LESSONS AS INSTRUMENTS OF EDUCATION
THE MATTER AND METHOD OF LESSONS
It seems to me that we live in an age of pedagogy; that we of the teaching profession are inclined to take too much upon ourselves, and that parents are ready to yield the responsibility of direction, as well as of actual instruction, more than is wholesome for the children.
Parents must reflect on the Subject-matter of Instruction.—I am about to invite your attention to a subject that parents are accustomed to leave very much in the hands of schoolmaster or governess when they do not instruct their children themselves—I mean the choice of subjects of instruction, and the ways of handling those subjects. Teachers are the people who have, more than others, given themselves to the consideration of what a child should learn and how he should learn it; but the parent, also, should have thought out this subject, and even when he does not profess to teach his children, should have his own carefully formed opinions as to the subject-matter and the method of their intellectual education: and this for the sake of the teacher as well as for that of
the children. Nothing does more to give vitality and purpose to the work of the teacher than the certainty that the parents of his pupils go with him.
Even when children go to schools taught by qualified persons, some insight on the part of fathers and mothers is useful as hindering the teacher from dropping into professional grooves, valuing proficiency in this or that subject for its own sake, and not as it affects the children. But in the early days of the home schoolroom, it is iniquitous to leave the young governess, with little qualification beyond her native French or German, or scanty English, to chalk out a course for herself and her charges. That the children waste their time is the least of the evils that accrue: they are forming habits dead against intellectual effort; and by-and-by, when they go to school, the lessons go over their heads, the work slips through their fingers, and their powers of passive resistance baffle the most strenuous teachers.
Home the best Growing-ground for Young Children.—All the same, whatever be the advantages of Kindergarten or other schools for little children, the home schoolroom ought to be the best growing-ground for them. And doubtless it would be so, were the mother at liberty to devote herself to the instruction of her children; but this she is seldom free to do. If she live in a town, she can send them to school when they are six; if in the country, she must have a governess; and the difficulty is to get a woman who is not only acquainted with the subjects she undertakes to teach, but who understands in some measure the nature of the child and the art and objects of education; a woman capable of making the very most of the children without waste of power or of
time. Such a rara avis does not present herself in answer to every advertisement; and in default of a trained teacher, the mother must undertake to train her governess—that is, she may supplement with her own insight the scanty knowledge and experience of the young teacher. ‘I wish the children to be taught to read, thus and thus, because _____’: or, ‘to learn history in such a way that the lessons may have such and such effects.’ Half an hour’s talk of this kind with a sensible governess will secure a whole month’s work for the children, so well directed that much is done in little time, and the widest possible margin secured for play and open-air exercise.
Three Questions for the Mother.—But if the mother is to inoculate the governess with her views as to the teaching of writing, French, geography, she must, herself, have definite views. She must ask herself seriously, Why must the children learn at all? What should they learn? And, How should they learn it? If she take the trouble to find a definite and thoughtful answer to each of these three queries, she will be in a position to direct her children’s studies; and will, at the same time, be surprised to find that three-fourths of the time and labour ordinarily spent by the child at his lessons is lost time and wasted energy.
Children learn, to Grow.—Why must the child learn? Why do we eat? Is it not in order that the body may live and grow and be able to fulfil its functions? Precisely so must the mind be sustained and developed by means of the food convenient for it, the mental pabulum of assimilated knowledge. Again, the body is developed not only by means of proper sustenance, but by the appropriate exercise of
each of its members. A young mother remarked to me the other day, that before her marriage she had such slender arms she never liked to exhibit them; but a strong five-months-old baby had cured her of that; she could toss and lift him with ease, and could now show well-rounded arms with anybody: and just as the limbs grow strong with exercise, so does intellectual effort with a given power of the mind make that power effective. People are apt to overlook the fact that mind must have its aliment—we learn that we may know, not that we may grow; hence the parrot-like saying of lessons, the cramming of ill-digested facts for examinations, all the ways of taking in knowledge which the mind does not assimilate.
