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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
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How to Best Study Nature

by Mr. J. C. Medd, M.A.
Volume 14, 1903, pgs. 902-906


At 12.15 p.m. (Mr. Herbert Sutton in the chair), Mr. J. C. Medd, M.A., read his paper on How to Best Study Nature

The subject entrusted to me this morning is one with which teachers alone are qualified to deal in detail, for they can speak from practical experience, and practical experience is the only safe guide in matters of education. I am not, however, responsible for the title, and it is a little presumptuous in one, who has never conducted a single class, to offer any remarks upon the best way of studying nature. My reason for accepting the invitation was that every teacher in proportion to his success is apt to lay stress upon the particular method which he has adopted. This is natural, and, within limits, is of great value, but it is essential that we should not be tied to stereotyped methods of instruction. At the same time, the circumstances of each school differ so widely, and the resources which nature has placed at our disposal are so infinite in their variety, that what is appropriate in one school may be wholly out of place at another. The result is that teachers anxious to promote nature study occasionally become discouraged, when they feel that some method which is held up as the ideal, is quite beyond such knowledge or facilities as they possess. It is therefore of advantage sometimes to consider the subject in its broader aspects, and that must be my apology for addressing you.

No one, who has at heart the improvement of education, can fail to be gratified by the attention now devoted to nature study, but we must avoid exaggeration. There is always a danger lest undue prominence may be given to a particular subject through the enthusiasm of its advocates; too much may be attempted, and the true function of the subject in a well-ordered scheme of studies may be overlooked. One of the most difficult and important duties in devising any scheme of education is to determine the relative educational value of each item in the curriculum, and to assign to each its proper proportion. Where there is exaggeration, reaction inevitably follows, and we, who honestly believe that nature study can be made peculiarly useful, should bear this constantly in mind.

We have seen how much modern secondary education has suffered from the excessive stimulus given to more or less specialised instruction by the Science and Art grants from South Kensington, and in our efforts we must beware of a similar mistake. We may be grateful for the assistance rendered by Societies formed for the encouragement of natural history, but we must not allow other interests to be neglected through the furtherance of their aims.

The first thing then for us to decide is-what we mean by nature study. It does not readily lead itself to definition. It is not merely a sentimental regard for animals and plants, although it will foster the love of both: nor is it elementary science, although it will lay the foundations for the generalisations of science. It is rather a method of teaching than a specific subject. Its aim is to bring the child into direct relation with facts, to lead him from the abstract to the concrete, and to stimulate him to investigate phenomena for himself. This is to promote that process of self-instruction which is the basis of all true education. Viewed thus, nature study does not necessarily involve the introduction of a new subject. The intention, rather, is to make the living world the groundwork in reading, composition, mathematics and drawing; not so much to impart information as to develop a particular habit of mind; in other words, to use nature only as an instrument and not as an end in itself. In this way we may create an influence which will permeate the whole of school life, and infuse a vitality and reality into every lesson, which books alone can never supply.

The instruction should always proceed in an ever-widening circle, from the known to the unknown, commencing with the immediate environment. This is the right method in all education, especially in geography, in which we have too often been in the habit of telling the child about the course of the Nile, while he is left in ignorance of the course of the river that runs by his own home. There are few directions in which the study of nature may be eventually pursued with great profit and pleasure than by making a regional survey of the flora and fauna of a given district. Such a botanical survey of portions of Scotland was admirably prepared by the late Mr. W. Smith, and details of his plan may be obtained from his brother, Professor Smith, of the Yorkshire College, or from Professor Geddes, of Dundee.

In formulating a scheme of nature study, it is immaterial what branch of the subject be selected, whether it fall under the head of botany, entomology, animal physiology, geology, or any kindred subject. Each is equally valuable from the educational standpoint, which is the first consideration. That aspect of nature should be chosen which is most accessible, which is most compatible with the resources of the school, and in which the teacher takes the greatest personal interest, for an enthusiastic teacher makes an enthusiastic pupil. Such advice might seem superfluous, but we must be on our guard against those who, in their zeal for particular methods, decry everything which does not conform to some arbitrary standard.

There is indeed no town or rural district which does not furnish appropriate material. Many here are doubtless aware of the excellent use to which the teacher at one of the schools in that smoke-begrimed town of Stockport has put the river Mersey, making it the subject of innumerable lessons. This shows what may be done in the most unpromising surroundings, and how easily natural features in more favourable localities may be utilised. Ambitious schemes of every kind are to be deprecated. At a small Girls' High School, with which I am acquainted, the mistress has taken about forty yards of a lane behind the school for purposes of regular observation. Every change in the appearance of the flora is carefully noted by the scholars week by week, and this modest work met with the warm appreciation of so high an authority as Sir. Joseph Hooker. He told me that it was one of the most conscientious and effective examples which had come under his notice.

