Pioneering Educators

Amongst pioneers there are sometimes ‘super pioneers’ - a few who stand head and shoulders above the rest. In the field of education they were two such pioneers who, when the sky was dark, illuminated the way forward for humankind. They were John Amos Comenius and Maria Montessori.

John Amos Comenius (1592-1670)
Hailed as the ‘Father of Modern Education’ and ‘Teacher of Nations,’ John Amos Comenius (Jan Amos Komensky in the original Czech) was born in Nivnice, Moravia – now part of the Czech Republic – on March 28, 1592. Comenius lost his family when he was twelve, and was subsequently raised by guardians. His keen love for learning resulted in his being sent to Herborn, a progressive higher educational institution located in Hesse, by the Friends in the Unity. Comenius also studied philosophy and theology at the University of Heidelberg.

Perhaps it was at this stage that the seeds were sown for his philosophy of Pansophism (‘all knowledge’) - a belief that the quest for higher learning and spiritual enlightenment are bound together, that an appropriate system of education leads to knowledge, that knowledge leads to understanding, and that understanding leads to universal peace.

In 1618 (the same year as the outbreak of the 30-year war), Comenius started working first as a parochial school principal and then as a pastor in Fulneck, Moravia. It was a mere two years later that he had to flee for his life when the Protestant army was defeated by the Catholics during the Battle of White Mountain. For the seven years that followed, Comenius was constantly on the run, finding refuge in caves and deserted huts. Three years after going into hiding, Comenius completed ‘The Labyrinth of the World and the Paradise of the Heart’ (1623), a work depicting the life and times of an exile in the early 17th century. Around 1627, the already pressured Comenius was devastated by an even more personal blow when his wife and children died from the Plague.

In 1628, he led a small group of fugitives into Poland. He remarried, and during the brief respite he enjoyed in Leszno, Poland, Comenius wrote ‘The School of Infancy’ (1631), and ‘The Gate to Languages Unlocked’ (1632).

‘The School of Infancy’ focused on the early years of a child’s education and showed his predisposition towards education for all – regardless of gender and social standing. Comenius' legacy in the area of early childhood education includes the following:

  • He observed that the position of the present moment in time, in its relation to the past and the future, needs to be taught to children in the small increments first and then larger ones. In other words, a child needs to grasp the concept of tomorrow and yesterday before he or she can grasp last week / next week, last month / next month or last year / next year.
  • Comenius believed that the child’s immediate, familiar surroundings should be the starting point when teaching geography. He maintained that teaching should begin where the child is, and then gradually circle out to include knowledge of wider surroundings. In this way the greater world is related back to the child’s immediate world, resulting in a better understanding on the part of the child.
  • Comenius believed that nature should be the first form of science to be taught to young children. His rationale was that children have an affinity with nature, and so will more readily grasp it as the foundation of further study of science.
  • In teaching arithmetic, Comenius held that understanding the relationships between numbers is critical to mastering the more complicated mathematical concepts. These relationships include many and few, large and little, big and small, more and less. He also encouraged counting as it creates familiarity with the sequencing of numbers and supports the child’s mastering of relationship concepts.

All of these observations revolve around his concept that a child has to work with familiar and concrete materials to learn, and that only once this is mastered will a child be able to successfully grasp abstract concepts and concepts dealing with the unknown.

Comenius also believed that all books should be produced in the common language of the people to make knowledge freely available.  It was a belief he already held while he was in high school, which saw him starting out in 1612 with the compilation of root words in the Bohemian language. Two years later, in 1614, Comenius took it upon himself to improve the method of student instruction by documenting some simple grammatical rules. These were published in Prague in 1616. This was also the year that his book ‘Divine Theater’ was published in the native Bohemian language. ‘The Gate to Languages Unlocked’ (1632) is the culmination of Comenius’ deep seated conviction that education should be presented in the vernacular language of students rather than in the customary and mandatory Latin.

His subsequent book, 'The Way of Light' (1641), deviated from his educational focus on children specifically, and encapsulated a universal plan for education and peace instead. Unbeknown to Comenius, his works were being read and taken seriously by others throughout Europe. The seeds were planted, and he was invited to London in 1641 to assist with establishing a school. This was sadly halted by the outbreak of the Irish rebellion. In 1642 he received invitations from France, Holland and Sweden. He chose Sweden, as he believed that he could influence Swedish chancellor Oxenstierna to help the Bohemian people. However, Oxenstierna declined to be influenced, and Comenius moved on to Prussia until the Treaty of Westphalia was signed in 1648. Although the treaty helped to end the war, it was of no consequence to the Bohemians, who remained oppressed.

Comenius’ work was not done. He moved on to Hungary, back to Poland, and finally to Holland, where he passed away in 1670. During the last 20 years of his life, Comenius published two additional major works on education, both of which had a profound impact on modern education: The Great Didactic (1657) and Orbis Pictus (1658).

