It is the first week of the fall semester at the University of Michigan. The campus is teeming with eager, bright young faces—many of whom don’t have the slightest idea where they are going. With any luck, over the next few months they’ll learn their way, without losing their enthusiasm.
A New Discovery of the Old Art of Teaching Schoole, Charles Hoole’s fascinating treatise on grammar school education, takes a surprisingly progressive stance on pedagogy that might sound familiar even in today’s classrooms: Not everyone learns at the same pace or in the same way. It is the responsibility of the teacher to shape the lesson to the student. And games work better than beatings.
According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, by describing his approach in contrast with more traditional methods, Hoole “not only sets out his views on what education should be but also paints a vivid picture of education as it actually was in the mid-seventeenth century.”
THe usual way to begin with a child, when he is first brought to Schoole, is to teach him to know his letters in the Horn-book, where he is made to run over all the letters in the Alphabet or Christ cross-row both forwards & backwards, until he can tel any one of them, which is pointed at, and that in the Englishcharacter.
This course we see hath been very effectual in a short time, with some more ripe witted children, but others of a slower apprehension (as the most and best commonly are) have been thus learning a whole year together, (and though they have been much chid and beaten too for want of heed) could scarce tell six of their letters at twelve moneths end, who, if they had been taught in a way more agreeable to their meane apprehensions [...] would doubtlesse have learned as cheerfully, if not as fast as the quickest
Hoole goes on to describe “sundry ways that have been taken to make a childe know his letters readily, out of which the discreet Teacher may chuse what is most likely to suit with his Learner.”
The greatest trouble at the first entrance of children is to teach them how to know their letters one from another, when they see them in the book altogether; for the greatnesse of their number and variety of shape do puzle young wits to difference them, and the sence can but be intent upon one single object at once, so as to take its impression, and commit it to the imagination and memory. Some have therefore begun but with one single letter, and after they have shewed it to the childe in the Alpha∣bet, have made him to finde the same any where else in the book, till he knew that perfectly; and then they have proceeded to another in like manner, and so gone through the rest.
Some have contrived a piece of ivory with twenty four flats or squares, in every one of which was engraven a several letter, and by playing with a childe in throwing this upon a table, and shewing him the letter onely which lay uppermost, have in few dayes taught him the whole Alphabet.
Some have got twenty four pieces of ivory cut in the shape of dice, with a letter engraven upon each of them, and with these they have played at vacant hours with a childe, till he hath known them all distinctly. They begin first with one, then with two, afterwards with more letters at once, as the childe got knowledge of them. To teach him likewise to spell, they would place consonants before or after a vowel, and then joyn more letters together so as to make a word, and sometimes divide it into syl∣lables, to be parted or put together; now this kind of letter sport may be profitably permitted among you beginers in a School in stead of ivory, they may have white bits of wood, or small shreads of paper or past-board, or parchment with a letter writ upon each to play withall amongst themselves.
Some have made pictures in a little book or upon a scroll of paper wrapt upon two sticks within a box of iceing-glass, and by each picture have made three sorts of that letter, with which its name beginneth; but those being too many at once for a childe to take notice on, have proved not so useful as was intended.
Some likewise have had pictures and letters printed in this manner on the back side of a pack of cards, to entice children, that naturally love that sport, to the love of learning their books.
Some have writ a letter in a great character upon a card, or chalked it out upon a trencher, and by telling a child what it was, and letting him strive to make the like, have imprinted it quickly in his memory, and so the rest one after another
One having a Son of two years and a half old, that could but even go about the house, and utter some few gibberish words in a broken manner; observing him one day above the rest to be busied about shells and sticks, and such like toys, which himself had laid together in a chair, and to misse any one that was taken from him, he saw not how, and to seek for it about the house; became very desireous to make experiment what that childe might presently attain to in point of learning; Thereupon he devised a little wheel, with all the Capital Romane letters made upon a paper to wrap round about it, and fitted it to turn in little a round box, which had a hole so made in the side of it, that onely one letter might be seen to peep out at once; This he brought to the childe, & showed him onely the letter O, and told him what it was; The childe being overjoyed with his new gamball, catcheth the box out of his Fathers hand, and run’s with it to his play fellow a year younger then himself, and in his broken language tell’s him there was an O, an O; And when the other asked him where, he said, in a hole, in a hole, and shewed it him; which the lesser childe then took such notice of, as to know it againe ever after from all the other letters.
These examples of children’s eagerness to learn, Hoole emphasizes, put the responsibility back on teachers to use an appropriate method:
By this instance you may see what a propensity there is in nature betimes to learning, could but the Teachers apply themselves to their young Scholars tenuity; and how by proceeding in a cleare & facil method, that all may apprehend, every one may benefit more or less by degrees.
By the way, according to Hoole, the trials and tribulations of the unappreciated teacher were not much different than they are today:
“But alas, we that wholly undergoe the burden of School-teaching, can tell by our own experience, how laborious it is both to minde and body, to be continually intent upon the work, and how irksome it is (especially to a man of a quiet temper) to have so many unwilling provocations unto passion; what good parts for learning, and right qualification in all points of behavour is required of us; how small our yearly stipend is, and how uncertain all our other incomes are. Again, we call to minde the too much indulgency of some Parents, who neither love to blame their childrens untowardnesse, nor suffer the Master to correct it”
Good luck to all students and teachers facing exciting new challenges and opportunities this semester!
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