Art. XX.—Early Instruction.
[Read before the Auckland Institute, 26th August, 1874.]
When a traveller wishes to ascend a lofty mountain he employs a guide in order that he may go up by the easiest route, and at the same time obtain during his ascent the best view of the surrounding country; but if the guide, instead of taking the best and easiest route, wished to force our traveller up the steepest side, where all his strength would be required to keep him from rolling to the bottom, and where nothing could be seen during the ascent but the rugged side of the mountain—I think such a guide would not be often employed.
Now the ascent of a mountain has often been used as a simile for the gradual acquisition of knowledge, in which the difficulties are greater or less according to the guide.
In real knowledge the conceptions agree exactly with the outer world and human life, just as the picture of the prospect formed on the retina and conveyed to the mind agrees with the outspread country, and as the prospect becomes wider and picture more complete as we ascend the hill, so also the ideas are enlarged and the conceptions made more exact by the acquisition of real knowledge. The learner is ever forming a clearer apprehension of the order of nature and striving onward to the knowledge of the truth.
It is an encouragement to know that from the moment the child enters this world he begins to acquire knowledge, which day by day and month by
month goes on increasing. He measures distances, he interprets signs, he detects the distinction in sounds, and after a time he expresses his ideas—not by signs but by words; while daily through the five channels connecting his soul with the outer world the mind receives ever increasing supplies of knowledge which it assimilates according to its capacity.
Before the child is five years old he can describe his perceptions, he can find his way about in his own neighbourhood; he connects events in their order, as when he looks for the people when he hears the church bell, or for the train when he hears the whistle of the engine. He knows and classifies trees and plants and animals. He will, even of his own accord, give a name to any object with which he often meets. In fact he displays a mind in full working order, with reason and memory ever active. In his own little sphere his conceptions agree in outline with the order of nature, coloured with all the charms of the partly unknown—the mind is of its own accord ascending the hill of Parnassus by a very delightful path.
At this age he is usually entrusted to a teacher to quicken his perceptions and to enlarge his ideas. The teacher at once puts our pupil to learn the twenty-six letters of the alphabet. The child is then shown the nine digits and zero; and then repeats perhaps a few lines of his catechism. In fact the child's mind, which has been up to this time chiefly occupied with its own perceptions, with the colours of the flowers and the song of the birds, is at once compelled to grapple with the most abstract ideas. The change is as great as if a man were suddenly transported from an Auckland summer to a Siberian winter. It is quite impossible for the mind of the child to assimilate these admirable abstractions.
We may associate the letters and figures with the advance of the human race in civilisation; we may know what a great advantage has been gained by adopting the Arabic symbols, and how superior they are to the clmsy symbols employed by the Greeks and Romans in their mathematical calculations. But to a child they have no association and no history.
The letters also have a long history; they can be traced back to the picture writing of men emerging from a savage condition. This kind of writing a child understands without a teacher, and long before he is sent to school he can read pictures. It appears then that from this point his instruction should naturally begin. Let him be shown the picture of an object, together with the word for the object, and action and reaction of ideas is at once aroused, and the word becomes associated with the object, so that very quickly he reads the word without the picture.
In like manner the relation of objects or phrases can first be shown by pictures, as well as the agent and its action which will convey the meaning of the written sentence. In this way the learner connects the known with
the unknown, and memory can work with pleasure when the link of association is supplied; even the twenty-six letters are unconsciously learned after a time, and only require to be named.
In numbers also a child learns to count his marbles and divide his sweets before he goes to school, and his instruction should commence with the concrete rather than the abstract. The object of a teacher should be to connect the previous knowledge with the subject of instruction, otherwise no knowledge can possibly be acquired.
But it is not to be supposed that the child is better taught when he can repeat the alphabet. He is then put in possession of a Mavor's Spelling Book, where he spells words that he may need at some far distant future. In due time he learns to read, word by word, that is to say he has not the remotest notion of the subject. As he repeats the words no ideas are awakened, just as though he read in Hebrew or Greek; whereas if he had been properly taught every phrase and every sentence would convey a vivid picture to the mind. The method employed in teaching the child to read is carried out in every other subject. He is driven blindfolded up the steepest side of Parnassus, with little care how bruised he may get as he stumbles onward.
As an instance I will take geography. Now the natural way of teaching this subject is to trace first the roads leading to the school, marking the position of well-known objects in the immediate vicinity, and then get the child himself to draw a similar plan. Afterwards to produce the roads to more distant objects in the neighbourhood, and so on to extend his ideas to the relative positions of the principal places in the whole country. There is no subject he will take a greater interest in as he finds that he can actually map down every place that he is acquainted with in the whole district.
The usual method is first to make the child commit to memory the names of the kingdoms of Europe and their capital cities, or indeed to begin with the latitude and longitude of the globe. He listens with astonishment, mingled with awe, to his teacher talking of meridians, the tropics of Cancer, the tropics of Capricorn, the equinoctial line, the vernal and autumnal equinoxes and suchlike terms. This is essentially a foreign language to our pupil, but it makes him wonder at the teacher's learning, and as every subject is taught in the same obscure way the pupil unconsciously associates his idea of great learning with that of unintelligible language. Later in life, from mere habit, he will listen with reverence to the most nonsensical discourse when couched in scientific language. I suppose for the same reason a song in a foreign language is much more heartily applauded than one in English.
The early impressions are always the most permanent, and early instruction tends in a great measure to produce the conviction that the working of a great mind can only be manifested in vague and vapoury language. Although
such discourses resemble too often the banquets of the theatre, where the seemingly rich viands are painted pasteboard, and the choice wines only coloured water.
