Tool of Learning
Part 2 – Narration and the Classical Principle of Self-Education
Part 3 – Narration and Modern Learning Science

First, let me venture a definition of narration. Narration requires two steps:

  1. The exposure of students to rich content, whether of story, poem, painting or theorem.
  2. The requirement of students to tell back that content in a connected format.

Narration has an essential simplicity and elegance to it. We might say that it mirrors the act of learning itself at its most basic level. There must be content to be learned and an act of the mind in assimilating that content.

Narration as a Natural Tool of Learning

My main contention for the practice of narration is that it is a natural educational tool, in the sense that it fits the nature of a human being best. As Charlotte Mason said, “Children narrate by nature.” In saying this, she was reflecting the Aristotelian tradition, adopted by the Judeo-Christian West, that human nature has some fixed qualities that make some educational practices better or worse.

So, for instance, human beings naturally have a capacity for reasoning, and so training them in principles of logic and right reason fits their nature. In the same way human beings can sing and dance, wrestle and run, and these skills can be honed and trained in an ideal manner according to the nature of our human capabilities. When that nature is correctly understood and practices are optimally suited to it, training can produce the opera singer who fills the theater hall with his voice, or the ballet dancer leaping and spinning with grace, balance, and poise, as well as the professional wrestler or four-minute miler.

In the same way, narration is in a human being’s nature and only requires the right training to bring it to maturity. But perhaps my analogies have led us astray, because people do not all dance or sing, wrestle or run with any regularity these days. But Charlotte Mason claims that narration is more like our first example (reasoning), since it is native to every child’s mind:

Narrating is an art, like poetry-making or painting, because it is there, in every child’s mind, waiting to be discovered, and is not the result of any process of disciplinary education. A creative fiat calls it forth. “Let him narrate”; and the child narrates, fluently, copiously, in ordered sequence, with fit and graphic details, with a just choice of words, without verbosity or tautology, so soon as he can speak with ease. (Vol. 1 Home Education, ch. 9 “The Art of Narrating”)


We might quibble with Mason here by pointing out that writing poetry and painting are hardly the normal attainments of every child. But she is not claiming that training or any “disciplinary process” are unnecessary for attaining these arts, just that the art is there in the mind of the child before training in the art ever comes along to bring it to fruition. Narrating is natural to human beings, just like poetry writing or painting, singing, dancing, or running. It is a natural endowment of God, one of the most basic and fundamental tools of the mind itself.

Narration is part and parcel of human nature.

Narration and the Image of God

In fact, when Charlotte Mason refers to the “creative fiat” that calls forth narration, she is alluding to the creation story of Genesis, when God says, “Let there be light!” (“Fiat lux” in the Latin Vulgate). In the back of her mind, then, is probably the Christian doctrine of the image of God, a fact that no doubt underlies the capacity of human beings to narrate. We reflect the image of our story-telling God.

Of course, under this is the power of language itself. By his powerful Word, God spoke the universe into existence, and by that same Word he orders and sustains it. Human beings made in his image have the capacity for language by nature. And therefore narration, conceived most generally as telling what they have heard, is imitative of God’s creative nature.

This is what Charlotte Mason means by claiming that narration is natural. And she goes on to note how normal children will narrate expertly without instruction, telling a story well, “with fit and graphic details,” and so on. If we understand that the ability to narrate is natural, then we can begin to imagine how it could be put to use for the purposes of education. Charlotte Mason puts it this way:

This amazing gift with which normal children are born is allowed to lie fallow in their education. Bobbie will come home with a heroic narrative of a fight he has seen between “Duke” and a dog in the street. It is wonderful! He has seen everything, and he tells everything with splendid vigour in the true epic vein; but so ingrained is our contempt for children that we see nothing in this but Bobbie's foolish childish way! Whereas here, if we have eyes to see and grace to build, is the ground-plan of his education. (Home Education, ch. 9)


When we truly understand the power of narration to bear fruit in the mind of a child, it is like a field ready to be harvested. Simply sow the seed and the student will readily grow in knowledge and ability, as surely as proper sun and rain lead to harvest. In essence, Charlotte Mason is here claiming, a generation before Dorothy Sayers, that narration is, in some sense, the lost tool of learning in a way that is foundational to all the other liberal arts.

Perhaps we’ve never thought of the excitement and eagerness of a young child’s storytelling in this way before. There is something about the activity of narrating itself that rouses and engages the interest of the storyteller just as much as the listener. The inciting action is necessary, but, once their interest is enlivened, the story almost tells itself in the child’s imagination.

Stories are the mind’s bread and butter. They are the foundation of everything more complex and elaborate in the intellectual life.

One of Charlotte Mason’s most convicting appeals throughout her works is this concern that we not despise or have contempt for little children—a thought which she draws from Jesus’ warning in the Gospels: “See that you do not despise one of these little ones” (Matt. 18:10, ESV).

Her point her is that we modern adults may be tempted to undervalue such a telling as “childish” when in fact we have hit upon one of the most powerful tools for sustaining the child’s interest and engagement with his own education.

As Charlotte Mason concludes in this same passage, “Let us take the goods the gods provide.” In other words, given that narration engages children’s minds and hearts in the acquisition of knowledge in this way, let us make the best use of it we can. We might as well build our educational practices on the foundation of how children actually are in their nature, as opposed to how we might imagine them to be in our modernist preference for abstraction or analytical dissection.

Interested in learning more about narration as a teaching tool? Check out my free eBook at educationalrenaissance.com, and stay tuned for the next two parts in this series on narration:

Part 2 – Narration and the Classical Principle of Self-Education
Part 3 – Narration and Modern Learning Science

Jason Barney

Jason Barney

Jason Barney serves as the Academic Dean at Clapham School, a classical Christian school in Wheaton, IL. In 2012 he was awarded the Henry Salvatori Prize for Excellence in Teaching from Hillsdale College (http://www.hillsdale.edu/outreach/salvatori-prize). He completed his MA in biblical exegesis at Wheaton College, where he received The Tenney Award in New Testament Studies. Jason blogs regularly on ancient wisdom for the modern era at www.educationalrenaissance.com.

The opinions and arguments of our contributing writers do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute or its leadership.

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