Popular Science Monthly/Volume 49/October 1896/The Educative Value of Children's Questioning

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
1234652Popular Science Monthly Volume 49 October 1896 — The Educative Value of Children's Questioning1896Henry Lincoln Clapp



I KNOW intimately a little boy, now six and a half years old, who has been a persistent questioner, since he was four. Thirteen months ago he began to read, and now reads The Youth's Companion, Alice in Wonderland, Lang's and Andersen's Fairy Tales, Kingsley's Water Babies, and Greek Heroes, school readers, and many other books with good understanding and excellent expression. As he has never been to school, and never has received a day's instruction in reading—that is, direct instruction, such as characterizes school work—his progress must be accounted for in some other way. Since it is not my purpose to describe in detail how he learned to read, I will simply say that it may be attributed wholly to persistent questioning on his part, being answered by his hearers, and having ample opportunities to practice what he found out. To this indirect instruction, excessively fragmentary and depending wholly upon his choice, there has been practically no limit.

When he was about four years old he would follow up his questions immediately with "Tell me. Why?" When he was five he introduced every subject he wished to talk about with "What do you think?" At six he dropped that, and substituted "Do you know what?" But, after two years and a half, he seems to entertain no thought of giving up "Tell me."

His favorite times for asking questions are when he is being dressed in the morning and at his meals. At other times during the day his questions occur at very irregular intervals, and only a few or one at a time. Sometimes he will read for an hour without saying a word, and then, when at play, will ask a question pertaining to what he has read. Often he will skip forward and back for fifteen minutes without speaking, and then ask a question about something upon which he has apparently been meditating. Frequently he sits at the table in silence for ten minutes, apparently taking no notice of conversation, meditating on some word or idea obtained from something he has read. It becomes evident, later, that he can carry on his own train of thought and at the same time hear and understand conversation, because he questions about both.

His mother used the word "disposed" at the breakfast table, but he seemed to take no notice of the conversation going on. At night, when jumping about the room for the mere pleasure of movement, he turned suddenly to me and asked, "What does 'disposed' mean?" One morning I heard him ask his mother "Is there any key of C flat?" Not getting an answer, he continued: "I have asked you a good many times if there is a key of C flat. Tell me." The same morning, at the breakfast table, he suddenly introduced a very inappropriate subject with the question: "Do cannibals ever eat their friends? Tell me." "What made you think of that?" "I have heard people say that cannibals eat other people, and so I asked."

Most frequently his questions refer to some idea obtained from what he has read some time previously. For example: "What does prudent mean?" "Where did you see that word?" "In the story about the Prudent Farmer in Harper's Third Reader." "What does verb active mean?" "Where did you see that?" "In the story about Squeer's school, written by Charles Dickens, you know." "Is a merry heart better than wealth?" "Where did you read that?" "In Harper's Third Reader." "What does effort mean?" "Trying to do something. Where did you see that word?" "In the fable of the stork and the fox." "What is wisdom?" "Knowing many things. When a man has many wise thoughts he has wisdom." "Yes," he said, "wiseness." "Where did you see wisdom?" "I saw it in the picture of a door. Over the door was a card, and on the card it said, 'Wisdom is strength.' I saw a picture of somebody whispering in an owl's ear, and it said, 'A word to the wise.' Is the owl the wisest bird?" "What is honest milk?" This last question was suggested by his reading a milkman's circular.

On the other hand, many of his questions can not be connected with his reading, but appear to result from reasoning or a recognized analogy. "How do plants make themselves bigger when they grow?" he asked when we were talking about planting his garden. I heard him saying to himself, "Wildless, wildless." I asked him what he was talking about, and he replied: "About plants that are not wild. What are they called?" "Garden or cultivated plants," I answered. "What made you say wildless?" "Why," said he, "I knew that harmless meant something that wouldn't do any harm, and so wildless means plants that are not wild." He mentioned the fall, and I asked him what he meant by fall. He replied: "The winter at first, the first of it. Do they call it fall because everything is falling?" There was some talk about dressing him or putting on his dress, and, reasoning from analogy, he asked, "When God puts the skin on people, is that skinning them?" I once read of the people in the moon being like grasshoppers, and told him about it. When I had finished the story, he. said: "When we look up in the sky we see the moon rolling on above us, and when the people in the moon look up in the sky they see the earth rolling along above them. What is the strange puzzle about that?" I told him that his specimen of mica was silicate of potash, and he asked, "Why is mica silicate of potash? Because they put ashes in a pot?"

