Craftsmanship in teaching

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I hope that through careful tests, we shall some day be able to demonstrate that there is much that is good and valuable on both sides of every controverted educational question. After all, in this complex and intricate task of teaching to which you and I are devoting our lives, there is too much at stake to permit us for a moment to be dogmatic,--to permit us for a moment to hold ourselves in any other attitude save one of openness and reception to the truth when the truth shall have been demonstrated. Neither your ideas nor mine, nor those of any man or group of men, living or dead, are important enough to stand in the way of the best possible accomplishment of that great task to which we have set our hands.


But I did not propose this morning to talk to you about science as a part of our educational curriculum, but rather about the scientific spirit and the scientific method as effective instruments for the solution of our own peculiar educational problems. I have tried to give you reasons for believing that an adoption of this policy does not necessarily commit us to materialism or to a narrowly economic point of view. I have attempted to show that the scientific method may be applied to the solution of our problems while we still retain our faith in ideals; and that, unless we do retain that faith, our investigations will be without point or meaning.

This problem of vocational education to which I have just referred is one that is likely to remain unsolved until we have made a searching investigation of its factors in the light of scientific method. Some people profess not to be worried by the difficulty of finding time in our elementary and secondary schools for the introduction of the newer subjects making for increased vocational efficiency. They would cut the Gordian knot with one single operation by eliminating enough of the older subjects to make room for the new. I confess that this solution does not appeal to me. Fundamentally the core of the elementary curriculum must, I believe, always be the arts that are essential to every one who lives the social life. In other words, the language arts and the number arts are, and always must be, the fundamentals of elementary education. I do not believe that specialized vocational education should ever be introduced at the expense of thorough training in the subjects that already hold their place in the curriculum. And yet we are confronted by the economic necessity of solving in some way this vocational problem. How are we to do it?

It is here that the scientific method may perhaps come to our aid. The obvious avenue of attack upon this problem is to determine whether we cannot save time and energy, not by the drastic operation of eliminating old subjects, but rather by improving our technique of teaching, so that the waste may be reduced, and the time thus saved given to these new subjects that are so vociferously demanding admission. In Cleveland, for example, the method of teaching spelling has been subjected to a rigid scientific treatment, and, as a result, spelling is being taught to-day vastly better than ever before and with a much smaller expenditure of time and energy. It has been due, very largely, to the application of a few well-known principles which the science of psychology has furnished.

Now that is vastly better than saying that spelling is a subject that takes too much time in our schools and consequently ought forthwith to be eliminated. In all of our school work enough time is undoubtedly wasted to provide ample opportunity for training the child thoroughly in some vocation if we wish to vocationalize him, and I do not think that this would hurt him, even if he does not follow the vocation in later life.

To-day we are attempting to detect these sources of waste in technique. The problems of habit building or memorizing are already well on the way to solution. Careful tests have shown the value of doing memory work in a certain definite way--learning by unit wholes rather than by fragments, for example. Experiments have been conducted to determine the best length of time to give to drill processes, such as spelling, and penmanship, and the fundamental tables of arithmetic. It is already clearly demonstrated that brief periods of intense concentration are more economical than longer periods during which the monotony of repetition fags the mind to a point where it can no longer work effectively. We are also beginning to see from these tests, that a systematic method of attacking such a problem as the memorizing of the tables will do much to save time and promote efficiency. We are finding that it is extremely profitable to instruct children in the technique of learning,--to start them out in the right way by careful example, so that much of the time and energy that was formerly dissipated, may now be conserved.

And there is a suggestion, also, that in the average school, the vast possibilities of the child's latent energy are only imperfectly realized. A friend of mine stumbled accidentally upon this fact by introducing a new method of grading. He divided his pupils into three groups or streams. The group that progressed the fastest was made up of those who averaged 85 per cent and over in their work. A middle group averaged between 75 per cent and 85 per cent in their work, and a third, slow group was made up of those who averaged below 75 per cent. At the end of the first month, he found that a certain proportion of his pupils, who had formerly hovered around the passing grade of 70, began to forge ahead. Many of them easily went into the fastest stream, but they were still satisfied with the minimum standing for that group. In other words, whether we like to admit it or not, most men and women and boys and girls are content with the passing grades, both in school and in life. So common is the phenomenon that we think of the matter fatalistically. But supply a stimulus, raise the standard, and you will find some of these individuals forging up to the next level.

