School and Society

Chapter 4: The Psychology of Elementary Education

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Naturally, most of the public is interested in what goes on day by day in a school in direct relation to the children there. This is true of parents who send their boys and girls for the sake of the personal results they wish to secure, not for the sake of contributing to educational theory. In the main, it is true of visitors to a school who recognize, in varying degrees, what is actually done with the children before their eyes, but who rarely have either the interest or the time to consider the work in relation to underlying problems. A school cannot lose sight of this aspect of its work, since only by attending to it can the school retain the confidence of its patrons and the presence of its pupils.

Nevertheless a school conducted by a department of a university must have another aspect. From the university standpoint, the most important part of its work is the scientific-the contribution it makes to the progress of educational thinking. The aim of educating a certain number of children would hardly justify a university in departing from the tradition which limits it to

(88) those who have completed their secondary instruction. Only the scientific aim, the conduct of a laboratory, comparable to other scientific laboratories, can furnish a reason for the maintenance by a university of an elementary school. Such a school is a laboratory of applied psychology. That is, it has a place for the study of mind as manifested and developed in the child, and for the search after materials and agencies that seem most likely to fulfil and further the conditions of normal growth.

It is not a normal school or a department for the training of teachers. It is not a model school. It is not intended to demonstrate any one special idea or doctrine. Its task is the problem of viewing the education of the child in the light of the principles of mental activity and processes of growth made known by modern psychology. The problem by its nature is an infinite one. All that any school can do is to make contributions here and there, and to stand for the necessity of considering education, both theoretically and practically, in this light. This being the end, the school conditions must, of course, agree. To endeavor to study the process and laws of growth under such artificial conditions as prevent many of the chief facts of child life from showing themselves is an obvious absurdity.

In its practical aspect, this laboratory problem takes the form of the construction of a course of

(89) study which harmonizes with the natural history of the growth of the child in capacity and experience. The question is the selection of the kind, variety, and due proportion of subjects, answering most definitely to the dominant needs and powers of a given period of growth, and of those modes of presentation that will cause the selected material to enter vitally into growth. We cannot admit too fully or too freely the limits of our knowledge and the depths of our ignorance in these matters. No one has a complete hold scientifically upon the chief psychological facts of any one year of child life. It would be sheer presumption to claim that just the material best fitted to promote this growth, has as yet been discovered. The assumption of an educational laboratory is rather that enough is known of the conditions and modes of growth to make intelligent inquiry possible; and that it is only by acting upon what is already known that more can be found out. The chief point is such experimentation as will add to our reasonable convictions. The demand is to secure arrangements that will permit and encourage freedom of investigation; that will give some assurance that important facts will not be forced out of sight; conditions that will enable the educational practice indicated by the inquiry to he sincerely acted upon, without the distortion and suppression arising from undue dependence upon tradition and preconceived

(90) notions. It is in this sense that the school would be an experimental station in education.

What, then, are the chief working hypotheses that have been adopted from psychology ? What educational counterparts have been hit upon as in some degree in line with the adopted psychology ?

The discussion of these questions may be approached by pointing out a contrast between contemporary psychology and the psychology of former days. The contrast is a triple one. Earlier psychology regarded mind as a purely individual affair in direct and naked contact with an external world. The only question asked was of the ways in which the world and the mind acted upon each other. The entire process recognized would have been in theory exactly the same if there were one mind living alone in the universe. At present the tendency is to conceive individual mind as a function of social life-as not capable of operating or developing by itself, but as requiring continual stimulus from social agencies, and finding its nutrition in social supplies. The idea of heredity has made familiar the notion that the equipment of the individual, mental as well as physical, is an inheritance from the race: a capital inherited by the individual from the past and held in trust by him for the future. The idea of evolution has made familiar the notion that mind cannot be regarded as an individual, monopolistic possession, but repre-

(91) -sents the outworkings of the endeavor and thought of humanity; that it is developed in an environment which is social as well as physical, and that social needs and aims have been most potent in shaping it-and the chief difference between savagery and civilization is not in the naked nature which each faces, but the social heredity and social medium.

