Popular Science Monthly/Volume 44/November 1893/The Scientific Method with Children



AT a recent meeting of prominent educators in Boston to consider means of promoting work in elementary science, a well-known professor of science said that there was danger that college professors would make out a scheme for teaching science and impose it upon the elementary schools; that the work was likely to be begun at the wrong end.

This led another member to say that not a little danger was to be apprehended from the scientists themselves, because many of them taught as if the scientific method demanded that they should begin with the ultimate, undecomposable constituents of things. There was danger that they would hold to their own conceptions of elements and ignore the child's elements. There was a difference of opinion among their pupils, who became teachers, as to what elementary science meant. Not a few held that science was classified knowledge and but little else, and that no lesson could be a science lesson unless the objects studied were selected in a natural sequence. He added that children are midway between profundities and sublimities, that they know no more about nitrogen than about ether in stellar space, and that they should neither be dragged down nor up to satisfy the demands of some one's so-called scientific method. They have their own starting points, and those should be taken by the teacher.

To this the professor heartily agreed, as did all the others who openly expressed an opinion. Likewise, many other teachers of science readily agree with the points named, when they simply talk about them, but practically deny them in their teaching, for a considerable time at least. It is noticeable that the systematic plans, which they put on paper easily enough at the outset, undergo much modification in course of time as they work with large classes of children. In some unaccountable way the laboratory methods with which they are acquainted prove disappointing when tried with children.

The method of beginning to teach science with ultimate undecomposable elements, and "building up" step by step, with complete sequences and fine inferences, exhibits one phase of science work, especially that done in scientific schools by adult students. In the case of many teachers it seems to furnish all the fascinations and advantages of a thoroughly logical method, and to be in perfect consonance with the educational principle, "From the known to the unknown"; but there seems to be some unreasonable bias or ignorance of facts in the interpretation of the principle as applicable to children. This interpretation is apparently based on the assumption that the known is simple rather than complex, is in parts rather than in wholes, and that the child's knowledge must of necessity be built up constructively or synthetically. There is some truth in this interpretation, but, followed out with children as far as we too often see it, it involves difficulties and errors of considerable magnitude. In this case, as in others, excessive generalization is dangerous.

Children's natural sequences are from wholes to parts, from the complex to the simple, from the superficial to what lies underneath, from the indefinitely known to the more definitely known, and the mental processes involved are analytical, especially in the early part of their school days. In this case, also, excessive generalization is dangerous. Undoubtedly, children acquire some knowledge synthetically, and as they approach adult life their powers of analysis and synthesis are increased by more frequent use, and no system or method that is excessive in either direction can be rightfully called scientific.

There is a time appropriate for working toward the profound and the sublime, but the start is fraught with danger. No method of teaching whose beginning is not definitely known can be called thoroughly scientific. So far as it fails to interest children, to make them use their own senses in the best manner, to make them think best in their own way, and to develop them best by means of their own activities, so far it fails to be scientific. If it succeeds only by reason of the teacher's great knowledge of the materials to be studied in a special line of work, or his "magnetism" or holding power, rather than by reason of the natural attractiveness of the things studied and the unobtrusive but skillful directive power of the teacher, it is unscientific. If it does not start independent motive powers, it is unscientific. The magnet seems to infuse life into iron filings, when placed near them, but when it is withdrawn they lie inert. Agassiz's method, as carried out by him, started many independent motive powers which are now vigorously at work throughout our land.

Among educational experts there is a difference of opinion as to where the best starting point is in teaching children elementary science. Dr. Mary P. Jacobi would use the flower in beginning to teach children botany, because it is the most attractive, makes the largest impression upon the senses, is easy of apprehension, and leads to the appreciation of specific differences. These are valid reasons, and might consistently be held by all who believe in that natural mode of working which embodies what the child likes, as clearly indicated by the history of the race, and what will develop his faculties in the happiest and most effective manner, such a mode as gave us Agassiz and Darwin.

Miss Youmans would begin with the leaf, on the assumption that it is simpler than the flower, and in tracing its scientific relations deeper intellectual pleasure is received.

