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Francis W. Parker's Concentration Pedagogy:
Education to Free the Human Spirit

by Sanderson Beck

With the exception of fighting for a few years in the Civil War to maintain the Union of the democracy in which he so fervently believed, the entire mature life of Colonel Francis Wayland Parker was devoted to teaching and the cause of education. Respected for his success with the schools of Quincy, Massachusetts and the Cook County Normal School in Chicago, Parker had demonstrated the value of his theories pragmatically. His major work was taken from talks he first gave at the Teachers' Retreat, Chautauqua Assembly, New York, July, 1891 and was published as Talks on Pedagogics: An Outline of the Theory of Concentration, which is the basis for this interpretation of Parker's ideas.

Parker studied in Europe the pedagogical ideas of Pestalozzi and the principle of unity from Froebel, and drew the doctrine of Concentration from the psychology of Herbart. Putting his hypotheses of Concentration into practice, he worked to develop a science of education, which he defined as “the science of the soul and the laws of its development” since it “comprehends all sciences.” Although he considered the doctrine of Concentration to be valuable for centuries, yet he encouraged students to criticize and improve upon it.

The foundation of Parker’s ideas rested on his spiritual love for the divine soul of the child. For Parker to ask the question, “What is the child?” led to the greater question, “What is the Creator and Giver of Life?” He affirms the reality of the “invisible, all-controlling One who permeates the universe and breathes His Eternal Life through it to be taken into the human soul.” Parker's theory that all education was intrinsically moral was based on the premise “that education is the outworking of the design of God into highest character, into highest possibilities of individual development.” In other words, the ceiling of education is infinite. Parker's education was “the development of the attitude of the soul toward truth,” and that to find truth was to find God, the Author of Truth, and to act according to His Will. Although the universe is continually undergoing change, Parker sought the one central law that controls both humans and the universe, the law of being and life. Made in God’s Image we can know the truth of that law and apply it. He sought the sovereignty of God within and its justice right above all, so that everything else could be added.

From the spiritual perspective Parker saw the value of studying mutable matter to understand the immutable laws which govern it. Nature and science were the reflections of spiritual purpose, and in the early development of the child, Parker saw the divine soul of the child exploring and innately growing to understand Nature and the world. Following the theory that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, that is that the development of the individual child reflects the evolution of the species and human race, Parker describes how the free child moves from a fairy tale and mythic view of life toward the natural exploration of one's environment as one begins spontaneously the study of every science. Since the child learns so effectively by this method of self-activity in such complex activities as the understanding and speaking of language, Parker advocates promoting similar natural methods for learning reading and writing and other subjects, rather than employing seemingly logical but actually artificial methods.

Parker did not want to see the naturally active and curious child being forced to become passive and therefore bored in the classroom. He wanted to energize and at the same time refine education: “All mental and moral development is by self-activity. Education is the economizing of self-effort in the direction of all-sided development.” Parker was for studying “the Creator through the manifestation of His thought, in the universe and the man.” All subjects were creation, and therefore unified, but the highest truth was the invisible all-efficient power. With this philosophy Parker could effectively combine subjects and point out their higher relations with each other.

For example, geography aided the understanding of history. If a student was interested in the causes of geography, he could study geology, and if curious about the laws of force he could go into physics and chemistry. Laws of energy, the chemistry and physics of life were physiology and biology.

Parker was adamantly against rote memorization, whether it be in arithmetic or the alphabet and spelling. What good is knowing something without truly understanding it? Numbers and words were to be used when expressing thought. Addition and subtraction could be taught by practicing measuring with a twelve-inch ruler. Division, multiplication, and fractions have meanings which should be understood when used. Getting the right answer is not enough if the child does not know what it signifies.

Parker stressed self-effort and motivation as the keys which open up the education process. In using the conditions in which the student finds himself the center, Parker recommended a wisely adjusted self-effort which could discriminate between what was done for him, and what he could do for himself. Overstraining was possible and mature reflection was receptive to the wisdom of, “Be still, and know that I am God.” By examining consciousness, Parker discovered that one cannot consciously direct every idea in the mind, but by focusing the attention on a specific thing, a flow of related idea would arise. He concluded, “You cannot directly recollect, unite, synthesize, or associate ideas, but you can control the conditions necessary to the effectiveness of these acts.”

Parker's theory of attention was a continuous unity of four elements: 1) external stimuli, 2) physical response, 3) intellectual action, and 4) motive. “This unity of action or effort of the whole being is the central educative moment; it is in education a supreme act, bringing about the conditions necessary to a most economical use of the body as an instrument for the action of external energies.” Teaching then, was the presentation of the best external conditions for this self-effort, and since “motive determines all intellectual action and growth, the teacher should seek to fulfill and heighten the interest and development of the student. Because the environment conditions evolution, the improvement of the environment through education is a valuable aid in evolving humanity.

The three modes of attention according to Parker were observation, hearing-language, and reading. Observation has educative value, because the continuous action of an object upon consciousness develops and intensifies corresponding concepts. Attention is educative thinking because conscious activities are immediately needed for development. Direct acts of consciousness would be synthesis, association, recollection, remembrance, and imagination, while secondary acts caused by the ego would be inference or judgment such as recognition, analysis, comparison, classification, and generalization. Purposeful and motivated attention becomes educative: “The cultivation of the habit of attention is the main factor in education---the habit of observing closely, listening intently to language and of reading intensely are the fundamental means by which self-activity is induced and developed.”

