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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."
Psychological Order of Teaching With Special Reference to Natural Science

by Dorothea Beale,
Principal of Cheltenham Ladies' College
Volume 9, 1897/8, pgs. 137-

As Rosencranz expresses it, there may be distinguished three epochs in the mental life of the child:--

I. The intuitive--I use the word with the German meaning of sense-perception.

II. The imaginative, during which the developing mind is more accustomed to dwell on mental images, is less passive to impressions, more active in calling them up, in fashioning them anew.

III. The logical epoch, during which the impulse is to harmonise the world without and the world within, to fit all things into a scheme of space and time, of order and law.

The near objects which the children can touch and taste and see objectively, these are the first things which call forth the attention, that self-activity by which the mind fastens on its prey, and converts percepts into concepts; as the jelly fish catches the floating prey in its tentacles and absorbs it into its substance, so the child stores up experiences and memories which enrich all future percepts. We may ask what is the thought--material in which the developing mind may best work successively--or if we take the same material, in what varying way shall we deal with it. What subject of systematic study can be better suited to the young child than that which calls out its sense of wonder and beauty, and which in harmony with its own restless nature is ever changing; in which is found endless variety with underlying order?

Surely the world of flowers is specially suited for teaching the little ones. How the colours and forms delight them--has not the first sight of a flower remained with many of us through life, "a joy for ever." It is for us to teach how to observe, so that the memories shall be not mere vague impressions, but clear-cut, accurate, lasting: all the senses must combine to give unity and completeness to the sense --concept, so that the child may feel the beauty, enter into loving sympathy with Nature, and perfect that "inward eye, which is the bliss of solitude." Children should be led to form collections, by which the first observations may be repeated and fulfilled; they should also learn to draw, so that not merely the individual, but the essential, the typical, may be brought into clearness; we should, too, encourage in them the desire to co-operate with Nature in making the earth beautiful, and call out the affections towards the Unseen Giver of all good things.

These are a few of the reasons why botany in its simplest forms is fit nourishment for the child. The hard names, the intricate divisions into classes and orders, the physiology of growing plants can be touched on only lightly; but the power of observation can be greatly developed, and the main facts of classificatory botany can be taught, and teaching full of interest given as regards structure, growth, seed distribution, the relation to the insect world. Mrs. Bell's Science Ladders form a good introduction. When we have exhausted our material, so far as the child is capable of understanding, it is better to turn to some fresh subject; we may later, when the mind is ripe for these things, take the subject up again. Children whose eyes have been opened, will be able to go into the country and note down the things they have observed. Diaries I have seen quite beautifully kept by village children taught at the House of Education at Ambleside. The children knew the different buds as they came out on the trees, and watched the delicate and deepening tints, saw the leaf-buds develop into leaves, and the opening of the flowers.

Elementary botany should, I think, be followed by a year of zoology, treated in a simple way; the teacher should dwell, not upon the internal structure, but on what presents itself to the eye, beginning with living creatures that the children are familiar with, or can get to know--domestic animals, "beasties" from garden and pond, caterpillars and birds, tadpoles and dragon-flies--they should have their menageries, and watch the creatures' habits.

Thus too the sense of responsibility may be fostered towards those who depend upon the child, and are in his power. The animal world is specially calculated to develop the affections rightly. The character of grown people is too complex, too far above his understanding, and as long as he is dependent, he should not be exercised in observing and chronicling the doings of persons. It is good for the child to have objects on which he can exercise his powers of criticism and observation. Especially suited to women is the work of observing insect life, and there are worlds for us to discover, if we, as we walk round our garden, have eyes to see.

These two sciences bring the child into contact with things on the earth; he might next lift up his eyes to the heavens. It delights the child to learn the names of the constellations, and trace their forms, to notice the movements of the planets, the changing aspect of the sky as the years go round. The sense of the greatness of the universe gradually dawns on him, and the awe and reverence for the power and wisdom which is revealed in the heavens, prepares the way for those deeper teachings which belong to religion. Especially stimulating is astronomy to the developing reflective powers, from the number and variety of problems is suggest; and yet it is not altogether baffling, for the child can be led on to draw conclusions respecting the movements and distances of the heavenly bodies; very early he can be shown how to solve such questions by simple processes, and thus the mathematical passion awakened; surely most of us can remember the first time that our soul really ascended into the seventh heaven. I have heard a mathematician describe what it was to him--how at fourteen he fled from the school into the fields to be alone.

And what next? There is something near to the child, which he can touch, which lies at his feet, a magic book with mysterious characters, in which he reads of infinite time; let him open the pages of the great rock-book, and gather the relics of the past. Geology will help him to observe in a new way astronomy and geology (I use it in the sense of earth-history) are more suited than the two first to the beginning of the reflective period, because there is nothing to be done to alter the objects of the two last sciences-- whereas we can do much, and observe the effect of our doings on plants and animals.

Physiography, including geology and all that has to do with the phenomena of Nature, included under the head of physical geography, would claim a two years' course, and unify the subjects already touched on: he will learn many facts of physical science.

And now the girl, say about fifteen, with an increasing power of abstraction and reflection, and a greater knowledge of mathematics, will be ready to receive more formal and definite instruction regarding what we call matter and force--elementary physics; the subjects of light and heat, electricity or chemistry might be selected.