Professor James's doctrine of latent energies bids fair to furnish the solution of a vast number of perplexing educational problems. Certain it is that our pupils of to-day are not overburdened with work. They are sometimes irritated by too many tasks, sometimes dulled by dead routine, sometimes exhilarated to the point of mental ennui by spectacular appeals to immediate interest. But they are seldom overworked, or even worked to within a healthful degree of the fatigue point.

Elementary education has often been accused of transacting its business in small coin,--of dealing with and emphasizing trivialities,--and yet every time that the scientific method touches the field of education, it reveals the fundamental significance of little things. Whether the third-grade pupil should memorize the multiplication tables in the form, "8 times 9 equals 72" or simply "8-9's--72" seems a matter of insignificance in contrast with the larger problems that beset us. And yet scientific investigation tells us clearly and unequivocally that any useless addition to a formula to be memorized increases the time for reducing the formula to memory, and interferes significantly with its recall and application. It may seem a matter of trivial importance whether the pupil increases the subtrahend number or decreases the minuend number when he subtracts digits that involve taking or borrowing; and yet investigation proves that to increase the subtrahend number is by far the simpler process, and eliminates both a source of waste and a source of error, which, in the aggregate, may assume a significance to mental economy that is well worth considering.

In fact, if we are ever to solve the broader, bigger, more attractive problems,--like the problem of vocational education, or the problem of retardation,--we must first find a solution for some of the smaller and seemingly trivial questions of the very existence of which the lay public may be quite unaware, but which you and I know to mean an untold total of waste and inefficiency in the work that we are trying to do.

And one reason why the scientific attitude toward educational problems appeals to me is simply because this attitude carries with it a respect for these seemingly trivial and commonplace problems; for just as the greatest triumph of the teaching art is to get our pupils to see in those things of life that are fleeting and transitory the operation of fundamental and eternal principles, so the glory of the scientific method lies in its power to reveal the significance of the commonplace and to teach us that no slightest detail of our daily work is necessarily devoid of inspiration; that every slightest detail of school method and school management has a meaning and a significance that it is worth our while to ponder.


[Footnote 12: An address delivered before the St. Louis Society of Pedagogy, April 16, 1910.]

[Footnote 13: Dr. W.T. Harris.]



In its widest aspects, the problem of teaching pupils how to study forms a large part of the larger educational problem. It means, not only teaching them how to read books, and to make the content of books part of their own mental capital, but also, and perhaps far more significantly, teaching them how to draw lessons from their own experiences; not only how to observe and classify and draw conclusions, but also how to evaluate their experience--how to judge whether certain things that they do give adequate or inadequate results.

In the narrower sense, however, the art of study may be said to consist in the ability to assimilate the experiences of others, and it is in this narrower sense that I shall discuss the problem to-day. It is not only in books that human experience is recorded, and yet it is true that the reading of books is the most economical means of gaining these experiences; consequently, we may still further narrow our problem to this: How may pupils be trained effectively to glean, through the medium of the printed page, the great lessons of race experience?

The word "study" is thus used in the sense in which most teachers employ it. When we speak of a pupil's studying his lessons, we commonly mean that he is bending over a text-book, attempting to assimilate the contents of the text. Just what it means to study, even in this narrow sense of the term,--just what it means, psychologically, to assimilate even the simplest thoughts of others,--I cannot tell you, and I do not know of any one who can answer this seemingly simple question satisfactorily. We all study, but what happens in our minds when we do study is a mystery. We all do some thinking, and yet the psychology of thinking is the great undiscovered and unexplored region in the field of mental science. Until we know something of the psychology of thinking, we can hope for very little definite information concerning the psychology of study, for study is so intimately bound up with thinking that the two are not to be separated.

But even if it is impossible at the present time to analyze the process of studying, we are pretty well agreed as to what constitutes successful study, and many rules have been formulated for helping pupils to acquire effective habits of study. These rules concern us only indirectly at the present time, for our problem is still narrower in its scope. It has to do with the possibility of so training children in the art of study, not only that they may study effectively in school, but also that they may carry over the habits and methods of study thus acquired into the tasks of later life. In other words, the topic that we are discussing is but one phase of the problem of formal discipline,--the problem of securing a transfer of training from a specific field to other fields; and my purpose is to view this topic of "study" in the light of what we know concerning the possibilities of transfer.

