How We Think

Chapter 4: School Conditions and the Training of Thought

Table of Contents | Next | Previous

Formal discipline

THE so-called faculty-psychology went hand in hand with the vogue of the formal-discipline idea in education. If thought is a distinct piece of mental machinery. separate from observation, memory, imagination, and common-sense judgments of persons and things, then thought should be trained by special exercises designed for the purpose, as one might devise special exercises for developing the biceps muscles. Certain subjects are then to be regarded as intellectual or logical subjects par excellence, possessed of a predestined fitness to exercise the thought-faculty, just as certain machines are better than others for developing arm power. With these three notions goes the fourth, that method consists of a set of operations by which the machinery of thought is set going and kept at work upon any subject-matter.

versus real thinking

We have tried to make it clear in the previous chapters that there is no single and uniform power of thought, but a multitude of different ways in which specific things things observed, remembered, heard of, read about evoke suggestions or ideas that are pertinent to the occasion and fruitful in the sequel. Training is such development of curiosity, suggestion, and habits of exploring and testing, as increases their scope

(46) and efficiency. A subject any subject is intellectual in the degree in which with any given person it succeeds in effecting this growth. On this view the fourth factor, method, is concerned with providing conditions so adapted to individual needs and powers as to make for the permanent improvement of observation, suggestion, and investigation.

True and false meaning of method

The teacher's problem is thus twofold. On the one side, he needs (as we saw in the last chapter) to be a student of individual traits and habits ; on the other side, he needs to be a student of the conditions that modify for better or worse the directions in which individual powers habitually express themselves. He needs to recognize that method covers not only what he intentionally devises and employs for the purpose of mental training, but also what he does without any conscious reference to it, anything in the atmosphere and conduct of the school which reacts in any way upon the curiosity, the responsiveness, and the orderly activity of children. The teacher who is an intelligent student both of individual mental operations and of the effects of school conditions upon those operations, can largely be trusted to develop for himself methods of instruction in their narrower and more technical sense those best adapted to achieve results in particular subjects, such as reading, geography, or algebra. In the hands of one who is not intelligently aware of individual capacities and of the influence unconsciously exerted upon them by the entire environment, even the best of technical methods are likely to get an immediate result only at the expense of deep-seated and persistent habits. We may group the conditioning influences of the school environment under three heads: (i) the mental attitudes and habits of the

(47) persons with whom the child is in contact; (2) the subjects studied; (3) current educational aims and ideals.

Influence of the Habits of Others

Bare reference to the imitativeness of human nature is enough to suggest how profoundly the mental habits of others affect the attitude of the one being trained. Example is more potent than precept; and a teacher's best conscious efforts may be more than counteracted by the influence of personal traits which he is unaware of or regards as unimportant. Methods of instruction and discipline that are technically faulty may be rendered practically innocuous by the inspiration of the personal method that lies back of them.

Response to environment fundamental in method

To confine, however, the conditioning influence of the educator, whether parent or teacher, to imitation is to get a very superficial view of the intellectual influence of others. Imitation is but one case of a deeper principle -that of stimulus and response. Everything the teacher does, as well as the manner in which he does it, incites the child to respond in some way or other, and each response tends to set the child's attitude in some way or other. Even the inattention of the child to the adult is often a mode of response which is the result of unconscious training.[1] The teacher is rarely (and even then never entirely) a transparent medium of access by another mind to a subject. With the young, the influence of the teacher's personality is intimately fused with that of the subject; the child does not separate

(48) nor even distinguish the two. And as the child's response is toward or away from anything presented, he keeps up a running commentary, of which be himself is hardly distinctly aware, of like and dislike, of sympathy and aversion, not merely to the acts of the teacher, but also to the subject with which the teacher is occupied.

Influence of teacher's own habits

Judging others by ourselves

The extent and power of this influence upon morals and manners, upon character, upon habits of speech and social bearing, are almost universally recognized. But the tendency to conceive of thought as an isolated faculty has often blinded teachers to the f act that this influence is just as real and pervasive in intellectual concerns. Teachers, as well as children, stick more or less to the main points, have more or less wooden and rigid methods of response, and display more or less intellectual curiosity about matters that come up. And every trait of this kind is an inevitable part of the teacher's method of teaching. Merely to accept without notice slipshod habits of speech, slovenly inferences, unimaginative and literal response, is to indorse these tendencies, and to ratify them into habits -and so it goes throughout the whole range of contact between teacher and student. In this complex and intricate field, two or three points may well be singled out for special notice. (a) Most persons are quite unaware of the distinguishing peculiarities of their own mental habit. They take their own mental operations for granted, and unconsciously make them the standard for judging the mental processes of others.[2] Hence there

(49) is a tendency to encourage everything in the pupil which agrees with this attitude, and to neglect or fail to understand whatever is incongruous with it. The prevalent overestimation of the value, for mind-training, of theoretic subjects as compared with practical pursuits, is doubtless due partly to the fact that the teacher's calling tends to select those in whom the theoretic interest is specially strong and to repel those in whom executive abilities are marked. Teachers sifted out on this basis judge pupils and subjects by a like standard, encouraging an intellectual one-sidedness in those to whom it is naturally congenial, and repelling from study those in whom practical instincts are more urgent.

