Popular Science Monthly/Volume 82/March 1913/The Laboratory Method and High School Efficiency

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IT is a striking fact that for twenty years there has been no increase in the percentage of pupils who complete a high school course. In the period between 1900 and 1910, the number of pupils in public high schools in the United States has increased over 76 per cent, (from 519,251 to 915,061).[1] During this same period the number of high school teachers who teach these pupils has increased over 100 per cent, (from 20,372 to 41,667). The number and value of high school properties has increased proportionately during this period, including improvement in the quality and quantity of facilities for work in libraries, laboratories, gymnasia, etc. But for twenty years, approximately twelve per cent. of the enrollment of the high schools has been graduated. Regardless of the increase in facilities, and of an increase in teaching force, which is one third greater than the increase in the number of pupils, and of an assumed increase in the relative efficiency of this teaching force, and regardless of the increased public belief in secondary education, there has been no increase in twenty years in the percentage of high school pupils that take a full high school course. The fact that they begin the work indicates clearly that some one in control regards it as worth while for some reason for these pupils to engage upon the work of the secondary schools, though they may at the outset expect to do but one or a few years of the work. But the fact that approximately 88 per cent, do not complete a course indicates that most of those who thought it worth while to enter the high school, for some or many reasons do not find it possible or perhaps not worth while to follow out the course, even if at the outset they intend doing so.

Failure to carry school work is one prominent factor in the elimination of pupils from school, though doubtless the content of the curriculum, and social and economic conditions may often be determining or contributing factors. In one large high school 432 pupils entered the freshmen class in the autumn of 1909. Of these 432, 338 left school before completing the third semester, thus leaving 94 of the original 432 in school. Of those who left, 124 made no passing credit in the school and 121 others failed to receive passing credits in 43 per cent, of the subjects which they took. The remaining 93 pupils who left school made average grades above 80 per cent. (75 being the passing grade in this school) though the pupils failed to secure credit in 22 per cent, of their subjects. There were, therefore, 245 of the 338 pupils who had a percentage of failure from nearly half to all of their subjects, and 93 pupils who failed in 22 per cent, of their work. The 94 pupils who remained in school failed to receive credit in slightly less than 5 per cent, of their subjects.

It seems possible that this case is more striking than would usually appear from such investigations since the problems associated with this particular school may be peculiarly difficult.

In a careful study made by Mr. G. E. Johnson, of St. Louis, and covering records from twelve high schools with a total number of 18,926 pupils, he finds that approximately 90 per cent, of those pupils who were failing in their work left school, while but ten per cent. of those who were making 90 per cent, or better in their work left school. This percentage of those who failed and left school remains almost constant throughout the four years, with the exception that in the Chicago and Kansas City schools rather a larger percentage of the failures drop out in the earlier years than in the later years, while in the smaller schools the percentage of dropping out of those who fail remains about the same throughout the whole high school course.

Doubtless the compulsory attendance law and the sixteen-year labor law often are factors in continuing for a time the attendance of pupils who do poorly, and that with the close of the sixteenth year economic and social necessity takes many pupils out of school. But we must note the fact that the percentage of failures who leave school remains almost the same for all the years of the high school. Possibly the termination of the period when pupils must attend school may operate to relieve those who are failing, from the necessity of further attendance in an institution in which they do not "make good."

School methods (of dealing day by day with the series of topics that make up a given study) are often contributing causes to the failures which lead pupils to leave school.

The present situation is interesting. In the elementary schools from which these pupils have come to the high school, the school day runs from 8:30 or 9:00 o'clock to 3:30 or 4:00 o'clock and the greater part of all study is done during school hours, under direct or indirect supervision of the teacher. The teacher is present to correct any misunderstandings in assignments, to give a directing question or suggestion, or to quicken the endeavor, when such is needed. The work of one year is fairly well connected with that of the preceding years and partially new and partially old ground is covered each year. In the high school, particularly, in the first year, the subjects of study are largely or wholly new, often so new as to constitute fields quite unknown to the pupils. Even when some of the subjects are not new, we have a larger change than occurred between any two elementary grades. Pupils in a given subject go to the special room of the teacher for their recitations, recite and receive their assignment and then go to another class room for another subject, or return to their assembly room or to their homes with their assigned work for the next clay. The teacher in the elementary school ordinarily meets the pupils of a given grade for most or all of their work, and knows them as they appear in all their work. In high school each teacher is especially interested in one or a few subjects and this one or few are the only ones in which the teacher knows his pupils. In the elementary schools the teacher usually stands as representative of one grade of pupils. In the high school the teacher usually stands as representative of a subject.

