How We Think

Chapter 12: Activity and the Training of Thought

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IN this chapter we shall gather together and amplify considerations that have already been advanced, in various passages of the preceding pages, concerning the relation of action to thought. We shall follow, though not with exactness, the order of development in the unfolding human being.

I. The Early Stage of Activity

1. The baby's problem determines his thinking

The sight of a baby often calls out the question: "What do you suppose he is thinking about?" By the nature of the case, the question is unanswerable in detail; but, also by the nature of the case, we may be sure about a baby's chief interest. His primary problem is mastery of his body as a tool of securing comfortable and effective adjustments to his surroundings, physical and social. The child has to learn to do almost everything: to see, to hear, to reach, to handle, to balance the body, to creep, to walk, and so on. Even if it be true that human beings have even more instinctive reactions than lower animals, it is also true that instinctive tendencies are much less perfect in men, and that most of them are

(158) of little use till they are intelligently combined and directed. A little chick just out of the shell will after a few trials peck at and grasp grains of food with its beak as well as at any later time. This involves a complicated coordination of the eye and the head. An infant does not even begin to reach definitely for things that the eye sees till he is several months old, and even then several weeks' practice is required before he learns the adjustment so as neither to overreach nor to underreach. It may not be literally true that the child will grasp for the moon, but it is true that he needs much practice before he can tell whether an object is within reach or not. The arm is thrust out instinctively in response to a stimulus from the eye, and this tendency is the origin of the ability to reach and grasp exactly and quickly; but nevertheless final mastery requires observing and selecting the successful movements, and arranging them in view of an end. These operations of conscious selection and arrangement constitute thinking, though of a rudimentary type.

Mastery of the body is an intellectual problem

Since mastery of the bodily organs is necessary for all later developments, such problems are both interesting and important, and solving them supplies a very genuine training of thinking power. The joy the child shows in learning to use his limbs, to translate what he sees into what he handles, to connect sounds with sights, sights with taste and touch, and the rapidity with which intelligence grows in the first year and a half of life (the time during which the more fundamental problems of the use of the organism are mastered), are sufficient evidence that the development of physical control is not a physical but an intellectual achievement.

Although in the early months the child is mainly oc-

2. The problem of social adjustment and intercourse

(159) cupied in learning to use his body to accommodate- himself to physical conditions in a comfortable way and to use things skillfully and effectively, yet social adjustments are very important. In connection with parents, nurse, brother, and sister, the child learns the signs of satisfaction of hunger, of removal of discomfort, of the approach of agreeable light, color , sound, and so on. His contact with physical things is regulated by persons, and he soon distinguishes persons as the most important and interesting of all the objects with which he has to do. Speech, the accurate adaptation of sounds heard to the movements of tongue and lips, is, however, the great instrument of social adaptation; and with the development of speech (usually in the second year) adaptation of the baby's activities to and with those of other persons gives the keynote of mental life. His range of possible activities is indefinitely widened as he watches what other persons do, and as he tries to understand and to do what they encourage him to attempt. The outline pattern of mental life is thus set in the first four or five years. Years, centuries, generations of invention and planning, may have gone to the development of the performances and occupations of the adults surrounding the child. Yet for him their activities are direct stimuli; they are part of his natural environment; they are carried on in physical terms that appeal to his eye, ear, and touch. He cannot, of course, appropriate their meaning directly through his senses; but they furnish stimuli to which he responds, so that his attention is focused upon a higher order of materials and of problems. Were it not for this process by which the achievements of one generation form the stimuli that direct the activities of the next, the story of civilization

(160) would be writ in water, and each generation would have laboriously to make for itself, if it could, its way out of savagery.

