Popular Science Monthly/Volume 46/March 1895/Scientific Method in Board Schools

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By Prof. H. E. ARMSTRONG, F. R. S.

AT the request of my friend and former pupil, Mr. W. M. Heller, I have undertaken to say a few words by way of introduction to the course which he is about to give here to assist a number of you who are teachers in schools in the Tower Hamlets and Hackney district under the School Board for London a course of lessons expressly intended to direct your attention to the educational value of instruction given solely with the object of inculcating scientific habits of mind and scientific ways of working; and expressly and primarily intended to assist you in giving such teaching in your schools.

Nothing could afford me greater pleasure, as I regard the introduction of such teaching into schools generally—not board schools merely, but all schools as of the utmost importance; indeed, I may say, as of national importance; and I now confidently look forward to the time, at no distant date, when this will be everywhere acknowledged and acted on. Personally I regard the work that I have been able to do in this direction as of far greater value than any purely scientific work that I have accomplished. At the very outset of my career as a teacher I was led to see how illogical, unsatisfactory, and artificial were the prevailing methods of teaching, and became interested in their improvement. My appointment as one of the first professors at the Finsbury Technical College forced me to pay particular attention to the subject and gave me abundant opportunity of practically working out a scheme of my own. I was the more anxious to do this, as I soon became convinced that if any real progress were to be made in our system of technical education, it was essential in the first place to introduce improved methods of teaching into schools generally, so that students of technical subjects might commence their studies properly prepared; and subsequent experience has only confirmed this view. Indeed, it is beyond question, in the opinion of many, that what we at present most want in this country are proper systems of primary and secondary education—the latter especially. Now, most students at our technical colleges, in consequence of their defective school training, not only waste much of their time in learning elementary principles with which they should have been made familiar at school, and much of our time by obliging us to give elementary lessons, but, what is far worse, they have acquired bad habits and convictions which are very difficult to eradicate; and their mental attitude toward their studies is usually a false one.

The first fruits of my experience were made public in 1884, at one of the Educational Conferences held at the Health Exhibition. On that occasion, and again at the British Association meeting at Aberdeen in 1885, in the course of my address as president of the Chemical Section, after somewhat sharply criticising the methods of teaching in vogue, I pointed out what I conceived to be the directions in which improvements should be effected. Others meanwhile were working in the same spirit, and consequently, in 1887, a number of us willingly consented to act as a committee "for the purpose of inquiring into and reporting upon the present methods of teaching chemistry." This committee was appointed at the meeting of the British Association in York, and consisted of Prof. W. R. Dunstan (secretary). Dr. J. H. Gladstone, Mr. A. G. Vernon Harcourt, Prof. H. McLeod, Prof. Meldola, Mr. Pattison Muir, Sir Henry E. Roscoe, Dr. W. J. Russell (chairman), Mr. W. A. Shenstone, Prof. Smithells, Mr. Stallard, and myself. A report was presented at the Bath meeting in 1888, giving an account of replies received to a letter addressed to the head masters of schools in which elementary chemistry was taught. In 1889 and 1890 reports were presented in which were included suggestions drawn up by myself for a course of elementary instruction in physical science.

Let me at once emphasize the fact that these schemes were for a course of instruction in physical science—not in chemistry alone. The objects to be accomplished by the introduction of such lessons into schools have since been more fully dwelt on in a paper which I read at the College of Preceptors early in 1891, printed in the Educational Times in May of that year. After pointing out that literary and mathematical studies are not a sufficient preparation in the great majority of cases for the work of the world, as they develop introspective habits too exclusively, I then said, in future boys and girls generally must not be confined to desk studies; they must not only learn a good deal about things; they must also be taught how to do things, and to this end must learn how others before them have done things by actually repeating—not by merely reading about—what others have done. We ask, in fact, that the use of eyes and hands in unraveling the meaning of the wondrous changes which are going on around us in the world of Nature shall be taught systematically in schools generally—that is to say, that the endeavor shall be made to inculcate the habits of observing accurately, of experimenting exactly, of observing and experimenting with a clearly defined and logical purpose, and of logical reasoning from observation and the results of experimental inquiry. Scientific habits and method must be universally taught. We ask to be at once admitted to equal rights with the three R's—is no question of an alternative subject. This can not be too clearly stated, and the battle must be fought out on this issue within the next few years.

