Monday, February 8, 2010

A Pedagogy of Life for Life

“To be Queen Elizabeth within a definite area, deciding sales, banquets, labors, and holidays; to be Whitely within a certain area, providing toys, boots, cakes, and books; to be Aristotle within a certain area, teaching morals, manners, theology, and hygiene; I can understand how this might exhaust the mind, but I cannot imagine how it could narrow it. How can it be a large career to tell other people’s children about the Rule of Three, and a small career to tell one’s own children about the universe? How can it be broad to be the same thing to everyone and narrow to be everything to someone? No, a woman’s function is laborious, but because it is gigantic, not because it is minute.” G.K. Chesterton taken from “What’s wrong with the World.”

I yearn to claim this “gigantic” function and excel in it. Counter cultural? Yes. For a well educated woman to forgo an out of home career to pursue the passe realm of mothering and educating one’s own children elicits frowns from less enlightened individuals. Yet, doesn’t Chesterton make it sound more than fulfilling? To act as Queen Elizabeth, Whitely, Aristotle? To open the universe to your child and be everything to them? This quickens my heart; brings it to life.
Yet if I do step aside from full time engagement in society to guide those within my home for a decade or so I need to make it count. So the question is, how can I best craft my home into a center for intellectual stimulation for someone in Piaget’s pre-operational stage? From his studies I learn that my three year old is not yet fully able to learn in abstract ways, through reading Shakespeare or working algorithms persay. He must learn concretely. I also learn that he is difficult to teach as he cannot fully see from my perspective and I need to recognize his lens as egocentric. Therefore, I must form his learning environment to cooperate with his perspective. I cannot coerce him to work from mine. I must give him hands on manipulatives to use to usher him further on to the path of development. As Lewis urges in The Last Battle, “Further up and further in.” I am creating the scaffolding on which the building of his mind will occur.
I must turn to the greats to shape my quest. Two educational theorists whom I greatly respect are Maria Montessori and Rudolph Steiner. Their theories cooperate in some areas and contradict each other in others. For example, Montessori believes that children should be kept from imaginative and phantastical play until they are around the age of eight as it would muddy their attempts to understand and order their universe. Steiner on the other hand shapes the majority of his pedagogy around the world of fairy tale. He believes that in order to usher a young person deeper into humanity you must awaken their spirit through their imagination. Only once this understanding of reality, coming through the medium of the imagination, blossoms can people begin to be taught about the rest of creation with proper foundations. Despite these fundamental differences in theory these two teachers both recognize something I see as very important for preschool aged children, especially in light of Piaget’s research. They each recognize the importance of creating the educational environment completely around the needs of the child. (Piaget)
Montessori said that, “From the moment the child enters the classroom, each step in his education is seen as a progressive building block, ultimately forming the whole person, in the emergence from childhood to adult. All focus is on the needs of the child.” This care manifests itself in her formation of the physical classroom. In every detail she adapts the space to that of a child, lowering tables, making tools accessible and orderly, etc. One of her classrooms is even called Lilliput, after those in Gulliver’s Travels. She reduces size of objects but not size of respect of children. Her every move involves the children in important and necessary parts of daily life; teaching them how to mimic and accomplish actual tasks. This approach is far from oppressive despite its mundaneness. The work done is productive, immediate, teaching both fine and gross motor skills through productive activities. It is empowering as it enables children to feel like legitimate and helpful members of their worlds. She doesn’t motivate children extrinsically through grades, but intrinsically through igniting a child’s interest in learning through presenting materials to them that will stimulate their minds and hands. (Montessori)
A difficulty implicit in reproducing these environments within one’s home is that both Steiner and Montessori’s methods focus greatly on the benefit of allowing children to learn together, not from competition, but from modeling. Montessori had children aged 3-7 in the same classroom using the same materials, teaching each other as individuals reached mastery of certain skills. Older children’s knowledge was reinforced through it’s teaching and younger children were able to learn through watching someone extremely accessible and similar to themselves. It inspires in them a desire to also reach mastery so that they can in turn feel proud of themselves as they helpfully teach others. The delight inherent in this method naturally shapes intrinsic motivation for a child.