Doctoring of the Material of Knowledge.—Specialists, on the other hand are apt to attach too much importance to the several exercise of the mental ‘faculties.’ We come across books on teaching, with lessons elaborately drawn up, in which certain work is assigned to the perceptive faculties, certain work to the imagination, to the judgment, and so on. Now this doctrine of the faculties, which rests on a false analogy between the mind and the body, is on its way to the limbo where the phrenologist’s ‘bumps’ now rest in peace. The mind would appear to be one and indivisible, and endowed with manifold powers; and this sort of doctoring of the material of knowledge is unnecessary for the healthy child, whose mind is capable of self-direction, and of applying itself to its proper work upon the parcel of knowledge delivered to it. Almost any subject which common sense points out as suitable for the instruction of children will afford exercise for all their powers, if properly presented.
Children learn, to get Ideas.—The child must learn, in the second place, in order that ideas may be freely sown in the fruitful soil of his mind. ‘Idea, the image or picture formed by the mind of anything external, whether sensible or spiritual,’—so, the dictionary; therefore, if the business of teaching be to furnish the child with ideas, any teaching which does not leave him possessed of a new mental image has, by so far, missed its mark. Now, just think of the listless way in which the children too often drag through reading and tables, geography and sums, and you will see that it is a rare thing for any part of any lesson to flash upon them with the vividness which leaves a mental picture behind. It is not too much to say that a morning in which a child receives no new idea is a morning wasted, however closely the little student has been kept at his books.
Ideas Grow and Produce after their Kind.—For the dictionary appears to me to fall short of the truth in its definition of the term ‘idea.’ An idea is more than an image or a picture; it is, so to speak, a spiritual germ endowed with vital force—with power, that is, to grow, and to produce after its kind. It is the very nature of an idea to grow: as the vegetable germ secretes that it lives by, so, fairly implant an idea in the child’s mind, and it will secrete its own food, grow, and bear fruit in the form of a succession of kindred ideas. We know from our own experience that, let our attention be forcibly drawn to some public character, some startling theory, and for days after we are continually hearing or reading matter which bears on this one subject, just as if all the world were thinking about what occupies our thoughts: the fact being, that the new idea we have
received is in the act of growth, and is reaching out after its appropriate food. This process of feeding goes on with peculiar avidity in childhood, and the growth of an idea in the child is proportionably rapid.
Scott and Stephenson worked with Ideas.—Scott got an idea, a whole group of ideas, out of the Border tales and ballads, the folklore of the country-side, on which his boyhood was nourished: his ideas grew and brought forth, and the Waverley Novels are the fruit they bore. George Stephenson made little clay engines with his playmate, Thomas Tholoway; by-and-by, when he was an engineman, he was always watching his engine, cleaning it, studying it; an engine was his dominant idea, and it developed into no less a thing than the locomotive.
Value of Dominant Ideas.—But how does this theory of the vital and fruitful character of ideas bear upon the education of the child? In this way: give your child a single valuable idea, and you have done more for his education than if you had laid upon his mind the burden of bushels of information; for the child who grows up with a few dominant ideas has his self-education provided for, his career marked out.
Lessons must furnish Ideas.—In order for the reception of an idea, the mind must be in an attitude of eager attention, and how to secure that state we have considered elsewhere. One thing more: a single idea may be a possession so precious in itself, so fruitful, that the parent cannot fitly allow the child’s selection of ideas to be a matter of chance: his lessons should furnish him with such ideas as shall make for his further education.
Children learn to get Knowledge.—But it is not only to secure due intellectual growth and the
furnishing of his mind with ideas, that the child must learn: the common notion, that he learns for the sake of getting knowledge, is also a true one so much so, that no knowledge should be so precious as that gained in childhood, no later knowledge should be so clearly chronicled on the brain, nor so useful as the foundation of that to follow. At the same time, the child’s capacity for knowledge is very limited; his mind is, in this respect at least, but a little phial with a narrow neck; and, therefore, it behoves parent or teacher to pour in only of the best.
