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Freinet Practical Classroom organization: the medium and the message, Concepts of what is it to know and learn, John SIVELL, Brock University,Canada.

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Freinet Practical classroom organization : the medium and the message
Concepts of
what is it to know
and learn
Brock University, Canada

Although there is far from universal consensus on precisely how such beliefs originate, and although growing evidence suggests that differing academic disciplines favour different belief-structures (Hofer and Pintrich, 1997), it is generally agreed that students’ views about the nature of knowledge itself and about how things are known (and recognized to be known) will have considerable impact on how they approach academic tasks. No doubt, it could be argued that this basic issue has been of concern to educationally-minded thinkers throughout history, with its classical beginning perhaps in the dialogue method of Plato. But the practical need for careful reflection on this matter has surely become more acute in comparatively recent times, with the ideal of making education as widely accessible as possible. To state one important dimension of our goal in somewhat stark but probably fair enough terms: educators need to find an appropriate match between a wide range of learners’ interests, values and beliefs, on the one hand, and the demands of responsible and rewarding educational standards, on the other. Obviously, it may therefore seem appropriate to create a school environment calculated to encourage students’ development of beliefs about knowledge and knowing that are thought to be most likely to promote successful learning... although just as obviously, the whole question of beliefs about knowledge and knowing is relevant to teachers, too. Still, my specific focus here will be students’ beliefs about knowledge and knowing, aspects of Freinet’s view about how these may most profitably be fostered in the school environment, and an exemplary application of Freinet’s principles to a current educational trend of importance to all teachers and learners today.
Learners’ social roles in the classroom
In a textbook designed for language teachers, Wright (1987:12) notes that
In most societies, the social roles of teacher and learner are accorded high and low status respectively. This differential relationship has many implications for what can happen in the classroom.
Role and status imply a set of power relationships.
Role and status also confer on their holders a set of rights, duties, and obligations.
Social distance results from differing status and position.
Status and position have a great influence on the sorts of role a teacher or learner may fulfil. They underpin all role behaviour.
This overview touches on a large number of points, of course, but it sets out what I take to be a generally acceptable framework, and so I will concentrate right away on just one part of the picture: the notion that learners’ perceived role and status in the classroom will influence their sense of their own “rights, duties, and obligations.”
Freinet on the physical organization of the school
I have commented elsewhere (Freinet 1993:ix-x; Sivell 1994b) on the importance attached by Freinet to the physical arrangement of the classroom and its surrounding context, and to the practical equipment made available to students. Freinet, of course, is well known for his emphasis on what he calls tools (outils), in which category he includes not only regular industrial or agricultural tools – hammers, saws, hoes and so forth, made if necessary on a scale suited to use by children – but also more typically academic tools such as sets of self-correcting exercises, children’s dictionaries, encyclopaedias and resource files, classroom printing facilities and suchlike. At a time of woefully impoverished classroom resources, he was quick to see that there could be no meaningful change in teaching methods or goals unless a richer and more appropriate stock of such tools was made available. This in itself was asking a lot... but in fact, Freinet dreamed an even bigger dream. In Education Through Work (1993:378ff) he presents quite detailed floor plans and construction outlines for various models of school buildings, adapted to schools of different sizes (although never for more than eight classes), providing for normal classroom space as well as specialized workshops in agriculture, shop work, domestic science, mechanics and commerce, library research, laboratory experiments, visual arts, and music and the performing arts. Moreover, the land around the school should ideally include a garden, sports fields, an orchard, bee hives, a fishpond, a small stable, and perhaps even a stream (1993:371, 379). And the classrooms themselves – both according to Freinet’s published plans, and as realized in his school at le Pioulier in Provence – should feature large windows at children’s eye-level, movable desks arranged in variable work-groups rather than fixed in rows, no podium or teacher’s desk at all, and easy access to various educational materials shelved along the walls.
