I.

From An Claidheamh Soluis, December 30, 1905.

To begin at the beginning, I start this record of my experiences in Belgian primary and secondary schools with an account of a visit to an Infant School. As has been already mentioned, whilst in rural places the Infants’ Schools, as commonly in Ireland, are attached to the ordinary Primary Schools, there exist in the large and populous centres Kindergartens or Infants’ Schools totally apart from these latter, and catering only for infants. In Antwerp, for instance, there are seventeen schools for infants under the direct control of the communal authorities, and sixteen in the hands of the Catholic body; whilst there are forty communal Primary Schools and thirty Catholic. It is not, of course, to be assumed that the communal schools are of the type known as “godless”; in all of them provision is made for religious instruction, the local authority determining the character of the religious instruction to be given. In practice, this instruction is nearly always Catholic. Thus, the “communal” schools stand to the “Catholic” or voluntary schools pretty much in the same relation as our “National” schools to the primary schools of the Christian Brothers.*

As a fair average type of a Belgian Infants’ School I select the Ecole Freubell or Kindergarten in the Rue de l’Empereur, Antwerp. Antwerp is a Flemish-speaking city, Flemish being the vernacular of nine-tenths of the children attending its Primary Schools. Accordingly, the Infants’ Schools of Antwerp are purely Flemish. As soon as the Ecole primaire is reached French is commenced as a second language; but no French is taught to Infants. This is in accordance with the general principle so often referred to, that the first steps in the child’s education are made in his vernacular, be that vernacular French or Flemish; the second language is commenced only in the second or third school year. Applying this principle to Ireland, we should have children in Connemara and Corca Dhuibhne taught Irish only as long as they remain in the Infants’ Class, whilst shortly after their promotion to Standard I they would commence English as a “second language.” Conversely, in Dublin and Belfast, children would be taught Irish as a “second language” from Standard I up.

This particular school is not a pretentious building, unlike many Belgian primary schools of more recent erection. Entering the street door we pass by the concierge’s lodge, and walking along a paved passage arrive at the bureau of the headmistress. In plan, the school consists of a number of moderately-sized class-rooms enclosing a neat court. The court, into which the class-rooms open, is used as a playground. A separate mistress is, of course, in charge of each class-room, having under her care not more than thirty or forty children. Needless to say, no sane Belgian would dream of herding from 130 to 150 children into the same schoolroom, as is often done in the large city schools in this country.

Brightness, neatness, and scrupulous cleanliness are the dominant notes in the tout ensemble of the class-room. There are some plants and flowers; a few attractive pictures; a bust or painting or photograph of the King of the Belgians. The time-tables, the inscriptions on the wall-charts, and all the other notices displayed are in Flemish only; for this is Flanders, and “in Flanders, Flemish.” The head-mistress speaks to the children and to the class-mistresses in Flemish only. The class-mistresses use only Flemish in their intercourse with the children.

II.

From An Claidheamh Soluis, January 6, 1906.

The successful teaching of infants presupposes gifts and acquirements of a very special kind in the teacher. It demands infinite sympathy, infinite tact, infinite patience; an intimate understanding of the child mind and the capacity to come down to its level; an attractive and winning manner; and finally considerable talents as a draftsman, a mimic, and a raconteur. All this means that, from a true standpoint, the really good Kindergarten teacher belongs to a higher order than the ordinary primary teacher, and is proportionately rarer. British and West-British educationists imagine that anyone can teach infants. It is one of the many British and West-British educational heresies.

The monitor and the pupil-teacher are peculiar to these enlightened islands. No continental in his right senses would dream of setting youngsters to teach youngsters only a little younger than themselves; least of all would he dream of setting them to teach infants. Accordingly, we find that some of the most gifted members of the teaching profession in continental countries are in charge of Infants’ Schools. The same will apply very largely in America. Neither in the Ecoles meyonnes nor in the Athénées of Belgium did I meet with more interesting personalities or with more suggestive methods of work than I did amongst the teachers of the Infants’ Schools and of the lower forms in the Primary Schools. For obvious reasons the teachers of the Kindergartens are almost invariably women.

