For the children’s sake: The Vine School

BY IAN SMITH

The Vine School is situated in Lansdowne, a cosmopolitan suburb near Rondebosch in the Western Cape.

The school was established in 2012 when John Wycliffe Christian School closed. We started out with about 60 pupils and rapidly grew to our current pupil complement of 187. Our pupils come from diverse backgrounds across the socio-economic spectrum, and we also enrol pupils from other African countries and continents.

From the outset, the directors of The Vine School wanted an educational model that focused on great literature, a love of learning, academic rigour and godly relationships. After some research and much prayer, they were led to Ambleside Schools International (ASI), an organisation based in the US that assists schools to adopt and implement the pedagogy of 19th century British educator, Charlotte Mason.1

Awed by Ambleside

After watching all 18 ASI introductory videos from its website (in one sitting!), I was sold. I had previously taught at two public schools for nine years, then I served as a teacher at John Wycliffe Christian School for four years, as deputy principal for two years and as principal for seven years. Before we transitioned to the Ambleside curriculum, I had experienced four curricula – Outcomes-based Education (OBE), the National Curriculum Statement (NCS), the Revised National Curriculum Statement (RNCS) and Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statements (CAPS).2 But nothing prepared me for the transformation I would see in our school community as a result of exposure to an Ambleside education – transformation not only in our pupils, but also in our teachers and parents.

Charlotte Mason’s method

Mason was a highly respected educationalist in her time due to her teaching experience, deep insight into the way children learn and her life-long commitment to developing “a liberal education for all”.3

Mason believed that education was more than just preparing children to pass an examination, gain access to the best university or train for a job. A key motto of her approach to education is: “Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life.” However, the dawn of the 20th century saw Mason’s approach to education being eclipsed by the general demand for a more assessment-based model of education, where pupils’ preparedness for examinations and the workplace became the main cog around which education revolved.

In 1987, Susan Schaefer Macaulay wrote a book called For the Children’s Sake, 4 which reintroduced parents and teachers to Mason’s philosophy and methods. The past two decades have seen a resurgence of formal Charlotte Mason schools around the world.5

So, what did Mason mean when she spoke about education being “an atmosphere, a discipline, a life”?

Education as an atmosphere

In educational circles, much importance is attached to creating an atmosphere conducive to learning. But at The Vine School, we also want to create an atmosphere conducive to a love for learning. How do we do this? Many systems of education today treat children as products and the education system as a one-size-fits-all machine. The task of the teacher is to fill pupils with knowledge and then assess how well they retained the knowledge by using a set of pre-determined outcomes.

But when we regard children as unique persons – people with the ability to think, people who are born with a natural hunger to know and to learn – then the way we “do” education should respect them as people with immeasurable potential.

At The Vine School, we don’t measure or compare one pupil’s performance in any area against the performance of another pupil. We believe it is far healthier and more meaningful to create an atmosphere where pupils are encouraged and challenged to improve their own efforts in every area, and where they learn that mastery translates into multiple opportunities to grow. Neither do we use manipulative incentives like rewards, praise, competition, etc. nor punishment to encourage excellence in different areas.

Key to creating an atmosphere that promotes a love for learning is the relationship between the teacher and her pupils, and that is why we admit a maximum of 16 pupils per class. Then, the teacher is able to develop a meaningful relationship with each child.

Education as a discipline

It is generally accepted that to be successful in any area of one’s life, discipline is needed. But just as common is the assertion that children behave in a particular way because that’s just the way they are. And parents and teachers alike often use this as an excuse to rationalise bad behaviour and to avoid addressing it.

At The Vine School, we believe that while children are born with the potential to be good or bad, they have the capacity to rise above their nature, because they are made in the image of God with endless possibilities. So, we do not believe that Johnny should be allowed to write untidily because he’s lefthanded, or that Suzy should be allowed to walk past a teacher without greeting because she sometimes has a bad day.

Modern neuroscience has confirmed what Mason believed a hundred years ago – because of its plasticity, the human brain6 has the amazing capacity to learn new habits all the time. At our school, we take advantage of this scientifically proven fact to help children develop good habits that will help them to grow into people of good character – habits of attention, perfect execution, obedience, truthfulness, an even temper, neatness, kindness, order, respect, recall, punctuality, gentleness and cleanliness, among others.

