The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
The Object Lesson.

(Taken from "Le Manuel des Maitres," by Mdme. Pape-Carpantier, by Mrs. J. Porter-Porter, with the kind permission of Mdlle. Pape-Carpantier.)
Volume 1, 1890, pg. 855

The object lesson is not, as some people think, a special branch of instruction. It is simply a flexible method of teaching, capable of indefinite extension, but having certain rules and principles which it is necessary to know in order to adapt it to the entire range of children's knowledge.

Every mother, in answer to the pressing questions of her child, gives into his hands the object of his curiosity, and tells him all she can about it. This way of teaching, so familiar to all of us, is neither more nor less than an "Object Lesson." We know with what extreme attention and eager curiosity the child listens and asks; such teaching, meeting his natural craving for knowledge, attracts him indescribably. His mother is following the lead of his nature, and in the naturalness and simplicity of this sort of teaching we recognise its value. To speak of "Object Lessons" is only to give a name to a way of teaching which must needs have been followed by every parent since children were born into the world.

With a little child, the object lesson is very elementary, a simple dialogue such as mothers know well how to carry on; but its use does not end with the little child; it is capable of indefinite extension and development, and it has been well remarked that the tendency of our day is to revert more and more to the object lessons of the child, even in the most advanced and even abstract studies.

Look into the model workshop. There we should see the master, expert in his craft, guiding the first attempts of the apprentice, putting tools into his hands, demonstrating their use. What is the master doing? He is giving an object lesson.

Or, look at the professor, in the presence of a serious audience who hang on his words, developing the profound secrets of the physical sciences. Surrounded by his crucibles, his implements, he calls up the evidence of experience and executes under his disciples' eyes the delicate and brilliant experiments which delight them. This savant is giving an object lesson.

The method is not new, and no one can flatter himself that he has invented it. Nor need we give more examples to show that the object lesson is suitable to all ages, to all degrees of teaching; that it can take any tone, follow the most various forms, adapt itself to all circumstances, apply itself to all subjects.

In the education of early childhood, the object lesson is the only reasonable kind of teaching. Even before our little pupils know how to read, we must teach them to use their senses about them; we must habituate them, little by little, to account for the objects which surround them, and to make fit use of words. We thus help the child by degrees out of his instinctive life, throw light gently on his awakening faculties, and guide the first exercise of his intelligence.

The child observes, calculates, and judges before any lesson is given him, but it is necessary to disentangle the thread of vague and fugitive notions he has concerning all that surrounds him. On this simple and familiar teaching will depend much of the success of his future education. This is not all. The circle of subjects taught, though small, must be complete. Certain deficiencies and obscure places are revealed to the eye of the observer in the narrow field of ideas that even the most intelligent child possesses. We must remedy these deficiencies, remembering the importance of first impressions. The rules of the object lesson are based upon the natural proceedings of the intelligence. The perceptions of the child do not awake by chance or in confusion. The mind assimilates ideas, by a series of consecutive operations, like those physical operations through which the body is nourished. "It is not what is eaten which nourishes, but that which is digested," can be applied to one as well as the other. But the digestion is only the last of a series of regularly-conducted acts; and in the same way there is no intellectual profit for the child, unless the various operations of his intelligence have been regularly conducted. Masters and parents are often much hurt when, in the middle of an arbitrarily conducted lesson, where they introduced matter first which should have been brought up later, they perceive that their pupils are not listening, are playing, or dreaming of other things. This should enlighten them. It has been often said to masters, "Be interesting." We should simply say "Conform yourselves to the natural proceedings of the intelligence."


To conduct a good object lesson, it is necessary, we say, to conform ourselves to the order in which the intelligence naturally operates. Here is the order:--When you put before the child an object unknown to him, he is first struck by its colour--then he distinguishes the form--then he asks you "What is it for?" When he knows its use, he finds out of what it is composed, and lastly its origin, or mode of fabrication. &c. Thus, the colour, the form, the use, the material, the production of objects; such is the natural process--such the progress of ideas to which the observation of the child has given birth. The object lesson must respond to these ideas, and follow the order in which they succeed one another. But soon, the pupil possessing the first ideas on a number of objects, his attention will be arrested on certain peculiarities of an object, and stop at the one which strikes him most. Thus, when you give the child a ripe ear of corn, it will not be the colour which will attract him, as this will not be new to him; he will pass on to occupy himself about what becomes of the grain, or about its manner of growth. We must follow in the pupil's steps, for it would be useless to keep him to a subject which his intelligence has already mastered.

