Popular Science Monthly/Volume 34/March 1889/Natural Science in Elementary Schools


By J. M. ARMS.

THE question before the educators of our country is a practical one, involving important and far-reaching results. Shall science lessons be given in elementary schools? It is a question which can be answered affirmatively or negatively only by considering why and how such lessons shall be given. What I have to say on the subject will be more practical than theoretical, as whatever views I hold are based wholly upon ten years' experience in teaching natural science to young people from five to twenty years of age. This being the case, my remarks must be necessarily more personal than I would wish.

Beginning to teach with no preconceived notions as to the practical results obtainable, but with a love for the science of Nature, and a strong desire to make our boys and girls love it also, I soon found out that science lessons were not only helpful in the way of awakening interest, but also invaluable in the way of disciplining the mind. Little children came to me with untrained eyes, hands, and brains; this I expected, and therefore was not surprised; but boys and girls from fifteen to twenty years of age came in a worse condition, and this was unexpected. Not only were their eyes and hands untrained, but their brains were in a pathological condition which rendered independent thinking impossible. The number of my pupils increasing, and their ages ranging, as I have said, from five to twenty years, I had an excellent opportunity for comparing the quality of work done by older and younger pupils, also by pupils whose perceptive faculties had been trained in early life, and those who had not received this training. The inferences I was forced to draw from these comparisons set me to thinking seriously. The inaccuracy of the observational and manual work done by older pupils, the indefiniteness of expression, the lack of system, and the inability to do comparative and inferential work, were so many revelations of the true aims of science teaching. The absolute necessity for accuracy in every study and every department of work made accuracy the first object to be attained in every science lesson; the vagueness of the oral and written statement made clear, concise expression the second object. The want of method emphasized the need of a simple, orderly grouping of the observations, while the painful and fruitless attempts to make comparisons and draw inferences showed the necessity of cultivating the power of generalizing from specific facts.

The objects of elementary science work in this way became clear to me. As time passed, I was convinced that the first two aims might be realized with children of primary-school age; the last two, in greater or less degree, with scholars of grammar and high school age, provided they had received the preparatory training of the primary school. In attempting to realize these aims I strove to apply constantly the scientific or "natural method" of teaching, and, though applying it far from perfectly, I could see that in more skillful hands than my own its successful application would result in that which was most desirable, the development of the child.

Gradually the opinion grew and strengthened, till it has now become a conviction, that those children who have been trained by the "natural method," from five to thirteen years of age, do better work at thirteen than those who have not received this training do from fifteen to twenty years of age. Their work is better because it is marked by greater accuracy, greater ability in mechanical execution, and stronger power of reasoning. It proves, in brief, that the doers of it are active and creative rather than passive and imitative.

The recognition of the truth of these statements, of the importance of the objects to be accomplished, and of the value of studies which promote their accomplishment in a pre-eminent degree, answers the question. Why shall science lessons be given in elementary schools?

The question. How shall these lessons be given? is one which demands immediate and serious consideration. Uncertainty prevails in the minds of teachers, and confusion in the general mind, on this subject. Oral and language lessons are often mistaken for science lessons, although usually the three have distinctly different objects. Judging from the many courses of study I have been privileged to examine the past year, I conclude that the oral lesson, as generally given, aims to interest the young: Whatever common objects happen to be at hand are used for the purpose, and the success of the lesson depends largely upon the animation and versatility of the teacher and the receptivity of the class. In order to make this oral lesson a science lesson, the objects observed must be selected in a natural sequence; the teacher must be logical in questioning, whether or not she be graphic in description, while the pupils must be independent seekers for knowledge rather than active or passive receptacles of information. I do not say the oral lesson can not be a science lesson, but that oral lessons, as generally given, are not science lessons.

The language lesson aims at the use of good language, at correct grammatical construction, spelling, and punctuation. Clear, concise expression may be one object of the language lesson, but it must be remembered that this is not the first object of the science lesson.

