Popular Science Monthly/Volume 85/November 1914/The Science of Education


By Professor JOHN PERRY


I WANT you to understand that we have established some fundamental principles in our science: (1) A subject must interest a pupil. (2) A man who trains dogs or seals or bears or other animals makes a close study of their minds. In the same way we must recognize that one boy differs from another, and study the mind of each boy. (3) If a boy is not very receptive of an important subject we must do our best with him and try to settle what is the minimum with which we ought to be satisfied. Only a few subjects ought to be compulsory on all boys. (4) There are two classes of boys unequal as to numbers, (a) those fond of, and (b) those not capable of abstract reasoning. (5) Another two classes are (a) those fond of, and (b) those not fond of language study. (6) Every boy may be made to write and read in his own language and he may be made fond of reading. (7) The average boy's reasoning faculties are most surely developed by letting him do things. That is, for example, through his sports, or through wood or metal working, or gardening, or experiments involving weighing and measuring. Through the last of these he learns to compute. A boy of eight learns decimals in an hour if he weighs and measures, whereas by the usual method of teaching he is ignorant of decimals at the age of fourteen. A boy learns whist very quickly if you seat him with three other people at a table with a pack of cards; he would not learn in a month if he had no cards. Would you teach a boy to swim by mere talk? (8) Every boy must get a good deal of personal attention. (9) However good a system may be there can be no good results if the teachers are cheap; cheap teachers are usually stupid and over-worked. Men in charge of schools and colleges never seem to learn this. The market price must be paid for a capable man. (10) Fairly good results may be expected from a good teacher, even when he is compelled to work on a bad system, but really good results can be obtainable only from a good teacher with a good system.

I need not go into details about all these principles, but I should like to dwell presently upon a few of them. At the beginning of this address I spoke of the obstruction to great necessary reform—too much antiquated machinery to "scrap." Most schoolmasters will admit the necessity for reform in the case of the average boy, but they say that parents are opposed to the reform. Unbelief in education for the average man is so general among the higher classes that I am afraid we shall have no reform unless some great national disaster causes conversion. There is a lesson for England, and, indeed, for all European races, in the recent history of Japan. The old structure of Japan was in many ways beautiful, but it proved to be without physical strength. Its extreme weakness proved its salvation. Even the teachers of ancient classics saw that for strength it was necessary to let scientific method permeate the thought of the whole population. And now, at the end of the first chapter of Japan's modern history, we find a nation which can not only defend itself, but which retains all of its spiritual life which was beautiful. Every unit of the population can not only read and write, but it is fond of reading, and its education did not cease when it left school. It is getting an increased love for natural science, so that it can reason clearly; it is not carried away by charlatans; it retains its individuality. One result of this is that in time of war Japan has scientific armies. Not only are its admirals and generals scientific, but also every officer, every private is scientific. Everything in the whole country is being developed scientifically, and we Europeans, hag-ridden by pedantry in our schools and universities, refuse to learn an easy lesson. At present we do not even ask what is meant by education or what education is necessary if a particular boy is to be fitted for his life's work. In 1902, when I was President of Section G, and in opening a discussion on the teaching of mechanics at Johannesburg in 1905, I gave my views as to the teaching of a young engineer, but they apply also to the teaching of nearly all boys. These views have been commended by experienced engineers and teachers. To understand me it is first necessary to try to cast away prejudices, and this is especially difficult if one has a pecuniary interest in education. The student of almost any other science than education cares for nothing but the truth; even when he has committed himself to a theory and his good name or credit is at stake the rule of the game is perfectly well known and must be adhered to. The student must not neglect fact or pervert fact; he must be quite fair. The student of physical science sees at once whether or not he is playing the game, because the coordinates are few; there are no complexities, such as we find in our own life problems. This also is why the study of physical science is so good in causing boys to reason, for reasoning can only be taught by constant practise on simple matters which one thoroughly comprehends. Consider a boy's views about ordinary affairs. He is downright. A complex thing must be greatly simplified to him. His painting is in black-and-white; there is no delicate shading in his picture. He never sits on the fence; he is never a trimmer. An historical character is awfully good or awfully bad, very clever or very stupid. A boy is, in fact, cocksure about everything. He is incapable of reasoning about complex things. And when we try to teach him to reason about simple things we must be quite sure that they really are simple to him, that he understands them. For example, many educationists say that the study of geometry is just right for a boy. Well, yes, for five per cent, of all boys, boys who can take in abstract ideas. They take to Euclid as a duck takes to water. But for the other ninety-five per cent, geometry is very hurtful, because unless they continually experiment with rulers and compasses they do not understand what the reasoning is about. In ancient times only very old and exceptionally clever men were allowed to study geometry. We now assume that it ought to be an easy study for the average English boy. Generation after generation we stupefy the average English boy with demonstrative geometry, and we call him a duffer so often that he thinks himself a duffer, and even his mother thinks him a duffer, and, indeed, we have done our best with geometry and Latin to make him a duffer. Only for his football and cricket, which teach him to reason a little, he would become a duffer. And yet in my opinion if this average boy were properly taught in school he would prove to be very superior to the boy who is usually called clever. The schoolmaster calls a boy clever because he is exactly like what the schoolmaster himself was when a boy; but I am afraid that I place little value on the schoolmaster's cleverness, whether as a boy or a man. Reasoning can be taught through almost anything that a boy does, but more than all things through his experiments in natural science. Formal lessons on reasoning, on logic, are utterly useless, and I may say that set lessons on almost any subject are utterly useless for the average boy.

