Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Quintilian on Early Learning

Moving back to the early years of childhood with Quintilian -- argument for some kind of early academics "Of the proper age for beginning to learn"

15. Some have thought that boys, as long as they are under seven years of age, should not be set to learn, because that is the earliest age that can understand what is taught, and endure the labor of learning. .....

16. ..... Those, however, advise better, who, like Chrysippus, think that no part of a child's life should be exempt from tuition (tutoring); for Chrysippus, though he has allowed three years to the nurses, is of opinion that the minds of children may be imbued with excellent instruction even by them.
So Quintilian believes that children should start their learning early, like Montessori, rather than later. A few points to keep in mind, though -- it's important to realize that he wasn't talking about advanced academics, in light of our modern tendency to push information and preparation at earlier and earlier ages, to the point that I wouldn't be surprised to see literary analysis in the preschool curriculum before too long.

He's not talking about universal preschool -- he's talking about learning in the home environment.

His thought is that if children can receive moral education well before they are of the age to go to school, which was seven in his system, why shouldn't they learn some academics as well?
And why should not that age, which is now confessedly subject to moral influence, be under the influence of learning?
He says he is aware that a child cannot learn nearly as much over the first few years of life as he could learn in a few months later, but he doesn't think that this is a good argument for postponing learning altogether. He thinks that is to spare the teacher rather than actually help the child:
What else, after they are able to speak, will children do better, for they must do something? Or why should we despise the gain, how little so ever it be, previous to the age of seven years? For certainly, small as may be the proficiency which an earlier age exhibits, the child will yet learn something greater during the very year in which he would have been learning something less.He says this accumulation will add up and every bit of advancement is a plus over the lack of it.
So his recommendation:

Let us not then lose even the earliest period of life, and so much the less, as the elements of learning depend on the memory alone, which not only exists in children, but is at that time of life even most tenacious.
When he recommends learning early, though, he is not recommending developmentally inappropriate learning, which is the subject of the next section. This is important, but I won't have enough room in this post for that, so on to the next section -- What does Quintilian think early learning should actually look like?

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I would love to hear your thoughts on this!