The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
A Rational Lesson

by S. De Brath
Volume 8, 1897, pgs. 298-306

(Concluded from page 125.)

In the first paper on this subject, it was remarked that the characteristic of life is "function," action, and the implied inference that the purpose for which instruction is given is right action in the face of the problems of daily life was further brought out in the second paper, where it was shown that the natural end of the psychological process is deferred or immediate action, a plan or a choice. This is so vital to all rational instruction, that its repetition will, I trust, be excused, the rather as it is almost entirely lost sight of in the ordinary school method, which not only generally treats the knowledge as the final end, but too often even considers it as equivalent to the retaining of formulas.

We all respect the doer as compared with the talker, the practical man as compared with the theorist, and with reason in an age which is, thank heaven, beginning to weary of the floods of talk which are let loose on every conceivable subject by writers whose chief aim is to produce brilliant "copy." The really practical man is he who can think justly and translate thought into action, who can do himself what he wants done and show others how to do it also, who can organize because he understands detail, and can direct others because he can act himself. He it is who directs the forces of nature and man, who creates wealth and makes nations great. He it is who made England, and it is he who must sustain and defend her. That our boys may acquire this distinctive ability is the purpose of our educational system, and the prosperity of the nation will be in the direct ratio of the extent to which it succeeds, not with the few brilliant boys who will come to the front under any system, but with the mass of those who are put through the mill.

But the instruction in our middle class secondary schools does not aim at or tend to produce this practicality, and anyone who desires to test this statement may do so by asking the average schoolboy to make a plan of a room, to measure the area or volume of a simple solid, to weigh a few ounces with accuracy in an ordinary pair of scales, or to cut off as much lead from a bar as will just fill a mould of a given size.

But these and such-like simple matters are the beginning of practicality, they are the first developments of that knowledge (observation of real conditions and knowledge of real forces), without which the practical man is a mere rule-of-thumb empiric, helpless before any problem to which he is unaccustomed, and little able to improve his methods.

A system of instruction which does not allow for this putting to use of mental acquisitions, will inevitably have a certain air of unreality, it will not consider knowing as inseparably linked to doing, but will tend more and more to make it a matter of remembering and saying, and this in point of fact issues in two very serious defects, one most noticeable in adults and the other in children:--the first a widespread idea (not the less true for being unacknowledged) that the chief thing in life is to hold unexceptionable opinions; and the second, that learning is not so much in order to the excellent doing of some work for which the instruction is the preparation as to the passing of an exam, which tests only that the examinee holds these same correct opinions on the matter in hand.

Hence Carlyle's gospel of Work, on which Ruskin has written the fiery lines of impassioned commentary wherein he insists on good work as the purpose of our lives; the habit of thinking little of knowledge which is not put to use; the habit also of putting it to use for the sake of the result, and not for the sake of the credit or the gain thence accruing. "Let us for our lives do the work of men while we bear the form of them. The work of men--and what is that? Well, we may know very quickly, on the condition of being wholly ready to do it. But many of us are, for the most part, thinking not of what we are to do but of what we are to get." And he insists: "this doing is most truly educative, for in this direct contention with material evil, you will find out the real nature of all evil; you will discern by the various kinds of resistance, what is really the fault and main antagonism to good; also you will find the most unexpected helps and profound lessons given; and truths will come down to us which the speculation of all our lives would never have raised us up to. You will find nearly every educational problem solved as soon as you truly want to do something; everybody will become of use in their own fittest way, and will learn what is best for them to know in that use." ["Sesame and Lilies."]

