Vol. 6, No. 3 Summer 1996 Review Article
David Clandfield, John Sivell, eds and trans. Co-operative Learning and Social Change: Selected Writings of Celestin Freinet. Our Schools/Our Selves Monograph Series. Toronto: OISE, 1990. pp. 144, illus.
In 1920, Celestin Freinet, a school teacher, returned from the carnage of the Great War to rural south-eastern France. His badly damaged lungs made it difficult to follow the standard French approach of teaching by yelling at his pupils, particularly when their "drowsy eyes showed perfectly well that they didn't understand a thing." As he said later,
... like a drowning man, I reached for some buoy to keep me afloat. It was a matter of life or death for me.... Underlying my research was a personal need for better methods to help improve my own effectiveness. But there was also a passionate desire to render full justice to a profession that I loved and in which I was determined to continue.... [M]y problem was to break away from the traditional approach that suited my healthier colleagues so well, and to find a new methodology better adapted to my limited physical strength. (p. 14)
Freinet's weakness proved a blessing for the youngsters at his village school, for he created a system whereby his students were encouraged to take control of their own learning. He encouraged them to be creative, express themselves clearly, communicate effectively, take responsibility for their own learning, learn to be co-operative rather than competitive, evaluate their own progress and adapt to living in the world beyond the classroom; in short, to be prepared for life-long learning.
If all this sounds embarrassingly familiar, it ought to be. After all, shorn of rhetoric, what really is problem-based learning? A method of promoting active learning on the part of students by giving them an opportunity to explore issues, frame learning tasks and evaluate their ongoing progress. In essence such a system tries to correct the asymmetry inherent in the student-teacher relationship and shift the locus of control student-ward. Whether one takes three or seven or even 20 steps to this goal is of marginal consequence, relevant only to pedants. Freinet was instituting a variant of PBL in a school in the village of Bar-sur-Loup in the 1920s, almost half a century before the New World rediscovered it. He went much further in his classrooms than we, decades later, can imagine. He promoted child authorship, classroom printing, school-to-school correspondence, project work, semi-autonomous learning based on self-correcting worksheets as well as open and honest criticism.
Freinet was acutely conscious of the fact that change for the sake of change was not enough: "... modernisation doesn't simply mean buying new equipment":
And it's much the same with teaching methods: we've got to do more than just try to increase pupil participation, or even organise co-operative work or print a school magazine and set up school-to-school exchanges of letters or parcels. All these things bring only surface improvement unless we change the basic idea of a classroom as a place where teachers are like puppet-masters controlling everything. [Reviewer's emphasis.] (p. 39)
Relinquishing control demanded innovations that promoted co-operation, creativity and openness. One of the techniques that Freinet used for open comments and criticism was the Wall Journal where students could write comments under four headings: criticisms, congratulations, wishes, and accomplishments. A pencil was attached to the panel at a convenient height so that even the youngest child who could write could do so freely at any time. Erasing was forbidden and all remarks were to be signed, so that students learned to take responsibility for their comments. Snitch lines and anonymous refereeing are adult prerogatives.
Long before the Internet and Webpages, Freinet stimulated his students to produce their own newspaper using an old printing press. He felt that creative writing should have an outlet for wider communication. He thought initially that printing would not appeal to students since the job was both complicated and precise, but found that the students thoroughly enjoyed the process. Their creations in turn became "central elements in their own education." Classroom printing stimulated cooperation and exchanges of materials between schools. Self-directed, student-centred cooperative learning at its very best.
Why then is Freinet unheard of? In fact he is not. His works have been translated into at least 17 languages, including Arabic, Russian, Japanese and Vietnamesebut until now not English, the language favoured by the gurus of all the movements currently termed "evidence-based" but which may more aptly be termed "Anglo-centric".
David Clandfield (Department of French and Cinema Studies, University of Toronto) and John Sivell (Department of Applied Language Studies and Dean of Humanities, Brock University) have done us all a signal favour by translating selected writings of this remarkable educator, who was born 100 years ago this year and died in 1966. They set out to demonstrate in Freinet's own words some of his techniques, give examples of his "natural learning" at work and comment on the larger political implications of these approaches. They have succeeded admirably by producing a readable book eminently suitable for browsing.
Having read the first two parts, which give a clear introduction to Freinet and his techniques, one can pick up any subsequent section and glean much of value. Through these pages the words of Freinet and his pupils whisper slyly in our ears that new pathways are new only for those who do not search hard enough.