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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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Education Versus Instruction

by H. A. Nesbitt, M. A.
Volume 15, 1904, pgs. 1-6


We have heard a great deal of late about the necessity of protecting the working classes of this country against the competition of Germany, but I am afraid that it is not only the English working man who finds it more and more difficult to compete with the Germans; there is the same difficulty with the young men of our upper and middle classes. Why should this be? Surely in natural ability, physical and mental, our race is second to none. It is true that, for music, we have a natural inferiority to the Italians and Germans, in elegance and taste, we may be inferior to the French, but in manufactures, in enterprise, in business aptitude, surely it is owing to no deficiency in natural gifts that we must attribute the general complaint that we are no longer able to hold our own. We are driven to believe that our education must be inferior to theirs. I proceed to the enquiry into the nature of this inferiority, its causes, and the means of combating it.

In the first place, education in Germany is more systematic. If a boy goes from one school to another, he has only to specify his class in the previous school, and the nature of that school, whether Gymnasium (which corresponds to our grammar schools), real Gymnasium (commercial school with Latin), Real Schule (commercial school), or Elementary school, and we can have a very fair idea of the boy's attainments. In going from one school to another—nay, from one form to another, the boy has not to lose a great deal of time in unlearning old methods and acquiring new ones, whereas there is absolutely no agreement among our middle class schools as to what shall be taught, or what shall be the method of teaching.

Secondly, the art of teaching is itself taught in Germany. In England it is acknowledged in the case of the elementary schools that teaching is an art, and that it is as absurd to put a man in front of a class to teach it if he has himself given no thought and had no instruction as to the principles of teaching, as it would be to set a man to paint a picture who had no instruction as to mixing colours and as to the proper use of his brushes. In the School Board teachers, we have a body of young men and women who are unfeignedly anxious to do their very best, and are ready to hear from anyone who can tell them how their methods of teaching may be improved.

In the middle class and upper class boys' schools—I say boys' schools, because in the case of girls' education, a very good beginning has been made. There is the Training College at Cambridge, the Maria Grey Institute at Kilburn, St. Mary's College in the Harrow Road, and there is the House of Education at Ambleside (conducted by Miss Mason) which is intended to carry into practise the educational principles of the P.N.E.U., which have been so ably laid down by Miss Mason herself in her book on "Home Education." This book, by the way, is one that every parent ought to read, and not only to read, but to study. In all the large girls' schools and among the members of the P.N.E.U. who employ governesses, there is a great demand for trained teachers, and a great deal of this new movement, especially that part of it which insists that governess should be taught how to influence the moral nature of the child as well as the intellectual, has been the work of the society under the guidance of Miss Mason.

In the case of boys' schools, I say, it is hardly too much to assert that there is no recognition that any preparation is required in order to be a teacher. A young man takes a good degree at the university and is at once appointed to a post in a public school. He often takes the post as a stop-gap while he is eating his dinners for the Bar, or waiting to be ordained for the Church. How can such a man be expected to look with real respect upon his vocation? As a matter of fact, he has no such respect for it unless he is a born teacher. He looks upon teaching as a kind of drudgery which he is obliged to follow in order to get on in life—but when does one come across a young man who looks on his work as a doctor, a barrister, a clergyman, a soldier looks on his? (I am rather doubtful as to the soldier. I am afraid that our young officers think much more of polo than of improvement of their knowledge of the art of war). If a master tries to consult his colleagues as to methods of teaching, he is only snubbed and told not to talk shop. If an advertisement is put in for a private school master, we often see "good cricket and football essential," but when do we see "must be a trained teacher": we see, "must be a good disciplinarian," but when do we see "must know something of methods of teaching"? In Germany, no one is allowed to teach in a school who has not gone through a course of study to fit him for it, just as in England no one is allowed to practise as a doctor, who has not gone through a course at a hospital. How would it be if the mere passing of an examination were held to qualify a man for cutting off a leg or treating scarlet fever? The result of this is that most English boys hate lessons, and in order to make school endurable to them, it is necessary to give a great deal more thought and enthusiasm to cricket and other sports than to culture. Now, among the objects of the P.N.E.U. are the improved systematizing of Education and the spread of training among teachers. Another is the elevation of the aims of Education. I think I shall not do wrong in formulating in my own words some of the objects of the founder of this society and her doctrines.

