Popular Science Monthly/Volume 40/February 1892/An Experiment in Education II

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1215463Popular Science Monthly Volume 40 February 1892 — An Experiment in Education II1892Mary Alling Aber




ENGLEWOOD, Ill, is now a portion of the city of Chicago; but formerly it was a suburban town with an independent school system. In October, 1886, Miss Frances MacChesney, a primary teacher in the Lewis School, obtained permission from her principal. Miss Katherine Starr Kellogg, and her superintendent, Mr. Orville T. Bright, to try some work on the lines wrought out in the experiment made at Boston.[1] Her request was granted, on condition that she would complete the grade work in the required time.

At first nothing was attempted beyond the giving of simple science lessons as bases for reading lessons. In these the children were furnished with specimens, and led through their own observations to the acquisition of facts and ideas, which the children expressed; these expressions put upon the blackboards constituted the reading matter, and were written in script or print on slips of paper for further use. At this time Miss MacChesney herself thought of the work mainly as a more interesting way of teaching reading; and, although the basal lessons were usually drawn from Nature, little attention was paid to the quality and value of the ideas thus used. Later, the fundamental idea of the Boston experiment was taken up, and the chief attention directed to the selection of topics and materials for real science lessons.

In this work no effort was made to introduce the vocabulary of the reader assigned to the grade. In February that reader—Appletons' First—was given to the children for the first time. To quote Miss MacChesney's own words: "The interest which had been awakened by the reading of their own thoughts was transferred to the books, and the grade work was completed before the required time—thus more than fulfilling the condition on which the trial was allowed to be made."

The work in reading went on in this manner during a second year, all other grade work being done in the old ways. During the third year systematic lessons on minerals and plants were given, and work in literature begun; and the children's sentences were written out on a typewriter. In a letter written at the close of this year. Miss MacChesney says: "Out of a room of forty children, divided equally into two classes, one class finished the first year's work in eight months; the other class, with the exception of two children, completed the grade work at the end of the year, besides doing all the extra work; and the whole was accomplished with ease and happiness on the part of both pupils and teacher." During the first year of trial, another teacher in the Lewis School, Miss Quackenbush, became interested in Miss MacChesney's work, and began a similar attempt with her own class. In a short time she produced excellent results.

From the first, Mr. Bright carefully watched the progress of the trial, and willingly and patiently waited its results. When convinced of the superiority of the principles involved and of the results obtained, he earnestly championed the cause, and has continued to be its enthusiastic supporter.

During the second year, teachers' meetings were called, discussions aroused, illustrative lessons given, courses of lectures for the teachers projected, and other teachers joined in the work. A teacher wrote me at the time: "I never saw teachers so ready and eager to 'speak in meeting'; . . . I never saw them so thoroughly awake." Finally the principals and teachers of the Englewood schools generally waked up to the fact that something new and interesting was going on in their midst; the idea spread, and many visitors came from adjoining towns.[2]

At the beginning of the fourth year a printing-press was provided; but each teacher furnished her own type, set it, and did the printing for her class. During this year, after four months of the new work, one division of Miss MacChesney's class "completed the grade work in reading in three months, a thing never before done at Englewood." Concerning this year Miss MacChesney says further; "From the experience which this year has brought me, I am thoroughly convinced that, could the average child have from the first the results of his own observations put in printed form, and enough of phonics to enable him to find out new words, the reader could be withheld until the latter part of the year, when it would be read with relish, and as a book ought to be read. . . . The power gained by the children to observe closely, to tell clearly and concisely what they have observed, and the power of logical, connected thinking is not confined to their science and reading, but is felt in all the work of the schoolroom. . . . In looking back over the time since we began working out this theory, I see a constant increase in the power of the classes that have been led along this path."

In regard to the influence of this work upon herself, Miss MacChesney, during the third year, wrote me, "At night I can hardly wait the morning, so eager am I to begin another day, and see how the children will go through the work planned for that day." Here she reaches the true work of the teacher—to watch and direct the growth of the children's minds. From letters received from Miss MacChesney during 1889-90 I cull the following: "I started out to try what seemed a theory of doubtful utility to public-school children, and found all my work and my life enlarged and beautified. . . . I am certainly happier than I have ever before been in teaching, and I know I am doing more for the children intrusted to my care. . . . Mr. Bright, in order to speak with assurance about these matters, visited fifteen city teachers; and in no case did he find the attention of teachers or children directed to anything but the symbol, and in no case were the children further advanced than ours where thought and symbol go hand in hand. . . . I did not meet with any opposition in the work. The only requirement that I must meet was the grade work

accomplished in the required time'; and whether I could do that was asked over and over again. . . . The greatest trouble" (referring to the days before they had a printing-press) "was the lack of printed matter, I met no criticism from parents and much praise. Especially was this true of the work in literature. . . . The criticism oftenest given by visiting teachers is on the 'big words' as they call them." Elsewhere, in regard to these "big words" she says: "They" (the children) "were proud of their new possessions, and lost no opportunity to use them and use them correctly. The so-called 'big words' when they express a definite idea, are remembered with ease, while their humbler sisters which express nothing tangible are more readily forgotten. . . . We can say emphatically that the work can be done in the public schools, and that both teachers and pupils are benefited thereby."

