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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 83/August 1913/The Sequence of Sciences in the High School



OF all the questions to which educational committees and journals have been devoted, the problem of what the high school sciences shall be, and the order in which they shall be given, shows least progress toward final agreement. The two phases, what they shall be, and where each shall go, are so related that they can not be considered separately, for while we are fixing the one, we find that we have forced the other out of place. The problem is complicated by the introduction of a third unknown factor of how the sciences shall be affected by the introduction into the high school of industrial subjects, such as agriculture, which includes many applications of science. And it should be stated that no debate of this subject can be very profitable that does not include in the premises an agreement as to what sciences should be undertaken below the high school.

High school mathematics has a logical sequence that admits of little variation. History has a chronological sequence which must be observed, at least within its larger units; and literature has a genetic sequence which finds its counterpart in the development of the child. The science group, on the contrary, is split into distinct sciences, each of which in the hands of its specialist and advocate contends for the place of vantage in the latter part of the course, where all the others may contribute to its dignity by preparing its way and making straight its paths. Thus, for example, botany and chemistry are each politely saying to the other, "after you." Meanwhile the result of this internal disagreement is to break the unity of science, thus greatly impairing the value of each division, while weakening the ability of the whole group to properly assert itself in the larger claims of the several groups.

The "unity of science" implies a dependence between different sciences which will usually be found to be mutual and argues equally well forward or backward. One method of compromising conflicting claims for precedence is to divide a science into two portions, the elementary to be given in the first year, or earlier, as an introductory science, and the advanced phase placed in the last year of the course. This method is specially suited to such a science as physics, whose rapid growth in recent years has accumulated more subject-matter than the average high school can properly treat in a year. Such a proposition is suggested in the report adopted by the secondary department of the National Education Association in July, 1911, on "The Articulation of High School and College." In its report of 1893, the Committee of Ten suggested a similar treatment of the subject of geography, a recommendation that seems to have had little influence on subsequent practise.

Despite the variety of opinion as to what the sequence of high

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school science should be, experience has established a generally accepted order, agreeing more or less with the authoritative report of the Committee of Ten. Recent high school courses of study of the twenty-one largest cities in Illinois, omitting Chicago and its environs, give interesting data concerning the present practise. The method of using these data was to give the value .5 to a science offered any time in the first year, 1.5 if offered in the second, 2.5 in the third and 3.5 in the fourth year. For each subject, the value was taken as determined by the printed course, and the sum of the twenty-one values divided by twenty-one to find the average. Thus should each offer a particular science in the first year, the average would be a value of .5; but should any offer it at a later date the effect would be to raise that value an amount agreeable to the year in which found, subject to the reduction due to averaging. The averages thus obtained for the six sciences susceptible to this treatment were as follows:

Physical geography 75 Zoology 1.85
Physiology 94 Chemistry 2.95
Botany 1.45 Physics 3.00

The order given in the table is the prevailing order in these schools, the chief value of the table being to show the relative, rather than the actual positions. For it is apparent that the natural tendency to vary is restricted within the limits and 4, the beginning and close of the high school course, with the result that reducing a science from the high school into the grades inequitably destroys its influence on the average, and that intermediate values may result from averaging extremes as well as means, while all averages tend unduly toward the middle value.

The figures should also be interpreted in the light of a statute requiring physiology to be taught in the first year of the high school, and another which requires geography and physiology of all candidates for teachers' certificates, all the remaining sciences but chemistry being required for the first grade certificate.

In an investigation of 48 high schools "principally in the Middle West," Miss Ada L. Weckel[1] obtained data which give almost the same sequence, though not the same values for these subjects, the only difference being that physiology, probably because it is not so firmly bound in place by statute in other states as in Illinois, has migrated to a position between botany and zoology. Mr. E. E. Ramsey[2] in a similar investigation of the high schools of Indiana and other states of the Middle West gets corroborative results.

The recommendation of the Committee of Ten concerning geography was that the more elementary portions constitute the "physical geography" of the first year, while the more technical portions be carried over to the last of the course. Though no school was found to divide the subject for an elementary and an advanced treatment they generally agree with the recommendation by placing it in the first year, variations from which showed a tendency to carry it over to the last year.

No recommendation of the committee has been more generally observed in practise than the one placing botany and zoology in the second year. However, these two subjects, at first closely associated, show an unmistakable drift from their moorings, botany moving downward toward the first year, as shown in Miss Weckel's investigations, and zoology moving toward the third year or being eliminated. Botany is subjected to two opposing influences, which will probably divide it into two distinct portions. . The introduction of agriculture below the high school is already resulting in the injection of much elementary botany into the elementary grades, while the leading botanists insist on giving high school botany a character that would move it in the other direction. The migration of zoology to the third and fourth years, to be followed by physiology, as located by the Committee of Ten, would make possible an evolutionary treatment of the combined subject that is much to be desired.

