Popular Science Monthly/Volume 23/June 1883/Science-Teaching in the Public Schools


THE repeated appointment, by this body, in successive years, of committees to look into the scientific education of the public schools, must be taken as showing that such an inquiry is regarded as both legitimate and important. Yet the duties of such a committee have not been defined by the Association, nor have any of our predecessors opened the way to a consideration of the subject. It was probably expected that we would furnish a digest of information from many quarters, as to what sciences are taught in the public schools, with what facilities, and to what extent; accompanied by such recommendations regarding the increase of scientific studies as the results might suggest. But our course has not proved to be so clear. We have been arrested at the outset by a question of the quality of the science-teaching in these schools which demands the first consideration. There are certain radical deficiencies in current science-teaching, the nature and extent of which must be understood before any measures of practical improvement can be intelligently taken up. We shall here confine ourselves to this preliminary inquiry.

The investigation has interest from the immense extent and rapidly increasing influence of the American public schools. There are now nearly a hundred and fifty thousand of these schools, supported at an annual expense of probably seventy or eighty million dollars. Maintained by State authority, they are firmly established in the respect and confidence of the community. Under the influence of normal schools, teachers' institutes, systematic superintendence, school boards, regulative legislation, and an extensive literature devoted specially to education, they have become organized into a system which is gradually growing settled and unified in its methods. With unbounded means and unlimited authority, these schools have undertaken to form the mental habits of the great mass of the youth of this country. They prescribe the subjects of study, the modes of study, and the extent and duration of studies for all the pupils that come under their charge. The sphere of their operations is, moreover, steadily extending. They are everywhere encroaching upon the province of higher education, everywhere trenching upon private schools, and diminishing the interest in home education.

It may be assumed that the time has fully come when this system must be measured by the standards of science, and approved or condemned by the degree of its conformity to what these standards require. Science has become in modern times the great agency of human amelioration, the triumphs of which are seen on every hand and felt in all experience. Grave subjects are brought successively under its renovating and reconstructive influence; and latest and most important among them is the subject of education. Our inquiry now is how far the public-school system has availed itself of the valuable aid that science offers in the proper cultivation of the minds of the young.

The interest and necessity of such an investigation will hardly be denied; but there may be a query as to its relevancy to the appropriate work of this society. The making of science popular was not among the objects for which our Association was formed. Not that its founders were unmindful of the importance of widely diffusing the results of research; but they recognized that the interests of science are so vast as to be only efficiently promoted by division of labor. Under the operation of this principle it was made the distinctive purpose of the Association to contribute to the extension of original science by the discovery of new scientific truth, leaving its dissemination to the schools, the press, and the various agencies of public enlightenment. Nor does your committee understand that it is now proposed to depart from this policy; for the inquiry before us is really most pertinent to our special objects. It certainly can not be a matter of indifference to this body, from its own point of view, how science is dealt with in the great system of schools which has undertaken the task of molding the youthful mind of the country. We aim to advance science by the promotion of original investigation, which depends upon men prepared for the work. Do the schools of the nation, by their modes of scientific study, favor or hinder this object? Do they foster the early mental tendencies that lead to original thought; or do they thwart and repress them? We have an undoubted concern in this matter, and it is, moreover, strictly identical with that of the community at large; for there can be no better test than this of the real character of the school system. When we ask whether a mode of teaching and a manner of study are calculated to awaken the spirit of inquiry, to cultivate the habit of investigation, and rouse independent thought, our question goes to the root of all true education.