Milton's poems are greatly praised. Well, I am not going to say a word against the people who talk in public about the most wonderful epic in our language and who never read it; but how many people have read Milton's magnificent prose works? Milton first taught me the true notion of education, that the greatest mistake is in teaching subjects in watertight compartments. It is the idea underlying one of the most instructive books ever written, "Sandford and Merton." When teaching a subject, teach all sorts of other subjects as well. If Mr. Barlow's boys were interested in astronomy he showed them stars and planets through a telescope for a night or two, but he gave them no stupefying course on astronomy. He gave them stars and the solar system just as long as they were interested. He used a globe as well as mere maps in teaching them geography and history, but the soul-destroying idea of a course of study on "the use of the globes" did not commend itself to him. They walked over the fields and took an interest in trees and flowers, but he gave them no stupefying course on botany. When he gave them a lesson on English grammar or literature he taught them at the same time the geography and history and the fairy stories of their country. How can a man give a course on grammar or geography or history or anything else without diverting his talk in an interesting way to other subjects? What is so tremendously important about natural science laboratory work is that a student must be thinking all the time about the same matters, not from one but from ten interesting points of view. He is not merely observing, he is measuring, he is computing, he is reasoning; he has to write out descriptions of what he sees and does, and he thinks then of his spelling and grammar; he has to sketch; he has to read books about what other people have done before him on the same subject, and also for statistics. He learns the value of a bit of work done in a clean honest way, and when he gets some more experience he glows with the feeling that he has really added to the knowledge of the world. He is a discoverer, and he feels the emotion of Cortez! It is marvelous the alteration which has occurred in the mental attitude of the common average boy. Instead of feeling that he is a degraded slave he feels the emotion of his childhood returning to him. He once made the great discovery at the age of six that the back garden was inhabited by fairies and lions and Indians and pirates. He was the Caliph Haroun Alraschid for a while. And now, after a wretched life at Latin and Euclid, a new revelation is vouchsafed to him, and as he gathers years he finds that nature is placidly willing to let him steal her secrets little by little, one by one, secrets that are gradually changing men from the bewilderment and spirit possession of the Middle Ages; so that at length he enters into complete communion with nature and rollicks with her, and quarrels with her, and loves her more and more until he dies. And his reasoning power has been growing all the time, so that more and more he understands complex things, for, after an experimental study of story-books, he probably entered the kingdom of Shakespeare at the age of fourteen. Things requiring memory can be learned only in early life—weights and measures, the multiplication table, languages. He knows games involving spelling. But, over and above all these, he has from infancy repeated all sorts of poetry long before he could enjoy much more of it than the jingle of its rhyme.

Education consists in the development of a man from his earliest day, and does not cease till he dies. Any thoughtful man must see that there is no science so important as that of education, the preparation of children of this generation to be the citizens, the rulers of the country, in the next generation. The whole future of our Empire depends upon the education of the children. By the study of this science we hope to improve teaching so as to make future citizens not only to have more knowledge and more skill, but to make them wiser than the people of the present or the past.

