The Parents' Review
A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture
"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
During the enforced idleness of some months' convalescence in Belgium, I spent a good deal of time in visiting one of the schools, and the method of teaching seemed so admirable that a short account of it may be interesting to parents and teachers, and I hope it may be helpful to others as it certainly has been to me.
From kindergarten to highest grade, it is one progressive course, one perfect chain in which the instruction is so graduated that there is no sudden break, no time at which a pupil need feel as if she had lost her bearing and was launched upon a strange sea out of sight of her old landmarks. Each link of the chain is visibly and of necessity joined to the one before and the one after it, so that no past work seems wasted, and no future work impossible or incongruous. The whole school seems a realisation of the "ideal lesson" so graphically described in the "Journal of Education" more than a year ago, and which sounded like an impossible "Counsel of Perfection."
The teachers are so enthusiastic in their work that the pupils are morally obliged to do their best, and so far as I could judge, that best seemed to be done without undue straining of their powers.
No books whatever are used in class except for grammar and mathematics in the higher grades, and for reading in the "cours maternal." No preparation is set without full explanation, and for the lower classes there is no home work whatever.
Of course the labour of the teachers is enormously increased by having to give every lesson extempore; but the interest is thereby rendered unflagging, and whatever is learnt must be learnt thoroughly, as the children have to explain it to themselves. No one study is isolated from the others. History is illustrated by geography; geography introduces geometry and geology, and so on. The natural science mistress took me over the "cabinet de physique," in which there are working models of pumps, levers, electrical machines, etc., etc., and the few lessons I was lucky enough to hear her give were illustrated by these models, and the home work of the girls was to be the finding of examples in ordinary domestic life of each law given, or the working out of some simple experiment.
I should like to describe all the lessons, but the same spirit of enthusiasm and keenness pervaded them all; and I shall never forget the eager upturned faces of the pupils, and the clear, patient, thorough treatment of each subject by the teachers. They don't only lecture, they don't only catchise, they don't only illustrate, but the whole method from first to last is a teaching to think rather than a mere giving of lessons,-- in fact a real education.
The kindergarten is a bona fide "garden of children,"-- not an infant school, as so many so-called kindergartens in England are. Of lessons properly so called there are none,-- no reading or writing or doing of sums, but healthy, happy occupations for the mind and body, fulfilling more nearly than anything I have seen the blessed ideal of Fröbel's inspiration. The kindergartener is an enthusiast, like all who fall under the influence of the head mistress, and, she carries the little children on with her, without any flagging of attention, teaching them to think, to observe, to handle, to describe, to reason, to construct, letting them use their strength bodily and mental, so that it grows slowly and surely day by day: and when they are ready to leave the kindergarten they are moved to the "cours maternal," where they begin to learn the rudiments of reading, writing and arithmetic, the letters being taught from a black board and a box of blocks, till the children are thoroughly familiar with their shapes and sounds. One obvious advantage of this method is that the little ones do no stoop over books or struggle with small print at first, and another is that they have the pleasure of moving about in turn to point out the letter or combination of letters required. In the kindergarten they learn many little manual occupations, and every child, however young, accomplishes some piece of work, as a surprise for his or her parents at the end of the term, which is closed by the "distribution des prix," which this year took place in a large circus. (As far as I understand the examinations are not competitive and "cramming" is of little or no use). The ceremony will always stand out in my memory as a picturesque and interesting sight. By 10:30 a.m., half the auditorium was filled with pupils in white, and after the prizes and certificates of the higher classes had been presented by some municipal magnate amid fanfares of trumpets, the arena was cleared and the piano struck the opening chord for the exquisite little drama arranged by the mistresses, which introduced old Belgian music of many centuries ago, some of which does not exist in print.
The introductory song in Flemish proposes that now the holidays have begun, the pupils shall divide north, south, east and west, and visit the cities of Belgium. The children march in and out and round and round, led by two tiny trots, and an old Flemish air is sung to French words "Pour nous Bruxelles est trop petit." After this, different towns are represented by songs or legends peculiar to them. For Malines and Antwerp, the amusing legend of Hop, Signorken is enacted with great spirit, then the Marche des Géants in Flemish "Als de groote klokke"; next, four little drummer boys assist at the tomb of Pierlala, who eventually makes his joyful exit with a wife of his own pigmy size. For Ghent there are two songs; first, the "Chant des Fleurs," in Flemish, with little boys holding huge umbrellas covered with flowers and represent a garden, while little girls water them as they march and sing; second, the song of the three kings, one little boy carrying the Epiphany Star, and the kings in gorgeous tinsel crowns. Nearly the prettiest scene was Nieuport, in which about twenty children joined hands to form a boat, and rocked the tiny fishermen inside with nets and anchors, and little sou'-westers over their curly or close-cropped head, while they sang "Le depart dos Pécheurs," and their little wives waved their farewells from an imaginary shore.
Space forbids my describing all the characteristic representations though they were all charming, and when the beautiful little drama was ended and every little pupil had received a prize, the pompiers formed a line to prevent undue crowding. The ceremony was over, the spectators came down to sober earth from Fairy Land, and mistresses and pupils dispersed for their well-earned holiday.
G. G. F.
Typed by Rose Williams, July 2018
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