Despite having written his multiple influential works more than one hundred years prior to the United States of America even being declared as an independent nation, and more than 350 years before present-day America, John Amos Comenius could certainly pass as a significant scholar of contemporary American pedagogy based on the outlooks he presented in his work, Didactica Magna (The Great Didactic); It is within this pedagogical work that Comenius seemingly prophesized the methods and structures of the modern education system with minimal error.
Before examining how the works of Comenius apply to education in the twenty-first century, it is important to first analyze his importance in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries – the times when his prominence as a scholar evolved. To begin with, John Amos Comenius was born in Moravia in 1592 (Comenius 132). Growing up, he attended the standard primary and grammar schools of the day, and although he entered Latin school at a much later age compared to other boys, Comenius went on to receive higher education at multiple universities, Herborn and Heidelberg (Keatinge 1). It wasn’t just in spite of the lackluster education that he received, but rather because of the boring and poorly taught education he was exposed to that Comenius went on to spend the majority of his life writing and teaching with the intent of advancing the educational systems of several European societies (1). Over the course of Comenius’ life, his list of works would grow to include several Latin textbooks, including the very first textbook to include pictures, an instruction manual on education infants for teachers and mothers, and his most famous pedagogical text of modern times, Didactica Magna. While one of his textbooks, Jangua, was especially significant during his own lifetime, it is his work on “the art of teaching” (Comenius 133) that remains widely read to this day. The Great Didactic is the sole source of insight into Comenius’ views on education as they are compared to the reality of today’s American education system in the following pages.
“Didactic signifies the art of teaching,” and so the art of teaching is what Comenius sought to explore in The Great Didactic (Comenius 133). In his writings on this matter, Comenius laid out a fairly concise, yet obviously extensively thought-out, pedagogy instructing teachers on who, what, where, when, and how to teach. Like most significant works, The Great Didactic has received criticism from a handful of scholars in the few hundred years since his passing. Some such individuals have discredited Comenius by suggesting that The Great Didactic was unoriginal and a mere imitation of the ideas already presented by other scholars during and before Comenius’ time. While this may be the view of some, on page 19 of Modern Educators and Their Ideals, Misawa argues that “however much he may owe to his predecessors and contemporaries, he it was who gave a coherency and a larger relation to what was partially expressed by others; who carried into details and practical applications what before was treated only in a general manner.” Regardless of whether there had been other pedagogies written to serve as influences to Comenius or not, his work has already and will continue to serve as a significant text within the education community. This legacy is evident to this day in the mention of Comenius in lists and books on the great educators of history.
Although the true originality of The Great Didactic is not so important to determining its relation to twenty-first century education systems, other “faults” have been cited which act as more severe hindrances to Comenius’ conception of a great education system. The overtones of Christianity throughout the entire work might serve as one such hindrance to envisioning the parallels between Comenius’ Didactica Magna and modern education. As Keatinge puts it, “his main objective is a religious one and that all wordly aims are secondary” (7). Another supposed “fault” might be found in his idealized and rather unrealistic concept of the Latin or secondary school, which he views as a six year institution in which students will study and master four languages in addition to furthering their education of grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, music, geometry, astronomy, physics, geography, chronology, history, morality, and theology (Flanagan 84). Piaget makes another minor criticism of Comenius’ conception of metaphysics. Contrary to what Comenius had apparently believed, Piaget argues that the study of metaphysics does not enable one to “understand the development of the child or of man in society, or the interaction between man and nature” (8). This error seems minor when one sees the much more overwhelming similarities between Comenius’ proposed education system and that which is widely used today. Minor, too, is the critique Nash gives of Comenius’ somewhat inconsistent writings. In fact, Nash himself goes on to defend Comenius overall, stating that “when faced with the problem of deciding between logical consistency and the well-being of mankind, Comenius surrendered consistency every time” (167). In this statement, Nash very deliberately draws attention to Comenius’ work towards bettering humanity through education, which has long been a goal of American education. Despite the apparent “faults” that The Great Didactic is riddled with, Comenius’ pedagogy has been and remains a significant text to contemporary education systems worldwide. Such is the opinion of Keatinge who goes so far as to assert that “a brief examination of The Great Didactic suffices to show that in spite of its faults it is, if not the greatest, one of the greatest treatises on education ever written” (5).
