Vol. 7, No. 1 -- WINTER 1996-97  Review Article

John Sivell, Ed. Freinet Pedagogy: Theory and Practice.

Lewiston NY / Queenston ON; Edwin Mellen Press, 1994. pp. 157. $79.99US.

In October 1990 Brock University hosted the first-ever international conference in North America on the teachings of C้lestin Freinet (1896-1996), the early 20th-century French pioneer of problem-based learning. This collection of seven essays edited by John Sivell (Applied Languages, Brock University) stem largely from presentations made at that conference.

One of the more fascinating chapters is by William Lee (University of Southern California), who compares and contrasts Freinet with another proponent of learning by doing, John Dewey, the well known American educator. Lee quotes extensively from both men's writings, a practice which this reader very much appreciated. Listen to Dewey, writing in 1939 at the ripe age of 79, about teachers in a child-centred programme:

I have heard of cases in which children are surrounded with objects and materials and then left entirely to themselves, the teacher being loath to suggest even what might be done with the materials lest freedom be infringed upon. Does this sound familiar? The tutor as a mere facilitator? Dewey continues:

Why even supply the materials, since they are a source of some suggestion or other? ... It is impossible to understand why a suggestion from one who has a larger experience and a wider horizon should not be at least as valid as a suggestion from some more or less accidental source.

Dewey argued that the selection and organization of subject matter was fundamental for "progressive" education. Although he saw benefits in taking advantage of unforseen events as springboards for learning, he was sceptical of relying on them as the "chief material of learning". Freinet recognized the need for new curricular materials but being eminently practical took a hand in preparing them. He realized that a sustained child-centred pedagogy could not be haphazard but, rather, required careful organization and technologies.

Dewey's points were excellent but given his strong academic credentials, University training and New England background, he contrasts sharply with the earthiness of Freinet, who practiced what Dewey preached at his school in south-eastern France. Editor Sivell focuses on the tools of Freinet's trade, the technologies he developed along with his children. These tools were broad and included consideration of layout and the organization of the class rooms. Freinet had some telling points to make, particularly about the costs of such procedures. He emphasized that many expenses are gladly assumed on account of the practical advantages they bring and pointed out that business-minded people who would not hesitate to spend money on proper facilities for horses and dogs balk at doing likewise for their children. For horses read golfing greens and the translation works well for Ontario as it lurches towards the New Millennium.

One of Freinet's major contributions was the promotion of exchange packages. The implications of inter-scholastic correspondence for contemporary computer-mediated student writing networks is discussed by Dennis Sayers (U of California at San Diego), who argues that "research on educational methodology has too often been characterised by a very narrow focus on the most recent innovations, the work of older workers being ignored." This, of course, is a result of mindless computer-searching in place of real scholarship, which involves hard work.

Freinet's daughter, Madeleine Bens-Freinet, provides an interesting inside account of her father's struggles. She tells us about the building of the school in 1934, the problems faced by the whole family when they welcomed, fed and clothed Spanish refugees in 1937, and Freinet's arrest in 1940, which forced his wife to take charge of the school in his absence. A harrowing tale, emphasizing yet again that Freinet was no weekend liberal discussing the plight of humanity from the cushioned chairs of a Faculty Club. Freinet felt strongly that "pedagogically and morally speaking, we do not have the right to ignore the errors and injustices [of our society] which affect the child beyond our supervision and responsibility." Compartmentalisation and a narrow focus may be well suited for getting grants and publishing papers but make little sense in the wider maelstrom of human existence. Education, Freinet would have argued, is for and about life.

Freinet is well known to critical educators in Europe and in non-European nations that are, or once were, open to French and Spanish intellectual and cultural developments. Yet he has been almost totally ignored, and undeservedly so, in the English-speaking nations. How unfortunate, therefore, that Mellen Press has priced this relatively small collection of interesting papers at more than $100 Canadian.

P.K. Rangachari
McMaster University