Not only does the first-year high school student encounter a new content of subject matter, but usually a new kind of school day. Many high schools begin work at 8:30 or 9:00 o'clock and close at 1:00 or 1:30 or 2:00 o'clock. In many high schools all of the hours in school are occupied in recitation or laboratory work, all individual study or assignments being done away from school.

The conditions for home study present all the possible variations, but most home study must be done under discursive influences—a little study, a little conversation about irrelevant matter, an intermittent discontinuance for small household duties, a prolonged intermission for recreation, with the half-consciousness of wrong-doing because of unfinished and overhanging lessons, even interrupted sleep because of a number of unfinished tasks, a final effort to secure categorically such facts regarding the assignment as are essential to enable the pupil to meet the teacher, a consciousness of incompleteness of preparation and a hope that, if called upon at all, the call may come for the facts that are in the pupil's meager store. Often the pupil's own initiative to home study must be supplemented by commands or entreaties from parents, and sometimes parents must do pupil's work for them, under penalty of family chagrin due to impending failure of the child. In most cases poor habits of study and an essentially immoral attitude toward study result from purported home study, though some pupils of good ability and strong individuality may do quite effective or superior work through home study. The habit of dawdling, waste of time in getting to work, wondering whether the work really must be done, whether a lexicon, cyclopedia, or parental answer to questions may not be found, leaves an entirely improper attitude toward real study. Sham work, at first as a makeshift, later becomes the only kind of which some individuals are capable.

Some important experiments have been made to determine the relative value of directed and individual class-room study.

It has seemed to several teachers to be worth while to see if more carefully directed class-room study, less so-called recitation and less home work might not yield better results.

Experiments in mathematics have been carried on by Mr. Ernest E. Breslich, of the University High School (Chicago), Department of Mathematics. At the outset Mr. Breslich found that some pupils who did poorly on their assigned work did not understand the suggestions that had been given regarding good ways for undertaking the home work. Parents insisted that the assignments made were impossible, whereas for one reason or another the pupils had failed to get essential suggestions regarding the assignment. Even with assignments clearly understood certain habits of home study which did not exist had been assumed. A series of visits to other classes showed similar conditions. Pupils reported poor results from their home study, various excuses or no excuses being offered. The teacher explained away the pupil's difficulties and, in most cases, the pretense of having the work done at home was continued.

To ascertain the ways in which the members of one class attack their work, Mr. Breslich assigned a lesson, taking unusual care to make clear all phases of the assignment. The class was then told that the next fifteen minutes would be given to studying the lesson assigned. All pupils were slow in beginning the work and some occupied all of the fifteen minutes in getting ready to go to work. Some who ordinarily came to class with well-prepared lessons looked about to see how others were undertaking the work, and followed them. Few really accomplished anything in the fifteen minutes.

To investigate more carefully these individual habits of study, Mr. Breslich told his classes that at a certain hour each day the class room would be open to students who had difficulty with assignments or wished to make up back work, and good use was made of this opportunity. The teacher passed about among the pupils as they worked, making suggestions, but rarely answering questions directly.

It was then decided to make more prolonged trial of this supervised study with all members of one class. In one section of the class no home work was assigned and in the other section home work was assigned and in the usual way. The two sections had the same work. Both spent fourteen lessons on simultaneous linear equations, at the end of which the same test was given to both sections. The relative standings in grades which these two sections received upon the same examination, at the close of the preceding semester in mathematics, that is prior to beginning these experiments, are: Section A, average 81.4; Section B, average 79.4, B being slightly weaker than A. In Section B 5.9 of the class had failed in the preceding semester and none in Section A.

Section A was given home work with no class room supervised study. Section B was given supervised study and no home work. Upon the test following the fourteen lessons their standings were:

Section A—with home work and no supervised study averaged 62.8, with 50 per cent, receiving the failure mark.

Section B—with supervised study and no home work averaged 65.5, with 31.2 receiving the failure mark. It is to be noted that Section B, a somewhat weaker section, surpassed Section A, and that its lower number of failures indicates that the poorer pupils profited most from the supervised study. Section A reported an average of 11/4 hours spent on each lesson, while in Section B the actual time of class work was 36 minutes per day. Section B solved an average of two problems more to each pupil than did Section A. With the supervised class work as a basis, too much time was spent on the home assignments. Section B worked slowly during the first three lessons, but with the development of independence and confidence they soon worked rapidly. The interest and pleasure of Section B, some of whom had failed in the preceding semester, were noticeable.

