An Alternative to the Grammar School Grind
What an icy winter. Pottering around an ominously quiet house during the power outage, I kept hearing an eerie sound. Crack. Snap. Thud. The tops of trees broke under the weight of snow and ice, and fell to the forest floor – all morning.
Our prettiest maple is bowed but not broken. This is how I feel, in February too, sometimes.
Snug indoors I’ve been turning the pages of very different sorts of books. I keep meeting coincidences. Evidently, sympathetic minds think alike.
After wading through a tedious introduction in Hard Times, where a literary critic warns of it being dark and the weakest of Charles Dickens’ novels, I ventured forth half-heartedly. By chapter-two the pages went limp in my hand. No, I won’t put myself through the depression – not in winter, I decided.
I closed the book. But I couldn’t ignore Mr. Thomas Gradgrind. He is worth knowing for the pride he takes in a straightforward emphasis to education. The emphasis is familiar to us today – 150 years later! Miss Charlotte Mason refers to it as the “grammar school grind.”
Highlights of Chapter-one:
“Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to the Facts, Sir!” . . .
. . . The speaker’s obstinate carriage, square coat, square legs, square shoulders, - nay, this very neckcloth, trained to take him by the throat with an unaccommodating grasp, like a stubborn fact, as it was, - all helped the emphasis. . .
. . . The speaker, and the schoolmaster, and the third grown person present, all backed a little, and swept with their eyes the inclined plane of little vessels then and there arranged in order, ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until they were full to the brim. *1
Only One Kind of Food
On the academic assembly line facts take first place. Convenient for testing, they streamline the business in big classrooms, big schools. Memorize this heap of facts and you’ve really learned something - is the claim. Would these educators find it appalling that their philosophy is akin to Mr. Gradgrind? Probably not.
Miss Charlotte Mason believed that knowledge is a state of being, like friendship. I found this concept to be tantalizingly interesting when I first read it. To be knowledgeable is a little like being in love.
|Oh, I like this red wooden clapboard house|
To become knowledgeable we must have food-for-thought. Yet school children are served meager rations of food-for-thought. What they get instead are dry facts and information. “The mind is capable of dealing with only one kind of food; it lives, grows and is nourished upon ideas only; mere information is to it as a meal of sawdust to the body,” says Miss Mason.*2
Along with Charles Dickens, Charlotte Mason finds the Gradgrinds to be unwitting antagonists. She asks her readers to, “Look at any publisher’s list of school books and you will find that the books recommended are carefully . . . drained of the least suspicion of an idea, reduced to the driest statements of fact.” She sought to put children directly in touch with the best thoughts of the best minds. When is school boring? When once-curious children are left starving for something to think about.
“The mind feeds on ideas and therefore children should have a generous curriculum.”
“Varied reading “as well as human thought expressed in the forms of art, is not a luxury, a tid-bit, to be given to children now and then, but their very bread of life, which they must have in abundant portions and at regular periods.” *3
Padding the Facts
Facts are needed. My son loves science facts – still. Yet, there are different ways of dealing with them. One is to memorize as many as possible. This is accomplished with incentives: grades, games, competition, prizes, awards, food and entertainment.
|A curious rabbit lives dangerously|
There is a better way.
Clothe facts in literary language. Living books, with their “great amount of padding,” are necessary for giving children the opportunity to dig out facts for themselves. Books of literary power have, too, a sprinkling of ideas - woven neatly and colorfully, often by way of a story-aspect. Children find them interesting.
Let’s delve. Let’s look into the background of the discoveries in history and science. Let’s consider the interpretations of creative minds through: prose, poetry, music, plays, painting, sculpture, or architecture. The “great amount of padding” gives us something to think - and care - about.