Early training determines what later training ought to be. Let us consider what the early training of a boy ought to be. In his very early days nature has provided that his education shall proceed very rapidly by observation and experiment, and the only teaching needed is through careful nursing and affection. He teaches himself, and he loves to learn. He ought to get toys not too realistic, for he loves to weave romance around his toys, but still things to observe and experiment with. He has most complex problems in physical science when he is only a few weeks old, the solution of which involves much labor, but it is pleasant labor and he is happy. And he will remain sweet-tempered and happy and unspoilt if there is real affection from his teachers. If, however, somebody teases him by playing practical jokes, or if a selfish mother who was unreasonably kind to him yesterday is unreasonably unkind to him to-day, he gets, because of his reasoning power, a sense of injustice. Man, woman, or child with a sense of injustice may be said to be possessed of a devil. During the first six years of a child's life the creation of its power to reason is more wonderful than anything else, and this reasoning power comes altogether by observation and experiment. An affectionate parent easily finds methods of helping nature in this process. The unspoilt boy of six years seems to forget nothing that he hears; he has gathered a most wonderful vocabulary; he knows endless nursery rhymes and simple poetry; he is as active and adventurous as a kitten, and everything he does is cultivating his senses. This is the time when he fills the smallest playground (which to grown-ups seems bare and desolate) with giants and fairies and Indians and pirates, with forests and mountains and rivers and oceans. His imagination is so extraordinary that the most uncouth creation of his own gives him exquisite pleasure. Why do I dwell upon this stage of a boy's development? Because it has been so perfect! Nature has learned to do this to children during perhaps hundreds of thousands of years, and it has been the most important time of a boy's life, the time when, if parents will only give the boy their love and greatly let him alone otherwise, he develops mentally more than during all the rest of his life. Speaking broadly, he has done nothing in all this time except what nature and affection made pleasant to him. I have studied the science of education and practised the art of teaching all my life, and I say that all our failures are due to our neglect of nature's methods, and our schools destroy the good effects which nature has produced.

As a rule I do not like to be told that certain subjects must be compulsory, but surely every child of eleven must have some such qualifications as these: (1) The power to speak and read and write in his own language. (2) To be able to do easy computation. (3) To have an exact knowledge of the simplest principles of natural science from his own observation and experiment. I think that every observer must acknowledge that these powers are possible for almost every boy of eleven. Some of us have for many years been endeavoring to show how the child of six may acquire these powers by the age of eleven if nature's methods—that is, kindergarten methods—are followed. For example, he plays at keeping shop, selling or buying things by weight and measure, and paying or receiving actual money and giving change. He weighs and measures with greater and greater accuracy as he makes experiments in mechanics and heat and chemistry. Every boy is fond of stories, and if treated reasonably is easily induced to learn to read. Heading aloud is easily made a pleasure and a habit, and so the boy learns to speak properly. Any boy whatever will become fond of reading if the people about him are fond of reading: I state this as a fact which I have investigated. A boy who is fond of reading gets later on to know the value of books and the use of books, and he will go on educating himself till he dies. Any attempt at coercion, unless it is the very gentle coercion of a person whom he loves, is fatal; even coaxing is not always good. He assimilates knowledge from everything which he does, and therefore he ought to be induced to do things which not only keep him healthy, but which give him knowledge and teach him to reason. Do you remember how angry Lanfranc of Bee was at the idea that any pupil could be forced to learn; he said "it turned men into beasts." I speak to you who love children, who love young people, who know that there is hardly one child in a hundred, even among rather spoilt children, who does not love to do his duty.

Under the best and most loving of teachers a lonely child has enormous disadvantages, but these can generally be remedied. The usual mistake is to send it to a large school. If it is merely a day school there is no great harm. But no child under thirteen ought to be sent to a boarding school unless it is a small school and the master and his wife have a love and sympathy for other people's children. There are such people in the world, God bless them! but they are not numerous. They are so few that we must return to nature as the best of teachers. The time is coming when a child's own father and mother will have much more knowledge and wisdom than they have now, and they will refuse to give up to others the doing of their highest duties. It is at present not sufficiently recognized that the most important duty of the parents is the education of their children. At present, men who are building up fortunes are too busy to think of their children, and so we find that the sons of Lord Chancellors and other successful men have been marrying chorus girls and squandering those very fortunes to which their education was sacrificed. Of course, if parents are uneducated, and therefore selfish or otherwise foolish, any kind of school may be better than home for their doomed children. It is one of the great advantages of poverty that the children go to day schools and they keep in touch with home life. If the day school is really a boarding school as well, it will be found that there is always a differentiation in favor of the boarder, which has a very bad caste effect, just as the "modern-side" boy of any public school suffers in character because he is of a lower caste than the classical-side boy. It is usual to remove a stupid classical-side boy to the modern side, and every boy on the modern side has a sense of injustice. The work of the modern side ought to be much the higher, but it is always badly done because the atmosphere is altogether bad.