Let me take a specific example. I am not so much concerned with the problem of getting a pupil to master a history lesson quickly and effectively,--not how he may best assimilate the facts concerning the Missouri Compromise, for example. My task is rather to determine how we can make his mastery of the Missouri Compromise a lesson in the general art of study,--how that mastery may help him develop what we used to call the general power of study,--the capacity to apply an effective method of study to other problems, perhaps, very far removed from the history lesson; in other words, how that single lesson may help him in the more general task of finding any type of information when he needs it, of assimilating it once he has found it, and of applying it once he has assimilated it.

In an audience of practical teachers, it is hardly necessary to emphasize the significance of doing this very thing. From one point of view, it may be asserted that the whole future of what we term general education, as distinguished from technical or vocational education, depends upon our ability to solve problems like this, and solve them satisfactorily. We can never justify universal general education beyond the merest rudiments unless we can demonstrate acceptably that the training which general education furnishes will help the individual to solve the everyday problems of his life. Either we must train the pupil in a general way so that he will be able to acquire specialized skill more quickly and more effectively than will the pupil who lacks this general training; or we must give up a large part of the general-culture courses that now occupy an important part in our elementary and secondary curriculums, and replace these with technical and vocational subjects that shall have for their purpose the development of specialized efficiency.

All teachers, I take it, are alive to the grave dangers of the latter policy. Whether we have thought the matter through logically or not we certainly feel strongly that too early specialization will work a serious injury to the cause of education, and, through education, to the larger cause of social advancement and enlightenment. We view with grave foreboding any policy that will shut the door of opportunity to any child, no matter how humble or how unpromising. And yet we also know that, unless the general education that we now offer can be distinctly shown to have a beneficial influence upon specialized efficiency, we shall be forced by economic conditions into this very policy. It is small wonder, then, that so many of our educational discussions and investigations to-day turn upon this problem; and among the various phases of the problem none is more significant than that which is covered by our topic of to-day,--How may we develop in the pupil a general power or capacity for gaining information independently of schools and teachers? If we could adequately develop this power, there is much in the way of specialized instruction that could be safely left to the individual himself. If we could teach him how to study, then we could perhaps trust him to master some of the principles of any calling that he undertakes in so far as these principles can be mastered from books. To teach the child to study effectively is to do the most useful thing that could be done to help him to adjust himself to any environment of modern civilized life into which he may be thrown. For there is one thing that the more radical advocates of a narrow vocational education commonly forget, and that is the constant change that is going on in industrial processes. When we limit our vocational teaching to a mere mastery of technique, there is no guarantee that the process which we teach to-day may not be discarded in five or ten years from to-day. Even the narrower technical principles which are so extremely important to-day may be relatively insignificant by the time that the child whom we are training takes his place in the industrial world. But if we can arm the individual with the more fundamental principles which are fixed for all time; and if, in addition to this, we can teach him how to master the specialized principles which may come into the field unheralded and unexpected, and turn topsy-turvy the older methods of doing his work, then we shall have done much toward helping him in solving that perplexing problem of gaining a livelihood.


I shall not try in this discussion of the problem of study to summarize completely the principles and precepts that have been presented so well in the four books on the subject that have appeared in the last two years. I do not know, in fact, of any book that is more useful to the teacher just at present than Professor Frank McMurry's How to Study and Teaching how to Study. It is a book that is both a help and a delight, for it is clear and well-organized, and written in a vivacious style and with a wealth of concrete illustration that holds the attention from beginning to end. The chief fault that I have to find with it is the fault that I have to find with almost every educational book that comes from the press to-day,--the tendency, namely, to imply that the teacher of to-day is doing very little to solve these troublesome problems. As a matter of fact, many teachers are securing excellent results from their attempts to teach pupils how to study. Otherwise we should not find so many energetic young men to-day who are making an effective individual mastery of the principles of their respective trades and professions independently of schools and teachers. Our attitude toward these questions, far from being that of the pessimist, should be that of the optimist. Our task should be to seek out these successful teachers, and find out how they do their work.

Among the most important points emphasized by the recent writers upon the art of study is the necessity for some form of motivation in the work of mastering the text. We all know that if a pupil feels a distinct need for getting information out of a book, the chances are that he will get it if the book is available and if he can read. To create a problem that will involve in its solution the gaining of such information is, therefore, one of the best approaches to a mastery of the art of study. It is, however, only the beginning. It furnishes the necessary energy, but does not map out the path along which this energy is to be expended. And this is where the greater emphasis, perhaps, is needed.