The result of four, five, or six years preparatory instruction is easily given. Our pupil has gone through, Mavor's Spelling Book, but he is unable to write an ordinary sentence in English without several mistakes in spelling. He can multiply and divide abstract numbers with great inaccuracy, but has no idea of applying this knowledge to any question in concrete numbers. He knows that the earth is like an orange, with a band round it called the equator. He can repeat the names of some towns in foreign countries, but does not know where they are situated. He can read, if one may so call a repetition of words, with no idea of the sense. He can repeat the nine parts of speech, just as in ancient times men learned to repeat the letters of the alphabet as a charm against witchcraft. What more he learns is of so vague a nature that it cannot be specified, such as that King Alfred let cakes get burned and was well scolded, or that another king killed six of his wives.
When we consider how much the child learns by the natural vigour of his own mind before he goes to school, and how little he gains during his early instruction, the conclusion must be that some improvement is necessary. He went to school to increase his knowledge of the world around him, and during five years he learns nothing from his teacher about distinction of colours, nothing about shape or figure, nothing about animals, trees, or flowers. In no respect are his perceptions quickened or his ideas enlarged, but on the contrary they are impaired from lack of use. It is really lamentable to find a naturally vigorous mind seriously injured by this absurd system.
“If not so frequent would not this be strange, That'tis so frequent this is stranger still.”
The first instructor of a child seems, in most cases, not to know that memory is cultivated in any other way than by constant repetition of the words where the association is formed by sound alone. But before the child went to school he had constantly employed the higher methods of association of time, of place, and of cause and effect. That the memory works by these laws must not only be known to the instructor, but he ought also from the constant habit of employing them in his own studies unconsciously to impart them to the pupil.
It is most essential that a child should early become acquainted with the powers of the mind he possesses, not by name, but by actual employment of these powers; this is the greatest boon that a teacher can bestow. The opinion is gradually gaining ground that a competent teacher is as necessary for a child of four years old as for a boy of fourteen; but until most men
become convinced of this very evident truth, there will be some truth in the lines:—
“When a man's the sport of heaven,
To keep a school the wretch is driven.”
The first great step in primary instruction will be made when the conviction becomes general that an incompetent teacher does as much injury to the young mind when most vigorous, as such a one fails to do good to those advanced in years; but so long as it is thought that every one with a so-called good education can be a teacher we shall have no change in our present system.
If it is desired to correct any physical defect in a child, the best physicians are consulted during the child's earliest years, because the changes in the body during its development are more rapid than in later years; and although it is acknowledged that the mind is equally susceptible of improvement and of injury during these years, yet the cultivation of it is generally entrusted to a man who has no conception how minds perceive or reflect or generalize—who would be surprised to hear that a teacher is very certain to do no little harm if he does not know in what way concrete ideas become abstract, and simple become complex.
A good teacher would develope and enlarge all that a child learns before going to school, so that the outer world would become better known every day. His eye would be quickened in detecting the diversity of the colours of the flowers and the variety of shapes in the leaves. His interest in animal life would also daily increase by the mind being directed to their habits and their instincts and their uses. During those four years now so shamefully wasted, the perceptions of a child can be so quickened, and his ideas so enlarged on objects of natural history, that a museum would become a necessity in every town for advanced schools on account of the stores it possesses for instruction in science and history.
Our fine collection of New Zealand plants would no longer remain shut up in the herbarium hid from mortal eyes, the collection of birds and fishes and reptiles would be examined for instruction, and not to merely gratify a vague curiosity which neither generalizes nor separates nor awakens any ideas that the memory can retain. I am of opinion that a clearer notion of the history of human life can be given by a comparison of the implements, ornaments and apparel manufactured by Maoris with those now used by the English than is at present conveyed by compelling a child to learn the domestic troubles of various kings and nobles in remote ages.
An institution such as this museum is unquestionably in advance of the times. The real worth of it will be felt when the subjects taught in schools bear upon the study of the works of nature and the appreciation of the
works of art. When such schools are plentiful the number of minds seeking for the useful in natural objects and the development of the æsthetic in works of art will be increased a hundredfold. But to accomplish this it is evident that there must be a decided change in the system of early instruction which will necessitate a corresponding change in advanced schools.
This change, I beg to observe, requires no Government aid and no increase of expenditure, but it requires a higher appreciation of the importance of the first four or five years of school life, and a general conviction that to become a teacher is not such a very simple matter.
The importance of a more judicious cultivation of the mental powers of a child will also appear from the fact that reason and memory preponderate the more over imagination the younger the child. When habits of observation are formed early by which the mind is directed for recreation to external objects an important check will be given to wayward fancies and castle-building, or more properly speaking, to subjective sensations, which are often the fruitful source of folly in youth and of discontent and misery in later life. The passion for sensational novels tells the tale of bad early instruction of incompetent teachers and of the waste of some of the most important years of human life.
I have read from time to time of masters of some advanced schools urging the necessity of preparatory schools in connection with their own, but the proposals have generally been coldly received. There is naturally a great hesitation in persisting in such suggestions because they are always attributed to some selfish motive, and there is also the fear in arousing the public who are content with the present system, lest, to use the simile of an old Greek, those whom it is intended to benefit may feel angry, like a sleeper suddenly awakened by a fly, and strike at the disturber of their rest. The necessity of good preparatory schools may be very evident to some teachers, but the people at large must feel the necessity of them before they can be established. At the same time it is certain that no very high attainments can be expected from boys of our schools so long as a very important part of school life is shamefully wasted. I do not expect any change in our present system for some years, but I believe the wrong done to young children is every year becoming more apparent, and in time the badness of our present method of early instruction will be evident to every one.
It is with this hope that I do like the traveller in Ireland, who comes to a cairn raised to mark some crime, when he throws a stone on the rising heap.