The evolution of leaves into flowers is at the same time profound and sublime, outside of children's experiences and beyond their range of thought. Its teaching at the beginning results in cramming, however perfectly it may satisfy the demands of a philosophical but artificial system. Moreover, beginning with roots, as so many systematic teachers have done, and following with stem, leaves, flowers, and ending with fruits as the ultimate work of the plant, although logical to adults, full of regular sequences, and scientific from one standpoint, is unscientific from another. Children do not start to work with plants in that way, unless they are obliged to, but in a way diametrically opposite—attractive flowers and fruits first and unattractive roots last. It is certainly natural, although it may be heathenish and show their natural depravity for them to do so, but to scientific reformers they furnish an extensive field for missionary work in improving on the imperfect works of the Creator.

The uncertainty of where to begin and what to do in elementary science work during the last decade has resulted in much experimentation on the part of superintendents of schools, who are gradually feeling their way down to where the children are. They have entered on the work with unbiased minds, and, while laying no claims to scientific methods in conducting it, have thrown upon the subject valuable side-lights, which, if summarized and classified at a later day, will demonstrate what the scientific method with children must have for a basis.

In this work the scientific schools have played a very unimportant part. They are sending out graduates who do not know the principles of education, who have had but little if any experience with children in the schoolroom. Their efforts for a considerable time are nugatory, to say the least, if not mischievous, and tend to bring science work into disrepute and to make it seem impossible to any but specialists. Not only do they grope around when they attempt to teach the large classes inevitable in a city school, but the professors themselves have but little if any advantage when they "take hold." The methods and results of work in scientific schools are wholly admirable in the fields which such schools have thoroughly and honorably won; but as yet their methods have not been made suitable for different fields lower down. The methods of cultivating the hill country are in many respects unsuitable for the lowlands. The child's way of working is, or should be, different from the adult's. Many instructive illustrations of questionable methods may be given and added to indefinitely.

Not long ago one of the distinguished botanists of this country put into the hands of his pupils a sixteen-page syllabus containing full outlines of lectures on the seed—origin, structure, and uses; the stem and root; the leaf—structure and function; the flower—form and use; the fruit—kinds and functions; ferns, mosses, algæ, and fungi. The whole was covered in six lectures, and the published account bore the title Beginnings in Botany. If the scientific method, or any other, will insure such a work being well done, starting with no knowledge of the subject on the student's part, it has much to commend it to the attention of teachers of science.

Another scientist, who claims to teach by the "natural method," advocates a course of study on animals in the primary schools, which includes the study of the following subjects to be taken up in the order given: starfish, sea urchin, and the same compared; the earthworm; a bivalve shell, clam shell, oyster shell, and the same compared; snail and snail shell; classification of shells; lobster, crab, and the same compared; habits of crabs; and an excellent line of insects.

The attempt here made to select subjects in a natural (?) sequence is attended with some drawbacks. Away from the sea-coast all of the material named, except insects, would have to be brought from a greater or less distance, and, being out of the range of the children's common field of observation, would necessitate more or less cramming. Things seen only in the schoolroom do not make the deepest impressions. An extensive use of imported material is directly opposed to Agassiz's injunction to use the material nearest at hand.

Moreover, it is worth while to remember that materials and methods which are serviceable enough in teaching adults often become forced and mechanical in teaching children. It should not be taken for granted that the teacher's sequences, laboriously studied out or taken from some book, are the pupil's sequences, or that he can assimilate them. Prof. McMillan, of the University of Minnesota, says: "No mistake could be greater than to suppose that the sequence most logical for the trained intellect is necessarily the best method of presentation to the novice. In our zeal to eliminate evils of systematic botany we are prone to introduce evils of anatomical botany no less great and equally to be avoided." So in our efforts to prevent pupils from being overwhelmed with information "away over their heads" and almost entirely the product of the adult mind, we have taken on the shackles of a rigid system or scientific method, also the product of the adult mind for the adult mind, and between the two methods the children have generally come to the ground.