The question. How shall science lessons be given? can best be answered by keeping constantly in mind the aims of science work. Whatever helps to realize these, helps to answer the question, as the ways and means must be adapted to the end in view.

In giving observation lessons upon plants, animals, and minerals, which, here let me say, are elementary science lessons as well as those that have received this name in our prescribed courses of study, three conditions must obtain: First, the children must be provided with specimens; second, the school must be under the control of the teacher; third, the lesson must be prepared by the teacher in the form of questions which lead step by step from the simple to the more difficult. It is evident, if the pupils are to be provided with specimens of animals, that only the smaller and simpler ones can be used, such as the star-fish, sea-urchin, or snail. In many of our schools the lessons on animals begin with the dog, cat, or bird. Ten years ago it was almost a necessity to begin in this way; it is not so to-day. I once began a course of lessons with these familiar but extremely complex animals, and noted the results with interest. Before the course was finished, I had given up practically the four objects I aimed to accomplish. I was so thoroughly convinced that the habit of accurate observation could not be acquired by children with one specimen in the hand of the teacher, or one picture hung upon the wall, that I never repeated-the experiment. I regret now that I did not preserve some of the written work of this class, but it seemed so worthless, as compared with that done by children of the same age who had begun their lessons with the simpler animals, that I did not keep any of it for future reference. When the class numbers fifty or sixty children, those in the back part of the school-room can not see the bird or kitten distinctly, more or less disorder prevails, and disorder always causes the premature death of science work. If the children come to the desk to examine the specimen, time is lost in going to and from the seat, especially by those whose besetting weakness is laziness, while the moments for observation at the desk must be extremely brief. Close, accurate observation of a specimen in the hand of a child develops patience, and cultivates the habit of mental equilibrium or concentration of mind for twenty or thirty minutes, as may seem desirable, which is of incalculable value.

The second condition of successful science work, namely, a well-governed school, is obviously one condition for all successful school-work. The temptation to whisper and be disorderly, caused, possibly, at first by the use of specimens, will soon be overcome if the children understand that no science lesson can be given till order is preserved. The unruly members of the class are usually the first ones to yield, as these are generally more fond of nature than of books. Many instances could be given, proving most happily the invaluable aid given by science lessons to the teacher in the discipline of lawless children.

While the first two conditions depend for their realization upon both teacher and pupils, the third depends wholly upon the teacher. All preparation must be made before, not during the lesson. The questions must be so arranged that each lesson must be a natural growth, a development from the simple to the complex. This method of questioning is the peculiar characteristic of the true science lesson, distinguishing it from the commonly accepted oral and language lesson. Furthermore, each lesson should be related, so to speak, to the lessons that precede and follow it. It can not exist as an isolated thing, but must form an important part of one complete course.

The course on animals for primary schools, as given in our first lesson, begins with the star-fish, and takes up in succession the following subjects: The sea-urchin; the star-fish and sea-urchin compared; the earth-worm; a bivalve shell (Cyprina); clam-shell; oyster-shell; clam-and oyster-shell compared; living snail; snail-shell; miscellaneous shells, including pearly nautilus; simple classification of shells; lobster or crayfish; crab; lobster and crab compared; habits of crabs; locust; young living dragonfly; beetle; butterfly; life-history of butterfly; moth and life history; bees and their habits; insects in general.

This course covers twenty weeks, devoting two hours a week to the subject. In a general way it may be stated, though of course there is no inflexible rule in regard to time, that the first hour is given to the observation and drawing of the specimen, the first fifteen minutes of the second hour to a review of the observations already made, the following thirty minutes to a written description of the specimen, and the last fifteen minutes to a talk about the habits of the animal. If the habits are discussed before the written work is done, the results are not as good, for the reason that it is much easier for children to describe vaguely the habits of animals than to give accurate, concisely stated observations. In almost every case (excepting, perhaps, two or three animals repugnant to many children, as, for instance, the earth-worm and spider) the teacher will obtain the most satisfactory results by taking structure first and habits afterward. In the primary course no alcoholic specimens are used, but living animals when possible and dried specimens.

