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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 46/March 1895/Biological Work in Secondary Schools



I SHALL not attempt to go over all the ground covered by the above topic, but shall simple lay special stress upon a few points. I shall put in a plea for genuine, systematic laboratory work upon plants and animals; shall insist that, in studying both, students become familiar with the general structure, physiology, and classification of members of all the main groups from the lowest to the highest; shall urge the necessity of teachers especially trained for the work; and I shall then attempt to point out the training that should result from such a course of study.

It should not be necessary to spend much time in urging the importance of laboratory work in the study of biological subjects. It seems strange that any teacher should ever think of having a pupil spend the precious hours of his school life in studying plants and animals in any other way. But the fact that only a small per cent of our teachers are pursuing the laboratory method makes it imperative that somebody plead in behalf of the students of our public schools. By laboratory work I mean the dissection of plants and animals for the purpose of discovering the facts concerning them, not the verifying of statements made by text-book or teacher. It is a very common mistake on the part of teachers to think they are doing the best they can for their pupils when they themselves bring in or require the pupils to obtain specimens that will illustrate their own or text-book statements. Students should be original investigators, and should be deprived of none of the pleasures connected with original investigation. Only laboratory guides and reference books should be put into their hands. The teacher and laboratory manual should aid pupils in the discovery of truth, but should never rob them of the pleasure of discovering it for themselves when practicable. As F. Mühlberg says:[1] "Of course, one gets on faster with a child by carrying it, but it is for the child's interest to teach it to run and swim for itself. In the same way it is better not to give young scholars scientific knowledge ready made, but to teach them the way to it. By imparting to them results obtained by others the ideal purpose of instruction is seriously prejudiced, the sense of scientifically accurate thinking is destroyed, the belief in authority is increased instead of checked, and the mind becomes surfeited, instead of finding pleasure in the exercise of its powers." Laboratory work upon any given object should always precede, never follow, the class discussion of it. If it is impossible for the teacher to supervise laboratory work previous to each recitation, then at least three recitation periods of each week should be thus spent, with drawing as a regular part of the work.

In the study of neither plants nor animals should the work be confined to the highest groups. After trying various methods, I am fully satisfied that the plan in general should be to study the simpler forms of life first, and proceed from these to more complex ones, until the highest forms are reached. I find that even young pupils enjoy following Nature's order in the study of living things. To do this to good advantage it is necessary to have the use of at least one good compound microscope; but I take it that most teachers of science are now agreed that to attempt to do biological work without this instrument is not using time to the best advantage. If it is impossible to equip the school for doing biological work in the right way, it is far better that pupils should spend their time upon something from which they can get good discipline. But a properly trained science teacher will not let a school be long in such a condition.

As botany is more generally studied in our secondary schools than zoölogy, and as the method of presenting it is ordinarily so poor, I shall speak of plant study the more fully. It is well known what the usual method is. It is about the same as that which was in vogue when even the oldest of us studied what was called botany. We began in the spring, and learned the names of the different shapes of leaves, stems, roots, and flower parts, with as much seriousness as if this knowledge were really important; then we "analyzed" (as it was called) a few plants, probably pressed and mounted them, heaving a sigh of relief as the name of each was determined and the plant properly ticketed. There was little discipline in such work. The principal aim was to be able to find the scientific names of a few plants. The result to most of those who pursued such a method was a bundle of dried plants and a bundle of still drier facts. To be sure, the statements of the book are often verified or illustrated by specimens brought in by teacher or pupils; but it seems to occur to few instructors that the process ought to be reversed, and the pupils be directed in making a careful study of a plant, in drawing and describing its organs, and then be given the names for these organs. The study of plants should extend through the year. There is little to prevent this in any State. Prof. Bessey, of the Nebraska State University, says:[2] "Remember that plants are with us all the year. The prevalent custom of assigning the spring term only to botany is a relic of scientific ignorance which should long since have been discarded. All Nature studies should extend through the year." President, Coulter, of Lake Forest University, writes:[3] "How many who teach botany are laboring under the impression that botany can be taught only while flowers are blooming? Plants are always with us, and are always fit subjects for study; and is not a moss, or a toadstool, or a seaweed as truly a plant as a buttercup? The only difference is that a buttercup is far more difficult to understand than the others, and is not so fit a subject for elementary study. It is ignorance that makes the toadstool seem difficult and the buttercup easy. From my own experience, and from the testimony of others, I know that children make no such distinctions and find no such difficulties, and in this way they follow Nature."

