Charlotte Mason and Comenius #6–Nature Study

This is another one of those interesting intersections. The hardcore scholastic branch of educators paid almost no attention to the natural world as it is. If they thought about it at all…they thought about it. Or read what other people thought about it and thought about that. It wasn’t always a priority in educational practices to actually go out into the world, and look at things, and learn about them just by doing that.

Those educators who focus on the broader, universal principles of education–like Charlotte Mason and Comenius (and a few others–they are not alone)–tend to have a different view, and to recognize that the knowledge to be gained from a first-hand acquaintance of the natural world (or anything where first-hand knowledge is possible) is a valuable part of education.

A sort of precursor to actual nature study is understanding the relationship between the things perceived by the senses and the ability to express with words the things that are known. Again, this perception is not unique to Mason or Comenius, but they are “on the same page.”

Comenius:

Everything should, as far as possible, be placed before the senses. Everything visible should be brought before the organ of sight, everything audible before that of hearing. Odours should be placed before the sense of smell, and things that are tastable and tangible before the sense of taste and of touch respectively. If an object can make an impression on several senses at once, it should be brought into contact with several.…For this there are three cogent reasons. Firstly, the commencement of knowledge must always come from the senses (for the understanding possesses nothing that it has not first derived from the senses). Surely, then, the beginning of wisdom should consist, not in the mere learning the names of things, but in the actual perception of the things themselves! It is when the thing has been grasped by the senses that language should fulfil its function of explaining it still further. (The Great Didactic, pl. 336-37)

Mason:

Watch a child standing at gaze at some sight new to him––a plough at work, for instance––and you will see he is as naturally occupied as is a babe at the breast; he is, in fact, taking in the intellectual food which the working faculty of his brain at this period requires. In his early years the child is all eyes; he observes, or, more truly, he perceives, calling sight, touch, taste, smell, and hearing to his aid, that he may learn all that is discoverable by him about every new thing that comes under his notice.…The child has truly a great deal to do before he is in a condition to ‘believe his own eyes’; but Nature teaches so gently, so gradually, so persistently, that he is never overdone, but goes on gathering little stores of knowledge about whatever comes before him.

And this is the process the child should continue for the first few years of his life. Now is the storing time which should be spent in laying up images of things familiar. By-and-by he will have to conceive of things he has never seen: how can he do it except by comparison with things he has seen and knows?

…We older people, partly because of our maturer intellect, partly because of our defective education, get most of our knowledge through the medium of words. We set the child to learn in the same way, and find him dull and slow.…But set him face to face with a thing, and he is twenty times as quick as you are in knowledge about it; knowledge of things flies to the mind of a child as steel filings to magnet. And, pari passu [hand in hand] with his knowledge of things, his vocabulary grows. (Home Education, excerpted from pages 65-7)

Quite possibly this topic deserves a post of its own, but I’m running out of space in this series for all the topics that could be written about the links between Mason’s ideas and Comenius’s, so we’ll just let it be an adjunct to nature study. Now that we understand their understanding of the relationship between things and words, we can venture out into nature.

First-hand acquaintance with whatever nature has placed before us is the object, and it of more value to know by sight and habit the trees, birds, insects, and waterways in your immediate vicinity than to read about exotic creatures in Australia or the Amazon jungle (unless, of course, that is where you live).

Charlotte Mason encouraged parents and teachers to have children outside observing nature for themselves every week, at least, and to make records and drawings of their observations in Nature notebooks. But the most important things was observing and learning at first-hand, and keeping a nature notebooks was part of that process. The creation of a nature notebook as a product is not the object.

Thus our first thought with regard to Nature-knowledge is that the child should have a living personal acquaintance with the things he sees. It concerns us more that he should know bistort from persicaria, hawkweed from dandelion, and where to find this and that, and how it looks, living and growing, than that he should talk about epigynous and hypogynous. All this is well in its place, but should come quite late, after the child has seen and studied the living growing thing in situ, and has copied colour and gesture as best he can. (Parents and Children, p. 231, emphasis mine)

The keeping of the nature notebook was a means of encouraging the children to pay close attention to what they were seeing, but over time, it also became a valuable record of all the things they had encountered and recorded, and year after year, new knowledge would build on old.

Comenius placed “natural philosophy” next to grammar in his curriculum proposal*, and wanted to limit the amount of reading done so that it could be accomplished early enough in the day to allow time outdoors.

Any reading that is necessary can be got through quickly out of school-hours without tedious explanations or attempts at imitation; since the time thus spent could be better employed in the study of nature. (The Great Didactic, p. 330)

He placed a great deal of faith in the wisdom that might be found by contemplating nature, and suggested that wisdom might as well be acquired from “oaks and beeches” as from books.

The spirit of the scientific age, which was in full flower in Charlotte Mason’s lifetime, was in its infancy during the the life of Comenius. Nevertheless, the importance of observing things and learning from things in nature, simply by looking purposefully, was common to them both.

And then, just because I’m trying to squeeze in as much as possible…

An adjunct to nature study for Charlotte Mason was geography (both fall into the category of “knowledge of the world”), in which she expected young children to be able to understand a mountain because they were acquainted with a nearby hill, or a mighty river because they had observed a stream. Comenius appreciated the same point:

We know the elements of geography when we learn the nature of mountains, valleys, plains, rivers, villages, citadels, or states, according to the situation of the place in which we are brought up. (The Great Didactic, p. 412)

The same powers of observation encouraged by nature study go a long way toward understanding the physical geography of the area that we live in, and relating that knowledge to what we know of other places.

Let’s listen to Charlotte Mason and Comenius, and…go take a walk? With our eyes wide open, of course.

*Grammar, to Comenius, meant learning to read. His biggest claim to fame is probably the Orbis Pictus, a beginner’s book which taught children to read in Latin and the vernacular at the same time. It was translated into over 100 languages, including Chinese and English!

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