"It is not in human nature for all men to tread the same path of development, as animals do of a single species."(Mary Montessori)
There's a good deal of criticism about children leaving the school system who are illiterate. Boris Johnson, speaking after the London riots, asked "How can these kids expect to progress when one in four 11-year-olds in London is functionally illiterate?" But they've been through the school system. Is it poor teachers who cannot impart the knowledge well? Or students who cannot learn? In Jersey, the debate is being opened up by consideration of the performance of States schools at GCSE, in contrast to the private sector. But the idea of "failing schools" seems to be the common factor, but perhaps we are looking the wrong way.
Perhaps we need to rethink how we do education, especially primary education? Primary education forms the foundational layer on which the structures of secondary education can be built, and if that is inadequate, then it is like the parable, building a house on sand. I know how varied the primary school children's ability can be with mathematics, for instance, and yet they have all come through the same curriculum, the same progress over mathematical subjects, and the same boxes ticked that say the teacher has taught that.
I've long been struck by the difference between the educational system of the Middle Ages, and that of modernity. This can be seen across Europe in the Middle Ages. In Italy for example where:
during the 1430s and 1440s, there were three levels of teaching: the most elementary class was for pupils not yet reading Donatus; the second was for the Donatists; the third and most advanced was for the study of the Latin language(lactinare) and literature (auctores). This kind of division was typical throughout fourteenth-and fifteenth-century Italy, and it held true for private tutors as well as public elementary and grammar schools. There was usually a clear division between elementary and grammar or Latin education, towns often employing one type of teacher for reading and writing and a real grammarian for Latin. (1)
The doctores puerorum of the fourteenth century became the maestri di leggere e scrivere or maestri difanciulli of the fifteenth: men (or very occasionally women) of little education, drawn from the artisan class, who seem to have known little or no Latin. As distinct from grammar teachers, who almost always corresponded in Latin, these elementary teachers usually wrote their letters and submitted their petitions in the vernacular. (1)
The way in which the schools taught was, of course, familiar to most of us who were taught back in the days when primary education meant chanting tables, and copying letters out. As Nicholas Orme notes:
The introduction to reading by learning the alphabet and then syllables was a technique going back to Greek and Roman antiquity; the smallest Roman schoolboys were known as abecedarii or syllabarii. In the earlier middle ages, too, children began with the alphabet and proceeded to syllables: as Remigius of Auxerre wrote in the ninth century, 'the instruction of small children normally involves first the study of letters, then of syllables'; similar was Peter Damian's scheme articulated in the eleventh century. (2)
And education was geared to the ability of the pupils to read. A translation of a note from the Middle Ages (which also shows that girls were being taught) says: "Tina has read the psalter; she needs a book containing the seven psalms and the office of our lady which needs to be well-written [i.e. easily readable]."
This was combined with memory skills, so that reading and retention went hand in hand:
In the middle ages, a pupil acquired the skills of basic reading by subjecting the psalter to a two-stage process. The first focused on a written text: the pupil had a psalm written on his waxed tablet and read it over and over again. The second involved memory: by reading the psalm from his tablet many times, the pupil eventually learned the text by heart and so was able to dispense with the written text. After appropriate examination by his teacher, he was then assigned another psalm, and the whole process was repeated. This procedure, involving first reading from a written text and secondly recitation from memory without the written text, is described in the sixth-century monastic Regula magistri (2)
But one fundamental difference between today's schools, regardless of curriculum, was schools were ungraded. A class might contain children aged between 6 and 14, sometimes sharing the same bench. You moved up from one class to another, perhaps after a term or a year, once you had mastered the lessons taught by that class. During this time, older and more able children might also help explain concepts to younger children in addition to doing their own work, and often better than teachers, because they were closer to difficulties experientially.
In contrast, modern education is graded by year. The curriculum is not something to be mastered, it is more akin to being on a train, passing through different towns and villages on the way. Once the train has passed a point, there is no going back. The result is that pupils move upwards through the different classes without the necessity of achieving mastery and skills at a particular level, and in subjects like mathematics, of course, this can be a disaster, which is why mathematics is commonly streamed into different groups within the same age at secondary school - it is an attempt to fix what is in fact a problem with the train-method of education. But, of course, it is only a partial fix. The express train goes more quickly, but the slower train is still having to carry along the track, leaving behind half-finished and half-understood work. Is it any wonder that less able pupils leave Primary School without the skill set needed to carry them successfully through Secondary education?
But the idea of multiage grouping is being reconsidered in America, as the problem with the traditional education - the train rushing through stations - is becoming more apparent:
Interest in the potential benefits of multiage grouping has increased steadily again in recent years. The growing interest is due to a greater focus on the importance of the early years in efforts to restructure the educational system (Stone, 1995; Katz, 1992; Anderson, 1992; Willis, 1991; Cohen, 1990) and an awareness of the limitations of graded education. The realization that childrens' uneven developmental patterns and differing rates of progress are ill-matched to the rigid grade-level system has left teachers searching for a better way to meet the needs of all students (Miller, 1996). More and more schools are implementing multiage programs because of the current educational practices embedded in the multiage model that address these issues (Cohen, 1990) (3)
Multi aged grouping does away with grade levels, and combines younger and older students together. Adherence to chronological age/grade groupings or ability groupings is disregarded. Children progress at their own rates, making continuous progress rather than being "promoted" to the next grade. (4)
The change to graded year group education was very much a model based on Prussian education, where this had long been the case, and it also chimed with the industrial revolution, and the idea of schools as production line education factories. In America, for example, this came about in the 19th century:
However, mid way into the 19th century, Horace Mann who was then the Secretary of Education for the State Massachusetts dramatically changed our way of grouping students. He was impressed by the efficiency of arranging students by grade level, a practice he witnessed during a visit to Prussia. Since America was going through an industrial revolution at the time it's not surprising that an educational system based on a factory model was so readily accepted. ..One hundred and fifty years later, we have an existing educational structure that anticipates all children will perform at the same levels at the same time.(4)
The key to success of ungraded education is of course the appropriate methods for implementing it. Where this has been done, as for instance, in the schools of Maria Montessori, it worked well; when it was just the structure, and no consideration was given to what should be taught and how, it usually failed. As one educationalist noted: "Education reforms based solely on financial considerations rather than a pedagogical basis usually have a short shelf-life". But the tide is turning towards a more complete and thought through shift to ungraded education in the primary years:
A report of a 1994 National Commission on Education determined: "Common sense suffices: American students must have more time for learning. The six-hour, 180-day school year should be relegated to museums, an exhibit for our educational past. Both learners and teachers need more time-not to do more of the same, but to use all time in new, different, and better ways. The key to liberating learning lies in unlocking time"(5)
(1) Humanism and Education in Medieval and Renaissance Italy: Tradition and Innovation in Latin Schools from the Twelfth to the Fifteenth Century, Robert Black, 2001
(2) What Did Medieval Schools Do for Us? Nicholas Orme Returns to the Classroom to Find out How Boys, and Girls Were Educated from the Anglo-Saxons to the Tudors; and Finds That the Foundations of Our Education System Were Laid during This Period. History Today, June 2006.
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