I.

From An Claidheamh Soluis, February 3, 1906.

In our Antwerp Kindergarten we have seen the Belgian education system machine at work on the very youngest generation of future Belgian citizens. We have noted that in this bilingual system the first phase is purely unilingual. Only the vernacular of the district is heard within the walls of the Belgian Infant School. It is in the lowest class of the Primary School proper that the bilingual principle is first introduced.

My type of a Belgian Primary School shall be the Ecole Communale at Etterbeek, a suburb of Brussels. I select it for several reasons. First, the district is genuinely bilingual, the Walloons being in only a slight majority over the Flemings; the district is thus analogous to a border countryside in Connacht or Munster in which English has already secured a slight advantage – perhaps the average type of what we are accustomed with some looseness to call an “Irish-speaking district.”

Secondly, the school, I think fairly representative of its class in Belgium. And thirdly, the staff at Etterbeek includes a teacher who makes a speciality of certain educational methods which I long to see introduced into the primary schools of this country.

This teacher – M. Basile De Cleene – I found in charge of the lowest classroom in the Boys’ School at Etterbeek. His little flock consisted of some thirty happy-faced youngsters aged between six and seven. They were in their first school year, having passed from the Kindergarten at six. The reader must not be surprised to find a man of University standing, with a growing reputation as an educationist, filling no loftier post than that of teacher of thirty little boys all under seven.

In Belgium, as I have already suggested, some of the most cultured and interesting personalities in the whole educational service are to be found amongst the teachers of the infant and primary schools. And this is as it should be; for assuredly it is in its earliest years that the child requires the kindliest and most sympathetic handling, the most skilful and attractive teaching. If I had my way, I would choose the very finest minds – the noblest and most cultured men and women – of the race to place in charge of the primary schools of my country. The best that we have is not too good for the service of our children.

M. de Cleene’s schoolwork was ordered in accordance with a scheme which is a sort of expansion of the common enough “series” method. A central idea is selected as a point of reference for all the lessons of the week. The instruction in drawing, in geometry, in arithmetic, in manual training, in geography, in language, even in singing, must all for the space of a week centre round and be illustrative of some subject proposed at the beginning. On the occasion of my visit to Etterbeek the theme for the week happened to be “The Wind.” Every lesson which I saw given had, therefore direct or indirect reference to the Wind. The object-lessons of the week were given on a paper windmill. The manual exercises of the week were concerned with the manufacture of paper windmills. Drawing, geometry, and simple calculation were taught incidentally to this process of manufacture. Some elementary notions of geography and of physiography were worked in during the course of simple chats on the wind, – what it is, where it comes from, what it does. The singing lessons for the week centred round the acquirement of a “Song of the Wind.” Finally, all these lessons were lessons in language, for all were conducted bilingually. I proceed to details.

Taking a well-made paper windmill from the school museum (the work probably of a former pupil) the teacher proceeds to give an object-lesson upon it IN FRENCH. This finished, and the pupils exhaustively examined on the subject-matter, he proceeds to give another AND DIFFERENT object-lesson upon it IN FLEMISH. This second lesson, be it observed, is not a translation of the first. It has, in fact, no connection with the first beyond that of a common theme. Totally different points with regard to the windmill are dealt with in the Flemish demonstration, which thus resolves itself, so far as the non-Flemish-speakers are concerned, into a lesson in Flemish on the Direct Method. (For the non-French-speakers the French demonstration just concluded has been in effect a similar lesson.) A good deal of useful conversation is, of course, built up around the windmill; names of objects, qualities, actions, and even of abstract ideas being freely introduced in both languages. Thus, in addition to an object-lesson on the form and uses of a windmill, we have a sort of double language-lesson on the Direct Method, – the Flemings being taught to talk about the windmill in French, and the Walloons in Flemish. There is, be it again remarked, no translation, the words “wind” and “windmill” themselves being practically the only ones which occur in both lessons. It is to be added that both lessons are addressed to the whole school; and that both the Walloons and the Flemings are questioned in French on the French lesson, and in Flemish on the Flemish lesson.