Now, it is obvious that certain of these arrangements, especially those relating to the rural life, might easily be dismissed as merely quaint, regional or idiosyncratic, and I do not want to argue quixotically in favour of any one of them in particular. Freinet himself is perfectly willing to advise that the specifics should be established flexibly, “according to the opportunities and the local habits” prevailing at the school site (1993: 379), and he is a vigorous supporter of cooperation and mutual respect among competent, committed professionals (1990b:14-5), especially because – as he says – “We are all apprentices. We are all at the stage of trial and error... Nothing certain has yet been determined...” (1990a:172). But even if we feel we can safely take or leave certain specific details of the physical space as described by Freinet, his guiding concept must surely be maintained, and on this he is extremely clear: a telling Freinet metaphor for the lay-out of the school is the village (1993:370), a space organically designed to facilitate the activities of a viable social group, so that “the main room ... is like the shared public square in our village” and all the workshop areas communicating with it are like different quarters of the overall community (1993:379). Another key image is that of the classroom as an ideal workplace, conceived as a cohesive “society of children”, so that the school becomes
the kind of worksite... where the children never tire of seeking, creating, experimenting, learning and growing, and where they are involved, committed, thoughtful and really human! (1990a:128).
Either way, Freinet insists that the school must be a humane society in which children have an opportunity to develop to their full individual potential. The practical environment is a key element in the medium of instruction, and hence it powerfully influences the message. And, of course, it is in accord with this environment that social roles will be defined.
In his Essai de psychologie sensible (Essay on Affective Psychology), where Freinet traces the emotional, social and intellectual growth of children, he has a lot to say about social roles – and the rights, duties and obligations that they imply – although he does not particularly use the vocabulary of social roles: what he does, however, is to underline the essential contribution of what he terms the resources-and-constraints (“recours-barrières”, 1994a:420) which operate in the child’s environment. These are potentially very valuable control mechanisms that guide experience and protect the child from danger or unnecessary frustration, and they may be provided by a parent or another family member, by the school, or by the community more generally. Freinet stresses that, depending on the circumstances, such resources-and-constraints may exercise either more supportive or more restrictive influences, categorizable as relatively more “helpful” or more “manipulative” (“aidant” or “accaparant”, 1994a:428). When all goes well, there is a constructive balance between the resource and the constraint aspects, although Freinet is quick to admit that in real life the naturally occurring resources-and-constraints offered by the family, the village (1994a:421) and the workplace (1993:287) can all fail to meet this standard, even though ideally they can and should function better.
And what classroom roles stem from the provision of helpful resources-and-constraints? Freinet gives an example. If a learner is trying to weave a basket, the teacher may simply leave the child to struggle without any guidance, leading to many errors and frustrations, and in the end no doubt to a very unsatisfying outcome; that, Freinet says, would be “the strictly negative approach to resources-and-constraints” (1994a:502). On the other hand, the teacher may cut short all such experimentation by the learner, and pretty much hand the child a finished basket, which would represent “the manipulative approach” (1994a:503). However, by contrast to both extremes, Freinet observes that a genuinely helpful approach would require the teacher to “let the child experiment, but offer examples of good procedures that the pupil can imitate, or not” (1994a:503). And the same goes for classroom planning in a broader sense, too. For instance, Lee (1994:17) has emphasized that for Freinet – as for Dewey in America – the teacher must retain a leadership role in the classroom. I think Freinet’s outlook on this matter is best captured by his argument that, left entirely to their own devices, children choose their own activities, it’s a fact, but isn’t it necessary to make them sense the utility of those activities, to make them subconsciously grasp the notion of work that motivated and organized their choices, rather than leaving them at the mercy of whims and illusions? (1993:334)
Rights and responsibilities of the teacher and the pupil