Well, gentlemen and ladies, you have the honor of forming part of the advanced guard in the army which is fighting this battle—for the fight is begun in real earnest, although as yet on a small scale; nevertheless, in this case, the small beginning must have a great ending.

I had long sought for an opportunity of carrying the war into the camp of elementary education, and this came about four years ago when my friend Mr. Hugh Gordon was appointed one of the Science Demonstrators of the London School Board. During at least three years prior to his appointment, Mr. Gordon had been doing research work in the laboratory of which I have charge at the City and Guilds of London Institute Central Technical College, where he had also taken part in our elementary teaching, and he was already an ardent advocate of the educational policy of which I am so strong a supporter. Under the London School Board he achieved a marvelous success, and the work that he has done as a pioneer can not be too highly appreciated. He secured your confidence and sympathy, and interested his pupils; and working in a most unpromising field, under conditions of a most unsatisfactory and often depressing character, he has proved that to be possible, even easy (to the competent and willing teacher!), which my friends in higher grade schools have often scoffed at and declared to be impossible. In future, no public school will be able to excuse itself, except on the ground of want of will to give such teaching. I have often been told that our scheme was too costly, that much special provision must be made to carry it into effect, and that it requires so much time and such an increase in the teaching staff: my friend Gordon, with your assistance alone and no other addition to the staff, by successfully teaching, I believe, in seventeen of your schools, has given all these statements the lie. But I confess that as yet there are few who could accomplish so much; few equally well fitted and prepared for the work, so imbued with the right spirit, so convinced that the cause is a great and holy one, gifted with sufficient energy and enthusiasm to overcome the difficulties. The little book he has written, in which the first part of the course of teaching he adopted is broadly outlined,[2] although containing a few slight blemishes which mar its otherwise logical character—blemishes which will be very easily removed in a second edition—appears to me to be a most important contribution to educational literature, and will render great service to our cause. But I count as his greatest achievement the introduction of a proper balance—calculated to inspire confidence and respect—into the schools, for I believe the discipline of learning to weigh carefully and exactly to be of the very highest value to a child, and one of the most effective means of leading children to be careful and exact in their work generally. I envy my friend his success, as I have in vain tried to get proper balances introduced into schools of far higher grade in place of wretched contrivances costing but three or four shillings, which can be of no service in forming character, although I have no wish to deny that such may be made use of in illustrating principles.

Mr. Gordon, I believe, was appointed to teach mechanics under what I will venture to call an antiquated and wooden syllabus, but he had the courage to burst the bonds imposed upon him, and from the outset determined to teach what was likely to be of real service to his pupils. I have said that he gained the confidence and sympathy of the teachers with whom he was associated and whose work he was appointed to supervise and direct; but I believe that he did more, and achieved success in a task of greater difficulty—that he actually made converts of some of her Majesty's inspectors whose sympathies had previously lain with literary studies.

I have thought it desirable thus to sketch the history of the introduction of our British Association scheme into school-board circles. Let me now further emphasize the importance of teaching scientific method, which after all is recognized by very few as yet. Let me endeavor to make clear what I mean by scientific method: that when I speak of scientific method I do not mean a branch of science, but something much broader and more generally useful. We may teach scientific method without teaching any branch of science; and there are many ways in which we may teach it with materials always close to hand.

