Popular Science Monthly/Volume 50/November 1896/The Employment of the Motor Activities in Teaching

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By Prof. EDWARD R. SHAW, Ph. D.,


THE recent development of our knowledge of the nervous mechanism in its relation to the processes of education leads us to appreciate the great worth of the ideas advanced by two educators of the last century, Basedow and Heusinger, and also to see quite clearly the great advantage which will result in the work of the school from the applications of the truths set forth by them.

When Basedow said that children were fond of noise and movement, that they hated to sit still for a long time, that a continued strain of attention and learning by rote were distasteful to them, and that only by force could they be trained to such vexatious employments, he apprehended a truth upon which the researches of recent years have given us more specific knowledge; and his warning that through the disregard of this principle not only the health of the pupils is weakened, but also their intellect and natural desire for knowledge, teachers are just becoming able to heed through the newer knowledge of child life and development.

Heusinger, a name little known, showed his great insight into this matter when he urged teachers to change and adapt their work so as to take advantage of the extreme impulse in children to be busy; for Heusinger maintained that, considering the great power given to this impulse by Nature, a prominent place in the development of man should be granted to it, and that it is the duty of teachers to give heed to this impulse in which an effective means of instruction is afforded. He set up this impulse to activity as the regulating principle in gaining knowledge, for he asserted that not only does it lead to a deeper knowledge of the thing itself, but also to a greater appreciation of all that is in connection with the thing, and also that it excludes those things which have no relation to the particular object of thought.

Froebel's apprehension of this truth is shown by his plays and games.

All these educators apprehended the fact that the most marked characteristic of the child and the youth is physical activity. This activity is due to an energy that must be expended through motor channels. It will perhaps make my contention the clearer if we consider briefly the young infant and examine the first manifestations of this energy and what results therefrom in mental development. The activity of a young infant must, I think, be conceded. Its arms and legs move vigorously. These movements are not determined by itself, are not controlled by itself. In various ways it often hurts itself by these uncontrolled motions, and in these movements there is at this period no will. These movements which all have recognized are impulsive in their nature—that is, they are set on not by any external stimulation, but by the accumulation of energy in the cells of the nervous system, and when the cells are filled with nerve force or energy the discharge of this energy is necessary for the growth and development of the system; and so the kickings and twistings and strikings and clutchings result. One suggestive point which may be noted here is the fact that when the cells become filled with energy they discharge. No demands are made on them before they are ready to act, for Mother Nature is the babe's wise teacher.

Closely following the impulsive movements, and indeed accompanying them, are what are termed reflex movements, which differ from impulsive movements in the fact that they are initiated or started by some external stimulation through some of the avenues of sense.

All impulsive and reflex movements occur without any premeditation on the part of the child. They do not enter into consciousness during their performance, but are often remembered after they have been performed. The images left in the memory after these movements have been executed are a very great factor in the development of the will, for the voluntary movements which develop later are based upon these impulsive and reflex movements.

Beginning somewhat later than the impulsive and reflex movements are the instinctive movements. We may say that the instinctive movements are an advance on the reflex movements, as they are more complex, they enter somewhat into consciousness, and there is a purpose in them, though the child does not know at the time he performs the movement the end that is to be attained.

The first movements of the child are impulsive and reflex, and no self-consciousness accompanies them. Yet every movement, whether impulsive or reflex, leaves some slight trace in the developing brain, and when the movement is hit upon again, and then again, and still many times again, this trace strengthens and associates itself with the particular movement, and there arises in the dawning consciousness an idea, the elements of which are very largely motor; and so numerous motor ideas arise. The three classes of movements which I have described are involuntary, and out of all these various involuntary movements spring up motor ideas. The pleasure or pain necessarily accompanying these gives rise in consciousness to desire to repeat these movements or to inhibit or stop them. Deliberative or voluntary movements are not possible without motor ideas. Through these motor ideas the child comes gradually to represent to himself some end to be attained or avoided. To say, then, that the will develops first through the motor side is warrantable.

