In today's public-school classrooms, boys and girls learn together with others of their age and ability. They are given pictures and hands-on materials to connect abstract concepts with the observable world around them. Their teachers address them as whole people-not just brains for the memorization and regurgitation of facts.

But elementary education did not always look like this. Schoolchildren of today, though they do not know it, owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to Jan Amos Comenius (1592-1670), a Moravian bishop often called "the Father of Modern Education."

A brilliant young man whose own experience of elementary schooling was anything but happy, Comenius called the schools his age had inherited from the medieval period "slaughterhouses of the mind." He was appalled by their oppressive strictness, their stress on abstract concepts unrooted in sense or experience, and their indifference to the moral and spiritual development of their young charges. And he set out to do something about it.

Sensitive to the developmental needs of children of various ages, Comenius divided elementary schools by grades. Believing that children must be wooed rather than coerced into learning, he invented the illustrated textbook and made experience and discovery part of the classroom environment. He taught that corporal punishment, if used at all, should be connected only with moral and not intellectual faults. He insisted that girls were as fully capable of learning at the highest levels as boys. And he preached that schools should teach all realms of knowledge, including morals and piety. The Moravian's reforms were both praised and implemented all across Europe, with over half of European schools eventually using his textbooks.

But behind ...

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