The creation of a constructive classroom environment – as reflected both in the physical facilities and in the general organization of activities – depends in Freinet’s view on the teacher’s tactful and judicious management of resources-and-constraints, so as to be a helpful leader but not an authoritarian oppressor, and thus so as to provide a context in which pupils will be free to learn and develop vigorously. Freinet does not hesitate to propose quite detailed lists of the leadership rights and duties that effective teachers must assume:
... the teacher will no longer be a jealous and severe over-seer who’s only there to give orders and directions and to punish faults. He or she will be promoted to the dignity of a new role that involves:
- constantly improving – individually and cooperatively, and also in collaboration with the pupils – the material organization and the community life of the school;
- letting all pupils engage in work-play that meets their inclinations and vital needs as much as possible;
- eventually directing and efficiently helping little workers who’re having trouble, with neither bad temper nor useless scolding;
- finally assuring the constant reign of all-powerful and harmonious work at school. (1993:415-6; cf. 1994a:502)
So, it is not surprising that Freinet stresses again and again the need for “order and discipline” in the classroom (e.g. 1994b:407), because he sees teachers as having crucial leadership responsibilities. But all along, to avoid abuses, the phenomenon of resources-and-constraints must be properly understood, which means critically recognizing the problem that school environments tend all too readily to swing to one extreme or the other: either the negative pole of no resources-and-constraints at all, or else the manipulative pole of nothing but oppressive constraints. The inconvenient but inescapable truth is that teachers have a duty to be ever-alert orchestrators of helpful resources-and-constraints, so as to adapt them flexibly to students’ actual needs, establishing the balance most apt to “permit, facilitate and organize experience” at school (1994a:499). Unfortunately, there can be no simple recipe telling teachers what specific routines to carry out, but only an intellectual framework within which to make professional judgement-calls responsibly. Above all, the kind of flexible “organization that recognizes diversity” (1993:410; cf. 1994b:406) – which remains so important for us today – will require on-going sensitivity and adjustment; it will never be neat or simple, because it cannot be achieved by doctrinaire adoption of either uncomplicated extreme: neither by abandoning learners entirely to their own preferences, nor by imposing some one-size-fits-all solution.
So, the role of learners in this environment includes the right to expect that helpful resources-and-constraints will operate. And likewise their role carries not only the right but also the responsibility to approach learning in terms of a specific concept of knowledge, which is where I began. For Freinet,
The normal course of understanding is absolutely not through observation, explanation and demonstration – which are defining processes of the [traditional] school – but through experimental trial and error, which is a natural and universal step. (1994b:399)
This pedagogical constant – the need for concrete, self-directed discovery through experience, made profitable by provision of helpful resources-and-constraints – is absolutely central to Freinet’s thinking and is repeated one way or another in all of his writing; moreover, it meshes seamlessly with his other great theme, the importance of constructive work. Freinet terms this activity work-play, the kind of work that may well be demanding but is never boring, because it fulfils powerful human needs:
intelligence; deep unity with nature; adaptation to our physical and mental capacities; the feeling of power, of creation and of control; immediately visible practical outcomes; obvious familial and social utility; and a wide range of emotions, including pain, fatigue and suffering. (1993:206)
Maximizing the element of work-play at school casts the pupil in a role where natural learning through experimental trial and error is legitimized, and where – since “The child’s nature is the same as that of the adult” (1994b:387) – participation in work-play fosters solidarity across generations and also encourages children to develop a sense of knowledge, skill and learning that will serve them well not only as pupils in the classroom but also as adults in the world at large. Such is the range of learner rights, duties and obligations that this environment is intended to promote. But to reach this goal, a purely intellectual willingness to establish new social roles – no matter how sincere – will not be enough. Freinet insists that “[a] new form of school organization implies first of all a new arrangement, a different way of using space” (1993:368) which, as we have seen, can extend from the classroom itself to the entire complex of school property. “The new education through work,” Freinet predicts, “will be what its materials and its organization make it” (1993:402). The overall instructional medium is inseparable from the message.
