Speculation on a Conversation Between Piaget and Froebel
Dorothy W. Hewes, Ph.D.
Now that Jean Piaget has passed on to "The Other Side" and will no longer be able to intrigue and illuminate us about the thinking patterns of young children, it is easy to imagine the conversation he might have with Friedrich Froebel. The two would, of course, have a lot in common to talk about. Froebel, although remembered by many through a single examination question in a course on history and philosophy of education as the "father of the kindergarten," was much more than that. He developed the first sequenced cognitive materials, coordinated his own observations with those of others to identify characteristics of children at various levels of development, and was involved with a campaign to make teachers and the public aware of the importance of early childhood education. His ideas are the basis for our educational programs of today, and they paved the way for our ready acceptance of Piaget in the 1950's. And Froebel would certainly be right there to welcome Piaget, for on his own deathbed in 1852 he assured his followers that he would be hovering over them to see what happened to his ideas.
And Piaget, of course, must have been looking forward to comparing notes with Froebel. His own education in Switzerland, as a young child at the turn of the century, was based upon the system set up by Froebel and his fellow workers. Another bond would be their beginnings as scientists, Froebel in crystallography and Piaget in biology, and their application of the scientific method to exploration of children's cognitive development.
Both Piaget and Froebel, during the last years of their long and productive lives, were concerned about followers who were adamant about accepting their theories as completed systems. Each developed disciples who formed a sort of cult, following the master blindly instead of being thinkers who continued the search for the best ideas and methods to use at different times and places. In the United States, where the number of kindergartens rose from a dozen in 1874 to over four thousand in 1894, Froebel's system was more distorted by those who revered him than by those who were critical. Perhaps, in their conversation, Froebel would tell how he felt when Josephine Jarvis translated some of his letters and Sunday papers into "Friedrich Froebel's Pedagogics of the Kindergarten" in 1904. Although in some respects she was able to keep the original spirit of Froebel by emphasizing the importance of letting the children collect and use natural materials (pebbles, leaves, flowers of different colors and forms) for exercise in powers of discrimination and comparison, she let her own Victorian spinsterhood dominate. Her convoluted explanation of the philosophy of "Gliedganzes" must have baffled many a normal school student, even though Froebel meant something as simple as our ecology of today. More insidious, however, was her way of inserting her own interpretations. In her explanation of the Snail Game, in which children hold hands in a line and then follow a leader as they are wound into a tight spiral and then unwound again, she philosophized about the value of the activity as a symbol of unity for the children. Froebel perhaps would explain to Piaget that he had developed the game as a transition activity, so that children would be gathered together into a group before going indoors from their active play in the fresh air.
Even more upsetting to Froebel, and something he could confide to an understanding Piaget, would be the way kindergarten teachers ignored age levels and discovery learning. The verses from "The Mother Play Book" and the simple colored balls intended for spontaneous use by mothers for their very young children were used in routine didactic lessons with four and five year olds. I can imagine Piaget nodding in sympathy and telling Froebel that this is just what happened to some of his ideas. With improved communication in the mid-twentieth century, it was even easier to take simple tasks that explored the way children learn to reason logically and turn them into rote exercises intended to force that learning. Perhaps Piaget would talk about what he called "The American Disease" because in the United States he found adults so eager to push children into activities before they were ready. And they would both muse for a while about how hard it seems to be for teachers and parents to just have faith in young children's ability to explore and investigate and learn when they are ready. . . . and why learning through play must be repeatedly proved. Perhaps Froebel would talk about his original ideas for building blocks, inspired by his childhood frustrations at not being able to build successfully by improvised materials found in the backyard, and of the pleasure children in his schools had found in developing whole villages. And then he would express his disappointment at the teachers who had all members of their kindergarten classes building an exact copy of the adult structure, with no time for creative exploration. And Piaget would perhaps laugh and say that this is just what had happened with his ideas, and that Montessori has been just as upset about what has happened to her method.
And then the two might talk about the problem so basic to their theories and yet so subtle that few parents and teachers are aware of it, the teaching of cognitive tricks that give an illusion of learning. They would agree that if children have not yet reached the mastery stages, particularly in math and reading, logical processes aren't understood. Instead, students only learn which answers please the teacher - or don't learn them and know that the result is displeasure. Early in their school lives, then, there is developed a feeling of insecurity rather than a sense of joy and mastery. Both would share their delight in watching young children develop concepts as dynamic and integral parts of their lives the process that Froebel called "making the inner outer and the outer inner" and Piaget described as "assimilation and accommodation." Like Piaget and Froebel, many of us working with young children share that excitement in watching them pull in from their environment a multitude of impressions and facts to combine with their own inner concepts. This is what makes it all worth while. Throughout the history of education, there have been philosophers and educators who attempted to convince people that child-centered activity and play are appropriate. And throughout history, such theorists have been misunderstood or ignored or criticized. Many of us welcomed the input of Piaget because he gave popular support to what we believed, just as many early kindergartners welcomed the teachings of Froebel. Now that Piaget is no longer with us, let's hope that his ideas don't become distorted and forgotten like those of Froebel. Perhaps now they are both hovering over us to see what happens.
Delta Phi Upsilon Bulletin December 1980
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