On Questions and Questioning

On Questions and Questioning

A Charlotte Mason education is, for most of us, a radical shift in thinking. We are educating in a way we ourselves have not experienced. Though we admire how her philosophy and practice go hand in hand, we often have more questions than answers, the natural result of a lack of knowledge and experience. The use of questions themselves, for instance, as a teaching strategy reveals various opinions from emphatic assertions that there is to be no questioning whatsoever during lessons, to the claim that Charlotte Mason was a proponent of the Socratic method of instruction. Which is true? Is any form of questioning allowed in order to direct or challenge the student? Did Charlotte Mason follow Socrates’ method of instruction via a series of questions to his student intending to show the student his inadequacies or contradictions in thinking so as to guide him by continued questioning to discover truth? For a Charlotte Mason educator, the safest course is to examine what Miss Mason herself taught.

First, however, let’s consider questions themselves. Questions are essential to communication, a fundamental component of speech and thought and understanding. Even if you do not verbalize your questions, you cannot keep your mind from producing them constantly. Language is unique to human beings, and questioning and being questioned are part of who we are and how we function as persons and social creatures. She was fond of quoting, “the mind can know nothing but what it can produce in the form of an answer to a question put by the mind to itself” (School Education, p. 181).

We ask questions because as persons we all desire knowledge. Charlotte Mason believed the mind feeds on ideas to grow intellectually as the body requires food physically. Ideas are therefore life-giving, and once acted upon, become knowledge. When a living idea presents itself and is considered, the mind pounces upon that idea as a hungry person upon food, and appropriates or digests it, so to speak, in part by questions. The mind’s way of examining and considering, accepting or rejecting any new idea happens by asking questions all about something. We are born curious.

And, because we are people of words, the next thing we do is talk about what we know or express it in some form. This way, ideas become knowledge. In school this means Miss Mason used narrative living books to most readily present living ideas, and the art of narration to allow a student to tell what he knows. Learning thus happens naturally.

The result is a different perspective of the student and teacher relationship than what we have commonly experienced in our own educational settings. She placed confidence in the inborn desire and ability of the learner, and this altered the teacher’s role as a consequence. Instead of instructor and instructed as we have known, she believed it is not the teacher’s place to impart knowledge, impose knowledge, or impress knowledge upon the student from without. Rather, the teacher is the humble guide or presenter of ideas to the naturally inquisitive appetite of the learner. The student grapples with the living book and the student tells what he knows. Both teacher and student are persons equal in power to self-educate.

This mutual respect between teacher and student gives a different perspective on questions. In the questioning process in Miss Mason’s lessons questions by the teacher were viewed as hindrances to the child, stumbling blocks to prevent his acceptance of knowledge. Truly, it’s an appetite inhibitor for a child to be “teased with questions” (Home Education, p. 228), “an impertinence which we all resent” (Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 260). And yet, she by no means considered questions themselves taboo. As with all of her teaching, we must remember her deep respect for persons and the purpose of education before coming to false conclusions about her method.

We cannot read her volumes long before discovering that Miss Mason explained her educational ideas by asking and answering questions herself. She frequently addresses common questions of parents, educators, and philosophers, and, in asking these questions, challenges commonly held opinions, assumptions, and answers to those questions. In other words, she used a question-and-answer format in written lectures and articles for instructing other teachers. In fact, in Parents and Children, she provides a “Catechism of Educational Theory,” a set of consecutive questions and answers that follow one another in logical order to sum up her ideas.

Those ideas grew out of her first-hand experience as a teacher. Her earliest teaching days were spent with young children. No one interacting with a small child avoids his incessant questioning, the endless cycle of “why?” Miss Mason supposes this is less a quest for information than part of the language building process:

We older people, partly because of our maturer intellect, partly because of our defective education, get most of our knowledge through the medium of words. We set the child to learn in the same way, and find him dull and slow. Why? Because it is only with a few words in common use that he associates a definite meaning; all the rest are no more to him than the vocables of a foreign tongue. But set him face to face with a thing, and he is twenty times as quick as you are in knowing all about it; knowledge of things flies to the mind of a child as steel filings to magnet. And, pari passu with his knowledge of things, his vocabulary grows; for it is a law of the mind that what we know, we struggle to express. This fact accounts for many of the apparently aimless questions of children; they are in quest, not of knowledge, but of words to express the knowledge they have. (Home Education, pp. 67-68)

Perhaps this explains her insistence on waiting till the age of six to begin formal narration with children by which time they have acquired enough vocabulary from conversational inquiry to express readily what they know.

