Monday, May 14, 2007

Thoughts on "Child-Led" Learning

Tertium Quid over at "From Burke to Kirk and Beyond" has a very interesting post called "Maria Montessori, Misunderstood Genius". In it, he discusses how many of today's secular Montessori schools have incorrectly implemented Dr. Montessori's method.

He writes: "Ultimately, the Montessori method is about the nurturing of the human soul under a Catholic vision of sin and grace. Without the latter, the Montessori method, despite its origins in Christian humanism, will likely affirm the Id along with our narcissism, solipsism, neoterism, meliorism, and misguided faith in preserving human innocence. If innocence is preserved through the manipulation of a sheltered environment and no divine graces are presented, the child is more likely to slide towards suicide than humanitarianism."

I am not very familiar with Dr. Montessori's work (though I do have some of her books in my "to read" queue) so I can't really comment on that aspect of his post. What did get me thinking, was his discussion of how the view of human nature impacts educational philosophy: "As a Catholic, [Dr. Montessori] was keenly aware that children are drawn to sin. She never believed that humankind is basically good and only corrupted by parents, society, and culture. Although she understood the value and importance of letting the child pursue his own education, she never forgot that the Latin root of 'education' is to lead. She led her students vigorously, if indirectly and subtly."

This is exactly my main problem with the idea of "child-led" learning. It stems from a Roussauian view of the child as inherently good until corrupted by social institutions. From the writings of the most prominent advocate of "unschooling", the humanist John Holt: "Children do not need to be made to learn to be better, told what to do or shown how. If they are given access to enough of the world, they will see clearly enough what things are truly important to themselves and to others, and they will make for themselves a better path into that world then anyone else could make for them." (from How Children Fail).

As a Catholic, I do not share such an optimistic view of human nature. Because of Original Sin, each of us has the potential for evil should we give in to temptation. We need God's guidance to help us in our struggle against Sin. Parents and teachers have the responsibility to "train up a child in the way he should go so that even when he is old, he will not swerve from it." (Proverbs 22:6)

"Child-led" learning turns the teacher-student relationship on its head. St. Paul recognized that adults have wisdom that children lack:"when I was a child, I used to talk as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I put aside childish things" (1 Corinthians 13:11). Modern neuroscience has found that the part of the brain responsible for considering the long-term consequences of one's action, the medial prefrontal cortex, does not mature until around age 20. Children therefore lack the maturity to persevere in tasks that are unpleasant in the short-term but beneficial to them in the long run. This is where adults have the responsibility to step in and guide them.

As parents, we do not allow our children free reign in choosing their diet. Few (if any) children would choose tofu and broccoli over french fries and ice cream. Instead, we ensure that their diet meets their basic nutritional needs. Most of us do take our children's preferences into consideration when planning meals and allow a certain amount of choice. However, we set the general parameters and limit the choices to approved options.

This philosophy of taking the child's preferences into consideration while setting the general parameters to ensure basic needs are met applies to education as well as nutrition. There needs to be a balance between "child-led" and teacher-guided activities.


Tertium Quid said...

Thanks for your reflections. JPII's theology of the body is only beginning to sink in for me. It is a theory of human development as well as sacramental theology.

Love2Learn Mom said...

I think an important consideration regarding Montessori's view of "child-led learning" is that it was intended to be freedom within limits. Thus it isn't a matter of children choosing french fries or whatever for themselves, but options laid before them (by the parents/teachers) and having a great deal of freedom to explore those options at their own speed and timing.

I've also heard that her method has been difficult to implement as she intended with wealthy or over-stimulated (think TV and computers) children because their innate interest in learning is diminished.

Rolfe said...

Interesting, I need to read some of Montessori's books. Your post did make me think.

I am Catholic, and we are homeschooling our kids. As I've been experimenting with different methods, I've found that something like "child-led" learning works well for us. I don't have any sweeping generalizations to make, I can just tell some stories about how it happens at our house.

You have an important point about original sin, but I think it is also important to keep in mind that we are made in God's image and our children have that divine potential. I believe that even though they are drawn to sin, they are also drawn to good. I'm not very well read here, so I might not be on solid ground theologically, this is just my experience.

When we "unschool" at my house, we try to build on the good ideas. So far it has been more effective than a structured approach. I haven't read the rules of unschooling, if I did I'm sure I'd find out I'm breaking them. But I do think that there is something to it, something that works very well for some children.

I also think that from a spiritual point of view, much academic learning is neither good nor bad. Skills are morally indifferent, what matters is how you use the skills.

You are right to emphasize balance. We will keep experimenting, and I expect to find a different balance for each of my kids.