XVI. Natural Philosophy

XVI. Natural Philosophy

A Basis of Facts.––Of the teaching of Natural Philosophy, I will only remind the reader of what was said in an earlier chapter––that there is no part of a child's education more important than that he should lay, by his own observation, a wide basis of facts towards scientific knowledge in the future. He must live hours daily in the open air, and, as far as possible, in the country; must look and touch and listen; must be quick to note, consciously, every peculiarity of habit or structure, in beast, bird, or insect; the manner of growth and fructification of every plant. He must be accustomed to ask why––Why does the wind blow? Why does the river flow? Why is a leaf-bud sticky? And do not hurry to answer his questions for him; let him think his difficulties out so far as his small experience will carry him. Above all, when you come to the rescue, let it not be in the 'cut and dried' formula of some miserable little text-book; let him have all the insight available and you will find that on many scientific questions the child may be brought at once to the level of modern thought. Do not embarrass him with too much scientific nomenclature. If he discover for himself (helped, perhaps, by a leading question or two), by comparing an oyster and his cat, that some animals have backbones and some have not, it is less important that he should learn the terms vertebrate and invertebrate than that he should class the animals he meets with according to this difference.

Eyes and No-eyes.––The method of this sort of instruction is shown in Evenings at Home, where 'Eyes and No-eyes' go for a walk. No-eyes come home bored; he has seen nothing, been interested in nothing: while Eyes is all agog to discuss a hundred things that have interested him. As I have already tried to point out, to get this sort of instruction for himself is simply the nature of a child: the business of the parent is to afford him abundant and varied opportunities, and to direct his observations, so that, knowing little of the principles of scientific classification, he is, unconsciously, furnishing himself with the materials for such classification. It is needless to repeat what has already been said on this subject; but, indeed, the future of the man or woman depends very largely on the store of real knowledge gathered, and the habits of intelligent observation acquired, by the child. "Think you," says Mr. Herbert Spencer, "that the rounded rock marked with parallel scratches calls up as much poetry in an ignorant mind as in the mind of the geologist, who knows that over this rock a glacier slid a million of years ago? The truth is, that those who have never entered on scientific pursuits are blind to most of the poetry by which they are surrounded. Whoever has not in youth collected plants and insects, knows not half the halo of interest which lanes and hedgerows can assume."

Principles.––In this connection I should like to recommend The Sciences, by Mr. Holden. America comes to the fore with a schoolbook after my own heart. The Sciences is a forbidding title, but since the era of Joyce's Scientific Dialogues I have met with nothing on the same lines which makes so fit an approach to the sensible and intelligent mind of a child. This is what we may call a 'first-hand' book. The knowledge has of course all been acquired; but then it has been assimilated, and Mr. Holden writes freely out of his own knowledge both of his subject-matter and of his readers. The book has been thrown into the form of conversations between children––simple conversations without padding. About three hundred topics are treated of: Sand-dunes, Back-ice, Herculaneum, Dredging, Hurricanes, Echoes, the Prism, the Diving-bell, the Milky Way, and, shall I say, everything else? But the amazing skill of the author is shown in the fact that there is nothing scrappy and nothing hurried in the treatment of any topic, but each falls naturally and easily under the head of some principle which it elucidates. Many simple experiments are included, which the author insists shall be performed by the children themselves. I venture to quote from the singularly wise preface, a vade mecum for teachers:––

"The object of the present volume is to present chapters to be read in school or at home that shall materially widen the outlook of American schoolchildren in the domain of science, and of the applications of science to the arts and to daily life. It is in no sense a text-book, although the fundamental principles underlying the sciences treated are here laid down. Its main object is to help the child to understand the material world about him.

To be Comprehended by Children.––"All natural phenomena are orderly; they are governed by law; they are not magical. They are comprehended by someone; why not by the child himself? It is not possible to explain every detail of a locomotive to a young pupil, but it is perfectly practicable to explain its principles so that this machine, like others, becomes a mere special case of certain well-understood general laws. The general plan of the book is to awaken the imagination; to convey useful knowledge; to open the doors towards wisdom. Its special aim is to stimulate observation and to excite a living and lasting interest in the world that lies about us.

"The sciences of astronomy, physics, chemistry, meteorology, and physiography are treated as fully and as deeply as the conditions permit; and the lessons that they teach are enforced by examples taken from familiar and important things. In astronomy, for example, emphasis is laid upon phenomena that the child himself can observe, and he is instructed how to go about it. The rising and setting of the stars, the phases of the moon, the uses of the telescope, are explained in simple words. The mystery of these and other matters is not magical, as the child at first supposes. It is to deeper mysteries that his attention is here directed. Mere phenomena are treated as special cases of very general laws. The same process is followed in the exposition of the other sciences.