But the mistake of supposing that this work and use consists for children chiefly in employments which accentuate the already too pronounced division between intellectual and manual work, has been sufficiently emphasised by the complete failure of all the "navvying" pastimes by which a certain section of young Oxford sought to put the master's teaching into practice. Play is meant to be play; not road mending; and as to work, the laws of energy which proclaim that a human body can only take in and therefore can only give out a certain amount of energy daily, set their peremptory fiat against a double expenditure. It is impossible for a boy to do real headwork, and grow, and perform heavy manual labour, on the same day; the time for productive work has not yet arrived, and is not to be hastened without impairing the delicate machine which is the vehicle of mind. That the boy should reach maturity with the best development his heredity will allow, it is essential that there be no overstrain in the years of growth. Not that manual arts and crafts have not their place in the educational scheme, quite otherwise, but these are not the matters now under discussion, which are that practical application being the end of knowledge, no single lesson is really complete until it is practically applied, and that the continuance of the process forms an intellectual habit of regarding all knowledge as meant for application; and a moral habit of applying it.

The natural impulse to apply what has been learned already exists in healthy boys, and in this desire to act we have the impulse which, well guided, will produce the practical character at which we aim. For character is but crystallised habit, and not even puffing advertisements can degrade or alter the fact that habits are but single acts grown easier by repetition, that habit makes character, and that character is destiny, for it makes, submits to, or overcomes, the conditions which hem it in. Where we teachers too often fail is in recognising that the habit of practicality is formed, like all other habits, by repetition. The physiological process now begins to be known by which the nerve paths of sensation are marked out in the brain, and by which each path, once opened, tends to become an easier path by each successive repetition of nerve discharge along it, and these discoveries have furnished us with a physiological basis for the conclusion that the formation of habits is a real structural work and cannot be made a matter of precept. With this knowledge there must come a new departure in general educational method, the doing and repetition of acts which involve the truth to be impressed rather than repeatedly going over the mere words, and thus also the general practice of all good teachers, to appeal as much as possible to all the sense and to apply lessons as they are learned, is confirmed and methodized. The habit of practically applying knowledge can only be fostered by each successive idea formed in the mind being put to use as soon as it has taken definite shape; and, just as exercise helps appetite, and appetite (by nutrition) increases the powers for exercise, so this putting to use or application at once confirms the knowledge and sharpens the appetite for more, while, at the same time, creating the habit desired.

So much will probably be readily admitted by all, for generalities are easy to agree in it is in carrying them out that people chiefly differ, that which seems to one person as complete and connected a practice as the nature of the case admits of, appearing to another meagre and amateurish. I shall now endeavour to place before my readers some lines along which "application" may proceed, taking care to give none which I have not myself tested or seen tested with a class.

The thought which it is the aim of instruction to excite, falls, it has been asserted, into two great classes--the realization of facts, either simple or complex, accessible or inaccessible to the senses; and the realization of truths, which are either generalizations about facts, classing them into categories such as historical, grammatical, chemical, &c., &c.; or, deducing from them propositions, which are called "Laws of Nature." The office of the good teacher is to select from the vast store of available facts those which lead straight to the end which he foresees both for the day's and for the year's instruction. This may be tabulated thus:--

Knowledge is of:
     Facts (Sensible Phenomena):
                              Original Impressions.
                              Imaginative Impressions.
     Truth (Generalizations):
                              Typical Facts.
                              Abstract Laws.

Lessons, it has been shown, vary in type according as they end in one or another of these four classes of conclusion, and each of these will therefore demand a different kind of application. It will be noticed in the sequel that each form of application is the natural supplement to each of the forms taken by pure knowledge; the fact (perceived by the senses), having a more intellectual, and the truth (apprehended by the mind), having a more sensory, bearing in their several applications. This is natural, and follows from the complementary nataure of the different parts of a real lesson. We may tabulate again:--

Application --
          --of Facts
                    Bringing to similar facts for measurement or classification
                    Tabulating or graphically representing things or scenes.
          --of Truths
                    Actual making of things or forms.
                    Deductive use of laws inductively established.

It must be kept in mind that we are still dealing with the simple application of one fact or truth which the preceding stages of the lesson--Preparation, Presentation, Assocation, and Formulation--have brought out, and not with those more complex applications of many truths which are involved in the practice of an art or handicraft. We will now consider these four kinds of "application" in turn.

