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Interest And School Work

( Originally Published 1924 )

THERE is a widespread misunderstanding of the purpose of arousing interest in school work, or of using those interests already present in the child. That purpose is not to make work easy, but to secure the driving force that, accomplishes even the most difficult under-takings.

If we examine our own acts, we find that there is a motive of some kind for each thing we do. The desire for the approbation of others; the closely allied competitive instinct; the pleasure of achievement even when no one else knows of it (though we do like to tell of it afterward); interest; race preservation; self-preservation, especially in its demand for food and other needs; the desire to satisfy one's conscience : these and others all play their parts in bringing about the things we do. It is likely that they all are based on that instinct for the preservation of its kind that nature implants in every living thing, but the fact remains that in some manifestation there is a reason why each act is done.

School life should not be, as has been too often the case, an existence separate and different from the rest of one's life. Nature gives man a long childhood in which to prepare for adulthood. We cannot entirely cheat her even by refusing to carry out her plans, but we can lessen their effectiveness.

If she is to carry out her preparation, there must be some parallel between adult motives and child motives. It is not a satisfactory parallel if children do all of their tasks, sometimes even their recreations, because someone orders it, while adults do the corresponding things for reasons inherent in themselves or in their environments.

It is true, of course, that we wish that all of us might reach the stage of development where altruistic motives were the dominant ones; where we would do even the difficult things for the good of those outside of our immediate families and friends; where we would achieve nobly for duty alone, or for mere satisfaction in effort and complete accomplishment; where, for some remote end, we would strive through no matter how great difficulties to eventual completion. As a matter of fact, however, those who in a lifetime reach such heights are few in number.

It is by the approbation of others that a child learns what to approve in himself. It is only by accomplishing that he comes to know the pleasure of accomplishment. So no child can be expected to respond to the higher motives until the natural motives of the human race, such as those mentioned earlier, have been used to lead him along their path of development up toward less selfish motives and effort that does not look to immediate reward.

Then, too, it is important that some experience in choosing between different possibilities be given in childhood because it is by such experience that one gains the ability to choose wisely — sometimes even to choose at all !

The various racial motives should therefore have their place in school, and "interest" will be considered to express them, whether curiosity, competition or some other form is the root of that interest.

The older form of teaching, in general, took little account of any kind of interest except a quasi intellectual one. Its intent was to fill the pupil with information, obtained for the most part from assigned lessons that were studied because the authority of the home and school compelled it, and to a lesser extent because of an element of interest that is in any new material. The teacher had the dual rτle of taskmaster and examiner, and the pupils were kept in a surface appearance of attention, usually by the force of authority, sometimes by real personality.

This form of teaching might be characterized as that in which the pupil was always outside of the situation, looking at it with more or less alien eyes. He was seldom an actual participant in activities other than as a subject for drill, nor did he live the experiences he studied. School subjects were often monotonous or of passive interest only, and while they might be conscientiously done, there was comparatively little of the inspiration and intense pleasure that make the best fixative for impressions.

The newer teaching — and I call it newer because its wide use is new, though individual teachers have always used some of its ideas — is in striking contrast to this picture. Its aim is to have the child inside of the situation, an active participant in reality or in imagination. The reaction of the child who finds himself doing something real is the same as that of the man or woman who becomes a genuine factor in a situation — an active response.

It is not that the child shall do only what he pleases; that would assume that he is in a position to judge with full knowledge of the possibilities and relations of subjects and conditions. It is rather that, under wise guidance, he shall be helped to feel a broad human understanding of the thing he studies, shall recognize his own kinship with and dependence on the rest of mankind, past and present, and shall to some extent dramatize himself into the situation so that it takes on a personal relationship to him. The boy who succeeds in business is the one who, though starting in the humblest position, imagines himself at the head of the firm, and works as if he owned it already ! No employee who looks on his position with the unresponsive eye of an outsider can give such service. It is the same in school. Let me give a few concrete instances and contrasts.

This world of ours is a wonderful place; to children especially it should be full of romance and fascination. The mere word "travel " brings up pictures : to some it may be of strange peoples, tropic vegetation, unknown seas; to others perhaps of sea lanes full of commerce, with merchandise pouring out of one port or into another. Yet some teachers of geography hide their faces in a textbook, and are satisfied to ask hum-drum questions about boundaries and populations and other statistics that can easily be found in an atlas if one ever needs to find them. I have known such teachers to refuse to accept correct answers from their pupils because, forsooth, "he" did n't say it that way. And "he" of course was the author, who would probably be the first to condemn such perversions of his intent.

