The Grading Of School Children
( Originally Published 1907 )
"IT is a pleasant surprise to find you here to-night, Miss Ruth," said Professor Shannon on entering the room. "I had about reconciled myself to your deserting us for the concert, but I really wanted you to bring your experience to bear on the wild theories of our friend Studevan."
"What is there so particularly wild about them ?"
"You surely are not going to back him up in this! If we grade children not merely ac-cording to differences in age and acquirement, but according to differences in disposition and inclination, it will necessitate as many grades in the school as there are children. Won't you admit that the theory is visionary and impractical ?"
"I don't think we quite understand Dr. Studevan. Of course he could not mean what you seem to find in his statement. But here is the Doctor; he will help us out, I am sure."
"I am always delighted to help a lady out, Miss Ruth, but as for our friend Shannon, I think I would rather help him in. Isn't Miss Geddes here this evening ?"
"Oh, yes; when you see Professor Shannon you never have far to look for Miss Geddes. She has just left the room with Mrs. O'Brien óbut speak of angels."
"Who has been talking about me?"
"Professor Shannon, of course," replied Dr. Studevan; "he heard the rustle of your wings as soon as he came in."
"Doctor," said Miss Ruth, "won't you tell us what you meant by the new system of grading school children that you suggested last Friday evening? Do you mean that we are to abandon the present system of grading children according to age and attainment and to substitute a gradation according to differences in the dispositions and tendencies of the children? Or do you advocate a system based on both of these principles?"
"Is not that a rather large contract for one evening? It usually furnishes me sufficient matter for three or four lectures. But really, I had no intention of suggesting a new system of grading school children, although I do believe it quite possible to improve the present system in many ways. I suppose you refer to my innocent remark that unlike children should receive unlike treatment, which is a very different thing from suggesting that children who differ from one another should be put into different rooms."
"Of course you might have to make compromises," said Miss Ruth, "since no two children are exactly alike, and naturally we could not have a separate room and a separate teacher for each child. But if the treatment of the children should vary in the same proportion as the children differ from one another in character and in developmental tendencies, such differences surely should be taken into account in placing the children in the various grades. It would evidently be an advantage to bring together in the same room and under the same teacher the children who most closely resemble one another."
"That is your conclusion, perhaps, but it is not my statement and it is very far from my thought. Contrast is a principle of art, and unlikeness is characteristic of all nature. Look at the variety in the plant life that clothes the hillside and flourishes in the valley. Again, it is the unlikeness of flower and insect that render these creatures indispensable to each other. And in the great cycle of life how close is the interdependence of plant and animal, of earthworm and bacterium. This contrast and opposition is an all-pervasive principle of life; its presence is essential even within the narrow limits of the protozoon's body, whose growth and nutrition depend essentially on the presence of antagonistic elements. The animalcule grows to inconvenient size and divides into two daughter cells; each daughter cell in due time repeats the process, but if we continue our observation we will find that the growth and multiplication diminish as we proceed from generation to generation.
Usually after a limited number of generations the vital manifestations cease unless two divergent individuals meet and fuse and thus rejuvenate the life process.
"This principle does not halt at the frontiers of life; all activity in the inanimate world is similarly conditioned. The flow of heat depends upon differences in temperature. The thunder of Niagara and the mighty rush of the Whirlpool Rapids, which Huxley has so beautifully compared to life itself, are but the manifestations of water seeking equilibrium. If from this we turn our eyes to the opposite frontier of created being, where else shall we find the source of the divine discontent which fills the soul of the artist except in the contrast between the inward vision and its outward expression?
"Unlikeness is also indispensable to the joy and fruitfulness of social intercourse. Every night and morning for years I have devoutly offered up the Scotchman's prayer: 'O God, gie us a gude conceit o' oursel,' and while I feel that Divine Providence has never answered any other of my prayers so abundantly, still I promise you that if ever I find a man just like myself I will most scrupulously avoid him. It is hard to imagine anything more stupid than a group of people each one of whom is exactly like every other. The activity of a magnet is proportionate to the difference between its poles. In social intercourse likewise the mental activity evoked is a function not of similarities but of differences among the persons concerned. In his Second Thoughts of an Idle Fellow,' Jerome K. Jerome has given us a picture of the ennui of the isolated honeymoon. We have often been told that half a century of wedded bliss molds the minds and hearts as well as the features of husband and wife into the likeness of each other; we see them sitting beside the fire on a winter's evening with no need for speech since they are 'Two souls with but a single thought; two hearts that beat as one.' I admit the beauty of it all; but it is well to re-member that it is the beauty of rest and peace, perhaps of heaven. It is not the manifestation of progress, of activity, of change and growth."
"If you were logical, Doctor," said Miss Geddes, "you would be an advocate of temporary marriages. If the stimulation to mutual activity disappears so rapidly, a change would be quite advantageous in a couple of years, don't you think?"
"Your conclusion hardly follows, Miss Geddes at least when Providence is merciful. A year or two of married life may bring changes, you know, and introduce many new forms of activity, such as pacing the floor at night, and many differences of opinion concerning the proper discipline for children."
"Studevan is at his old tricks tonight," said the Professor; "he is treating us to grandiloquent perorations and dodging the question at issue."