In the following topic to which six lessons were given, the methods were reversed, Section A being given supervised class-room work and Section B home assignments, and class recitations. At the close of this series of lessons the same test was given both sections with the result that Section A with supervised work and no home work averaged 77.5, and Section B with home work and recitations averaged 86.4.

12.5 per cent, of Section A failed on the test and 5.7 of Section B failed.

31.2 per cent, of Section A secured a mark of A, and 52.9 per cent, of B secured the A mark.

This seems to show that the pupils in Section B, by means of their previous fourteen supervised lessons, had learned enough about independent study to enable them to do their home work in such a way that Section A even under supervision did not surpass Section B in six lessons. The ability of Section B, gained under supervision, persisted in home study through six following lessons.

In the Detroit Central High School a different plan has been followed in some experiments in algebra and Latin. Principal David McKenzie writes:

We have experimented somewhat with a plan to give additional direction to the weaker pupils of the ninth grade. I cite the two cases of first course in Algebra and Latin. At the end of ten weeks all pupils who were marked failing in these subjects were grouped together for special work in addition to their regular recitation periods. They were given twenty lessons each, on the ground covered during a period of six or seven weeks. Each pupil was treated as a pathological subject. In the final test they were marked as follows:

Total number of pupils 15
Number marked "Excellent" 1
Number marked "Good" 6
Number marked "Fair" 3
Number marked "Weak" 1
Number "Not passed" 3
Number "Left" 1
Total number of pupils 20
Number marked "Excellent" 2
Number marked "Good" 4
Number marked "Fair" 3
Number marked "Weak" 5
Number marked "Not passed" 3
Number marked "Left" 3
It is plainly evident that a large number of ninth grade pupils need greater direction than they receive at present, and I am convinced that we must resort to some plan to give them this additional help, if we are to eliminate excessive mortality in this grade.

The double period plan is in use in many schools. In the Joilet Township High School for some years two periods per day, ten hours per week in all, have been given to all science work, manual training, domestic science and mechanical drawing, this period being used both for study and recitation. This school has also used this plan with beginning algebra, beginning geometry and beginning history. In Joilet the consensus of opinion of teachers is that the plan is successful. Principal J. Stanley Brown states that by such a scheme "the percentage of failures may be reduced to a minimum, and that is a compensation for the slight increase in teaching force and extra amount of money spent for teaching."

At Murphrysboro, Ill., an experiment (in manual training) has been under way which, while not bearing directly upon our question, has a collateral bearing upon it by indicating that even single periods and more prolonged periods of class instruction may sometimes be used in such ways as to make the shorter and not the longer period desirable, though doubtless longer periods usually are desirable.

A small class of boys in manual training was divided, one section being given single periods for this work, the other the same number of double periods. The principal, Mr. G. J. Koons, stated that the single period pupils were not above the double-period boys in their general class standing nor in ability. All were given piece work and records were kept of the hours used by each boy in completing each piece of work. Eleven pieces of work were completed by each pupil. The single period pupils used approximately 25 per cent, less time on an average for each piece than the double-period boys, and on the test given to all at the close of the work, the single period pupils averaged 7 per cent, above the double-period pupils. This experiment suggests a possible waste of time in longer periods, possibly lack of readiness in attacking work, of attention and high tension of effort throughout the period. It is well known that appreciation of relative shortness of time available usually results in higher alertness, readiness of attack, higher tone and more constant prosecution of the work in hand. It must be kept in mind that the Murphrysboro experiment involves a small number of pupils and withal may be more of a suggestion of method than of the value of any particular length of period given to a study. Most teachers who have tried class-room directed study find double periods, part for study and part for general discussion, most effective.

Variations of the above experiment are under way in other schools.

