The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Object Teaching; or, Words and Things.

by T. G. R
Volume 3, 1892/93, pgs. 103-111

[Thomas Godolphin Rooper, 1847-1903, was an inspector of schools and personal friend of Charlotte Mason; much of his writing was for her P.N.E.U. meetings. His essay "Lyonesse" describes his time as a student at the Harrow boarding school. After he died (of spinal tuberculosis at the age of 56), Mason wrote a chapter in his honor which appears in her book, "Formation of Character," vol 5 of her series. He never married.]

Part II.

              Her eyes are open;
       Aye, but their sense is shut.

You may now fairly challenge me to give some concrete instance of what I consider good Object Teaching. "These are very fair philosophies of yours, no doubt," it may be urged, "but unless you reduce your theories to practice, how can we be sure that they are not like the proverbial horse, which is a very good steed in the stable, but an arrant jade on the journey?"

After some consideration I have chosen as the subject of my lesson the common duck; not that I mean to make up one adapted only for infants, for I intend it for children over ten years, but because of its familiarity and the ease of procuring a specimen. Of course the compilation is intended to take up more than one lesson time, and I can only give you the matter of the lesson, as it would take too long to show the method. In a lesson on the duck, I should avoid commencing with its Latin name (Anas boschus), its ornithological classification, and its history under domestication, and I should prefer to take, first of all, what we see of it ourselves. The children must be made to visit a pond, where there are ducks very frequently--the first time with their teacher, and afterwards by themselves, and the points which I state as facts should be gained by questioning the class after they have been to the pond and watched the ducks. A live duck should also be brought into school from time to time.

Where does the duck live? Mostly in the water, even in winter. If we swam about in water which was nearly freezing we should be starved with cold. What is the difference between us and the duck? The duck has feathers, and we are without covering; and further, the legs and feet of the duck are not made like ours. They do not contain so much blood. Compared with ours they are less fleshy, and expose less blood to the surface where it gets chilled by air or water.

Now let us examine the duck's clothing of feathers. On the sunny side of a pond we can pick them up in numbers. Are they all of the same size? No, some are smaller than others. Let us examine a large feather. It consists of two parts: a firm stem, which at one end is inserted into the skin, and at a certain distance above the end, branches spread out on two opposite sides. We can then stem the quill, and make pens of them, as goose-quills and crow-quills. Note that in the larger, the branches cling to each other closely. In the smaller, they are separate and fluffy. Which are softer? Which do we make beds of? The difference we mark by a name. The small feathers we call down. Now look at the duck's body. Which feathers are outside? We cannot see the down until we pluck off the feathers. The down clings close to the body, and notice the lower and inner part of some of the large feathers is also downy. Thus the duck has underclothing as well as a dress to wear. These two coats keep it warm even in cold water. (The difference between the circulation and the breathing in birds and mammals should be introduced when the children are more advanced.)

Now look under the duck's skin. There is a layer of yellow fat. (What people live on fat and smear themselves with fat? Why?) So the duck is kept doubly warm. Does the water soak the duck's feathers as it swims? Any lady who has a feather in her hat fears the rain will spoil it and so it does. The water hardly wets a duck's feathers. Note how it slides off a duck's back in drops like peas. How is this? First look at the arrangement of the outer and larger feathers. They lie close pressed together, and overlap each other like tiles on a roof, off which the water flows from one to the other without getting between them, and the outer feathers protect the downy inner ones. If the wind is blowing and the rain falling, the duck swims to meet the wind, and the penthouse of feathers is so arranged as to have its free and weaker end turned away from the wind. We see how easily the water drops off the feathers, but if you look at the tiles of a roof you will see that they get wet in a storm though the people beneath remain dry. Do the duck's feathers themselves get wet? Try. Take a feather which has recently been dropped by a duck and wet the upper side of it. It keeps dry, like oiled silk. The reason is that it has been oiled. Where does the oil come from? Is it exuded from all over the duck's body? If this were so, the down would be oiled which lies nearest the body. But the down, unlike the larger feathers, does get wet if you put it in water as you see, and so the source of the oil cannot be in the general surface of the skin.

