Object Lessons From Switzerland And Surrey

Read this and see if you agree.

We daily call a great many things by their names without ever inquiring into their nature and properties, so that, in reality, it is only their names, and not the things themselves, with which we are acquainted.

Those are the words of John Aikin In ‘Evenings at Home: Or, The Juvenile Budget Opened’, and I think they are spot on.

Do we really take in what is around us and see what objects are made of? Do we cultivate our senses, train habits of attention, intelligent observation, and accurate comparison?

No we don’t.

Claude Lévi-Strauss once said “I understand my existence because of what is around me.”

That means for most of us we have no idea about our existence because we don’t understand what is around us.

Objects fill our lives but we don’t stop to wonder about many of them. Artist Laura White invites us to engage and negotiate “with the world of stuff, material and objects.”

And that leads me to Charles and Elizabeth Mayo.

They ran Cheam School in Surrey and were both influenced by the hands-on teaching methods of Swiss pedagogue Johann Pestalozzi (1746-1827).

Pestalozzi wanted children to learn by observing, touching, and experimenting with the things around them. He said children would learn best through a direct interaction with their environment and develop language and the faculty of abstraction through this experience.

He believed observation was the absolute basis of all knowledge and so without children being observant to their surroundings, they will not be able to get all of the answers needed to succeed.

Charles Mayo decided to see this pedagogy for himself and spent three years with Pestalozzi but he found the teaching practice chaotic because only things that happened to be at hand were used.

He wanted to create something more structured so he developed an authoritative and systematic pedagogy with his sister resulting in a textbook full of exemplary dialogue and one hundred object descriptions called ‘Lessons on Objects; As Given to Children Between the Ages of Six and Eight, in a Pestalozzian School, at Cheam, Surrey.

Elizabeth and Charles developed a practical curriculum including these ‘object lessons’ guiding children through increasingly complex observations and deductions. For example, early lessons include observing the flammable properties of India rubber by ‘setting it on fire’ and smelling coffee beans and pepper corns. Later, children were expected to develop skills of categorisation and discriminating judgement.

Elizabeth said,

It has been found, indeed, by long experience, that no lessons produce more continued interest, or more enlarge the minds of children, than those on objects. To lead children to observe with attention the objects which surround them, and then to describe with accuracy the impressions they convey, appears to be the first step in the business of education.

This magnificent book is structured into five sections, ranging from everyday objects and materials to scientific perspectives and describes how teachers should lead a lesson outlining the qualities and uses of different objects such as

“Glass, Indian rubber, leather, loaf-sugar, gum Arabic, sponge, wool, water, wax, camphor, bread, sealing wax, whalebone, ginger, blotting paper, piece of willow, milk, rice, salt, horn, ivory, chalk, bark of an oak tree. A pin, a cube of wood, an uncut lead-pencil, a pen, a wax candle, a chair, a book, an egg, a thimble, a penknife, a key, a cup, a coffee bean, a pair of scissors, a bird, an orange.”

Why not try doing your own ‘object’ lessons? Choose whatever you like or take inspiration from Mayo and look at a wooden cube, a pin, a rubber or a piece of glass.

Object theory postulates that the best way to instil higher order thinking in children is through the observation, description, naming and classification of objects.

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