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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
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Lessons Before School

by R. Somervell, M.A., Assistant-Master and Bursar of Harrow School
Volume 7, 1896, pgs. 105-113


*Portions of an address delivered to a branch of the Parents' National Education Union, by R. Somervell, M.A., Assistant-Master and Bursar of Harrow School. May be had in pamphlet form from J.C. Wilbee, Harrow. Price 6d. Reprinted also in The Journal of Education.

My claim to address you is of a purely practical character. As a matter of fact, I had at one time the charge of boys who came at eight to ten years of age, for the most part from home-teaching, to the preparatory department of Liverpool College. I had there an opportunity of observing the results of home-teaching on a considerable scale, and of forming an opinion as to the way in which children should be prepared for school.

I will begin by explaining the stage of education that I propose to talk about. The title expresses one limit; it is "Lessons before School," say, roughly, up to ten years old; or, since all limits of age are misleading, owing to the great difference in children's intellects, let me say, up to the stage when a little boy is ready for his preparatory school, when he has sufficiently formed habits of attention and industry to be fit to be taught with a number of other boys, rather than alone with two or three. This is the superior limit of my subject.

I am going to pass in review the familiar elements of an ordinary English education, and try to point out how they may be taught so as to form a solid foundation for the after-work of school.

"A solid foundation"--it is a good, familiar, commonplace phrase, and I remark at the outset that it expresses by an admirable metaphor the object we ought to have in view--to produce something upon which the superstructure of education may be fitly and firmly reared. And this something--this substructure or foundation--what is it? Is it to lay out on the young mind a little smattering outline of all subjects it will afterwards learn?--so that you may say with pride, when your little Tommy or Polly goes to school, "Oh, yes, he has been very well got on in his lessons; he has done Interest, and been through the Latin grammar, and so forth"; Or is it this?--to train the little mind in accuracy, and thoroughness, and attention, so that you can say, "I am afraid you will think him rather backward for his age, compared with other boys, but you will find him quite able to learn, and when he once understands a thing you will not have to tell him again."

Two neighbours once set to work to build on a sloping clay hillside. The one just turned the sod and began at once building low lines of wall in all directions, and soon called in his friends to see what a fine plan of a house he had laid down. But a wise man told him he had only laid the first courses of a ruin, and bade him look at what his neighbour had done. The neighbour, indeed, had little to show above ground, but he had driven shafts deep down in the clay and filled them with concrete; his site was now firm and rigid and he might build as high as he pleased with security.

The analogy presented by my little fable must not, of course, be pressed in detail. I use it merely to emphasize the statement that whatever knowledge of permanent usefulness may be acquired during the early years of education, the main object of lessons before school is the development of certain habits of mind, and a certain intellectual capacity. To put it more definitely, I would say that we have to train a child's memory, understanding, observation, and imagination.

By memory I mean that given a partifular fact is consciousness, it shall recall another--as, when we say "Battle of Hastings," and evoke the date 1066 A.D., the hill, the feigned flight of the Normans, the charge of the English from behind their paling, the struggle on the crest of the hill, the flight of arrows, and the death of Harold. Here the various details follow one another by an act of memory, We have heard them all before, heard them in a particular order and connection, and the recurrence of each one in consciousness tends to evoke the next.

By the understanding I mean the power of reasoning--the logical faculty. It was at one time a very favourite amusement of one of my own little boys to arrange my pipes in a kind of order of merit, which he used to elicit from me by examination and cross-examination. One day, after telling him a particular pipe was a bad one, I explained that it was made from a hard piece of wood. Next day he brought another pipe, which he knew was a bad one, and asked if it also was made from a hard piece of wood. And on learning subsequently that both pipes came from the same maker, he asked: "Does he only make bad pipes?" Of course neither inference was logically sound. A pipe made of hard wood being a bad pipe, it does not follow that every bad pipe is made of hard wood; nor does it follow, because a particular pipemaker sells two bad pipes, that he makes no good ones. But the examples serve to show the presence of a logical faculty in the child, and the training of that faculty is one object of lessons.

The power of observation is closely connected with, and is, indeed, the preliminary to understanding. The training of this power is one of the advantages claimed by those who, like Herbert Spencer, would make natural science the basis of all education. But it is not necessary to postpone the training of the power of observation until education has been revolutionized. Children may be taught to observe and compare leaves, flowers, and pebbles, chimney-pots, windowframes, and pocket handkerchiefs, tablecloths, gas-burners, and tallow candles, until they are prepared to appreciate the beauties of landscape, architecture, and painting. Take a child's picture and say: "I see a blue sky." Child: "And I see a green tree." Parent: "And I see a pond." Child: "And I see a duck in the pond." And so on, until you have exhausted the picture. A child who can write should catalogue the contents of a room or a picture, or do the same from memory. Children, like grown-up people, need to be taught to see. The artist's enjoyment of the world is greater than that of the ordinary man, in the main, because he sees so much more in it.