Now watch the duck on a sunny day, either when it is sitting on a sunny bank or when it is floating about on the calm surface of the water. Sometimes it is sleeping with its head under its wing. Sometimes it works its bill about, now moving it in the feathers near its tail, and now, as it were, smoothing down the other feathers of its body. The duck has a wart-like excrescence near the root of its tail, and this body secretes oil, which the duck, by use of its bill, smears over the feathers to make them waterproof.

Now watch the duck on the pond. When a dog swims, it sticks all its body in the water as far as its neck, and so does a horse, and so does a man, and, what is more, all of these never cease moving their limbs, in order to keep their heads above water. The duck swims on the surface of the water more like a cork, and can float without moving a muscle. Now what makes a cork swim so lightly? Look at it. A cork is full of holes, and the holes are full of air. Look how lightly a bladder full of air floats. Is the duck full of air?

Let us examine a duck more closely, and look inside it as well as outside. First compare the flight feathers of the wing, the tail feathers, and the covering feathers. Then examine a wing and see how many joints it has, and how it unfolds and is folded, and note how the feathers lie. Then remove a wing and spread it out on a board for better study, and name the kinds of feathers on it. Then, with a sharp knife, cut delicately through the skin over the breastbone, and fold it back and fasten it. Show the strong and thick muscles. Why does a bird want such strong muscles? Then cut through the breast-bone and the ribs to show the hollow of the breast. Show the thin tissues in which air is collected. Clean the upper bone of a wing, and show a small hole in it near the shoulder. Saw through a bone lengthways and across. Show that it is hollow, and that the hole in the bone admits air from the air spaces above found, so that the duck's bones are filled with air. The appearance and position of the lungs can be contrasted with those of a rabbit or other mammal. Any one who has to clean and truss a chicken for roasting will not be shocked at dissecting a duck. The comparatively solid bone of a mammal can be contrasted with those of a bird. Besides the air in the breastbones, the quills of the feathers are full of air, and the close-packed outer feathers keep much air beneath them in among the down. No wonder, then, the duck swims on the surface of the water, while the dog, when he swims, has only his head out.

Now look at the shape of the body. Apart from head and neck it is oval, but not a perfect oval. It is somewhat flattened. That is, it is wider from right to left than it is deep from below to the top of its back. This flattening makes it rest more securely on the water than it would if its body were perfectly oval.

Movements.--Notice how the duck swims. It moves its feet alternately, exactly as in walking on the land. Its feet have skin between the toes. Examine a foot. With its outstretched broad surface it fans the water. Compare the foot of a hen. Which is best for swimming? The feet push out backward and the body moves forwards. Have you watched men rowing a boat? If the body moves forward when the feet are moving backward what happens when the feet are pulled in again? Does not the body move backward? Watch the feet. When they are pushed back, the toes spread out and make, with the skin between them, a broad surface. When they are pulled in, the toes draw together and curl up a little, just as happens when the duck lifts its foot in walking on dry land. Thus the foot presents as little surface as possible to the water when it is being drawn in again. You will notice that the toes do not bend quite in the same way as our fingers do. Our fingers we bend at our pleasure, but the duck's toes bend of themselves, and the skin folds up between them. As soon as they meet the resistance of the water in swimming, the toes and the skin between them are spread out by the pressure of the water.