Social adjustment results in imitation but is not caused by it

Imitation is one (though only one, see p. 47) of the means by which the activities of adults supply stimuli which are so interesting, so varied, so complex, and so novel, as to occasion a rapid progress of thought. Mere imitation, however, would not give rise to thinking; if we could learn like parrots by simply copying the outward acts of others, we should never have to think; nor should we know, after we had mastered the copied act, what was the meaning of the thing we had done. Educators (and psychologists) have often assumed that acts which reproduce the behavior of others are acquired merely by imitation. But a child rarely learns by conscious imitation ; and to say that his imitation is unconscious is to say that it is not from his standpoint imitation at all. The word, the gesture, the act, the occupation of another, falls in line with some impulse already active and suggests some satisfactory mode of expression, some end in which it may find fulfillment. Having this end of his own, the child then notes other persons, as he notes natural events, to get further suggestions as to means of its realization. He selects some of the means he observes, tries them on, finds them successful or unsuccessful, is confirmed or weakened in his belief in their value, and so continues selecting, arranging, adapting, testing, till he can accomplish what he wishes. The onlooker may then observe the resemblance of this act to some act of an adult, and conclude that it was acquired by imitation, while as a matter of fact it was acquired by attention, observation, selection, experimentation, and confirmation by results. Only

(161) because this method is employed is there intellectual discipline and an educative result. The presence of adult activities plays an enormous role in the intellectual growth of the child because they add to the natural stimuli of the world new stimuli which are more exactly adapted to the needs of a human being, which are richer, better organized, more complex in range, permitting more flexible adaptations, and calling out novel reactions. But in utilizing these stimuli the child follows the same methods that he uses when he is forced to think in order to master his body.

2. Play, Work, and Allied Forms of Activity

Play indicates the domination of activity by meanings or ideas

When things become signs, when they gain a representative capacity as standing for other things, play is transformed from mere physical exuberance into an activity involving a mental factor. A little girl who had broken her doll was seen to perform with the leg of the doll all the operations of washing, putting to bed, and fondling, that she had been accustomed to perform with the entire doll. The part stood for the whole; she reacted not to the stimulus sensibly present, but to the meaning suggested by the sense object. So children use a stone f or a table, leaves for plates, acorns for cups. So they use their dolls, their trains, their blocks, their other toys. In manipulating them, they are living not with the physical things, but in the large world of meanings, natural and social, evoked by these things. So when children play horse, play store, play house or making calls, they are subordinating the physically present to the ideally signified. In this way, a world of meanings, A store of concepts (so fundamental to all intellectual achievement), is defined and built up.

Organization of ideas involved in play

(162) Moreover, not only do meanings thus become familiar as acquaintances, but they are organized, arranged in groups, made to cohere in connected ways. A play and a story blend insensibly into each other. The most fanciful plays of children rarely lose all touch with the mutual fitness and pertinency of various meanings to one another; the " freest " plays observe some principles of coherence and unification. They have a beginning, middle, and end. In games, rules of order run through various minor acts and bind them into a connected whole. The rhythm, the competition, and cooperation involved in most plays and games also introduce organization. There is, then, nothing mysterious or mystical in the discovery made by Plato and remade by Froebel that play is the chief, almost the only, mode of education for the child in the years of later infancy.

The playful attitude

Playfulness is a more important consideration than play. The former is an attitude of mind; the latter is a passing outward manifestation of this attitude. When things are treated simply as vehicles of suggestion, what is suggested overrides the thing. Hence the playful attitude is one of freedom. The person is not bound to the physical traits of things, nor does he care whether a thing really means (as we say) what he takes it to represent. When the child plays horse with a broom and cars with chairs, the fact that the broom does not really represent a horse, or a chair a locomotive, is of no account. In order, then, that playfulness may not terminate in arbitrary fancifulness and in building up an imaginary world alongside the world of actual things, it is necessary that the play attitude should gradually pass into a work attitude.

What is work work not as mere external perform-

The work attitude is interested in means and ends

(163)-ance, but as attitude of mind ? It signifies that the person is not content longer to accept and to act upon the meanings that things suggest, but demands congruity of meaning with the things themselves. In the natural course of growth, children come to find irresponsible make-believe plays inadequate. A fiction is too easy a way out to afford content. There is not enough stimulus to call forth satisfactory mental response. When this point is reached, the ideas that things suggest must be applied to the things with some regard to fitness. A small cart, resembling a "real" cart, with " real " wheels, tongue, and body, meets the mental demand better than merely making believe that anything which comes to hand is a cart. Occasionally to take part in setting a "real" table with "real" dishes brings more reward than forever to make believe a flat stone is a table and that leaves are dishes. The interest may still center in the meanings, the things may be of importance only as amplifying a certain meaning. So far the attitude is one of play. But the meaning is now of such a character that it must find appropriate embodiment in actual things.