"Familiar phenomena, like those of steam, of shadows, of reflected light, of musical instruments, of echoes, etc., are referred to their fundamental causes. Whenever it is desirable, simple experiments are described and fully illustrated, and all such experiments can very well be repeated in the schoolroom. . . . The volume is the result of a sincere belief that much can be done to aid young children to comprehend the material world in which they live, and of a desire to have a part in a work so very well worth doing."

I cannot help quoting also in this connection from an article1 by the Rev. H. H. Moore dealing with a forgotten pioneer of a rational education and his experiment. This pioneer was the Rev. Richard Dawes, at one time Rector of Kings Somborne parish, Hampshire, who, in 1841, worked out the problem of rational education in an agricultural village, in which he found the population unusually ignorant and debased. The whole story is of great interest, but our concern is with the question of Natural Philosophy, the staple of the teaching given in this school.

As taught in a Village School.––Mr. Dawes thus explained his object:––"I aimed at teaching what would be profitable and interesting to persons in the position in life which the children were likely to occupy. I aimed at their being taught what may be called the philosophy of common things of everyday life. They were shown how much there is that is interesting, and which it is advantageous for them to know, in connection with the natural objects with which they are familiar; they had explained to them, and were made acquainted with, the principles of a variety of natural phenomena, as well as the principles and construction of various instruments of a useful kind. A practical turn was given to everything the uses and fruits of the knowledge they were acquiring were never lost sight of." A list of some of the subjects included in this kind of teaching will be the best commentary on Mr. Dawes' scheme:––

"Some of the properties of air, explaining how its pressure enables them to pump up water, to amuse themselves with squirts and popguns, to suck up water through a straw; explaining also the principles and construction of a barometer, the common pump, the diving-bell, a pair of bellows. That air expands by heat, shown by placing a half-blown bladder near the fire, when the wrinkles disappear. Why the chimney-smoke sometimes rises easily in the air, sometimes not; why there is a draught up the chimney, and under the door, and towards the fire. Air as a vehicle of sound, and why the flash of a distant gun fired is seen before the report is heard; how to calculate the distance of a thunderstorm; the difference in the speeds at which different materials conduct sound. Water and its properties, its solid, fluid, and vaporous state; why water-pipes are burst by frost; why ice forms and floats on the surface of ponds, and not at the bottom; why the kettle-lid jumps up when the water is boiling on the fire; the uses to which the power of steam is applied; the gradual evolution of the steam-engine, shown by models and diagrams; how their clothes are dried, and why they feel cold sitting in damp clothes; why a damp bed is so dangerous; why one body floats in water, and another sinks; the different densities of sea and fresh water; why, on going into the school on a cold morning, they sometimes see a quantity of water on the glass, and why on the inside and not on the outside; why, on a frosty day, their breath is visible as vapour; the substances water holds in solution, and how their drinking water is affected by the kind of soil through which it has passed. Dew, its value, and the conditions necessary for its formation; placing equal portions of dry wool on gravel, glass, and the grass, and weighing them the next morning. Heat and its properties; how it is that the blacksmith can fit iron hoops so firmly on the wheels of carts and barrows; what precautions have to be taken in laying the iron rails of railways and in building iron bridges, etc.; what materials are good, and what bad, conductors of heat; why at the same temperature some feel colder to our touch than others; why a glass sometimes breaks when hot water is poured into it, and whether thick or thin glass would be more liable to crack; why water can be made to boil in a paper kettle or an eggshell without its being burned. The metals, their sources, properties, and uses; mode of separating from the ores. Light and its properties, illustrated by prisms, etc; adaptation of the eye; causes of long and short-sightedness. The mechanical principles of the tools more commonly used, the spade, the plough, the axe, the lever, etc."

"It may surprise some who read carefully the above list that such subjects should have been taught to the children of a rural elementary school. But it is an undeniable fact that they were taught in Kings Somborne School, and so successfully that the children were both interested and benefited by the teaching. Mr. Dawes, in answer to the objection that such subjects are above the comprehension of the young, said:––'The distinguishing mark of Nature's laws is their extreme simplicity. It may doubtless require intellect of a high order to make the discovery of these laws; yet, once evolved, they are within the capacity of a child,––in short, the principles of natural philosophy are the principles of common sense, and if taught in a simple and common-sense way, they will be speedily understood and eagerly attended to by children; and it will be found that with pupils of even from ten to twelve years of age much may be done towards forming habits of observation and inquiry.' Such a fact, I think, suggests some valuable practical lessons for those who have the responsibility of deciding what subjects to include in an educational system for children."

In reading of this remarkable experiment, we feel that we must at once secure a man, all-informed like the late Dean Dawes, to teach our own Jack and Elsie; but it is something to realise what these young persons should know, and Mr. Holden has done a great deal for us. Some of the chapters in The Sciences may be beyond children under nine, but they will be able to master a good deal. One thing is to be borne in mind: nothing should be done without its due experiment. By the way, our old friend, Joyce's Scientific Dialogues, if it is still to be had, describes a vast number of easy and interesting experiments which children can work for themselves. 

1Parents' Review, April 1904