Diluted Knowledge.—But, poor children, they are too often badly used by their best friends in the matter of the sort of knowledge offered them. Grown-up people who are not mothers talk and think far more childishly than the child does in their efforts to approach his mind. If a child talk twaddle, it is because his elders are in the habit of talking twaddle to him; leave him to himself, and his remarks are wise and sensible so far as his small experience guides him. Mothers seldom talk down to their children; they are too intimate with the little people, and have, therefore, too much respect for them: but professional teachers, whether the writers of books or the givers of lessons, are too apt to present a single grain of pure knowledge in a whole gallon of talk, imposing upon the child the labour of discerning the grain and of extracting it from the worthless flood.
Dr Arnold’s Knowledge as a Child.—On the whole, the children who grow up amongst their elders and are not provided with what are called children’s books at all, fare the better on what they are able to glean for themselves from the literature of grown-up people. Thus it is told of Dr Arnold that when he
was three years old he received a present from his father of Smollett’s History of England as a reward for the accuracy with which he went through the stories connected with the portraits and pictures of the successive reigns—an amusement which probably laid the foundation of the great love for history which distinguished him in after life. When occupying the professorial chair at Oxford, he made quotations, we are told, from Dr Priestley’s Lectures on History,—verbally accurate quotations, we may believe, for such was the habit of his mind; besides, a child has little skill in recasting his matter—and that, though he had not had the book in his hands since he was a child of eight. No doubt he was an exceptional child; and all I maintain is, that had his reading been the sort of diluted twaddle which is commonly thrust upon children, it would have been impossible for him to cite passages a week, much less some two score years, after the reading.
Literature Proper for Children.—This sort of weak literature for the children, both in story and lesson books, is the result of a reactionary process. Not so long ago the current impression was that the children had little understanding, but prodigious memory for facts; dates, numbers, rules, catechisms of knowledge, much information in small parcels, was supposed to be the fitting material for a child’s education. We have changed all that, and put into the children’s hands lesson-books with pretty pictures and easy talk, almost as good as story-books; but we do not see that, after all, we are but giving the same little pills of knowledge in the form of a weak and copious diluent. Teachers, and even parents, who are careful enough about their children’s diet, are
so reckless as to the sort of mental aliment offered to them, that I am exceedingly anxious to secure consideration for this question, of the lessons and literature proper for the little people.
Four Tests which should be applied to Children’s Lessons.—We see, then, that the children’s lessons should provide material for their mental growth, should exercise the several powers of their minds, should furnish them with fruitful ideas, and should afford them knowledge, really valuable for its own sake, accurate, and interesting, of the kind that the child may recall as a man with profit and pleasure. Before applying these tests to the various subjects in which children are commonly instructed, may I remind you of two or three points which I have endeavoured to establish in the preceding pages:—
Résumé of Six Points already considered.—
(a) That the knowledge most valuable to the child is that which he gets with his own eyes and ears and fingers (under direction) in the open air.
(b) That the claims of the schoolroom should not be allowed to encroach on the child’s right to long hours daily for exercise and investigation.
(c) That the child should be taken daily, if possible, to scenes—moor or meadow, park, common, or shore—where he may find new things to examine, and so add to his store of real knowledge. That the child’s observation should be directed to flower or boulder, bird or tree; that, in fact, he should be employed in gathering the common information which is the basis of scientific knowledge.
(d) That play, vigorous healthful play, is, in its turn, fully as important as lessons, as regards both bodily health and brain-power.
(e) That the child, though under supervision, should be left much to himself—both that he may go to work in his own way on the ideas he receives, and also that he may be the more open to natural influences.
(f) That the happiness of the child is the condition of his progress; that his lessons should be joyous, and that occasions of friction in the schoolroom are greatly to be deprecated.
Premising so much, let us now consider—What the children should learn, and how they should be taught.