Studies of childhood have made it equally apparent that this socially acquired inheritance operates in the individual only under present social stimuli. Nature must indeed furnish its physical stimuli of light, sound, heat, etc., but the significance attaching to these, the interpretation made of them, depends upon the ways in which the society in which the child lives acts and reacts in reference to them. The bare physical stimulus of light is not the entire reality; the interpretation given to it through social activities and thinking confers upon it its wealth of meaning. It is through imitation, suggestion, direct instruction, and even more indirect unconscious tuition, that the child learns to estimate and treat the bare physical stimuli. It is through the social agencies that he recapitulates in a few short years the progress which it has taken the race slow centuries to work out.

Educational practice has exhibited an unconscious adaptation to and harmony with the prevailing psychology; both grew out of the same soil.

(92) Just as mind was supposed to get its filling by direct contact with the world, so all the needs of instruction were thought to be met by bringing the child mind into direct relation with various bodies of external fact labeled geography, arithmetic, grammar, etc. That these classified sets of facts were simply selections from the social life of the past was overlooked; equally so that they had been generated out of social situations and represented the answers found for social needs. No social element was found in the subject-matter nor in the intrinsic appeal which it made to the child; it was located wholly outside in the teacher-in the encouragements, admonitions, urgings, and devices of the instructor in getting the child's mind to work upon a material which in itself was only accidentally lighted up by any social gleam. It was forgotten that the maximum appeal, and the full meaning in the life of the child, could be secured only when the studies were presented, not as bare external studies, but from the standpoint of the relation they bear to the life of society. It was forgotten that to become integral parts of the child's conduct and character they must be assimilated, not as mere items of information, but as organic parts of his present needs and aims —which in turn are social.

In the second place, the older psychology was a psychology of knowledge, of intellect. Emotion

(93) and endeavor occupied but an incidental and derivative place. Much was said about sensations -next to nothing about movements. There was discussion of ideas and of whether they originated in sensations or in some innate mental faculty; but the possibility of their origin in and from the needs of action was ignored. Their influence upon conduct, upon behavior, was regarded as an external attachment. Now we believe (to use the words of Mr. James) that the intellect, the sphere of sensations and ideas, is but a "middle department which we sometimes take to be final, failing to see, amidst the monstrous diversity of the length and complications of the cogitations which may fill it, that it can have but one essential function-the function of defining the direction which our activity, immediate or remote, shall take."

Here also was a pre-established harmony between educational practice and psychological theory. Knowledge in the schools was isolated and made an end in itself. Facts, laws, information have been the staple of the curriculum. The controversy in educational theory and practice was between those who relied more upon the sense element in knowledge, upon contact with things, upon object -lessons, etc-, and those who emphasized abstract ideas, generalizations, etc. — reason, so called, but in reality other people's ideas as

(94) formulated in books. In neither case was there any attempt to connect either the sense training or the logical operations with the problems and interests of the life of practice. Here again an educational transformation is indicated if we are to suppose that our psychological theories stand for any truths of life.

The third point of contrast lies in the modern conception of the mind as essentially a process — a process of growth, not a fixed thing. According to the older view mind was mind, and that was the whole story. Mind was the same throughout, because fitted out with the same assortment of faculties whether in child or adult. If any difference was made it was simply that some of these ready-made faculties —such as memory— came into play at an earlier time, while others, such as judging and inferring, made their appearance only after the child, through memorizing drills, had been reduced to complete dependence upon the thought of others. The only important difference that was recognized was one of quantity, of amount. The boy was a little man and his mind was a little mind —in everything but the size the same as that of the adult, having its own ready-furnished equipment of faculties of attention, memory, etc. Now we believe in the mind as a growing affair, and hence as essentially changing, presenting distinctive phases of capacity and interest at different

(95) periods. These are all one and the same in the sense of continuity of life, but all different, in that each has its own distinctive claims and offices. "First the blade, then the ear, and then the full corn in the ear."

It is hardly possible to overstate the agreement of education and psychology at this point. The course of study was thoroughly, even if unconsciously, controlled by the assumption that since mind and its faculties are the same throughout, the subject-matter of the adult, logically arranged facts and principles, is the natural "study" of the child —simplified and made easier of course, since the wind must be tempered to the shorn lamb. The outcome was the traditional course of study in which again child and adult minds are absolutely identified, except as regards the mere matter of amount or quantity of power. The entire range of the universe is first subdivided into sections called studies; then each one of these studies is broken up into bits, and some one bit assigned to a certain year of the course. No order of development was recognized —it was enough that the earlier parts were made easier than the later. To use the pertinent illustration of Mr. W. S. Jackman in stating the absurdity of this sort of curriculum: "It must seem to geography teachers that Heaven smiled on them when it ordained but four or five continents, because starting in far enough along

(96) the course it was so easy, that it really seemed to be natural, to give one continent to each grade, and then come out right in the eight years."