All sciences are the products of a method of thinking, and it is that method which concerns us when we propose to regard it as a means of mental cultivation. Science is an outgrowth of common knowledge, and the scientific method is but a development of the ordinary processes of thought that are employed by everybody. The common knowledge of people is imperfect because their observations are vague and loose, their reasoning hasty and careless, their minds warped by prejudice and deadened by credulity, and because they find it easier to invent fanciful explanations of things than to discover the real ones. For thousands of years the knowledge of nature was rude and stationary because the habits of thought were so defective. But, with a growing desire to understand how the world around is constituted, men improved their processes of thinking. They began, and were compelled to begin, by questioning accepted facts, and doubting current theories. The first step was one of self-assertion, implying that degree of mental independence which led men to think for themselves. They learned to make their own observations and to trust them against authority. It was found, as a first and indispensable condition of gaining clear ideas, that the mind must be occupied directly with the subject to be investigated. In this way scientific inquiry at length grew into a method of forming judgments which was characterized by the most vigilant and disciplined precautions against error. Of the mental processes involved in research it is unnecessary here to speak; we are only concerned to know that the scientific method is simply a systematic exercise in truth-seeking, and is the only mode of using the human mind when it is desired to attain the most accurate and perfect form of knowledge. The whole body of modern scientific truth, disclosing the order of Nature and guiding the development of civilization, must be taken as an attestation of the validity of the scientific method of thought by which these results have been established. We here get rid of all cramping limitations. The scientific method is applicable to all subjects whatever that involve constancy of relations, causes and effects, and conform to the operation of law. It is applicable wherever evidence is to be weighed, error got rid of, facts determined, and principles established. Our public schools, unhappily, make but little use of this method in the work of mental cultivation, and we shall find some explanation of this by referring to the way they grew up.

The American public-school system originated in the theory that the State owes to every child the rudiments of a common education, or an elementary knowledge of reading, writing, and arithmetic, as implements of after mental improvement. But it was early found difficult to separate this primary use of tools from the acquisition of knowledge. Mr. Everett said, "I will thank any person to show why it is expedient and beneficial in the community to make public provision for teaching the elements of learning, and not expedient or beneficial to make similar provision to aid the learner's progress toward the mastery of the most difficult branches of science and the choicest refinements of literature." Under the influence of such considerations the rudimentary studies rapidly developed into courses of study embracing a variety of subjects. This led to the systematizing of instruction and the grading of schools, so that in nearly all the towns of the United States the public schools have been divided into primaries for the younger pupils and grammar-schools for older pupils; while within twenty-five years a third grade has arisen known as the high-schools for the most advanced students. In each division there are sub-grades, and, wherever improvements in public-school education are attempted, the principle of gradation is fundamental. So essential is it considered, that no aid is granted from the Peabody fund except to graded schools. As regards the plan of studies adopted, there was no guiding principle. All sorts of subjects, and these for all sorts of reasons, were taken up, and among them the sciences which are now regular parts of public-school study. Classes are formed in physics, chemistry, mineralogy, geology, physiology, botany, and zoölogy. There are text-books upon all these branches, graded to the varying capacities of learners. Teachers prepare in them, and in many cases apparatus is provided, and there are lectures with experiments, specimens, maps, and charts for illustrations.

The old ideal of a school is a place where knowledge is got from books by the help of teachers, and our public-school system grew up in conformity with this ideal. The early effect of grading was to fix and consolidate imperfect methods. The sciences were assimilated to the old practice, and the science-teaching falls short at just the points where it was inevitable that it should fall short. The methods of school-teaching, and the habits of the teachers, had grown rigid under the régime of book-studies. As a consequence the science-teaching in the public schools is generally carried on by instruction. Through books and teachers the pupil is filled up with information in regard to science. Its facts and principles are explained as far as possible, and then left in the memory with his other school acquisitions. He learns the sciences much as he learns geography and history. Only in a few exceptional schools is he put to any direct mental work upon the subject-matter of science, or taught to think for himself.