One of the reasons that The Great Didactic can be considered one of the greatest dissertations on teaching is because of its relevance to education over time. One such way that Comenius’ writings pertain to the education system today is the structure suggested for school levels. “Comenius’ proposals for universal schooling are strikingly similar to what prevails universally today: nursery schools up to the age of 6; from 6 to 12, primary or vernacular school (where instruction is given in the mother tongue of the children); secondary or Latin school from 12 to 18; and finally university education base on merit and achievement” (Flanagan 77). This, as Flanagan points out, is much like the education system in America: preschool and kindergarten ages 3 to 5; primary school ages 6 to 11; secondary school 12 to 18; then university for those who choose to pursue higher education. His outline of the four levels of schooling is remarkably aligned with “the system of consecutive development which modern genetic psychology has enabled us to analyze” (Piaget 10).
Not only are there astounding similarities between Comenius’ proposed school structure and that used in America today, but also between his views on the education of children and the similar views held by scholars and scientists today. In fact, Comenius seems to have been the first to recognize the importance of educating very young children (Graves 48). Dobinson suggests that “in his insistence on the educational importance of the pre-school years Comenius was centuries ahead of his time” (26). In fact, not only did Comenius touch on the education of young children and infants in The Great Didactic, but wrote a separate text addressing their training as well. This text is titled The School of Infancy and is intended to guide mothers in the process of bringing up their child at home and exposing them to the subjects they would encounter in primary school (Nash 171). With nature as his guide for reasoning in The Great Didactic, Comenius notices that it becomes more difficult to mold the mind over time, and thus the most opportune time to begin a child’s education is when the brain can more easily absorb new experiences and knowledge during youth. It is also during these formative years that the “imagination is active and fingers flexible” (Comenius 139). The most important aspect of this early education is the exposure to Christian morals (Nash 171). Comenius’ discussion of the education of children does not seem to differ too greatly from that of Frances Horwich written about three hundred years later. Horwich writes that research has revealed that attending nursery school is important to children as it allows them to develop socially (2-4).
Comenius’ insistence on beginning education early was significant in its own right, but perhaps even more pertinent to the current American education system are the principles upon which he suggested that teaching and learning be grounded (Comenius 142). In fact, many of his suggestions for teaching directly relate to the twelve methods of teaching proposed by the National Education Association of the United States in the early 1990s. As Bartz and Miller write in the introduction of the 12 Methods to Enhance Student Learning, these methods, and thus many of the principles proposed by Comenius, “have a sound theoretical basis and have demonstrated positive impact on student learning” (Bartz 5-6). Following are examples of the described teaching methods with corresponding principles.
One method described by Bartz and Miller is the “Adaptive or Individualized Instruction” method. The main suggestions associated with this method are that the teacher somewhat personalize the education for each student so that students work at a pace best suited for them. The teachers also set the material for students so that it is “challenging, yet attainable based on their past performances” (Bartz 11). The aspects of this method very closely resemble the proposals expressed by Comenius in his fourth, eighth, and ninth principles. The fourth principle states: “Nature begins by a careful selection of materials” (Comenius 144-145). He goes on to describe that in teaching a student, this principle applies to the customization of techniques and methods for that particular student. With the eighth principle, Comenius writes that “nature does not hurry, but advances slowly,” indicating that it is important not to force too much on any particular student at one time, especially memorization when the student does not have the time to fully understand the concept (149-150). Finally, “nature compels nothing to advance that is not driven forward by its own mature strength.” Here, Comenius addresses the importance of students’ mental capacities and the pacing of skill development with a student’s age when it comes to an appropriate education (150-151). Setting an appropriate pace for a student based on their past performances, age, and mental capacity has been shown through research to have “a strong positive impact” on student development (Bartz 11). There is no indication that this kind of research existed in Comenius’ day, which makes it that much more impressive that he understood the importance of working at an individualized pace to give the most effective education.