In my Kindergarten in the Rue de l’Empereur I found the principles I have just enunciated held in due honour. The staff – consisting of eight or ten ladies working under a Head-Mistress – realised that their lessons, to be really valuable, must have a two-fold aim: they must both amuse and educate, – the former in order that the latter might be possible. Accordingly, all the lessons were in the first place attractive – appealing to the child’s love of colour, of movement, of music; in the second place all had a purpose, and were not given merely to fill up time, – the purpose being the enkindling of the child’s imagination, the awakening of his faculties, the training of his hand, his eye, his ear, his intelligence. All the instruction given with this end was useful in the best sense; some of it, as will immediately appear, was highly practical even in a more restricted application.

To come to the concrete. The first lesson at which I assisted belonged to a type which it is difficult to classify. It was a lesson which aimed at awakening the children’s powers of observation; it was a lesson in language; it was a lesson in very elementary domestic economy. I can best convey an idea of its scope by reproducing as nearly as I can the actual questions asked and answered given – a method to which I shall frequently have recourse in future papers.

Teacher (in a pleasant conversational tone.) – I suppose you all had breakfast this morning, children?

Omnes. – Yes, teacher!

T. – So had I! I never forget my breakfast. Do you, Hendrik?

H. (promptly) – No, teacher! (a laugh ripples through the desks.)

T. – Well, what did you have this morning, Hendrik?

H. – Soup!

T. Very good! Emil and Marie will get us the soup-plate and the other things required.

Emil and Marie leave their places, approach a cupboard, and bring forth a simple breakfast-service, consisting of a soup-plate, cup and saucer, knife, fork, spoon, tablecloth, etc. A less experienced teacher would have done this herself, but this teacher knew, as all good teachers do, that it is an excellent plan to allow the children to help as much as possible in the giving of the lesson. This amuses them, gives them a pleasant sense of self-importance, keeps their attention wide awake, and fixes things in their memory. The lesson goes on: –

T. – Jules, show me the plate! Quite right! Louise, the spoon! Hendrik, the cup! Emil, the top of the cup! Marie, the bottom of the cup! Josef, the inside of the cup! Jan, put the cup upside-down! (And so on and so on: each child coming forward when his or her name is called and indicating the required object or performing the required action.)

T. – Now, Hendrik, where was your soup put this morning?

H. – In the plate!

T. – Where was the plate put?

H. – On the table!

T. – Was not something else put on the table before the plate? (Hendrik looks puzzled.)

Louise – Teacher, I know!

T. – What, my child?

L. – The tablecloth!

T. – Quite right! Now come, my dear, and spread the tablecloth on the table. (Louise with an air of considerable self-importance trips forward and performs the action.)

T. – You will make an excellent housekeeper, Louise. Now, where is the cup put?

Jules – On the table! (Several hands go up.)

T. – I see, Jules, that some of your friends don’t agree with you. Where would you put it, Marie?

Marie. – I should put the saucer on the table and the cup on the saucer.

T. – And where the spoon? In the cup?

M. – Oh no! In the saucer!

T. – Do so, my dear.

Marie trips forward and performs the action; and thus the lesson goes on. By the time it is concluded a neat little breakfast table has been set in the schoolroom by the united efforts of the children, every one of whom, if possible, takes part in the operation. It will be seen that the little ones are – albeit it is all play to them – being trained up as careful little house keepers.

The particular lesson I have described was given in the children’s vernacular (Flemish); but the teaching of a new language could quite obviously have ben linked with it. In point of fact, precisely similar lessons will at a later stage be given to these very children in French; whilst in French-speaking districts similar lessons are given in Flemish. But of all this more anon. I am here dealing with the Infants’ School, in which only the vernacular of the district is heard.

Imagine the revolution were lessons like this in Irish only the order in Infants’ classes in Iar-Chonnachta and the Déise!

III.

From An Claidheamh Soluis, January 13, 1906.

Another lesson at which I assisted in the Kindergarten in the Rue de l’Empereur was an interesting variant of a common enough type of lesson in continental schools. The application of the method to a language lesson is obvious.

The teacher, taking a piece of chalk, sketched on the blackboard an admirable little marine view. A few bold lines served to suggest a rolling sea, with sails in the offing; in the foreground were the end of a pier, a lighthouse, some marine objects. A moon was riding in the sky; across her face clouds were hurrying. This delightful little study was the work of a few moments, and the eager pleasure of the children as they saw the picture grow under the teacher’s hand may be more easily imagined than described.

