Craftsmanship in teaching

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But my chief reason for choosing his work as a type is that it represents a successful effort to supervise that part of school work which is most difficult and irksome to supervise; namely, the formation of habits. Whatever one's ideals of education may be, it still remains true that habit building is the most important duty of the elementary school, and that the efficiency of habit building can be tested in no other way than by the means that he employed; namely, the careful comparison of results at successive stages of the process.


The essence of a true habit is its purely automatic character. Reaction must follow upon the stimulus instantaneously, without thought, reflection, or judgment. One has not taught spelling efficiently until spelling is automatic, until the correct form flows from the pen without the intervention of mind. The real test of the pupil's training in spelling is his ability to spell the word correctly when he is thinking, not about spelling, but about the content of the sentence that he is writing. Consequently the test of efficiency in spelling is not an examination in spelling, although this may be valuable as a means to an end, but rather the infrequency with which misspelled words appear in the composition work, letter writing, and other written work of the pupil. Similarly in language and grammar, it is not sufficient to instruct in rules of syntax. This is but the initial process. Grammatical rules function effectively only when they function automatically. So long as one must think and judge and reflect upon the form of one's expression, the expression is necessarily awkward and inadequate.

The same rule holds in respect of the fundamental processes of arithmetic. It holds in penmanship, in articulation and enunciation, in word recognition, in moral conduct and good manners; in fact, in all of the basic work for which the elementary school must stand sponsor. And one source of danger in the newer methods of education lies in the tendency to overlook the importance of carrying habit-building processes through to a successful issue. The reaction against drill, against formal work of all sorts, is a healthful reaction in many ways. It bids fair to break up the mechanical lock step of the elementary grades, and to introduce some welcome life, and vigor, and wholesomeness. But it will sadly defeat its own purpose if it underrates the necessity of habit building as the basic activity of early education.

What is needed, now that we have got away from the lock step, now that we are happily emancipated from the meaningless thralldom of mechanical repetition and the worship of drill for its own sake--what is needed now is not less drill, but better drill. And this should be the net result of the recent reforms in elementary education. In our first enthusiasm, we threw away the spelling book, poked fun at the multiplication tables, decried basal reading, and relieved ourselves of much wit and sarcasm at the expense of formal grammar. But now we are swinging back to the adequate recognition of the true purpose of drill. And in the wake of this newer conception, we are learning that its drudgery may be lightened and its efficiency heightened by the introduction of a richer content that shall provide a greater variety in the repetitions, insure an adequate motive for effort, and relieve the dead monotony that frequently rendered the older methods so futile. I look forward to the time when to be an efficient drillmaster in this newer sense of the term will be to have reached one of the pinnacles of professional skill.


But there is another side of teaching that must be supervised. Although habit is responsible for nine tenths of conduct, the remaining tenth must not be neglected. In situations where habit is not adequate to adjustment, judgment and reflection must come to the rescue, or should come to the rescue. This means that, instead of acting without thought, as in the case of habit, one analyzes the situation and tries to solve it by the application of some fact or principle that has been gained either from one's own experience or from the experience of others. This is the field in which knowledge comes to its own; and a very important task of education is to fix in the pupils' minds a number of facts and principles that will be available for application to the situations of later life.

How, then, is the efficiency of instruction (as distinguished from training or habit building) to be tested? Needless to say, an adequate test is impossible from the very nature of the situation. The efficiency of imparting knowledge can be tested only by the effect that this knowledge has upon later conduct; and this, it will be agreed, cannot be accurately determined until the pupil has left the school and is face to face with the problems of real life.

In practice, however, we adopt a more or less effective substitute for the real test--the substitute called the examination. We all know that the ultimate purpose of instruction is not primarily to enable pupils successfully to pass examinations. And yet as long as we teach as though this were the main purpose we might as well believe it to be. Now the examination may be made a very valuable test of the efficiency of instruction if its limitations are fully recognized and if it does not obscure the true purpose of instruction. And if we remember that the true purpose is to impart facts in such a manner that they may not only "stick" in the pupil's mind, but that they may also be amenable to recall and practical application, and if we set our examination questions with some reference to this requirement, then I believe that we shall find the examination a dependable test.