Another teaching method which closely aligns with principles proposed by Comenius in The Great Didactic is “Teaching by Objectives.” It is in this method that the significance of showing the students the purpose and context of the objectives that they are given is conveyed (Bartz 10). Comenius also addressed the importance of showing the purpose and practical application of learned skills and knowledge in his eleventh principle: “Nothing is produced by nature of which the practical application is not soon evident” (Comenius 152). Bartz and Miller also insist that this manner of teaching should include clearly explaining exactly which skills are being worked on and how they relate to the others that have been developed (10). This concept is apparent in the tenth principle conceived by Comenius. Here he asserts that “nature assists its operations in every possible manner,” and therefore it is crucial that a teacher assist the student in any way possible by making sure everything is well explained and understood by the student (Comenius 151-152).
“Mastery Learning,” a method proposed by Bartz and Miller in association with the National Education Association of the United States, reveals parallels between contemporary American education and Comenius’ ideals as well. According to mastery learning, “the important point is that students do not progress to the next level until they have mastered the previous skill level” (Bartz 12). The idea that one must advance from easy to difficult is also evident to Comenius, and he addresses this in his seventh principle in The Great Didactic (Comenius 148). A similar concept is also mentioned in the second principle, which relates to the mastery learning technique of the 1990s. The principle reads “Nature, in its formative processes, begins with the universal and ends with the particular.” Thus, it is best for the education of a student to understand concepts in a broad sense before narrowing towards more specific and complicated details (143). While this next recommendation is not mentioned by Bartz and Miller as an aspect of this method, it is important enough to Comenius to serve as his first principle; “In all operations of nature, development is from within.” To Comenius, this principle culminates in teaching first so that a student may understand, then remember, and finally speak or write about the topic. In this way, the student gradually masters the subject so that he may eventually be able to communicate his knowledge (142-143).
Mastery learning is a technique of teaching particularly beneficial to the wellbeing of a developing student, but perhaps even more valuable to a students learning is taking a hands-on approach. Bartz and Miller encourage such learning by means of “Learning by Doing” and the “Discovery Method” (Bartz 19, 23-24). “Learning by doing” involves such activities as simulations, role play, case methods, games, and manipulations. Having students actively participate in their education is “advantageous from the perspective of motivating and enhancing students’ interests in the subject matter” (23-24). Comenius appreciated the importance of student motivation as well, and suggested in his fifth principle of The Great Didactic that teachers attempt to excite students, for “student motivation is critical for learning” (Keatinge 12). With his fifth principle, Comenius also suggested that an interesting a comfortable classroom is the most appropriate environment for student learning (Comenius 145). “Integrated Thematic Learning,” a teaching method which makes use of a single theme to bring together all aspects of a student’s education, keeps the environment learning friendly by incorporating the theme into classroom decorations which provide a source of visual interest (Bartz 20-21). Finally, as Keatinge notes on page 11, Comenius felt that rather than learning solely through lecture, students ought to learn through investigation and discovery on their own. This perspective is paralleled in the “Discovery Method” of learning in which the teacher “often structures the learning environment so that through experiences students begin to put together the relationship between variables; in this way ‘they discover’ how all the factors relate for a given concept” (Bartz 19). It is in these teaching methods that Comenius’ insistence on the incorporation of the senses in learning is realized in the twenty-first century.
It is the consistency between Comenius’ views and these three teaching methods that leads one to recognize the significance role that dynamic learning plays in both Comenius’ ideal education system and that of the present day. “Comenius was strongly impressed with the potential power of science and was an ardent believer in sense realism and empiricism” (Nash 167). This belief in scientific potential is what America relies on today, for if this country’s education were solely scholastic, it would not have developed into the powerful nation that it is or be home to some of the most successful people in the world. Keatinge contends that Comenius recognized the issue with the scholasticism of schools and understood the importance of keeping up with advances of the time (9-10).
