The last time that I addressed this topic, I discussed a brief history of the use of manipulatives, particularly by educators who view the world as only matterial. (I use the word matterial to convey the view that all reality is understood to be only matter.) For those educators the use of manipulatives is necessary because the physical world or matter is all that there is. Education that has arisen from this matterialism would have us think that to live free, independent, healthy lives we must allow our children to explore the world through the inquiry of their own minds and bodies because as they “sort out” the world, they begin to see how the world fits together, how to find their place in the world, thereby gaining control over their destiny and the world around them. Because this is the best means for learning in a matterial universe, educators are less than they should be if they do not provide a hands-on, inquiry-based approach to learning and without these engaging and exciting approaches to learning we as educators can be viewed as failures.
Let me give two examples of this type of learning. First, today young people are encouraged to explore sexually one another until they find the person with whom they are sexually compatible. Second, matterialism can affect our view of the environment. On the one hand, we must protect the world because that is where we find ourselves, and we need to make the best of it that we can. On the other hand, there is an attitude of using it for our own selfish ends. In these examples there are no transcending ideas from a transcendent God who communicates moral values to his creation. Moral values are spiritual. In communicating to us, God has conveyed his love for his creation, which gives us a model for living that includes the spiritual and the physical.
We recognize with those that believe that the world is only matterial that we do live in a physical world and that we are undeniably physical or material ourselves, but we are not only physical, we are spiritual. We are both because we bare the image of God. Further, all of creation is His. Therefore both are important and we mustn’t devalue one over the other. The physical and spiritual are so interwoven that we cannot neatly dissect the physical and spiritual. Therefore, when we teach our children we must teach them as whole persons—not just as physical beings (using only hands-on or inquiry) , but also as spiritual beings in need of those moral values and beliefs and the transcendent ideas that come from our creator. (For understanding how we value the spiritual over the physical, I recommend that you read Jerram Barrs and Ranald Macaulay’s book: Being Human: the Nature of the Spiritual Experience. They do an excellent job of explaining this topic.)
For this discussion I want to point out that as physical beings we learn in physical ways. Some of us are more prone to need physical ways to learn than others. While we are learning in physical ways, we are also learning spiritual values. Let me give an example. Mason highly valued the science of relations. That is, she wanted children to see the relationship between and among contents, between themselves and contents, between themselves and the physical world and so on. To do this in science she first wanted to nourish the spiritual aspect of science, that is, through nature study and the science of relations she wanted children to develop a love for, respect of, understanding of the physical world first before any utilitarian uses were thought of. We can see in her attitude a blend of the physical and spiritual ideas with the spiritual governing our attitude towards the material.
So, one of the major points in this whole discussion is that when we teach we need to use the physical world (nature study, science field studies, manipulatives in math) and we can convey both physical knowledge (types of rocks, types of flowers, counting money, etc) and spiritual knowledge (the beauty of rocks and flowers, that we are stewards of God’s world not user and abusers, that we use our money wisely) in the same lesson. In fact, the moral values (spiritual) need to guide us in our decisions about the physical world. I could go on and on making connections between the physical and the spiritual in every content area—they are so interwoven. The point is that God has created it all and it all is under his domain. Therefore, using hands-on learning, field studies, or manipulatives are good and responsible ways to teach as long as we are laying the foundation of understanding that all of God’s creation both the physical and the spiritual are valued. Therefore, we can use hands-on learning to convey spiritual concepts and spiritual concepts can be the guiding principles with which we govern our use of the physical world.
In summary — Because we live in a physical and spiritual universe, teaching and learning need to be done in an environment that nurtures both the physical and the spiritual. I believe Mason was on target about interacting with the material world through hands-on learning (field studies, etc) without being a matterialist. We do not have to forfeit spiritual truths (Biblical principles) when engaging with the material world.
We will continue this conversation at a later date with a closer look at exactly how Mason defined spiritual and why our view of spiritual might be too narrow. Following that we will discuss examples of both material and spiritual values as they can be seen in various contents areas such as math, science, and others.
I hope this conversation isn’t too theoretical for you, but many teachers struggle with appropriate use of hands-on learning, feeling the need to provide exciting activities, engaging units, various technologies and the like. Inappropriate use of these kinds of learning environments can create activities and projects that do not sustain long-term memory learning. This is a travesty. We must understand appropriate use of manipulatives and hands-on learning. This is where this discussion is leading.