Thursday 3 February 2011

Child-centred education: 1

Notes from a work in progress.

Insight into the true value of the child can be traced back to Christ, though it has to be said it remained mainly implicit during most of the succeeding centuries, and before the eighteenth century childhood was often considered merely a stage of weakness and immaturity to be got through as quickly as possible. We'll come back to the child later in this series. The modern period saw a transformation of educational theory and practice. In the wake of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (d. 1778) and the Romantics, most developments reflect a greater respect for the nature and natural development of the child. Rousseau himself – not a great educator, but a considerable influence through his novel Emile – believed in the natural goodness and value of the child,
wanted education to be adapted to each new developmental stage, and placed great emphasis on the importance of the child’s activity or active involvement in the process. We can trace his influence through several of the best-known educationalists of the succeeding centuries – though we can also see on all sides the bad fruits of an educational approach that centred itself so exclusively on the child that the tradition of Western civilization began to founder and be lost. Let us examine some representative figures, and what can be learned from them.

A century after Rousseau, Friedrich Froebel (d. 1852) is best known for the kindergarten, which was conceived as the centre of an interactive educational process based around the activity of the young child. For Froebel (influenced by his experiences with the remarkable Swiss pedagogue Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, who believed that children have an innate desire to learn), the “game” is the typical form of life in childhood, and play is the key to education, capable of laying solid foundations for the adult personality. (“Play is the highest expression of human development in childhood, for it alone is the free expression of what is in a child's soul.”) Children in the kindergarten would typically learn through song, dance, gardening and the use of geometrical and other patterned blocks and toys – known as the Froebel “Gifts”. These represent the basic building blocks of the universe and the symmetry of the child’s own soul.

Whereas Rousseau was a freethinker and Froebel from a Lutheran background, Don Bosco (d. 1888) was an Oratorian priest and became a Catholic saint. His approach was akin to theirs in some ways, and yet also rather different. Loving children very much, he was more concerned than Rousseau with their fragility and moral danger, and his educational philosophy was intended to produce “good Christians and honest citizens” – good citizens on earth in order to become good citizens in heaven. Nature and grace are not opposed, but interpenetrate for the sake of a final goal that could be called the supernatural fulfillment of the natural. Education must therefore serve the supernatural dignity and destiny of the child, allowing it to blossom in the social dimension.

Bosco rejected the repressive or preventive approach to education in favour of an approach based on friendship, appealing directly to the heart and to the innate desire for God (“reason, religion and loving-kindness” was one formulation, “cheerfulness, study, and piety” another). His pedagogy made use of music, theatre, comedy, walks and excursions – all in the tradition of St Philip Neri, the Oratory’s founder. Though this approach is still “child-centred”, it places a great responsibility on the person of the educator, since the young person is not expected to flourish naturally in this world without a relationship that offers personal attention and genuine love. But in this context, if such a relationship can be established, grace is able to flow and the development of reasonableness, imagination, empathy and conscience is much more secure. It is a kind of partnership.

Coming: Waldorf Schools, Montessori, Giussani.


  1. This is wonderful! I look forward to further installments!

  2. May I correct you on Don Bosco? He was not an Oratorian priest but began as a diocesan priest and founded his own order, the Salesians. Also, he did not reject the "preventive method," rather, that's what he called his method of cultivating closeness with the children, joy, keeping them busy, etc rather than punishing them after the fact. Great stuff, though.

  3. Sorry, yes - although he called his first community (after 1841) the "oratory", probably with the Oratory of St Philip Neri (founded in the 16th century) in mind. There were great similarities between his approach and apostolate and that of St Philip - and between St Philip and St Francis de Sales, who was the more direct influence on the foundation of Don Bosco's community. Bosco's non-repressive educational approach was indeed termed the "preventive system". Thanks for the corrections.