These questions have been recorded to represent an innumerable number unrecorded, and to show the wide range of thought and the variety of reasonings that a child under six years of age may have. They show his natural method of acquiring knowledge, but they can only suggest the ceaseless activity of his mind during all his waking hours.

His habit, to a greater or less degree, is the habit of all children. Very early, even before they begin to talk, they manifest a desire to know the causes of things; and they continue to show natural curiosity until they go to school, which they seem to recognize as a place where curiosity is very much out of place, since so little opportunity is given for its exercise. In that case curiosity is apt to be replaced by laziness and apparent dullness.

Out of school they are, with rare exceptions, very thoughtful and exceedingly busy about something. They question much for the satisfaction which they experience in finding reasons or explanations of various acts. Each questions from his own point of view, and thereby increases his understanding and develops his own mind. These voluntary questions engage his whole attention; they are for the time of the highest interest to him, and, on that account, of the greatest importance to his proper mental development. As he leaps about for the mere pleasure of physical movement, his thoughts also dart about among scenes past and present, and imagination carries him on to the future and back again like a flash. What pleasure he takes in these mental and physical movements when he is at full liberty to do as he pleases! He is happy because he is fulfilling the laws of his being, developing his mind and body by his own self-activities. He can not help questioning any more than he can help jumping or thinking.

In a proper home there is only moderate restriction on any of these means of development, and accordingly he develops there very fast. In the fields and woods also there are no restrictions on natural development. Running in the fields, climbing trees, and playing games of all sorts are powerful developing processes. Queries are rapidly formed and as rapidly answered, probabilities are balanced, decisions are made, and bodily movements follow in exact conformity to the judgment and will.

The moment children step into the ordinary schoolroom opportunities for questioning and spontaneous judging and willing are cut off. They are now going to be trained and developed by a logical, systematic, step-by-step method, frequently called normal. All physical movements with any vigor in them must be regulated by a minutely detailed system of gymnastics, which frequently comes to be so dominant that all natural play at recess must give way to marching and countermarching. In the schoolroom questioning, judging, willing, and spontaneity in general seem to be vested in the teacher alone, to be incompatible with his idea of pupils' right thinking. The educational code there is, "Sit still, ask no questions, learn and recite your lessons, and do what I tell you." This ancient code makes the conditions favorable for the application of questions assumed to be asked after the Socratic method, in which as practiced the pupils' self-activities appear to be very much overlooked.

The universal method of teaching is catechetical, the teacher asking all the questions and the pupils attempting to answer them. The teacher sets the conditions and makes all the attacks on ignorance, negligence, and incompetence, and may be said truly to be on the offensive always; while the pupils constantly attempt to comply with conditions, repel attacks, and conceal their shortcomings, and may be said as truly to be always on the defensive. The mutual relations of teacher and pupils may be quite accurately determined by averaging the conditions which the graduates of various schools remember to have existed when they went to school. How they outwitted the teacher forms a bright spot in the memory. It is long remembered and easily recalled. Like a good joke, it is delightfully piquant and suggestive of similar jokes.