For most of us, our recollection of our school education bears no resemblance to learning through living books and narration. Instead, we were indoctrinated by way of the ubiquitous sets of questions on the board or at the end of passages in textbooks. Many of us dreaded the teacher singling us out with questions to test our knowledge or to provoke us to think, doubtless a left-over of the Socratic questioning practice.

The Socratic method has endured through the centuries, mutating from Socrates’ questioning of an individual disciple through a relentless probing for his ignorance and weakness of argument in order to bring about a change in his thinking, to today’s practice of the instructor’s aiming questions at a group orally or by textbook.

Still, we take questions for granted in the classroom. They are considered a teacher’s stock tool or technique to test knowledge and stimulate learning. The goal is assessment to assure the teacher that “learning” is happening, and unfortunately, thus exists more for the teacher’s sake than the students’. Consider the contrast with Miss Mason’s advice to teachers for discerning the child’s comprehension in a few sample passages:

When a child is reading, he should not be teased with questions as to the meaning of what he has read, the signification of this word or that; what is annoying to older people is equally annoying to children. Besides, it is not of the least consequence that they should be able to give the meaning of every word they read. A knowledge of meanings, that is, an ample and correct vocabulary, is only arrived at in one way—by the habit of reading. A child unconsciously gets the meaning of a new word from the context, if not the first time he meets with it, then the second or the third: but he is on the look-out, and will find out for himself the sense of any expression he does not understand. Direct questions on the subject-matter of what a child has read are always a mistake. Let him narrate what he has read, or some part of it. He enjoys this sort of consecutive reproduction, but abominates every question in the nature of a riddle. If there must be riddles, let it be his to ask and the teacher’s to direct him to the answer. (Home Education, p. 228)

They weary of talk, and questions bore them, so that they should be allowed to use their books for themselves; they will ask for such help as they wish for. (Toward a Philosophy of Education, p. 19)

… given the right book, it must not be diluted with talk or broken up with questions, but given to the boy in fit portions as wholesome meat for his mind, in the full trust that a child’s mind is able to deal with its proper food. (Home Education, p. 232)

Too much faith is commonly placed in oral lessons and lectures… “not exhilarating to any soul”; neither is it exhilarating to have every difficulty explained to weariness, or to have the explanation teased out of one by questions. “I will not be put to the question. Don’t you consider, sir, that these are not the manners of a gentleman? I will not be baited with what and why; what is this? what is that? why is a cow’s tail long? why is a fox’s tail bushy?” said Dr Johnson. This is what children think, though they say nothing. Oral lessons have their occasional use, and when they are fitly given it is the children who ask the questions. Perhaps it is not wholesome or quite honest for a teacher to pose as a source of all knowledge and to give ‘lovely’ lessons. Such lessons are titillating for the moment, but they give children the minimum of mental labour, and the result is much the same as that left on older persons by the reading of a magazine. (School Education, pp. 226-227)

This power of the mind to learn through self-questioning and how this is made use of in the classroom is further described in Toward a Philosophy of Education. Note she points out that the Socratic method may have some use, but not in school lessons:

Long ago, I was in the habit of hearing this axiom quoted by a philosophical old friend:— “The mind can know nothing save what it can produce in the form of an answer to a question put to the mind by itself.” … a conviction of its importance has been growing upon me during the last forty years. It tacitly prohibits questioning from without; (this does not, of course, affect the Socratic use of questioning for purposes of moral conviction); and it is necessary to intellectual certainty, to the act of knowing. For example, to secure a conversation or an incident, we ‘go over it in our minds’; that is, the mind puts itself through the process of self-questioning which I have indicated. This is what happens in the narrating of a passage read: each new consecutive incident or statement arrives because the mind asks itself,—“What next?” For this reason it is important that only one reading should be allowed; efforts to memorise weaken the power of attention, the proper activity of the mind; if it is desirable to ask questions in order to emphasize certain points, these should be asked after and not before, or during, the act of narration. (Toward a Philosophy of Education, pp. 16-17)

Further, note who she encourages to question in this example of her counsel for nature study:

He must be accustomed to ask why—Why does the wind blow? Why does the river flow? Why is a leaf-bud sticky? And do not hurry to answer his questions for him; let him think his difficulties out so far as his small experience will carry him. Above all, when you come to the rescue, let it not be in the ‘cut and dried’ formula of some miserable little text-book… (Home Education, p. 264)

Here we discover a clue to Miss Mason’s method. She respects the child’s desire to know and does not belittle him for his ignorance. Therefore, it is the child’s part to ask the questions, to inquire for more information according to his own appetite.