Another Englewood teacher wrote me: "The teacher gains an impetus in searching for and assimilating real truth to give to the waiting little ones. . . . I believe the parents of our children are becoming awakened, for children tell me of searches made at home to answer whys and hows, whens and wheres, that have been raised in the work at school."

Miss Walter, critic teacher at the Oswego (New York) State Normal School, after a visit to Englewood in February, 1890, wrote me: "It has been my good fortune to see within the last week some of the best school work I have ever seen. . . . It was in the rooms of Miss MacChesney, Miss Quackenbush, and others that I saw such admirable work. . . . Miss MacChesney is carrying out, in a wise and careful manner, an ideal line of work."

In closing this account of the new work at Englewood I can not do better than to give quotations from two letters received from Mr. Orville T. Bright, the superintendent under whom all this experimental work has been done. He says:

December 15, 1889.—"We are now harder than ever at work studying how to make observation a living element in our schools. . . . We have thirty—yes, forty teachers now who are thoroughly in earnest in the matter."

March 9, 1890.—"It is about three years since Miss MacChesney began the work. Miss Quackenbush soon followed, and the next year Miss Phelps, all in the Lewis School; . . . and the fact was demonstrated beyond a doubt that fifty children are no bar to the success of a teacher in training little children to observe in subjects pertaining to science.

"All our primary teachers slowly wheeled into line. We had numerous meetings and discussions on the subject, and every one who tried the work was convinced. The stand of the superintendent had been misunderstood from the first, but he did not think it wise to force matters. He wished teachers to undertake the work because they believed in it; and now every first and second grade teacher in the district—thirty-five in number—are in hearty sympathy, as are almost all of the third and fourth grade teachers, about sixty in all. Not all, however, are at work. "There has been no systematic arrangement of material, only so far as individual teachers have made it in a small way. Our aim has been to demonstrate the feasibility of doing the work with large classes, and to prove the growth of children under the training possible. These two things we have done; and we are now at work upon a related plan for the several grades. The scheme must be a flexible one, and it can be so arranged; but the second grade work must grow out of and be an advance upon the first, and so on. We have discussed motive first for several weeks. Now we are on material; then will come method. These I can not write about now. We hope to see the subject in some kind of shape before the end of the school year."

Do not the results of the trials at Boston and Englewood virtually constitute a plea to parents and teachers to investigate this matter—not necessarily to follow, but possibly to get suggestions about a better way; for the contemplation of a new thing sincerely conceived sometimes leads to the inspiration of a better?

Pupils in all sorts of schools seem, for the most part, unable to distinguish between opinion and fact; their reasoning processes are easily overturned, imperfect, slovenly; their power to discriminate values is slight; and the whole working of their minds lacks cohesion, totality, and gradation. Is not the human mind naturally capable of trustworthy action, and is not the lack of such action in the average adult due to faulty education? To see clearly, judge fairly, and will strongly—are not these the great ends of education? Should not a man have as great a consciousness of mind and of power to think as he has of hands and feet and power to use them; and should he not be as unerring in the right use of the one as of the others? Should not the schools give this consciousness and power and mental skill; and also fill the mind with ideas worth the effort of getting and retaining?

The maxim, "Ideas before words," adopted by teachers like Prof. Louis Agassiz, has produced great results in changing the methods of study in the natural and physical sciences. This influence has extended to other departments in the older centers of learning, but the majority of our higher schools are yet scarcely touched by it. In these, study results in little more than filling the mind with words; and from them students pass into life without the taste or ability to examine and estimate facts, and to form independent judgments and volitions.

In primary education the maxim "Ideas before words" is repeated with tiresome iteration, but seldom is a question raised about the value of the ideas taught. Do the charts and books for primaries express aught that is unfamiliar to children? Rather do they not contend for the merit of expressing most completely the commonplaces of child-life? Is there anything worthy to be called thinking or capable of arousing interest and emotion in memorizing combinations of symbols, and associating them with familiar and trivial ideas? And let us see what "object-lessons" chiefly deal with. Last year, in a normal school of the Empire State, a teacher of primary methods, proudly claimed by her principal to be the best in the State, gave thimbles, scissors, chairs, etc., as suitable subjects for object-lessons, and carefully led her pupils through the steps required to develop in children's minds ideas of the parts and the uses of these objects. Is there one child in five hundred, at six years of age, ignorant of these parts and uses? Then the so-called development process is a farce, and a waste of time and energy. Look over manuals of object-lessons and courses of study for primary children: you will usually find but few subjects leading the child from the beaten path of his daily life into new, inviting, and fruitful fields; and of these, note the directions as to what is to be taught. Such directions often resemble a lesson on a butterfly that I heard given by a kindergartner. With a single butterfly held in her hand she led the children to speak of its flying in the sunshine, sipping food from flowers, living through the summer, and of the beauty of its colors. Not a word was said of the three parts of the body, the two pairs of wings, the six legs, the antennæ, and the tube through which it sips food—all of which and more the children could easily have been led to see. Doubtless the teacher thought the children had had a beautiful lesson; but had they received anything at all? Although city children, they spent the summer in the country—they had all seen and probably chased several species of butterflies, and possibly some of them knew more than their teacher about the habits of butterflies.