Application to a current issue for universities: virtual learning environments
Turning now to my own pedagogical realm, which is that of the university rather than the primary school, I note that – all over the world – universities are themselves in the process of profoundly re-thinking the nature of the space in which they teach. I refer, of course, to efforts at re-packaging the entire learning experience – ideally, not just lectures but also other elements, such as study resources and discussion groups – for use in a kind of virtual classroom to which registered students will gain access via E-mail or the World Wide Web. Here are learning tools of a magnitude and complexity that Freinet could hardly have imagined, but as professors attempt to understand and evaluate such new initiatives, some of Freinet’s principles seem likely to help bring a degree of clarity.
First of all, it is generally recognized that much of the earlier computer-assisted-learning material was little more than an electronic transcription, perhaps with the addition of a few superficial bells and whistles, of the least interesting type of programmed-learning drills. We quickly discovered that in many respects, despite their modern-seeming reliance on computers, they were a step backwards, and it is interesting to note that Freinet himself – without foreseeing today’s widespread educational use of computer software, of course – was still very conscious of the dangers that can arise when innovations in teaching depend on collaboration with technical specialists who have a lot to offer in one sense, but whose work-style “may bring along... attitudes from the past” (1993:402). At my own university, this problem is becoming an important issue right now. Recent improvements in hardware as well as enormous advances in the power of software would appear to open up vast new opportunities for genuinely valuable educational applications. However, even the creation of pseudo-code to design the basic contours of a possible new package is extremely difficult for non-specialists because they often have very little idea of what is actually available, and moreover the eventual programming itself is highly complicated and time-consuming. So, university teachers face a dismaying dilemma. Should they go the collaboration route, with the probability of considerable time savings, but also with the risk of unwittingly undermining or at least under-promoting some of their educational values? Or should they accept the challenge of developing their own programing skills, so as to design in detail – or perhaps even write – all of their own material? The trouble with the second option is not only the time required, but also the difficulty in gaining recognition for such efforts when applying for tenure or promotion. Possibly the tenure and promotion criteria should be revised; possibly funds should be directed to hiring one or more programmer-educators with genuinely dual skills; possibly both. Certainly, Freinet’s solution to the problem – as it arose in his own sphere of activity – was a combination of highly-developed teacher expertise along with judicious reliance on outside technical services; materials and equipment available through the CEL (Coopérative de l’Enseignement Laïc, founded in 1926), for instance, were designed, developed and field-tested by teachers, but manufactured by production specialists.
In any case, one thing is clear: the brave new environment of electronic program delivery will have virtual-world organizational features that must not be ignored; as Freinet argues, “The top priority... cannot be the subject matter you teach, nor the content of books,... but rather the preparation of a building adapted to the new work” (1993:423). Substitute software or virtual classroom for building in Freinet’s comment, and our present task is clear. Despite the fact that most professors have traditionally paid little attention to pedagogical theory, university teachers now must wake up to the disquieting realization that it will not be enough merely to decant tried-and-true content into a new vessel... when universities work in a new electronic teaching space, they will also need to take a whole new set of environmental decisions.
Secondly – and this will be my last point – it is worth reflecting on the learner roles resulting from even the most sophisticated new electronic-delivery environments. Freinet comments that educational practice has traditionally been driven by a prime concern for “precision and... control” (1990a:136), so that even when very obviously liberating innovations are introduced, they can be drawn back into the old pattern to such an extent that they soon are innovations in name only. One example he gives is free writing, which in Freinet Schools should be genuinely free, written on a topic, at a time, and in a location chosen by the child; moreover, the children in the class should be free to determine which free texts are later selected for group editing and then printing in the school magazine. Yet, manipulative instructors – often with the best of intentions! – can readily transform this work back into an entirely teacher-directed activity with no freedom at all (1990b:16-7, 38). We may ask ourselves the extent to which the same type of regression might apply to innovations in electronic delivery that promise considerable learner freedom but that might prove to operate differently.