The customary one-sidedness of teaching makes school work more or less disagreeable and progress comparatively slow. It is difficult to excite and sustain interest. Repression, coercion, and machinery become necessary to make the government respected and respectable. Strong disciplinarians rather than good teachers are required when children's activities, either of body or mind, are directed into hard, unnatural channels or are kept down by forcible means. The teacher questions, struggles against the constitution of her pupils' minds, and really dominates them at last. Herbart says, "Tediousness is the greatest sin of instruction." The pupils often feel that their work is uninteresting and difficult without knowing why or how to help themselves; and they learn, often by bitter experience, that it is discreet to obey and learn and recite their lessons, however distasteful they may be. That is the traditional way—the way passed over by their parents, in which they are expected to go, and by which the torrent of their impulsive questions must needs be dammed up for many a long year in the future as it has been for centuries in the past. Repression is the word naturally and correctly applied to such a system.

Children's natural, constant, and almost irrepressible desire to question freely about everything that comes within the range of their experience has not been considered of any special value in educating them. Even Froebel seems to have overlooked its great value as a means of developing reason, judgment, the relation of things, and everything that makes for real knowledge. Out of school it has room. A man may question everything, past, present, and future, but a child's inalienable right to say "Why?" out loud in a schoolroom is hardly recognized. He is to take instruction without question. Traditions in education are almost unchangeable.

Children, as a rule, do not like to be held to a definite line of questioning by a teacher, unless the subject is very interesting by nature. The impressive, commanding, magnetic teacher may have no apparent difficulty in holding the pupils to her questions; but pride in that feat partakes strongly of vainglory. What will they do when left to themselves? What can they do without her? How far can they go alone? To what degree are they self-controlled. Fine instruction has value, but teaching pupils to teach themselves, and simply and skillfully directing their self-activities to that end, is a great deal better. Herbert Spencer says, "Bear constantly in mind the truth that the aim of your discipline should be to produce a self governing being, not to produce a being to be governed by others."

President Eliot says: "All teachers who deserve the name now recognize that self-control is the ultimate moral object of training in youth—a self-control independent of temporary artificial restraints, exclusions, or pressures, as also of the physical presence of a dominating person. To cultivate in the young this self-control should be the steady object of parents and teachers all the way from babyhood to full maturity."

There are a few schools in which the pupils feel free to ask questions, when it is necessary, in school time. In many schools there is a standing invitation to ask and answer questions before and after school. Such an invitation amounts to a prohibition of questioning. In many schools the pupils are trained to talk; but the substance of the talk is along the old line, reproduction, or a new form of recitation, better than the old, because in the pupils' own language. Nevertheless, training children to question in school time as a means of developing reason, power of comprehension, and self-control is scarcely appreciated anywhere. Even suggestions of children's questioning are exceedingly few in literature on education; but records of its actual practice are unknown. Two lines in Tate's Philosophy of Education and a few lines concerning the Jesuits' methods of teaching in Quick's Educational Reformers are all the suggestions that have come to my notice. The Jesuits divided their boys into two camps and had them question each other, to stimulate rivalry and emulation.

It will be readily conceded that teachers like to question pupils and to show their skill in questioning. A good many so-called experts consider the ability of the teacher to question logically as the measure of his value. This is a very superficial view of the matter. It has resulted in positive injury to many teachers, and greater injury to more pupils.

Some teachers confess that they are disinclined to allow their pupils to question as a practice, since the questions may be pointless, illogical, and inadequate. That is precisely the kind of work which the school should undertake to remedy. The pupil's questions reveal the condition of his mind quite as much as his answers to the teacher's questions. His anxiety to avoid errors moves him to say what he thinks the teacher desires. When he questions he is thrown off his guard, and his misconceptions, and feebleness or acuteness of mind are revealed inadvertently and the teacher can help just when and where help is needed without undue interference, which is so common in school.

Moreover, these teachers claim that such freedom as this work necessitates might lead to disorder, or what passes for disorder in the opinion of those who judge the order by the degree of stillness and lack of movement prevailing. So they keep the reins taut in their own hands and set up a despotism of varying degrees of severity.