If once more we are in earnest with the idea of mind as growth, this growth carrying with it typical features distinctive of its various stages, it is clear that an educational transformation is again indicated. It is clear that the selection and grading of material in the course of study must be done with reference to proper nutrition of the dominant directions of activity in a given period, not with reference to chopped-up sections of a ready-made universe of knowledge.

It is, of course, comparatively easy to lay down general propositions like the foregoing; easy to use them to criticize existing school conditions; easy by means of them to urge the necessity of something different. But art is long. The difficulty is in carrying such conceptions into effect —in seeing just what materials and methods, in what proportion and arrangement, are available and helpful at a given time. Here again we must fall back upon the idea of the laboratory. There is no answer in advance to such questions as these. Tradition does not give it because tradition is founded upon a radically different psychology. Mere reasoning cannot give it because it is a question of fact. It is only by trying that such things can be found out. To refuse to try, to stick

(97) blindly to tradition, because the search for the truth involves experimentation in the region of the unknown, is to refuse the only step which can introduce rational conviction into education.

Hence the following statement simply reports various lines of inquiry started during the last five years, with some of the results more recently indicated. These results can, of course, make no claim to be other than tentative, excepting in so far as a more definite consciousness of what the problems are, clearing the way for more intelligent action in the future, is a definitive advance. It should also be stated that practically it has not as yet been possible, in many cases, to act adequately upon the best ideas obtained, because of administrative difficulties, due to lack of funds —difficulties centering in the lack of a proper building and appliances, and in inability to pay the amounts necessary to secure the complete time of teachers in some important lines. Indeed, with the growth of the school in numbers, and in the age and maturity of pupils, it is becoming a grave question how long it is fair to the experiment to carry it on without more adequate facilities.

In coming now to speak of the educational answers which have been sought for the psychological hypotheses, it is convenient to start from the matter of the stages of growth. The first stage (found in the child say of from four to eight years

(98) of age) is characterized by directness of social and personal interests, and by directness and promptness of relationship between impressions, ideas, and action. The demand for a motor outlet for expression is urgent and immediate. Hence the subject-matter for these years is selected from phases of life entering into the child's own social surroundings, and, as far as may be, capable of reproduction by him in something approaching social form —in play, games, occupations, or miniature industrial arts, stories, pictorial imagination, and conversation. At first the material is such as lies nearest the child himself, the family life and its neighborhood setting; it then goes on to something slightly more remote, social occupations (especially those having to do with the interdependence of city and country life), and then extends itself to the historical evolution of typical occupations and of the social forms connected with them. The material is not presented as lessons, as something to be learned, but rather as something to be taken up into the child's own experience, through his own activities, in weaving, cooking, shopwork, modeling, dramatic plays, conversation, discussion, story-telling, etc. These in turn are direct agencies. They are forms of motor or expressive activity. They are emphasized so as to dominate the school program, in order that the intimate connection between knowing and doing, so char-

(99) -acteristic of this period of child life, may be maintained. The aim, then, is not for the child to go to school as a place apart, but rather in the school so to recapitulate typical phases of his experience outside of school, as to enlarge, enrich, and gradually formulate it.

In the second period, extending from eight or nine to eleven or twelve, the aim is to recognize and respond to the change which comes into the child from his growing sense of the possibility of more permanent and objective results and of the necessity for the control of agencies for the skill necessary to reach these results. When the child recognizes distinct and enduring ends which stand out and demand attention on their own account, the previous vague and fluid unity of life is broken up. The mere play of activity no longer directly satisfies. It must be felt to accomplish something —to lead up to a definite and abiding outcome. Hence the recognition of rules of action— that is, of regular means appropriate to reaching permanent results —and of the value of mastering special processes so as to give skill in their use.

Hence, on the educational side, the problem is, as regards the subject-matter, to differentiate the vague unity of experience into characteristic typical phases, selecting such as clearly illustrate the importance to mankind of command over specific agencies and methods of thought and

(100) action in realizing its highest aims. The problem on the side of method is an analogous one: to bring the child to recognize the necessity of a similar development within himself —the need of securing for himself practical and intellectual control of such methods of work and inquiry as will enable him to realize results for himself.