Have you ever sat down in the family circle, surrounded by guide books and time-tables, with state-room plans for a steamer trip, or other such accessories, and, while you planned, enjoyed in prospect the wished-for journey with as vivid a joy as attended its actual accomplishment? That is the way many children are studying geography to-day. Geography, history, English, arithmetic — there is hardly a school subject that can't be taught by such a trip.

Imagine a class that, after deciding upon the kind of a ship to buy — and the class I have in mind drew, painted, and modeled ships themselves in addition to bringing pictures of all the kinds they could find, — started on an imaginary trip around the world. The ship was stocked with merchandise produced locally, and as it sailed from country to country, the freight was sold and new freight was bought, so that the ship finally arrived home filled with foreign goods. Can you not see the interest with which those children studied the needs of different countries, their products, and all other factors influencing this enterprise? Add the letters supposed to be written home, and a study of customs, of arts, and of other interesting features becomes just as natural.

One class started a similar trip by making individual passports — snapshots and all and providing them-selves with foreign drafts, which meant a purposeful study of foreign exchange.

A third class made a trip to one of the continents, each member as if sent for a specific purpose by some agency. Each investigated his own subject, and sent back reports which were taken up by the whole class. Schoolbooks, the library, home sources, were soon exhausted, and the search for material was carried far and wide. One boy wrote over thirty letters (you know how a boy likes to write letters !) in his hunt for authoritative information — and he got it.

There are no limitations on such a study of the world. A country's architecture, its art, its literature, all of these may be appreciated and even imitated. A Greek city, Japanese gardens, an African hut, or the Taj Mahal may appear in sand, wood, clay, and other such material. Even the pottery and prints of peoples and ages will not seem too ambitious to attempt, and impersonations and dramatizations will be added to make the people real. No effort will be too hard if interest waves its wand over the undertaking.

But other subjects present equal opportunities for good or poor teaching. A teacher recently started a class in American history by assigning a number of pages for study. The next day he asked "How was America discovered ?" The first pupil told the story of Columbus. The teacher shook his head. The next related the Norwegian explorations, but the teacher said " No." A third spoke of the Chinese. Again the answer was unsatisfactory.

There was a long pause, then one literal-minded boy raised his hand and volunteered, "Wasn't it discovered by chance ? " And the teacher nodded wisely and said, "That's very near it; but the book says, `America was discovered by accident.' "

Contrast such teaching with that of a class that is studying English history by taking up the great problems of to-day, such as Disarmament, Internal and International Problems arising from the Great War, and the Irish Question, and is tracing their roots back to the earliest times. After discovering that England to-day is profiting by the successes and paying for the failures of centuries long past, the class will be ready to attack the subject chronologically and understandingly.

I am sure that the college class in history that was told to study the effect of the Reformation on the World's Fair then going on will never lose the view-point that came from that seemingly absurd problem.

More and more also history teachers are letting their classes dramatize the past in play, story, newspaper, or magazine form. Can you imagine the search for material that comes when rival newspapers, supposedly of a certain past date, are made up by two groups of a class? If the groups are supposed to be citizens of different countries, preferably rivals, so much the better. Athens and Sparta, Rome and Carthage — no date is remote enough to hide life if the child once gets inside, living with the people of the day instead of looking at them through the mists of centuries.

I have known libraries to be besieged, parents to be harried to the point of complaint, because a class was living in imagination some centuries back and was contributing articles to a magazine of the day — which articles must, of course, be true to the customs, the events, and the feelings of the times.

One day recently I visited a United States history class just as the teacher sat down in a back corner, saying, as she eliminated herself from the discussion, "I wonder if Dred Scott is here." They were evidently studying the Dred Scott case.

There was a moment's hesitation, then a pupil rose, walked to the front of the room, said, "I am Dred Scott," and proceeded to state the case for his freedom, all, of course, in the first person. Before the first pupil was through, a second was waiting in front of the class. "I am Dred Scott's master." Turning to the first pupil, he said, "What do you mean by claiming to be free? You were my property; crossing State lines could not change that. Would I lose a horse that was mine because I moved to a different place ? "

A third pupil became a second Dred Scott to answer the "master," and soon four Scotts and four masters were contending in turn vigorously and logically.

