Sixth Meeting : 18th October, 1898.
Dr. T. M. Hocken in the chair.
New Member.—Dr. Fulton, Dunedin.
Papers.—1. “On the Study of Natural History,” by G. M. Thomson.
One of the objects for which this Institute exists is to promote the study of natural history, by which I take it is meant not the merely biological side of the question, but the wider aspect, which includes all
natural phenomena. How best to accomplish this object is a matter worthy of consideration, and your, Council has this evening adopted a small scheme which aims in this direction. It is proposed to offer prizes in our primary schools for the best set of natural history observations kept for a consecutive period by the pupils. These observations, recorded in the form of a note-book or diary, would deal with such phenomena as came under the direct observation of the young people. Daily notes of the weather; the direction and amount of the wind; dates of leafing, flowering, and fruiting of plants; appearance of birds, with notes on their song, their nests and eggs and habits; observations on the insects and other animals met with—these would form the staple subject for such a record. In the case of those whose parents were in a position to keep such instruments, daily readings of the barometer and thermometer might be added. The object of Such records is not to be able to show merely a well-written exercise-book on any stereotyped model, but to induce young people to observe and to take the trouble to record the phenomena which are noticeable round about them. I am not sanguine enough to imagine that the attempt to encourage observation among our school children will work any great revolution among them, or in our method of teaching them, but it is an effort in the right direction, and if it only led half a dozen young people to keep a record of what they saw it would have justified itself. The lack of observation among even those whose occupation brings them every day into close contact with the things of nature is to me one of the marvels which I meet with. I have employed and met with many working gardeners, but I do not know one among them who can give a correct name—I mean a trivial, not a botanical name—- to the weeds which are met with, in every garden. They know chickweed, groundsel, docks, sorrel, and couch-grass—perhaps altogether as many as they could count on the fingers of both hands, but there their knowledge stops. They turn up larvæ and come across caterpillars, but cannot connect them with the beetles and moths which fly around them. And what is true of gardeners is equally true of farmers and others engaged in outdoor pursuits. When a Thomas Edwards or a Robert Dick appears among the so-called working-classes he is looked upon as a remarkable phenomenon, whereas he ought to be looked on rather as a more than ordinarily enthusiastic observer. Of coarse, in one sense a man may not be much the better of knowing anything about the things that lie under his nose, as long as he is a faithful worker and can earn his bread without such knowledge. Yet the marvel is that, being blessed with eyes and a brain, he should not develope some curiosity in them, especially as he has the means largely in himself of satisfying that ouriosity. The faculty of observing is usually well developed relatively to other mental faculties in children, and it should be part of every child's subsequent training to continue this development. We talk a great deal about doing this in our educational work, and a distinct move towards it has been made in the growing use of kindergarten methods in our infant schools, but the real thing is a great way off. The examination curse dominates everything. Departments and Boards want everything in the shape of a written report and a tabulated form. Cut-and-dried schemes of examination are so much more easy to work with and to report about than any individuality of teaching-power in a man. That originality tends to be stamped out unless it is very conspicuous and assertive. In our own primary schools apparent provision is made for the teaching- of natural science, but to attempt to examine the subjects on the lines of text-books, as is so liable to be done, is almost fatal to the work. It reduces the thing to memory work, of which the tendency is to make too much already. What is wanted is to a great extent to banish text-books, and to work from the objects themselves, and
anything that will tend to foster observation and record of observation at first hand is to be commended. Now, a proposal such as we make is a move towards the encouragement of first hand observation. It is one which wants the co-operation of teachers in order to direct the minds of pupils, and to show them how to keep proper records. At the same time the records, to be of any real value, must be the result of individual attention. If any one, for instance, who works in a garden takes the trouble even for one year to keep a simple calendar of dates both of work done and of results gained, it is wonderful how interesting the record becomes as the recurring seasons bring round the same chain of events. There is probably no subject that can supply such a perennial source of interest as the study of nature. The desire for more knowledge grows with what it feeds on, but there is no possibility of satiating the desire with overindulgence, or of exhausting the supply of material. The cultivation of an observational habit may prove in after days a source of joy and a means of stimulation when many other springs of action fail. A hobby is, as a rule, and when indulged in in moderation, an excellent thing for a man. Nothing is more sad than to see a man, retired or superannuated from some occupation to which he has devoted all his thought and energy for the best years of his life, wasting for lack of occupation. Many such men die off after a. few years, simply because their faculty of being interested has become atrophied—at least, of being interested in things which are within their means and power of attainment. Now, it may seem a far cry between the observation of a youngster at school and the occupation of a man who has worked out the greater part of his career. But the habits of life must be moulded in the most plastic time of both mind and body; hence anything that tends to develope the free use of the mind in a healthy direction should be taken advantage of. There is nothing easier than to fall into purely mechanical methods of teaching; there is nothing more difficult to avoid when results are measured by the ability to pass a set examination; and teachers and parents alike should welcome anything that will bring to the juvenile mind freshness and originality. It is in this spirit that the Council of this Institute wishes to make a simple experiment, and asks the co-operation of all true educationists in its efforts.
Having read the above communication, Mr. Hamilton said the lines upon which observations were asked were indicated in the following draft of a circular which it was proposed to send to the Education Board for printing and distribution in the schools:—
“With the object of promoting an interest in natural phenomena, and of fostering the habit of placing on record such facts of observation as daily come under notice, the Otago Institute offers for competition next year ten prizes? to the scholars of any public school in Otago under the following conditions:—
“The prizes will be awarded for the best-kept note-books in which are recorded any facts of observation, such as the occurrence of birds, insects, plants, &c., met with in the neighbourhood or during walks; the date at which birds eggs were found, with observations on their nests, habits, &c.; the date of leafing, flowering, and fruiting of wild and cultivated plants; the weather of each day, &c. Most value will necessarily be attached to accuracy and closeness of observation, but neatness of the work and consecutiveness of the notes will also be considered. There should be no attempt at fine writing, but a plain record of facts.
“For the purposes of this competition the notes should close on the 30th November, 1899, though it is hoped that once the habit of keeping such a record is started it will be continued. The competition is open to all pupils who, on the 30th November, 1899, are in the sixth or any lower standard. While it is hoped that teachers will interest themselves in thus fostering observation, and will, during the remainder of this year,
give their pupils hints and suggestions as to how to go to work, it mast be understood that the notes must be bond fide the work of the pupils themselves. Appended is a sample of an actual record, which may serve as a sort of rough guide.”
The Chairman said he was sure the members of the Institute would indorse every word contained in the suggestions. The Council had unanimously agreed upon sending the circular just read to the Education Board, and he hoped that that would receive the indorsement of members also.
Mr. W. Brown thought the proposal wan an admirable one, and that the Institute should give it its full support. He did not know of anything that would tend to cultivate habits of observation more than what Mr. Thomson had suggested. He had much pleasure in moving that the suggestions be given effect to.
The motion was agreed to.
2. “Notes on New Zealand Earthworms,” by. Professor. W. B. Benham, D.Sc. (Transactions, p. 156.)
Dr. Hocken and Mr. G. M. Thomson spoke on the subject-matter of the address, and joined in welcoming Dr. Benham to fresh fields for a further study of that group of animals in which he has already a worldwide reputation.