The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
An Experiment in Early Education.

by Mrs. F. Petrie Steinthal.
Volume 15, 1904, pg. 273-278

In October, 1881, a primary department was added to a private school in Boston, Mass., and Miss Mary A. Aber was appointed the teacher, in order that an experiment in Education might be made. Miss Aber, after successfully conducting the school for eleven years, wrote a most interesting account of her methods and their results in the Popular Science Monthly, from which I venture to give some extracts, knowing how much they will interest English teachers. Miss Aber's aim was to see if the child may not be introduced at once to the foundation of all learning--the natural and physical sciences, mathematics, literature including languages, and history--and at the same time be given a mastery of such elements of reading, writing, and number as usually constitute primary education.

"The experiment began with nine children between the ages of five-and-a-half and seven years. With scale and measuring rod each child was weighed and measured, while such questions were asked as--Have you been weighed before? When? What did you weigh then? How does your weight to-day compare with that? They shyest children forgot they were at school, and chatted freely while watching and comparing results. By questions as to why a present weight or measure was greater than a former one, the statement, 'Children grow', was obtained. Questions about the cause of growth led to the statements, 'Children eat', 'Children sleep', 'Children play'. A question as to whether anything besides children grows started a talk about animals, in which were given the statements, 'Animals grow', 'Animals eat', 'Animals sleep', 'Animals play'. In like manner similar statements about plants were obtained. The children were easily led from thinking of a particular child, animal or plant to the general conception and the use of the natural tern. This was the first lesson in natural science. Recalling the first general conception reached in the science lesson a child was asked, 'Nina, what did you say children do?' 'Children grow', she replied. I said, 'I will put on the black-board something that means what Nina said,' and wrote in Spencerian script, 'Children grow'. In response to invitation the children eagerly gave the general statements gained in the science lesson. Each was written on the board and read by the child who gave it. They were told that what they had said and I had written were sentences. Each child read his own sentence again. This was the first reading lesson.

"One by one each child stood by me at the board, repeated his sentence, and watched while it was written. He was then taught to hold a crayon, and left to write his sentence beneath the model. When a first attempt was finished, the sentence was written in a new place, and the child repeated his effort at copying. In this manner each made from one to four efforts, each time telling what his copy meant and what he wished his effort to mean. None of this work was erased before the children had gone. This was the first writing lesson.

"The children were led to count their class-mates, their sentences on the black-boards, the tables, chairs, and other objects in the schoolroom. It was found that all could use accurately the terms 1, 2, 3, 4, and the symbols were put on the board as meaning what they said, and their power to connect these symbols with the ideas that they represent was tested in many ways. This was the first number lesson.

"The children were shown a magnetic needle and let to note the direction of its points when at rest, and the terms north and south were given. This was the first geography lesson. After recess each child read his sentence, wrote it once, and then the subject of the science lesson was pursued. After special answers to the question, 'What do children eat?' The general statement was obtained, 'Children eat plants and animals.' Similarly the children were led to give, 'Animals eat plants and animals.' Then came the question 'What do plants eat?' One suggested the sunshine, another the rain, another the air, others the ground or dirt, for which the term soil was given. It was concluded that rain, air, and sunshine help plants to grow, and that some of their food must come from the soil; then the general statement was given, 'Plants get food from the soil.' Then I asked 'Where does the soil come from?" Before wonder had given away to opinion, I said, 'I will bring luncheons and extra wraps to-morrow, we will go to the country and try to find out where the soil comes from.' A poem of Longfellow's was read, and the children were dismissed."

Here, many of our readers who are teachers will probably forbear to read further, and condemn the experiment as being altogether impracticable in our work-a-day England. I also am a teacher, and feel I cannon follow Miss Aber's educational lines in all particulars; but is it not good for us to hear of fresh methods, and to take out of each what will suit our own circumstances and our own pupils? There are many hints given by Miss Aber that are of value to us.

The second day was spent happily in a field where a ledge of rock presented a broad front. As the children worked with their spades to find out where the soil did come from, they went through various reasoning processes until they arrived at the statement, 'Rock decays to make soil.' After lunch the children shut their eyes and pictured what Miss Aber told them. "I told them that the earth is round like a ball, and is a mass of rock with a little soil on the outside of it; that if a giant could take the earth in his hand, he might peel or scrape off the soil as we take a carpet from a floor, only the soil would seem much thinner than the carpet, because the earth is so big." Then came a description of a journey in a train to the centre of the earth. Traveling night and day it would take nearly a week to get there, and so on.

On the third day, after reading the sentence already on the board--of which each child besides his own read one of more others--the following sentences were easily elicited:--"Children eat plants and animals; animals eat plants and animals; plants get food from the soil; the soil comes from the rock; rock decays to make soil." These were written on the black-board, read, and copied by the children as on the first day. This was the natural science, reading and writing of the third day. In number, the children added and subtracted ones, by making groups, and joining and leaving one another. In geography, east and west were added.

On the fourth day, the children retold what they had learnt, and were then shown a globe. In geography they looked at a map of the schoolroom, and were led to see its relations to the room, and the relative positions of objects in the room and on the map. The next day, on another map, they traced their journey to the field.

