Chapter 21 Suggestions Toward a Curriculum

Chapter 21
Suggestions Toward a Curriculum
(For Children under Twelve)

Part II.––School-Books

Books that supply the Sustenance of Ideas.––Mr. H. G. Wells has put his finger on the place when he says that the selection of the right schoolbooks is a great function of the educator. I am not at all sure that his remedy is the right one––or that a body of experts and a hundred thousand pounds would, in truth, provide the manner of schoolbooks that reach children. They are kittle cattle, and, though they will plod on obediently over any of the hundreds of dry-as-dust volumes issued by the publishers under the heading of 'School Books,' or of 'Education,' they keep all such books in the outer court, and allow them no access to their minds. A book may be long or short, old or new, easy or hard, written by a great man or a lesser man, and yet be the living book which finds its way to the mind of a young reader. The expert is not the person to choose; the children themselves are the experts in this case. A single page will elicit a verdict; but the unhappy thing is, this verdict is not betrayed; it is acted upon in the opening or closing of the door of the mind. Many excellent and admirable school- books appreciated by masters are on the Index Expurgatorius of the school-boy; and that is why he takes nothing in and gives nothing out. The master must have it in him to distinguish between twaddle and simplicity, and between vivacity and life. For the rest, he must experiment or test the experiments of others, being assured of one thing––that a book serves the ends of education only as it is vital. But this subject has been treated at some length in an earlier chapter.

Books and Oral Teaching.––Having found the right book, let the master give the book the lead and be content himself with a second place. The lecture must be subordinated to the book. The business of the teacher is to put his class in the right attitude towards their book by a word or two of his own interest in the matter contained, of his own delight in the manner of the author. But boys get knowledge only as they dig for it. Labour prepares the way for assimilation, that mental process which converts information into knowledge; and the effort of taking in the sequence of thought of his author is worth to the boy a great deal of oral teaching.

Do teachers always realise the paralysing and stupefying effect that a flood of talk has upon the mind? The inspired talk of an orator no doubt wakens a response and is listened to with tense attention; but few of us claim to be inspired, and we are sometimes aware of the difficulty of holding the attention of a class. We blame ourselves, whereas the blame lies in the instrument we employ––the more or less diluted oral lesson or lecture, in place of the living and arresting book. We cannot do without the oral lesson––to introduce, to illustrate, to amplify, to sum up. My stipulation is that oral lessons should be few and far between, and that the child who has to walk through life,––and has to find his intellectual life in books or go without,––shall not be first taught to go upon crutches.

The Use of Appliances.––For the same reason, that is, that we may not paralyse the mental vigour of children, we are very chary in the use of appliances (except such as the microscope, telescope, magic lantern, etc.). I once heard a schoolmaster, who had a school in a shipbuilding town, say that he had demanded and got from his committee a complete sectional model of a man-of-war. Such a model would be of use to his boys when they begin to work in the Yards, but during their school years I believe the effect would be stultifying, because the mind is not able to conceive with an elaborate model as basis. I recently visited M. Bloch's admirable 'Peace and War' show at Lucerne. Torpedoes were very fully illustrated by models, sectional diagrams, and what not, but I was not enlightened. I asked my neighbour at dinner to explain the principle; he took up his spectacle case as an illustration, and after a few sentences my intelligence had grasped what was distinctive in a torpedo. This gentleman turned out to have been in the War Office and to have had much concern with torpedoes. The power in the teacher of illustrating by inkpot and ruler or any object at hand, or by a few lines on the blackboard, appears to me to be of more use than the most elaborate equipment of models and diagrams; these things stale on the senses and produce a torpor of thought the moment they are presented.

The Co-ordination of Studies.––Another point, the co-ordination of studies is carefully regulated without any reference to the clash of ideas on the threshold or their combination into apperception masses; but solely with reference to the natural and inevitable co-ordination of certain subjects. Thus, in readings on the period of the Armada, we should not devote the contemporary arithmetic lessons to calculations as to the amount of food necessary to sustain the Spanish fleet, because this is an arbitrary and not an inherent connection; but we should read such history, travels, and literature as would make the Spanish Armada live in the mind.

Our Aim in Education.––Our aim in education is to give children vital interests in as many directions as possible––to set their feet in a large room––because the crying evil of the day is, it seems to me, intellectual inanition.

Believing that he is in the world to lay hold of all he can of those possessions which endure; that full, happy living, expansion, expression, resourcefulness, power of initiative, serviceableness––in a word, character, for him, depends upon how far he apprehends the relationships proper to him and how many of them he seizes, we should be gravely uneasy when his education leaves a young person with prejudices and caring for 'events' (in the sporting sense) rather than with interests and pursuits. Principles, we believe, the best of our young people have and bring away from their schools fully as much as from their homes. Our educational shortcomings seem to be intellectual rather than moral.

