How We Think

Chapter 14: Observation and Information
in the Training of Mind

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No thinking without acquaintance with facts

THINKING is an ordering of subject-matter with reference to discovering what it signifies or indicates. Thinking no more exists apart from this arranging of subject-matter than digestion occurs apart from the assimilating of food. The way in which the subject- matter is furnished marks, therefore, a fundamental point. If the subject-matter is provided in too scanty or too profuse fashion, if it comes in disordered array or in isolated scraps, the effect upon habits of thought is detrimental. If personal observation and communication of information by others (whether in books or speech) are rightly conducted, half the logical battle is won, for they are the channels of obtaining subject-matter

I. The Nature and Value of Observation

Fallacy of making "facts" an end in themselves

The protest, mentioned in the last chapter, of educational reformers against the exaggerated and false use of language, insisted upon personal and direct observation as the proper alternative course. The reformers felt that the current emphasis upon the linguistic factor eliminated all opportunity for first-hand acquaintance with real things; hence they appealed to sense-perception to fill the gap. It is not surprising that this enthusiastic zeal failed frequently to ask how and why

(189) observation is educative, and hence fell into the error of making observation an end in itself and was satisfied with any kind of material under any kind of conditions. Such isolation of observation is still manifested in the statement that this faculty develops first, then that of memory and imagination, and finally the faculty of thought. From this point of view, observation is regarded as furnishing crude masses of raw material, to which, later on, reflective processes may be applied. Our previous pages should have made obvious the fallacy of this point of view by bringing out the fact that simple concrete thinking attends all our intercourse with things which is not on a purely physical level.

The synthetic motive in extending acquaintance

I. All persons have a natural desire akin to curiosity -for a widening of their range of acquaintance with persons and things. The sign in art galleries that forbids the carrying of canes and umbrellas is obvious testimony to the fact that simply to see is not enough for many people; there is a feeling of lack of acquaintance until some direct contact is made. This demand for fuller and closer knowledge is quite different from any conscious interest in observation for its own sake. Desire for expansion, for " self-realization," is its motive. The interest is sympathetic, socially and aesthetically sympathetic, rather than cognitive. While the interest is especially keen in children (because their actual experience is so small and their possible experience so large), it still characterizes adults when routine has not blunted its edge. This sympathetic interest provider, the medium for carrying and binding together what would otherwise be a multitude of items, diverse, disconnected, and of no intellectual use. These systems are indeed social and aesthetic rather than consciously intel-

Analytic inspection for the sake of doing

(190)-lectual; but they provide the natural medium for more conscious intellectual explorations. Some educators have recommended that nature study in the elementary schools be conducted with a love of nature and a cultivation of aesthetic appreciation in view rather than in a purely analytic spirit. Others have urged making much of the care of animals and plants. Both of these important recommendations have grown out of experience, not out of theory, but they afford excellent exemplifications of the theoretic point just made.

Analytic inspection for the sake of doing

II. In normal development, specific analytic observations are originally connected almost exclusively with the imperative need for noting means and ends in carrying on activities. When one is doing something, one is compelled, if the work is to succeed (unless it is purely routine), to use eyes, ears, and sense of touch as guides to action. Without a constant and alert exercise of the senses, not even plays and games can go on; in any form of work, materials, obstacles, appliances, failures, and successes, must be intently watched. Sense-perception does not occur for its own sake or for purposes of training, but because it is an indispensable factor of success in doing what one is interested in doing. Although not designed for sense-training, this method effects sense training in the most economical and thoroughgoing way. Various schemes have been designed by teachers for cultivating sharp and prompt observation of forms, as by writing words, even in an unknown language, making arrangements of figures and geometrical forms, and having pupils reproduce them after a momentary glance. Children often attain great skill in quick seeing and full reproducing of even complicated meaningless combinations. But such methods of training

Direct and indirect sense training

(191) however valuable as occasional games and diversions compare very unfavorably with the training of eye and hand that comes as an incident of work with tools in wood or metals, or of gardening, cooking, or the care of animals. Training by isolated exercises leaves no deposit, leads nowhere; and even the technical skill acquired has little radiating power, or transferable value. Criticisms made upon the training of observation on the ground that many persons cannot correctly reproduce the forms and arrangement of the figures on the face of their watches misses the point because persons do not look at a watch to find out whether four o'clock is indicated by IIII or by IV, but to find out what time it is, and, if observation decides this matter, noting other details is irrelevant and a waste of time. In the training of observation the question of end and motive is all important.