Observation leads the student to be able to think for oneself based on one's own perceptions, and is the remedy to prejudiced and dogmatic teaching which obviously should be avoided. Teaching reliance upon human authority is dangerous and should be replaced by allowing the student to find the truth for oneself. The book of nature is the “direct revelation of God to man,” and observation cultivates the love for science and truth.

Language is based on the law of association, the correspondence between the verbal symbols and the meaning. Parker points out that the more intense the acts of association are, the fewer repetitions are needed. Therefore the correspondences should be shown as meaningfully as possible to the consciousness and experience of the child. Words, like other objects, act as a whole. Therefore the alphabetic and phonetic method of learning language are less effective than the learning by words and sentences. Again, thinking accompanies real understanding: “Each and every step in the development of reading-power must be taken under the immediate impulse of intrinsic thought.” Thus reading was to be learned in the study of the content subjects. The purpose for Parker was not to memorize vocabulary, but to develop thinking and the reasoning powers, for reading is actually thinking.

Parker's complement to attention was expression which together were the action and reaction of the whole being in mental and bodily movement. Expressions may be generally defined as “the manifestation of thought and emotion through the body by means of the physical agents.” Parker describes the nine expressions of gesture, voice, speech, music, making, modeling (sculpture), painting drawing, and writing. Motivation impels expression, and the higher the motive, the higher the human expression. Therefore, education, by inspiring higher motives, tends to uplift human action. The factor in cultivating expression are “motive, the intrinsic quality of the soul,” mental and emotional preparatory action, execution of the will, skill of the physical agents, and attentive reflection. For example, in school, writing should occur when there is the motive to express thought. Training the modes of expression through motivated practice allows the children to develop at their own natural pace and rhythm.

Toward the unity of expressive acts Parker emphasizes “economizing personal energy; it means using to the greatest advantage, and with the slightest possible expenditure of power, the whole being---body, mind, and soul. Economy of personal energy is freedom, and freedom is conformity or obedience to God's laws. Personal liberty is self-effort unrestricted by anything but the laws of being." Grace and genuineness depict expressions that are unified by the center of the soul in honesty, poise, balance, rhythm, and harmony of ease. To correct fear, self-conceit, and lack of unity, Parker suggests a change of motive toward courage of duty and high purpose. The modes of expression can be developed by growing out of the study of the sciences, history, and literature.

Parker's arrangement of learning was psychological rather than logical---in other words, to suit the child, not the teacher. He points to the child’s “motive, thought, previous development, and the unparalleled energy with which it overcomes difficulties and acquires skill.” The teacher is to act with “the tact and ability to stimulate interesting related thought in the minds of the children and the recognition of the psychological moment in which to help the individual to express that thought.”

In regard to moral training, Parker believed that all truly educative work was moral. His attitude toward discipline was practical and situational: What was for the best good of all?---“Everything to help and nothing to hinder.” Educative work that was best for the whole and best for each individual meant that a school was in order. His qualifications for a teacher were first, “a dominating love for children, manifested by a strong desire to assist them,” and second a persistent study of the subject taught.

The social relations of the school community were ideal for teaching students good citizenship, especially the common school which is an “embryonic democracy.” The lifting of motivation to altruism and love of humanity was the essence of religion. Parker unified intellectual and moral power in the “movement of the being upward.” Through free expression and natural motivation the individual learned responsibility. “The power to choose the truth and apply it is the highest gift of God to man.” By the highest motive of seeking the sovereignty of God, came inspiration, “for every thought that lives and burns in the hearts of men,... you will find the motive of love to mankind.” Parker always put forward the good the true, and the beautiful, that by familiarity with them the students would learn to identify and find them. Yet he succinctly described the moral process neutrally: “Motive controls, reason chooses, will executes.” He did not believe in punishment or reward, for one weakened by fear and cowardice, and the other by bribery and greed. Nor was the sheer will-power of the teacher beneficial since it did not allow the students to exercise their own wills. God gave humans free choice, and education should present the conditions for choice and for the exercise of reason.

Grading, he also perceived as useless to his concept of intrinsic education. The only reward which was beneficial was for self-effort and that in accordance with the capabilities of the individual. True, God grants rewards for virtuous deeds, but God's discrimination of self-effort has perfect wisdom.

The result Parker sought was quality, not quantity which would take care of itself. He criticized those who tried to cram the greatest quantity of knowledge into their students. He elucidated seven indications of quality teaching:

1) observation of the character, mental action, and expression of each pupil
2) study as a means to personal, mental, and moral power,
3) persistent study of the child,
4) apprehension of the infinite means for the pupils’ development,
5) immediate manifestation of subjects in the character of the child,
6) excluding competition, rivalry, and ambition, and
7) essence of quality teaching is love, its one aim, the truth.

Parker was convinced that education was the key to enlightened and free democracy. In fact freedom was the goal of education. Democracy goes hand in hand with universal education, because it recognizes the right and ability of every person to make responsible decisions. Thus true education liberates people from oppression, tyranny and false authority in whatever guises they may appear. Parker describes how the use of the teaching methods of Pestalozzi worked to free people in Europe, and how tyrants tried to suppress them. Parker attempted to synthesize a theory of scientific teaching for democracy that would “set the souls of children free.”

Copyright 1996 by Sanderson Beck

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