Education by Things.––Education should be by Things and by Books. Ten years ago education by Things was little thought of except in the games of public schools. To-day, a great reform has taken place, and the worth of education by Things is recognised everywhere. Disciplinary exercises, artistic handicrafts, are seen to make for education as truly as do geography and Latin. 'Nature study' has come in later, but has come with a rush. If that Sikh quoted by Cornelia Sorabji1  should visit us again ten years hence, it is to be hoped he would not then say of us, "The very thoughts of the people are merchandise; they have not learned the common language of Nature." The teaching of Science is receiving enormous attention; and the importance of education in this kind need not be enforced here. Works of art are, here and there, allowed their chance with boys and girls, and we shall look more and more to this means of education. What everyone knows it is unnecessary to repeat; and such general attention is given to education by Things, and this is carried on so far on right lines, that I have nothing to add to the general knowledge of this subject.

Education by Books.––The great educational failure we have still to deal with is in the matter of Books. We know that Books store the knowledge and thought of the world; but the mass of knowledge, the multitude of books, overpower us, and we think we may select here and there, from this book and that, fragments and facts of knowledge, to be dealt out, whether in the little cram book or the oral lesson.

Sir Philip Magnus, in a recent address on Headwork and Handwork in Elementary Schools, says some things worth pondering. Perhaps he gives his workshop too big a place in the school of the future, but certainly he puts his finger on the weak point in the work of both elementary and secondary schools––the 'getting by heart scraps of knowledge, fragments of so-called science.' And we are with him in the emphasis he lays upon reading and writing; it is through these that even school 'studies' shall become 'for delight.' Writing, of course, comes of reading, and nobody can write well who does not read much. Sir Philip Magnus says,2 speaking of the schools of the future:––"We shall no longer require children to learn by constant repetition, scraps of history, geography, and grammar, nor try to teach them fragments of so-called science. The daily hours devoted to these tasks will be applicable to the creation of mental aptitudes, and will be utilised in showing the children how to obtain knowledge for themselves . . . In future the main function of education will be to train our hands and our sense organs and intellectual faculties, so that we may be placed in a position of advantage for seeking knowledge. . . The scope of the lessons will be enlarged. Children will be taught to read in order that they may desire to read, and to write that they may be able to write. It will be the teacher's aim to create in his pupils a desire for knowledge, and consequently a love of reading, and to cultivate in them, by a proper selection of lessons, the pleasure which reading may be made to yield. The main feature of the reading lesson will be to show the use books, how they may be consulted to ascertain what other people have said or done, and how they be read for the pleasure they afford. The storing of the memory with facts is no part of elementary school work. . . It is not enough that a child should learn how to write, he must know what to write. He must learn to describe clearly what he has heard or seen, to transfer to written language his sense-impressions, and to express concisely his own thoughts."

We should like to add a word to Sir Philip Magnus's conception, emphasising the habit of reading as a chief acquirement of school life. It is only those who have read who do read.

The Question of a Curriculum.––In regard to a curriculum, may I enforce what I have said in an earlier chapter? Perhaps the main part of a child's education should be concerned with the great human relationships. History, literature, art, languages (whether ancient or modern), travel––all of these are the record or expression of persons; so is science, so far as it is the history of discoveries, the record of observations, that is, so far as it is to be got out of books. Essentially, however, science falls under the head of Education by Things, and is too large a subject to be dealt with, by the way. Before all these ranks Religion, including our relations of worship, loyalty, love and service to God; and next in order, perhaps, the intimate interpersonal relations implied in such terms as self-knowledge, self-control. Knowledge in these several kinds is due to children; for there seems reason to believe that the limit to human intelligence coincides with the limit to human interests; that is, that a normal person of poor and narrow intelligence is so because the interests proper to him have not been called into play. The curriculum which should give children their due falls into some six or eight groups––Religion, Philosophy (?), History, Languages, Mathematics, Science, Art, Physical Exercises, and Manual Crafts. 

Religion.––For Religion it is, no doubt, to the Bible itself we must go, as the great storehouse of spiritual truth and moral impressions. A child might, in fact, receive a liberal education from the Bible alone, for The Book contains within itself a great literature.

There was a time when 'National Schools' brought up their scholars on one of the three great bodies of ancient classical literature which the Western world possesses, and which we include under the one name, Bible; and, perhaps, there has been some falling off both in national intelligence and character since the Bible has been practically deposed for the miscellaneous 'Reader.' It is not possible or desirable to revert to old ways in this matter; but we should see to it that children derive as much intellectual, as well as moral and religious, nutriment from books as they did when their studies ranged from the story of Joseph to the Epistles of St Paul.

History.––In History, boys and girls of twelve to fourteen should have a fairly intimate knowledge of English history, of contemporary French history, and of Greek and Roman history––the last, by way of biography;––perhaps nothing outside of the Bible has the educational value of Plutarch's Lives. The wasteful mistake often made in teaching English history is to carry children of, say, between nine and fourteen through several small compendiums, beginning with Little Arthur; whereas their intelligence between those ages is equal to steady work on one considerable book.