Unquestionably the study should be directed as much as possible to living things, to trace the life history of plant, animal or insect. The proper way in which to study them is in their living state, amid their natural surroundings. Frequent country walks, making the country, in Ruskin's phrase, "a sort of uncovered class-room, a divine museum," ought to be a recognised feature at every school. Plants should be grown in boxes or pots, and insects should be reared in breeding cages. One of the simplest ways of observing plant life is by the cultivation of a few plants in water. Some transparent jars, which may be placed by the window in any class room, alone are required. The composition of the food solutions* presents no difficulty, and the cost of the necessary chemicals is trifling. The element of chance is wholly eliminated; each plant behaves as it ought to behave, according to the food which it receives; it dies when it ought to die, and it lives when it ought to live. The pupils can watch the whole process of growth from the seed to the fully developed plant, and it is a source of never-failing interest and instruction.

Latterly, so much has been heard of the Heuristic method, that it is almost needless to emphasize the importance of not relying upon text books, but we must not rush into the opposite extreme. Wholly to neglect the accumulated knowledge and experience of others is absurd. The child must not be left to discover everything for himself; his mind must be prepared in some measure for what he is to see and observe. It has been well said that the previous history of the mind determines the impression which the sight of any object is to make. "We can only see what we have been trained to see."

What then are we to expect from this study? Its true function is, as I have stated, educational; it has its utilitarian value also, but that, if I may say so, is an accidental advantage. Its invariable product should be greater intelligence, more accurate observation, and a keener interest in all work, The mental discipline, which is inseparable from it, will form pupils, whatever the grade of their schools, qualified to profit by the specialised instruction of technical schools and colleges. The complaint as to the lack of general intelligence and general knowledge in the pupils who go to them, is universal amongst the directors of these institutions. The child has rarely been taught to think. The fault is not confined to primary schools; it is no less common in higher grade and secondary schools. If we use nature study as the constant handmaid to supplement and illustrate the other lessons, by correlating all the instruction with the world of reality and so developing the reflective faculties, we shall fully justify the present movement, and go far towards removing the reproach, which must always attach to an education which restricts itself mainly to the powers of memory.

Mr. Herbert Spencer has eloquently pressed the claims of what we are urging; "if there is a more worthy aim for us than to be drudges," he says, "if there are other uses in the things around us than their power to bring money—if there are higher faculties to be exercised than acquisitive and sensual ones—if the pleasures which poetry and art, and science and philosophy can bring are of any moment,—then it is desirable that the instinctive inclination which every child shows to observe natural beauties, and investigate natural phenomena, should be encouraged."

This touches the moral aspect of the question, and before such an audience as this, little need be said of the moral lessons to be learnt from the study of nature. At every step she teaches patience, trustfulness, and reverence. The more we penetrate her mysteries, the more shall we be imbued with the grace of humility. Over all who are in sympathy with her, she exercises a strange humanizing and refining influence. In our darkest hours she may provide a consolation, which can nowhere else be found. When the whole world seems out of tune, and the burden of life beyond our strength, she may revive our drooping spirits.

"With other ministrations thou, O Nature,
Healest thy wandering and distempered child;
Thou pourest on him thy soft influences,
Thy sunny hues, fair forms, and breathing sweets,
Thy melodies of woods, and winds and waters;
Till he relent and can no more endure
To be a jarring and dissonant thing
Amidst this general dance and minstrelsy;
But, bursting into tears, wins back his way,
His angry spirit healed and harmonised
By the benignant touch of love and beauty."
[from The Dungeon, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge]

* The normal food solution is:—Potassium nitrate, two parts; sodium chloride, one part; magnesium sulphate, one part; calcium sulphate, one part; calcium phosphate, one part (this should be dissolved in a very few drops of dilute citric acid); iron perchloride, a trace; water, 2000 parts. Nature, too, if in our childhood we have learned to turn to her, will supply increasing enjoyment for our leisure hours. This alone, if there were no other reason, should constrain each of us to spare no effort to lead those for whose education we are in any way responsible, to look to mountain, woodland, sea or stream for refreshment and wholesome recreation, when free from the toil and anxieties of daily life.


Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio, August 2008