The next step, of course, was to question the children as to the picture and what it represented.

“What do you see on the blackboard?”

“A sea.”

“Anything else?”

“Yes, a lighthouse.”

“What is the lighthouse for?”

And then the class launches into a fascinating discussion on lighthouses, storms at sea, wreckers, and so on, the teacher so framing her questions as rather to evoke the ideas of the children than to give them ideas. This subject being exhausted, a further reference to the picture opens up a new train of thought.

“What are these?”

“Sails.”

“To what do these sails belong?”

“To boats.”

“What sort of boats do you think they are?”

“Fishing-boats.”

The possibilities for conversation in this subject are obvious. The excitement and perils of a fisherman’s life; the sorts of fish caught; their uses; the distinction between salt and freshwater fish; the fishing-fleet and fish-market of Antwerp, and so on almost ad infinitum. Again, the moon and the clouds in the sky are the starting point of yet a new discussion; the sea itself, its terrors, its hidden wonders, of another; what lies beyond the sea – strange lands and strange peoples – of still another. Possibly a week’s conversation lessons will be founded on this little blackboard sketch: and all the time the little ones are using their eyes, their ears, their tongues, their reasoning faculties; they are being trained in the right use of language; their powers of observation are being developed; their descriptive powers are being brought out; their imaginative sense is being appealed to, – and they are enjoying themselves hugely.

It is to be noted that all the objects represented in the picture were objects which might be expected to come within the ordinary ken of the children. Antwerp is a seaport town, and every Antwerp gamin is familiar with ships and boats. The great North German Lloyd steamers come into the harbour; the fishing fleet on its way up or down the river is a common sight; the favourite evening airing of Antwerp folk of all ages and classes is across the Schelt in the ferry to take coffee or light beer in one of the cafés in Tête de Flandre. It is, of course, a maxim of good teaching that the lessons should as far as possible concern themselves with things that come within the children’s daily experience. Only in Ireland is it considered intelligent to give object lessons on the habits of the cassowary and on the method of roofing houses in Cochin-China to children who are never likely to see a cassowary either dead or alive, and are still less likely in the ordinary course of events to engage in building operations in Cochin-China.

In some of the more up-to-date Belgian schools I found the croquis coming into vogue as an attractive and valuable exercise for children of Kindergarten standing. A croquis is a rough bold stretch. There are special croquis classes in many of the Paris studios, the students being required to make rapid sketches of a model who throws him or herself into various attitudes. In its simplest form the croquis in the primary school is something very similar. The children are asked to make a sketch of a cat, a dog, a horse, a bird, a man, a table, a house, – sometimes with and sometimes without the model before them. Another form of croquis lesson is this: the teacher tells a little story in very simple language, and each child is asked to illustrate it by a sketch on a slate or on paper. Yet another: the teacher draws an imaginary croquis in the air, using both hands; the pupils, facing her, reproduce her motions, each drawing before him or her, in the air, a similar figure; then, turning round, they transfer the idea obtained to slate or paper.

“Somewhat fantastic,” the old-fashioned teacher will observe. Yet teachers in the United States and in France find it very valuable for training the eye, for developing the sense of form, and for inducing a feeling for the beauty of lines. The Belgian school in which I saw the system most intelligently used was the Infants’ School attached to the Ecole Moyenne for girls at Schaerbeek, near Brussels. A fascinating book has been written on the subject by a French teacher.

IV.

From An Claidheamh Soluis, January 20, 1906.

The exercises in Manual Training which I saw in this and other infants’ schools were devised on an equally ingenious plan and carried out with equal address and resource. The educational value of a well-considered scheme of Hand and Eye Training few will deny. We must not allow the unhappy experiments in this direction which have been made in Ireland to prejudice us against a means of education which is held in high honour by all sound teachers on the continent. Hand and Eye Training, like everything else, pre-supposes common sense on the part of those who superintend its introduction into the schools of a country. This is exactly what was lacking in Ireland.

A Hand and Eye lesson, to be of any value, must in the first place be of such a nature that it does actually “train” the hand and eye – and also the intelligence – of the child. It must in the second place – especially if addressed to very young children – be sufficiently attractive to capture the attention and interest of the class; else, like all other lessons, it becomes a weariness of the flesh. Many hand and Eye lessons which I have seen in this country failed in the former of these two requirements; still more in the latter; and not a few in both.