Lastly, by imagination I mean the power of combining elements of thought, which exist apart in consciousness, and are connected neither by memory nor understanding. To return to my first illustration: if a child, after hearing the story of Harold's death at the battle of Senlac, should ask: "Was everybody very sorry for him?" or "Did it hurt very much when the arrow went into his eye?" or "Did he go to heaven?"-- these would be efforts of imagination, because the child thereby brings ideas of sorrow, pain, and a life after death, received in quite other connections, into relation with the story of Harold's death.

There is, of course, a danger inseparable from this way of talking about memory, understanding, imagination, and so forth--the danger of confounding our analysis of the mental powers with the human mind itself. The mind is not a bundle of faculties acting independently, but an organic unity. These so-called faculties, and, indeed, the human mind itself, are only convenient abstractions, functions, or specifications of a whole mysterious personality. And this distinction between looking at the mind as a unity and looking at it as a bundle of faculties is not merely of speculative interest, though I can only hint at the ways in which it might be followed out. First, it explains to us the impossibility of training one faculty, as we call it, alone, without influencing the rest; not, observe, "without developing" the rest. Let me expand this a little. We teach a child a poem or hymn. We want to accustom him to remember, to exercise his memory. But understanding, observation, and imagination are present at the lesson. You cannot put them to sleep while you exercise the memory. They are there, and will get either good or harm from the lesson. If you see that the sense is made clear, that the hard words and the connection of thought are made plain, you will train the understanding. If you help them to realize the scene, and to fill up the gaps in description, you train the imagination. I will go further, and say, if line by line he counts the syllables, and notices the capitals and stops, you train his observation. And, now, suppose you do none of these things, and, thinking to deal only with memory, content yourself with exacting merely a verbal repetition of lines that are never thought about or understood--what happens? Not simply that observation, imagination, and understanding are not trained, are lying fallow. Oh no, you have been injuring them. You have been accustoming them to lie idle and uninterested, when you should have shown them how to be up and doing. You have been training your child to be stupid and unintelligent.

Four children were once in a class together, but for a whole hour their teacher addressed only one of them, asking him all questions, encouraged him only to make an effort. The others were allowed to be listless and inattentive, to loll and wriggle and grow weary. "Why," said an observant stranger, "do you not send the others out to play while you are teaching the one?" "Alas," said the teacher, "you do not understand; they are only in appearance four children; in reality the are one, and I am training its memory."

In the second place, to remember that we are not dealing with a bundle of individual faculties, helps us to realize the all-important fact, that in the training and developing, educating, and so forth, that we talk of, we are not dealing simply with faculties, or with a something called a mind, but with a child, with a unity that transcends all the differences that our superficial analysis discovers, with a human character, with a human spirit. If this is a though almost depressing in its seriousness, it is a thought to elevate us too, to call out our highest endeavours in the humblest task, to consecrate and ennoble our lowliest duties. With this needful caution, I may remark, without being misunderstood, that I shall direct your attention chiefly to the training of the memory and understanding, and that I shall not greatly trouble myself to point out, in regard to any subject, whether it is to be regarded as chiefly useful for the one or the other.

One of the most obvious facts about children is that, while their memories are usually strong, their powers of reasoning and abstraction are weak. Hence has arisen a theory of education, according to which we should use the years while memory is strong to store the mind with materials for use when the power of acquisition grows relatively weaker, and the understanding, on the contrary, more vigorous. This was the basis of the old system, under which boys committed the whole of the Latin grammar to the heart years before they had occasion to use most of it, while many thousands, of course, left school without ever having applied in translation and composition more than a small fraction of the knowledge they had upon their tongues. This neglect of the understanding is a mistake from which modern education is much freer, though not altogether free. In some cases the reaction has gone to far, and children do not learn enough by heart.

 It is very common, for instance, for boys to enter a public school who do not know the familiar tables of weights and measures, and even the multiplication table must often be neglected. But in Latin especially the old idea is dominant. I have often examined, for entrance, little boys who knew their five declensions, adjectives, and regular verbs very well. Then I asked: "What does amat mean?" Answer: "He loves." Question: "What is Latin for `he is loving'?" No answer.

We must keep these two points clearly in view: (1) Store the memory, while acquisition is easy, with what will be always useful, and remember the need of constant revision and repetition of what you fancy a child knows. There is only one thing more remarkable than a child's power of learning by heart, and that is its power of absolutely forgetting what it has learnt. (2) Train the understanding. Let nothing be learnt by heart that cannot be used and applied, on however small a scale.

