Saturday, February 16, 2013

How *not* to be "a mere crammer" in science/nature study

How contrary to popular educational methods would be the idea of leaving a child's question unanswered; worse yet, leaving them to form wrong opinions?

Well it seems that it was no less absurd 115 years ago based on a Parent's Review article titled Elementary Science-Teaching by one Mary Everest Boole. But it is, in fact, exactly what she claims is the necessary method to developing a scientific mind.
...in learning in science there are, there can be, no absolutely right impressions; our minds are not big enough to grasp any natural fact as a whole; everything depends on drawing right conclusions from combinations of impressions, each of which is in itself inadequate and partially misleading; and if the pupil is to be got into scientific methods, that is what he must be trained to do. And in order that he may learn to do it, it is sometimes necessary that each of a succession of "wrong" impressions should have time to register itself on the brain and become part of its available stock.
So then is she suggesting we shouldn't teach our children anything? Well, no.
The claim that children shall find out everything and be told nothing is palpably absurd. 

As a matter of fact, most science leaders read eagerly and omnivorously on their own subject, being anxious to get all the help they can from previous or contemporary investigators. no man can find out for himself all he needs to know. How could any individual find out by himself the earth's movement round the sun? What science does claim is, that no child shall be told anything about the motion of the earth, till he has observed many sunrises and sunsets, till a clear sense-impression of the earth standing still and the sun moving has become organic within him. This registering of a "wrong" impression is what in science we have to secure..."
It is a stage of development, or part of a process:
...the normal impression which the phenomena should naturally make on a mind at a certain stage of development and it is the teacher's business to ensure that her pupil's mind shall register that impression before being disturbed by the intrusion of one derived from more recondite investigations. 
She claims this principle:
...is so recognized in the circles where science is being evolved as to be held a matter of course not needing to be stated at all...
even further she states that the educational methods she observes in schools are:
...a cheap way of enabling children to make a show in science examinations, but that sort of thing has no tendency to induce the habit of true scientific method...

...so far as I can learn, all recognized school methods differ from the essential science-method rather as the little rose bush or cabbage differs from the oak; the cabbages and rose bushes may bring forth results admirable, charming, and vigorous, which will be good to eat, pleasant to the eye, and productive of prizes at shows; but they have no sort of tendency to grow into an oak...


She walks us through an example of how a teacher might use this method of leaving a child with the wrong impressions to cultivate a scientific mind.
Her subject is, we will say, the buttercup. First, she gets the children to look carefully at the plant as a whole; if possible to watch it growing. If they can have a specimen in their garden and watch the gradual unfolding of leaf and flower-buds, so much the better. If she can draw, she will teach them to register with the paint-brush their impressions of it at various stages. She will lead them to observe among other facts, that it differs from such flowers as the larkspur by having apparently no nectary.
When they have carefully noticed all she can get them to see of the living plant, she proceeds to a dissection of the flower. "What is this?" she says, pointing to the scale at the base of a petal. "A bit of petal turned up," says one child. "A stamen with the anther blocked off," says another. "I think it looks like a little petal, like the inside petals of a double amenone," says some specially observant little person. If the teacher is a mere crammer, she will immediately explain the function of the scale; but if she is a real science-teacher, she makes no comment, she only asks questions to draw out further observations. 

Some other day she will explain that the scale is believed to secrete some substance and, therefore, to partake of the nature of a nectary. But if she is wise she will not do this till the conception of an anomalous organ, as to which one could not be sure whether it is a petal or a stamen, has had time to stamp itself well in. Then, when the children learn that it is after all a sort of nectary, though it is not the shape of one, only that it is not called nectary because the substance it secretes is not honey, this will be a real introduction for them to the conception of metamorphism.
It will not enable them to answer questions at examination on Goethe's theory of metamorphism, still less on any later one; but it will prepare them to understand metamorphism as Goethe understood it, by leading them to see nature as Goethe saw it.
She then fills us in on what it might look like if one of us anxious mothers dropped in on this lesson:
Meantime, if the up-to-date mother or head-mistress has been present at the former part of the lesson, this is the kind of comment she will probably make;--"Miss Dash came to us with the character of a high-class science teacher; but I am disappointed in her; she is so dull and behindhand; she constantly lets mistakes pass. Only today I heard Bessie call the little scale of the buttercup a bit of petal, and Miss Dash seemed not to know any better; at any rate she said nothing. I am sure I read in the Botanists' Magazine nearly two years ago that the scale is considered to be a secreting gland. It is very provoking after all the pains I took to secure good teaching in that department."
Again, she has very wise words for us indeed:

...the misapprehension about the gland is not a blunder, it is the normal impression which the phenomena should naturally make on a mind at a certain stage of development and it is the teacher's business to ensure that her pupil's mind shall register that impression before being disturbed by the intrusion of one derived from more recondite investigations. If, indeed, the child were, from carelessness, to make what is for him, at his present stage, a blunder, she would immediately lead him by questions to see his error, but that is quite another matter. In arithmetic the most methodized of sciences we make the child correct his sum if he has made a careless mistake; but no good teacher interrupts a partial apprehension till the normal time has come. Natural science is so complex a growth that it is hardly possible to test, by any sort of examination, whether the elementary teacher is or is not carrying on his work aright; and it is therefore, in my opinion, a subject which should be left out of any scheme of examinations for elementary schools.
When I hear of parents taking their children to classroom style nature study where they are being lectured with all the facts before they have ever had a chance to see and consider things for themselves; to wonder about it and form their own initial opinions, I can't help but feel that a great disservice is being done in the way of developing scientific minds.

Here again we see Charlotte Mason's underlying principle of self-education. Although she is speaking here in terms of books, the practical truth remains the same:
...there is but one right way, that is, children must do the work for themselves. ... they must perform, that is, what we may call the act of knowing. 

...the labour of thought is what his book must induce in the child. He must generalise, classify, infer, judge, visualise, discriminate, labour in one way or another, with that capable mind of his, until the substance of his book is assimilated or rejected, according as he shall determine; for the determination rests with him and not with his teacher.


  1. I think we also have a huge responsibility as teachers though, to know what that little gland does do so that we can pass that knowledge onto our children when the time is right. We do not want to be dull and behindhand and constantly let mistakes pass.

    This is where adult texts like HON and BFSU come in - to teach the mother what to teach the child...once the child has registered the impression for himself. Thoughts?

    1. I agree completely Jeanne. I don't think her point is never to teach these things, she says in the article that the idea that "children shall find out everything and be told nothing is palpably absurd." She is merely pointing out the necessity of the process and stages of observation/conclusions in developing the scientific mind - and that children forming these impressions of their own are significant to that process.

    2. I am finding that one way to ensure children have the opportunity to "observe, consider, inquire, revisit, reconsider, correct, seek understanding, etc." is to be outdoors on a regular basis in the same area. Doors to investigation and eventually understanding begin to open when we first get to know a place through an ongoing relationship. When we begin to see changes in that place, differences are seen and questions are asked.