You can move Montaignes with French philosophy

The world’s first essayist’s thoughts on education can still provide inspiration for teachers today – four centuries after his death, writes Sam Gent-Randall

Sam Gent-Randall

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Michel de Montaigne, a 16th-century French humanist philosopher, invented the form of the modern essay: his three-volume chef-d’œuvre was named Essais at a time when this word simply meant trials or attempts.

While our students may not be grateful to him – he did invent their least favourite homework task – his incredible body of work poses questions that are just as important for modern educators, 424 years after his death, as they were for their original audience.

In 1579 or 1580, Montaigne wrote a letter to a friend, the Comtesse de Gurson, who was expecting her first child. He entitled the letter “De l’institution des Enfants” (“Of the Education of Children”) and published it as the 26th “essay” in his first collection. It is a compilation of his ideas on how to make a child great.

Montaigne’s own education had been devised by his unusual father, who requested that nobody speak French in his son’s hearing until he was seven years old, so that he might learn Latin as his native tongue.

After his father discovered that waking children brusquely caused them emotional discomfort, he also arranged for a lute player to serenade his son awake in the mornings.

It is safe to say that these outlandish methods did Montaigne no harm, but what his letter recommends is a little less radical.

In fact, although it was new thinking at the time, much of what he suggests is at the very heart of good teaching practice today.

1. Problem-solving skills are more important than knowledge

Montaigne preferred “a well-made rather than a well-filled head” – more relevant than ever today when most of the world’s information is just a click away. He said that we should make sure to “put into [each student’s] head an honest curiosity to enquire into all things”. Hear, hear, I say.

2. Lessons should be relevant to real life

In our exam-factory school system, the emphasis is increasingly on retaining huge amounts of curriculum-specific information. However, Montaigne once stated that “to know by heart is not to know; it is to retain what we have given our memory to keep”. Instead, we should give our students the skills to understand the parts of the world that are relevant to them.

OK, granted, in Montaigne’s time, this meant teaching valour alongside arithmetic, but it’s just as important today – even if it means using The Great British Bake Off and The X Factor as examples in lessons about probability, or calculating the hourly tweet rate of One Direction’s fan base. Then we can get students to “judge the profit he has made [of a lesson] by the testimony not of his memory but of his life”. Because really, all skills should be life skills.

3. Students are more than just young minds. They’re young bodies, too

“It is not enough to toughen his soul; we must also toughen his muscles.” Much easier to remember when you’re teaching at primary, but combining physical activity and academic cerebral work leads to better learning, and not just for kinaesthetic learners.

After all, “it is not a soul that is being trained, nor a body, but a man; these parts must not be separated”.

4. Group work and school trips are worth months of textbook reading

“Everything that comes to our eyes is book enough,” Montaigne wrote, and going abroad allows us “to rub and polish our brains by contact with those of others”. We knew this already, of course, but we might cite Montaigne on our next application form for a trip to Bordeaux.

5. Differentiation can never work perfectly

Ah, differentiation. A word that didn’t exist in Montaigne’s time, but one that he is able to describe perfectly: “To undertake to regulate many minds of such different capacities and forms with the same lesson and a similar measure of guidance.”

Under such conditions, he thinks that “barely two or three” students in each group “reap any proper fruit”. Sadly, we can’t revert to one-to-one tuition, but it is comforting to think that differentiation is an age-old problem; when we are required to demonstrate tailored learning plans for 33 students in each lesson, we can only be so successful. Hopefully, more than two or three students will learn something, however.

6. Respect for the teacher is central to all good learning

“The authority of the tutor […] must be sovereign over the pupil,” if everyone is to benefit from their experience and knowledge. Somebody should tell the Year 9s, and quickly.

Montaigne described educating children as “a burden full of care and fear”. While that definitely feels true when Tommy is in detention with you every Tuesday for three months and you have four hours of marking to do before chess club, it’s important to remember another Montaigne maxim, too: a good teacher is someone on whom “depends the whole success of [a child’s] education”.

In other words, you are too important to each and every student in your class to let anyone alter the manner of your teaching. Unless, of course, that person is a great revolutionary thinker. Or works for Ofsted.

Sam Gent-Randall is a French tutor in Ripon, North Yorkshire

This is an article from the 1 July edition of TES. This week's TES magazine is available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here

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Sam Gent-Randall

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