I have indicated how motor ideas are involved at the start in the psychic or mental life, and how it is "only after a motion has taken place that the child acquires any knowledge of its own motor act." We must not, however, lose sight of the fact that there is blended or associated with the motor acts sensations coming from the eye and the ear and from other sensory avenues. Involved in all these motor acts is an extensive part of the cortex of the brain called the motor centers, because all muscular movements are controlled from these centers. Not only do these motor centers play a great part in the development of the psychic life and the rise of the will, but all other parts of the brain come to be developed in communication with them. Prof. Baldwin has expressed the idea that it is the motor which holds the sensory elements together, and Dr. Crichton Browne has said that an analysis of our ideas reveals to us that we have few if any of purely sensory characteristics. All our ideas, then, have important motor elements. Dr. Browne says further that "the muscles not only by the locomotion which they make possible enormously widen the field from which our sense impressions are gathered, but also, by the experience which their own activities involve, expand our mental resources a thousandfold."

How does this come about? it will be asked. Let one reach out his hand in any fashion, and he knows exactly what movement he has made. Does he know because he saw what he did? Then let him close his eyes and move his hand in any other fashion, and he knows just as well what the movement was as if the act were performed with eyes open. Did he know it because he had willed to move the hand thus? Not so. It must be granted that he willed to do it, and pictured in his mind previously the movement to be made; but that was the end of it in one particular. From that point it disappeared from his consciousness. The picturing of the movement with the intention to make it was the last thing he was conscious of so far as the movement is concerned. Because of that willing a discharge was set off from the motor centers, and the next thing in his consciousness was a perception coming from the sensations which arose from the movement. He then compared that perception with the previous image of the willed movement. They agreed, and he knew just the movement he had made.

But it will now be asked, How do sensations arise from the movement? Such a question is most pertinent at this point. Sensations arise from movement because there are distributed through the muscles, the joints, ligaments, and tendons, even the skin itself, sensory nerve ends which are affected by the movement and convey to the brain sensations of that movement. Out of these sensations the mind perceives what has been done. There is, then, connected with the motor or muscular side an important sensory side. We may go further than to say it is connected with the motor side; it is really imbedded in it. This important sensory side, it will therefore be seen, can not perform its function and carry information to the brain unless the motor side is used; and the more various the employment of the motor side, the larger the knowledge stored up in the brain from its sensory counterpart. The motor and the related sensory are developed by and with each other. The ideas resulting therefrom are sensory-motor ideas; and we have at last come to have some scientific appreciation of the far-reaching importance of these sensory-motor ideas as a part of the structure of the mind and as a means of producing fuller as well as higher mental development.

Ideas of time and place and position in their basic and most important elements are motor. Ideas of form involve more of motor impressions than of optical impressions. By the use of the motor side the child's judgments are enormously increased and are made more accurate. This is necessarily true because by the use of the motor side his opportunities for comparison and discrimination are multiplied. He is called upon, for instance, to form a judgment out of the ideas already in his possession. If now he stops with this judgment he has no new criteria with which to judge its correctness. On the other hand, if he can convert this judgment into motor terms a comparison is forthwith instituted and the judgment undergoes revision.

I have already spoken of the physical activity of youth as a marked characteristic, and have said that this activity is due to the discharge of energy into motor channels. It is a significant fact that the attention of the child can be held for a surprisingly long time provided he is so employed that this motor energy is expended in movement. Attention from the first is therefore closely related to the motor side. The reason seems to be that there are many groups of cells more or less isolated from each other, but each closely connected with the main branches of the nervous system. Each group has functions largely peculiar to itself; when the brain is fully developed these isolated groups of cells become more closely interrelated by means of filamentary outgrowths, called by some writers pathways of association and by others dynamic pathways, by which energy is more readily distributed to various groups. In other words, if I may use a bold metaphor, short circuits become at last established between the various centers, so that the energy is not discharged into the early isolated channels. If, therefore, we wish to hold the child's attention to any particular line of study, we must at the same time provide for the expenditure of the energy that is gathered in the other groups of cells whose connections of interrelation are not yet built up or established. If we do not provide for this, the natural discharge of the energy from the overfilled cells of those other groups swerves the child's attention from what we have in hand for him. Every mental act, it must be remembered, involves the complete arc of the sensory and the motor, and in the child the inherent stress is on the motor. Again I quote from Prof. Baldwin: "Just in as far as the motor ingredient of a mental content of any kind is large—that is, in so far as the sensory ingredient is intense—just to this degree also will the direction of attention be secured, and to this degree also will both the ingredients be intensified by this act of attention. Intensity draws attention, and attention increases intensity—the law of sensory-motor association—i. e., every mental state is a complex of sensory and motor elements, and any influence which strengthens the one tends to strengthen the other also."