Part of the concern here is the degree to which electronically packaged learning materials shut down the normal process of free intellectual exploration, which is so important to university education. Of course, increased computer capacity now allows for massively greater amounts of information, and wider options, to be presented than ever before, and this material can easily include not only print but also images and sound. But perhaps the real point is not so much the volume as the nature of this abundance: no matter how rich the material, students will of course never find in these finite packages any information that was not planted there by the designer, and this gives learners a role that is very different from that experienced when working in a context where the central lecture element sends them out on their own to an entire library rather than to a data bank – however enormous – set up with hyper-links established in advance. The rights and the duties of the learner plainly differ very widely in these two different environments. And in this connection, I cannot help thinking of a cynical comment made by a traditionally-minded inspector who visited Freinet’s classroom in 1926: he noted that classroom printing of free texts that would then be used as part of the pupils’ reading material was a good idea because it gave learners “the illusion that they themselves were producing their own readers” (M. Freinet, 1997:127). Illusion indeed! Even Freinet’s village pupils would quickly have seen through such an illusion, if that were what it was, and nowadays our students have had far too much experience of computer glitz for us to expect them to fall for even a slickly computer-mediated illusion of creative freedom and responsibility. No doubt, the most direct solution to this problem is to avoid trying to do too much actually within the package itself, and to incorporate an emphasis not only on the right but also on the duty to branch out independently in the library (if available to a distance learner) or on the Web. But no attempted illusions, please.
Additionally, concern has been raised about the potential of such packages to create an oppressive environment of very detailed, one-way, and teacher-controlled documentation of all learner actions and decisions, so that the human bond between teacher and student is badly undermined. For example, Provenzo (1992) examines a number of computerized systems for the monitoring of learning – essentially, these appear to be just grade-tracking systems, not full teaching packages, but such systems do exist and, moreover, ambitious new electronic course packages commonly include a grade-tracking component – through which he notes that what he calls electronic “surveillance” can be used to build up a very detailed picture of each learner (p. 185). In these circumstances, Provenzo comments, the appropriate metaphor for the teaching space is the “panopticon” (pp. 168, 185ff), a specially devised building designed to control inmates – for instance, prisoners – by a sophisticated system of isolation and of surveillance... which, obviously, is a spatial image very different from Freinet’s metaphors of the school as a hospitable village or as a harmonious worksite. And the implications are multiple and disquieting. From the viewpoint of learner roles, it is troubling to recognize that working in such an electronic space tends to make “students learn that surveillance is part of their education”, and that supporters of this kind of system accept the notion that surveillance is a normal part of social life even more generally (pp. 185-6). Also of course, as Provenzo observes, the same data files that permit surveillance of learners are available for similar use with regard to teachers (p. 185).
Although Provenzo does not suggest this as a particularly encouraging source of reassurance, he does note that in cases of abusive surveillance, “the real culprits” are the people abusing the systems and “the computer [is] only an instrumentality” (p. 182). For instrumentality one might read tool, and we would be back to Freinet, which once again is a good reference point because a generally similar – although not computerized – individualized tracking system is an important part of any Freinet school: the individual Work Plan (“plan de travail”, Freinet 1990b:43-8) is a work schedule, renewed on a two-weekly basis, according to which students plan what part of the year’s curriculum they will cover in a given period, set objectives for themselves, and record their own progress. Each two-week Plan is monitored by the pupil, the parents, and the teacher, and it is kept as a cumulative record of development not only in academic terms, but also in terms of evolving self-knowledge and related planning skills. Naturally, because such records are not computerized, they are not overly detailed, and also – for the same reason – they do not lend themselves to automatic, which really means surreptitious, data collection. But a far more important difference is that these Plans are created in active cooperation between the learner and the teacher, and they are always entirely open to the pupil portrayed in them. It is surely this openness that counts, since transparency and cooperation can make reliance on responsible human use of this system more than a naive, Pollyanna-ish dream. But are we willing to renounce the manipulative power that computer technology gives us, so as to promote teacher-learner social roles based on mutual respect? ... That’s as good a question today as it was when Freinet first asked it.
