What Education Is All About and How Learning Really Happens
As an educational psychologist my main interest has always been in neuroscience and cognition and how learning really happens. What makes it exciting and how does information actually stick? Naturally, that interest is tied to the history of education as well.
The most rewarding insights to me have always come from an educator who exhibited an astonishing understanding of the intricate workings of the mind long before the modern scientific study of cognitive psychology and neuroscience actually existed. This educator was Charlotte Mason, who lived in Great Britain from 1842 to 1923. In the course of her long life and career, she developed a sound philosophy of education and established a network of PNEU (Parents' National Educational Union) schools that implemented her ideas.The main essence of her philosophy is best described in her own words: “The mind feeds on ideas, and therefore children should have a generous curriculum.”
(School Education, by Charlotte Mason, Preface)
Well, this sounds wonderful and refreshing to begin with, but how does the mind feed on ideas?
I will not bore you here with an excursion into the make-up of the millions of nerve cells within our brain and how they communicate with each other by “firing off” electrical impulses. But it is fascinating to learn that the world inside our brain begins to work harder when we come across a piece of information that excites us, sending impulses from neuron to neuron, making and reinforcing connections, busily building and furnishing its network so effectively that long after we have turned to other tasks, a part of the brain is still teeming with life. Full of the latest discoveries we have made. Full of the ideas that have sent off the important first spark.
This is how it works. It is how it learns.
The more excited we get about an idea (and this first applies to our hearts!), the more delightful long-term connections will be made in our minds. Sometimes we even get happily carried away with an idea, a project, a book and we forget the boundaries of time and place. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called this “the flow”, the psychology of optimal experience.
Now, this does not happen so easily with the artificially constructed world of pre-digested textbooks, workbooks and compact computerized courses.These are not the kinds of tools that work well with our brains.
But it is an education that works well for the efficient organization of the masses.
The education of the masses first needed to be organized in the 16th century, just after the world had been enlightened with many new discoveries, with lands of yet unexplored riches, when more and more people in Europe began to see a rise in their wealth and demanded better schooling for their children. This the ruling upper class viewed with a suspicious eye and they soon made sure, through various means, that it was their children who received the best education possible while the masses were just enough mentally furnished to stay capable at their various trades.
The education of the masses needed to be organized in colonial times, when the first British colonists were still struggling to establish themselves on the North American shores and after a while felt that they needed to set up at least a simple school system for their children, so that these young people would develop productive skills which were necessary to a long-term survival in this new environment. Here, again, the most well-off and important families were consistently employing the better learned teachers for their own children. Leonard Everett Fisher describes this so well in his book The Schoolmasters, and concludes with the insight that: “It was the same Old World idea all over again: those who governed received more education; those who were governed received less.” (p.20)
And the education of the masses needed to be organized in the 19th century when Charlotte Mason was establishing her PNEU schools. It was the onset of the Industrial Revolution and masses of workers were needed that were just enough mentally furnished to stay capable at their various trades.A contemporary of Charlotte Mason's, none other than prolific author Charles Dickens, bitingly pinpointed these concerns in his novel Hard Times:
"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 facts, sir!"
The education of the masses still needs to be organized even today and the “facts upon facts” attitude is still the same. It is found in today’s textbook and workbook culture: It is all about efficiency. It is all about a billion dollar industry promoting these materials to us. It is all about raising workers and consumers (not thinkers!). It is just not about how children really learn.
A steady diet of textbooks is numbing to a child’s mind. It stifles creativity and genius. It hinders children in the unfolding of their potential and in their right to develop a true love for learning.
Though, admittedly, it is as efficient as a checklist.
Charlotte Mason, the Victorian educator, was far ahead of her time when she proposed a true and different approach which naturally could only lead to success as she strove to employ only the very best resources, the very best books for the children in her schools.
It was her heart’s desire to give every child a most generous and wonderful education. Her vision also included underprivileged children:
“She delighted in the awakening of these previously dimmed minds. Children became fluent speakers and lovers of literature and art. Her vision was that these good wholesome aspects of life would bring joy, stability and richness to every child.”While there is nothing wrong with using a textbook as a reference or spine (and we do have some in our library) or filling in an occasional workbook page, be aware of the fact that it is constantly suggested to us that they should be our main diet – and that there are other interests involved.
(For the Children’s Sake, by Susan Schaeffer Macaulay, p.7)
(For the Children’s Sake, by Susan Schaeffer Macaulay, p.7)
When Charlotte Mason suggested a different route, a mind-friendly approach, she fervently advocated living ideas and a generous curriculum in every subject her schools taught. Exciting ideas found in books where her children met various original minds and felt inspired: in literature, Shakespeare, Bible, poetry, science and nature study, history and geography, art and picture study, music and composer study, grammar and composition, mathematics, and foreign languages.
Let us be as boldly rebellious and apply the same high standards that she so successfully envisioned – let us be content with nothing but the best.