In a journal entry dated November 13, 1958, the American teacher John Holt, wrote, “Kids have trouble with arithmetic, not only because they have to memorize a host of facts that seem to have no pattern, meaning, or interest, but also because they are given a host or rules for manipulating these facts, which they have to take on faith. . . .” He found the Cuisenaire rods helpful. Not only do they “enable the child to discover, by himself, how to carry out certain operations, but also that they enable him to satisfy himself that these operations really work, really describe what happens.”
Charlotte Mason and John Holt opened their eyes to how the streamline teach-and-test method is a routine that hinders real learning. Mr. Holt saw symptoms of the grammar school grind in his classroom. “I have . . . seen children crank out right answers to problems without the faintest idea of what they were doing. They are blind recipe followers. Some can even parrot back my explanations, but again without knowing what they mean.” *4 He gives us an illustration. What good is it if a child can memorize all the names of the streets in his town – yet is not given - and cannot follow - a route from one place to another? To pile facts one on top of another doesn’t mean we are empowering children with useful knowledge.
The Art of Knowing
In his June 20, 1960 entry, John Holt suggests a handful of unconventional ways for testing understanding. You can imagine my a-ha moment when I read what was first on the list. Most obvious to him was to “ask the student to state something in his own words.”*5 The Charlotte-Mason-minded reader is giving a nod of her head. It is by narrating that children do the work of digging out facts and ideas. The effort a student puts into forming a narration self-teaches – and it demonstrates understanding. You can see the beauty of how and why this works in the narration chapters of A Charlotte Mason Companion.
My children also enjoyed hands-on learning. Drawing is a kind of narration. Nature study is hands-on. So is doing a phonics lesson with movable letters and understanding math concepts with math manipulatives. This keeps the lessons light and meaningful.
Touch, hold, move, create, build, experiment, try this out, is learning by doing. While the doing is “hands-on” the mind is “right-on”:
I wonder. . .
What does this make?
If I do this . . .
How would this work?
I’ll try this.
Will it work again if I . . ?
Oh, I see.
"Mom. Look. I made j-e-t,” says the little boy pointing to his movable letters – a little boy who finds cause and effect - magical. The same little boy takes a measuring tape his mother gives him from out of her sewing box and bee-bops around the house with it, measuring things and calling out the number of inches to her. Can you tell I’ve been getting reports on the telephone about my grandson?
Persons, Not Parrots
Children are persons - not parrots. I can’t resist sharing one more coincidence with you from my winter reading.
In Jonathan and Sarah I was met with the subject of fact-swallowing yet again. Further back in time, in the mid 18th century, Jonathon Edwards was investigating the school situation within his realm of responsibility. He was concerned when he discovered that the Mohawk Indians, who were being taught to read English, had no comprehension. The children could “read words accurately but with no sense of their meaning. He was fired with a vision to start a method of teaching reading according to his own ideas . . . His logical mind balked at parrot learning. He felt more time should be spent helping the children understand thoughts.”
In his own words Jonathan Edwards (who later became the president of Princeton University) says,
“This will be a rational way of teaching. Assisting the child’s reason enables him to see the use, and end, and result of reading, at the same time that he takes pains from day to day to read. It is the way also to accustom the child from its infancy to think and reflect, and beget in it an early taste for knowledge, and a regular increasing appetite for it.” *6
I rejoiced in these coincidences.
Keep sauntering through your living books with their “great amount of padding” (Miss Mason’s words) and other learning experiences. It is a labor of love due by-and-by to show itself in happy consequences.
Give us this day our daily bread.
Click any image to enlarge.
Click any image to enlarge.
*1 Charles Dickens, Hard Times, 1854, Chapter One
*2 Charlotte Mason, A Philosophy of Education, 1925, page 105
*3 Ibid, page 111
*4 John Holt, How Children Fail, Dell Pub, 1964, page 107
*5 Ibid, page136
*6 Edna Gerstner, Jonathon and Sarah – An Uncommon Union - A Novel Based on the Family of Jonathan and Sarah Edwards (The Stockbridge Years, 1750-1758), Soli Deo Gloria Pub, 1995 (out-of-print) pages 45 - 46