The course for grammar schools begins with the horny sponge, and includes the following subjects: Silica sponge (Geodia); horny and silica sponge (Chalina); sponges compared; a simple animal (Hydra); sea-anemone; coral animal (Galaxea); sea-anemone and coral animal compared; corals (Madrepore, fan coral); star-fish and sea-urchin compared; earth-worm and saltwater worm (Nereis) compared; clam-and oyster-shell compared; snail and pearly nautilus; habits of salt-and fresh-water mollusks; lobster or crayfish; crab and barnacle; lobster; crab and barnacle compared; spiders; habits of spiders; locust and larva; dragonfly and larva; locust and dragon-fly compared; squash-bug and larva; review insects with direct or "incomplete" metamorphosis; butterfly and caterpillar; beetle and grub; fly and maggot; bees; simple classification of insects.

In this course dried, alcoholic, and living specimens are used. The course may be given in twenty weeks, or forty hours, provided the children have gone through the primary course; otherwise, it can not be given, as good comparative work can only be done after accurate observational and descriptive work.

These two elementary courses lay a strong foundation for the high-school course, and also pave the way to the intelligent study of vertebrate life, while the three courses—primary, grammar, and. high—furnish a valuable preparation for the advanced biological studies of our scientific schools and colleges. There has been much discussion in our leading journals of late in regard to the teaching of biology in the higher institutions of learning. What to teach and how to teach it have been pressing questions. Courses of study have been proposed which certainly have been ideal for ideal students, but which have almost wholly overlooked the important fact that the majority of the young men and women who are to take these courses have never learned the A, B, C of science work. Many professors, dissatisfied with the poor results obtained, have recognized the chief cause, and asserted that "the college instructor must still regard the student who studies under him as a school-boy whose capacity for observing and investigating natural objects has been blunted by a one-sided course of instruction at school."[2] In other words, the college is forced to do preparatory work. This the college ought never to do. Preparatory work belongs to preparatory schools. A young man or woman at eighteen ought to be fitted to enter upon an industrial career or upon a scientific or classical course of study, as individual taste or necessity dictates, with hands trained to do a little manual work well, with eyes keen-sighted enough to see things as they are, and with brains capable of thinking upon these things independently.

I have outlined in brief a primary and grammar-school course upon animals. I have been aided in the preparation of these courses by the "Guides for Science Teaching," Nos. Ill-VII, by Prof. Alpheus Hyatt. Prof. Crosby's "Science Guide," No. XII, and Mrs. Richards's "Guide," No. XIII, are admirable aids in preparing a course upon our common minerals and rocks. The "Science Guide," No. II, by Prof. Goodale, and the well-known works of Prof. Gray, help in adapting the subject of botany to young minds. The present paper is considering the natural rather than the physical sciences, as these "are now generally acknowledged to afford the best means of developing the powers of observation and comparison,"

It is impossible to discuss broadly and justly the questions why and how shall science lessons be given in elementary schools without some knowledge of the history of the movement which has given birth to these questions, and also some knowledge of the present status of our schools on the general subject of science teaching. The movement of which we speak the coming century will surely regard as one of the really great movements of our time, so that we may pause here to sketch briefly its origin and growth. After an extended correspondence with superintendents and educators of New England and the West, I may state, with very great certainty, that Boston was the first large city in our country to include systematic lessons upon plants, animals, and minerals in its prescribed course of elementary instruction. This was done in 1877-'78. The movement, however, may be said to have had its origin in the lecture-hall of Louis Agassiz nearly a quarter of a century before. Recognizing the educational and practical value of the study of natural history, and imbued with a broad, humanitarian spirit. Prof. Agassiz invited teachers to attend his lectures before the under-graduates of Harvard. Among those who accepted this invitation was a young woman of whom George B. Emerson wrote, a few years later, "She is the best teacher New England has produced." The truths spoken by the great naturalist lived in the brain and heart of Lucretia Crocker till she in her turn was able to inspire the youth of her generation with a love for nature as deep as it was strong. Twenty-five years after the Harvard lectures, Miss Crocker, as supervisor of the public schools of Boston, with the keen judgment of mature womanhood added to the enthusiasm of youth, was advocating with persuasive power a course of elementary instruction which included lessons upon our common plants, animals, and minerals. In 1877-'78 this course was adopted by the school board, and Miss Crocker became supervisor of the natural history work. Surely the inspired words of Agassiz were bearing abundant fruit, though the voice that uttered them was then silent. May we not trust that the harvest-time was known to the sower of the seed?