Many an inexperienced teacher, who has learned this method at some training school for teachers, may charge her failure in maintaining order to her persistence in trying to hold a large class of pupils to her questions. Her logical plans and orderly questions are commonly inelastic, unsuitable, monotonous, and sometimes irritating. She bends the wills of her pupils to her own; but there is too much elasticity in their mental habitudes to endure the strain long. In a few days the monotony of a single voice, hardly still during the day, and the vain attempt to "follow my leader" in her set and searching questions result in restlessness, inattention, and disorder. Her pupils can not readily get used to the one-sided game.

The aims which the average teacher finds the most difficult in reaching are, to secure attention, arouse interest, induce spontaneity, elicit independent thought, give enjoyment, and prevent ordinary school work from becoming or appearing a task. This difficulty also may very largely be charged to the traditional mode of questioning. There is seldom any enjoyment in it. Herbert Spencer says: "Experience is daily showing with greater clearness that there is always a method to be found productive of interest—even of delight; and it ever turns out that this is the method proved by all other tests to be the right one."

All teachers unite in extolling spontaneity in the abstract, but almost universally ignore it in their teaching by reason of alleged difficulties in reducing it to practice. They are always talking about attention, interest, and independent thought, even to their pupils, while they are continually heading off the development of those desirable attributes by restricting their pupils to answering questions referring to tasks which they have set. Certainly their pupils seldom find "delight" in their questions, but, on the contrary, find comfort in evasion, as they very frequently say they understand the subject under question when they do not, in order to get rid of the galling questions which seem especially designed to reveal their deficiencies and bring about their disgrace.

Supervisor Martin, one of the keenest and wisest observers on the Board of Supervisors of Public Schools in Boston, says in his report recently issued: "If there be a general weakness, it lies in the failure to develop in the pupils the ambition and the power of self-help. The skill of the teachers is more fully exhibited in their presentation of subjects than in stimulating pupils to independent effort. Much of the work is simple giving and taking and giving back." Independent effort being generally wanting, spontaneity of necessity must be wanting, because there can be no independent effort where there is no desire or will to make it. In this regard probably the schools of Boston are no more deficient than schools at large.

But, in view of all the talk made at educational conventions during many decades, it is remarkable how little progress in spontaneity has been made in school, even since Froebel's time.

Froebel said: "I must not neutralize and deaden that spontaneity which is the mainspring of all the machinery; I must rather encourage it, while ever opening new fields for its exercise, and giving it new directions. Can I not then even now gradually transform their play into work, but work which shall look like play, work which shall originate in the same or similar impulses, and exercise the same energies as I see employed in their own amusements and occupations?" Pestalozzi also claimed that "spontaneity and self-activity are the necessary conditions under which the mind educates itself, and gains power and independence."

A careful distinction should be made between children's activities and self-activities, the one often being confounded with the other by teachers. Generally their activities in school result from a compelling force of will, of laws, of penalties, all of which are kept well out of sight in some schools, but in the immediate foreground in most schools. This compelling force is often necessary under present conditions, but not so often as practice would make it appear.

Generally teachers' traditions and scholastic training are no safe guides in dealing with self-activities educationally. Self activity is spontaneous, the result of an inside motive. How to teach children to desire to undertake and stick to school work, whether the teacher be present or absent, tradition does not state. To be sure, children's questioning in school as a real educative force and a rule of practice is, it may be, startlingly new; but any means, precedented or unprecedented, that will certainly result in spontaneous activity should be earnestly sought for and fairly used.

The idea of educating children through their activities has of late years found expression in giving them something to do with their hands, as seen in the various forms of manual training. The advocates and teachers of this work indulge the thought and give the impression that it brings out children's self-activities remarkably well. Many fondly believe that by means of it the "whole boy" is sent to school. Nevertheless, his self-activities seem to have but little more opportunity for development than before the doing era, advantageous as that really is. Children in all departments of manual training are taught, instructed, crammed, compelled, it may be, as of old, and then they work out the instruction with head and hand, whereas formerly the head only attempted to follow instructions, more often unsuccessfully. Certainly a great advance was made by the introduction of manual training; but spontaneous self-activity is not a leading motive in the work, if any at all. The work is prescribed.

