Thursday, July 24, 2014

How to fail at teaching--and it's more work to fail (School Education)

At the end of School Education, Charlotte Mason does talk very specifically about what a curriculum based on her "educational manifesto"--she jokingly refers to it as the Children's Magna Carta--would look like.  Or what it did look like in 1903, twelve years after the Parents' National Educational Union had begun to offer a formal curriculum.  I tend to think of this time in the P.U.S. as sort of its adolescence, if childhood was the beginning period in the 1890's, and maturity was sometime in the teens through the time of Mason's death in 1923.  Middle age?--the still-going-strong nineteen-twenties, thirties, forties, probably till after the war.   Declining years would be the time of increasing school standardization, changing culture, and other things that seemed to de-popularize PNEU methods, at least for a while.

But anyway, what she's describing here is not too far off from the format of the term programmes I'm more familiar with, those of the 1920's and early 1930's.  There are some book differences, especially in subjects like mathematics and grammar, and some of the subjects aren't as fleshed-out here as they were later on, but the overall shape of the curriculum had been pretty much set by this time.  In fact, she suggests that the PNEU had now been "beta-tested" enough in private homes to be recommended to classroom teachers.

Buried in those notes just before the end of the book, she gives a list of six causes of failure in education.

a)  Too many oral lessons.
b)  Too many lectures.
c)  Too many "text-books."
d)  Focusing on any intellectual motivation other than the desire of knowledge, e.g. prizes, liking the teacher
e)  Too many gadgets, manipulatives and models
f)  Too many "Readers."

Four out of those six items on the list are basically the same thing: read books, real books.  Isn't that a relief for teachers?  Maybe not such good news for textbook publishers, but doesn't that actually take the pressure off the rest of us?

You do not have to know everything. You do not have to spend hours Googling information and activities to teach the circulatory system or the Elizabethan stage. You do not need to buy out the teacher's store, or have every science kit in the homeschool catalogue. You do not need a rack of expensive teaching posters, or a boxful of stickers. You do not have to depend either on your own superior knowledge, or on the availability of the latest technology.  It seems to me that you'd have to put more effort and money into these less productive activities, than you would in simply offering a generous serving of books, sauced with some real things and other "affinities."  It's less burdensome to do what's more let the students dig for themselves.
For some reason that reminds me of one of John Holt's books*, where he had bought a Polaroid camera and decided, on the spur of the moment, to unbox it and try it out right there in the classroom. Here's a package, here's what's in it, here's the camera, here's the instruction booklet, let's try it out together. What's this for? What if we try that?  Can I do it too?  This may sound like it's getting away from Charlotte's emphasis on books and natural objects, but here's my point:  this activity came out of something real.  It did not take John Holt hours to plan.  It did not come with worksheets or a quiz afterwards.  It did not come in a package marked "Afternoon with a Polaroid Camera: Oral Communication and Technology Objectives."   It wasn't a lecture, it wasn't even an oral lesson--it was an experience with a real thing that grownups were using. Yes, the kids enjoyed it partly because they liked John Holt, but what they really wanted to know was what was in the box and how it worked.

Charlotte repeats her point on page 247, the last page of the main text:  "that the young people shall learn what history is, what literature is, what life is, from the living books of those who know."  Yes, she says, many of the best schools did use books, but, in her opinion, not enough of them, and they didn't make full use of them.  So she adds appendices to show "how a wide curriculum and the use of many books work in the Parents' Review School."**

*Holt's book What Do I Do Monday? has some fantastic ideas for getting kids engaged with concepts such as size, speed, and strength, using "real" measurement tools.

**What the Parents' Union School was called at that time.

(For related posts, click on the Volume Three label below.)

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