Saturday, April 16, 2005

Understanding Children

All this reading on education is putting me in mind of the book that has probably driven my philosophy on education more than any other. (Except, I hope, the Bible, but that's too hard to fully trace.) It is often not the depth or length of a book, but when and how it strikes you that makes a difference. And when I first read this great treatise on education, I was probably not more than eight years old.

The book was called Understood Betsy, and it was a very old paperback children's story (even older than I realized then). It told of a little girl who was raised by a very sympathetic aunt who was determined that Betsy feel understood, and so used every psychological trick she could learn of to sympathize with her and help her at every difficult turn. Betsy also went to a very modern school with all the latest in educational theories, and between the two, being rather sensitive by nature, she was of course the most timid, self-absorbed child on the planet and has never thought a thought of her own in her life.

Then the aunt must nurse a sick relation and Betsy, to her horror, is shipped off to the wilds of Vermont. There she lives with some distant farming cousins, who make children do chores, of all things, and she must go to a one-room school, and otherwise suffers various privations. And suddenly she begins to wake up and discover that she is a person. She helps in the dairy and discovers that pounds and ounces exist outside of textbooks. At school, she finds herself studying each subject according to her skill in that subject, not her age, and even tutoring the younger children. Sent off to encounter new experiences on her own, she puzzles through things and finds that she can think of things for herself.

I'm not sure what effect all that is meant to have on the child reading the story, since few modern children need to be prepared for the consequences of being shipped off to rural relatives, but it had as much insight into what children really need to learn or to have good self-esteem--not empty praise or psychoanalyzing, but genuinely important things to do--as some of the best books I've read since on education. And it's a good story; all around, a great book to give to a little girl who will someday be choosing how her children are educated.

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