I have spoken of how the use of the motor side adds new avenues of perception, of how it increases the number of judgments and the accuracy of them. It enriches also in content our ideas of form, of time, of distance, of place, of resistance, etc.

Association, moreover, is very closely related to this side, and the employment of the motor activities in mental acquirement aids memory. Prof. Baldwin says very emphatically that association has a motor foundation from the first, and that the elements hold together in memory because they are used together in action, and as action becomes one, but yet complex, so the mental content tends to become one, yet complex. He says further: "We have to-day got beyond the view that memory is a faculty which takes up content and remembers it. It is, on the contrary, now known to be a function of the content remembered." In my view this function of the content depends upon the variety of association and also upon volition, and both of these are best built up by that which gives the fullest possible functioning of the nervous mechanism during its developing period—namely, the fullest and most varied use of the motor activities warrantable. This, bear in mind, means a much more prominent use of these activities than has yet been made in our schools.

In the act of teaching or learning, old elements are constantly revived through extrinsic stimulation and volition. But it is, after all, the motor which sets those processes going that revive the older mental elements, and it is through the motor that the older elements have placed beside them images and judgments containing a greater number of elements than they would otherwise have had. Thus arises a more varied association. The new impressions become blended with the old, but at the same time the new have more elements in them because of the development of the motor side. Accordingly, the new content is a fuller one—that is, it has more clews by which its revival may be produced. For Donaldson, in those two remarkable chapters which close his recent work, The Growth of the Brain, not only expressly says that "education consists in modifications of the central nervous system," but also that "the value of mental images appears also as dependent on the number and balance of the secondary sensations which accompany them. The greater the number of these, the more certain and precise is our thought," and "as the possibility of forming the extra images is curtailed, the conception becomes weaker, more special, and less reliable."

The reasons why we attribute such value to paper folding, drawing, coloring, clay modeling, of late so largely introduced into courses of study and with such profit both to pupil and to teacher, must now be very evident. On the same grounds manual training is appreciated to-day, and is winning wider adoption because of its employment of the motor activities. It may be said, however, in passing, that the various exercises now laid down in courses of manual training will all have to be examined in the light of the scientific methods already employed in studying the older practices in education, to determine not only what value these exercises have, but also their sequence, and doubtless to cast aside considerable that is at present recommended. Thirty-five years ago object lessons were strongly advocated in this country. They brought new life and spirit into the schools, and became widely adopted. But to-day, without object teaching, all that was then gained by it is secured and much more by Nature study or science work, that which object teaching has led up to. And through a similar process of evolution many of the formal exercises of manual training are destined to disappear and to be correlated with other kinds of work, so that a broader purpose will be subserved through the use of the motor side.

The reader will recall the statements already made that attention is strongest when the motor side is employed, and that association and memory seem more closely related to this side. There is, however, another ingredient entering into all this which we have not yet mentioned. It is that with the proper expenditure of motor energy there arise interest and pleasure—an emotional condition which of itself materially strengthens memory and association.

When we call to mind that the child's mental world is largely an unrelated world, we find another reason for urging a larger recognition of this principle in our teaching. The child is in an unrelated world, because he is in the midst of innumerable objects, manifestations of complex and varied phenomena, the succession of events and their occurrences simultaneously. The stimuli which constantly stream in produce very strong sensations, and innumerable sense judgments are formed more or less unrelated. One of the most difficult tasks of the teacher is to lead the child to relate these judgments, to reject the unessential and unrelated, and to arrange the ideas growing out of those judgments in series; in other words, to introduce coherence and unity into the child's mental life. But this mental unity can not be considered apart from the matter of physical growth. The child's brain at birth weighs about one fourth of what it weighs at maturity, and the proportionate increase of other tissue in the body during the period of growth is considerably greater than the proportionate increase in brain weight. That which helps the child to gain nervous control will accordingly help greatly in bringing unity into his mental life, and no other means at the teacher's command will contribute so much toward what Prof. Baldwin has so happily styled nervous and mental unity, as a large employment of motor activity in schoolroom work.

If, then, we go into our schools with this idea in mind and examine the methods of teaching we can not fail to discern what a disregard there is of this important principle. Better results would be obtained—incomparably better—could there be a change in this regard in the methods of the schoolroom.

