REFORMING A CATHOLIC PRIMARY SCHOOL
The question of reforming Catholic education at every level should not be reduced to an ideological battle between Left and Right. It is not a matter of adding some more or different religious instruction or imposing a more rigorous moral code within the school. The defects of Catholic education run deeper than that. We need more effective religious instruction, of course, but we also need holistic educational reform across the board. In our quest for wholeness we should study and learn from what has been done and suggested by the progressive education movement, both here and within other countries and other religious traditions. Whatever we decide to do, it will be governed by our anthropology - what we believe about the human person, and about the child. So what might primary education look like, if shaped by an adequate anthropology?
Many educators are seeking to return to the Classical Curriculum based around the Seven Liberal Arts. To a large extent I agree with this aspiration. My book Beauty for Truth’s Sake was an attempt to retrieve insights from that tradition. No doubt a resurrection of the Classical Curriculum would be vast improvement over what exists in most schools today. But it is not always possible or desirable simply to resurrect the past, although I am not going to argue the case here.
In order to stimulate reflection, I am going to propose a more experimental approach that nevertheless, I believe, will allow us appropriately to integrate the insights and structures of the Classical Curriculum. I already set the scene for this with my article in Communio some years back (“Towards a Distinctively Catholic School”). The present reflections are a kind of sequel to that article, focussing specifically on younger children (approximately 4 to 8). This is a sketch of the kind of school I would have enjoyed attending at that age. I want to point out that I am no authority on school reform, and I have never taught in a school of this kind. I do not even know whether what I have suggested is possible in the real world. I set out these thoughts merely to stimulate debate.
An Ideal Curriculum
My radical suggestion is to build the primary curriculum around the following five elements: (a) storytelling; (b) music; (c) exploration; (d) painting and drawing; (e) dance, drama and sport.
In each of these interrelated areas, other important educational concerns can be addressed as follows. (1) Religious education would be incorporated in each section through the use of religious stories, art, and history. (2) Built into each section would be an education in the use and meaning of symbols, numbers and geometric shapes (seeing forms, reading signs, making connections and comparisons). (3) In each subject area there would be opportunities to develop fundamental skills such as thinking, remembering, and communicating (logic, rhetoric, grammar, memorization).
The Classical Curriculum is built on the assumption of several developmental stages, called sometimes “Grammar”, “Dialectic”, and “Rhetoric”. It is assumed a child will first acquire basic skills and vocabulary, then move on at a slightly later age to applying these skills in developing the ability to argue and analyse, and finally achieve proficiency and a degree of intellectual mastery – moving from concrete to analytical to abstract thinking. I suspect this is too programmatic, and that in reality the stages cannot be so easily distinguished (especially in the early ages). In what follows I will leave open the question of how exactly the teaching will be adapted to the developmental stage of each child.
Here are some thoughts on each of the five main elements of the curriculum, to be followed by a section on the three cross-curricular skill sets.
Kids live mainly in their imaginations, and are continually learning, making up and acting out stories in the playground and elsewhere. But it is not just kids – even grown-ups tell themselves stories (more often than not in their case it is the same story over and over again). We make sense of the world around us by turning our lives into a story where we are the hero (or victim). In fact every human life is a quest, which is why such stories are culturally universal. The school should recognize the importance of the imagination in learning, and make group storytelling (as if around a campfire or hearth) and reading aloud a feature of the curriculum. The education of the imagination is the education of the heart. Through the choice of stories the children can be introduced to traditional fairytales, myths, and classic tales, as well as being encouraged to develop narrative skills of their own and to develop the confidence to speak in a group. Stories can be illustrated or acted out, creating links with the other areas of the curriculum.
We have tended to compartmentalize (not to mention commercialize) music in our culture, but for the ancients it was a fundamental element in education. We also tend to assume that musical ability is a rare gift, whereas in fact nearly everyone responds to some aspect or type of music, and most can be taught to sing or to play an instrument. I once met a musician who had formed an orchestra out of street children in an abandoned village in Lithuania, awakening in them a sense of community and confidence in their own abilities. Again the theme of Music can be connected to Story or Exploration or Dance, and it can be taught historically or with reference to religion. Sounds and patterns of sounds can be analysed into simple numbers and shapes, thus introducing the kids to mathematics by the back door. By exploring the relationship between music and lyrics in popular songs a range of literary skills can be developed.
Kids are natural explorers, curious about each other and about the world around them. Some, of course, are more adventurous than others, while some are naturally risk-averse. Nevertheless, this tendency can be harnessed for educational purposes. Whether the teacher decides to explore the local neighbourhood or the geography of the wider world, outer space using actual telescopes or the images available from Hubble and NASA, different cultures using story and music, the world of the very small through microscopes and magnifying glasses, or the world of abstract patterns through the construction of simple geometric figures, the direction lessons take will to some extent be shaped by the interests of the class. The study of nature through direct contact with gardens, animals, and wilderness is indispensable. A basic principle of this whole approach to education is that everything is connected to everything else, and so we should not be afraid of the particular interests or obsessions of the kids – follow one interest, however narrow it appears, and it will open up one subject after another, making each in turn appear “interesting” for the first time. (This is a lesson we can take from the “unschooling” or “free school” movement.)