"No one expects Shannon to see the point this evening, his thoughts are far too pleasantly occupied to follow the argument. Professor, if you will just look this way and try to concentrate your attention for a few minutes I will endeavor to explain the situation to you.
"I have just been pointing out the advantage of having little boys and little girls sit side by side in our schoolrooms. Their embryonic love affairs need hardly give any one concern and the children have much to learn from one another. The boy will be kept on his good behavior, his gentleness and his chivalry will be developed and he will learn his first lessons in protecting the weak and in seeing the world through the eyes of others; and the girl will lay deep the foundations of an understanding of the masculine nature which will prove of inestimable value to her in later life when she undertakes the difficult task of managing a husband.
"Men and women are so different from each other that it is quite essential to begin early to give them such a mutual understanding as will put the divorce court out of business. Moreover, there are many beneficial results to be derived from the grouping in the same room of children with unlike dispositions and unlike tendencies. Even more than in the case of adults, the unlikeness of the members of the youthful group stimulates mental activity. The adult has resources within himself; he has the key to many a storeroom in nature's treasury, and in his library he may commune with the choice minds of all the ages.
"On the other hand, imitation is the chief, I had almost said the only, avenue of knowledge open to the child. Imitation is somewhat like gravity, the strength of the impulse seems to vary inversely as the distance. The mind and the character of the teacher may give direction to the child's endeavor, but the child or the man is strongly moved to imitate only those who stand near him. It is quite essential, therefore, to the child's unfolding life that he be provided with a reasonably large group of divergent models. In a properly conducted schoolroom the children learn far more from one another than they do from either books or teachers.
"If the differences in the characters and in the developmental tendencies of the children are to be taken into account at all in grouping them into grades, it should be for the purpose of separating children who are duplicates of each other one of a kind is sufficient in any room. In the old-time school, where the end sought was erudition rather than education, the process of cramming might have been facilitated by the uniformity of the children; but in the modern school, where the whole effort is to promote growth and development in the children, the chief needs are a stimulating environment and a reasonably wide range of models for imitation."
"The little country school which I attended as a boy," said Mr. Eaton, "would come very near filling the bill according to the Doctor's specifications. He certainly would have no room to complain of want of differences among the children. There were some fifty of us of both sexes and all ages crowded into one little room 20 X 30 feet, and the same teacher taught the a, b, c's and the higher mathematics with some French and Latin on the side, and I must say that I saw as good work done in that little school as I have ever seen in after years in the high school or college. And come to think of it, a great many of those fifty children have attained no small measure of success in after life. Not to speak of your humble servant, who of course is a shining light, two of the boys have be-come lawyers, one is a judge, another is the president of a great railroad, another is a doctor of national reputation, two of them are university professors, and one of them honors the miter."
"If your school is a fair sample of the country school," said Professor Shannon, "why not do away with the grades altogether? Isn't that the logical outcome of the Doctor's argument ?"
"I believe it is conceded," said Miss Ruth, "that the country school has given us far more than its pro rata of successful men, but in ac-counting for this there are many things to be taken into consideration besides the absence of grades. The children are usually healthier; they are in immediate contact with nature and they thus receive a sense training of inestimable value such as even the best efforts of the city school cannot supply. The children in the country school are thrown more on their own resources and from a very early age develop a self-reliance and an initiative that are also exceedingly difficult to impart in a crowded city school. It is to these things rather than to the absence of grades that the success of the country school is due ; nevertheless, the fact that it does obtain such good results without grading and where the difficulties of the teacher seem so great is very suggestive. The matter has often puzzled me, but it seems from what the Doctor has just said that the absence of grades is at least largely compensated for by the greater variety in the children and by the greater stimulation to mental activity thus evoked. I confess I never before thought of the matter in this light. I wonder if the Doctor really holds the absence of all grades to be an advantage ?"
"No, certainly not. A judicious grading will always be an advantage to both the teacher and the pupil. The benefit following from the absence of grades in the country school is indirect and accidental. The really essential thing is that each child should be treated according to his needs. In the country school the teacher by force of circumstances is compelled to do this. Where he has to deal with so many children in every phase of development he is obliged to treat them individually. The machine mold of the grade is impossible nor is there any temptation to make all the children alike, as in the case of large schools where' the grading is close.
"A successful dinner party or social evening demands a certain similarity as well as a certain difference among the members of the group. In nothing is the social tact of the hostess put to a severer test than in thus bringing together just the right people. The guests must be chosen from the same social and intellectual plane with just enough of diversity to supply healthful mental stimulation 'and this overdone or come tardy off' and so, too, in an ideal grading, were this ever actually possible, we should have to consider many things which we at present entirely ignore.
"In Germany they have different schools for the children of different social lamina, but this of course is out of the question in a country like ours. Still, it is not improbable that some modification in our present mode of grouping the children would prove advantageous. For instance, the education of the child who is to leave school permanently on the completion of the seventh or eighth grade might well be different in many important respects from the education of the child who contemplates a college or university career. Again, it is an open question whether or not it is best for the children who have home ad-vantages to mingle freely with the children from the slums. It is also a question whether or not it contributes to the mental and moral welfare of the poorly fed and poorly clothed children to be thrown into immediate association with the well-fed and well-clothed children of the wealthy."
"Pardon me for interrupting you, Doctor,". said Mrs. O'Brien, "Miles is looking hungry and we will all enjoy the rest of this conversation better around the dining-room table."