Language.––In Language, by twelve, they should have a fair knowledge of English grammar, and should have read some literature. They should have more or less power in speaking and understanding French, and should be able to read a fairly easy French book; the same with German, but considerably less progress; and in Latin, they should be reading 'Fables,' if not 'Cæsar,' and perhaps 'Virgil.'

Mathematics.––I need not touch upon the subject of Mathematics. It is receiving ample attention, and is rapidly becoming an instrument for living teaching in our schools.

'Practical Instruction.'––To turn to the question of practical instruction, under the heads of 'Science, Drawing, Manual and Physical Training,' etc., I can do no more here than repeat our convictions. We believe that education under these four heads is due to every child of whatever class; and, for boys and girls under twelve, probably the same general curriculum would be suitable for all. I have nothing to add to the sound ideas as to the teaching of each of these subjects which are now common property.

Science.––In Science, or rather, nature study, we attach great importance to recognition, believing that the power to recognise and name a plant or stone or constellation involves classification and includes a good deal of knowledge. To know a plant by its gesture and habitat, its time and its way of flowering and fruiting; a bird by its flight and song and its times of coming and going; to know when, year after year, you may come upon the redstart and the pied fly-catcher, means a good deal of interested observation, and of, at any rate, the material for science. The children keep a dated record of what they see in their nature note-books, which are left to their own management and are not corrected. These note-books are a source of pride and joy, and are freely illustrated by drawings (brushwork) of twig, flower, insect, etc. The knowledge necessary for these records is not given in the way of teaching. On one afternoon in the week, the children (of the Practising School) go for a 'nature walk' with their teachers. They notice for themselves, and the teacher gives a name or other information as it is asked for, and it is surprising what a range of knowledge a child of nine or ten acquires. The teachers are careful not to make these nature walks an opportunity for scientific instruction, as we wish the children's attention to be given to observation with very little direction. In this way they lay up that store of 'common information' which Huxley considered should precede science teaching; and, what is much more important, they learn to know and delight in natural objects as in the familiar faces of friends. The nature-walk should not be made the occasion to impart a sort of Tit-Bits miscellany of scientific information. The study of science should be pursued in an ordered sequence, which is not possible or desirable in a walk. It seems to me a sine quâ non of a living education that all school children of whatever grade should have one half-day in the week, throughout the year, in the fields. There are few towns where country of some sort is not accessible, and every child should have the opportunity of watching from week to week, the procession of the seasons.

Geography, geology, the course of the sun, the behaviour of the clouds, weather signs, all that the 'open' has to offer, are made use of in these walks; but all is incidental, easy, and things are noticed as they occur. It is probable that in most neighbourhoods there are naturalists who would be willing to give their help in the 'nature walks' of a given school.

We supplement this direct 'nature walk' by occasional object-lessons, as, on the hairs of plants, on diversity of wings, on the sorts of matters taken up in Professor Miall's capital books; but our main dependence is on books as an adjunct to out-of-door work––Mrs. Fisher's, Mrs. Brightwen's, Professor Lloyd Morgan's, Professor Geikie's, Professors Geddes' and Thomson's (the two last for children over fourteen), etc., etc. In the books of these and some other authors the children are put in the position of the original observer of biological and other phenomena. They learn what to observe, and make discoveries for themselves, original so far as they are concerned. They are put in the right attitude of mind for scientific observations and deductions, and their keen interest is awakened. We are extremely careful not to burden the verbal memory with scientific nomenclature. Children learn of pollen, antennae, and what not, incidentally, when the thing is present and they require a name for it. The children who are curious about it, and they only, should have the opportunity of seeing with the microscope any minute wonder of structure that has come up in their reading or their walks; but a good lens is a capital and almost an indispensable companion in field work. I think there is danger in giving too prominent a place to education by Things, enormous as is its value; a certain want of atmosphere is apt to result, and a deplorable absence of a standard of comparison and of the principle of veneration. 'We are the people!' seems to be the note of an education which is not largely sustained on books as well as on things.

Drawing.––In pictorial art we eschew mechanical aids such as chequers, lines of direction, etc., nor do we use the blacklead pencil, which lends itself rather to the copying of linear work than to the free rendering of objects. The children work always from the round, whether in charcoal or brushwork. They produce, also, illustrations of tales or poems, which leave much to seek in the matter of drawing, and are of little value as art instruction, but are useful imaginative exercises.

Picture Talks.––We attach a good deal of value to what we call picture talks, that is:––a reproduction of a suitable picture, by Millet, for example, is put into the children's hands, and they study it by themselves. Then, children of from six to nine describe the picture, giving all the details and showing by a few lines on the blackboard where is such a tree or such a house; judging if they can the time of day; discovering the story if there be one. The older children add to this some study of the lines of composition, light and shade, the particular style of the master; and reproduce from memory certain details. The object of these lessons is that the pupils should learn how to appreciate rather than how to produce.

But there is no space for further details of a curriculum which is more fully illustrated in an appendix.


1Spectator, 2nd August 1902
2Education, 16th April 1903