In the fifth day's science lesson, they were led to speak of rain and wind as washing and blowing off the decayed rock, and to make the statement, "Without decay of rock there would be no soil; if no soil, no plants, no animals, no people." They had then seventeen sentences which they read without hesitation, and wrote fairly well. None failed to count to the, and to add and subtract ones to ten. A passage of poetry was read each day at the opening and closing of the school, little songs were taught, gymnastic exercises were introduced between the lessons, and the free-arm movement in making long straight lines was added to their lessons in writing. The first week's lessons are minutely described in order to show how the experiment was begun.

"Throughout the three years, reading was taught as in the first week. When there were enough sentences to make a four-page leaflet of print, they were printed and read in that form. The first transfer from script to print was made at the end of six weeks. The printed leaflets were distributed; the children merely glanced at them. I said, 'Look at the papers and see if there is anything on them that you have seen before.' Soon one hand was raised, then another and another. 'I think one of my sentences is here, but it doesn't look just like the one on the board.' In less than ten minutes by comparison of script and print, they read the whole leaflet, each pointing out 'my sentences'. After a few readings the children took the leaflets home, the sentences were erased from the boards, and the same process repeated with the new matter that was accumulating. No effort was made to use a special vocabulary, to repeat words, to avoid scientific terms; there was no drill in phonics or spelling; no attention was given to isolated words as words--a thought was the unit and basis of expression."

From the first field lesson two sentences--eleven words--could be taken, while a field lesson near the close of the second year yielded ninety-seven sentences--over eleven hundred words. In the former the sentences were written on the board and read every day for five weeks; in the latter they were taken down in pencil by the teacher as the children gave them, arranged according to topics, printed, and presented in the printed form for the first reading.

As soon as the child's writing on the black-board could be read--copy being erased--he began to write at his desk on unruled paper, the copy being still written on the board. At this point, concert arm and finger movements were taught. During the second and third years the forms of the letters, and combining strokes were analyzed, and each drawn on a large scale to accurate movement.

Teachers in the Parents' Review school will recognize one of Miss Mason's principles in the following:--"The children saw no misspelled words, and were never asked to spell or write isolated words. During the first and second years they wrote from a copy; in the third year they wrote original exercises. They were told to ask, when not sure how to write a word."

In mineralogy and geology stones were used that were found in Boston and the district. Each child had a testing outfit and at ten years could use it as well as an adult.

Botany was taught in the spring and autumn. A window garden was planted in the spring, and from this they took plants for the study of germination and growth. Buds and their developments were studied from garden and wild plants. In physiology, lessons were given on the joints, skin, hair, nails and teeth; on the chest and breathing; on food and digestion. In geography maps, globes, compasses and modeling clay were used.

"The last fifteen minutes of each day were devoted to literature. Selections with biography and anecdote constituted the materials for these lessons. Storms furnished accompaniments to Lowell's 'The First Snow-fall'; Longfellow's 'Rainy Day'; Bryant's 'Rain'; Shelley's 'Cloud.' Biography was usually employed to heighten interest in literature; for its own sake when embodying noble sentiments--as Scott's struggle against debt; Sidney's gift of water to the soldier. By such tales of heroic effort and action it was hoped to develop courage, honour, and devotion to duty."

Miss Abner maintains that her system produces the following effects:--
(1) The children learned to ask serious questions.
(2) They learned that opinion without knowledge is folly. For instance they put seeds in pots of earth, Miss Abner put hers between wet blotting paper. The children were certain that the latter could not grow. A week later they were eager to say, "The seeds in Miss Abner's garden did grow."
(3) They became fond of mental activity.
(4) Their habits of thinking improved.
(5) Their perceptions became almost unerring. At the Museum one day a child exclaimed, "There is some graphite." The teacher, seeing some whitish specimens remarked, "Oh no, have your forgotten how graphite looks?" The child insisted, and on one shelf the white rocks were found to contain grains and threads of graphite.
(6) Memory became active and generally true.
(7) Imagination was vivid and healthy, producing clear reproduction, apt illustration, and sometimes witty caricature.
(8) There was a beginning made in the habits of independent examination of any matter. This leads to mental rectitude, robustness and magnanimity.
(9) In waiting for Nature to answer questions--sometimes for three weeks or more--they gained their first perceptions of what law means, and of the values of patience and self-control, and of realities as opposed to shams.

Parents in America at first objected to this experiment, as many parents in England would probably do. The children went home and talked about rocks and plants, and told tales from history and literature, but said little about reading and writing. One mother said, "My daughter will study geology and literature when the proper age comes; I wish her now to learn reading and writing, and have lessons in arithmetic and geography." Later on she called on Miss Abner to express her wonder and satisfaction at her daughter's progress in reading, writing, and arithmetic. One father remarked, "My boy isn't learning anything, he's having a twaddle of experiments." Three months later he said, "My boy's whole attitude of mind is changed; he looks at the world with new eyes, and is also progressing rapidly in the studies common to the children of his age."

Since Miss Abner's paper was written, her intelligent system of primary education has been adopted in many of the large towns in the States, and is advocated by the leading educationalists.

I do not claim that the experiment is a cure for all existing evils; but I urge every educator who loves mankind to investigate each new departure in education, to test any that seems to have good in it, to cease to concentrate attention on symbols and shows, and to turn thought to such realities as can nourish the mind and heart, and be retained for all the years to come, and to do this from the first day our little ones enter school.

[The point we should like to emphasize in Miss Abner's experiment is, that she believed in the intellectual powers of quite young children. With this faith almost any method answers.]

Typed by Vanessa King, July, 2023