Célestin Freinet and the word of the child

How Célestin Freinet, creator of the cooperative of secular education and of the modern French school, developed a popular pedagogy, based on spontaneity, collective work, and the active method.

Célestin Freinet and the word of the child
Célestin Freinet. From Wikimedia Commons

Célestin Freinet was born in Gars, France on October 15, 1896. He was a humble country school teacher, who bequeathed to humanity great contributions in the field of education. Almost seventy years later, on October 8, 1966, Freinet died in Vence, also in France. Célestin himself, together with Elisa, his wife, and life partner, and many other authors have written a great number of pages in which the life, work, and thought of the famous educator, peasant, philosopher, and poet are captured.

As a general rule, it is difficult for human beings to undertake radical transformations. When someone intends to try - as was the case with Freinet - they run up against inertia, against the interests and conveniences of "everything better stay the same", against the weight of the eternal yesterday. Freinet was in very poor health. From the front line, during the First World War, he spent a long hospital stay. The doctors advised him to apply for a pension and to wait resignedly for death, which, according to the doctors, would soon come, but Freinet did not accept this prescription. The doctors called him stubborn... obstinate. Fortunately, he was.

The day he least expected it, Freinet was in front of a group of children in the class. The masterly training he had had was the proper one for the time and the very deficient place. During his hospitalization, Freinet had devoured many pages. He read and came into contact with the thoughts of important authors: Marx, Rabelais, Montaigne, Pestalozzi, Rousseau, etc.

Personally, Freinet was concerned about how he, unable to speak because of Freinet's lung injuries caused by the war and tear gas, could work in a school where shouting and scolding were the order of the day. Célestin's challenge was varied: to work with rural schoolchildren, children of the dispossessed, so that they would become aware of reality and seek to transform it. What a challenge!

Freinet was concerned with and concerned with all aspects of schooling. In the following paragraphs only certain aspects of Freinet's education, related to the spoken and written expression, closely related to reading, will be dealt with. Freinet explains with a very profound and sobering simplicity how children learn to walk, talk and ride a bicycle, in accordance with their own nature, from the moment they need it and are ready for it. On the other hand, the teaching and learning of reading and writing are forced, practiced against human nature, and entrusted to the school.

The vast majority of children (when there is an illness, things change) speak, walk and ride a bicycle at the right time and without the intervention of the school. On the other hand, a number of schoolchildren, which I dare to consider considerable, leave school without reading or writing. Freinet refers with irony and great precision, in one of his Sayings of Matthew, that if the school and its teachers were in charge of teaching the child to ride a bicycle, there would be very few cyclists. The same can be said of speech and walking: there would be many mutes and few walkers.

Elisa Freinet pointed out that, in a few words, she could sum up Célestin's educational concern: how to give the child a voice! Freinet indeed devoted much of his time, a great deal of his reflection, and several of his writings to this singular aspect. Freinet agrees with other authors of his time or before him. He says that it is not the same to have to express something in a forced way (verbally or in writing), as it is to have to express something out of necessity, interest, or desire. Schoolchildren usually have to write letters, syllables, words, lines, pages, and entire notebooks according to the teacher's mandate. In most cases, they write aspects planned and elaborated in advance by adults. Writing like this is a punishment, and yes, it is!

Something similar happens with oral expression. The pedagogy of silence mandates that the schoolchild should listen to adults and open his or her mouth only when appropriate. Thus, schoolchildren should answer promptly the questions asked by the teacher in an interrogation, for example. They can also break the silence to ask permission to do something or ask questions that do not break with the normality of classwork. Schoolchildren thus become accustomed to saying and repeating names, dates, figures, results, data, definitions, etc.

In school, the student's oral and written expression is subordinated to school programs and textbooks. More often than one might think, children repeat and write things that are unfamiliar to them, that are far removed from them, that does not interest them, much less challenge them. The expression of the word thus conceived and practiced is closely related to the pedagogy of mistrust. It is thought that the child is incapable of constructing his own discourse and that the discourse of adults is imposed on him, in whom he must blindly believe in order to succeed in life.

Faced with such a situation, Freinet was concerned with giving the child a voice. He tried and succeeded in getting the children to express, in their own voices and in their own texts, what they needed, what they felt, what they wanted, what they liked, what they were interested in, what pleased them, what satisfied them, etc. But they not only said and wrote these things, but they also expressed what they were fed up with, what bothered them, what they hated, etc. All in a climate of great confidence and freedom, where the important thing was to say or write something that they wanted to communicate, that they needed to share because of its high significance.

In order to make room for the free expression of the child's spoken and written word, Freinet thought of and implemented a large number of school techniques. Therein lies the raison d'être of the school assembly, the school printing press, the free text, the class diary, inter-school correspondence, etc. With Freinet close at hand, through these vital school techniques, children were able to express vividly their spoken and also their written thoughts, written, corrected, illustrated, printed, and bound by the schoolchildren themselves.

As with writing, the teaching of reading is often dead. Children do not read things that interest them, that appeal to them, or that make them tick. Usually, children read texts written by adults who are far removed from the children by rote. Freinet intends, and also achieves, that his students read with passion and, what better, read things written by children, for children, with the language and interests of children. This is also achieved with the free text or by means of interschool correspondence, eagerly awaited by the children, since they find rich and lively information from an equal being, from another lively or restless child.

By Fernando Jiménez Mier y Terán