Education as a life

When Mason spoke about “education as a life”, she was referring to the life of the mind. She believed that just as the body needs food for nourishment and growth, so the mind feeds on ideas. Therefore, we expose our pupils to the ideas of the greatest minds the world has known – and their ideas of courage, love, perseverance, beauty and courtesy. Our pupils learn about and become friends with figures like Picasso, Renoir, Bach, Strauss and Handel, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Beatrix Potter, Isaac Newton, Galileo and Einstein, Longfellow, Frost and TS Eliot. Our pupils learn about compassion as they make love boxes for the nurses who work at the facility down the road for those with special needs. They learn about respect for the elderly when they host their grandparents at Grandparents’ Day. They learn about the importance of physical fitness and playing sport for enjoyment.

Less homework increases a love for learning

At parent interviews, another common comment is: “My child doesn’t enjoy school anymore. There is just too much homework and too many projects and assessments. All we do is homework and it’s taking its toll not only on our child, but on our family, too.” And then I’m asked how assessment works at our school.

Well, besides ongoing assessment through observation in class, we also do formal assessment. But just once a week, and mainly in subjects such as maths, reading and spelling, where we need to know if pupils are grasping the critical concepts on which to build. Assessment is important, because during the process of educating children, we want to know how much they know and how they are growing. But, when children sense that the main goal of learning is not to know, to wonder, to explore, to experiment and to grow, but rather for performance-based assessment, their natural curiosity about the world tragically dies and school becomes the object of either resentment or indifference, or a neurotic orientation towards performance.

We don’t give unreasonable amounts of homework or an unmanageable amount of assessment tasks. Our pupils are not given any projects. For homework, children in the lower grades are expected to practise maths, reading, spelling and phonics, while pupils in the higher grades practise maths and English, and also do written work. Unfinished class work and reading are also done at home. And it shouldn’t take longer than 20 to 30 minutes per day for pupils in the lower grades and 45 minutes to an hour for pupils in the higher grades. As a result, at our school we have pupils who are happier, who don’t suffer from unnecessary stress and who simply love school. Because, just like adults, children also need time to relax, play, read for enjoyment and connect with nature and the family at home.

Many parents and teachers are disillusioned by the state of education in our country, despite the fact that there are many hard-working teachers and administrators with good intentions and who want only the best for pupils. But, what if children learned to work hard and make responsible choices – not for external reward, but because it was the right thing to do? What if learning was rigorous with high standards but also a delight for pupils, where failure was seen as an opportunity to grow? What if pupils came home and spoke with interest and excitement about what they were learning at school? What if pupils who had been diagnosed with conditions like attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD), attention deficit disorder (ADD),7 etc. developed the habit of self-regulation without the use of synthetic drugs, because they were supported in a peaceful, grace-based, nurturing environment with appropriate expectations? What if pupils understood the importance of cultivating good life habits, and their teachers and parents worked together to help them to do so? Well, that’s what our experience has been over the last four-and-a-half years since implementing the Ambleside method.

Exposing children to the good

We look forward to seeing continued growth in our pupils as we expose them to the good, the true and the beautiful. And as they grow, may we not be surprised when they reflect the majesty of their Creator, and when they find delight in knowing His world and in knowing Him through it. Because that’s how He made them.

References:

1. See: https://simplycharlottemason.com/what-is-the-charlotte-mason-method/.

2. See, for example: http://www.childmag.co.za/content/makingsensecurriculumchanges#.WPcKXmclHIU.

3. See: https://simplycharlottemason.com/what-is-the-charlotte-mason-method/.

4. Macaulay, S.S. (2009) For the Children’s Sake: Foundations of Education for Home and School. Illinois: Crossway Books.

5. See: http://www.amblesideschools.com/main/amblesides-board-directors.

6. See, for example: http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2015/01/15/neuroplasticity-brain-health.aspx.

7. See: https://www.myadhd.co.za/aboutadhd/?gclid=CKiqqOiPsNMCFSsq0wodYzYDzQ.

Category: Winter 2017

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