Now the girl is becoming the woman--the reflective powers are gaining the ascendant--she is longing to interpret more than to gain ever more knowledge, she understands something of physics and chemistry; let her return now to her first study, and carry it still further, see the mysteries of life revealed in the flower, take physiological botany, see the chemical changes produced by the physical processes, watch the plants as they grow, and trace the relation of flower and insect, plant and animal--recognise that all-embracing intelligence working in all, which has harmonised not only the outward things, but into intelligence of every living creature, and made each able more or less to know the laws of their life and to obey them. The developing and deepening religious instinct will find utterances from heaven in these earthly things, hear the voice of God among the trees of the garden. Later still, we can pass into the inner temple, treat of physiology, show how marvellous is the living tabernacle of the soul, how fitted for our temporary abode.

It is objected by some that physiology should not be studied because it involves the whole circle of sciences, whilst others regard it as the most necessary and fundamental branch of instruction. Experienced teachers know that much of great educative and practical value can be given on the lines of Mrs. Bray's Laws of Health, and brought home to comparatively uneducated people by the tracts of the Ladies' Health Society, and we all know how important it is for those who are growing into womanhood, that the subject should be treated with the wisdom and judgment and reverence which it demands.

On the later stages of the teaching of natural science I do not propose to dwell. Those who take up science as a specialty will have to limit the field, and others will be guided by circumstance, but whatever special line they may follow later, such a course of study must surely have nourished the powers of the mind, developed the sympathies, disciplined the character, enlarged the horizon beyond the petty concerns which occupy the whole attention of the uneducated of all sorts and conditions. The woman who has really thought about these things will, when she travels, see things with different eyes, she will understand enough to profit by the companionship of able and thoughtful men and later perhaps to share it may be a man's work, as Miss Herschell, and Mrs. Huggins, and Mrs. Proctor, and Mrs. Marsahll, and Mrs. Sidgwick and many more--to be the friend of her brothers and the first teacher of her sons--and she will surely have learned the first lesson of wisdom, the humility which knows that all we know is to know that our knowledge is as nothing in the presence of the Infinite, that if any man think that he knows, he knows nothing as he ought to know it.

I have worked out the order in detail in respect to science; it will be enough to touch very briefly on the parallel teachings in other subjects. Take e.g., language. The child is ever-observing and imitating; restless activity characterises the child.

The teacher has to perfect the observing powers by insisting on right pronunciation, as I have shown in another chapter first in English, then in another language; empirical knowledge is by degrees classified.

Next will follow, not grammatical definitions and rules to be learned, but discovery of classification, just as in the case of botany, through observation--the discovery of rules inductively; then, when the need is felt for a shortening of the process, the collections made by grammarians may be produced, as the book of dried specimens, say of ferns, which the child had not time and opportunity to collect for herself. afterwards will come reading and reflection upon the relationship of words, corresponding with the systems of scientific classification of flowers. It is the giving grammatical abstractions to children who are at the stage of observation merely, which creates the distaste for school learning; it is the giving dead languages at a time when children are at the active, intuitive age, and have not the powers of thought necessary to disentangle the classical authors, that makes so much of our teaching a failure.

So with history. First the simple tales, e.g., Jack and the Giant--not complications of character there--good and bad, black and white--stories of fairies and hobgoblins, beings so unlike ourselves, that we are not troubled too much with moral scruples; they are like dream people. The old world heroes, in which the moral emerges--not the priggish boys and girls, to cramp the character, but boys and girls, writ large. The passing from the individual to the general, the specimen to the species, we have family life enlarged to the state under a kingly constitution, as in ancient patriarchal times, the first teachings of which are best gathered from the Old Testament. As in the nature teachings, we shall lead children to feel underlying all the sense as of an unseen presence, a King of Kings ruling the course of this world, leading and guiding the mind of man to work with Him as in the nature realm. And lastly in the highest teachings, which have to do, not with the objective surroundings, but with the man himself, with his thoughts and aspirations, with the expression of these in literature, in art, in ethics, and politics, and philosophy, the student will find enough when he has reached to the later period of study to develop the highest powers of thought, as he wrestles with the problems of life.

And the same order is observed in religion. The objective first--the Divine acts seen in Nature, in the acts of the good, in the punishment of evil, at first the thought of God is more objective, since it must be so in the early life of the child under parental government. Later more subjective, through conscience. Sin is at first regarded chiefly as an act against a living person, later it is felt to be the degradation of our nature, or that of others, by the taking in a poison as it were; the frustration of the true ends of our being, the exclusion from the light and life and joy of the Divine presence, which is the soul's sunlight, into outer darkness; the conceptions formed will be different, the underlying truths one, the thoughts will pass from the physical to the psychical, and later to the highest conceivable by us--the anthropomorphic, stripped of the transitory and the finite, but embracing all those eternal things by which we know that we are more than creatures of time, since we gladly throw from us all that would then be our earthly good, for the things which eye sees not, and ear hears not, but which can come to us by revelation only of the spiritual; things which all men, in all ages, have felt to be the best, whatever their actions may have been--truth, love, righteousness, justice, the eternal things.