Unless pupils study the lower plants they get no conception of the great scope of the vegetable kingdom and of the development of one group from another. Fortunately, most colleges and universities are abandoning the old, irrational method, and are adopting the more rational one of giving instruction in the lower plants, instead of spending so much time in learning, for example, the different forms of leaves that seem to be able to perform their functions just as well whether they are "elliptico-oblanceolate" or "palmately-plurifoliate." They have been giving instruction in bacteria, the group of plants that is probably of more importance to man than all the rest combined; they have been having their pupils study the rusts, smuts, and mildews that destroy crops, as well as the more beautiful forms that frequent water and are considered offensive by those unacquainted with them. But the secondary schools, not having properly trained teachers, and not being properly equipped with instruments, have in most cases followed the old method. In fact, most teachers of botany suppose the lower forms too difficult for beginners in secondary schools; but in a few the experiment of beginning with these forms has been tried and the practicability of it verified.

Further, unless pupils learn something of the lower forms of plants they always have an erroneous idea of what a plant really is, and how it differs from an animal. I have found, by testing pupils that have studied in the old way, that they always define a plant as something stationary, as composed of roots, stems, and leaves, and as reproducing by seeds—all of which applies to the higher plants only. In short, they have no real knowledge of the science of botany. It is impossible to understand the structure and the reproductive system of the flowering plants unless the lower ones have been previously studied. On this point B. Fink, writing in Science, says:[4] "I wish to enter a protest against the method of teaching botany still in vogue in certain colleges and high schools; . . . the old plan of a spring term in botany confined to a study of phanerogams, followed by the analysis of from fifty to one hundred plants. This way of studying botany came into use when the microscope was scarcely known among the masses, and when the economic interest of the lower orders of, vegetable life was not well understood. . . . Instead of the old plan, I would have all schools during the first term take up the orders, proceeding from the lowest to the highest, and close the work with the leading facts of vegetable physiology. I would divide the time equally between cryptogams, phanerogams, and physiology. This both gives the best foundation on which to build, and is the most essential knowledge for the student who can not give more time to the subject." President Coulter gives as his opinion the following:[5] "It is more satisfactory and scientific to begin with the study of the simplest forms, not merely because they are far easier to understand, but also because this order of study will give some notion of the evolution of the plant kingdom. The many advantages of this order of study—advantages which have been seen in much experience—should outweigh any supposed advantage in beginning with the study of the most complex plants. In my own experience both methods have been tried, and in beginning with flowering plants and then afterward approaching them from the lower forms, I have invariably found that previous wrong conceptions of the higher forms had to be corrected. J thoroughly believe that no proper notion of higher groups can be obtained without previous study of the lower ones." Prof. Campbell, of Stanford University, advocates strongly following Nature's order in plant study, of which fact his excellent text-book is the best evidence. In response to inquiry on this point, he writes: "I have never had any serious trouble, even with quite young students, in beginning with the protophytes. One advantage in beginning with microscopic work is that it requires an amount of concentration upon a single object that is very valuable in forcing the student to observe accurately, especially when he is obliged to draw carefully what he has seen."

Plant physiology ought to receive more attention than it now does. To study the structure of an organ without considering its use is of little value. In fact, the chief object of morphological work should be to furnish a basis for physiological and systematic work. Enough time should be spent upon classification to enable students to become familiar with the limits and characteristics of the main vegetable groups. To know how to determine the scientific name of a plant is also useful, but is of secondary importance.

It may be objected that the teachers now in our secondary schools are not sufficiently trained to carry on this work properly. Better give no instruction in it at all, then. But this need not be the condition. If all our boards of education fully realized the need of special training in this line, and were not, in many cases, so lamentably corrupt; and if vacancies were always filled by the deserving, instead of those who have a "pull," we would have plenty of teachers in our secondary schools in sympathy with and abundantly prepared for this work. Our universities and other higher institutions are sending out plenty of well-trained science teachers, who stand ready to supply any demand for their services. As to the training that science teachers should have, F. Mühlberg[6] expresses the opinion that "the teacher of natural science ought to have the necessary special scientific schooling for that purpose. In no department of instruction is it less permissible to teach authoritatively than in this, and to make it a subordinate branch for a teacher not specially prepared for it is often worse than to provide no scientific instruction whatever; the teacher must not only be master of the material he teaches, but ought also to be a model of the intellectual training he tries to impart; he should have the capacity to observe, describe, and reason accurately about the material of study. In order to give his instruction in such a way as to incite his pupils to an interested activity in their studies, it is indispensable for him constantly to try to develop his own intellectual powers further, and continually refresh them by special studies."