(d) PAINTING AND DRAWING
In every lesson in each of the five areas, there will be a time for sitting and listening, or watching a demonstration, but especially with young kids attention spans are short and teaching is more effective if it involves them actually doing things. Arts and crafts provide an obvious opportunity to explore, express and interiorize what is being learnt each day, to develop particular skills based on the coordination of hand and eye, and refine the ability to observe the world around. The construction of simple geometrical shapes and the construction of mobiles and models also entails an exploration of spatial relationships and proportions. Drawing found objects, local scenery or the faces of one’s friends is another kind of exploration. A good teacher can use comic books and cartoons to develop an interest in art and stylization, as well as storytelling. Famous paintings in galleries and books, or religious icons and architecture, can be shown to be full of symbols as well as interesting patterns. Modern education tends not to pay attention to the symbolic properties of things, but symbols, metaphors and analogies help to connect everything together. Here as in the other classes, the teacher can often use the kids’ own interests and insights as a starting point.
(e) DANCE, DRAMA AND SPORT
The kind of whole-body activity that goes on in the playground (although many games even there are of course quite formal) can be channelled into the more disciplined activity of role-playing and performance on the stage and in the gym. Here music and storytelling, as well as the arts and crafts, and social skills such as a capacity for teamwork, all have an important part to play. Some children will be naturally more suited to chess than football or acrobatics, but a measure of physical exercise and discipline is appropriate for everyone. We can also learn a great deal from the experience of other cultures with Tai-Chi or Yoga without fearing the corruption of our civilization by alien philosophies. The links between music, dance, sport, and acting are obvious. Dramatic productions developed in class are an opportunity to bring together the whole range of educational elements in a single activity involving teamwork.
Here are some comments on the three “skill sets”.
(1) RELIGIOUS EDUCATION
Clearly religion needs its own space in the curriculum, but I am assuming that in the early years this may be in the form of liturgy, common prayer, or assembly rather than in a separate instructional class. (I assume religious instruction will also take place in the home and parish.) My suggestion is to integrate religion into the curriculum throughout. Religious stories, symbols, images, designs, music, will provide multiple opportunities to bring the kids into contact with religious truth – the existence and providence of God, our own calling to happiness with him beyond any partial fulfilment in this world, the fact that God is love and died for us on the Cross, the reality of the presence of Christ and his Spirit in the Church and sacraments. That is not to say that every subject is to be “turned into an opportunity for catechesis”, however. The teacher is not a preacher. I am simply saying that we should not exclude religion from any other subject.
The inter-religious question is of course a tricky one, especially if the class contains children from different faiths. A Catholic teacher should have to make no apology for teaching elements of the Christian faith as true, provided three principles are remembered. First, much of what we believe is revealed by God and therefore cannot be proved by reason, which makes it understandable that some people do not share our beliefs. It is necessary to acknowledge that fact. Second, questions on any matter are always welcome and faith has nothing to fear from reason. Other religious traditions contain truth, goodness, and beauty as well – which is why they have given birth to civilizations. Just as we need not fear reason, we need not fear to recognize beauty in another person’s belief. Third, our own faith teaches that we must respect the freedom of others. Everyone is loved and called by God, but everyone’s journey is different and in the end they must be allowed to find their own way with God’s help. What we believe is important, but just as important is how we act and behave towards each other.
(2) SEEING THE FORM
The keys to meaning are form, gestalt, beauty, interiority, relationship, radiance, and purpose. An education for meaning begins with the perception of form. Education should open our eyes to the meaning and beauty of the cosmos. In the search for beauty as well as truth, the arts and sciences can be reunited in the common enterprise of civilization. Thus, just the curriculum presents a myriad opportunities to communicate religious truth and ethical values, so it presents opportunities to lead the kids into the appreciation of form. That is why I have not suggested distinct classes on arithmetic or geometry (or art appreciation or music theory). The study of shapes and numbers (and the shapes numbers make, for example in simple mathematical processes, in “magic squares”, puzzles, and multiplication tables) should take place naturally within other classes, where it can be seen to be integrated with everyday life and connected with everything under the sun – both in a practical sense and in terms of theoria or contemplation (beginning with the mere enjoyment of the beauty in harmony, symmetry and ratio).
(3) BASIC SKILLS
Thinking, remembering, communicating, calculating: these are basic skills that need to be developed in every subject area. In modern progressive education they have been neglected, leading at times to an over-reaction in conservative schools where they may be drilled into children more assiduously. My suggestion is that these skills are best developed naturally in contexts where they can be seen to be of use in the pursuit of particular interests. A child preparing to perform in a play will naturally need to learn a number of lines. One who is asked to explain a particular hobby to the rest of the class will need rhetorical skills. Stories and essays and poems require the learning of grammar and vocabulary. They can also be fun – for example, the use of medieval “memory palace” techniques, or the invention of secret languages and codes.
The successful implementation of any of these ideas would depend on the skills, experience, and creativity of the teachers. But the very attempt presupposes a Christian anthropology of the human person, which I don’t have time to go into here.