When the personal arguments were thoroughly threshed out, the teacher spoke again : "I wonder what Lincoln would think about this. Did anyone here know Lincoln?"

In a moment a pupil was describing his child-hood friendship with Lincoln, bringing in the intimate biographical touches that children and the rest of us love. Another told of Lincoln's young manhood. Then Lincoln rose and finished the day's discussion !

There was nothing rehearsed in what was said and done. They had investigated with interest and eagerness, and when the cue was given they simply dropped into the drama of events, and themselves became the people about whom they were studying, talking as they believed they would have talked, trying to keep to the realities as nearly as they could find out about them.

I have heard the same class, assembled in Congress, declare war on Spain; I have heard them debate the question of the Panama Canal. History to them is not words in . a textbook, it is not a dry record of a dead past, it is a living story of the influences that have moulded and are still moulding the lives of human beings.

Not very long ago I heard a class in high-school English cross-questioned on the unimportant details of a book assigned them for reading. Not a word of inspiration, no appreciation — simply the dullest possible examination, that bade fair to make the pupils hate to read. The climax came when one member of the class was marked down twenty per cent because he could not remember the first word said by a parrot.

Not so illogical perhaps, when the master was trying religiously to make mere parrots of his own pupils !

Such teaching seems little short of a crime when the least encouragement will bring out such a wealth of feeling and expression.

From the youngest school-age on the children are full of interest in the new things opening up about them. They rush into expression — in line, color, form, music, words, whatever media are open to them — as naturally as they breathe. I have heard the youngest ones tell the most charming stories or clothe the natural phenomena about them with a poet's fancy. Poems, stories, plays, even essays with a philosophy that is a cross between the play of the master minds they have been reading and their own naive attitudes toward life, simple straightforward talks on anything from their own interests to the greatest world-issues, all come to the wise teacher of English. Appreciation and expression; and appreciation so often comes through expression !

I have been laughed at because I have said that if I were teaching English I would have my pupils try to add to Shakespeare's plays. "For," it is said, "No one has ever written like Shakespeare : how absurd it is to talk about children's doing it." And yet what could do more to fix the understanding and appreciation of one of Shakespeare's plays, to arouse a child to study it with insight and affection, than the at-tempt to interpolate a scene that is implied, to add a conversation omitted, or to finish the story of some character whose future is left untold ?

Try, yourself, to write letters in keeping with the personalities of some of the characters in a novel you are reading, and see how much it requires of insight into the people and the book : you will no longer wonder that English teachers are using such methods of bringing their pupils into the atmosphere of what the class is studying.

Even practice in letter-writing needn't be a bore in school if the letters are written to real people. The increasing use of correspondence between pupils in different schools, preferably in different parts of the country, points the way here. One child, on receiving the first letter from a pupil in another city, said, " I' ve always been interested in that city; now I'm going to find out all about it." Can you imagine a better motive for writing a letter of inquiry, and can you doubt the effect on the other child, thus invited to unfold the claims of his own city ?

It is said that a teacher of mathematics once claimed to have reduced the teaching of geometry to a science. He never even had to speak in class ! The pupils filed in and sat down. He motioned to the first one, who thereupon stood up and recited a theorem. If it was correct the teacher made a sign which meant "Take the next theorem for to-morrow." If it was wrong, — which meant any variation from the text, — another sign told the child to restudy it for the next day.

I have talked with a man who could recite the entire Euclid, word for word and letter by letter. He had little idea of its meaning, and was fortunate in having a body so strong that he was in demand for ditch-digging !

Some years ago I went into a school and took charge of a geometry class whose teacher was sick. I found the class as a whole able to write out any theorem — statement, proof, everything complete — on being given its number in the book. But few, if any, had the least idea what it was all about, and not one could even start on any original bit of geometrical thinking.

