Talk Less, Ask More

In my last post, I explored the idea that “thinking love”[1] is expressed in part by a habit of seeking knowledge in areas of personal ignorance in the care of a child.  At the time, I was perplexed about how to “get” my newly-thirteen-year-old son to think more deeply about ideas that confronted him from school texts and life in general.  I had begun to detect what I thought was a tendency toward a lack of care in his thinking, a negligence toward his duty to attend.  To inform my ignorance, I returned to a passage by Charlotte Mason that I have studied in past years, but that instructed - and convicted! - me in a fresh way.  In this passage, she uses the term incuria, which means a lack of care, negligence, or neglect.

But what about intellectual tendencies, or 'possibilities for evil'? One such tendency dominates many schools notwithstanding prodigious efforts on the part of the teachers to rouse slumbering minds. Indeed, the more the teacher works, the greater the incuria of the children, so the class is prodded with marks, the boys take places, the bogie of an oncoming examination is held before them. Some spasmodic effort is the result but no vital response and, though boys and girls love school, like their teachers and even their lessons, they care not at all for knowledge, for which the school should create enthusiasm. I can touch here on no more than two potent means of creating incuria in a class. One is the talky-talky of the teacher. We all know how we are bored by the person in private life who explains and expounds. What reason have we to suppose that children are not equally bored? They try to tell us that they are by wandering eyes, inanimate features, fidgeting hands and feet, by every means at their disposal; and the kindly souls among us think that they want to play or to be out of doors. But they have no use for play except at proper intervals. What they want is knowledge conveyed in literary form and the talk of the facile teacher leaves them cold.[2] (italics mine)

This text opened my eyes.  My son’s “wandering eyes, inanimate features, fidgeting hands and feet” did not indicate a lack of care.  It indicated that I was off-method.  My “talky-talky” was leaving him cold.

As identified by Charlotte Mason, there is an inverse relationship between how much the teacher works and the extent of incuria in students.  Specifically, how much the teacher works at talking. 

Talking is work.  And it can lead to feeling tired and overwhelmed, which I was feeling.  Another inform-my-ignorance book that I have read recently at the suggestion of my husband, addresses this from the angle of coaching (by a boss) in the workplace.  The title is a good summary of the topic: The Coaching Habit: How to Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever. [3]  Its premise is that talking less while asking more strategic questions is usually a better way to lead because it develops individuals.  He calls this a coaching for development habit in contrast to coaching for performance.  There are many reasons to develop this habit for the sake of the one being coached.  And in school where we are definitely aimed at development and not performance, these reasons shine.  But the author also outlines three significant drawbacks for the coach for not developing this habit of talking less and asking more.  Not coaching for development creates overdependence, leads to the coach being overwhelmed, and the coach becomes disconnected from the work that matters.[4] I was starting to sense signs of overdependence and disconnection, and I was overwhelmed!

The solution: ask more strategic questions, talk less.

This sounded familiar.  After all, this is a critical part of Charlotte Mason’s method of education.  The text is on the top of the educational triangle, not the teacher…Echoes of Bill St Cyr’s voice from the Ambleside internships admonished me to stay “on method” and to “trust the method.” 

There are many areas in which I can grow “on method,” but one that I am focusing on now is how to ask open-ended questions during the response time.  One question that the coaching book calls the AWE question and claims “has magical properties” is, “And what else?”   “With seemingly no effort, it creates more – more wisdom, more insights, more self-awareness, more possibilities – out of thin air.”[5]  It suggests that this follow-up question be posed after asking an initial question.  I can see it playing out like this in my schoolroom:

Teacher: What relationship do you see between Uncle Tom and Mr. Shelby in these first few chapters?

Student: Uncle Tom is a slave and Mr. Shelby is his owner.

Teacher: And what else?

Student: It seems like Mr. Shelby likes Uncle Tom because he didn’t want to sell him. But I don’t understand why he sold him anyway.

Teacher to the class: Who has an idea about this?

Student 2: Maybe because he felt a lot of pressure.

Teacher: And what else? (And a conversation around the text ensues.)

Equally important for me is to not be insecure when my son doesn't express all that I thought was important in the text.  In this way, I must trust the method, which comes down to trusting the Holy Spirit to be his teacher[6] while I talk less, and ask more.

[1] Mason, Charlotte.  Home Education, Vol. 1, pp. 2-3.

[2] Mason, Charlotte.  A Philosophy of Education, Vol. 6, pp. 52-53.

[3] Stanier, Michael Bungay.  The Coaching Habit: How to Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever

[4] Ibid, pp. 9-10.

[5] Ibid, pp. 57-58.

[6] I wrote about this in a blog four years ago.  Yep, I am still learning.