The recommendation of the committee regarding physics and chemistry has not been respected. It will be recalled that the conference to whom the committee assigned those subjects recommended a placement identical with the one now prevailing; but owing to their division of physical geography into an elementary and an advanced portion, the committee reversed that order so that physics might precede and prepare for the advanced work in physical geography. The reason for this reversal not proving well founded, the recommendation of the conference should prevail. This would agree with the present evident tendency to relieve the physics difficulty by putting its elementary phases into a first-year science course and leaving the more technical and quantitative treatment for the last year of the course.


The proverbial inertia of school curricula makes unsafe any laissez faire method of establishing the sequence of high school sciences. But it must not be thought that the present sequence is to any considerable extent the result of neglect. What then are the influences that have established this order of treatment?

Doubtless authoritative recommendation of competent committees have been a strong influence. Also, the accrediting system of the colleges and universities, by requiring a certain character of work offered in admission, have indirectly determined its location in the course. And an increasing complexity and supposed dependence of subjects has been a component of the final result. The tendency to place general and prescribed courses before special and elective courses has been a strong influence. Other temporary causes are the supply and demand of scholarship in high school teachers and their preparation for the different sciences, and the relative expense of equipment which the different sciences demand. Finally to be mentioned as a powerful factor is the recency of introduction of the various sciences to the course. All subjects shown in the high school course have entered it from above, having been handed down from the colleges, and tend to gravitate from the latter part of the course toward the earlier, until they find their supposed level in youthful capacity. Thus chemistry, the most recent introduction, has probably not yet exhausted its downward tendency.

Yet the foregoing influences are all more or less superficial and transient. Deeper than them all is a rational motive that has sometimes found its expression through them and should ultimately control the sequence of science in the high school.

With the young the learning process involves a great deal of muscular reaction. This necessity of motor expression diminishes with advancing years and the accumulation of an interpretive stock of motor experience with things. The size of the muscles involved in these reactions is an index of the stage of development of the learner. And since the accuracy and promptness of every muscle seem capable of unlimited improvement by education, they, too, indicate stages of development. On final analysis, the correct gradation and sequence of all rational school subjects will probably be found to conform to muscular development. The difficulties in high school sciences mostly inhere in the formulæ with which the teacher short-circuits his explanations or the verbiage with which he covers his ignorance. Whatever is definite is easy. Uncertain or confused things, only, are difficult and anything worth knowing may be taught the adolescent by a competent teacher.

Applying this test of motor adjustments, a solution of the problem of high school science will at the same time determine the correct sequence of the different phases of agriculture in the schools. All of the subjects involve the use of both the large and the small muscles. Subjects demanding more use of the finer muscles go later in the course than those involving more use of the coarser. Those requiring skill and accuracy of the larger muscles may often have an early or late treatment, or both. First-year high school students are familiar with or may make all of the adjustments demanded by such work as geography, soils, stream action, farm machines and elementary physics. Tillage, the study of the corn plant and ear, the morphology of root, stem and leaf, and budding, grafting, pruning and spraying involve motor adjustments appropriate to the grammar grades. The examination of cells, fibro-vascular bundles, and the stamens and pistils of most plants, and the making of biological drawings, work which exercises the finer muscles of accommodation, the preparation of slides and the adjustment of the microscope, do not belong below the second year of the high school. And correlated with the botany may appropriately be placed budding, grafting, spraying and pruning in a more rational form and demanding a higher grade of skill. School gardening, exercising, as the work does, the larger body muscles, is appropriate to the primary grades. Nature study may be defined as the most appropriate muscle culture known to the schools in that it automatically adjusts itself to the stage of development of the pupil. Until some one defines more definitely than has yet been done the character of animal husbandry best suited to the schools that subject may go anywhere in the course. When the need and the opportunity for the drawing of correct animal conformation are appreciated, it will be given an advanced position. Exercises in advanced physics demand delicate adjustments appropriate to the last year of the high school course, which position also agrees with the mathematical requirements of the subject. Accurate use of dissecting instruments, the fine balance, fragile glassware and c.p. reagents, and the making of a pure culture and keeping it pure, demand muscular skill not to be found below the third year of the high school course.

Influenced by this factor, the high school sciences will find their places, and the sequence of the different phases of agriculture that are naturally correlated with them will, by the same process, have their positions determined.

  1. School Science, May, 1911.
  2. School Science, December, 1911.