I have very little belief in the efficacy of lecturing, and it is always difficult to persuade those who are not already persuaded—I would therefore refer those of you who are not yet with me to a book from which they may derive much information and inspiration. I mean Herbert Spencer's Essay on Education.[3] It is a book which every parent of intelligence desiring to educate his children properly should read; certainly every teacher should have studied it thoroughly; and no one should be allowed to become a member of a school board who on examination was found not to have mastered its contents. But as Herbert Spencer says— and the times are not greatly changed since he wrote although a great majority of the adult males throughout the kingdom are found to show some interest in the breeding, rearing, or training of animals of one kind or other, it rarely happens that one hears anything said about the rearing of children. I believe the subject is seldom mentioned in school-board debates. Hence it happens that Herbert Spencer's book has had a smaller circulation than many novels, and that the 1893 edition is but the thirty-fourth instead of the three hundred and fortieth thousand. After very fully discussing the question "What knowledge is of most worth?" he arrives at the conclusion that science is, and eloquently advocates the claims of the order of knowledge termed scientific. The following are eminently instructive passages in his essay: "While every one is ready to indorse the abstract proposition that instruction fitting youths for the business of life is of high importance, or even to consider it of supreme importance, yet scarcely any inquire what instruction will so fit them. It is true that reading, writing, and arithmetic are taught with an intelligent appreciation of their uses. But when we have said this we have said nearly all. While the great bulk of what else is acquired has no bearing on the industrial activities, an immensity of information that has a direct bearing on the industrial activities is entirely passed over. For, leaving out only some very small classes, what are all men employed in? They are employed in the production, preparation, and distribution of commodities. And on what does efficiency in the production, preparation, and distribution of commodities depend? It depends on the use of methods fitted to the respective natures of these commodities; it depends on an adequate acquaintance with their physical," chemical, and vital properties, as the case may be: that is, it depends on science. This order of knowledge, which is in great part ignored in our school courses, is the order of knowledge underlying the right performance of those processes by which civilized life is made possible. Undeniable as is this truth, there seems to be no living consciousness of it: its very familiarity makes it unregarded. . . . That which our school courses leave almost entirely out, we thus find to be that which most nearly concerns the business of life. Our industries would cease, were it not for the information which men begin to acquire, as they best may, after their education is said to be finished. And were it not for the information from age to age accumulated and spread by unofficial means, these industries would never have existed. Had there been no teaching but such as goes on in our public schools, England would now be what it was in feudal times. That increasing acquaintance with the laws of phenomena which has through successive ages enabled us to subjugate Nature to our needs, and in these days gives the common laborer comforts which a few centuries ago kings could not purchase, is scarcely in any degree owed to the appointed means of instructing our youth. The vital knowledge—that by which we have grown as a nation to what we are, and which now underlies our whole existence is a knowledge that has got itself taught in nooks and corners; while the ordained agencies for teaching have been mumbling little else but dead formulas."

Some improvement there has been since Herbert Spencer wrote, but chiefly in technical teaching: and there is yet no national appreciation of what constitutes true education: fashion and vested interests still largely dominate educational policy.

Another advocate of the teaching of scientific method to whom I would refer you is Charles Kingsley, the celebrated divine, but also a born naturalist possessed of the keenest powers of observation, a novelist of the first rank, and a poet. Read his life, and you will find it full of inspiration and comfort. Study his scientific lectures and essays (Volume XIX of his Collected Works, Macmillan & Company) and you will not only learn why "science" is of use, but will have before you a valuable model of method and style. A friend a member of the London County Council to whom I happened to send some of my papers, noting my frequent references to Kingsley, remarked, "How very fond you are of his writings!" Indeed I am, for they seem to me to display a truer grasp of the importance of scientific method and of its essential character than do any other works with which I am acquainted. I recommend them because they are pleasant as well as profitable reading, and because our text-books generally are worthless for the purpose I have in view. Any ordinary person of intelligence can read Herbert Spencer's and Kingsley's essays and can appreciate them, especially Kingsley's insistent application of the scientific principle of always proceeding from the known to the unknown; but few can read a text-book of science moreover, the probable effect of most of these would be to dissuade rather than persuade.