At the other extreme in teaching-methods are the classes to whom all of geometry is a fascinating original investigation. For them each theorem is a challenge until it is solved, when it becomes a tool, having a definite purpose and a future use. In geometry's own field and outside they apply, originate, judge, and reason. Their efforts range from an investigation of all the properties of a figure to the attempt to use mathematical principles in design and even invention. Pupils in classes of this kind have had assigned as lessons the invention of such tools as parallel rulers which are used in navigation, or pliers with parallel jaws, and have succeeded in their attempts.

In arithmetic, schools have their banks, they study business applications not only from a text, but also from the newspapers, the financial reports, or the material secured from business houses.

A class in a school that was not of a size to justify carrying on a bank, recently studied banking methods of making loans. The class divided itself into bankers and borrowers. Each borrower worked out a business proposition requiring a loan and went to one of the bankers to get it. The bankers — as is usually the case — were conservative and required convincing, so that some of the propositions had to be changed to suit their views. When the loans were decided upon, all necessary papers were drawn, the loans were passed, the borrowers received their checks, and later repaid the banks. And woe betide any careless banker who figured interest or discounts incorrectly ! Each pupil in this class had experience both as banker and borrower, and all acquired a new respect for arithmetic as a factor in business, and for accuracy as a requisite in arithmetic.

Somewhat different from these examples, but with the same idea underlying them, are the more general projects that contain something of all subjects.

A public-school class in one of the large cities recently spent several months investigating the milk industry of that city. The search for information took them out of the usual school routine of subject matter, even out of school itself at times. They worked over production- and delivery-costs, retailers' profits, and other arithmetical sides of the question, made a study of cleanliness and sanitation in regard to it, learned much of local geography, and used the English language, both written and spoken, in many practical ways. That training for more intelligent citizenship came as an added benefit is unquestionable.

Another class of children about eleven years old, this time in a private school, spent ten school days on one investigation that had not been foreseen by school or teacher. They had been taken to the harbor to go through a steamer that had recently arrived in port. While going through with the guide, they became interested in the cargo that was being lightered from the coaster to a larger cargo-boat that was to take it to England. As soon as the inspection trip was finished, the interest of the entire class became focused on this cargo. They found out all they could about it, including the fact that it was tobacco from Virginia, and was being sent to Liverpool for manufacture into cigars. But the information available at the boat was not enough for them; they got in touch with the office of the line, and even wrote letters for still further information.

Before leaving the subject, the class found out the number of boxes of tobacco, with their weights, and worked out the cargo tonnage; they found out initial cost, freight rates to Baltimore and to Liverpool, lighterage charges and incidentals, selling-price in England, and so obtained the percentage of profit on the whole transaction; they traced the history back to the first exportation of American tobacco; they studied steamer routes up the coast of the United States and from Baltimore to Liverpool; they even studied the railroad maps of England in the folders of the railways, because, they said, "the tobacco would be shipped from Liverpool throughout England." The results of their investigations were organized, given as talks by various members of the class, and even given before other classes to whom the pupils thought they would be interesting. All this without an assigned lesson, and with the teacher, as she said, " trying her best to hang on behind."

It might be interesting to note that I told of this last class-investigation at an educational meeting during a discussion of the value of work of this freer type. One of the superintendents jumped up and said that he did not believe there was a superintendent in the United States who would be fool enough to stop such a piece of work, no matter what it did to his system and programme ! The danger is that such work will not get started, rather than that it will be stopped.

It should be said, however, that for a teacher to get the best results from such work, she must continually keep in mind what her aims are, and must see that she does not let the device, project, or whatever it may be, become an end in itself instead of a means. There is undoubtedly some very interesting teaching that so centres the mind of teacher and class on one factor that much of value is unnecessarily lost. For example, a class might make a large map of some country out of clay, and become so fascinated with the technic of constructing a good map that the original intent of learning about the country would be lost. Much of value might remain, including many impressions about the country, but the important connections would not be made.

The examples so far quoted depend for their interest on the subject itself, the interest coming principally from its connection with human beings, occasionally, as in some of the geometry, from pleasure in achievement. There are subjects, or parts of subjects, that do not present so direct an appeal. For such, competition presents a foundation for interest so intense that surprising results can be obtained.

The old spelling-match has great possibilities, and can be adapted for use in various subjects. As individual competition should be subordinated to cooperation, — team play, — variations that emphasize that feature are the best.