First I take this, that the mode of acquisition of learning is of far more importance than the actual knowledge gained. *

* [We are not quite in sympathy with the author's view of knowledge. We hold knowledge (i.e., assimilated ideas) to be altogether delightful and sustaining, and feel strongly that there is a tendency to elaborate teaching at the expense of knowledge (i.e., to give a grain of matter in a bushel of method). But the writer's illustrations show most convincingly and delightfully that there is no real difference of view.—ED.]

There are three objects for which knowledge is desired.

First, there is its actual use in the affairs of life. We cannot keep accounts without arithmetic, we cannot carry on trade without geography, we cannot travel with ease on the Continent without some knowledge of French or German, we find Latin and Greek useful for understanding new medical or scientific terms.

Secondly, knowledge enables us to pass examinations, and thus to enter various professions of which these examinations are a necessary preliminary.

Thirdly, the possession of knowledge tends to widen our intelligence, and to help us to acquire what is very different thing from mere knowledge—culture. Now with regard to the first object, a very little arithmetic is wanted to keep accounts—a very little geography is required for trade, and what is required can be easily gained in an office. The affairs of every-day life can get on in the hands of one who has a mere smattering of foreign languages. But in the battle of life, mere information is of comparatively small use. It is the power of bringing knowledge to bear on the subject in hand which will render knowledge useful to a man. How is it that self-made men are often the most successful? It is that what knowledge they have, they have gained by hard work for themselves; it is that they have been obliged to give to themselves that culture of all the higher faculties which boys at school often fail to get at all, because they are not taught to gain their knowledge for themselves, it is all put into them from barren text-books or from the schoolmaster's own store. A German commercial traveller comes here, knowing very little English, knowing little or nothing of our customs and modes of thought, but he has been taught to learn, he has confidence, from experience at school, of his own power of increasing his own little knowledge and making it greater, whereas you will hear English boys, when they leave school, boasting that they have forgotten all they learned at school.

The coaching for examination can be done by those professional crammers who carry on with such success their duel with the examiners. It is an object which has little or no interest in the eyes of the P.N.E.U., unless it be a hostile interest, a feeling that it is an abuse of great subjects such as history or poetry to make them the subjects for competitive examinations, as the necessary cram makes people hate the subjects, and a man who has passed will shut his history book or his Shakespere, saying, "Thank goodness, I have done with that subject."

Knowledge is valued by our society as a source of delight and of power, and as enabling the character and the intellect to develop, and, in this regard, the mode in which the knowledge is acquired is all-important. We regard school life as a stage in which the habit of getting knowledge from the best sources is acquired. Therefore, we think it well that the children should be accustomed to the free use of the best books, at first hand, for their school studies. Take a simple fact in natural history, say, "The grass of Parnassus is fertilised by flies, not bees." There is nothing formative in such a statement, but suppose a boy is set to find out by which it is likely to be fertilised, is set to find out first what coloured flowers are most affected by bees, he finds that when many coloured flowers are present, the bees go to the blue or red in preference to the yellow, leaving the latter to the flies; then he looks at white flowers and thinks at first that they are visited by both, but on looking further sees that the bees go to the scented white flowers and leave the unscented to the flies; he will come to the conclusion that being an unscented white flower, the grass of Parnassus will be fertilised by flies; and when he finds on coming to a swamp where the flower blooms, that every blossom has a little black fly in it, the very word "grass of Parnassus" will have a deep meaning to him all his life. The fact could have been obtained from a book in half a minute, but it would have had no influence in forming the boy's character; whereas, learned by his own observation, it has given him the delight of discovery and filled him with the desire for further conquests.

Take arithmetic. I met, some time ago, in a school, a child of ten who had such a question as 2 1/2 divided by 3 2/5 to solve. He had had the rule explained, that is, he had been told that you must bring the 2 1/2 and the 3 2/5 to halves and fifths, turn the divisor upside down and then multiply. I venture to say that division by 3 2/5 involves considerations absolutely above the calibre of a child of ten. In every step in arithmetic the child should be, as in natural history, led to find out for himself, along such a path as any original discoverer might have followed, the method of solving a question.

You may teach arithmetic in three ways:—(1) You may give the child the rule, and tell him to go and do the sum, having first perhaps done some for him as models. The old way! (2) You may give him the rule and explain to him the reason of it, but the child wants to be able to do it and will not care a button for the reason. (3) You may lead the child to find out for himself how to do it. This will take much longer. The child will for a long time seem backward as compared with other children who are "in Fractions," while he has not yet begun Long Division, but while you have added but little to his knowledge, you have helped to bring out his intellect and to fit him for solving higher problems by himself, and you will have given him a love of the acquisition of knowledge, which is worth tenfold the knowledge itself.