Kingsley's great point, and Herbert Spencer's also, is that what people want to learn is not so much what is, still less what has been, but how to do. And the object you must set before yourselves will be to turn out boys and girls who, in proportion to their natural gifts for, as every one knows, you can not make a silken purse from a sow's ear have become inquiring, observant, reasoning beings, ever thoughtful and exact and painstaking, and therefore trustworthy workers. To turn out such is the whole object of our scheme, which chiefly aims at the development of intelligence and the formation of character. In your schools information must be gained, not imparted. After describing how the intelligent mother trains her young child. Herbert Spencer remarks: "To tell a child this and to show it the other is not to teach it how to observe, but to make it a mere recipient of another's observations, a proceeding which weakens rather than strengthens its powers of self-instruction, which deprives it of the pleasures resulting from successful activity—which presents this all-attractive knowledge under the aspect of formal tuition. . . ." You must train the children under your care to help themselves in every possible way, and give up always feeding them with a spoon. Abolish learning lessons by rote as far as possible. Devote every moment you possibly can to practical work, and, having stated a problem, leave it to the children if possible to find a solution. Encourage inquisitiveness, but suggest methods by which they may answer their own questions by experiment or trial or by appeal to dictionaries or simple works of reference, part of the furniture of the schoolroom, and lead them to make use of the public library even; in after life you will not be at their elbows, but books will always be available, and if they once grow accustomed to treat these as friends to whom they can appeal for help, you will have done them infinite service and will undoubtedly infuse many with the desire to continue their studies after leaving school. Under our present system school books are cast aside with infinite relief at the earliest possible moment, and the desire for amusement alone remains. Teach history, geography, and much besides from the daily papers, and so prepare them to read the papers with intelligence and interest, and to prefer them to penny dreadfuls and the miserable, often indecent, illustrated rubbish with which we are nowadays so terribly afflicted. At the same time make it clear to them that the editorial "we" is but an "I," and that assertion does not constitute proof. If such be your teaching, and it have constant reference to things natural, you will also—as Herbert Spencer points out in a very remarkable passage—without fail be giving much religious culture, using the word in its highest acceptation, for, as he says, "it is the refusal to study the surrounding creation that is irreligious." As I have already said, one great—indeed the great—object of our teaching is the formation of character: and if you teach your pupils to be careful, exact, and observant, and they become trustworthy workers, you are giving much training of the highest excellence; and if they have enjoyed such training, what does it matter what facts they know when they leave school?

In the course that you are about to attend under Mr. Heller—the demonstrator upon whom has fallen the mantle previously worn by Mr. Gordon, and who is equally desirous of promoting and devising rational methods of teaching—you will in the first place devote your attention to exercises in measurement, including much, that is ordinarily taught under mechanics and physics, the prime object of which is to teach accuracy of observation. You will then study a series of problems, mainly chemical, which have been arranged chiefly in order to cultivate reasoning powers and to teach the research method. In fact, what we want to do is, as far as possible, to put every scholar in the position of the discoverer. The world always has and ever will advance through discovery; discoveries, however, are rarely made accidentally—indeed, we all pass from ignorance to knowledge by discovery, and by discovering how to do things that we have not done before we ever increase our powers of usefulness: we all require, therefore, to be taught how to discover, although we may never be called on to make original discoveries or have the opportunity. But as you proceed I trust that you will realize that the method which you are learning to apply is one which can be made use of in all your work—that the course has a broad educational value far transcending its special value as an introduction to physical science.

Lastly, I should like to take this opportunity of calling attention to the very great value to girls, as well as to boys, of teaching such as you are about to give. I fear that much that girls are being taught under the guise of domestic economy is of slight value educationally or otherwise, and that they are but having imparted to them little tidbits of information which they are as likely as not to misapply. Nothing is done by way of increasing their intelligence and forming their characters. Lessons which would lead them to be observant, thoughtful, and, above all, exact—lessons in method—would be of far higher and abiding value. They would then carry out their household functions with greater ease; there would be far less waste; less unhealthiness; far more comfort. I believe the need for such training to be indeed far greater in the case of girls than in that of boys. Boys are naturally apt in many ways, and, even if neglected at school, perforce develop when they go out into the world; but girls are of a different disposition, and rarely seem to spontaneously acquire the mental habits which a training in scientific method can confer, the possession of which would be of inestimable value to them. Extraordinarily little has been done as yet on their behalf, and they have been cruelly sacrificed at examinations—for which, unfortunately, they appear themselves to have an insatiable natural appetite. It is to be hoped that the new board will give the most serious attention to this matter, and that it will take steps to secure the teaching of scientific method in all the schools under its charge, whether boys' schools or girls' schools. Unhealthy buildings have attracted much attention; but the existence of a far more serious evil—the absence of healthy teaching suited to the times—has not even been noticed.

  1. From a revised address delivered at the Berners Street Board School, Commercial Road, London, on October 9, 1894, and published in Nature.
  2. Cf. Nature, 1893 vol. xlix, p. 121.
  3. Published by D. Appleton & Co. Paper, 50 cents; cloth, $1.25.