Now notice the position of the feet on the legs. The feet are set inwards, and are less convenient for walking on land. Compare a hen and a duck when they walk. The duck waddles. Watch the duck swim. The right foot in striking out backwards pushes the body forwards towards the left. The left foot similarly pushes the body forward towards the right again. Thus the body moves forward in a straight line, although neither foot pushes it quite straight forward. Lay two books on one size flat on a table. Push them forward by shoving the end corners alternately, but push one book in a diagonal direction each time and the other in a perpendicular direction. Contrast the movements of the two books. Which motion makes the book move more easily forward? If the duck's feet were so set on that each stroke in swimming were made exactly in a straight line backwards, would its progress be as easy as now, when the stroke is made sideways? The legs of the duck are short. As it swims you only see its feet. The part of the leg which is inside the skin is stout. The free part is thin and sinewy. Take a flat ruler and move it through the water broadside, first holding it by one end so that nearly all the ruler is in the water, and then holding it by the middle so that only a third of the ruler is in the water. In the second case the ruler is moved more easily. Which case does the duck's leg resemble? Examine the muscle of the duck's leg; its strength, size, colour, and attachment; the muscle of the foot. Look at the position of the legs. They are set on towards the hinder end of the body. Some water birds have their legs set on more in the middle, like the moor hen. On the contrary, the grebe has its legs set on still further back than a duck, and when it wants to stand it has to set its body nearly vertical or upright in consequence.

This position may be again illustrated by holding a book between the finger and thumb (a) horizontally, and (b) near one end. The duck walks uneasily on land. Of course, because its build is contrived for its aquatic habits--look at its feathers, its toes, the length and position of its feet! The hen's leg looks quite different. They are longer and more flexible. The toes are longer, being without a web. Much more of the leg is outside the skin. You can see a joint more than you can in the duck. Compare, however, a duck's leg and a hen's leg after separating both from the body. Show the skeleton of the two legs and compare them and contrast the upper joint of the duck's leg and the hen's drumstick. If you hold a small book between your finger and thumb and make it walk along the table on the tips of them, the book moves more easily when you grasp it in the middle than when you grasp it near the end. Of course this can be explained by reference to mechanics if it is thought desirable. The centre of gravity should be in a vertical line with the centre of support, or at any rate it must not be outside of it. The connection between this principle and the oval shape of the bird's body can be shown, and similarly in regard to the bend of the legs. But even without this, a parallel instance leads to thoughtful observation of Nature, and this leads one presently to a more accurate and quantitative study. It is possible to compare the foot of the coot or grebe, which has a fringe of web on each side of the toe as an intermediate form between a hen and duck.

The duck's food. What does the duck do on the pond? It seeks food. Watch how it plunges its head under water and searches among the waterweeds or in the mud. Its name comes from this action. To duck is to dip the head. Besides weeds, the duck eats snails, fish, frogs, eggs and spawn, caddisworms, beetles, and the like. See how long it holds its head under water without taking breath. Remember how much air it has in its body. Watch the duck raise his head from the water with its prey in its bill. It swallows the food but lets the water flow away.

The duck doesn't want to swallow too much water. You can watch the duck drink. It only swallows a few drops while stretching out its head and neck. We men can take a good mouthful of water. Why cannot the duck? Look at the duck's bill? There are no lips like ours. Inside its mouth you see channels and grooves crossing from side to side, and the free ends form a fringe or strainer. The edges of the tongue have a similar fringe. These serve two purposes. They help to hold the prey firm in the bill, and they help to strain the water run off it.

How can the duck find its prey in the weeds? True, as they have eyes they, like us, can see under water, but poking about in the mud they soon make the water thick. Compare the hen's beak with the duck's. The hen's is pointed and hornlike. The duck's is broad and more like a skin. Now we will cut this skin from base to point down the middle. Then we will make another cut in the left side across, so as to divide it into an upper and an under section. Now we will turn back to the lower section. There you will see a great number of nerves. We men have many nerves under the skin at the tips of our fingers and by means of them we can tell in the dark whether we are touching a piece of bread or a stone. The duck uses its bill as we do our fingers, only far more cleverly. The blind men, however, see with their fingers. Look at the tongue of the duck; see how thick and fleshy it is, not dry like some birds'. That helps it to get food. Now, then, we have seen how well adapted the duck's feet and legs are for living much on the water. We now see how well its bill is constructed for the same purpose. What can you remember about its covering in this connection?