The dialogue is the natural form of an object lesson. It allows us to follow the direction taken by the imaginations of the pupils, and their answers should, to some extent, guide to the lesson. The child takes up frankly the active part which is allowed to him, and the teacher, sure of his way, easily secures the object he has in view. Here, however, is a snare to be avoided. We know how the volatile thought of the child flits from the mane of the horse to his father's beard, and from thence to "Papa is going to buy me a mail-cart for my birthday." You are filled with dismay. The child has not been attending after all, and he coaxes you to talk of mail-carts and birthdays. Do not give up. He has been listening, only his quick thought has got ahead of you and linked your last words with half-a-dozen foreign associations. But you must get him back, and must not let yourself be persuaded to talk about anything that is not fairly and fully within the scope of the lesson; and this, because the most valuable acquisition to a little child--as to his grownup teacher--is the habit of attention, the power of attending steadily with all his power to one thing at a time. What gives the object lesson special value as a means of education is that it should do more than any other lesson to form this valuable habit--the main secret of success in life; and this, because no other lesson is so interesting. What with looking at and handling the object, what with the facts and stories that illustrate it, what with the bright interchange of questions between teacher and taught, it should not be difficult to enchain the attention of the most flighty little being for five, or ten, or fifteen, or twenty minutes, according to the age of the child. But the child should not be permitted to set up any diversion, however brilliant; the object, and the object only, must be talked about and thought about for the given time; and the lesson should, so far as possible, have a definite beginning, middle, and end. So important is this consideration, that it would be better that object lessons should never be attempted than that they should be allowed to confirm the children in erratic habits of thought. Perhaps the gravest defect in home-teaching, in all other respects so excellent for the young child, arises from the fact that parents are not sufficiently alive to the importance of training children in the habit of attention.

Let us not, however, exact more than the children can give in the way of sustained attention; when they seem weary, a livelier touch, the introduction of a new object, an amusing anecdote, will bring back their wandering thoughts. The object should be examined from every side, and the lesson should finish up with brightly-put questions. This last is very important, in view of the old axiom that "the mind can know nothing but what it can produce in the form of an answer to a question put by itself." And here is another defect to which home teaching is liable. The children flash with such bright intelligence about and over a subject that we do not always remember to secure what has been learned by steady, orderly questioning, going over the whole ground of the lesson and demanding exact, full, definite, and clearly-expressed answers.

Nor need the object-less be confined to the school-room. During a walk, opportunities occur on all sides. Here is a leaf carried away by the wind, it will fall on the earth and enrich the soil, and thus help the growth of new leaves next year. There is a quarry, stones--a house. Here, again, a stream, a little pond, miniatures of a river and a lake. A stone appearing out of the water suggests the idea of an island. This little neck of land is a peninsula. There is the confidence of two rivers. That point of land is a cape in miniature. Look at that string of little eminences like a mountain chain. Here is a morass, the water is stagnant and unwholesome--suggests remarks on pure air as necessary to life and health, &c. What an infinite variety of plants! Everything offers an animated text for conversation, a lesson disguised, but useful nevertheless. We come to a building; remarks follow on its architecture, purpose, &c., survey of the art of building, from the hut of the savage, up to that before us. It is an affair of five minutes, which will not be time lost, either to the teacher or the pupils. Let us life our eyes and look at the blue air, the visible vault of heaven. There are the clouds, how light they are, and of what delicate colours. They are the vapours which rise from earth. Remarks on fog, rain, or storm, thunder, lightning may follow.

However simple the subject of the young children's object lesson may be, it is well to give a few minutes or more to its preparation. To keep true to the title every object lesson should begin with the exhibition of the object, the thing;--or failing that, with the representation. The teaching children require is not a course of high science; and the objects, in nearly every case, will be familiar, and in ordinary use. You think for a minute over your subject, and you decide what objects you will require. Example: You have to give a lesson on "fire." The first object you will require is some combustible, coal or wood, &c.; also, it would be well to have some pieces of flint and a steel tool. The child will see the sparks created by the flints being knocked together, and will be led to appreciate the modern invention of phosphoric matches, of which he does not suspect the merit, having them always before him. You will tell him of the difficulty of making fire by the ancient methods--how much easier now: with matches and a candle, you will show the children that light and heat accompany each other. You will speak of the heat of the fire, of the sun--if it happens to be shining at the moment your word will be confirmed. You smile perhaps; remember that your children have often instinctively warmed themselves in the rays of the sun, without remarking that the sun is a source of heat. Lastly, you will show a picture representing a conflagration, so as to inspire prudence with regard to fire. Ten minutes suffice to prepare the lesson, and to collect the necessary objects.

The object lesson may occasionally be used to convey important moral teaching; but let us beware of harping on those trivial moralities which can be instinctively gathered from all subjects. However true, however just they may be, they soon become commonplace to the child, and have no influence on him. But, lead him insensibly to extract the moral idea himself which is in the lesson, and to put it into his own words. And if the association of ideas causes him to notice it before he comes to the end, let it be so, and do not complain. When you have to finish your lesson in any other way than by a moral conclusion, finish it if possible by something which will illustrate the subject, forming a picture which will awaken or satisfy some faculty of the child, his imagination for instance, and which will say in his memory. Children often conceive things in a vague way; it is well to offer them a concentrated idea. In these active little brains so close to nature in the simplicity of their ideas, we see the artist and the poet, just as we find a child-like spirit in the poet and the artist. The sense of the marvellous belongs to childhood, and fairy tales, &c., give us great pleasure in youth. Is there not much of the marvellous and unknown in the natural craving to which the fairy tale ministers? *

*Slightly adapted, with a view to children who learn at home.

Typed by Blossom, June 2017