Scientific observations are linked to problems

III. The further, more intellectual or scientific, development of observation follows the line of the growth of practical into theoretical reflection already traced (ante, Chapter Ten). As problems emerge and are dwelt upon, observation is directed less to the facts that bear upon a practical aim and more upon what bears upon a problem as such. What makes observations in schools often intellectually ineffective is (more than anything else) that they are carried on independently of a sense of a problem that they serve to define or help to solve. The evil of this isolation is seen through the. entire. educational system, from the kindergarten, through the elementary and high schools, to the college. Almost everywhere may be found, at some time, recourse to observations as if they were of complete and final value in themselves, instead of the means

"Object-lessons" rarely supply problems

(192) of getting material that bears upon some difficulty and its solution. In the kindergarten are heaped up observations regarding geometrical forms, lines, surfaces, cubes, colors, and so on. In the elementary school, under the name of " object-lessons," the form and properties of objects, apple, orange, chalk, selected almost at random, are minutely noted, while under the name of " nature study to similar observations are directed upon leaves, stones, insects, selected in almost equally arbitrary fashion. In high school and college, laboratory and microscopic observations are carried on as if the accumulation of observed facts and the acquisition of skill in manipulation were educational ends in themselves.

Compare with these methods of isolated observations the statement of Jevons that observation as conducted by scientific men is effective " only when excited and guided by hope of verifying a theory to ; and again, "the number of things which can be observed and experimented upon are infinite, and if we merely set to work to record facts without any distinct purpose, our records will have no value." Strictly speaking, the first statement of Jevons is too narrow. Scientific men institute observations not merely to test an idea (or suggested explanatory meaning), but also to locate the nature of a problem and thereby guide the formation of a hypothesis. But the principle of his remark, namely, that scientific men never make the accumulation of observations an end in itself, but always a means to a general intellectual conclusion, is absolutely sound. Until the force of this principle is adequately recognized in education, observation will be largely a matter of uninteresting dead work or of acquiring forms of technical skill that are not available as intellectual resources.


2. Methods and Materials of Observation in the Schools

The best methods in use in our schools furnish many suggestions for giving observation its right place in mental training.

Observation should involve discovery

I. They rest upon the sound assumption that observation is an active process. Observation is exploration, inquiry for the sake of discovering something previously hidden and unknown, this something being needed in order to reach some end, practical or theoretical. Observation is to be discriminated from recognition, or perception of what is familiar. The identification of something already understood is, indeed, an indispensable function of further investigation (ante, p. 119) ; but it is relatively automatic and passive, while observation proper is searching and deliberate. Recognition refers to the already mastered; observation is concerned with mastering the unknown. The common notions that perception is like writing on a blank piece of paper, or like impressing an image on the mind as a seal is imprinted on wax or as a picture is formed on a photographic plate (notions that have played a disastrous role in educational methods), arise from a failure to distinguish between automatic recognition and the searching attitude of genuine observation.

and suspense during the unfolding change

II. Much assistance in the selection of appropriate material for observation may be derived from considering the eagerness and closeness of observation that attend the following of a story or drama. Alertness of observation is at its height wherever there is " plot interest." Why? Because of the balanced combination of the old and the new, of the familiar and the unexpected. We hang on the lips of the story-teller because of the element of mental suspense. Alternatives are suggested,

(194) but are left ambiguous, so that our whole being questions: What befell next? Which way did things turn out? Contrast the ease and fullness with which a child notes all the salient traits of a story, with the labor and inadequacy of his observation of some dead and static thing where nothing raises a question or suggests alternative outcomes.