The physical bringing of one fact to another is the chief means by which ideas are formed in the minds of quite young children--e.g., the idea of length is given by the actual superposition and repetition of the unit on some tangible thing--and the simpler the fact which the lesson has brought out, the simpler will be the application also. Nor can these simple forms of application be dispensed with. When the matter--such as the actual measurement by inches, feet, centimeters; the actual weighing by ounces and grammes; the actual gauging of volumes--is thought too elementary for the age of the children learning about these things, the true inference then is, not that application may safely be left to the imagination, but either that this stage should have been reached much earlier, or that greater accuracy is called for. This kind of "application" will be found to fit all cases where the lesson has ended in a simple fact. Thus the simple facts of our elementary geography lesson--the discrimination of the various kinds of soils--are applied by recognising varieties of these and classing others more or less similar in the same way: the units of length, area, volume, weight, mass, time, &c., are applied by actually measuring and weighing, in the early stages roughly, in the latter stages accurately.* Another form of "application" is the use of discovered facts as the basis of arithmetical or algebraical problems.

*The roughness or accuracy should lie in the balance and not in the manipulation. A child should always measure up to the accuracy of its instrument, but the instrument supplied to it should be up to, though not beyond, or very little beyond, its powers.

Imaginative facts, such as historical scenes and mind pictures, are less easy to apply; but, from the child's point of view, it is applying them to make a chart of events on a scale of, say, ten years to the inch, better still a large chart to hang on the wall; to draw maps of the redistribution of lands to conquering or conquered races, or to dominant faiths or parties; provided always that these maps are kept. If they are "marked," torn up, and thrown away, as is done in a large public school with which I am well acquainted, the boys feel them to be wasted labour, and not worth the pains of doing well. As a matter of fact only those who expect to be at or near the top of the class take any real trouble over them, our average boy does them as fast and as carelessly as he dares, tracing all his maps, showing no originality, and taking no interest. But, if the maps be referred to in going over back work, and kept for parents to see at the end of term, there are few boys who will not be ashamed of a slovenly file of maps, and will not do their best to turn out decent work and take a pride in it. The geography lessons should ultimate in a whole series of such maps, each one representing a particular set of ideas.

The application of truths presents but little difficulty. A typical fact, for instance, that brought out in the physics lesson on solution, is very readily perceived to be of the nature of a generalization, quite different from the categorical facts of elementary geography, above alluded to, and in this case, the application is the experimental dissolving of various typical substances in distilled water, the evaporation of a small measured quantity of each, and weighing of the amount of deposited matter, thus constructing a brief but typical table of solubility, using, say, six common substances, from table salt to lime. So, with the visible abstractions of geometry, which has a wealth of application in the drawing of patterns, in the modelling of simple solids, in elementary surveying, learnt not as surveying, but simply as an application of knowledge, and many others.

Lastly we have the ordinary deductive application of laws (such as arithmetical or algebraical rules) reached inductively. On this there is little to be said, for it is quite usual and habitually used in such branches of teaching as languages and mathematics, where it takes the form of exercises and problems. Whether both could not be made more real, the one by being more colloquial, and the other by being more concerned with those engineering actualities in which boys are specially interested and on which our lives as supported, is another matter.

This is the form which "application" will perforce usually take, and it is already so well known, that but three remarks seem called for. In the first place, let the problems and exercises be related as closely as possible to the known facts of life, using market rates, prices, quantities, rates and measurements, and not fictitious and often impossible ones; secondly, let the child never lose sight of the fact that every line set down on paper is but the symbol for an actual concrete operation which has been, or is supposed to be gone through--the grouping, repetition or separation of actual quantities; and, thirdly, let every sum, paper, geometrical problem, or other piece of work be done as if for a competitive examination--a column ruled off on the right for side work, and every necessary step of reasoning neatly set down; there will then be no difficulty about securing the neat papers which are a delight to the eys of the honest but weary examiner, and are marked accordingly!