Take geometry. Foreign nations laugh at us for still sticking to the old methods of Euclid. Euclid says: These are the facts and here are the reasons for it. Teaching in the spirit of the P.N.E.U. would say: Here are the lines and the angles, what can you find out about them? Euclid takes a great deal of trouble to "prove" that a straight line is the shortest distance between two points, a thing that a child knows from his experience—nay, that a bee or an ant knows. Even with all this straining after a rigid proof, Euclid often fails, e.g., in the Fourth Proposition of the First Book. This is proved by superposition, but no hint is given that it may be necessary to turn one triangle over to make it cover the other, and yet in the Fifth Proposition, the triangles on whose equality the proof depends can only be proved equal by turning them over. If then we are allowed to turn the triangle over, we can prove the Fifth straight off by turning the isosceles triangle, and shewing that it will occupy the same position as before, and that hence the sides will coincide and be equal. The Pons Asinorum (Euclid's Fifth Proposition) is using a steam engine to crack a walnut.

The First Book of Euclid is used for two objects: first, to teach geometry; second, to teach logic. Now the geometry is much more easily learned by the application of the eyes and common sense. The logic can better be taught by a systematic and independent study of logic itself, and many other studies besides geometry may be applied to the illustration of it.

Take geography. In Germany they begin with the school-room; make a map of that to scale; go on to the playground or garden, then the roads in the neighbourhood and the parish; and thus, when the child comes to use a map, he has some idea of what it means. I have often and often come across grown-up people who have said, when I offered to show where we had been on a map, "Oh, I never can understand maps," and I myself really learned to interpret a map by using an ordnance map in the country to find my way for myself. I came to see for instance, what a long way off the next turning really was, that looked so near on the map. Lord Salisbury once advised some belated Russophobist who feared an invasion of India, to get a good large map of the country, and study it.

I may be allowed to quote a passage from Miss Mason's book:—"'how do you get time for so much?' 'Oh, I leave out subjects of no educational value,' said the young theorist. But the wise mother who knows better will find a hundred opportunities to teach geography by the way; a duckpond is a lake or inland sea; any brooklet will serve to illustrate the great rivers of the world; a hillock grows into a mountain—an Alpine system; a hazel copse suggests the mighty forests of the Amazon; a reedy swamp the rice fields of China; a meadow the boundless prairies of the west; the pretty purple flower of the common mallow is a text whereon to hang the cotton fields of the Southern States: indeed the whole field of pictorial geography—maps may wait till by-and-by—may be covered in this way. And not only this: the children should be taught to observe the position of the sun in the heavens from hour to hour, and, by his position, to tell the time of day. Of course they will want to know why the sun is such an indefatigable traveller; and thereby hangs a wonderful tale, which they may as well learn in the 'age of faith,' of the relative sizes of sun and earth, and of the nature and movements of the latter. 'Clouds and rain, snow and hail, winds and vapours fulfilling His word'—are all every-day mysteries that the mother will be called upon to explain faithfully, however simply."

In algebra, again and again I have asked teachers how they explain that a loss multiplied by a loss gives a gain, and again and again I have found that their only idea was that it was arranged: x should be +, and had never really troubled their heads with the rationale of it—they were content to hand on to their pupils what they had learned from their teachers. Of course what we call Heuristic teaching is slow. It takes two minutes to tell a boy that signs multiplied give plus, and unlike give minus; it takes several lessons to lead him to find it out for himself. You have to teach him about abstract and concrete quantities, and that in every multiplication one of the factors must be abstract: you must lead him to find out that our earliest definitions are not wide enough, that addition, subtraction, multiplication have to be stretch in application, that this extension must always be in accordance with some law, that the law of multiplications that "this minus that" = "that minus this": that we have to imagine a minus abstract quantity and find its effect, hence that multiplying by -3 must mean taking the multiplicand three times in the opposite direction, and hence that if the multiplicand was positive, it becomes negative, and vice versa. Of course, the answer to the question, 'why does a loss minus a loss give a gain,' is that it doesn't, because you cannot multiply by a loss or any other concrete quantity, but only by the abstract number -4. But the boy will not care for all this if you begin by telling him the result; he is always quite willing to take your word for it. Set the question when it arises and ask him "What does it mean?" and lead him to find out the meaning for himself. I remember a boy at school telling me that you could prove by algebra that a= 2a. I said that if you get a false result, it must be from false reasoning, but he maintained without seeing the absurdity of it, that it could be done. Evidently to him algebra was not the mere putting common sense into a symbolic form—it was a kind of machine of which you could turn the handle, and get out answers to problems. Again, in equations with two unknowns, most boys have no idea that they are finding the intersection of two straight lines, and when they are taught this by the use of graphs from the first, the interest on the subject is doubled. The boy sees that these equations are not only of use in order to solve impossible questions about the price of ducks and fowls, e.g., if seven ducks and three fowls cost 2s., and ten ducks exceed four fowls in price by 22s., find the price of a duck and a fowl. I have found graphs most useful in rousing a real interest in the subject of algebra.