I have no space to continue about nesting and brooding, and hatching, or the development of the chick. After treating of all these, it would be desirable to introduce the conception of classification. By comparing the duck with geese and swans, and contrasting them with sparrows and robins, storks and cranes you can show the difference between swimming birds and waders and perchers.

A study like this can most readily be made in the country, where the children can visit a pond frequently and watch the ducks and note their habits; but most towns possess parks with lakes on which ducks swim about. Occasional expeditions on summer evenings or Saturdays, for the purpose of investigating natural objects in their surroundings, would be well spent time. If every detail that is dwelt upon is illustrated by presenting it to the eye of the children, and, in many cases, to the touch, such a lesson is not like a compendium of scientific facts which is learned by heart. On the contrary, the object is presented as much as possible as it lives and moves in its natural surroundings. It is not a mummified specimen out of a museum, from which all the grace and beauty of life and warmth and motion have been abstracted. A girl taught on this principle is not likely to commence a theme on her mother with the remark, "Mother is the female parent of the child," where there is too much science. Neither would a boy, when asked to describe an ordinary hen's egg, answer, "An egg is an oblong white object with a shell composed of gravel," where there is too little science. Again, the talk about the duck has not passed into a general information lesson. We have not discussed duck-shooting, decoys, and the like, neither have we gone into the culinary preparation of the duck, all of which might be usefully dealt with in their place. It has been an object lesson within the meaning of that term, as I have described it in my lecture.

All science in its elementary stage must be of the nature of object teaching. The subject may consist of a connected series of object lessons in a particular study, such as many teachers are now devising in domestic economy, physiology, mechanics, and physics; or the field of inquiry may be more general, or the teaching may be applied to history or social science; but the real worth of this study of objects is not the quantity of ground covered, and information imparted, but the quality and the method of instruction. The observations must be made or verified by the scholars themselves, who are thus trained to use and trust their own senses and powers of inference, instead of repeating other peoples' descriptions or accounts in books. This kind of object-teaching is an antidote to the degradation of learning, which we all know and deplore, but can never wholly escape. After a full and living description of an object, the teacher writes down a few of salient points in his development, which of course prove of immense value, first to the examinee, and afterwards to the examiner. The next step is that, in order to save time, the full account is omitted in teaching, and the dry bones of the skeleton are studied exclusively by the student, as his sole weapon of defense against the examiner, and he abandons all hope of taking any interest in his studies, except as a means to pass. It only remains for me to express my obligations, in writing this paper, to two German authors--Karl Richter, whose excellent treatise on Object Teaching has been the principle source for the first part of it, and to Frederich Junge, whose book, called "The Village Pond," has supplied me with materials for the second part. The book which throws most light on the theory of Object Teaching in the English language is Warner's "Mental Faculty." A few of the best English books which I know in practical Object Teaching are as follows:

"Easy Lessons in Light." Mrs. W. [Frances Emily] Awdry. (Macmillan.)
"A Year's Botany." Mrs. [Frances Anna] Kitchener. (Rivington.)
"Experimental Geometry." Paul Bert. (Cassell.)
"Soap Bubbles." C.V. Boys. (S.P.C.K.)
"Recitation." A. Burrell. (Griffith & Farrran.)
"Wild Nature Won by Kindness." Mrs. Brightwen (T. F. Unwin)
"Worthingtons' Introduction to Physics." (by Arthur Mason Worthington)
Ruskin's "Elements of Drawing."

These books appear to me to fulfill the conditions which I have laid down as essential to Object Teaching. They do not communicate to the student a verbal knowledge of the latest discoveries and highest generalisations of scientific research, but, on the other hand, they do take him to an Object, and keep his senses and his intellect engaged upon it until he has at least learnt what is the real nature of knowledge of an Object, and what he must go through if he is to be able to observe and think for himself.

Proofread by Stephanie H.; Proofread by LNL, Sept. 2023