As thus treated the sciences have but little value in education. They fall below other studies as means of mental cultivation. Arithmetic rouses mental reaction. The rational study of language, by analytical and constructive tasks and the mastery of principles, strengthens the mental processes; but the sciences are not employed to train the faculties in the various ways to which they are severally adapted. They are not made the means of cultivating the observing powers, stimulating inquiry, exercising the judgment in weighing evidence, nor of forming original and independent habits of thought. The pupil does not know the subjects he professes to study by actual acquaintance with the facts, and he therefore becomes a mere passive accumulator of second-hand statements. But it is the first requirement of the scientific method, alike in education and in research, that the mind shall exercise its activity directly upon the subject-matter of study. Otherwise scientific knowledge is an illusion and a cheat. As science is commonly pursued in book descriptions, the learners can not even identify the things they read about. As remarked by Agassiz, "The pupil studies Nature in the school-room, and when he goes out-of-doors he can not find her." This mode of teaching science, which is by no means confined to the public schools, has been condemned in the most unsparing manner by all eminent scientific men as a "deception," a "fraud," an "outrage upon the minds of the young," and "an imposture in education."

Nor has this criticism of bad practices been without its effect. We are met by the statement that much has been done in the public schools to escape the evils of mere book-science. The method of object-lessons has been extensively introduced into primary schools with the professed purpose of cultivating the powers of observation in childhood. It is claimed that this is a beginning in science; and, as it brings the mind into action upon things, is a corrective of the inordinate study of words. But object-teaching has not yielded what was expected of it, and is in no true sense a first step in science. Nothing is gained educationally by barely having an object in hand when it is talked about. Myriads of objects are present to the senses of people, but no insight follows. The observing faculties must be tasked if they are to be trained. The pupil is not to have the properties of objects pointed out, but he is to find them out. Science will do its work of educating the observing faculties only as they are quickened and sharpened by exercise in discrimination. The scientific aim is to replace vague confused impressions by clear and accurate ideas. Skill in the detection of nice distinctions is only gained by prolonged and careful practice. Object-lessons afford no such cultivation. We do not say that they are useless, but they are not the A B C of science, and do not as a matter of fact open the way to the proper study of the special sciences. This is their test and their condemnation. When the primary pupils have gone over their prescribed course of object-lessons and are passed on to a higher grade, strange to say the "objects" are suddenly dropped as if the objective method had been exhausted. In the technical phrase perceptive education is to be replaced by conceptive education. Instruction in elementary science is now to be carried on by what is known as oral-teaching. This method, as extensively practiced in the grammar grades of the public schools, is everywhere growing in favor, and we are once more told that it is a successful revolt against book-studies. It is chiefly applicable to the sciences, and its cardinal idea is instruction without a text-book. This looks fair, but it is delusive. The method does not remove the book that the pupil may come at the phenomena, but it removes the book that the teacher may take its place. Oral-teaching is class-instruction, in which information is imparted in a familiar manner with the view of awakening the interest of the class. But, so far as real science is concerned, it is doubtful if this method is not worse than the one it replaces. Following the maxim of certain German educators, that "the teacher is the school," it was assumed that when apathy prevails in the schoolroom it is solely the teachers' fault. Oral exercises enable them to escape this reproach by giving animation to school-work. It is said that this is a "live system" in contrast to the old humdrum routine of lessons and recitations. But science gets no real help. There is only the substitution of a superficial class-activity for the more deliberate work of the individual pupil. More mental effort is required on his part to get a lesson from a book than to listen to a lesson given by the teacher. The teacher is to do everything, and stands in the place not only of the book but of the pupil also. Is this not a step backward in education? The teacher is magnified at the expense of close study, and science is cheapened by the method. Oral-teaching implies a fertility, a versatility, and a proficiency in scientific knowledge on the part of teachers which that class of persons does not possess. It is a premium on tutorial smattering and cramming by which the voluble teacher with superficial acquisitions and a ready memory becomes the model teacher. There may be benefits in this method, but science does not gain them. Judicious oral assistance, as in the physical, chemical, or natural history laboratory, given by a competent master to a pupil at work, is invaluable for stimulus and guidance; but the aid must be discreet, and the skillful teacher will not talk too much. But where it is all talk and no work, and text-books are filtered through the very imperfect medium of the ordinary teacher's mind, and the pupil has nothing to do but to be instructed, every sound principle of education is outraged, and science is only made ridiculous. This failure to gain the benefits of real scientific study has its source deep in the constitution of the public schools. In dealing with masses of children, classification became necessary, which gave rise, as we have seen, to grading and an elaborate mechanical system. The working of children in lots seems to be a necessity of the public schools, but it strengthens the practice of verbal instruction, recitations, and lesson-giving. It is well fitted to impress the public with the idea that there is much done in the schools. There are a prescribed routine of operations and a display of order that are admired. But teacher and learner are subordinated to the system. It is machine-work, and machines make no allowances. Gradation assumes and enforces a uniformity among pupils which is not according to the facts. Wide personal differences of capacity, aptitude, attainment, and opportunity, not only exist among children, but they are the prime data of all efficient mental cultivation. In the graded schools, just in proportion to the perfection of the mechanical arrangements, individuality disappears. Special original capacity, the main thing, counts for nothing. The mind can not be trained in such circumstances to originate its own judgments. The exercise of original mental power, or independent inquiry, is the very essence of the scientific method, and with this the practice of the public schools is at war. Moreover, a system which deals with the average mind, and does not get at the individual mind, breaks down at the point where all true education really begins, that is, in promoting self-culture. The value of educational systems consists simply in what they do to incite the pupil to help himself. Mechanical school-work can give instruction, but it can not develop faculty, because this depends upon self-exertion. Science, if rightly pursued, is the most valuable school of self-instruction. From the beginning men of science have been self-dependent and self-reliant because self-taught; and it is a question whether they have been most hindered or helped by the schools. De Candolle, in his valuable book on the conditions which favor the production of scientific men, says that the discoverers, the masters of scientific method, have chiefly appeared in small towns where educational resources have been scanty; and that they have often been most helped by the very poorness of their teaching, which threw them back upon themselves. It was to their advantage that the schools were not so perfect as to extinguish individuality and thus destroy originality.