The Belgian teachers whose Hand and Eye classes I attended exhibited a good deal more originality, versatility and adroitness than I had been accustomed to see in Ireland. Each teacher thought out schemes for him or herself; skilfully availed of local circumstances; adapted his lessons to the geographical or social locale of his pupils; and, generally, depended more on his own native fund of ingenuity and sympathy than on the formulas of textbooks.

One principle which all seemed to bear in mind was that the objects made by the children in school, whilst of such forms as to be capable of utilisation as the basis of simple lessons in geometry, mensuration, drawing, and son, should also be in themselves objects capable of being put to some practical use, whether as toys, as articles of household ornament, or as portions of the school equipment. Thus, the children feel that they are doing something; and at the end of each lesson there remain to them, to be carried proudly home or to be placed still more proudly to the school museum, interesting little monuments of their skill and diligence. I found this idea carried to its highest development in a Brussels primary school in which nearly all the school furniture – desks, maps, geometrical figures, bookcases, book-covers, etc. – had been made during school hours by the boys themselves; of which more anon. Here I speak of something a good deal more elementary.

Most of us have, as schoolboys or schoolgirls, fashioned birds from paper and – during temporary absences of the teacher from the classroom – amused ourselves by making them “fly.” To be discovered generally meant punishment in some form or other. Having lively recollections of such stolen schoolboy pleasures – and of their consequences – I was interested on my visit to the Kindergarten in the Rue de l’Empereur, to find the lowest class busily engaged in manufacturing paper birds under the superintendence of a lady teacher who seemed an enthusiast on the industry. The symmetry of shape and marvellous flying powers of the birds turned out would have moved my envy had I had seen them fifteen years ago. The manner of the lesson was as follows: –

Each child was provided with a sheet of white paper. The teacher, similarly provided, stood at the top of the classroom. Without mentioning what she was about to make the teacher commenced to fold her paper into mysterious shapes. Thirty pairs of bright eyes eagerly followed her every motion; thirty pairs of nimble hands deftly imitated her every turn and twist. As the work neared completion, the teacher asked whether they knew what they were making. There were a few bad guesses, at which all laughed. At length one, having critically regarded his embryo for some time, suddenly cried out: “Teacher! It will be a bird!” “A bird!” was echoed in delight from desk to desk, and the work went on with renewed zest. Finally, thirty neatly fashioned white birds lay in rows along the desks, each little maker regarding the result of his or her handicraft with considerable complacence.

Then questions and criticisms from the teacher.

“What is this?”

“His bill.”

“And this?”

“His tail.”

“Jan, your bird has no eye.”

“Louise, you have given yours too big a head.”

Finally, the teacher asks: “Have our birds wings?”

“Yes.”

“What are wings for?”

“To fly with.”

“Then our birds must be able to fly! Let us try!”

And with a skilful cast the teacher sends her bird sweeping gracefully through the air. “See whether yours can fly as well as mine!”

Each child casts his or hers, the younger being instructed in the art by their elders or by the teacher. There is a cloud of white paper birds in the air; cries of pleasure from the children.

“Mine flies the best!”

“Hendrik, yours wobbles!”

“Now, each one bring me his or her bird! See whether you will know you own!” cries the teacher.

There is a rush; a scramble on the floor; perhaps a few disputes as to ownership. The teacher, whilst taking care that there is no undue roughness, by no means attempts to check the noise. For two or three minutes seeming confusion reigns; but, when the proper moment comes, a word from the teacher suffices to hush the din, and a second to recall each little one to its place, – each bearing in triumph his or her own particular bird.

Both the “hand” and “eye” have been trained during the course of the exercise; a little informal teaching in natural history has been worked in; there has been much merry laughter and much pleasant excitement.

On similar lines lessons are given in the manufacture of paper dogs, cats, horses, carts, trams, chairs, tables, houses, windmills, boats, hats, dolls – in short, any and everything that ingenious brains and deft fingers can fashion out of paper. The best specimens of the children’s handiwork are kept to be added to the school museum, or to be sent as models to other schools; the rest are taken home by the young makers, to be proudly shown to admiring parents, and – in the case of the more elaborate articles – to find a permanent place amongst the household adornments.

