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01: Early efforts at studying children

Group 01 Readings


Willem van der Eyken and Barry Turner present the works of some of the pioneers who fought against the odds, to inject fresh ideas into the educational system in the twentieth century. The extract is from the first story, an innovation about giving children the freedom to choose what they learn and how. Supported by luminaries like Jean Piaget, J. B. S. Haldane, G. E. Moore and Percy Nunn, this was also perhaps the first time that careful observations were documented about children’s play and their urge to learn – observations that helped develop further the area of child psychology.

We include here the theoretical framework as envisaged by the founder of the Malting House School, Susan Isaacs and an example of documentation of observations made, which were expected to lead to a better understanding of children and how they learn. The school began, in 1924, as an attempt by a father to provide a new education for his only son. Geoffrey Pyke was the father, whose belief in the scientific approach to education was ably supported by Susan Isaacs’s expertise.

Extract 02
From Adventures in Education by Willem van der Eyken and Barry Turner

The general purpose of the Malting House Garden School is to provide, under expert and sympathetic supervision, the fullest opportunities for healthy growth in every direction, so that each child shall be free to gain control over his own body and knowledge of the physical world, to develop his natural interests, individual powers, and means of expression, while living in a happy children's community, the conditions of which will lead to normal social development.

The key to the school is the growth of the children, and its methods must be based on direct observation of children themselves, she wrote. ‘One of the most far-reaching thought in human history is the modern view of the freedom of children as the basis of education. This is the great experiment of our age.

‘Merely to give a vague and general freedom is, however, not enough. We must also observe what children do under free conditions, and study the laws of growth, so as to be able to meet their needs in detail.

‘The children are free to explore and experiment with the physical world, the way things are made, the fashion in which they break and burn, the properties of water and gas and electric light, the rain, sunshine, the mud and the frost. They are free to create either by fantasy in imaginative play or by real handling of clay and wood and bricks. The teacher is there to meet this free inquiry and activity by his skill in bringing together the material and the situations, which may give children the means of answering their own questions about the world.

‘This is our view of the function of the school, and this leads us to follow a heuristic method over the whole field of our children's relation to the world, particularly in the earliest years. Our experience has, in fact, led us to reverse the usual assumption which says either openly or implicitly to the child: “First learn what we have to teach you, then you will be able to do things for yourself.” We cannot, in fact, teach him to grow, either in body or mind. Recent experimental work has shown, for example, that we cannot teach concepts of number to young children; these come by reason of the children’s growth and concrete experiences of the world and we cannot hasten their coming.’

‘We can, however, at a later stage teach, for example, higher mathematics; in other words, the children’s own natural ripening and immediate discoveries come first, and ability to profit by instruction comes later. We cannot do more than provide rich opportunities for early development, both because we have far less means of knowing what is going on in the minds of children in the earliest years than we have later, and because language, which is an essential part of instruction, is unsuited for the communication of knowledge and experience until these later stages are reached.’

‘... Discipline is very free. There is no punishment, and little admonition. Prohibitions, when unavoidable, are of particular acts, not of whole classes of conduct. It is not true, however that the school is entirely without rules. It is generally understood that material used shall afterwards be put away. If the user (as often happens) is reluctant to clear up at once after his game, he is allowed to wait until he feels more inclined. But the matter is not forgotten, and sooner or later he usually agrees to put back what he has used in its place. Another rule is that implements must not be used as weapons. If this happens, the weapon is gently but firmly taken away. No anger, however, is ever shown by the teacher. If the two participants in a serious quarrel are unevenly matched, there is intervention on behalf of the one who is at a disadvantage, so that the weaker child does feel that he can get just support.

‘There are three main advantages of freedom of action and emotional expression. In the first place, you can get to know your children. Under the old disciplinary methods, the educator knew his pupils only very partially and mistakenly. The child was forced to wear a mask of seemliness and respectability in the presence of grown-ups, and behind that mask his own life bubbled unseen. Here the children’s crudities, the disorder of their emotions, their savagery even, are allowed to show. Emotional troubles can then be dealt with scientifically, or allowed to straighten themselves out, as they so often do given time.

‘Secondly, the danger of driving strong emotion underground to work havoc in the unconscious is avoided. The open expression of sexual interests is allowed, but where possible they are canalised by being turned into scientific channels. This freedom entails a certain amount of unpleasantness for the grown-ups. It is useless to expect children to be free at times, and at others to exercise discretion in situations where discretion is usual. But one cannot have it all ways, and it is time conventional parents learnt that their children are not the little angels they had believed. Hostility, another uncomfortable passion, is allowed freedom of expression. If the Malting House children hate a person, they tell him so. It is then possible to investigate the reason for that hatred, and probably to remove it. Fights and squabbles often occur, and if the fighters are fairly evenly matched, they are left to work out the adjustment themselves.

‘This leads me to the third advantage of freedom. With conventional discipline, the child is kept wriggling under the dead weight of adult disapproval and prohibition. Here his position is that of a fencer, continually adapting himself to the shifting conditions of the group mood. This is what he will have to do in adult life, and it is surely a mistake to make all his social adjustments for him until adolescence, and then pitchfork him into the world to discover from the beginning how human relationships work. When you have fought with another person over a thing, you realise that his desires are as strong as your own, and also, eventually, that fighting is not the best way of settling differences. The result of this policy in the school is not anarchy. I have seen several children combine to prevent conduct which they rightly considered unjust, and I have seen children of the most forcible character voluntarily submit to the leadership of a weaker-natured child.