One of the best illustrations of the uncertainty that exists as to the best materials and methods to be used in teaching elementary science may be found in the public schools of Boston. About a dozen years ago a course in science for elementary schools was formulated and an attempt made to carry it out. The systematic study of animals was begun in the lowest grammar grade, fourth year in the elementary course, and the specimens to be studied in order were thus laid down: "Sponge and coral compared; starfish and sea urchin (dried specimens) examined and compared; oyster, clam, and snail compared; shells of different forms compared." The lessons that preceded the study of the objects named were information lessons on "grass-eaters, flesh-eaters; animals with hoofs, claws, wings; land animals, water animals, etc." Systematic mineralogy, without any previous work on minerals, was begun in the sixth grade on these mineral substances: "(1) metals that are native minerals (gold, silver, copper); (2) metals from ores (lead, zinc, tin, iron); (3) non-metals (sulphur, carbon); (4) gases (oxygen, hydrogen); compounds: iron rust, carbonic-acid gas."

This course, of which parts have been given as illustrations, was the best product of one of the leading spirits in science work, aided by the advice of teachers of science in the scientific schools of that time. It is questionable whether the scientific schools of to-day can formulate a better course for children. The method employed to carry out the course satisfied the demands of those who were regarded as experts in science work as to elements, natural sequences, synthesis, and system; but although the work was pushed vigorously in the beginning, it soon began to stick, and finally failed altogether. Of course, scientists called the work scientific, and teachers who were simply literary thought it discreet not to question that decision; but it is evident now that a very important scientific element was lacking namely, the science of success, knowing how to succeed; and that lack resulted from a failure to recognize the child's standpoint.

It is claimed by teachers of science now that the reason why such a course in natural science can not be carried out successfully is the lack of specialists to teach in every class the particular subjects named by the method used in the scientific schools. Doubtless an adequate supply of specialists would suffice to force the study to an apparently successful result; but the necessity for the application of so much force to a study that has the term "natural" so frequently applied to it should make us pause and consider whether the resistance to be overcome is not caused by some artificiality into which we have unconsciously drifted. Natural education is unconsciously easy, and difficulties increase as it becomes artificial. "The lines of least resistance" should not be overlooked in any educational plan.

The former course in science in the Boston schools having failed, a somewhat radical change of base in such work has recently been made. In the first place, the term "elementary science" is not approved by many teachers who adhere to the dictionary meaning of the term. They say that no real science work can be done in elementary schools, and will not admit that elementary science means simple knowing, when used to designate children's acquisitions of knowledge at first hand, but insist on limiting the term to the scientist's elements and organized knowledge. They give an unscientific excuse for failing to teach science in a natural and successful manner. On the whole, "observation lessons" is an acceptable term to use in designating children's work with natural objects. If a mere name be made a stumbling block, it had better be changed at once.

Now, the course in the Boston schools requires "observation lessons" on the "structure and habits of familiar and typical articulates and vertebrates," including the frog, fish, robin, hawk, hen, duck, cat, dog, pig, rabbit, horse, and cow, in the fifth grade. In the sixth grade the work is continued by observation lessons on "typical and familiar specimens of radiates and mollusks (sponge, coral, starfish, oyster, snail, jellyfish)," and ends with observation (?) lessons on the elephant, whale, seal, cochineal, and ostrich.

The study of minerals is begun in the sixth grade, as before, but the materials used are common rocks, instead of native minerals and chemical elements, which are studied in the ninth grade.

In this radical change from the former course there is an evident intention to depart from the so-called scientific standpoint and approach the child's point of departure; but those inevitable errors have been made that always attend the laying out of courses on paper before working them out carefully with many large classes of children.

It is manifest that there can be no proper observation lessons not to mention what commonly pass for science lessons on the whale, the seal, the ostrich, etc., in an ordinary city grammar school. The same may be said of the frog, the hawk, the pig, the cow, etc. Such things can not be brought into the schoolroom with compensating advantages. If pictures are made a substitute, the work with them deserves no better designation than information lessons, and speedily degenerates into first-class cramming.