Not only was Comenius an advocate of a dynamic education, but also a rather encyclopedic one. While he was most likely influenced by J. H. Alsted – “a man of encyclopedic learning and later the author of a remarkable encyclopedia” whom he met while attending university -- Comenius sought to make an encyclopedic education the standard (Keatinge 1). Although he knew it would be impossible for everyone to become experts in every subject, Comenius believed that all men ought to at least be exposed to things in school such that “no man, in his journey through life, may encounter anything so unknown to him that he cannot pass sound judgment upon it and turn it to its proper use without serious error” (Comenius 140). As a teacher himself, Comenius “correlated and coordinated all subjects, and combined even the training in Latin with a knowledge of real things” (Graves 48). Nash agrees that “if Comenius aimed for any one idea, it was a synthetic system that, instead of splitting up disciplines or bodies of knowledge, would bring together all knowledge into one consistent scheme” (169). Today, many American colleges strive to achieve this same system which was a goal of Comenius’. For instance, the Douglas Honors College is “Central’s interdisciplinary college” which combinations of multiple subjects to establish its challenging and rewarding courses (“About Douglas Honors College”).
Comenius believed in education that provides knowledge of all things, but even more significant than this was his belief that such an education is the right of all people. “Comenius planned education for absolutely everybody, without any distinctions of race or sex or creed or social origin or nationality. He also advocated special education of children suffering from defects, whether physical or mental, believing that a careful education can greatly improve the lot of such handicapped children” (Dobinson 17). As the Central Washington University web site indicates, this belief is one that holds true in American schools today: “It is our goal to ensure that individuals with disabilities have equal access to programs, services and facilities here at Central Washington University” (“Center for Disability Services”).
It is apparent that almost all of Comenius’ educational propositions are alive in America’s education system today. However, for one reason, it seems that Comenius might not have had such a direct influence as one might think:
Whether his Didactica Magna was the foundation of education systems today or a brilliant pedagogical work that went unread during most of the eighteenth century yet accurately prophesized the education system of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, Comenius has been, and will remain, recognized as one of the greatest scholars of education in history. It is nearly impossible to see the parallels between the seventeenth century man’s visions of education, and the standards of universal education today. The ambition of such a man certainly influenced many in his own time and initiated a movement which would culminate in the advanced educational system used worldwide today.
Comenius and Contemporary American Education
|Page Author: Cloe McDonald|
Saturday, 11-Feb-2012 14:19
“About Douglas Honors College." Central Washington University. Central Washington University, n.d. Web. 24 Jan 2012.
Bartz, David E. and Laura K. Miller. 12 Teaching Methods to Enhance Student Learning. Washington, D.C.: National Education Association of the United States, 1991. Print.
“Center for Disability Services." Central Washington University. Central Washington University, n.d. Web. 24 Jan 2012.
Comenius, John Amos. “The Great Didactic.” Great Issues in Education. V. 1. Chicago: The Great Books Foundation, 1956. 133-176. Print.
Dobinson, C. H. Comenius and Contemporary Education: An International Symposium. Hamburg: Unesco Institute for Education, 1970. Print.
Flanagan, Frank M. The Greatest Educators Ever. London: Continuum, 2006. 75-85. Print.
Graves, Frank P. Great Educators of Three Centuries: Their Work and Its Influence on Modern Education. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1912. 27-52. Print.
Horwich, Frances. Curriculum for Nursery Schools and Kindergartens. New York: Hinds, Hayden & Eldredge, INC., 1947. Print.
Keatinge, M. W. Comenius. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1931. Print
Misawa, Tadasu. Modern Educators and Their Ideals. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1909. 18-34. Print.
Nash, Paul, Andreas M. Kazamias, and Henry J. Perkinson. The Educated Man: Studies in the History of Educational Thought. New York: John Wiley & Sons,
Piaget, Jean. John Amos Comenius on Education. New York: Teachers College Press, 1967. 1-34. Print.
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