This "plot interest" manifested in activity,

When an individual is engaged in doing or making something (the activity not being of such a mechanical and habitual character that its outcome is assured), there is an analogous situation. Something is going to come of what is present to the sense, but just what is doubtful. The plot is unfolding toward success or failure, but just when or how is uncertain. Hence the keen and tense observation of conditions and results that attends constructive manual operations. Where the subject-matter is of a more impersonal sort, the same principle of movement toward a denouement may apply. It is a commonplace that what is moving attracts notice when that which is at rest escapes it. Yet too often it would almost seem as if pains had been taken to deprive the material of school observations of all life and dramatic quality, to reduce it to a dead and inert form. Mere change is not enough, however. Vicissitude, alteration, motion, excite observation; but if they merely excite it, there is no thought. The changes must (like the incidents of a well-arranged story or plot) take place in a certain cumulative order; each successive change must at once remind us of its predecessor and arouse interest in its successor if observations of change are to be logically fruitful.

and in cycles of growth

Living beings, plants, and animals, fulfill the twofold requirement to an extraordinary degree. Where there

(195) growth, there is motion, change, process; and there is also arrangement of the changes in a cycle. The first arouses, the second organizes, observation. Much of the extraordinary interest that children take in planting seeds and watching the stages of their growth is due to the fact that a drama is enacting before their eyes; there is something doing, each step of which is important in the destiny of the plant. The great practical improvements that have occurred of late years in the teaching of botany and zoology will be found, upon inspection, to involve treating plants and animals as beings that act, that do something, instead of as mere inert specimens having static properties to be inventoried, named, and registered. Treated in the latter fashion, observation is inevitably reduced to the falsely " analytic" (ante, p. 112), to mere dissection and enumeration.

Observation of structure grows out of noting function

There is, of course, a place, and an important place, for observation of the mere static qualities of objects. When, however, the primary interest is in function, in what the object does, there is a motive for more minute analytic study, for the observation of structure. Interest in noting an activity passes insensibly into noting bow the activity is carried on; the interest in what is accomplished passes over into an interest in the organs of its accomplishing. But when the beginning is made with the morphological, the anatomical, the noting of peculiarities of form, size, color, and distribution of parts, the material is so cut off from significance as to be dead and dull. It is as natural for children to look intently for the stomata of a plant after they have become interested in its function of breathing, as it is repulsive to attend minutely to them when they are considered as isolated peculiarities of structure.

Observation of structure grows out of noting function

There is, of course, a place, and an important place, for observation of the mere static qualities of objects. When, however, the primary interest is in function, in what the object does, there is a motive for more minute analytic study, for the observation of structure. Interest in noting an activity passes insensibly into noting bow the activity is carried on; the interest in what is accomplished passes over into an interest in the organs of its accomplishing. But when the beginning is made with the morphological, the anatomical, the noting of peculiarities of form, size, color, and distribution of parts, the material is so cut off from significance as to be dead and dull. It is as natural for children to look intently for the stomata of a plant after they have become interested in its function of breathing, as it is repulsive to attend minutely to them when they are considered as isolated peculiarities of structure.


Scientific observation should be extensive and intensive

III. As the center of interest of observations becomes less personal, less a matter of means for effecting one's own ends, and less aesthetic, less a matter of contribution of parts to a total emotional effect, observation becomes more consciously intellectual in quality. Pupils learn to observe for the sake (i) of finding out what sort of perplexity confronts them; (ii) of inferring hypothetical explanations for the puzzling features that observation reveals; and (iii) of testing the ideas thus suggested. In short, observation becomes scientific in nature. Of such observations it may be said that they should follow a rhythm between the extensive and the intensive. Problems become definite, and suggested explanations significant by a certain alternation between a wide and somewhat loose soaking in of relevant facts and a minutely accurate study of a few selected facts. The wider, less exact observation is necessary to give the student a feeling for the reality of the field of inquiry, a sense of its bearings and possibilities, and to store his mind with materials that imagination may transform into suggestions. The intensive study is necessary for limiting the problem, and for securing the conditions of experimental testing. As the latter by itself is too specialized and technical to arouse intellectual growth, the former by itself is too superficial and scattering for control of intellectual development. In the sciences of life, field study, excursions, acquaintance with living things in their natural habitats, may alternate with microscopic and laboratory observation. In the physical sciences, phenomena of light, of heat, of electricity, of moisture, of gravity, in their broad setting in nature -physiographic setting should prepare for an exact study of selected facts under conditions of laboratory

(197) control. In this way, the student gets the benefit of technical scientific methods of discovery and testing, while he retains his sense of the identity of the laboratory modes of energy with large out-of-door realities, thereby avoiding the impression (that so often accrues) that the facts studied are peculiar to the laboratory.