The child's curiosity or investigating spirit does not receive its satisfaction in any form of manual training now in use. Individual experimentation and investigation have small place in it, so that the need of other educational forces is felt. The spirit of inquiry is much less apparent in school than out. Whose fault is it? Surely not the children's. Nature studies are doing the most to foster the spirit of inquiry, manual training hardly anything. Constructiveness is important, but no more important in education than investigation. Investigation and voluntary work are the expressions of self-activities, while prescribed work is the expression of activities governed by a temporary, outside, dominating influence.

In connection with manual training H. Courthope Bowen says in his work on Froebel and Self-activities: "Broadly speaking, Pestalozzi's plan is one of observing and imitating; Froebel's, one of observing and inventing. To exercise the creative, originating powers of the child is Froebel's main object; to teach the child to speak and to do work already prescribed is largely the aim of Pestalozzi. Froebel's plan, therefore, more directly tends to develop independence and originality of character." To carry out Froebel's plan children must have far more true liberty in thought and action in school than they now have. Their spirit and temper must be reached if they are to be educated properly. Education must become less Pestalozzian and more Froebelian. So it does become when children question.

The idea of educating children through play, where self-activities are at their best, is not new, having been not only clearly set forth in theory but reduced to practice by Froebel. The only application of the play element as a means of development in our systems of education is found in the kindergarten. No one has shown how it can be made useful in schools beyond the kindergarten. To most teachers it seems utterly incompatible with the work of such schools. They are not willing to admit in any degree that "play is the work of the child." If the play element is of so high educational value in the kindergarten, why is it not of much higher value all along up through the elementary school, where the pupils play much more vigorously, intelligently, and skillfully? Even young men and women who give up so much for baseball, polo, tennis, and golf, prove that the play element abides long; and, although it now results in healthful exercise, and a development of body and mind that is too frequently and unwarrantably claimed as the result of school work, it might be turned to the account of school education if half the time and attention given to prescribed studies were given to it.

Full opportunity to ask questions in the schoolroom in school time gives the play impulse in children an excellent outlet. Their unique expressions and inadequate conceptions result in questions and answers that are not only instructive but decidedly entertaining to all concerned. They are often irresistibly funny without intending to be. On the other hand, there being ample room for the play of thought, the zest of play frequently runs through their exercises. When the teacher sees the need of comment or explanation, the attitude of their minds is exactly appropriate, and their attention spontaneous and perfect; never so willing and complete when the teacher talks, questions, reasons, prescribes, and compels. This judgment is not the result of a single, ephemeral experiment, but of demonstrations repeated through years.

Under the system of spontaneous questions and self-conducted exercises "blue Monday," so called on account of the apparent dullness of pupils on Monday forenoon, disappears with the apparent exhaustion on Friday afternoon. The opportunity to stand up, turn about, and use muscles and wills in a way that does not savor of militarism and gymnastics conduces to great activity and excellent temper. Appropriate conditions determine the spirit of all life and action.

The habit of asking questions puts the questioner in the attitude of an investigator and develops an active habit of mind. Always to be questioned induces waiting passivity, and the difference is radical and momentous for true education. In questioning lies the germ of original research; all inventions, discoveries, and progress have come out of it. Only the questioner becomes a discoverer. And since it is obvious—often disagreeably so out of school—that the questioning, investigating habit is the child's most marked characteristic, and the most direct manifestation of a constitutional current of mental action that can not be repressed long any way, and seldom without danger, it seems inexcusable that any educational agency worthy of the name should fail to develop so important a habit by every means possible. Its careful cultivation would be sure to result in such a success in original research as schools have never yet won.

Prof. C. S. Minot says, "To train men to originality in every field of production is the proper function of a true university." Prof. N. S. Shaler made essentially the same statement in the Atlantic Monthly. It is not likely that originality will be called out easily in the university when all through the primary, secondary, and collegiate education, fifteen years or more, it has been permitted to lie dormant. Men do not begin to train trees and vines of mature growth. If originality is to be brought to full fruition in life, its obvious beginnings as seen in children's questions and curiosity must be cherished most carefully, not only in the university, but in every school that leads to the university. Originality, like playing the violin, must be encouraged early, if proper development is to be attained.