It soon became evident that the teachers wanted more knowledge of the natural history subjects which they were to teach; and it was then that Miss Crocker found an able helper in Prof. Alpheus Hyatt, who, in the generous spirit of his teacher. Prof. Agassiz, threw the doors of his laboratory wide open to all who wished to come. A "Saturday morning class" was formed. Its members were provided abundantly with specimens for study, and the valuable collections of the Natural History Museum, of which Prof. Hyatt was curator, were freely used in the demonstrations.

The teachers, now as pupils, saw more clearly than ever before the true objects of all science work, namely, the betterment of humanity and the increase of our stock of absolute knowledge. Fortunate indeed are those institutions of learning which number among their professors one who keeps constantly before his pupils these high ideal aims of science! With these aims as ultimate goals, the work of student and teacher becomes more effective, because directed in definite yet ever-broadening channels.

An organization, known throughout New England as the "Teachers' School of Science," had been carried on since 1871 by the liberality of one person, Mr. John Cummings, a patron of the Society of Natural History. The faith of Mr. Cummings in the educational value of nature lessons was constant, as proved by his generous contributions year after year.

In the winter of 1878-79 the pecuniary responsibility of the "school" was assumed by two Boston ladies, Mrs. Pauline Agassiz Shaw, the daughter of Prof. Agassiz, and Mrs. Augustus Hemenway. Five hundred teachers attended this course of lessons upon the scientific method of teaching applied to the study of our common plants, animals, and minerals. Nearly a hundred thousand specimens were carried into the public schools, and the publication of the series of "Science Guides," to which we have referred, was begun, to aid teachers in their work. A new impetus was given to the movement, and an enthusiasm created which promised much for the future.

Eleven years have passed since nature lessons were embodied in the prescribed elementary course of the Boston schools. What is the position of these and other schools of our country on this subject? Do the leaders of the movement who are living to-day feel a sense of disappointment that the results have not been larger? The growth, it is true, has been slow; yet if those who are oppressed by the truth of this statement would compare the science work done in the schools to-day with that done ten or twenty years ago, they would surely bend to their oars with new courage. That work can be briefly described: the quantity was extremely small, and the quality exceedingly poor.

We are beginning to recognize the fact that science lessons can not exert their legitimate influence so long as they are not included in the prescribed curriculum of study, but depend for their life upon the option of the teacher. I have endeavored to obtain exact information on this subject. In New England there are eighty-seven cities and towns whose schools are provided with a superintendent.[3] Of these, eight include lessons on plants, animals, or minerals in their prescribed courses of study, under the head of "Observation and Elementary Science Lessons," or of "Plants, Animals, Minerals." Fifteen include such lessons under the head of "Oral Instruction." Eleven take up natural objects in connection with language and geography lessons. Five are revising their courses of study, three of which are including observation lessons. Four have not replied to my letter of inquiry This leaves forty-four cities and towns whose elementary courses do not include nature lessons.

Personal interviews and correspondence with educators in many Western, and Southern States leads me to say, with considerable certainty, that in none of their primary and grammar schools are science lessons required.