An excellent match consists of dividing a class into two groups of equal spelling-ability, giving them a test on a certain list of words, counting the errors and announcing the winning group. The class is then told that this is only a preliminary test, and that the real trial of strength will come in a week, and will be on the same list of words. In the meantime each team, under the direction of its captain, may prepare itself for the match. The result is likely to be that even the poorest spellers will know the list almost perfectly when the test comes. This can be adapted for arithmetic, or for any work that is benefited by the kind of drill the pupils will give each other.

Stanwood Cobb described " spelling baseball" in an article in the Atlantic Monthly. This is a good method for many purposes. It is excellent for interesting a class in the Latin vocabulary. The class is divided into two teams, each having a pitcher and a batting order. Home plate and the bases may be chairs or simply places. The teacher gives to the pitchers duplicate vocabulary lists, for English-into-Latin or Latin-into-English translation. If it is English-into-Latin, a correct answer must give the word completely, with no error in forms. Similarly, Latin-into-English may require gender for nouns, and whatever information the teacher requires for other words.

The pitcher chooses a word and gives it to the first batter on the other side. A perfect answer counts a ball, an error of any kind a strike. It may be necessary to agree upon fewer than the regular number of balls and strikes in order to cover the class more rapidly, but, if not, four balls give the pupil a pass to first base, and three strikes put him out. Team play is essential because only by being forced from base to base by those following can a player make a run.

The excitement of this game is sometimes just as great as in baseball itself, and self-improvement and team-improvement under its stimulus are remarkable.

Such a match recently produced a situation with the bases full, three balls and two strikes called, and the pitcher hunting through the list for its hardest question. The batter answered it correctly, forced in a run, and the pupils went wild ! Contrast the attention given by the children to the words or other material being used in such a game, where the success or failure of the side is influenced by the correctness of each answer, with the rest that most of us took in the Latin class when the teacher called on someone else !

Improvement shown by such methods is an important criterion of their worth. A class that in a Latin baseball game played six innings in forty minutes on its early trials, soon reached a point where one side stayed at bat the whole forty minutes, the other side being unable to find questions hard enough to strike out three of its members. One very poor speller missed only one twelfth as many words after his team-mates had prepared him for a spelling match. A boy raised his standing on some Latin material from 6 % to too % in a few days through an interesting drill-device. Any teacher who uses such methods can add many examples of the startling improvement that comes when the work is done with pleasure and interest and — therefore — attention.

These are but a few fairly typical examples from the hundreds of interesting situations and devices in use daily in our schools. They correspond very closely to much that is being done in more advanced fields. We hear of the "case method" in schools of philanthropy, law, medicine, and business, in all of which actual situations are outlined, analyzed, and solved. Business executives trying to improve their methods send to the great training-schools their solutions of the problems set for them ; students of the scientific administration of philanthropy study the situations of families needing help and outline the best treatments for their difficulties; and embryo lawyers attack the weighty problems of past bar-cases. There is no subject too formal to profit by such teaching, none so removed from human interests as to offer no opportunity for it. One of the best of its results seems to be that eventually pupils largely outgrow the need of any motive that might be considered artificial, and enjoy work on account of the mental stimulus derived from the effort itself and from the sense of achievement.

Much could be said of the effect of interest on the physical — particularly the nervous — condition of the children. This is perhaps the most important aspect, but it is outside the scope of this discussion.

Much also could be said of its results in the home through the lessened tension, the smaller amount of " home work," and the better disposition of the child. Undoubtedly it should be emphasized that a great by-product of such school work is happiness. The work furnishes an outlet, a means of expression, that uses the nervous energy so intensely present in most children.

One child, after changing from a school where the work was of the drillmaster-examiner type to one where interest, initiative, and expression were encouraged, arrived home — as he said — "fluttering happy," and explained the difference by saying "The days are like an express train passing, while at they were like a freight train that you think will never pass."

Another child, when an adult rather critically asked, " Is it possible that you don't know each day exactly what you will do in school the next day ? " answered, after a little hesitation : " Well, you see in our school it does n't seem to be so much what you 're going to study to-morrow, as what you can contribute to-day."

The remarks of these two children are pretty good evidence that real education is going on, and that the schools using such methods are following the advice Huxley gave a friend when he told him to see that his boy's schooling was not allowed to interfere with his education.

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