One important point is likely to be overlooked in the consideration of examinations,--the fact, namely, that the form and content of the questions have a very powerful influence in determining the content and methods of instruction. Is it not pertinent, then, to inquire whether examination questions cannot be so framed as radically to improve instruction rather than to encourage, as is often the case, methods that are pedagogically unsound? Granted that it is well for the child to memorize verbatim certain unrelated facts, even to memorize some facts that have no immediate bearing upon his life, granted that this is valuable (and I think that a little of it is), is it necessary that an entire year or half-year be given over almost entirely to "cramming up" on old questions? Would it not be possible so to frame examination questions that the "cramming" process would be practically valueless?

What the pupil should get from geography, for instance, is not only a knowledge of geographical facts, but also, and more fundamentally, the power to see the relation of these facts to his own life; in other words, the ability to apply his knowledge to the improvement of adjustment. Now this power is very closely associated with the ability to grasp fundamental principles, to see the relation of cause and effect working below the surface of diverse phenomena. Geography, to be practical, must impress not only the fact, but also the principle that rationalizes or explains the fact. It must emphasize the "why" as well as the "what." For example: it is well for the pupil to know that New York is the largest city in the United States; it is better that he should know why New York has become the largest city in the United States. It is well to know that South America extends very much farther to the east than does North America, but it is better to know that this fact has had an important bearing in determining the commercial relations that exist between South America and Europe. Questions that have reference to these larger relations of cause and effect may be so framed that no amount of "cramming" will alone insure correct answers. They may be so framed that the pupil will be forced to do some thinking for himself, will be forced to solve an imaginary situation very much as he would solve a real situation.

Examination questions of this type would react beneficially upon the methods of instruction. They would tend to place a premium upon that type of instruction that develops initiative in solving problems, instead of encouraging the memoriter methods that tend to crush whatever germs of initiative the pupil may possess. This does not mean that the memoriter work should be excluded. A solid basis of fact is essential to the mastery of principles. Personally I believe that the work of the intermediate grades should be planned to give the pupil this factual basis. This would leave the upper grades free for the more rational work. In any case, I believe that the efficiency of examinations may be greatly increased by giving one or two questions that must be answered by a reasoning process for every question that may be answered by verbal memory alone.


Thus far it seems clear that an absolute standard is available for testing the efficiency of training or habit building, and that a fairly accurate standard may be developed for testing the efficiency of instruction. Both training and instruction, however, are subject to the modifying influence of a third factor of which too little account has hitherto been taken in educational discussions. Training results in habits, and yet a certain sort of training may not only result in a certain type of habit, but it may also result in the development of something which will quite negate the habit that has been developed. In the process of developing habits of neatness, for example, one may employ methods that result in prejudicing the child against neatness as a general virtue. In this event, although the little specific habits of neatness may function in the situations in which they have been developed, the prejudice will effectually prevent their extension to other fields. In other words, the general emotional effect of training must be considered as well as the specific results of the training. The same stricture applies with equal force to instruction. Instruction imparts knowledge; but if a man knows and fails to feel, his knowledge has little influence upon his conduct.

This factor that controls conduct when habit fails, this factor that may even negate an otherwise efficient habit, is the great indeterminate in the work of teaching. To know that one has trained an effective habit or imparted a practical principle is one thing; to know that in doing this, one has not engendered in the pupil's mind a prejudice against the very thing taught is quite another matter.

That phase of teaching which is concerned with the development of these intangible forces may be termed "inspiration"; and it is the lack of an adequate test for the efficiency of inspiration that makes the task of supervision so difficult and the results so often unsatisfactory.

Nevertheless, even here the outlook is not entirely hopeless. One may be tolerably certain of at least two things. In the first place, the great "emotionalized prejudices" that must come predominantly from school influences are the love of truth, the love of work, respect for law and order, and a spirit of coöperation. These factors undoubtedly have their basis in specific habits of honesty, industry, obedience, and regard for the rights and feelings of others; and these habits may be developed and tested just as thoroughly and just as accurately as habits of good spelling and correct syntax. Without the solid basis of habit, ideals and prejudices will be of but little service. The one caution must be taken that the methods of training do not defeat their own purpose by engendering prejudices and ideals that negate the habits. It is here that the personality of the teacher becomes the all-important factor, and the task of the supervisor is to determine whether the influence of the personality is good or evil. Most supervisors come to judge of this influence by an undefined factor that is best termed the "spirit of the classroom."