The Great Didactic (sometimes interpreted as The Whole Art of Teaching) explored the learning process and suggested how teaching should take place from infancy through to university and even beyond. The principles put forward by Comenius in this work included:

  • Education for all: He held that education should not be limited to an elite few and that all people need to be educated regardless of gender, social status, financial background, geographical location, or ability.
  • Education is a natural process: Comenius put forward that people are naturally curious and that all people enjoy exploring and experiencing something new. For this reason, people are by nature susceptible to learning. He also reiterated that education should relate to the natural world and should be made practical and understandable – especially initially – to stimulate the mind, to increase enjoyment, and to create a hunger for more learning.
  • Education should take place in stages: Comenius compared educational progression to scaling a rock face. He held that if a student is offered the appropriate resources (his analogy referred to ladders), at the appropriate times and in the appropriate places, and if the teacher offered the appropriate support (he compared this support to hand railings), then the student would become all that he or she can be.
  • Education should involve play: Comenius put forward that information gleaned through activities or play – regardless of the student’s age – can be useful and relevant. He encouraged movement and exercise believing, like the Romans did, that a healthy body is needed to achieve a healthy mind.
  • Education as a lifelong process: Like Aristotle, Comenius believed that the capacity of the mind is limitless, and he encouraged adults to continue learning beyond their university years.

Orbis Pictus (1658) was the first text book ever for children that made use of illustrations to support the material presented. The book contained 150 chapters and covered topics such as religion, zoology, inert nature, botany, and humans. By 1685 the book had been published in Latin, German, English, Italian, French, Czech and Hungarian.

Considering when John Amos Comenius lived, his philosophies were revolutionary and even dangerous. Many of his contemporaries ended up burning at the stake for less. His work struck a chord with numerous philosophers who came after him, including one Maria Montessori.

Maria Montessori (1870-1952)
Maria Montessori was born in a small town on the Adriatic Sea in the same year that Italy became one nation. The spirit of optimism in the new country gave hope to women, including Montessori. She had an active interest in mathematics and technical subjects in school, and actually wanted to study engineering but ultimately decided on medicine. This was unheard of, and she had to battle a strong prejudice against her presence, but she was as brilliant as she was courageous and she eventually graduated with high marks.

As a new doctor, her researches sometimes took her to psychiatric clinics where she saw many children with learning disabilities placed there simplu for lack of other options. The inhumane treatment of these children troubled her, and she began to read everything she could find on the education of the mentally handicapped. She made an in-depth study of the work of Comenius, Rousseau, Pestalozzi, and Froebel, and she adapted their theories for her own use.

Because Montessori wanted to help those who were called “idiot” children, she also studied the writings of Frenchmen who had pioneered work in that area, Jean Itard and Edouard Seguin. Itard, a doctor born a century before Montessori, had treated children with special cognitive needs, particularly deafness. Seguin, who had studied with Itard, founded schools for those termed idiots both in France and the United States. The unique methods Seguin developed for educating children historically deemed to be un-trainable seemed to Montessori to hold promise for the children in the insane asylums. She was convinced that education, not medicine, would improve their lives.

Shortly after, she was speaking at conferences about the need to educate children with learning disabilities, after which she became director of a teacher-training institute in the field of special education in Italy. Pulling her ideas from Comenius, Froebel and others, Montessori experimented with teaching materials and activities, succeeding so well that her 8-year-old “defectives”  eventually did as well as, or better than, normal children in state examinations for reading and writing.

Montessori got the opportunity to test her educational ideas with children of normal intelligence when she was asked to start a daycare center. Success came quickly as she experimented with methods and materials.

Just as Pestalozzi’s and Froebel’s teacher–training institutes had attracted enthusiastic students from afar, so did Montessori’s. Several Americans learned Italian for the purpose of attending, and in the early years of the 20th century Montessori schools began to blossom in the country. Soon after, however, they were denounced by influential scholars and for a time almost disappeared. There was a rebirth in the late 1950s, when American society became newly concerned about academic learning for young children, and Montessori schools have remained ever since.

The Montessori Method is based on the notion that one should ‘follow the child.’  This means providing a natural, aesthetically pleasing environment where the child can be observed, an environment that can be continually adapted to fulfill the child’s latent potential on his or her physical, emotional, spiritual, and mental levels.

Montessori saw the role of the teacher more as that of a guide, even for traditional subjects such as science, mathematics and history. She discovered that children between the ages of 6 and 12 respond positively to open-ended research, and she found that by pursuing their individual interests, a much higher level of education was achieved than would be expected of children of this age group. The group dynamics between the older and younger children in the 6 to 12 group encourage and inspire learning as the children teach one another and master academic subjects beyond the levels required.

Montessori also noted that children between the ages of 12 and 15 were dealing with physical and hormonal changes, required more sleep, and were less able to effectively cope academically. She called this group the Erdkinder unit and moved their education closer to nature through offering them practical work instead. During this period, intellectual work was less intense.

She also discovered that by age 15, these Erdkinder normally reestablish their equilibriums. As a result, between ages 15 and 18, a demanding intellectual schedule is reinstated; social responsibility awareness is created; and the acquisition of practical skill sets is encouraged.

The Montessori Method is only successful if the child is dealt with holistically under the guidance of a trained Montessori teacher. The method requires academic work, practical work, interacting with the environment and humans within the environment in a caring manner, taking responsibility for the environment and others within the environment, and respecting co-students’ need to work uninterrupted. The Montessori Method delivers adults that are academically, emotionally and spiritually miles ahead of their same-age counterparts.

Maria Montessori’s last years were spent in exile from Italy as a result of Mussolini’s reign of terror. She continued traveling during World War II, thereby ensuring the establishment of Montessori schools in India and the Netherlands, and then she passed away in 1952.

Even now the Montessori Method is ahead of its time, and Montessori herself and remains an active pioneer through the efforts of her followers. Her method is still relentlessly pushing at the boundaries of mainstream education and its perceived outdated methods and approaches. The pressure on the establishment will perhaps increase over time as a growing number of students, teachers and parents realize that many of the problems associated with education today may well be addressed with this proven alternate method of instruction.

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