The dictionary does not permit us to call such activities work. Nevertheless, they represent a genuine passage of play into work. For work (as a mental attitude, not as mere external performance) means interest in the adequate embodiment of a meaning (a suggestion, purpose, aim) in objective form through the use of appropriate materials and appliances. Such an attitude takes advantage of the meanings aroused and built up in free play, but controls their development by seeing to it that they are applied to things in ways consistent with the observable structure of the things themselves.


and in processes on account of their results

The point of this distinction between play and work may be cleared up by comparing it with a more usual way of stating the difference. In play activity, it is said, the interest is in the activity for its own sake; in work, it is in the product or result in which the activity terminates. Hence the former is purely free, while the latter is tied down by the end to be achieved. When the difference is stated in this sharp fashion, there is almost always introduced a false, unnatural separation between process and product, between activity and its achieved outcome. The true distinction is not between an interest in activity for its own sake and interest in the external result of that activity, but between an interest in an activity just as it flows on from moment to moment, and an interest in an activity as tending to a culmination, to an outcome, and therefore possessing a thread of continuity binding together its successive stages. Both may equally exemplify interest in an activity "for its own sake " ; but in one case the activity in which the interest resides is more or less casual, following the accident of circumstance and whim, or of dictation; in the other, the activity is enriched by the sense that it leads somewhere, that it amounts to something.

Consequences of the sharp separation of play and work

Were it not that the false theory of the relation of the play and the work attitudes has been connected with unfortunate modes of school practice, insistence upon a truer view might seem an unnecessary refinement. But the sharp break that unfortunately prevails between the kindergarten and the grades is evidence that the theoretical distinction has practical implications. Under the title of play, the former is rendered unduly symbolic, fanciful, sentimental, and arbitrary; while under the antithetical caption of work the latter con

(165)-tains many tasks externally assigned. The former has no end and the latter an end so remote that only the educator, not the child, is aware that it is an end.

There comes a time when children must extend and make more exact their acquaintance with existing things; must conceive ends and consequences with sufficient definiteness to guide their actions by them, and must acquire some technical skill in selecting and arranging means to realize these ends. Unless these factors are gradually introduced in the earlier play period, they must be introduced later abruptly and arbitrarily, to the manifest disadvantage of both the earlier and the later stages.

False notions of imagination and utility

The sharp opposition of play and work is usually associated with false notions of utility and imagination. Activity that is directed upon matters of home and neighborhood interest is depreciated as merely utilitarian. To let the child wash dishes, set the table, engage in cooking, cut and sew dolls' clothes, make boxes that will hold "real things," and construct his own playthings by using hammer and nails, excludes, so it is said, the aesthetic and appreciative factor, eliminates imagination, and subjects the child's development to material and practical concerns; while (so it is said) to reproduce symbolically the domestic relationships of birds and. other animals, of human father and mother and child, of workman and tradesman, of knight, soldier, and magistrate, secures a liberal exercise of mind, of great moral as well as intellectual value. It has been even stated that it is over-physical and utilitarian if a child plants seeds and takes care of growing plants in the kindergarten; while reproducing dramatically operations of planting, cultivating, reaping, and so on, either

(166) with no physical materials or with symbolic representatives, is highly educative to the imagination and to spiritual appreciation. Toy dolls, trains of cars, boats, and engines are rigidly excluded, and the employ of cubes, balls, and other symbols for representing these social activities is recommended on the same ground. The more unfitted the physical object for its imagined purpose, such as a cube for a boat, the greater is the supposed appeal to the imagination.

