Today I stumbled across a couple of articles which were very timely, given that I wanted to use this first post to summarize why I think education is about feeding the whole person. The first touched on some issues relating to the nature of education and how learning takes place. The second raised concerns that the goal of education has shifted to passing tests. The third was suggesting that constraints on curriculum are killing students’ “thirst for knowledge”. Obviously there is variation in what goes on in classrooms all over the U.K. and I know that their are many different views out there, but the reality is that these concerns and ideas are being voiced by a larger and larger number of people and so the need for reflection is growing ever greater. I’m sure there are many teachers who feel the pressure to conform whilst trying desperately to hold onto their convictions.
This was brought home to me in a personal way this week when speaking to one child known to me who was becoming anxious about the amount they (as a year 2) were expected to write and the way they felt they were being compared to Year ones in the same class. When the parent broached the eubject with the teacher, it was clear that she felt the pressure for the child to jump through certain hoops, whether or not they were developmentally ready to do so. I’m sure her intention was never to induce anxiety but that was the result. It strikes me that we each need to consider what part we are playing, passively or otherwise, as parents as teachers, in contributing to this scenario, if we are not speaking out or intervening in some way.
So I would like to appeal to the common sense convictions of all those out there who share these concerns – it is only when we can remind ourselves what it means to be a human person that we will be properly equipped to decide what the goal and methods of a true education look like.
I use the term whole person because I think we need to recover a view of personhood which acknowledges the non-physical part of our make-up (as well as the physical). There is more to us as human beings than meets the eye – quite literally. This was foundational to Charlotte Mason’s philosophy and methods. In fact, she could identify with many of the concerns that parents and teachers feel today – that she was part of a system which was not cultivating a love for learning in children. She saw them sometimes bored by lessons or failing to assimilate knowledge in the way that she hoped they would as a new teacher with the zeal an enthusiasm that many of us set out with. She saw the need for an education that was more than merely utilitarian in it’s approach – one which would “qualify children for life rather than for a living… The more of a person we succeed in making a child, the better will he (or she) both fulfill his own life and serve society.” Consequently she dedicated her life to searching for a way of teaching that would enable children to fulfill their potential as individuals, as citizens and ultimately become people who loved learning, not just because it was useful to them, but because it helped them to grow as a person.
She summarized the non-physical part of a person under the category of “mind”, including faculties such as intellect, reason, will, imagination, affections – the spirit or soul of a person – the thinking, choosing, decision making center. She made a clear distinction between brain and mind. Brain is the instrument of mind just “as a piano is not music, but the instrument of it”. It is the means by which our thoughts are sent and received but not the thoughts themselves – they are more than just physical impulses. Ideas are non-material.
“The message for our age is, Believe in mind, and let education go straight as a bolt to the mind of the pupil.” (Charlotte Mason)
So we must first acknowledge the whole person, but why should education be about feeding that person?
Charlotte Mason put it this way: just as the body requires food, exercise and rest for nourishment, so too does the mind of a person. And if mind, by nature, is non material, then it requires non-material food, that is ideas. From this truth, she applied the principle that, “if the mind feeds on ideas, children must have a generous curriculum.” By generous she referred to quality as well as quantity of diet. So the role of the teacher becomes that of feeding the mind of the child by laying before them a feast of the best ideas presented in literature, science, art, music, geography, history, to name but a few. But one of the things that really attracts me to Charlotte Mason’s approach is her ability to hold certain ideas in tension which are sometimes seen as conflicting with one another today, evaluating them so effectively that she was able to take the best and truest of various philosophies and apply them in a method that had delightful results:
She respected the role of the teacher in preparing this feast of knowledge and presenting it to the children, but warned of the dangers of over-explaining which she recognized often led to children switching off or getting bored. She had ultimate respect for the role of the indivual child in responding to the knowledge and digesting it themselves by a process of reflection, discussion and telling back what they had learned. She didn’t believe in just telling children stuff and hoping they would remember it. She acknowledged the role of personhood in accepting or rejecting an idea as well as the responsibility of the child to do the work of “knowing”. Just as the digestive process is an internal one for the body, so to for the mind. It cannot be done to a child by a teacher, it must be done by the mind of the child. (She developed a very specific method for enabling children to assimilate knowledge which I hope to summarize in a later post on narration and the habit of attention.)
In this sense she had a high view of knowledge but also the innate ability of the child’s mind to deal with it. In our day, might we describe it as teacher led, knowledge-based discovery learning? I would be interested to know people’s thoughts on this. Anyway…
There are other ways that she held such ideas in tension, applying them in very practical ways, which I hope to explore and summarise in later posts. For now, suffice it to say that she discovered a method, the value of which was borne out by “the unusual interest children show in their work, their power of concentration, their wide, and… accurate knowledge of historical, literary and some scientific subjects” as well as the way in which children learnt the power of self direction and regulation which is foundational to all learning and growth: education that feeds the whole person, for life.
“In our schools every child has been discovered to be a person of infinite possibilities...How the children have revelled in knowledge! And how good and interesting all their answers are! How well they spell on the whole and how well they write! We do not need the testimony of their teachers that the work of the term has been joyous; the verve with which the children tell what they know proves the fact. Every one of these children knows that there are hundreds of pleasant places for the mind to roam in. They are good and happy because some little care has been taken to know what they are and what they require; a care very amply rewarded by results which alter the whole outlook on education.” (Mind to Mind, p.24)
“Mind to Mind”, by Charlotte Mason and Karen Glass
“Minds More Awake”, by Anne E White