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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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Mental Development in Children

by L. R. Hockley
Principal, Public School, Cradock, S. Africa.
Volume 12, 1901, pgs. 127-132


Paper read at the Cradock (S. Africa) branch of the P.N.E.U.

The subject allotted to me by the committee of this union is so wide, that I find it impossible to do more than touch, in a very superficial manner, on two or three points. The consideration of the mechanism of the mind alone might well occupy our thoughts for the afternoon: the structure of the brain, the functions and nature of the numerous nerve centres, and of that complicated nervous system which sends its filaments to every part of the human body.

Passing over this part of the subject, we are confronted by the question--What is mind? And here, again, to discuss the matter fully, would presuppose both the power and the wish to spend many hours in so doing. Let me place before you briefly, two of the many theories of mind.

(1.) The Germ theory--that which regards the mind as a germ which will gradually unfold as the plant does from the seed, and which, like the plant-germ, has the power of assimilating from its environment that which will aid in its growth.

(2.) The Architectural theory--the theory which regards the mind as the result of a process of building-up, a product more of external than internal forces.

Though these theories may appear to be mutually exclusive, the one is, in reality, the complement of the other. Experience has taught us that there are certain powers which can never be implanted in mind by external forces; there must be inherent capacity. But experience has also taught us that these inherent capacities would remain to a great extent undeveloped, were no influences from without brought to bear upon them, and the mind would be largely a blank. The children's story of the hairy man, who, after long exile in a forest, had lost the power of articulate speech, and almost every other trace of humanity, is no departure from the truth.

Pestalozzi originated the architectural theory, and applied it to the problem of elementary education; and, from his great and inspired work, the Kindergarten system has been gradually evolved.

But Pestalozzi was hampered by his ignorance of psychology and of the laws of logic, and by his want of scientific training; and it is to his great contemporary, Herbart, philosopher, psychologist, and teacher, that we owe the systematic expansion of the idea, and the true conception of its application to the whole sphere of education.

Here, in brief, is Herbart's conception of mind. "Mind has one original power--that of entering into relations with the external world. This power, varying in degree and form, constitutes individuality, i.e., the aptitudes (germs) of genius, inclinations, dispositions, possessed by each human being, partly inherited, partly arising from that tendency to variation, which is the law of the psychical, as well as the physical world. But the elements of mental life are presentations, i.e., ideas presented to the mind, will continuously help to guide and determine its aftergrowth."

This theory of mind--the architectural theory--invests the office of the educator, be he parent or teacher, with an importance and responsibility not to be lightly regarded.

"If the mind," writes Herbart, "be built up of the presentations, and develops one way or the other under external influence and guidance," what it receives in the form of presentations becomes a matter of great moment. And here we are brought to a consideration of the value of earliest mental training. It is, unfortunately, a somewhat common fallacy that early impressions made upon the mind are not lasting; and it is because of this mistaken notion that little children are so often allowed to see and hear that which is unsuitable to them. To the same cause I assign the negligence sometimes displayed as to books which children are allowed to read. "She does not understand it, therefore it will not hurt her," I have heard it said; but I have known of instances where indiscriminate reading on the part of the child has produced disastrous effects in the girl.

Carpenter, in his Principles of Mental Physiology, treats very powerfully of the effect of association upon mental habit, and draws attention to the "enormous practical importance of directing the preconscious activity through the physical nature," especially in the very earliest stages of infant life, when "the foundation is laid for the intellectual and moral habits of the conscious life."

I am indebted to a Kindergarten magazine for the following notes on mental development, based upon observations made on a little child from birth to the age of one year. The newly-born child has practically no mind, nor the power to use any of the senses; but during the first month of its life the senses of taste and smell, sight and hearing, begin to develop. In the second month, the child is more sensitive to sound; the eyes lose their vacant look, and observation is born. When the sixth month is reached, pleasurable emotions and grief are exhibited. In the eighth month, the first expression of displeasure observed; in the ninth month, the power of imitation. When ten months old, the child showed memory, extending over three weeks; and, at the age of eleven months, she first spoke intelligent words. In the twelfth month she learned obedience, imagination, discrimination, reason, judgment, memory, all showed signs of activity. In broad outline, this is, I suppose, the general order of the unfolding of the baby mind, and the same order of development is observed during the first years of childhood and youth.

It is the sacred duty and privilege of those who have the charge of young children, to meet the needs of the growing intelligence with a wise and discriminating care, removing, as far as possible, every external influence which would tend to thwart its natural development, and supplying the presentations needful to build up the mind, and to construct therein the circle of thought which will later crystallize into worthy word and action.

A study of the works of Pestalozzi and Froebel convinces one of the very great value which these pioneers in educational reform placed upon the work of the mother, in regard to early mental development. This is but one of many passages bearing on this point:--"The mother is qualified, and qualified by the Creator Himself, to become the principal agent in the development of her child . . . and what is demanded of her is a thinking love. God has given to thy child all the faculties of our nature, but the grand point remains undecided--how shall this heart, this head, these hands, be employed? to whose service shall they be dedicated? . . . These powers are already bestowed on him, but to thee it is given to assist in calling them forth. Maternal love is the first agent in education."