On the more direct social side, American history (especially that of the period of colonization) is selected as furnishing a typical example of patience, courage, ingenuity, and continual judgment in adapting means to ends, even in the face of great hazard and obstacle; while the material itself is so definite, vivid, and human as to come directly within the range of the child's representative and constructive imagination and thus becomes, vicariously at least, a part of his own expanding consciousness. Since the aim is not "covering the ground," but knowledge of social processes used to secure social results, no attempt is made to go over the entire history, in chronological order, of America. Rather a series of types is taken up Chicago and the northwestern Mississippi valley; Virginia, New York, and the Puritans and Pilgrims in New England. The aim is to present a variety of climatic and local conditions, to show the different sorts of obstacles and helps that people found, and a variety of historic traditions and customs and purposes of different people.


The method involves presentation of a large amount of detail, of minutiae of surroundings, tools, clothing, household utensils, foods, modes of living day by day, so that the child can reproduce the material as life, not as mere historic information. In this way, social processes and results become realities. Moreover, to the personal and dramatic identification of the child with the social life studied, characteristic of the earlier period, there now supervenes an intellectual identification-the child puts himself at the standpoint of the problems that have to be met and rediscovers, so far as may be, ways of meeting them.

The general standpoint —the adaptation of means to ends—controls also the work in science. For purposes of convenience, this may be regarded as now differentiated into two sides—the geographical and the experimental. Since, as just stated, the history work depends upon an appreciation of the natural environment as affording resources and presenting urgent problems, considerable attention is paid to the physiography, mountains, rivers, plains, and lines of natural travel and exchange, flora and fauna of each of the colonies. This is connected with field excursions in order that the child may be able to supply from observation, as far as possible, the data to be used by constructive imagination, in reproducing more remote environments.


The experimental side devotes itself to a study of processes which yield typical results of value to men. The activity of the child in the earlier period is directly productive, rather than investigative. His experiments are modes of active doing—almost as much so as his play and games. Later he tries to find out how various materials or agencies are manipulated in order to give certain results. It is thus clearly distinguished from experimentation in the scientific sense—such as is appropriate to the secondary period —where the aim is the discovery of facts and verification of principles. Since the practical interest predominates, it is a study of applied science rather than of pure science. For instance, processes are selected found to have been of importance in colonial life—bleaching, dyeing, soap and candle-making, manufacture of pewter dishes, making of cider and vinegar, leading to some study of chemical agencies, of oils, fats, elementary metallurgy. "Physics" is commenced from the same applied standpoint. A study is made of the use and transfer of energy in the spinning-wheel and looms; everyday uses of mechanical principles are taken up —in locks, scales, etc., going on later to electric appliances and devices—bells, the telegraph, etc.

The relation of means to ends is emphasized also in other lines of work. In art attention is given to practical questions of perspective, of proportion

(103) of spaces and masses, balance, effect of color combinations and contrasts, etc. In cooking, the principles of food-composition and of effects of various agencies upon these elements are taken up, so that the children may deduce, as far as possible, their own rules. In sewing, methods of cutting, fitting (as applied to dolls' clothing) come up, and later on the technical sequence of stitches, etc.

It is clear that with the increasing differentiation of lines of work and interest, leading to greater individuality and independence in various studies, great care must be taken to find the balance between, on one side, undue separation and isolation, and, on the other, a miscellaneous and casual attention to a large number of topics, without adequate emphasis and distinctiveness to any. The first principle makes work mechanical and formal, divorces it from the life-experience of the child and from effective influence upon conduct. The second makes it scrappy and vague and leaves the child without definite command of his own powers or clear consciousness of purposes. It is perhaps only in the present year that the specific principle of the conscious relation of means to ends has emerged as the unifying principle of this period; and it i5 hoped that emphasis of this in all lines of work will have a decidedly cumulative and unifying effect upon the child's development.


Nothing has been said, as yet, of one of the most important agencies or means in extending and controlling experience —command of the social or conventional symbols —symbols of language, including those of quantity. The importance of these instrumentalities is so great that the traditional or three R's curriculum is based upon them —from 60 to 80 per cent of the time program of the first four or five years of elementary schools being devoted to them, the smaller figure representing selected rather than average schools.