Imagination a medium of realizing the absent and significant

There are several fallacies in this way of thinking. (a) The healthy imagination deals not with the unreal, but with the mental realization of what is suggested. Its exercise is not a flight into the purely fanciful and ideal, but a method of expanding and filling in what is real. To the child the homely activities going on about him are not utilitarian devices for accomplishing physical ends; they exemplify a wonderful world the depths of which he has not sounded, a world full of the mystery and promise that attend all the doings of the grown-ups whom he admires. However prosaic this world may be to the adults who find its duties routine affairs, to the child it is fraught with social meaning. To engage in it is to exercise the imagination in constructing an experience of wider value than any the child has yet mastered.

Only the already exerienced can be symbolized

(b) Educators sometimes think children are reacting to a great moral or spiritual truth when the children's reactions are largely physical and sensational. Children have great powers of dramatic simulation, and their physical bearing may seem (to adults prepossessed with a philosophic theory) to indicate they have been impressed with some lesson of chivalry, devotion, or nobility, when the children themselves are occupied only

(167) with transitory physical excitations. To symbolize great truths far beyond the child's range of actual experience is an impossibility, and to attempt it is to invite love of momentary stimulation.

Useful work is not necessarily labor

(c) just as the opponents of play in education always conceive of play as mere amusement, so the opponents of direct and useful activities confuse occupation with labor. The adult is acquainted with responsible labor upon which serious financial results depend. Consequently he seeks relief, relaxation, amusement. Unless children have prematurely worked for hire, unless they have come under the blight of child labor, no such division exists for them. Whatever appeals to them at all, appeals directly on its own account. There is no contrast between doing things for utility and for fun. Their life is more united and more wholesome. To suppose that activities customarily performed by adults only under the pressure of utility may not be done perfectly freely and joyously by children indicates a lack of imagination. Not the thing done but the quality of mind that goes into the doing settles what is utilitarian and what is unconstrained and educative.

3. Constructive Occupations

The historic growth of sciences out of occupations

The history of culture shows that mankind's scientific knowledge and technical abilities have developed, especially in all their earlier stages, out of the fundamental problems of life. Anatomy and physiology grew out of the practical needs of keeping healthy and active; geometry and mechanics out of demands for measuring land, for building, and for making labor-saving. machines; astronomy has been closely connected with navigation, keeping record of the passage of time; botany grew out

(168) of the requirements of medicine and of agronomy; chemistry has been associated with dyeing, metallurgy, and other industrial pursuits. In turn, modern industry is almost wholly a matter of applied science; year by year the domain of routine and crude empiricism is narrowed by the translation of scientific discovery into industrial invention. The trolley, the telephone, the electric light, the steam engine, with all their revolutionary consequences for social intercourse and control, are the fruits of science.

The intellectual possibilities of school occupations

These facts are full of educational significance. Most children are preeminently active in their tendencies. The schools have also taken on largely from utilitarian, rather than from strictly educative reasons a large number of active pursuits commonly grouped under the head of manual training, including also school gardens, excursions, and various graphic arts. Perhaps the most pressing problem of education at the present moment is to organize and relate these subjects so that they will become instruments for forming alert, persistent, and fruitful intellectual habits. That they take hold of the more primary and native equipment of children (appealing to their desire to do) is generally recognized; that they afford great opportunity for training in self-reliant and efficient social service is gaining acknowledgment. But they may also be used for presenting typical problems to be solved by personal reflection and experimentation, and by acquiring definite bodies of knowledge leading later to more specialized scientific knowledge. There is indeed no magic by which mere physical activity or deft manipulation will secure intellectual results. (See P. 43.) Manual subjects may be taught by routine, by dictation, or by convention as readily

(169) as bookish subjects. But intelligent consecutive work in gardening, cooking, or weaving, or in elementary wood and iron, may be planned which will inevitably result in students not only amassing information of practical and scientific importance in botany, zoology chemistry, physics, and other sciences, but (what is more significant) in their becoming versed in methods of experimental inquiry and proof.

Reorganization of the course of study

That the elementary curriculum is overloaded is a common complaint. The only alternative to a reactionary return to the educational traditions of the past lies in working out the intellectual possibilities resident in the various arts, crafts, and occupations, and reorganizing the curriculum accordingly. Here, more than elsewhere, are found the means by which the blind and routine experience of the race may be transformed into illuminated and emancipated experiment.


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