Throughout the whole United States there has been a significant attempt to introduce courses in general science into the first year of the high school. While in different schools these courses vary largely in their content, length and in many details of method, they agree in their purpose of being less formal, less rigid and abstract than the highly differentiated sciences, and in selecting and treating topics in science in such ways that the pupils think through these topics with good methods of thinking and with a knowledge content that appeals to the pupils as being worth while. The dominant method is that of class study of real things and real situations. An active attempt is made to secure individual experimentation or individual study from every pupil. The whole general science movement is an attempt to secure a scientific method of work, upon concrete problems, the significance of which appeals to the worker. We have been putting first-year pupils into formal sciences which were beautifully organized and orderly, possibly even elementary from the point of view of the adult science and the research student, but which are an abstract field to the pupil who has not been led to rationalize the common phenomena of his surroundings. This general science course has met a splendid response and its method has resulted in more effective work in subjects other than science during the first year and in the sciences in the following years. It is stated by teachers and principals that where significant laboratory courses in general science are given, fewer pupils fail in their work, more remain in school in the second year, and there is a much larger demand in subsequent years for courses that utilize laboratory methods, similar to those of general science courses. The method and significant content of the general science course seems to prepare in ability to work and in desire to work in other laboratory courses. My own observation leads me to conclude that the oft-made statement that pupils are naturally averse to work, is much exaggerated. If properly guided to independent, purposeful study, really significant work becomes a pleasure to most pupils.

General science is an attempt to get back to the valuable parts of the natural history of our fathers, the purposeful, dynamic, thoughtful but elementary interpretation of common significant problems. The kind of interpretation which physiography promised to give when it first came into secondary schools and which physiography may still serve to unify better perhaps than any other single branch of science.

The more fully directed study in general science and in other laboratory sciences presents an opportunity for individual, first-hand study of concrete things for experiment and interpretation of phenomena. But, as is true in other high school subjects, it is wasteful for the science teacher merely to assure himself that the pupils and materials are enclosed within the same room. Science in which we boast of concrete studies, of the laboratory method and of the possible significance of content that is unsurpassed, has sometimes become as formal in its home assignments as unlikely of achievement, its recitations as free from individual dynamic activity as any other subjects. It as well as the other subjects needs to be revived by use of its own concrete laboratory method. Laboratory teaching in science or other subjects may rise to the highest level of excellence or may descend to a meaningless mechanical manipulation that is deadening. But it is believed that-the laboratory method offers us an important method greatly needed in all our high school subjects, most seriously needed in the first years of the high school.

It must be obvious that if such methods of high school work as suggested by the experiments cited above are used, some important changes must be effected. Most important is wider recognition of real teaching, real development of pupil-power, as compared with assigning and hearing lessons and telling facts to pupils, in case they have not understood them. Recitations and class discussions and home assignments should not be wholly omitted, but these may profitably be much reduced. Then, when teachers direct their pupils in individual study of real situations, assignments may be expected to become more appropriate, more carefully planned, less frequently made at the close of the period as the class is starting from the room. The assignment is a highly important part of the period's work, and it is an educational misdemeanor to make an incomprehensible assignment.

The extension of these methods of study would help to eliminate some of the abuses of the ordinary class room recitation. With directed individual study, each would have fuller opportunity for work, and each must learn to work independently. It does not follow that all general discussion should be omitted, but in directed work there are ample opportunities for general discussions. Nor does it follow that no home work should be assigned.

A more intimate interest in each pupil is possible through classroom study. The ordinary assignment of home work and class-room recitation method tends to reduce all the class to a base level. Classroom study enables the teacher better to teach both weak and strong pupil, to his highest efficiency. The ordinary class recitation method—a sort of vermiform appendix on our educational system—often consists either in allowing the best students to do the work or in having them sit idly by, developing habits of low tension while the teacher attempts to pull up the weaker ones to a fair understanding of the point at hand. It requires a higher order of ability to teach genius than mediocrity, and our present class-room methods often ignore genius, through an illy balanced sense of duty to the mediocre, or may neglect the majority in the interests of the few brighter pupils. Well-balanced study should enable the teacher to stimulate all to a high degree of effort.

Class-room study means a longer school day and more teaching force or longer hours for the present teaching force. The school day should be longer. Germany has approximately thirty school hours per week to our approximate twenty hours per week in secondary schools.

Almost all high-school work should be done at school in school hours under guidance of teachers. Less assigned home work will mean less carrying of responsibility for school duties during the hours at home when often such responsibilities can not be met and under conditions which often foster ineffective habits of study. There will always remain plenty of good home work; good reading, some assignment, upon work in line with school work; but our pupils should no more carry home with them the larger burden of their school work than a good business man should take home with him his major business duties.

The longer school day is not to be feared, but welcomed, if by means of it adequate time for proper study is secured. We have cheapened our schools by shortening them. Even longer hours for teachers, the time being given to more prolonged and more effective teaching in a reduced number of classes, is not undesirable, if by means of these longer hours more effective teaching and less wreckage through failure in high school may be secured.

  1. Ann. Rep. U. S. Com. of Ed., 1911, p. 9.