The second hopeful feature of the task of supervision in respect of inspiration is that this "spirit" is an extremely contagious and pervasive thing. In other words, the principal or the superintendent may dominate every classroom under his supervision, almost without regard to the limitations of the individual teachers. Typical schools in every city system bear compelling testimony to this fact. The principal is the school.

And if I were to sum up the essential characteristics of the ideal supervisor, I could not neglect this point. After all, the two great dangers that beset him are, first, the danger of sloth--the old Adam of laziness--which will tempt him to avoid the details, to shirk the drudgery, to escape the close and wearisome scrutiny of little things; and, secondly, the sin of triviality--the inertia which holds him to details and never permits him to take the broader view and see the true ends toward which details are but the means. The proper combination of these two factors is all too rare, but it is in this combination that the ideal supervisor is to be found.


[Footnote 10: A paper read before the fifty-second annual meeting of the New York State Association of School Commissioners and Superintendents, November 8, 1907.]



It is difficult not to be depressed by the irrational radicalism of contemporary educational theory. It would seem that the workers in the higher ranges of educational activity should, of all men, preserve a balanced judgment and a sane outlook, and yet there is probably no other human calling that presents the strange phenomenon of men who are called experts throwing overboard everything that the past has sanctioned, and embarking without chart or compass upon any new venture that happens to catch popular fancy. The non-professional character of education is nowhere more painfully apparent than in the expression of this tendency. The literature of teaching that is written directly out of experience--out of actual adjustment to the teaching situation--is almost laughed out of court in some educational circles. But if one wishes to win the applause of the multitude one may do it easily enough by proclaiming some new and untried plan. At our educational gatherings you notice above everything else a straining for spectacular and bizarre effects. It is the novel that catches attention; and it sometimes seems to me that those who know the least about the educational situation in the way of direct contact often receive the largest share of attention and have the largest influence.

It is in the attitude of the public and of a certain proportion of school men toward elementary teaching and the elementary teacher that this destructive criticism finds its most pronounced expression. Throughout the length and breadth of the land, the efficiency of the public school and the sincerity and intelligence of those who are giving their lives to its work are being called into question. It is discouraging to think that years of service in a calling do not qualify one to speak authoritatively upon the problems of that calling, and especially upon technique. And yet it is precisely upon that point of technique that the criticisms of elementary education are most drastic.

Our educational system is sometimes branded as a failure, and yet this same educational system with all its weaknesses has accomplished the task of assimilating to American institutions and ideals and standards the most heterogeneous infusion of alien stocks that ever went to the making of a united people. The elementary teacher is criticized for all the sins of omission that the calendar enumerates, and yet this same elementary teacher is daily lifting millions of children to a plane of civilization and culture that no other people in history have even thought possible. I am willing to admit the deficiencies of American education, but I also maintain that the teachers of our lower schools do not deserve the opprobrium that has been heaped upon them. I believe that in education, as in business, it would be a good thing if we saw more of the doughnut and less of the hole. When I hear a prominent educator say that we must discard everything that we have produced thus far and begin anew in the realm of educational materials and methods, I confess that I am discouraged, especially when that same authority is extremely obscure as to the materials and methods that we should substitute for those that we are now employing. I heard that statement at a recent meeting of the Department of Superintendence, and I heard other things of like tenor,--for example, that normal schools were perpetuating types of skill in teaching that were unworthy of perpetuation, that the observation of teaching was valueless in the training of teachers because there was nothing that was being done at the present time that was worthy of imitation, that practice teaching in the training of young teachers is a farce, a delusion, and a snare. Those very words were employed by one man of high position to express his opinion of contemporary practices. You cannot pick up an educational journal of the better sort, nor open a new educational book, without being brought face to face with this destructive criticism.

I protest against this, not only in the name of justice, but in the name of common sense. It cannot be possible that generations of dealing with immature minds should have left no residuum of effective practice. The very principle of progress by trial and error will inevitably mean that certain practices that are possible and helpful and effective are perpetuated, and that certain other processes that are ineffective and wasteful are eliminated. To repudiate all this is the height of folly. If the history of progress shows us anything, it shows us that progress is not made by repudiating the lessons of experience. Theory is the last word, not the first. Theory should explain: it should take successful practice and find out what principles condition its efficiency; and if these principles are inconsistent with those heretofore held, it is the theory that should be modified to suit the facts, not the facts to suit the theory.