It may be said that I am only destructive in my criticism of public schools. I think it will be found that I am also constructive, although I acknowledge that my sketch needs much filling in. "Well, can much more be done in an address lasting one hour? I will now try my hand at a little filling in. I have no objection to the existence of classical schools something like the present for boys who are fond of classics. The average boy will not be asked to attend such a school. I feel sure that much greater attention ought to be paid to the teaching of English composition, to English poetry and prose, and to English subjects generally. I also feel sure that much attention ought to be paid to natural science. And surely it can do no good for the classical masters to go on sneering at natural science subjects and calling them "stinks" as they do now.

I want, however, to speak more particularly of a much higher kind of school, which will educate the boy usually called clever and also the boy usually called stupid. As I have already remarked, I think that these names may sometimes be redistributed.

The school is one for boys from eleven to sixteen years of age. It ought in no way to be connected with any classical school. English subjects will predominate, but teaching in Latin and Greek and modern languages and other alternative subjects will be provided, although they will not be forced upon any boy. The masters who teach English ought to know enough Latin and Greek and Celtic and Old English and modern languages to be able to illustrate the derivation of English words through their roots. And they must be well read in English subjects and fond of English literature. They will make the boys fond of reading English, and encourage them to find out what they like best. Some boys will take to history and philosophy, some to poetry and imaginative literature. Every boy ought to get the best chance of developing his faculties. It may be asked—if we can not make the average boy spend or waste twelve hours a week on Latin, what are we to do with him? At all events, now, we keep him doing something, even if it is only marking time. My answer is, you think only of his putting in time; well, then, let him put in his time at work that interests him; any work of that kind must be educative under an intelligent master who can help him in his studies if it induces him to look up information for himself. Thus, when reading travels or history, he will use the globe and raised maps and read geography, and hunt up plans of battlefields. Think of the things that a boy used to be punished for doing, and let him do those things under wise direction. I used to be punished for reading Scott and Cooper. Nowadays prizes are given to boys for their knowledge of Ivanhoe or Quentin Durward. Expand this into a system. A boy who loves to browse over Chambers' English literature ought to be guided in his browsing, and induced to take up something more than selections, and he may easily be induced to get off selections by heart if his teacher does not show his contempt by speaking of such exercises as Rep. [repetition].

Let the teacher take a leaf out of our methods of teaching chemistry and physics. It has been shown that twenty-five boys doing work in the laboratory during a lesson of an hour and a half or two hours can be managed by one teacher. Experimental lectures in a lecture room have now been greatly discarded; such lessons as I speak of take place in the laboratory, but reliance is placed particularly upon the personal attention of the teacher being given to each group of students in charge of an investigation, the group not being usually greater than four in number, and often being less than two. These students are sometimes merely verifying or testing a statement made by the teacher or found in a book, but they are often finding out things for themselves. One idea underlying the work is that there ought to be more and more illustrations of simple fundamental principles. It is long before these simple things really become part of a boy's mental machinery; things like the mere definition of force, for example. It is, of course, quite different work for the teacher from anything that he used to have to do; for one thing, being much more exhausting. He can not shirk his duties and sit down waiting for students to come to him. When teaching degenerates into mere maintenance of discipline, everything being regarded as right if the pupils are quiet and seem to be diligent, it is necessary to make a radical change, usually a dismissal of the teacher. It used to be that a science master gave an experimental lecture, and afterwards he had a very easy time, letting the students follow a set routine in the laboratory, but this will no longer do; such attendance at lectures and laboratory work means poor mental training.