3. Communication of Information

Importance of hearsay acquaintance

When all is said and done the field of fact open to any one observer by himself is narrow. Into every one of our beliefs, even those that we have worked out under the conditions of utmost personal, first-hand acquaintance, much has insensibly entered from what we have heard or read of the observations and conclusions of others. In spite of the great extension of direct observation in our schools, the vast bulk of educational subject-matter is derived from other sources -from text-book, lecture, and viva-voce interchange. No educational question is of greater import than how to get the most logical good out of learning through transmission from others.

Logically, this ranks only as evidence or testimony

Doubtless the chief meaning associated with the word instruction is this conveying and instilling of the results of the observations and inferences of others. Doubtless the undue prominence in education of the ideal of amassing information (ante, p. 52) has its source in the prominence of the learning of other persons. The problem then is how to convert it into an intellectual asset. In logical terms, the material supplied from the experience of others is testimony: that is to say, evidence submitted by others to be employed by one's own judgment in reaching a conclusion. How shall we treat the subject-matter supplied by textbook and teacher so that it shall rank as material for reflec-

(198) -tive inquiry, not as ready-made intellectual pabulum to be accepted and swallowed just as supplied by the store ?

Communication  by others should not encroach on observation,

In reply to this question, we may say (i) that the communication of material should be needed. That is to say, it should be such as cannot readily be attained by personal observation. For teacher or book to cram pupils with facts which, with little more trouble, they could discover by direct inquiry is to violate their intellectual integrity by cultivating mental servility. This does not mean that the material supplied through communication of others should be meager or scanty. With the utmost range of the senses, the world of nature and history stretches out almost infinitely beyond. But the fields within which direct observation is feasible should be carefully chosen and sacredly protected.

should not be dogmatic in tone,

(ii) Material should be supplied by way of stimulus, not with dogmatic finality and rigidity. When pupils get the notion that any field of study has been definitely surveyed, that knowledge about it is exhaustive and final, they may continue docile pupils, but they cease to be students. All thinking whatsoever so be it is thinking contains a phase of originality. This originality does not imply that the student's conclusion varies from the conclusions of others, much less that it is a radically novel conclusion. His originality is not incompatible with large use of materials and suggestions contributed by others. Originality means personal interest in the question, personal initiative in turning over the suggestions furnished by others, and sincerity in following them out to a tested conclusion. Literally, the phrase "Think for yourself " is tautological; any thinking is thinking for one's self.


should have a relation to a personal problem,

(iii) The material furnished by way of information should be relevant to a question that is vital in the student's own experience. What has been said about the evil of observations that begin and end in themselves may be transferred without change to communicated learning. Instruction in subject-matter that does not fit into any problem already stirring in the student's own experience, or that is not presented in such a way as to arouse a problem, is worse than useless for intellectual purposes. In that it fails to enter into any process of reflection, it is useless; in that it remains in the mind as so much lumber and debris, it is a barrier, an obstruction, in the way of effective thinking when a problem arises.

and to prior systems of experience

Another way of stating the same principle is that material furnished by communication must be such as to enter into some existing system or organization of experience. All students of psychology are familiar with the principle of apperception that we assimilate new material with what we have digested and retained from prior experiences. Now the " apperceptive basis " of material furnished by teacher and text-book should be found, as far as possible, in what the learner has derived from more direct forms of his own experience. There is a tendency to connect material of the schoolroom simply with the material of prior school lessons, instead of linking it to what the pupil has acquired in his out-of-school experience. The teacher says, "Do you not remember what we learned from the book last week? " instead of saying, "Do you not recall such and such a thing that you have seen or heard? " As a result, there are built up detached and independent systems of school knowledge that inertly overlay the

(200) ordinary systems of experience instead of reacting to enlarge and refine them. Pupils are taught to live in two separate worlds, one the world of out-of-school experience, the other the world of books and lessons.


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