Comenius, the educational reformer of the seventeenth century, divides the school life of a young person into four periods: the first, from infancy to the age of six years, to be spent in the "mother's lap"--the mother-school. His list of twenty different school subjects to which the child is to be introduced in the mother-school is somewhat appalling, including as it does metaphysics, optics, astronomy, etc., until we see that he has only classified, and put into its true light, much which we are inclined to pass over as unimportant. The "Mother-school" of Comenius approached very nearly to the Kindergarten of Froebel.

The education of to-day is in a distinctly better position as regards mind culture than during the first quarter of this century. Then, the science of psychology was in its infancy; now we possess a natural history of the human mind, incomplete indeed, yet capable of throwing much light on mental phenomena; and he who wills may learn.

The revolution which has taken place in educational methods during the last thirty or forty years, is due, in part, to wider knowledge of the laws which govern mental development; in part, to the practical efforts of men like Froebel and Herbart, and, more recently, Mr. Sonnenschein and Edward Thring. Much remains to be done, and, of this, none are more conscious than those who are occupied with the practice, rather than the theory, of teaching; but everywhere in the world of education there are signs of life and progress; and better systems and methods of teaching are slowly being evolved, like "the bird of wonder, the maiden Phoenix," from the ashes of the past.

Psychology does not inquire into the nature of mind, but into the states and operations, and the laws which govern them.

The psychologist recognizes three primary functions, or operations, of the mind:--

(1.) Intellectual operations, such as perception, memory, judgment, reason.
(2.) Feeling, including all pleasurable and painful conditions of the mind.
(3.) Willing, that is, all conscious doing, together with active resolution, or effort to do.

Though these three functions are clearly marked out, and even opposed to one another in some sense, it is not to be supposed that they are independent of one another--the mind is an organic unity, and its operations are closely connected. Just as in the physical organism we find the two operations of circulation and respiration distinct, yet dependent one upon the other, so in the psychical sphere are the various mind-operations united.

Reference has already been made to the natural order of development of the intellectual faculties: First, the period of which the chief characteristic is the outer sense-life; the second period shows greater depth of perception, stronger memory, imagination; later come the power of abstract thought, reason, judgment. Intellectual culture is the aim and object of the educator, and one of the first conditions of success is that he should observe this natural order of development. Education implies the exercise of each faculty, with the purpose of strengthening it and advancing its growth.

In prescribing a progressive course of study, due regard must be paid to the order of development of faculty. Hence we find that in the lowest forms of a school the senses, chiefly, are appealed to: lessons are given in form and colour, sound and motion, to train eye and hand, ear and muscle. Stage by stage, the nature of the instruction varies, to suit the growing capacities of the child, until, in the higher forms, the subjects chiefly taught are those which exercise the judgment, the reasoning powers and the critical faculty.

And not only must there be this gradual change in the nature of that which is taught, but also in the methods of teaching. That which is suitable to the little child is unsuitable to the child of larger growth, and it must be one of the aims of the teacher to develop in the latter a self-reliance and independence of thought not to be looked for in the former. Hence the methods employed must be such as to develop thought, concentration, the power to apply principles to the solution of new problems, etc.

One point which the psychologist impresses on us is the folly of attempting to exercise one set of faculties for too long a time together: this produces brain-weariness and often ends in abortive efforts. It should be the teacher's care to limit the time given to the exercise of any one set of faculties, according to the age and capacity of the child. Very little children can with difficulty be led to give full attention to one subject for more than twenty minutes; the most advanced pupils should not be expected to concentrate effort in one direction for more than an hour at a time. This does not apply to subjects which are chiefly manual, such as drawing or sewing.

Different branches of study stimulate different faculties, and, consequently, work should be so arranged that the alternation of subjects which demand great mental effort, with those which are chiefly mechanical, will in itself provide the necessary brain-rest.

The educational value of various subjects is an interesting question, but one too lengthy for discussion here. In passing, we may notice a somewhat popular theory that the value of a subject is in proportion to its practical utility. One sometimes hears the complaint that when a boy leaves school he is not ready to take up some given occupation without further training.

But the object of education is not to produce an accomplished shorthand writer or salesman, but to produce culture--that is, to bring about the complete development of the individual, the harmonious evolution of the physical and intellectual powers, of the moral and emotional natures. To secure such development, prominence must be given, amongst other things, to those studies which furnish the greatest amount of mental discipline, and provide for the best and most rational exercises of the faculties.

I fear that I have exhausted your patience, yet I am but on the outskirts of my subject, having touched upon one or two only of the laws of intellectual development. The other two functions of mind--feeling and willing--are too important to be hastily dealt with at the conclusion of an already lengthy paper; I should prefer to leave them wholly unnoticed.


Proofread May 2011, LNL