‘The position of the teacher in such a school as this is not an easy one. He too needs the alertness of the fencer. He must see immediately the implications of every remark, question, and act of the child, and respond appropriately with no appearance of indecision. He must possess unlimited patience and self-control. In fact, to support him in, and possibly lessen, the running fire of criticism he has to bear, the virtues of an archangel would come in useful.

‘The second main function of the school, that of providing source material in the field of child psychology, entails the keeping of detailed notes. The children are under trained observation out of school hours as well as in them. In fact there is no break between their school and out-of-school life. Practically all that they do, and much of what they say, is recorded. The children are discussed individually, and the meaning of their actions, as well as how to deal with them, considered. Much very valuable material has already been accumulated.

When the school opened its doors again in October, the stenographers were in their places to add to the collection of records that now were piling up in volumes in Susan Isaacs' room. One secretary was specifically assigned to Slavson, and noted down the first experiments of the new recruit to the staff.

10.5 a.m.
J.A. comes in, and goes to middle bench where his aeroplane is resting.
'Ah, that's my aeroplane.' Then he turns to Mrs P. who has come in.
" What are you making?' He looks about and says:
'I want to make a shelf for my Daddy, yes, that's what my Daddy
wants for his stamps.'
He then goes to the aeroplane and says:
'I can't imagine how this aeroplane breaks.’
He feels back wing of aeroplane which is very insecure.
Jack comes in.
'Where's Mr Slavson?'
He is told that he is through the house side. He dashes out to find him.
J.A. fits a piece of wood which has been used before into a wood vice, then takes a nail, and with a side stroke begins to hammer it into this piece of wood that he has fixed into the vice. He continues to talk:
'Do you know what a nice aeroplane mine is?' He stops hammering and looks about. "I'm, you see, I'm sort of making that hole, yes, that…' and he again begins to hammer nail in.
Jack returns, pulling Mr S. by the arm. "Come on, Mr Slavson, I'm the engine and you're the carriage,' and runs round Mr S. holding his hand. Dillon comes in, and in a friendly way lifts Jack up in his arms, and carries him out on to the landing; the latter appearing willing.
J.A. takes piece of wood out of wood vice, and puts it back in the wood racking, saying: 'I'm going to make something quite big, I want to…’
Dillon and Jack return.
Jack: 'Mr Slavson, I want to make a French monoplane.'
Mr S.: 'You start.’
Jack: 'I know how to make it, quite easy.'
J.A.: 'I'm going to make something big.’
Dillon leans up against middle bench with a strip of wood in his hand.
Jack: 'Mr Slavson, have you got any long, square pieces of wood?’
Mr S. hands him a piece of wood with equal length and depth, and about six inches long.
Jack: 'That's just 'right'.
Mr S.: 'What would you like to do?'
Jack: 'I'd like to make an aeroplane, a huge one.’
Dillon: 'I can't see a piece of wood like that, I want a piece of wood like that.’
Mr S.: 'Do you want to come down with me and get some? John, do you want to come down with us and get some?'
J.A., Dillon, and D.P. go down with Mr S. to the cellar to fetch some more wood ...

11.5 a.m.
D.P.: 'Mr Slavson, the axle has come off.’
Mr S.: 'Why, do you think?'
D.P.; 'Because of that nail' (pointing to bent nail).
Mr S.: 'What's wrong with that nail?’
D.P.: 'I don't know.’
Mr S,: 'Do you think it's long enough to hold that (axle) in place?'
DP. : ‘No, it's too short.’

Peter asks Hugh to put candle on the bunsen with some pincers.
J.A.: I’m making a coracle. No, a ship. The Nelson ship. Nelson's Victory, I have seen it in my engine book,’
Janet: 'I started mine long ago.’
Leslie goes around and asks J A.: 'What are you making, a boat?’
J.A.: 'Yes.’
Janet says that hers is a sailing boat.
Hugh and Peter are again burning rubber and then put a live match in the air hole. They also push a lighted match inside the piece of rubber tubing and see it go out. The matches in the hole ignite.
Peter: 'Nice fireworks!'
Leslie and Ann D. still play with tubes and water.
Mr S, asks Leslie why the water goes up in the tube, but gets no reply. But when he nips the tube, Leslie says it does not go up because he squeezes the tube....
Hugh and Peter are very pleased with the effect of a piece of rubber in the bunsen burner. There are three flames.
Peter asks if he may have a piece of wax about 1-1/2 inches cubed. He asks if he can have all of it.
Mr S.: 'All you asked for.’
Peter: 'We don't want a piece of glass.’ He asks Janet to look, as the bunsen burner now has three flames, two out of the air holes and one out of the top ...
J.A.: 'What a squeaky saw this is!' He is using a small cutting saw, and creating some noise with it as he saws. Timmy, who is kneeling on the floor: 'It may be rusty.’
J.A. continues sawing, and after a few seconds says: This saw needs oiling very badly.’
Timmy: 'You have got the same saw as I'm using.’
J.A.: 'Mr Slavson, I want you, Mr Slavson.’
Mr S. walks over to him.
J A.: 'This saw is squeaky. Where is the oil ?…’
Mr S. gives him the oil can.
J.A. (to Janet): I’m oiling.’ Begins to saw again, and says: 'Lots and lots of little beds I'm making for my animals …’ (laughing).


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