I do not ask for license, but for orderly activity—educative activity. It was in 1797 that Johann Heinrich Gotlieb Heusinger, Docent in Philosophy and Pedagogics at the University of Jena, apprehended this important principle, and expressed his surprise that teachers had not heretofore recognized this impulse of children to activity and taken advantage of it in the work of instruction. It is not the first instance in which the truth of an idea has been recognized a century after its expression. And it is a source of much pleasure to me to offer some of my pedagogical worship at the shrine of Heusinger.

In the different branches of study, then, which pupils pursue in our schools, and which they try to master in order to acquire a fair education, there are numerous places and many topics that admit of the employment of the motor side, if teachers had but the versatility and inventive talent to make the application. Time would be economized, broader mental development would be given to the child, and discipline would take care of itself, for it is undirected motor energy that produces so much trouble in the matter of discipline, and unused motor energy that produces so much fatigue in pupils during school hours.

In order that this article may not seem to be too largely theoretical, and also to show, if possible, more clearly what has already been set forth, I shall endeavor to point out some applications of the employment of the motor side in actual school work. A moment's thought will lead one to see that there are some studies where the employment of the motor activities is much more difficult than in others. Perhaps the most difficult of all subjects is in teaching reading to a class of beginners. In this particular I got my first suggestion from a visit to a little Dorf school in Germany. What I saw appealed to me as a simple and at the same time a remarkable application of the principle I have tried to give exposition to here. I doubt whether the kind, genial schoolmaster had ever read Heusinger's essay or had ever heard his name. I do not think he himself appreciated how scientific, how in accord with the best knowledge of to-day, the lesson he gave in reading to the lowest class really was. The spirit of that little village school, the work and the relations between teacher and pupils, were most beautiful and ideal. In three visits to Germany I never saw any other school comparable with it. Instruction by means of orderly activity, and much of it, were the aim. Activity was not suppressed; it was directed and controlled and made to help powerfully in securing that equipment of knowledge for which schools are established. The reading lesson I have referred to was given to the lowest class, with one little boy in it not yet five, which the master had allowed to enter.

The reader will assent, I have no doubt, when I say that learning to read makes a severe demand upon the attention, and there is perhaps no other subject, when we consider the way it is usually taught, that tires the pupil so quickly, simply because we do not provide for the employment of the energy that must be discharged into other channels. The act of recognizing and learning new words uses only a small part of the energy which the various groups of nerve cells are constantly accumulating in the healthy and growing child. Now this gentle, sunny German schoolmaster, who was every whit a man, focused the attention of his little class upon the words he wished that day to teach them, and added interest and delight to the exercise because he made other demands than those upon the eye and the voice and the ear. There were five words in the lesson, and the lesson lasted just five minutes, after which the little class went to a table in another part of the room and took up number work. The words of the reading lesson were Hut, Rad, Fisch, Topf, Sichel. The letters were printed on pieces of cardboard about two inches and a half square, and these were placed in the shallow trough of the black-board in the order demanded by the words. Each pupil when called upon made a vigorous striking gesture as he pointed to each letter, giving at the same time the sound of the letter. When he had sounded each letter of the word in this manner he made another gesture, this time from left to right as if to blend all the sounds, pronouncing the word as he made the gesture. Then the little group in concert spelled and pronounced the word in the same fashion. The next pupil went through the same exercise with the second word, and so on for each pupil. Sometimes the master would tip the letters of a word over on to the floor and direct one of the pupils to pick them up and put them back in proper order; or he would take the letter cards, mix them up, and direct a pupil to put them back in the trough in their proper order.

In the Heusinger School, lately organized to give application to these principles, this plan of letting children point singly and then together to the letters of words written on the board has been used as one way of providing motor activity while teaching beginners to read. But variety is necessary, and as another way of securing this the pupil, when he has read his sentence, goes to the blackboard and writes it, then to the table, picks out the printed or script letters according as he has been directed, and forms on a tablet these letters into the sentence, and then takes this to the teacher for her approval. If it seems necessary to have the child write the same sentence several times, the mere matter of directing him to write the sentence on one board, then to go to the next board and write it, and then back to the first to write it a third time, gives him pleasure, enhances his interest, and strengthens his power to make effort. And thus much orderly activity is combined with all reading exercises. I may remark in passing that during the child's first year at school he is kept in his seat less than one fourth of the time. The desk, if the matter is not closely watched, proves a fatal obstacle to the employment of the child's motor energy, not only in the first year but in the succeeding years.

