This section is from "Scientific American Supplement Volumes 275, 286, 288, 299, 303, 312, 315, 324, 344 and 358". Also available from Amazon: Scientific American Reference Book.
[Footnote: Read before the State Normal Institute at Winona, Minnesota, April 28, 1881, by Clarence M. Boutelle, Professor of Mathematics and Physical Science in the State Normal School.]
Very little, perhaps, which is new can be said regarding the teaching of physical science by the experimental method. Special schools for scientific education, with large and costly laboratories, are by no means few nor poorly attended; scientific books and periodicals are widely read; scientific lectures are popular. But, while in many schools of advanced grade, science is taught in a scientific way, in many others the work is confined to the mere study of books, and in only a few of our common district schools is it taught at all.
I shall advocate, and I believe with good reason, the use of apparatus and experiments to supplement the knowledge gained from books in schools where books are used, the giving of lessons to younger children who do not use books, and the giving of these lessons to some extent in all our schools. And the facts which I have gathered together regarding the teaching of science will be used with all these ends in view.
Physics--using the term in its broadest sense--has been defined as the science which has for its object the study of the material world, the phenomena which it presents to us, the laws which govern (or account for) these phenomena, and the applications which can be made of either classes of related phenomena, or of laws, to the wants of man. Thus broadly defined, physics would be one of two great subjects covering the whole domain of knowledge. The entire world of matter, as distinguished from the world of mind, would be presented to us in a comprehensive study of physics.
I shall consider in this discussion only a limited part of this great subject. Phenomena modified by the action of the vital force, either in plants or in animals, will be excluded; I shall not, therefore, consider such subjects as botany or zoölogy. Geology and related branches will also be omitted by restricting our study to phenomena which take place in short, definite, measurable periods of time. And lastly, those subjects in which, as in astronomy, the phenomena take place beyond the control of student and teacher, and in which their repetition at pleasure is impossible, will not be considered. Natural philosophy, or physics, as this term is generally used, and chemistry, will, therefore, be the subjects which we will consider as sources from which to draw matter for lessons for the children in our schools.
The child's mind has the receptive side, the sensibility, the most prominent. His senses are alert. He handles and examines objects about him. He sees more, and he learns more from the seeing, than he will in later years unless his perceptive powers are definitely trained and observation made a habit. His judgment and his will are weak. He reasons imperfectly. He chooses without appropriate motives. He needs the building up and development given by educational training. Nature points out the method.
Sensibility being the characteristic of his mind, we must appeal to him through his senses. We must use the concrete; through it we must act upon his weak will and immature judgment. From his natural curiosity we must develop attention. His naturally strong perceptive powers must be made yet stronger; they must be led in proper directions and fixed upon appropriate objects. He must be led to appreciate the relation between cause and effects--to associate together related facts--and to state what he knows in a definite, clear, and forcible manner.
Object lessons, conversational lessons, lessons on animals, lessons based on pictures and other devices, have been used to meet this demand of the child's mental make up. Good in many respects, and vastly better than mere book work, they have faults which I shall point out in connection with the corresponding advantages of easy lessons in the elements of science. I shall not quibble over definitions. Object lessons may, perhaps, properly be said to include lessons such as it seems to me should be given--lessons drawn from natural philosophy or chemistry--but I use the term here in the sense in which it is often used, as meaning lessons based upon some object. A thimble, a knife, a watch, for instance, each of these being a favorite with a certain class of object teachers, may be taken.
The objections are:
1. Little new knowledge can be given which is simple and appropriate. Most children already know the names of such objects as are chosen, the names of the most prominent parts, the materials of which they are composed and their uses. Much that is often given should be omitted altogether if we fairly regard the economy of the child's time and mental strength. It doesn't pay to teach children that which isn't worth remembering, and which we don't care to have them remember.
2. Study of the qualities of materials is a prominent part of lessons on objects. Such study is really the study of physical science, but with objects such as are usually selected is a very difficult part to give to young children. Ask the student who has taken a course in chemistry whether the study of the qualities of metals and their alloys is easy work. Ask him how much can readily be shown, and how much must be taken on authority. Have him tell you how much or how little the thing itself suggests, and how much must he memorized from the mere book statement and with difficulty. Study of materials is good to a certain extent, but it is often carried much too far.
Consider a conversational lesson on some animal. Lessons are sometimes given on cats. As an element in a reading lesson--to arouse interest--to hold the attention--to secure correct emphasis and inflection--to make sure of the reading being good: such work is appropriate. But let us see what the effect upon the pupil is as regards the knowledge he gains of the cat, and the effect upon his habits of thought and study. The student gives some statement as to the appearance--the size--or some act of his cat. It is usually an imperfect statement drawn from the imperfect memory of an imperfect observation. And the teacher, having only a general knowledge of the habits of cats, can correct in only a general way. Thus habits of faulty and incorrect observation and inaccurate memory are fastened upon the child. It is no less by the correction of the false than by the presenting of the true, that we educate properly.