Steiner agreed with both Piaget and Montessori in believing that early childhood education should be sensory, imitative, and experiential. The education emphasizes learning through practical activities. Large chunks of time are provided for “guided free play.” Natural materials are used and examples of productive work are provided and children are invited to join in. Children are pushed outside every day to learn through nature, and understanding the basic human need for tradition and rhythm Steiner strongly focused on drawing children into the rhythms of a year through seasonal activities, and observance of annual religious festivals. A love for language is fostered within a child through exposure to poetry, oral storytelling, and songs before there is any focus on grammar and writing. Steiner discouraged young children’s exposure to recorded music, computers, and television as he believed them to be harmful to a child’s development. (Steiner)
What can I take away from these treasure houses of learning? I will try to make a room for my sons where tables and items are to their scale so that they are unimpaired in their learning. I will make the items they need daily accessible to them instead of keeping them out of reach to reduce mess, and will provide them in a very orderly manner with a consistent and rational place for each item to be kept. As Montessori did I will focus on their personal responsibility in mimicking tidiness and care of their space, providing all they need for such tasks such as brooms, sponges, and simple and straight forward organizational systems. As Steiner suggested I’ll greatly diminish the amount of exposure they have to movies, although I think I will continue to play Mozart and Wagner in our home. I believe that the hearing of masterpieces like Tristan and Isulde is essential and since I am not proficient in any instrument I will not stunt my children’s minds by removing music from their lives. I will study their personalities and anticipate the projects that will draw them in particular into learning and gently turn their gaze in those directions.
Understanding children’s learning styles, I will be more intentional about increasing their shared play time with other children of varied ages so that they can grow together both in mastery of skills and knowledge and in social skills. Knowing the proclivity of those in my family toward unhealthy competitiveness, I will seek to encourage play that engages in cooperation for shared victory.
Instead of hammering into my boys the mechanics of the English language I will try to invite them into an ongoing love affair where they pursue literature because it excites them. We will create and illustrate our own stories. We will continue to gather every evening to read before bed, and ensure that each book is rich and worth absorbing. We will have scheduled stops in the mornings to listen to a bit of poetry.
I will try to wrap their lives in rhythm, providing them that safe structure of routine within which children thrive. This will be my greatest challenge as I am an unstructured (although not unprincipled) person. But, I will try to overcome that weakness within myself for the sake of my sons and craft a daily “liturgy” filled with “hard stops” as Anne Voskamp describes in her blog A Holy Experience. (Voskamp)
Daily we shall pile on the coats and adventure into the great outdoors peeking under leaves and behind trees to discover the world we live in. We will bring nature in to our home and give it a place of honor where we can study it under magnifying glasses, look it up in field guides, and label it to keep. And in all and through all I shall weave an introduction to Immanuel, God with us, teaching them to follow the advice of the great Scottish theologian George MacDonald. “Let us in all the troubles of life remember that our one lack is life- that what we need is more life- more of the Life making presence in us, making us more and more largely, alive. When most oppressed, when most weary of “life” as our unbelief would phrase it, let us remember that it is in fact the inroad and presence of death we are weary of. When most inclined to sleep, let us rouse ourselves to live. Of all things let us avoid the false refuge of a weary collapse, a hopeless yielding to things as they are... He has the victory who in the midst of pain and weakness, cries out, not for the repose of forgetfulness, but for strength to fight, for more power, more consciousness of being, more God in him. ... Saying, “I am weary, but not so weary that I would not see the sun rise.” (MacDonald)
As Confucius said, “To put the world right in order, we must first put the nation in order; to put the nation in order, we must first put the family in order; to put the family in order, we must first cultivate our personal life; we must first set our hearts right.” (Confucius) I hope that through this Pedagogy of Life I will help my boys to set their hearts right, and in so doing might help “put the world right in order.” If I succeed in doing this I will believe that my time in my home is quite well spent. Won’t you?

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