Concessions to the scientists may be seen in the requirements in regard to the structure and classification of articulates and vertebrates in the fifth grade, typical radiates and mollusks in the sixth grade, and the order of studying minerals in the ninth grade, beginning with elements and working up synthetically to compounds. Such study is unquestionably better adapted to the ninth grade than to the sixth or lower grades. The classification of radiates, articulates, and vertebrates has never had marked success in high schools, and nothing worth mentioning has been done in that line in grammar schools.

After all that has been done in formulating courses in elementary science on paper in Boston, not to mention other places, the work has never been in a more unsatisfactory condition than now, since the first course was introduced into the schools a dozen years ago. What has been called the scientific method has failed in the elementary schools, if not in the high schools; and now another overturn of the course in science work is taking place in Boston.

How far the traditions and methods of the scientific schools are responsible for the delay in reaching the child's point of departure for things scientific can not be set down with exactness; but their isolation and conservatism certainly have not furnished them with such conditions as could be turned to the advantage of children just starting out into school life.

In writing, we no longer adhere to pothooks and trammels; learning the alphabet and spelling a-b abs are not our best means of teaching reading; mere ciphering with abstract figures in arithmetic has been superseded by more rational processes; committing to memory paradigms and grammatical rules has failed to enable students to use language fluently and correctly; nevertheless, all those things were formerly considered essential elements, and the only proper starting points for scientific teaching in the lines of work indicated. So the starting points of the scientific schools must be discarded for more natural and appropriate ones in the elementary schools. We shall use the children's elements, and discover upon what they work with interest and independence, how they work, what will best call out their activities and enable them to teach themselves, and by what means they can express their ideas best. The basis of instruction in elementary science must be the child's natural method of working upon his own elements, the things that are simple to him. His elements of expression in language are words, not the elements of words; in drawing outlines, not points and straight and curved lines; in science, what he knows at first hand through the medium of his own senses—superficies, externals, not internals, anatomy, and remote elements. A lack of knowledge of this side of science work will make all other sides ineffectual.

The science of teaching demands full recognition of an adequate presentation of the subject to be taught. The normal schools rightly claim that good reproduction naturally follows good presentation; but unfortunately they too often assume that the teacher must make the presentation. The consequence is, that all the points of a subject are set forth as clearly as possible by the teacher, and a summary closes the first stage of the instruction. Teachers often acquire excellent reputations by thus illustrating their skill in developing a subject logically and bracketing out the syllabus of the work, as some one has said, "on a rod of blackboard." Then comes the reproduction or presentation by the pupil, and, if he does not reproduce the instruction well, the subject is thought not to have been presented clearly enough, and often the presentation is repeated. This method is said to be psychological and scientific; nevertheless, it induces passivity, a habit of waiting to be told what to do, and a wrong attitude for the work of investigation. It is distinctively a literary method that is carried over into science work with disastrous results.

The best presentation of a thing is made by the thing itself, which must be suitable for the grade in which it is used, being simple in form, color, and parts for low grades—not necessarily of simple and regular form, nor of one color, nor of two parts. "The presumption of brains" must apply to the youngest pupils of school age. Experience shows that pupils who are permitted to draw and describe in writing simple, natural objects, guided only by a very few words written on the blackboard, acquire such a habit of application and power of expression as can be developed in no other way as well or as soon. They are so pleased with the expression of their own ideas, when they have been well started, that the disposition to appropriate other persons' ideas to save themselves from thinking or to copy the expression of them is counteracted. Their most imperative needs are opportunities to work by themselves, skillful guidance, and generous encouragement.

The question-and-answer method is the principal method of instruction in both the normal schools and the scientific schools. It appears to be the most scientific method generally known, and accordingly is the method used in teaching science. The teacher, in giving a lesson on a natural object, prepares her questions carefully in a systematic order, anticipates the probable answers of the pupils, and determines the exact answers which they must give at last. To do this heavy work a multitude of "leading questions" is necessary, and to ask and answer the questions consumes much time and calls for exhausting labor on the part of the teacher. The questions are put in order with considerable difficulty, which varies with the amount of freedom permitted, and the pupils are said to be led to investigate for themselves. The answers of the brightest pupils are frequently written on the blackboard, where the dullest pupils may read them and try afterward to pass them off as their own. The process insures considerable uniformity but is very deceptive. A small proportion of the pupils most responsive try to answer as they think the teacher wishes, and a large proportion wait to hear what the others say and try to remember that. The questions are in a way answered by observations of the specimens in hand, but the "leading" process is so powerful that practically it amounts to indirect telling. Information much disguised is the staple material of the lesson, although it is not intended, and the giving of it is simply transferred from the teacher to a few responsive pupils. As a whole the pupils do not "take hold," and the disposition to make independent investigations is not cultivated.