Children like better to work or play in company with one another than with adults; and when so working or playing they do not lack for questions and answers. At their parties they play various mental games with much zest. There is no satisfactory reason why this play faculty should not be brought into the schoolroom everywhere as it has been in a few places, by means of pupils' questioning guided by the teacher.

Their questioning has been found especially valuable in all review work, in history, geography, language work, civil government, physics, mineralogy, botany, and mental arithmetic. In the last four studies the questions are nearly always new and impromptu.

In this work they find the required variety in questions and voices, they measure their strength with one another, their wit and fancy find expression in amusing and unexpected turns, and their diligent attention and mental alertness are constant. The freedom, pleasure, and exhilaration that are essential elements of the work lead pupils to do their best. Their exuberant spirits, energy, individuality, and originality find proper outlets, and, in consequence, their tempers are improved. They have time to frame and answer questions based on their own data, and a place for "applying theory, or putting acquisitions into practice, and for personally using for productive ends their disciplined powers." So they learn to stand up unembarrassed, to lose self-consciousness, to think on their feet, to set conditions as well as comply with them, to lead thought as well as follow it, and get that real practice in adapting themselves to constantly changing conditions that will serve them so well when school life has ended. All this work tends directly to that most important acquisition, self-control in body and mind.

Perhaps the greatest benefit derived from mutual questioning is of an ethical nature, since it affords the best opportunity in school for the cultivation of the most refined human relations. The pupils become habituated to deference, self-restraint, politeness, kindness, unconsciousness of self, and equality of rights as regards time, attention, instruction, and opportunity to work without interference. Egotism, selfishness, plagiarism, the desire for display, and the struggle for personal rewards have little room for growth on account of persistent practice in ways that make for qualities of an opposite character. The teacher's illustrations from the workings of society and the administration of government find their appropriate places and are immediately put into practice in this genuine, embryo part of the body politic. The pupil's judgment is constantly appealed to. As teachers have said many times, the pupils seem like one great family, each member working for the common good. The educational value of the boy teaching the boy by simple language and blackboard illustrations is recognized. The reflex action of teaching is seen to be as valuable to the boy as to the teacher.

The ethical value of mutual questioning is especially noticeable in the pupil's graduating exercises, which are the legitimate results of their regular work. Each pupil has an opportunity to do according to his ability. There are no picked scholars, no exhaustively trained precocities, no survival of the fittest, no false show, no tragic or comic declamations or mere mouthings of the misty words of statesmen and poets; but each reveals his own thoughts in his own way, pruned and strengthened by his training. The ease, interest, energy, self-reliance, and politeness with which they carry on their impromptu exercises in the presence of five hundred people can not be understood by even distinguished educators, versed in traditional methods only, who may be present.

The doctrine of opportunity has not been preached enough, and the wonderful constitution of the mind and its power to develop itself by its own energies when fully aroused have been so often and so unjustly claimed as the direct results of systematic or dogmatic instruction that the truth, when held up to view, may not be recognized and acknowledged.

A fitting conclusion to this presentation of the educative value of children's questioning may be found in a brief mention of the children's own thoughts concerning the subject.

There having been no conversation or suggestions concerning the matter, the pupils who averaged fifteen years of age were asked to give their ideas of the advantages of questioning each other, and they expressed themselves thus: "We don't waste time, because if our teacher is out of the room we can go on with our recitation. Having to decide on the answers to our questions makes us think. We have to know more about our lessons if we ask questions than if we only answered them. We have more questions than if our teacher made them all. We are all of about the same age, and understand and misunderstand things in about the same way, and can help each other out. Questioning helps us to talk and obliges us to depend on ourselves. When thirty-eight children are making questions, some one of them may think of a question that the teacher may not think of. We look forward to conducting our graduating exercises without help from our teacher, and this work trains us for that."