I suppose I can hardly escape the necessity of saying something about learning to read. How shall it be done? Shall we teach the letters, and build the words upon spelling letter by letter--"spell and say, " in the old way? Or shall we pass by the letters and learn words only--according to the more modern plan called "look and say." It must seem impertinent to dismiss the subject without discussion, but I will simply say that I am for neither method in its entirety. I am for teaching the letters, and for teaching them by degrees and in play. I admit the incongruity of English spelling, and the difficulty created by the fact that `a' has four different sounds, in bark, back, bake, and ball and so on ad infinitum. But there is not the same difficulty about the consonants; and the names of the consonants are in more cases an unfailing key to their sounds. You close the lips to say "B" and you close them in precisely the same way to pronounce every word that begins with B. So that I think it is a good plan: (1) To teach the letters by name; (2) to teach little words of two letters like an, at, it, &c., and to prefix all the possible consonants, lan, can, dan, &c. and let them be read over and over again, backwards, and forwards, and in every possible order; (3) to deal with new words on the following principle. If the right pronunciation can be arrived at by building upon already existing knowledge, to let the child work it out in detail, but if not, not. For example, on first meeting the word "stand", cover all but the "an" when this has been said, show the "and," then "tand," and finally "stand." But words like "you," "use," "ought," should be told the child straight out.

A model reading lesson should consist of three parts: (1) A piece of reading much easier than the standard the pupil has reached, something he can do with ease and pleasure, so as to teach him to read with sense and feeling; (2) a re-reading or revision of the harder lesson of the previous day; (3) a new reading lesson. The three parts need not always be taken the same day. If they are, they should not be taken consecutively. The new lesson, as the hardest, should certainly come early, when the brain is fresh and vigorous.

Connected with the reading lesson, as soon as the mere elementary stage is past, is another lesson of which I shall speak later on. Here I may remark that the practice of reading aloud is dropped much too soon. It should be continued till Shakespeare, Burke, Thackeray, and Calverley can be read at sight.

Closely connected with reading is the learning of poetry by heart, the value of which is not generally recognized. Here the teacher who knows how to utilize opportunities will find means of kindling the imagination, as well as storing the memory, and exercising the understanding. But upon this topic I must not dwell.

Of all the subjects of early education, I think none is, on the whole, so much abused as arithmetic. I saw it when I taught boys from nine to twelve years old, as a result of hiome-teaching. I see it now at Harrow, as the result of the teaching in some preparatory schools. In both cases the evil arises from the same cause, the desire to show something DONE, rather than to see something UNDERSTOOD. I will explain. I remember one term taking the lower arithmetic division, composed of boys from thirteen to fifteen years of age, of course dullish boys. I gave out the titles of the various chapters in the Arithmetic, vulgar fractions, decimals, problems, interest, and so forth, and asked those who had done these subject to hold up their hands. I found that they had all done vulgar and decimal fractions, problems, proportion, interest simple and compound, most of them stocks and shares. I then wrote on the blackboard (fraction was not legible) and asked them to write down the biggest fraction. Half of them wrote down (fraction was not legible) and only about a third the right answer.

My advice to those who have to teach arithmetic to young children is very simple. Get Sonnenschein and Nesbitt's "A B C of Arithmetic" and work patiently through it. Never mind how slow your progress seems. It will be REAL progress, and not the more rapid but circular movement that brings you back continually to the point you started from. Never mind if your next-door neighbour's little girls is doing multiplication, while your own is spending half-an-hour over studying the single number "60" and all that it means.

Perhaps I may be allowed to add three pieces of general advice: (1) Be sure you understand yourself what you are teaching, and can give it straight from your own brain, only using the book to guide and refresh your memory.

(2) Give plenty of concrete examples, and especially when the little brain is puzzled. Many a child who is dazed by the abstract question, "How much is 3 and 2" will answer at once if you say: "There were three eggs in a pan and the cook put in two more; then how many were there in the pan?"

So in vulgar fractions. Show a child 2/7 x 2 and the chances are even that he will not answer (fraction was not legible) and not 1/7. But put on board or paper

2 dogs x 2 = 4 dogs;
2 /sevenths x 2 = 4 --sevenths;
2/sevenths x 2 = 4/sevenths;
2/7 x 2 = 4/7;

and you will get the right answer and help to fix the nature of a denominator in the child's mind, as a name and not as a quantity. Fractions, indeed, hardly come within our view here, but I may remark that most problems in fractions can be solved by considering fractions of an invisible cake or a visible sheet of paper. A child who can give you 2/3 of ¾ of a sheet of paper, knows something about fractions that he will never forget. The "Concrete Arithmetic" (Arnold & Co., London) contains a useful collection of examples.

(3) Never set sums involving the use of large numbers. If you make use of the cubes, bars, and plates that are recommended in "Sonnenschein and Nesbitt," a child will, after some time, understand what numbers of three or even of four figures means, and beyone this point it will not be well to go for a long time. Use arithmetic in the first place with a view to the understanding. It contains, of course, a large element for the memory, and in due time you must insist on the multiplication table, backwards and forwards, odd numbers and even, in endless variety and succession; but never let the work become mechanical. Do not want to get on with the subject, but to get into it.

(to be continued).