Comenius: Learning from an old master about play, practice and care in the language class

Devastating pandemics, tumultuous politics, vulnerable minorities, desperate refugees, and precarious education opportunities. This century could be said to have seen the world turned upside down.

I am not talking about our own but the 17th century when kings were decapitated, traditional wisdom challenged, and societies transformed by new religious and intellectual ideas. It was a time of great change and innovation, with ideas emerging which have even affected the way in which we teach languages today.

I wonder if you, like me, use pictures in your classes? Or you’ve seen that your students engage so much more with grammar when they have used it in conversation rather than simply listened to a list of rules? And how much more effective has your teaching been when you’ve played games in your classes? Or when you’ve given your students regular breaks or made sure not to overload them with too much new vocab?

All of these ideas were advanced during the 17th century in the revolutionary work of John Amos Comenius (1592-1670). Quite the hero for the modern language teacher, and his life’s story is just as inspirational as his ideas on teaching. He saw plague, experienced exile and suffered unspeakable loss. And developed ideas which are still transforming classrooms today.

Comenius (or Komenský) was born in what is today the South Moravian region of the Czech Republic, close to the Hungarian border. The youngest of five children, his family were devout members of the Moravian Brethren, one of the oldest Protestant denominations in the world, placing them right at the heart of the ‘religious turmoil’ which would ‘engulf the whole of Europe in the catastrophic events of the Thirty Years’ War’ (Daniel Murphy, Comenius: A critical reassessment of his life and work, Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1995, p. 8). However, though later in life he would find himself a refugee and forced into hiding on account of this faith, it was the plague which would first devastate his family, taking the lives of his parents and two of his sisters. Some years later another pestilential plague would take the lives of his wife and two daughters. It is hard to imagine the scope of suffering that Comenius experienced.

Yet in the years following their deaths he committed himself to the translation of the Psalms into Czech, writing accounts of the suffering of the Protestant communities, and writing a book which remains one of the most celebrated texts in Czech literary history, The Labyrinth of the World and the Paradise of the Heart, a spiritual allegory modelled on John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.

Alongside this remarkable work, he was developing theories of learning and living which would bring him fame throughout Europe, leading to Comenius being invited to advise the Swedish government on educational reform and later, in 1641, by the “Parliament of England” to do the same.

So why were these countries so keen to hear from Comenius and how does he still impact our classrooms today?

Comenius and universal education
First, Comenius had a vision for education which was universal, available to all, irrespective of class or gender. Flowing from his belief that all are made in the image of God (Gen 1:26-27 he argued:

‘(N)ot only the children of the rich or of the mighty should be sent to school, but those of all classes alike, both noble and plain, rich and poor, with boys and girls, in all cities, towns, villages and hamlets.’

Furthermore, education should be available to all, irrespective of ability:

‘For the weaker…the more one needs assistance.’

‘If we admit some to education while excluding others, we are unjust not only to those who are of the same nature as ourselves, but to God himself.’

These ideas excited the spirit of many in 17th Century England who were keen to see education extend beyond the traditional centres of learning: ‘There were demands for “an Eton college in every county” (Hugh Trevor-Roper, The Crisis of the Seventeenth Century, Liberty Fund, 1967, p. 223). Obviously, though the spirit was willing the flesh was weak and this particular demand never came to pass! However, Comenius’ radical vision clearly resonated. It is perhaps not surprising that he has been described as the ‘first great democrat among educational thinkers’ (Eduard Beneš).

Comenius and fun!
Second, Comenius believed that learning should not only be universal but enjoyable! This idea grew out of his conviction that God had created a ‘world already furnished with all good things’ and consequently learning is both a source of pleasure and ultimately something which leads to a forgetting of the self and a delight in God as the highest source of this pleasure. Learning is for Comenius a gift from God and should always be enjoyed as such.

Pleasure, therefore, is at the heart of learning and this leads Comenius to some amazing innovations both in teaching resources and classroom planning.

While he was co-rector of a school in the Polish city of Leszno, Comenius produced a textbook which would revolutionise attitudes towards the learning of languages. Janua Linguaram Reserata was a Latin textbook for beginners which promoted ‘comprehension of words and phrases related to the experiences of everyday life’ (Murphy, p. 16). Which language teacher has not seen their students learning transformed when it connects with their daily lives? Comenius grasped this in the 17th century!

Moreover Comenius later produced a language textbook, Orbis Sensualium Pictus (1658), in which pictures were added to enhance the learning of new vocabulary. The very first of its kind in Europe. So in your classrooms when you use your pictures from magazines, when you google a picture to help explain a student understand a word, remember Comenius!

And that sense of fun that we mentioned? Well, not only did he see that language learners would grow when they connected their learning to every day life, he also saw that fun was key to effective learning. In fact, he wrote a book called Schola Ludus (‘School as Play’). Teachers are urged not to overtax their pupils with too much material. In fact he even suggests that teachers limit the amount of new material to that which can be explained and taught in ‘one quarter of an hour’. More than this may be difficult to absorb: ‘If only a little knowledge is added each lesson, as long as it is firm and steady, the benefit will be certain, constant, intensive and great.’ In other words, don’t teach more than your students can learn, and have confidence that a little learning can actually be an effective thing.

Finally, teaching methods should be ‘safe, easy, congenial and pleasant’, with ‘playing and competing with one another’ the best ways for pupils to practice and appropriate new material.

As a teacher of English I am amazed at all this! Effective learning comes in safe and inclusive classroom environments, when learners are stimulated, stretched but not overwhelmed, and able to practice with games and competitions. I had no idea that today’s ideal lesson plans are actually 350 years old!

What a lot we can learn from this 17th century Christian leader who lived through war and plague, was exiled and in lived in fear of his life. What a vision he had for all, borne out of his view of God as the greatest source of joy and all humans, irrespective of age, class, gender or ability, made in God’s image and therefore worth educating.

So the next time I play Pictionary or Hangman in my ESL class, or teach a student something that they need to say when they have to go and meet their child’s teacher at school I’ll remember and thank dear Comenius for the way he helped transform my classroom.