These facts and figures represent the work prescribed, not the work actually done. In how many schools where these lessons are required are they given by the scientific method? is a question of the first importance. In how many schools, on the other hand, where the lessons are not required are they systematically given by progressive teachers? Want of sufficient data compels me to leave these questions unanswered for the present.

The picture has another and somewhat brighter side. It may be stated as an indisputable fact that there never has been a time when the interest in the subject was so wide-spread. Educators all over the country are giving it their thoughtful consideration. The "National School of Methods" has offered an excellent opportunity for the past three years for obtaining valuable information. Twenty-one States,[4] and probably several more, have been represented in the natural history classes.

Teachers of primary, grammar, high, and normal schools have testified to the educational value of nature lessons. Superintendents have expressed their approval of such lessons, and shown an earnest desire to help forward the work. This hearty interest, especially on the part of normal-school teachers, is a guarantee that the growth of the movement will continue to be sure, even though it may be slow. This brings me, in conclusion, to the brief consideration of the causes of this slow growth.

The fundamental cause lies, I believe, in our ignorance of the true value and large possibilities of elementary science work. This ignorance is chargeable in great measure to that one-sided system of education which has long prevailed. Our early training, in fact, unfits us for justly appreciating the objects to be attained. If the great body of teachers in our country to-day could be made to know the full value of natural history lessons in the mental training of the young, I for one do not believe the oft-repeated arguments against this kind of teaching would deter them in the least from undertaking the work. Our primary-school teachers need to know for their own inspiration how much they are helping the grammar-school teachers, and the grammar-school teachers, in their turn, the high-school teachers. When they come into possession of this knowledge, the movement will advance with rapid strides, and the four arguments oftenest urged will be answered by the teachers themselves.

When it is said, "The work is impracticable, because specimens can not be obtained," the teachers will reply: "Several towns have already appropriated ten and twenty dollars for the purchase of natural history collections, and these can be used a number of years. Teachers awakened to the new and beautiful revelations of nature are preserving specimens at the sea-shore and in the country. Children have collected hundreds of specimens which have been used in class work, or have helped to form valuable school cabinets."

When, again, it is said, "Our teachers have not been trained by the 'natural method'; how, then, can you expect them to teach by it?" they will answer: "We know from experience the defects of the old methods; is it not possible, then, for us to shun these defects, and to teach by better, more effective methods? The fossilization of teachers is not in order. We must grow, for growth is the necessity, if not the charm, of the teacher's life of to-day."

Again, when it is said, "Too much observational work results in lack of mental concentration and in weak power of memorizing," they will assert: "The time for considering the results of 'too much observational work' has not yet come, nor is the danger so imminent as to concern us now. The criticism offered may be true of much poor oral instruction which 'entertains' children, but it can not be true of elementary science work, the very soul of which finds verbal expression in the words individual effort—such effort as is only possible when the mental faculties are under control."

It is true the mission of the science lesson is not to strengthen the memory. The studies of literature and language do this, while the science lesson quickens the perceptive faculties and cultivates the power of delicate discrimination and of just generalization.

Finally, when it is urged that "the object of this teaching is to make naturalists of our children," they will emphasize the fact that while the object of advanced biological teaching may be to make specialists of those who have an aptitude for this work, the object of elementary science work must be, always and ever, the training of the young mind. We are just beginning to find out that a one-sided system of education is not sufficient for our many-sided human nature. We are not all born to be teachers, or professors of law or medicine; we have among us natural mechanics, merchants, inventors, investigators; and a system of instruction which is not broad enough to train these for a life of productive industry falls far short of what it ought to do. Education must have its industrial and scientific as well as its classical side, and not until it does will each child realize its own bright possibility of a better and more enlightened humanity.

  1. Read at the "National School of Methods," Saratoga, August, 1888.
  2. See "American Naturalist," June, 1887.
  3. See "List of the School Superintendents," for June, 1888.
  4. Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North and South Carolina, Alabama, Kentucky, Louisiana, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, and Nebraska.