Our strictures are here upon the general working of the public school system; but we recognize that there are many exceptional teachers who do what they can to deal with science in the true spirit, while multitudes of instructors are chafing under present restrictions and groping after something better. The bad system is, moreover, continued chiefly from the lack of knowledge as to the possibilities of a better. But the better method of teaching science has been proved entirely practicable. The institution where we meet and many other science schools have shown it. A large number of teachers have demonstrated that various branches of science can be taught to the young by the true as well as by the false method. What is now most urgently needed is to gather from these experiences practical plans of improvement in science-teaching for the benefit of those who desire better guidance than they now have.

In his address as Rector of the University of Aberdeen, Professor Huxley said, "I would not raise a finger to introduce more book-work into every art curriculum in the country." We concur in this view, as applied to the present science-teaching in our public schools. We would not raise a finger to extend it. President Barnard, of Columbia College, in a public address reprobating in severe terms the common method of teaching science as being an inversion of the true order of cultivating the mental faculties, referred to the great benefits which must arise "when our systems of education shall have been remodeled from top to bottom." That result may come about in the fullness of time, but it is wise to expect only a slow and gradual improvement. Vice-President Grote, in his St. Louis address, pointed out the guiding principle in this case as a substitution of real knowledge for second-hand information by a necessary law of mental advancement. In obedience to this principle, the cultivators of original science should do what they may to raise the standard of our prevalent science-teaching; and we respectfully ask that the Association will assign to a committee the duty of reporting at our next meeting on the best modes of improving the teaching of science in our public schools.

E. L. Youmans, Committee.
A. R. Grote,
J. W. Powell,
N. S. Shalee,
J. S. Newberry,

  1. Preliminary report of the committee, appointed at the Saratoga meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, on "Science-Teaching in the Public Schools," read at the Boston meeting, in August, 1880, and published in the "Transactions" of the Association.