Saturday, September 26, 2015

Jewels of Astonishing Worth Part 2 - Should instruction be left to experts?

Lately, culture here in America has encouraged parents to send their young children to formal programs for preschool and kindergarten.  People assume that trained professionals need to prepare children for school.

Charlotte Mason says parents must direct and instruct rather than defer to professional educators.
“It seems to me that we live in an age of pedagogy; that we of the teaching profession are inclined to take too much upon ourselves, and that parents are ready to yield the responsibility of direction, as well as of actual instruction, more than is wholesome for the children.” 
CM Volume 1 p. 169
She also suggests that parents must learn educational principles and decide how to apply them in their own home, rather than trying to replicate in the home what the schools are doing.
“Though every mother should be a Kindergartnerin, in the sense in which Froebel would employ the term, it does not follow that every nursery should be a regularly organised Kindergarten. Indeed, the machinery of the Kindergarten is no more than a device to ensure the carrying out of certain educational principles, and some of these it is the mother's business to get at, and work out according to Froebel's methods––or her own.”  
CM Volume 1 p. 178
Many considerations may lead to this preference that parents take charge of their children's educations, not least being that parents have the most personal interest in the well being of their own children.  Just the fact of being a parent apparently confers some skill in working with children.
“Overall, being a parent may confer a special advantage.  One recent study compared children’s interactions with parents and with other well-intentioned adults who were not parents.  Parents did a much better job of guiding the children’s language, even if the children weren’t their own.”
Jane Healy, Ph.D., Endangered Minds p. 94 

Charlotte Mason recognizes that a well conducted preschool or kindergarten can be beautiful.  An exceptional teacher may impress, but not all teachers are exceptional.
“It is hardly necessary, here, to discuss the merits of the Kindergarten school. The success of such a school demands rare qualities in the teacher––high culture, some knowledge of psychology and of the art of education; intense sympathy with the children, much tact, much common sense, much common information, much 'joyousness of nature,' and much governing power;––in a word, the Kindergarten method is nicely contrived to bring the child en rapport with a superior intelligence. Given such a superior being to conduct it, and the Kindergarten is beautiful––'tis like a little heaven below'; but put a commonplace woman in charge of such a school, and the charmingly devised gifts and games and occupations become so many instruments of wooden teaching. If the very essence of the Kindergarten method is personal influence, a sort of spiritual mesmerism, it follows that the mother is naturally the best Kindergartnerin; for who so likely as she to have the needful tact, sympathy, common sense, culture?”

Even in such a lovely and unusual situation, the teacher manipulates the environment to make it so pleasant--and this, says Charlotte Mason, is not ideal.
“Our first care should be to preserve the individuality, to give play to the personality, of children.”

The charming teacher encourages the children to be good through her “zeal and enthusiasm”, and at home the children do not behave so well, but the school environment is for that reason probably not best for these young children.
“Most of us are misled by our virtues, and the entire zeal and enthusiasm of the Kindergartnerin is perhaps her stone of stumbling. 'But the children are so happy and good!' Precisely; the home-nursery is by no means such a scene of peace, but I venture to think it a better growing place.”

In this artificial environment, all ideas pass through teacher--and this is also not ideal.
“Everything is directed, expected, suggested. No other personality out of book, picture, or song, no, not even that of Nature herself, can get at the children without the mediation of the teacher. No room is left for spontaneity or personal initiation on their part.”
CM Volume 1 p. 188
Besides, too much peer interaction overstimulates children.
“The clash and sparkle of our equals now and then stirs up to health; but for everyday life, the mixed society of elders, juniors and equals, which we get in a family, gives at the same time the most repose and the most room for individual development. We have all wondered at the good sense, reasonableness, fun and resourcefulness shown by a child in his own home as compared with the same child in school life.”

In the next post in this series, we'll look at what Charlotte Mason and modern researchers say about what preschoolers really need.  What works, and why?

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Jewels of Astonishing Worth Part 1 - What is a child?

Have you ever felt pressured to send a child to a preschool or Mother’s Day Out because if you didn’t, your child would somehow be less?

Ever worried that if you didn’t make sure your child mastered identifying shapes and colors, letters and numbers, counting, reading, or some other subject before kindergarten that your child would start school at a disadvantage?

Have you been concerned that keeping your child at home with you would warp the child’s personality, creating a clingy child afraid to venture out?

Our culture today tells us that young children must have professional educators to shape and mold them, or at the least have formal instruction, before they can be ready for the rest of their school career.

Even homeschoolers often find these arguments convincing.  But are they true?  What do young children need to prepare them for learning and life?

Charlotte Mason lived during the Victorian era, when these same pressures came to bear on parents.  She knew that at its heart this was a question of assumptions about what children are and what they need.
“But is the baby more than a 'huge oyster'? That is the problem before us and hitherto educators have been inclined to answer it in the negative. Their notion is that by means of a pull here, a push there, a compression elsewhere a person is at last turned out according to the pattern the educator has in his mind.
The other view is that the beautiful infant frame is but the setting of a jewel of such astonishing worth that, put the whole world in one scale and this jewel in the other, and the scale which holds the world flies up outbalanced.”
Charlotte Mason Volume 6 pp. 33-34

When considering any educational theory, we need to know what that theory assumes about the nature of children and how they learn.  Is the child a lump of clay to be molded by adults?  Is the child a receptacle to fill with information?  Charlotte Mason's methods, tested and refined over decades of work in schools and homes, rests solidly on her 20 Principles.  The first point on Charlotte Mason's list of principles, truths we know about children and education, is this:
“Children are born persons.”
CM Volume 1 p. 5

Charlotte Mason believed that children were precious treasures, already, from the beginning, and were actual people from the start.  One significance of this point is that children come already with a mind prepared to learn.  We do not have to prepare them for learning.
“Reason is present in the infant as truly as imagination. As soon as he can speak he lets us know that he has pondered the 'cause why' of things and perplexes us with a thousand questions. His 'why?' is ceaseless.”
CM Volume 6 p. 37

From the start, according to Mason, an infant* "perceive[s] and receive[s]" from the world about him.
“His [the infant’s] business is to perceive and receive and these he does day in and day out.”
CM Volume 6 p. 34

Rather than relying on parents or educators, the child's mind produces his education.
“. . . he always has all the mind he requires for his occasions; that is, that his mind is the instrument of his education and that his education does not produce his mind.”
CM Volume 6 p. 36

Modern neurological research supports this view of the young child's mind.
“Genes set the outlines of mental ability, but the way children use their brains determines how their intelligence is expressed.  The experiences with which a child chooses to interact determine each brain’s synaptic structure as well as the way it functions for different types of learning.  If children change the way they use their brains, their synapses are rearranged accordingly.  The more they are used in a certain pattern of response, the less flexible they appear to become.”
Jane Healy, Ph.D. Endangered Minds p. 81
“External pressure designed to produce learning or intelligence violates the fundamental rule: A healthy brain stimulates itself by active interaction with what it finds challenging and interesting in its environment.”
Healy pp. 81-82

Do we believe that our children are jewels of astonishing worth?  Or do we believe that they cannot shine without our constant active intervention?

*"Infant" here includes toddlers and probably preschoolers as well.

Articles and Research - Read more about best practices during the preschool years.

Posts in this series: