From the Archives: The Great Didactic
Comenius’s masterwork on education set forth his method for setting up schools and detailed how they should be run. In this chapter he begins to present one theory of instruction based on nature, after showing what’s wrong with the education of his day. We include here his third, sixth and seventh principles.
“Let the main object of this, our Didactic, be as follows: to seek and to find a method of instruction, by wich teachers may teach less, but learners may learn more; by which schools may be the scene of less noise, aversion, and useless labour, but of more leisure, enjoyment, and solid progress; and through which the Christian community may have less darkness, perplexity, and dissention, but on the other hand more light, orderliness, peace, and rest.”* [* from The Great Didactic, Chapter 3 “This Life Is but a Prepartion for Eternity”]
The Principles of Conciseness and Rapidity in Teaching
21. Nature develops everything from beginnings, which, though insignificant in appearance, possess great potential strength.
For instance, the matter out of which a bird is to be formed consists of a few drops, which are contained in a shell, that they may be easily warmed and hatched. But these few drops contain the whole bird potentially, since, later on, the body of the chicken is formed from the vital principle which is concentrated in them.
22. Imitation.—In the same way a tree, no matter how large it may be, is potentially contained in the kernel of its fruit or in the shoot at the end of one of its branches. If one or the other of these be placed in the earth, a whole tree will be produced by the inner force that it contains.
23. Terrible Deviation.—In direct opposition to this Principle a terrible mistake is generally made in school. Most teachers are at pains to place in the earth plants instead of seeds, and trees instead of shoots, since, instead of starting with fundamental principles, they place before their pupils a chaos of diverse conclusions or the complete texts of authors. And yet it is certain that instruction rests on a very small number of principles, just as the earth is composed of four elements (though in diverse forms): and that from these principles (in accordance with the evident limits of their powers of differentiation) an unlimited number of results can be deduced, just as, in the case of a tree, hundreds of branches, and thousands of leaves, blossoms, and fruits are produced from the original shoot. Oh! may God take pity on our age, and open some man’s eyes, that he may see aright the true relations in which things stand to one another, and may impart his knowledge to the rest of mankind. With God’s assistance I hope, in (though in diverse forms): and that from these principles (in accordance with the evident limits of their powers of differentiation) an unlimited number of results can be deduced, just as, in the case of a tree, hundreds of branches, and thousands of leaves, blossoms, and fruits are produced from the original shoot. Oh! may God take pity on our age, and open some man’s eyes, that he may see aright the true relations in which things stand to one another, and may impart his knowledge to the rest of mankind. With God’s assistance I hope, in my Synopsis of Christian Wisdom, to give an earnest of my efforts to do so, in the modest hope that it may be of use to others whom God, in due season, may call to carry on the work.
24. Rectification.—In the meantime we may draw three conclusions:
(i.) Every art must be contained in the shortest and most practical rules.
(ii.) Each rule must be expressed in the shortest and clearest words.
(iii.) Each rule must be accompanied by many examples, in order that the use of the rule may be quite clear when fresh cases arise.
31. Nature does not hurry, but advances slowly.
For example, a bird does not place its eggs in the fire, in order to hatch them quickly, but lets them develop slowly under the influence of natural warmth. Neither, later on, does it cram its chickens with food that they may mature quickly (for this would only choke them), but it selects their food with care and gives it to them gradually in the quantities that their weak digestion can support.
32. Imitation.—The builder, too, does not erect the walls on the foundations with undue haste and then straightway put on the roof; since, unless the foundations were given time to dry and become firm, they would sink under the superincum-bent weight, and the whole building would tumble down. Large stone buildings, therefore, cannot be finished within one year, but must have a suitable length of time allotted for their construction.
33. Nor does the gardener expect a plant to grow large in the first month, or to bear fruit at the end of the first year. He does not, therefore, tend and water it every day, nor does he warm it with fire or with quicklime, but is content with the moisture that comes from heaven and with the warmth that the sun provides.
34. Deviation.—For the young, therefore, it is torture
(i.) If they are compelled to receive six, seven or eight hours’ class instruction daily, and private lessons in addition.
(ii.) If they are overburdened with dictations, with exercises, and with the lessons that they have to commit to memory, until nausea and, in some cases, insanity is produced.
If we take a jar with a narrow mouth (for to this we may compare a boy’s intellect) and attempt to pour a quantity of water into it violently, instead of allowing it to trickle in drop by drop, what will be the result? Without doubt the greater part of the liquid will flow over the side, and ultimately the jar will contain less than if the operation had taken place gradually. Quite as foolish is the action of those who try to teach their pupils, not as much as they can assimilate, but as much as they themselves wish, for the faculties need to be supported and not to be overburdened, and the teacher, like the physicians is the servant and not the master of nature.
35. Rectification.—The ease and the pleasantness of study will therefore be increased:
(i.) If the class instruction be curtailed as much as possible, namely to four hours, and if the same length of time be left for private study.
(ii.) If the pupils be forced to memorize as little as possible, that is to say, only the most important things; of the rest they need only grasp the general meaning.
(iii.) If everything be arranged to suit the capacity of the pupil, which increases naturally with study and age.
36. Nature compels nothing to advance that is not driven forward by its own mature strength.
For instance, a chicken is not compelled to quit the egg before its limbs are properly formed and set; is not forced to fly before its feathers have grown; is not thrust from the nest before it is able to fly well, etc.
A tree, too, does not put forth shoots before it is forced to do so by the sap that rises from the roots, nor does it permit fruit to appear before the leaves and blossoms formed by the sap seek further development, nor does it permit the blossoms to fall before the fruit that they contain is protected by a skin, nor the fruit to drop before it is ripe.
37. Deviation.—Now the faculties of the young are forced:
(i.) If the boys are compelled to learn things for which their age and capacity are not yet suited.
(ii.) If they are made to learn by heart or do things that have not first been thoroughly explained and demonstrated to them.
38. Rectification.—From what has been said, it follows
(i.) That nothing should be taught to the young, unless it is not only permitted but actually demanded by their age and mental strength.
(ii.) That nothing should be learned by heart that has not been thoroughly grasped by the understanding. Nor should any feat of memory be demanded unless it is absolutely certain that the boy’s strength is equal to it.
(iii.) That nothing should be set boys to do until its nature has been thoroughly explained to them, and rules for procedure have been given.
Copyright © 1987 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Christian History.