One of the best teachers that I ever knew taught the subject that we now call agronomy,--a branch of agricultural science that has to do with field crops. I was a mere boy when I sat under his instruction, but certain points in his method of teaching made a most distinct impression upon me. Lectures we had, of course, for lecturing was the orthodox method of class instruction. But this man did something more than merely lecture. He assigned each one of his students a plat of ground on the college farm. Upon this plat of ground, a definite experiment was to be conducted. One of my experiments had to do with the smut of oats. I was to try the effect of treating the seed with hot water in order to see whether it would prevent the fungus from later destroying the ripening grain. The very nature of the problem interested me intensely. I began to wonder about the life-history of this fungus,--how it looked and how it germinated and how it grew and wrought its destructive influence. It was not long before I found myself spending some of my leisure moments in the library trying to find out what was known concerning this subject. I was not so successful as I might have been, but I am confident that I learned more about parasitic fungi under the spur of that curiosity than I should have done in five times the number of hours spent in formal, meaningless study.

But the point of my experience is not that a problem interest had been awakened, but rather that the white heat of that interest was not utilized so completely as it might have been utilized in fixing upon my mind some important details in the general method of running down references and acquiring information. That was the moment to strike, and one serious defect of our school organization to-day is that most teachers, like my teacher at that time, have so much to do that anything like individual attention at such moments is out of the question.

Next to individual attention, probably, the best way to overcome the difficulty is to give class instruction in these matters,--to set aside a definite period for teaching pupils the technique of using books. If one could arouse a sufficiently general problem interest, this sort of instruction could be made most effective. But even if the problem interest is not general, I think that it is well to assume that it exists in some pupils, at least, and to give them the benefit of class instruction in the art of study,--even if some of the seed should fall upon barren soil.

This aspect of teaching pupils how to study is particularly important in the upper grades and the high school, where pupils have sufficiently mastered the technique of reading to be intrusted with individual problems, and where some reference books are commonly available. Chief among these always is the dictionary, and to get pupils to use this ponderous volume effectively is one of the important steps in teaching them how to study. Here, too, it is easy to be pedantic. As I shall insist strenuously a little later, the chief factor in insuring a transfer of training from one subject to another is to leave in the pupil's mind a distinct consciousness that the method that he has been trained to follow is worth while,--that it gets results. The dictionary habit is likely to begin and end within the schoolroom unless steps are taken to insure the operation of this factor. It is easy to overwork the dictionary and to use it fruitlessly, in so great a measure, in fact, that the pupil will never want to see a dictionary again.

Aside from the use of the dictionary, is the use of the helps that modern books provide for finding the information that may be desired,--indices, tables of contents, marginal and cross-references, and the like. These, again, are most significant in the work of the upper grades and the high school, and here again if we wish the skill that is developed in their use to be transferred, we must take pains to see that the pupil really appreciates their value,--that he realizes their time-saving and energy-saving functions. I do not know that there is any better way to do this than to let him flounder around without them for a little so that his sense of their value may be enhanced by contrast.


Another important step emphasized by the recent writers is the need for training children to pick out the significant features in the text or portion of the text that they are reading. This, of course, is work that is to be undertaken from the very moment that they begin to use books. How to do it effectively is a puzzling problem and one that will amply repay study and experimentation by the individual teacher. Much studying of lessons by teachers and pupils together will help, provided that the exercise is spirited and vital, and is not looked upon by the pupils as an easy way of getting out of recitation work. McMurry strongly recommends the marking of books to indicate the topic sentences and the other salient features. Personally, I am sure from my own experience that the assignment is all-important here, and that study questions and problems which can be answered or solved by reference to the text will help matters very much; but care must, of course, be taken that the continued use of such questions does not preclude the pupil's own mastery of the art of study. To eliminate this danger, it is well that the pupils be requested frequently to make out their own lists of questions, and, as speedily as possible, both the questions made by the pupil and those made by the teacher, should be replaced by topical outlines. By taking care that the questions are logically arranged,--that is, that a general question refer to the topic of the paragraph, and other subordinate questions to the subordinate details of the paragraph,--the transition from the questions to the topical outline may be readily made. Simultaneously with this will go the transition in recitation from the question-and-answer type to the topical type; and when you have trained a class into the habit of topical recitation,--when each pupil can talk right through a topic (not around it or underneath it or above it) without the use of "pumping" questions by the teacher,--you have gone a long way toward developing the art of study.

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