But the most important point is yet to be considered, viz., the development that ought to result from pursuing such a course of study.

The first thing that all beginners must learn is to see a thing just as it is. None of us have this power fully developed. We go through life with our eyes only partially open. We do not see things as they really are. The first power that a proper study of plants and animals develops is that of observing accurately. None do this when they begin the work. Usually they see at first only vague generalities. But the best stimulus to seeing accurately comes through expressing what has been seen. This expression should be required of the pupils in three forms: drawing, notes, and oral discussions. This is a very valuable part of the exercise. To be able to express accurately with a pencil point what is observed is a power of inestimable value. However, the power to observe accurately is not necessarily accompanied by the power to express accurately, but the former must precede the latter. No one can draw accurately what he has not seen accurately. And along with this mental development must also go a moral development. Seeing accurately is only seeing the thing as it actually is—that is, seeing the truth; and drawing and describing are only stating the facts, or telling the truth. Here is where the temptations lie. An indolent or careless pupil finds telling the exact truth with his pencil point to be arduous, and is tempted to distort or only partially represent the truth. But accuracy of expression must be a constant drill in truthfulness.

But, along with the seeing and expressing, pupils must be led to think, if the work is to be of much value. What is the relation between this observed fact and that observed fact? What must be the use of this organ? Why is it so constructed? Why why? why? These are questions that should be continually brought before them. This is the shore upon which many are at first stranded. They may see fairly well, they may draw and describe fairly well; but to answer such "whys" is something to which they are not accustomed. However, they launch out little by little, and eventually become bold explorers on the ocean of truth. But besides being able to answer "whys," they should learn to deduce laws from observed facts, and to make predictions as to future processes. Here the power of imagination, that is so important in all school work, must be exercised. Without this power few "whys" can be answered, few deductions made, and no processes predicted. If a pupil can build up in his mind a plant or animal, with or without this or that organ or set of organs, and can then imagine what functions could or could not be performed by his creation, he has a power that will aid him in any work to which the duties of life may call him.

But as yet I have said little concerning the value of the facts learned in pursuing such a course of study. The value of the information gained was formerly the chief reason for studying natural history, as it was called. But now the best educators know that the power to discover truth, to acquire knowledge, is of far greater value than simple possession of knowledge. However, the information obtained from the study is of great value to any one. For example, in studying progressively the structure and use of the organs of the animals below man, they get accurate ideas concerning their own bodies. I make a special effort to have them get correct ideas concerning sexual organs and processes, that subject concerning which there is such a wide spread ignorance and such a lamentable amount of false modesty and reticence on the part of both those who should receive and those who should impart this instruction. The study of the sexual processes in the lower plants furnishes an excellent opportunity to get correct ideas concerning sex. The sum total of the information gained can be greatly increased by the reading that pupils should do after making a thorough study of the object. They can appreciate and remember the illustrations and opinions of others after they have made drawings, written descriptions, and expressed opinions of their own. This is a part of the work that is too frequently omitted. Biological work is often merely a study of types, without sufficient reading to get the connecting facts.

What this work ought to do for its students, then, is to train their powers of observation; to teach them how to discover truth for themselves; to train them in expressing discovered truths in the form of drawings and in written and oral language; to train them in the power of getting thoughts from the writings of other investigators; to lead them to see the beauties and harmonies in Nature, and incidentally to give them information concerning life and life problems that will be ever useful to them in any occupation they may choose.


  1. Natural Science in Secondary Schools. Bureau of Education, Washington, D. C, 1882, p. 3.
  2. Elementary Botanical Exercises. Lincoln, Neb., 1892, p. 3.
  3. School Review, March, 1893, p. 143.
  4. Science, October 20, 1893, p. 217.
  5. School Review, March, 1893, p. 148.
  6. Natural Science in Secondary Schools. Bureau of Education, Washington, D. C, 1882, p. 6.