17 SES 02, Progressive Education
Célestin Freinet (1896-1966) lived in the southwest of France (department Alpes-Maritimes) where he worked as a teacher. In line with child-centered new education rhetoric, he criticized the traditional school system that he considered not being sufficiently adopted to the children’s needs. In contrast to many other educational reformers, however, Freinet also criticized the exploitation of the poor by the rich and openly cherished communist sympathies. As was the case with fellow-pioneers, Freinet developed his own pedagogical ideas and corresponding techniques, gathered a group of disciples around him, and ultimately established the Freinet movement that not only had to promote and spread Freinet’s pedagogical ideas but also had to secure its further development according to new scientific and social evolutions. This idea of an ‘evolutionary pedagogy’ is reason why both the Freinet Movement and Freinet school are generally referred to as the ‘Modern School Movement’ and the ‘Modern school’, respectively. In order to remain ‘modern’, i.e. contemporary, the movement had to be a lively and dynamic one, capable of change. Essential therefore was a network of teachers working together and exchanging information with the ultimate goal of continuously improving their practices and the shared ideal of the proletarian school. In this development, teachers as it were turned into ‘researchers’.
Already from the outset, Belgian teachers were involved in the Freinet Movement. Until the 1970s, however, Belgian participation was mostly a matter of the French speaking part of Belgium. Influenced by critical and emancipatory pedagogy, from the 1970s onwards also Flemish teachers increasingly became interested in the Freinet pedagogy. The first Flemish Freinet school was founded in 1979, and when in 1981 the Freinet Movement Flanders was established the number of Freinet schools rapidly grew, to an extent that in the school year 2013-14 Flanders called no less than 82 Freinet schools. Today, almost half of the alternative schools in Flanders are Freinet schools while each year the Freinet Movement Flanders organizes a variety of events and courses on Freinet pedagogy.
Despite this, or perhaps better because of this relative success, we were wondering whether and to what extent Flemish Freinet teachers today still identify with the initial aim of the Freinet Movement, i.e. with the very notion of the ‘modern’ school and the idea of an ‘evolutionary pedagogy’. After all, this implies that they inscribe themselves into the history of the Freinet Movement by positioning themselves on a continuum of an ever evolving pedagogy. But, are Flemish Freinet teachers aware of this historical positioning, and what is the label of ‘Freinet’ actually standing for? Taking into account the diverging contexts, leading for instance to a Freinet Movement not proclaiming any longer the ideal of the ‘proletarian’ school, we more in particular asked ourselves (1) how and to what extent the current Flemish Freinet schools relate to the initial Freinet pedagogy, and (2) whether Freinet pedagogy in Flanders is conceived of as either a fixed or a flexible set of ideas and techniques, the latter implying that it is continuously tested as a pedagogical model applied to the needs of society. In either case there must be ‘something’ that allows the school to be labeled a ‘Freinet’ school. In other words, a tension occurs between the idea of an ‘evolutionary pedagogy’, on the one hand, and the claim of applying the ‘Freinet pedagogy’, on the other. This tension can only be dealt with by identifying a set or core of ingredients that characterized the ‘original’ Freinet pedagogy, and to test and explain the extent to which this core can still be found in existing applications of Freinet pedagogy developing since the 1980s.
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