V.

From An Claidheamh Soluis, January 27, 1906.

It remains to deal with the other side of Kindergarten work – that which aims more directly at the amusement of the child, although not without an important educational purpose also. Here there is less need for detailed description, as the forms of exercise to which I have to draw attention do not materially differ from those in vogue in the best Kindergarten in this country. The chief difference in favour of Belgium is to be found in the superior education, skill and resource of the Belgian teacher. And this is explained mainly by the fact that there is in Belgium a National Education Department in full sympathy with popular ideals, thoroughly abreast of modern educational progress, and looking after the training of its teachers with solicitous care. In fact, if I were asked to sum up in a sentence the message which I carry home from the primary and secondary schools of Belgium I should say: “Train the teacher.”

But in order that we may be able to train our teachers exactly as they ought to be trained, it is necessary for us to get control of the supreme educational authorities in the country – our two precious “Boards.” So that, whilst I hope that these articles may incidentally prove helpful to my fellow-teachers, I intend them primarily as a plea for a national educational authority representative of, and responsible to, the Irish people.

To return. There are educationists in this country whose idea of a Kindergarten is a place in which very young children may conveniently be herded in order that they may be “kept out of mischief” during the day, – a sort of glorified creche. The continental ideal is widely different. The Kindergarten, rightly conceived, continues and supplements the process of education commenced on the mother’s knee. It seeks to draw forth the varied and mysterious faculties of the child’s mind; to awaken in him an interest in the brave and beautiful world round about him; to fill his imagination with fair and gracious pictures; to make both his body and his mind things of beauty and grace and health. It is in order that it may do all these things that the Kindergarten, in even a greater degree than the ordinary primary school, must be a place of brightness and of flowers; of sunshine, of warmth, and of colours; of smiling faces and of happy hearts. For these reasons also the exercises must be so ordered that, whilst educative, they are attractive, and whilst entertaining, never entertaining merely. The formal instruction should have the allurement and zest of a game; on the other hand, the games should have some object other than the mere filling up of time, the mere “keeping the little ones out of mischief.”

Imagine yourself again with me in the Ecole Freubell in the Rue de l’Empereur. We are in a bright and pleasant room opening on to a sunny courtyard. Without, the children are trooping ready for their “march in.” A teacher seats herself at a piano and plays a few bars of an old Flemish patriotic song. Then she glides into a merry quickstep, and in file, the children – forty or fifty two by two. Each little boy is paired with a diminutive maiden. The first little girl carries in her arms a huge doll. She and her partner are the leaders of the revel. The rest are divided into parties, – some with balls, some with skipping ropes, some with hoops, some with nets, and so on. A ring is formed. The child with the doll steps forward and deposits her charge in the centre of the circle. Then she commences a pretty little song in Flemish celebrating the amiability and charms of her doll. A lullaby follows. The whole circle joins in the refrains of both. The Doll Song finished, one of the children with the india rubber balls commences a Ball Song, running round the ring and hopping his ball, – the rest, standing in their places, also hopping theirs in time. Then there is a Hoop Song, a Net Song, and so on until the list of games is exhausted. At the conclusion of each song there is a chorus and a general dance round. Finally, the quickstep recommences, and all trip happily out.

The exercise has been palpably entertaining, – we submit that it has also been educational. Further, it has been in the vernacular, whilst twenty years ago it would almost certainly have been in French.

Another game which I saw performed by the same children was the common enough one of “Guard the Handkerchief.” It was at times a little boisterous, but the mistress was always present to prevent anything like downright roughness.

Due attention is, of course, given to Physical Drill. In the Ecoles primaires and moyennes and in the Athénées all the most approved forms of gymnastic training are seen in practice. In the Ecole Freubell the exercise with which I was most struck was a very pretty drill in which white and blue hoops were made use of. These hoops were also employed in various dances and marches.

On the whole, I don’t think I ever saw a merrier band of school children than these in the Rue de l’Empereur. As I stood amongst them and heard them chatter in their mother-speech without fear of the teacher’s cane or the inspector’s frown, I thought of Connemara and – swore! Fortunately, neither the teacher nor the children understood Irish.


* The parallel is not quite exact, for the “Catholic” schools in Belgium, unlike the Christian Brothers’ Schools here, are subject to Government inspection.