A principal of a training school on hearing such a lesson comments thus: "This brought us to the end of a very logical lesson, but one which was at the same time one of the most mechanical, most wooden, most stupid and profitless lessons to which I ever listened. It was all right according to the letter of the law, but where was the spirit of education? I need not tell you of the unrest, the inattention, the new channels of activity that the children opened up for themselves, the imitation, the lack of spontaneity, the utter inability to hold the mind to this dreary treadmill."

Isolation tends to exaggerate variation. The normal school has not been connected with the scientific school, and neither has been closely connected with the elementary schools. Only within a very few years have city normal pupils had somewhat regular practice in teaching in elementary schools; and even now the practice must be very limited in city schools, since the latter must do regular and efficient work and not be interfered with much by novices in teaching. Pupils of the scientific schools have not had the meager opportunities for teaching which have been furnished normal pupils. If they attempt to teach science in elementary schools, they are obliged to experiment with children, not only to find out what the children are prepared to do, but what they themselves can and can not do; and their experiences, as well as those of their pupils, are full of surprises and disappointments. Some graduates of scientific schools take charge of the science work in normal schools, whose special work is to instruct teachers in natural methods. It is fair to ask whether such graduates, who have the opportunity of influencing so many teachers, are helping or hindering the cause of elementary science. Neither the normal schools nor the scientific schools, although they differ widely in methods and seldom touch common ground, consider the possibility of graduating pupils who are more than likely to prove unscientific teachers of elementary science.

The correlation of the normal school, the scientific school, and the elementary school, practically carried out, would give us a fair prospect of discovering the true scientific method in teaching children.

I have seen an elementary school of some six hundred pupils, in which teachers and pupils follow closely the scientific spirit, if not the very letter, so far as it should be followed by children varying from five to fifteen years of age. All do the same kind of work, which is allowed to vary in quantity and quality in accordance with the natural ability, individuality, and originality of each pupil. Local material almost exclusively is examined individually, each pupil thinking and passing judgment for himself, and expressing his ideas accordingly in writing and drawing. The disposition to attack, to take hold, to investigate, and to make careful records of his own ideas and discoveries is cultivated studiously by keeping the pupil in the foreground and the teacher in the background. The prominent instructor, questioner, talker, gives place to the quiet director, inconspicuous but working with the effectiveness that characterizes the silent forces of Nature. The work is entirely independent of the normal school and the scientific school, but it is suitable, plastic, and power-giving.

A brief mention of some of the materials used in the work and a description of how they are used may serve to show whether the work is worth doing.

Each pupil is supplied with a specimen (all the specimens being of the same kind), such as can be found in the neighborhood—a leaf, a vegetable root, a nut, an insect, a rock, a flower, etc.—which he examines carefully, draws, and describes in writing, according to a very simple plan consisting of four or five words written on the blackboard. The words indicate the order of the work and the paragraphs of the description. The pupil is let entirely alone until he has done all he can do.

To draw his specimen he looks at it one way and gets one good presentation and impression; to describe it he examines it in a different way and gets another good presentation and impression—a process that holds him to his work without his being told what to look at, what to draw, and what to describe. He helps himself, and soon forms and fixes the habits of application and self-reliance. His work shows his teacher exactly where he is in drawing and descriptive work. Constantly judging of proportions, especially those of irregular objects, he soon learns to grasp the proportions of various forms quickly and to represent them with such facility and accuracy as to surprise teachers who have carried out only the regulation course in drawing. Many pupils can draw natural objects much more satisfactorily than they can describe them in words, and that, too, without formal instruction.