Arithmetic is a subject which presents large opportunities for the employment of the motor activities in teaching it, and the advocates of manual training ought to have shown us long ago how nearly the whole of arithmetic can be taught through manual-training exercises. Such a correlation is possible. But those schools which have stood for manual training from the first, and which possess to-day magnificent equipments, seem not to have apprehended that these two subjects of their curriculum can be made to go hand in hand. Because of their opportunities they should have worked out for the benefit of the educational world a method of teaching arithmetic and at the same time manual training in wood and metals.

But more convenient materials than wood or metal are at our command for the ordinary schoolroom. Paper and cardboard admit of tridimensional constructions in great variety, and by the folding and cutting of paper all necessary space-forms of two dimensions are easily made. Then, too, the floor, and even the conventional blackboard, can be brought into much larger requisition for the drawing of plans and diagrams. Scales and weights, measures of capacity, and other concrete objects and appliances can be brought into service. Moreover, buying, measuring, and selling should have a place. By the use of all these accessories, in graded exercises throughout the whole course of arithmetic from the class of beginners to the class completing the study, large employment can be given to the motor activities. Such procedure would render the instruction in arithmetic less formal and more informing, and would incite a greater degree of interest in pupils.

Inventional geometry is a subject which is regarded by all who have had experience in teaching it as a most interesting and educative study.[1]

The series of problems devised by William George Spencer stand pre-eminently above any other series yet published. The little book exemplifies most thoroughly the principle of apperception. Its exercises are very carefully graded. The steps are for the most part just difficult enough, so that the pupil is able, by using the ideas he has already gained, and the power he has acquired in gaining those ideas, to solve the next step. The book is based upon the heuristic or inventive method of teaching, and is a remarkable example of this. These factors unquestionably contribute much to the delight which pupils find in this study. But these factors, valuable as they are, are not sufficient to account for the command which pupils possess over the knowledge gained and their power to revive that knowledge and use it, as well as to find interest in it long after they have passed their examinations and have laid the study aside. There is another potent factor assisting these. The exercises call into use a very important part of the motor side. The pupil is continually busy with his hands as he brings into requisition ruler, compasses, pencil, pen, etc. The hands and the eye work in harmonious conjunction, and thus important motor elements become constituent parts of the notions and judgments acquired. An augmented power of perception, and consequently greater stimulation, results, and because of this the pupil produces forms which would not be produced if he studied printed diagrams and tried to build these up in imagination. Accordingly, his judgments of the relations of lines, angles, surfaces, planes, solids, and areas are multiplied to an enormous extent.

The last application I shall point out is in a branch of study where the employment of the motor side would be least thought of, and where it would lessen the burdens of pupils and preclude the discomfiture of teachers. The branch of study referred to is that of modern languages. Books are the repositories of knowledge, we have been told, but that is no reason why the pupil should begin and end his acquirement of a modern language by closely adhering to the pages of a text-book. I trust the reader will not misinterpret me. I do not wish to abolish text-books. I would not, however, by their use hold the child down to one narrow avenue of acquirement. The printed page is greatly like a photograph—it gives but one point of view. It must, however, be conceded in this connection that there are a few, a very small percentage, of those who enter upon the study of a foreign language that apparently get on easily with acquirement from the printed page. Most teachers of the languages doubtless belong to this class, but that is no reason why the method by which they learned should hold sway. The fact is that a large majority of students do find this way of acquirement very hard, and many become discouraged and give up effort. I think it will be conceded that the principal factor in learning a foreign language is manifold association. The vocabularies in text-books are printed with the English equivalent after each word. The pupil is required to learn and recite those vocabularies and then to apply the knowledge in reading and writing sentences. It must be apparent that this method affords but a narrow ground of association, and difficult recollection is, of course, inevitable. It has been shown that when foreign words are printed and are followed by a picture of the object instead of the equivalent word in the vernacular, memory is largely aided.

Excellent as is this plan, however, it can not be used in connection with all the parts of speech, but must be confined principally to one class of words. When, however, we make use of the motor side, first creating through this means the idea in the mind of the pupil and afterward giving, in the foreign tongue, the expression of this idea without the employment of English as an intermediary, we are not only taking the most direct way to lead the pupil to understand and think according to the idiom of the language he wishes to learn, but we are also economizing mental effort on his part, because the largest acquirement results from the effort expended. In a future article I purpose to discuss more fully this particular topic, and to describe some experiments now being made for the purpose of developing a method of teaching German according to this principle.


  1. See Popular Science Monthly, January, 1889.