Exaggeration of direct personal influence

(b) Teachers- and this holds especially of the stronger and better teachers tend to rely upon their personal strong points to hold a child to his work, and thereby to substitute their personal influence for that of subject-matter as a motive for study. The teacher finds by experience that his own personality is often effective where the power of the subject to command attention is almost nil; then he utilizes the former more and more, until the pupil's relation to the teacher almost takes the place of his relation to the subject. In this way the teacher's personality may become a source of personal dependence and weakness, an influence that renders the pupil indifferent to the value of the subject for its own sake.

Independent thinking versus "getting the answer

(c) The operation of the teacher's own mental habit tends, unless carefully watched and guided, to make the child a student of the teacher's peculiarities rather than of the subjects that he is supposed to study. His chief concern is to accommodate himself to what the

(50) teacher expects of him, rather than to devote himself energetically to the problems of subject-matter. "Is this right?" comes to mean "Will this answer or this process satisfy the teacher? " instead of meaning, "Does it satisfy the inherent conditions of the problem ? " It would be folly to deny the legitimacy or the value of the study of human nature that children carry on in school; but it is obviously undesirable that their chief intellectual problem should be that of producing an answer approved by the teacher, and their standard of success be successful adaptation to the requirements of another.

3. Influence of the Nature of Studies

Types of Studies

Studies are conventionally and conveniently grouped under these heads: (1) Those especially involving the acquisition of skill in performance-the school arts, such as reading, writing, figuring, and music. (2) Those mainly concerned with acquiring knowledge "informational " studies, such as geography and history. (3) Those in which skill in doing and bulk of information are relatively less important, and appeal to abstract thinking, to " reasoning," is most marked "disciplinary " studies, such as arithmetic and formal grammar.[3] Each of these groups of subjects has its own special pitfalls.

The abstract as the isolated

(a) In the case of the so-called disciplinary or preeminently logical studies, there is danger of the isolation of intellectual activity from the ordinary affairs

(51) of life. Teacher and student alike tend to set up a chasm between logical thought as something abstract and remote, and the specific and concrete demands of everyday events. The abstract tends to become so aloof, so far away from application, as to be cut loose from practical and moral bearing. The gullibility of specialized scholars when out of their own lines, their extravagant habits of inference and speech, their ineptness in reaching conclusions in practical matters, their egotistical engrossment in their own subjects, are extreme examples of the bad effects of severing studies completely from their ordinary connections in life.

Overdoing the mechanical and automatic


(b) The danger in those studies where the main, emphasis is upon acquisition of skill is just the reverse. The tendency is to take the shortest cuts possible to gain the required end. This makes the subjects mechanical, and thus restrictive of intellectual power. In the mastery of reading, writing, drawing, laboratory technique, etc., the need of economy of time and material, of neatness and accuracy, of promptness and uniformity, is so great that these things tend to become ends in themselves, irrespective of their influence upon general mental attitude. Sheer imitation, dictation of steps to be taken, mechanical drill, may give results most quickly and yet strengthen traits likely to be fatal to reflective power. The pupil is enjoined to do this and that specific thing, with no knowledge of any reason except that by so doing be gets his result most speedily; his mistakes are pointed out and corrected for him ; he is kept at pure repetition of certain acts till they become automatic. Later, teachers wonder why the pupil reads with so little expression, and figures with so little intelligent consideration of the terms


(52) of his problem. In some educational dogmas and practices, the very idea of training mind seems to be hopelessly confused with that of a drill which hardly touches mind at all or touches it for the worse since it is wholly taken up with training skill in external execution. This method reduces the "training" of human beings to the level of animal training. Practical skill, modes of effective technique, can be intelligently, non-mechanically used, only when intelligence has played a part in their acquisition.

Wisdom versus information

(c) Much the same sort of thing is to be said regarding studies where emphasis traditionally falls upon bulk and accuracy of information. The distinction between information and wisdom is old, and yet requires constantly to be redrawn. Information is knowledge which is merely acquired and stored up; wisdom is knowledge operating in the direction of powers to the better living of life. Information, merely as information, implies no special training of intellectual capacity; wisdom is the finest fruit of that training. In school, amassing information always tends to escape from the ideal of wisdom or good judgment. The aim often seems to be -especially in such a subject as geography -to make the pupil what has been called a " cyclopedia of useless information." Covering the ground " is the primary necessity; the nurture of mind a bad second. Thinking cannot, of course, go on in a vacuum; suggestions and inferences can occur only upon a basis of information as to matters of fact.

But there is all the difference in the world whether the acquisition of information is treated as an end in itself, or is made an integral portion of the training of thought. The assumption that information which has


  1. A child of four or five who had been repeatedly called to the house by his mother with no apparent response on his own part, was asked if he did not hear her. He replied quite judicially, "Oh, yes, but she doesn't call very mad yet."
  2. People who have number-forms i.e.project number series into space and see them arranged in certain shapes when asked why they have not mentioned the fact before, often reply that it never occurred to them; they supposed that everybody had the same power.
  3. Of course, any one subject has all three aspects : e.g. in arithmetic, counting, writing, and reading numbers, rapid adding, etc., are cases of skill in doing the tables of weights and measures are a matter of information, etc.

Valid HTML 4.01 Strict Valid CSS2