These subjects are social in a double sense. They represent the tools which society has evolved in the past as the instruments of its intellectual pursuits. They represent the keys which will unlock to the child the wealth of social capital which lies beyond the possible range of his limited individual experience. While these two points of view must always give these arts a highly important place in education, they also make it necessary that certain conditions should be observed in their introduction and use. In a wholesale and direct application of the studies no account is taken of these conditions. The chief problem at present relating to the three R's is recognition of these conditions and the adaptation of work to them.

The conditions may be reduced to two: (1) The need that the child shall have in his own personal

(105) and vital experience a varied background of contact and acquaintance with realities, social and physical. This is necessary to prevent symbols from becoming a purely second-hand and conventional substitute for reality. (2) The need that the more ordinary, direct, and personal experience of the child shall furnish problems, motives, and interests that necessitate recourse to books for their solution, satisfaction, and pursuit. Otherwise, the child approaches the book without intellectual hunger, without alertness, without a questioning attitude, and the result is the one so deplorably common: such abject dependence upon books as weakens and cripples vigor of thought and inquiry, combined with reading for mere random stimulation of fancy, emotional indulgence, and flight from the world of reality into a make-belief land.

The problem here is then (1) to furnish the child with a sufficiently large amount of personal activity in occupations, expression, conversation, construction, and experimentation, so that his individuality, moral and intellectual, shall not be swamped by a disproportionate amount of the experience of others to which books introduce him; and (2) so to conduct this more direct experience as to make the child feel the need of resort to anal command of the traditional social tools— furnish him with motives and make his recourse to them intelligent, an addition to his powers, instead

(106) of a servile dependency. When this problem shall be solved, work in language, literature, and number will not be a combination of mechanical drill, formal analysis, and appeal, even if unconscious, to sensational interests; and there will not be the slightest reason to fear that books and all that relates to them will not take the important place to which they are entitled.

It is hardly necessary to say that the problem is not yet solved. The common complaints that children's progress in these traditional school studies is sacrificed to the newer subjects that have come into the curriculum is sufficient evidence that the exact balance is not yet struck. The experience thus far in the school, even if not demonstrative, indicates the following probable results: (1) the more direct modes of activity, constructive and occupation work, scientific observation, experimentation, etc., present plenty of opportunities and occasions for the necessary use of reading, writing (and spelling), and number work. These things may be introduced, then, not as isolated studies, but as organic outgrowths of the child's experience. The problem is, in a systematic and progressive way, to take advantage of these occasions. (2) The additional vitality and meaning which these studies thus secure make possible a very considerable reduction of the time ordinarily devoted

(107) to them. (3) The final use of the symbols, whether in reading, calculation, or composition, is more intelligent, less mechanical; more active, less passively receptive; more an increase of power, less a mere mode of enjoyment.

On the other hand, increasing experience seems to make clear the following points: (1) that it is possible, in the early years, to appeal, in teaching the recognition and use of symbols, to the child's power of production and creation; as much so in principle as in other lines of work seemingly much more direct, and that there is the advantage of a limited and definite result by which the child may measure his progress. (2) Failure sufficiently to take account of this fact resulted in an undue postponement of some phases of these lines of work, with the effect that the child, having progressed to a more advanced plane intellectually, feels what earlier might have been a form of power and creation to be an irksome task. (3) There is a demand for periodic concentration and alternation in the school program of the time devoted to these studies—and of all studies where mastery of technique or special method is advisable. That is to say, instead of carrying all subjects simultaneously and at an equal pace upon the program, at times one must be brought to the foreground and others relegated to the background, until the child is brought to the point of recognizing that he has a

(108) power or skill which he can now go ahead and use independently.

The third period of elementary education is upon the borderland of secondary. It comes when the child has a sufficient acquaintance of a fairly direct sort with various forms of reality and modes of activity; and when he has sufficiently mastered the methods, the tools of thought, inquiry, and activity, appropriate to various phases of experience, to be able profitably to specialize upon distinctive studies and arts for technical and intellectual aims. While the school has a number of children who are in this period, the school has not, of course, been in existence long enough so that any typical inferences can be safely drawn. There certainly seems to be reason to hope, however, that with the consciousness of difficulties, needs, and resources gained in the experience of the last five years, children can be brought to and through this period without sacrifice of thoroughness, mental discipline, or command of technical tools of learning, and with a positive enlargement of life, and a wider, freer, and more open outlook upon it.


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