In conclusion, it is generally clear that such threats to creativity, freedom and privacy present themselves especially when computer-learning packages are devised in a way that reduces the human element in the educational experience. Certainly, Freinet himself never recoiled from the opportunities offered by new technologies, but his confidence in the value of new educational tools also never led him to suggest that they could replace the teacher: quite the contrary, the teacher is given irreplaceable responsibility for the on-going management of appropriate resources-and-constraints. And we should recall that – while defining their position on these issues – Freinet and his primary-school contemporaries confronted some of the same pressures that challenge university teachers today: limited funding, uncertain government comprehension of goals, perceived difficulty in meeting learners’ needs, and a sense that the practical organization of the classroom space itself is a big part of the problem. As in Freinet’s day, we still need to think about increased effectiveness, but we also need to assure that the innovations we envision are educationally sound. Crudely put, quality is a part of effective marketing. Yet, the more computer-crusading proponents of Strategic Enrolment Management – who often are not teachers themselves – will not always welcome any suggestion that we need at the very least to be open to the possibility that, no matter how theoretically attractive the promise of world-wide outreach and twenty-four-hour efficiency may seem, the cost of over-reliance on even the most advanced of electronic packages and virtual classrooms can be a disastrous shift in learner roles... resulting in fewer not more students who actually register and pay their all-important fees. In other words, poorly managed, the new medium has the power to convey a message that we would never have supported, had we been wise enough to foresee it. So, we do need to move ahead, but prudently, with a clear and critical sense of what we are doing, and with a healthy respect for learners’ legitimate needs, which it simply does not work to sacrifice on the altar of technological, administrative or financial convenience.

Contact de l'auteur :
Freinet, Célestin (1990a) The Wisdom of Matthew: An Essay in Contemporary Educational Theory. Translation by J. Sivell of Les Dits de Mathieu (1967 edition). Lewiston NY: Edwin Mellen Press.
––– (1990b) Cooperative Learning and Social Change: Selected Writings of Célestin Freinet. Selections translated by D. Clandfield and J. Sivell. Toronto: Our Schools/OurSelves.
––– (1993) Education Through Work: A Model for Child-Centered Learning. Translation by J. Sivell of L’Éducation du travail (1967 edition). Lewiston NY: Edwin Mellen Press.
––– (1994a) Essai de psychologie sensible. (First published 1949). Reprinted in Célestin Freinet: œuvres pédagogiques 1. Paris: Éditions du Seuil.
––– (1994b) Les Invariants pédagogiques (First published 1964). Reprinted in Célestin Freinet: œuvres pédagogues 2. Paris: Éditions du Seuil.
Freinet, Madeleine. (1997) Élise et Célestin Freinet: Souvenirs de notre vie. Volume 1. Paris: Éditions Stock.
Hofer, Barbara and Paul Hintrich (1997) “The Development of Epistemological Theories: Beliefs About Knowledge and Knowing and Their Relation to Learning.” Review of Educational Research. LXVII, I, 88-140.
Lee, William (1994) “John Dewey and Célestin Freinet: A Closer Look”. Pp. 13-26 in Sivell (1994a).
Provenzo, Eugene, Jr. (1992) “The Electronic Panopticon: Censorship, Control, and Indoctrination in a Post-Typographic Culture”. Pp. 167-88 in Myron Tubman (Ed.) Literacy Online: The Promise (and Peril) of Reading and Writing with Computers. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.
Sivell, John (Ed.) (1994a) Freinet Pedagogy: Theory and Practice. Lewiston NY: Edwin Mellen Press.
–––– (1994b) “Freinet Pedagogy: The Medium is the Message”. Pp 27-36 in Sivell (1994a).
Wright, Tony (1987) Roles of Teachers and Learners. Oxford: Oxford University Press.