I turn to astronomy. In the King Alfred's School, at Hampstead, the children have made a machine, which is fixed up in a garden, for taking the daily altitude of the sun at noon. A little actual observation on their own account is worth pages of printed matter. The same principle holds I the study of English literature. The teacher must not tell the children what the poet means, but ask them, and then discuss the matter with the class. The habit of trying to judge for one's self is thus unconsciously formed.

Miss Mason is never tired of impressing the importance of forming habits, and there is no habit more important in the great object that we have (that of forming the character and the intellect) than that of expecting to have to think a matter out for one's self, and of finding out that one can often succeed in doing this. Many children are never taught to think for themselves at all. Stress is laid on docility and respect for their elders, and they are generally quite content to let their elders do the thinking for them. A teacher ought to be pleased if a child has the courage and independence of character to express an opinion opposite to his.

It is hardly necessary to say that, for teaching on the lines I have indicated, regular training is required. Teachers have to be taught: (1) The objects they ought to have in view. (2) The principles to be followed in order to gain those objects. (3) The details in the case of the different subjects to be taught. (4) The failures and successes of former educationalists, e.g., what were the doctrines of Pestalozzi and Froebel: How far have they been found in practice to succeed, and in what ways they have been found insufficient or injurious?

No man can make advances in a science without knowing what others have done, and it should be part of the equipment of a teacher to have a knowledge of the history of education. But when all has been said, a teacher can do but little unless he is helped by the parents. It is of no use to try to teach children to keep their tempers and be courteous if the father uses bad language and the mother scolds her servants. It is of little use to try to get a child to love learning, if frivolity is the atmosphere at home. And one of the greatest objects of the society is to bring about co-operation between parents and teachers. How many parents when the child comes home will ask, "Well, have you been good to-day?" They will do much better to ask, "Well, what have you learned to-day?" Children naturally love learning. We can see it almost always in young children; why do older children get such a distaste for it? Only because they are badly taught. They are told facts of which they do not see the bearing, instead of being helped to find out facts themselves. Parents can do a great deal by encouraging the children to talk about the details of the school lessons. How are parents to fulfil their duty in forming the characters of their children if they act on the wicked old doctrine, "children should be seen and not heard?"

It may very often happen that children are taught at school things that you do not happen to have learned when you were young. Do not be afraid of letting the child know that you do not know it. He knows that there is a great deal that you know and he does not, and it will be a great joy to him to learn that he knows something that you do not know. I remember a schoolmaster advising his assistant teacher never to let the children know that he was not omniscient. As if children were not quick enough in seeing through the pretence of knowledge! I had been a boy under that schoolmaster and I had a very keen perception of his limitations. Above all, be honest. If the child can tell you what is new to you, do not hesitate at expressing pleasure in learning from him. Nothing will so much stimulate his love of learning, and there is no more fear of its lessening his respect for you than in the case of a parent who cannot play the piano which his little girl of ten can play. Intercourse of this kind with children will tend to keep you young yourselves, and to foster that delightful feeling of friendship between parents and children which will more than replace that enforced respect and deference, the decay of which among our young people is so often deplored.

I may seem in this paper to have dealt more with the intellectual side of education than with the moral. It is the side to which I have myself given most thought, and the only one on which I can at all claim to speak as an expert, but no such accusation could be made against the founder of P.N.E.U. From first to last, Miss Mason dwells on the supreme importance of basing the whole intellectual development on a foundation of morality and religion. She dwells on the importance of habits, as well in the sphere of the conscience as in that of the intellect; and it is for this reason above all that she advocates co-operation between teachers and parents. What we want is to make parents feel that they have a sacred duty to take their share in the formation of their children's characters, and that they cannot righteously delegate this duty to others. But it is not only teachers who require training, and we desire to give to parents opportunities for learning how they may best perform their duties in this regard; by discussions, lectures, publications, reading circles, educational courses for mothers, etc. Many parents are most anxious to do their duty to their children in this respect, but feel that they do not know how. To all such I would say: "Come and join our society."


Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio, July 2008