Now, I would work out a system for English, English composition, English poetry and prose, geography, history and other English subjects, on the lines that we have found so successful in natural science. An enormous change has been effected during the last fifteen years in the teaching of mathematics. The older methods always failed with the average boy or man. The new system, which is sometimes called practical mathematics, is based on the idea that students shall work experimentally, just as they do in their natural science. It is found that their eyes and faces are bright, they work hard, and they evidently enjoy their work. We have merely introduced common sense into the teaching; we have approached the student's mind from other points of view than the old academic one, from the only side on which he has ever been taught anything—the side of observation and trial. He weighs and measures. He does experimental geometry and mensuration, and is assisted by abstract reasoning just to the extent which interests him; he makes plans of the school buildings and maps of the district; algebra becomes interesting when in coordination with experiments in mechanics and physics; trigonometry becomes interesting in the actual measurements of heights and distances. The infinitesimal calculus is bound to be a weapon which any boy of fifteen easily gets to understand by actual use when he is dealing with dynamic experiments. In fact, the physical and mathematical laboratories are in one, and the same teacher takes charge of both subjects and teaches them as much as possible together.

Furthermore, in the preparation of an account of an investigation there are practical lessons in English composition; there is sketching, and also more careful drawing with instruments, and the finding of empirical laws, using squared paper. In such a school every subject is being taught through all the other subjects; every boy is doing the work in which he is greatly interested, and no boy is attending merely and putting in time. Furthermore, out of school-time there might be the usual restrictions as to "bounds," but otherwise I would let a boy do pretty much as he pleased. "Prep." at boarding schools and home lessons for boys at day schools are to be quite discredited. I would—it may cost a little more money—allow a boy to work in the workshops or laboratories or library or in his own room or common rooms at anything he pleases in this off-time, and I would give him advice only if he asks for it. If I saw a boy reading a penny dreadful I would not stop him; nor if he were reading Paine's "Age of Reason," or any wretched treatise on psychology or logic. I would in no way discourage a boy from acquiring a greater and greater fondness for reading, knowing that this is the foundation of future happiness and education, and that no harm which he can get from his reading is of the slightest importance in comparison with the importance of our main object. As he grows up he will become less and less fond of the six-penny magazine. The school can at its best be merely a preparation for the lifelong education of the man. I would not keep the boy at school after sixteen. Let him then go into business, or to a science or technical school, or to the university.

Unfortunately for the present no university will take men without an entrance examination involving other languages than English. This is a great evil, but it is not going to last much longer. In the meantime a competent coach will prepare any student to pass the necessary examinations (say, in Latin and Greek) in three months, even if there is much other work to do. This is not a matter of learning any classics; it is rather the manufacture of some contempt for the classics, a necessary evil for the present. Indeed, for the present, but let us hope not for long, there are many other necessary evils. We have to find competent enthusiastic teachers, we have to persuade governing bodies to pay salaries two or more times as great as at present, we have to make parents see that some mental training and fondness for reading and writing are really of value, and that Tom Sawyerism is only childish.

The importance of primary education is now well recognized. Rich and aristocratic folk know that they are now in the hands of the common people in a democratic country, and it is important to see that the common people shall be made fit to rule and shall have a real sense of fairness and reasonableness. Above all, if they are to be good citizens we must cultivate their common sense. I think that in the schemes and the administration of primary education by the Boards of England and Scotland it is in a good way; but there is one great curse upon it, and the enormous sums of money spent upon it are greatly wasted. The local authorities give to every teacher far too much to do, and they give him only half his proper wages. In a few years the government of our democratic country will be in the hands of the boys now at school. That they should be good citizens full of common sense is more important than any other thing. If they are without fondness for books, and if they can not reason, their votes will be at the command of fraudulent or foolish, or perhaps only selfish or self-deceiving speakers. Our empire was ruled by George the Third, and by God's grace we only lost America and piled up the national debt; but think of an empire ruled by millions of Georges! Teaching the young requires great wisdom and sympathy, and we trust it to people paid half wages, the "otherwise unemployed." In the secondary schools also we find this penny wise pound foolish policy, and it is particularly evil in the great technical schools. A city is proud of its magnificent college of science, first because of its architecture: secondly, because of its equipment in apparatus, perhaps in steam and gas engines and other expensive machinery. And the man in charge of the most important department of that college receives perhaps £250 a year. He ought to get at least £600. That is the market price of a fit man, and without a fit man the whole money and the time of students are being wasted; the thing is really a fraud, a whited sepulcher, and of course the principal is always a classical non-scientific man. Photographs of the building and its laboratories are very fine to look at in guide-books of the city, and the managers of the college get public thanks for their services. I know nearly all the technical and science colleges of Great Britain, and I hardly ever see any of their complacent managers, members of their governing bodies, without wishing that I had some of the powers of the familiars of the old Spanish Inquisition. What right have they to undertake duties which require a knowledge of natural science?