So much for the "application" which closes the individual lesson and ends the train of ideation. Another form corresponds to the series of such lessons; such as the actual construction in wood, for real purposes, of things previously drawn--mitre, tenon and butt joints, stools, stands, racks, and such articles as can be turned out of the carpenter's shop; the natural use of botanical truths in the sowing and rearing of plants; the pruning of trees, the making of drainage channels and gardening operations generally; the analysis of simple forms of machinery to the principles on which constructed, and generally that correlation of one branch of instruction to others, by which each forms a means of teaching all kindred matter. All Nature subjects, geography, botany, and such-like, involving concepts of form, height, distance, level structure, function, number, quantity, weight, &c.; arithmetic, geometry, and in later stages, physics, chemistry, biology, and other sciences are thus intimately blended with one another; while each keeps its individual nature and proceeds by regular steps to its definite goal. This belongs more to the branch of the science of instruction which I have called "Co-ordination," ["Foundations of Success," chapter vii.] known as "Concentration" to the German psychologists, than to the single lesson, but I feel bound to allude to it here, for it opens a boundless field for the ingenuity of the teacher and the interests of the pupil.

Enough has now been said to show that, though the Rational Lessons do aim at arousing the interests of the learner by making things real to him, and thus causing him to put forth his energies, and are not at all meant to turn work into play. Nothing less; nor in fact do this have this result. The more I teach on this plan, the more I see that short lessons are essential. The child's brain is active the whole of the time, and if such lessons are prolonged for more than three quarters of an hour at one time or for more than four hours in the day for children under ten, or for more than five hours for children under fifteen, the strain becomes too great and the nerve-signs of physical weariness* begin. When this is so, lessons must end. This is peremptory. It is criminal negligence not to know these signs, it is crass stupidity to defeat one's own educational end not to observe and obey them. The wicked foolishness of pressing a weary child is seen in hundreds of stunted developments and strained constitutions. These lessons are more, not less strain, on the attention than the usual kind. But what they do is to habituate the average mind to reasoning, and to the giving of its whole energy to the task in hand; and thus they represent chiefly three things--lively interest, and therefore fixed attention, the habit of thoroughness in work while at work; and last, not least, a vast economy of time.

* ["The Children--How to study them," F. Warner, M.d. (Lond.), F.R.C.P. (F. Hodgson, 1/6). "Mental Overstrain in Education," G.E. Shuttleworth, B.A., M.D. (LANCET, August 22nd, 1896.)]

Incidentally they develop habits of exact observation and reasoning, and build up a body of knowledge, which, because it has been woven into the fabric of a life, is never forgotten.

These lessons are Professor Rein's "method-wholes" or "method-units," and are the separate bricks wherewith the mind builds; the units in which its content is measurable; the brain paths along which association works. In order that the ultimate result may be an organic unit, it is of the very greatest importance that these method-units should be intelligently selected. If taken at random as the pressure of time and want of mature consideration of the end to be gained may dictate, the result will be less satisfactory than that of the old routine which, depending on a text-book, at least gives to instruction a definite sequence.

In other words, rational lessons must be given in courses, and these courses have three chief needs to meet:--

    (1) They must be adapted to the age of the learners both as to matter and manner.

    (2) They must be begun early or they will become merely another device for cramming.

    (3) They must move from the actual primary facts (not from the wide generalizations which are too often miscalled "first principles,") to an end foreseen by the teacher, each day seeing a definite step which cannot be omitted without injury.

This is a task which demands the greatest care and thought on the part of teachers, and much patient study; firstly, what are the real points of departure of the matter to be taught, secondly, what is the exact stage of proficiency to which the pupil is conducted, having regard to the time available; thirdly, by what ordered stages he is to be led to this point. This needs great foresight and consistent laborious work to carry it out, and the real collaboration of all concerned in teaching; for where there is no mutual understanding among the teachers, how can there be unity of idea among the boys. In such tasks as this are realized the words of Herbart: "Education is a vast whole of ceaseless labour; merely to correct a few errors is of no avail."*

* Herbart ("Science of Education"), to whom is due the author's acknowledgments for the principle developed in the preceding pages. This Herbartian system has been methodized in Professor Rein's school at Jena, which is frequented by teachers from many countries, who desire to see the means whereby instruction can be made at once scientific and practical.

Typed by Anne White April, 2015, Proofread by LNL, July 2020