Think of children gathered by fifties in thousands of schoolrooms, spending the first years of school-life in repeating trivial facts and ideas that have been familiar from babyhood; in learning the symbols for these ideas, and in counting beans and bits of chalk! The five-year-old boy who described a kindergarten as "the place where they are always pretending to do something and never doing it," and the eight-year-old girl who, after reading the first few paragraphs of some ordinary primary reading matter, looked up at her teacher and said, "I think these sentences are very silly, don't you?" are not alone in preferring the lessons of the street and the field to those of the school-room. In such dealing with trite ideas the child gets little mental exercise, gets no addition to his knowledge save the written and printed symbols, gets no increase to his vocabulary, and little facility in using it. For these slight gains he gives the freshest, best years of life, and exhausts in weariness of spirit the fountains of intellectual interest and enthusiasm.

In the experiment an effort was made to bring the child at once into contact with the real substance of education. It is this concentration of attention upon the subject-matter, not upon the method of teaching it; on the kind of ideas, not upon the symbols of ideas, that chiefly differentiates this experiment from ordinary primary work, and makes the use of the word experiment legitimate. The value of method is heartily conceded, but what shall be taught was thought to be of more importance. Is it not a law of Nature that new and valuable ideas only can arouse interest and lead to worthy thoughts? When such thoughts exercise the mind, do they not exclude the transient and trivial, lead to culture and right conduct, and so further the true end of existence—the perfectionment of the soul?

Do not the showy, the superficial, the transient, the seeming, rule the hour? Where do we find the heroic dignity that should inhere in man and woman? Few pursue truth and righteousness for their own sakes regardless of consequences; in few does the love of humanity overcome the shrinking from poverty and calumny. Are we becoming a nation of cowards and infidels, that we can fear nothing but material and intellectual discomforts in this one short life?

To awaken love for great literature, to arouse interest in local history, to develop a habit of observing Nature's phenomena—to do these before the mind has sunk itself in materialism and the love of sensual delights—to do these while the child is still so young that mind and heart are plastic and responsive, is indelibly to impress the idea that these are the legitimate objects of study whose pursuit leads, not to learning only, but to nobility of mind, and to real, satisfying pleasures. One can not know and love the great in the world's literature and not be ashamed of mean thoughts; one can not be a student of history without bringing to bear upon the affairs of our own time a greater intelligence than the majority of our politicians exhibit; one can not habitually observe Nature's phenomena without extending that habit to the highest and most interesting of her creatures—man; and one can not observe man, with any depth of insight, without being profoundly impressed, not alone by the miseries of the very poor and the never-ending drudgery of the laboring classes, but by the lack of unselfish zeal, heroism, dignity, truth, gentleness, generosity, and purity among the well-to-do; one can hardly view the course of Nature and history from remote ages to the present without seeing through all a tendency to completion, order, and beauty on an ever-rising plane, like the threads of a spiral; and, seeing this, to desire to be himself in harmony with that tendency and a factor in aiding it in his own time.

I put forth no claim to the Boston experiment or the Englewood trial as a cure for existing evils; but I urge every educator who loves mankind to investigate each new departure in education, to test any that seems to have good in it, to cease to concentrate attention on symbols and shows, and to turn thought to such realities as can nourish the mind and heart, and be retained as valuable furnishings for all the years to come, and to do these from the first day in the primary school.


  1. See this Monthly for January.
  2. In the fall of 1888 Miss MacChesney gave a series of lessons on grasshoppers and beetles. These the children caught for themselves, but she herself killed and preserved them in alcohol. The following summer, while teaching at an institute, she was attacked quite fiercely for this part of her work, on the plea that it was inculcating cruelty. I should like to ask all who bring this plea whether they eschew roast beef for dinner. Shall a million beasts of a high grade of intelligence and finely wrought nervous systems daily witness the scenes in ten thousand slaughter-houses, and themselves be the victims of the loathsome indifference to cruelty there practiced—shall this exist and pass uncondemned, because its results are pleasant to the appetite of the body, and the cry of cruelty be raised when a few hundred grasshoppers are killed for purposes of study? Is the body of more value than the mind, and nourishment more desirable than knowledge? So long as slaughterhouses exist, so long will it seem desirable to teach children reverence for animal life by minute personal study of the wonder and beauty of organ and function in the lower forms. When slaughter-houses have been done away with forever, the human mind will find a better way to teach zoology. Let the cry of cruelty go forth, but not from those whose own flesh is built up from the flesh of their brute brethren.