The latest proposal of our callous copiers of the Germans is to make attendance at evening classes compulsory up to the age of seventeen. At present working boys attend evening classes voluntarily, although in many cases they are too tired to learn much. Yet many of them do learn. These boys are almost martyrs. They sacrifice so many of their poor pleasures, and indeed duties, that they certainly deserve success in life. But it is not fair to impose these sacrifices upon boys who are, as apprentices, learning the principles underlying their trade, and who are paid only small wages on the understanding that their masters teach these principles. In 1889 I introduced a bill into the Kensington Parliament compelling employers to provide such instruction during the working hours. Reforms of all kinds proceed with exasperating slowness, but already many employers are carrying out this idea.

In some things we reformers have made way. It is now recognized almost everywhere that examinations ought to be conducted mainly by the teachers of a student. I have often put the matter in this way: Huxley used to teach about forty students in biology; we can not imagine better teaching. But if those students had only wanted to pass the examination of London University, it is quite certain that they would have done very much better by attending the class of a cheap crammer. A university consisting of two, three, or more federated colleges is very little better than a mere outside examining body, and this is what London University has always been. I am glad that a change towards something better is now about to take place. A number of separate universities would be better, but in two years or less, probably, the colleges of London will conduct their own intermediate and degree examinations. One result will be that when a man gets his degree he will not shut up his books forever.

I would, however, point out that Old London University, which was a mere examining body, served an exceedingly important purpose. This statement may seem curious coming from a person who has always railed at London University as a mere examining board. I still say that it was never a university at all in the past. But a man reading hard by himself, perhaps far away from a college, could have a severe test applied to his acquirements which encouraged him in his studies when he had no other encouragement, and the test was very rightly a severe test. To do away with its outside examinations altogether, as I believe is the intention of the authorities, will be exceedingly harmful. It would be impertinent in me to make a suggestion as to the distinction which might be made between a degree conferred by his own professors upon a man who has attended regularly a college of repute, and a degree conferred by a mere examining body upon an outside student. For the first, the examination test may be easy. The Oxford and Cambridge pass degree examinations are quite easy, and rightly so, for the real qualification is that an undergraduate shall have lived for three years in the intellectual and cultured life of an Oxford or Cambridge college. In the other case the mere examination is the only test, and it is rightly very severe. The two kinds of degree differ altogether in quality. In a new country of great distances I can imagine many good secondary schools to be established having neither sufficient funds nor sufficient pupils to be qualified as universities. Yet it may be of enormous importance that a few of the older pupils at such schools should as external students be examined for degrees by distant universities, which in such a case, are merely outside examining bodies. I can see the gradual increase in importance of such secondary schools leading to the establishment of something higher—namely, colleges of university rank—and I can see such affiliated colleges becoming universities themselves perhaps after a period in which two or more of them federated themselves as universities. But I say that there ought always to be some examination machinery by which a student who is too poor or who through any other circumstance is unable to attend a university college may be encouraged to study by himself, by having his attainments tested.

In this address I have said nothing about the education of women. I have always advocated higher education for girls, but it is surely wicked to teach girls as if they were boys. Men are concentrative, and they specialize; women observe more and more about many things, and they really have more capacity for acquiring mental power. Until quite recently girls were saved from stupidity, but the high schools are now giving a crammed knowledge of facts and of the opinions of the tribe, so that girls and women are ceasing to think for themselves. The education of men is in a bad way, but that of women is becoming much worse.

I think that in this address I have put forward no idea that I have not already published time after time in the last thirty-five years. I put these views forward again because, after much thought and much experience, I still think them to be correct, and I feel sure that they must prevail. But I must confess that it is only a very hopeful man who can peg away at a thankless task as Dr. Armstrong and I have been doing so long.

  1. From the address of the president of the Educational Science Section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Australia, 1914.