II.

From An Claidheamh Soluis, February 17, 1906.

The windmill, having served as the subject of an Object Lesson, is now made use of as the basis of an elementary lesson in Drawing. Each child is required to draw a square in pencil on paper, and to put in the diagonals. The teacher maintains a fire of questions all the time, making use now of French, now of Flemish.

“Que faites-vous?”

“Nous faisons les diagonals.”

“Que venez-vous de faire?”

“Nous venons de faire les diagonals,” etc.

Next, a simple lesson in Geometry is given on the square. What is this? A square. What is a square? What is a right angle? How many right angles in a square? How many degrees in a right angle? Is this angle larger or smaller than a right angle? – all this bilingually. The operation of finding the centre of the square is gone through first in French and afterwards in Flemish. In the same way a little simple Arithmetic is introduced. The sides and diagonals are measured, the figures added, subtracted, multiplied, divided, – again all bilingually. Thus, every lesson is to a certain extent a lesson in language.

By way of exercise in Manual Training, the children are required to cut out their squares neatly, to slit up the diagonals, the pierce the necessary holes, and finally to fold over the flaps, and attach each improvised windmill to a little stick by means of a pin. This done, they are allowed a few minutes to amuse themselves by making the windmills revolve. Both languages are freely used by the teacher in giving the necessary directions for the carrying out of all these operations.

The toy windmill completed, a Flemish landscape introducing two or three windmills is shown. This is the starting point of further conversation. Are real windmills, like those in the picture, made of paper? If not, of what? Is it the wind which causes them also to revolve? What are they for? Are they common in Belgium? In what neighbouring country are they also common? Why are they so much used in the Low Countries? By chats such as this the pupil’s intelligence is quickened and their powers of observation and reasoning developed. The teacher does not fail to seize every opportunity which the lesson affords for a reference to the history, scenery, or industrial activities of Belgium.

Finally, as has already been noted, the song for the week is a Song of the Wind, with a fine swinging chorus lending itself to use as a marching tune. The song may be in Flemish or in French as circumstances suggest. Most of the singing I heard was in Flemish. Young, as they were, all M. de Cleene’s pupils could read the tonic sol-fa notation admirably at sight.

Apart from the general course, which, as we have seen, is bilingual all through, M. de Cleene gives formal instruction in language. It need hardly be said that he uses the Direct Method. During my visit he gave some very attractive lessons on colours. For the purposes of the lessons he used chalks of various colours, and also the revolving disc. The pupils were able to tell in both languages what colours are got by combining yellow and red, blue and red, blue and yellow, and so on.

M. de Cleene is an enthusiast on Hand and Eye training. His school contains a most interesting little museum of objects made by the children – geometrical forms, toys, knick-knacks, etc, etc, in clay, paper, and wood. Many of the objects have actually been designed by the children themselves, and very quaint and pretty some of them are.

Still more valuable, and, to me, more interesting are M. de Cleene’s experiments in another direction. Nature-study holds a prominent place in his school programme. Under his guidance, his pupils make frequent expeditions into the fields and woods, some excursions being for general observation, others having for the aim the collection of objects of a particular kind. Thus, on one afternoon each pupil may be instructed to bring home the root of a particular plant; on another, the fruit of a particular tree; on a third, the grub of a particular insect. On the occasion of my visit the life-story of a butterfly was being studied at close quarters. The caterpillar was shut up in his cocoon, and the children were eagerly awaiting the day when he would burst forth from his lowly dwelling and flit out of the school window a glorious butterfly.

I have an uneasy notion that if M. de Cleene were an Irish teacher he would fail to secure the award “Fair” from a National Board Inspector, because he teaches his pupils to observe and think before he teaches them to read and write; or else that he would be dismissed by the manager as a faddist. The Belgian Education Department, less enlightened, is following M. de Cleene’s experiments with much interest, and I more than once heard the Chief Inspector for the Province of Brussels warmly recommend his ideals and methods to other teachers.