The ordinary courses of instruction in drawing, treating almost exclusively of artificial and symmetrical forms, have not helped children to draw the natural objects which they study to any great extent, but often have hindered them by taking all their drawing time for dogmatic instruction in mechanical drawing, historic ornament, geometric solids, and regular, symmetrical objects generally. No instruction in natural history work can be called scientific that fails to develop the pupil's power to draw what he examines. Darwin said that a great amount of his otherwise valuable manuscripts became useless on account of his lack of ability to draw.

The part that language takes in the plan should now receive brief consideration. The pupil, being accustomed, from the time he begins to write sentences, to describe in writing what he himself sees, recognizes the connection between his ideas and their signs on paper; his facility in expressing his ideas more and more correctly increases; and when his work is criticised, he is in the proper mental attitude to receive and assimilate the criticism. By examining the pupil's work after his first essay on a new subject the teacher gets at the defects in the pupil's vocabulary at once, and sees just where to help him. In no other way can the teacher reach that point so soon. Since the pupil is left to himself, he must describe his object in his own words, and he will not use any that he does not understand; if those are wrong in form, he can remember the corrected form easily; but if new words, which he does not understand, are given to him, he remembers their correct form with difficulty.

The teacher helps at the right time when the pupils need help. He examines their papers to discover excellences and errors in regard to matters of fact and forms of expression, gives class instruction at the blackboard on the prevailing errors, makes illustrative sketches, rubs out all illustrative work at last, and directs the pupils to redraw and redescribe the objects previously studied, confining their work closely to what they see in their specimens.

Up to this point all information not obvious in the specimens is rigorously excluded. Information must be divorced from observation. No other course can be followed safely by the rank and file of teachers. The pupils, having had the opportunities required for observing, thinking, and recording for themselves, and a substantial basis for information having been thus laid, individual experiences, readings from books, and reasons, causes, and results are considered, and the whole, observation and information, is incorporated into a composition most carefully written during the time devoted to language work. The power thus developed in the lower grades enables pupils of the higher grades to stop with first drafts.

Again, Darwin confesses that he was much hampered by his lack of facility in expressing his ideas. In his youth he had no training worth naming in drawing or in written description. To know and not to know how to express what is known is questionable science. The true scientific method must include adequate expression.

As a rule, such objects are selected for study as will serve for a good drawing (thirty-six rocks and minerals excepted)—shells, crystals, leaves, seeds, seed-vessels, flowers, ferns, mosses, and insects—including butterflies, moths, crickets, grasshoppers, locusts, flies, dragon flies, beetles, bees, wasps, and hornets—each kind being sufficient in number to supply each pupil with a specimen. Butterflies emerge from chrysalids and moths from cocoons discovered and brought in by the pupils, who draw and describe the various stages of these insect metamorphoses as they see them going on. They have studied in the same way seedlings in successive stages of growth—corn, squash, maple, acorn, etc.—each pupil having his own marked pot.

The school garden contains much available material—many varieties of wild asters and golden-rods, spring flowers, fall flowers, wild and cultivated, vegetable roots, small patches of wheat, rye, oats, barley, and buckwheat, cucurbitaceous plants, corms, tubers, bulbs, and ferns. The pupils cultivate the plants, and compare, draw, and describe the varieties from notes taken on the ground.

Once a year, on "public day" in May, the pupils bring in for exhibition their collections of minerals, rocks, shells, woods, insects, and pressed plants—usually from five to six thousand specimens which change from year to year. All the specimens are labeled carefully, classified, and arranged in the large hall on long tables covered with white paper. The best collections have a printed card label accompanying each specimen.

The work done outside of school in getting these collections together is of great educational value and the natural result of a method suited to the child's condition. It runs neither into haphazard channels nor into cast-iron molds. The child, rather than the subject matter, is the focusing point. The principal things sought are the science of his interests and habits of work, and the development of his powers of observation, expression, and self-reliance.

Many schools in various parts of our country are doing similar work, and in the summaries of such work made accessible ta educators we shall soonest discover a scientific method thoroughly suited to the needs of elementary schools. Colleges and scientific schools have not the points of vantage to make the discovery.