My opponents may point to medicine as a possible example of the opposite procedure. And yet if there is anything that the history of medical science demonstrates, it is that the first cues to new discoveries were made in the field of practice. Lymph therapy, which is one of the triumphs of modern medicine, was discovered empirically. It was an accident of practice, a blind procedure of trial and success that led to Jenner's discovery of the virtues of vaccination. A century passed before theory adequately explained the phenomenon, and opened the way to those wider applications of the principle that have done so much to reduce the ravages of disease.

The value of theory, I repeat, is to explain successful practice and to generalize experience in broad and comprehensive principles which can be easily held in mind, and from which inferences for further new and effective practices may be derived. We have a small body of sound principles in education to-day,--a body of principles that are thoroughly consistent with successful practice. But the sort of principles that are put forth as the last words of educational theory are often far from sound. Personally I firmly believe that a vast amount of damage is being done to children by the application of fallacious principles which, because they emanate from high authority, obtain an artificial validity in the minds of teachers in service.

I cannot understand why, when an educational experiment fails lamentably, it is not rejected as a failure. And yet you and I know a number of instances where certain educational experiments that have undeniably reversed the hypotheses of those who initiated them are excused on the ground that conditions were not favorable. That, it seems to me, should tell the whole story, for precisely what we need in educational practice is a body of doctrine that will work where conditions are unfavorable. We are told that the successful application of mooted theories depends upon the proper kind of teachers. I maintain that the most effective sort of theory is the sort that brings results with such teachers as we must employ in our work. It would be a poor recommendation for a theory of medicine to say that it worked all right when people are healthy but failed to help the sick. Nor is it true that good teachers can get good results by following bad theory. They often obtain the results by evading the theory, and when they live up to it, the results faithfully reflect the theory, no matter how skillful the teaching.


Statements like these are very apt to be misconstrued or misinterpreted unless one is very careful to define one's position; and, after what I have said, I should do myself an injustice if I did not make certain that my position is clear. I believe in experimentation in education. I believe in experimental schools. But I should wish these schools to be interpreted as experiments and not as models, and I should wish that the failure of an experiment be accepted with good, scientific grace, and not with the unscientific attitude of making excuses. The trouble with an experimental school is that, in the eyes of the great mass of teachers, it becomes a model school, and the principles that it represents are applied ad libitum by thousands of teachers who assume that they have heard the last word in educational theory.

No one is more favorably disposed toward the rights of children than I am, and yet I am thoroughly convinced that soft-heartedness accompanied by soft-headedness is weakening the mental and moral fiber of hundreds of thousands of boys and girls throughout this country. No one admires more than I admire the sagacity and far-sightedness of Judge Lindsey, and yet when Judge Lindsey's methods are proposed as models for school government, I cannot lose sight, as so many people seem to lose sight, of the contingent factor; namely, that Judge Lindsey's leniency is based upon authority, and that if Judge Lindsey or anybody else attempted to be lenient when he had no power to be otherwise than lenient, his "bluff" would be called in short order. If you will give to teachers and principals the same power that you give to the police judge, you may well expect them to be lenient. The great trouble in the school is simply this: that just in the proportion that leniency is demanded, authority is taken away from the teacher.

And I should perhaps say a qualifying word with regard to my attitude toward educational theory. I have every feeling of affection for the science of psychology. I have every faith in the value of psychological principles in the interpretation of educational phenomena. But I also recognize that the science of psychology is a very young science, and that its data are not yet so well organized that it is safe to draw from them anything more than tentative hypotheses which must meet their final test in the crucible of practice. Some day, if we work hard enough, psychology will become a predictive science, just as mathematics and physics and chemistry and, to a certain extent, biology, are predictive sciences to-day. Meantime psychology is of inestimable value in giving us a point of view, in clarifying our ideas, and in rationalizing the truths that empirical practice discovers. A very few psychological principles are strongly enough established even now to form the basis of prediction. Among the most important of these are the laws of habit building, some laws of memory, and the larger principles of attention. Successful educational practice is and must be in accord with these indisputable tenets. But the bane of education to-day is in the pseudo-science, the "half-baked" psychology, that is lauded from the house-tops by untrained enthusiasts, turned from the presses by irresponsible publishing houses, and foisted upon the hungry teaching public through the ever-present medium of the reading circle, the teachers' institute, the summer school, and I am very sorry to admit (for I think that I represent both institutions in a way) sometimes by the normal schools and universities.

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