What a vivid contrast this presents to the Socratic method of pursuing by intensive and persistent questioning by the teacher to encourage the student to discover truth. Plato’s descriptions of Socrates’ conversations, the dogged stream of question upon question, produces in us a sympathy for the student under scrutiny to defend or repent his assertions. No where do we read Miss Mason’s support of such a method. She comments, if a bit graphically:

Of the means we employ to hinder the growth of mind perhaps none is more subtle than the questionnaire. It is as though one required a child to produce for inspection at its various stages of assimilation the food he consumed for his dinner; we see at once how the digestive processes would be hindered, how, in a word, the child would cease to be fed. But the mind also requires its food and leave to carry on those quiet processes of digestion and assimilation which it must accomplish for itself. The child with capacity, which implies depth, is stupified by a long rigmarole on the lines of,—“If John’s father is Tom’s son, what relation is Tom to John?” The shallow child guesses the riddle and scores; and it is by the use of tests of this kind that we turn out young people sharp as needles but with no power of reflection, no intelligent interests, nothing but the aptness of the city gamin. (Toward a Philosophy of Education, pp. 54-55)

…so we may not ask questions to help the child to reason, paint fancy pictures to help him to imagine, draw out moral lessons to quicken his conscience. These things take place as involuntarily as processes of digestion. (Toward a Philosophy of Education, p. 174)

Any insistence on the necessity to pursue inspection of a child’s mind by a tedious series of questions reminds me of Miss Mason’s code of education, that we are commanded not to offend, despise, or hinder the child by asserting our superiority or our authority intellectually over him in this exceedingly crucial task of educating. The teacher must guard against intervening between the child and his book (School Education, p. 181), but, with the right understanding of the role of the teacher and the nature of a child, however, there is no need to fear ever asking questions at all. She took her cue from her Lord, the Teacher of Teachers, to use questions in occasional opportune moments for specific purposes, rather than as Socrates did as a constant educational exercise. Throughout her volumes, Miss Mason acknowledges appropriate uses of questions in her living lessons. There is a place for the teacher to guide and direct a lesson to ensure the most benefit for the student. The teaching is found in the living story, as Christ used parables, the purpose aimed at the child learning through the narrative:

Let the pupil write for himself half a dozen questions which cover the passage studied; he need not write the answers if he be taught that the mind can know nothing but what it can produce in the form of an answer to a question put by the mind to itself. (School Education, p. 181)

She encourages the child’s questions, knows they occur naturally when ideas are stimulating. The child who wants to know, asks. Questions arise when reading and narrating from within the child himself and assist him in the process of knowing.

Questions that lead to a side issue or to a personal view are allowable because these interest children—‘What would you have done in his place?’ (Home Education, pp. 228-229)

The teacher’s part is, in the first place, to see what is to be done, to look over the work of the day in advance and see what mental discipline, as well as what vital knowledge, this and that lesson afford; and then to set such questions and such tasks as shall give full scope to his pupils’ mental activity. (School Education, p. 180)

These instructions indicate that a teacher could ask a question based on the child’s interest in a subject, and as part of planning for a lesson, could prepare a question that would arouse or direct the child’s interest or attention.

Then, there is her unique approach to the end-of-term examination. We find no excessive search for minute details in her questioning to determine what the child does not know, but questions that encourage narration of subjects studied during the term. Telling is encouraged by requests to “illustrate… show… tell all you know… describe… diagram… explain,” so the student can range through his mind and produce a vast amount of information on a subject. She may even ask “what?”, “why?”, or “who?” questions followed by encouragement to tell more (School Education, pp. 271-300).

It is Miss Mason’s trust in the Divine Educator, her confidence that we work in divine co-operation with the Holy Spirit, that caused her to endeavor to educate by allowing the child to learn for himself, to ask for himself, to find answers to the questions his own mind asked of itself from living books and things. She often mentions the example of Christ in teaching to multitudes through stories—parables—that each individual might draw what he needed from them, whereas Socrates favored singling out a few (Toward a Philosophy of Education, p. 332). Like her Lord, she trusted that questions would come when appealing ideas were sown, that the teacher’s part was not to drag answers out from within the pupil, nor to influence him from without. Like her Lord, her ultimate goal in all of a child’s education was for the child to realize a greater knowledge of God. It is most instructive to see how she followed His example by allowing the learner to come to this knowledge independently, with gentle leading and not insistent drilling, because she knew that in Him is found the answer to all questions.

Liz Cottrill is a homeschool mother, writer, and Charlotte Mason speaker. She owns and operates Living Book Libraryand Living Library press. She also co-hosts the podcast A Delectable Education. To learn more about Liz Cottrill, visit LivingBooksLibrary.com.

©2018 Liz Cottrill

3 Replies to “On Questions and Questioning”

  1. So very rich. Thank you so much. What a contrast to the typical educational methods. Oh how I love Charlotte Mason!

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