Charles Alexander McMurry.

The method of the recitation online

. (page 7 of 21)
Online LibraryCharles Alexander McMurryThe method of the recitation → online text (page 7 of 21)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

schoolroom are a surer apperceiving basis than
those within the schoolroom a proof that much
school instruction is radically wrong. Arithmetic
illustrates this truth. Although that branch is
studied so much, the subject-matter is so taught
that it often fails to become welded to the person-
ality of the child, and hence it cannot act as a firm
apperceiving basis for the comprehension and solu-
tion of the ordinary arithmetical problems that life


Even knowledge drilled into pupils at school by
frequent repetition may give very little apperceiving
power. The reason for this can be easily seen by
recalling the definition of teaching ; namely, the care-
ful fitting of new thoughts to past experiences.
Frequent drill upon a point, or constant verbatim
repetition, makes no provision for this process of
fitting some ideas to others. Such repetition is
based upon a different conception of teaching;
namely, that the connection between the old and
the new, if necessary, is established by mere force,
by frequent pounding. But daily repetition of the
Lord's Prayer, while it familiarizes us thoroughly
with a certain order of words, does not necessarily
bring the meaning of the prayer any nearer to us.
Many a man would be greatly surprised if his atten-
tion were called to the real significance of the first
words, " Our Father," for he has never stopped to
reflect upon them. The teacher, therefore, in plan-
ning for full apperception, cannot expect to find
strong support in many of those subjects which
have been verbally memorized and frequently re-
peated. Her strongest support will be found usually
in the home experiences of the pupil, in the occupa-
tion of the parents, in the subjects of conversation
among them and the children, in the games among
the latter, in books of travel, and in fact in any
books that children have read of their own accord.
All of these furnish ideas which become so thor




oughly a part of the child's life that they are the surest
foundation upon which new knowledge may rest.

It is evident that success in this step of instruction
involves an extensive knowledge of the child's home
relations and of his individual nature; that is, his
preferences, peculiarities, and feelings. From among
these home experiences, and those of the school also,
in as far as the instruction there has been good,
many facts should be drawn which bear directly
upon the advance instruction to be given. By call-
ing up as many vivid experiences as possible, the
feeling of relationship to the topic in advance will
be closer, and therefore the teaching will prove
more effective. For instance, children will be at-
tracted to England after they recall facts such as
the following: that the Pilgrim Fathers, John
Smith, William Penn, came from England ; that
Charles Dickens, the author of so many good stories,
lived there ; that sometimes their pocket knives,
and very often the table knives, have "Sheffield"
marked upon them ; that many of our names are Eng-
lish, with New prefixed, as New England, New York,
New Jersey, New Hampshire, New Bedford ; thatsome
in the class have relatives or friends who have visited
that country, and who have related certain incidents,
etc. That is the skilful teacher who can designate be-
forehand just how many things each child has known
pertaining to a given subject, so that in a few minutes
they may all be recalled.


The second precaution to be taken is, that no ad-
vance work should be attempted during this prepar-
atory step. One cannot well prepare for new knowl-
edge by presenting what is new, just as he cannot
erect a building while laying the foundation. There
is always a temptation to move forward, and to offer
new thoughts in the midst of the discussion of old
ones. But the kind of mental activity required in
this preparatory step is different from that required
in the advance. In the case of England just referred
to, the recalling of such thoughts taxes the memory
rather than the ability to comprehend. One is called
upon to survey his experiences in order to choose out
those which bear upon a given subject. That kind
of work must be done by itself. If, in the midst of
it, new facts are frequently offered, they are a serious
interruption. Further than this, there would be dan-
ger that the new and the old may become somewhat
mixed in passing frequently from the one to the other.
For instance, if children were collecting all the facts
they knew about London, and the teacher were to
allow some advance instruction in the midst of this
work, there would be a temptation on her part to
handle this latter as briefly as the former. Review
points are naturally covered more rapidly than ad-
vance, and there would be a tendency to the same
rate of speed in the latter. It is always important
for both teachers and pupils to know definitely
whether they are reviewing or advancing, because


only in that case do they exercise a proper amount
of caution in regard to speed.

Another object of this separation is to fix clearly
the limits of the pupils' knowledge upon' the topic in
hand. Whenever one sees definitely where his knowl-
edge leaves off, a feeling of need arises, an appetite
is generated for more; that is, a receptive frame of
mind is produced, and one knows where new instruc-
tion should begin. It is a seTious fault with people
that they are not sufficiently aware of what they
know, and of what they do not know. The limits
between the two are so hidden that often, although
they know little they take it for granted that they
know much. In consequence, they do not feel a need
for instruction ; or the feeling of need, if present, is
not specific, and hence it is difficult to know where
to begin. No educator has ever been so keen as
Socrates in appreciating the importance of fixing the
exact limits of a pupil's knowledge as the condition
under which he will be in a receptive frame of mind ;
but the teacher also is benefited by knowing this
limit for. he knows then where his instruction ought
to commence a very important matter.

Queries will often arise while pupils are recalling
their knowledge about a certain matter, and they will
often even fall into friendly disputes over it. For
example, a room full of fourth-grade children in
Chicago once became excited in discussing how the
water reached the city from the lake, and what was


the purpose of the water tower and engine. The
chief result of the recitation consisted in the discov-
ery, both on the part of the teacher and the children,
that the latter did not know the things which they
had supposed they knew, and the disputes that arose
gave point to several advance lessons which were in
prospect. The children were anxious to find out who
were right in the sides taken, and these recitations
were looked forward to as the answers to the prob-
lems presented. Such disputes, therefore, are de-
cidedly welcome.

More than that, children may often run forward in
thought and anticipate facts which will be presented
later. That is quite desirable. Some anticipation of
what is coming is one of the surest signs of good
teaching, for it proves that children are in the spirit
of the instruction given. Whether their expectations
are realized or not makes little difference. Their minds
are on the alert, and the outcome will be awaited
with interest. Thus lasting impressions are assured.

The third precaution in this step is fully as impor-
tant as either of the other two and, in fact, conditions
the success of both ; it requires the statement of the aim.

The attention of pupils must be centred quickly
and fully on the work undertaken. They enter the
class room with scattered thoughts, or occupied with
the subject-matter of the recitation immediately pre-
ceding. Unless skill is manifested by the instructor
in calling up the ideas that are desirable and ia


excluding all others, the recitation is lame from the
beginning. Commands will not accomplish this ob-
ject Even adults possess little ability through mere
action of will alone to rivet their attention upon a
certain topic to the exclusion of all else. Much
less do children have this power. At the best the
latter are able through the force of will to turn their
attention to a given object for only a moment. If,
then, the subject-matter itself does not continue to
attract them, their thoughts quickly wander. But
much teaching fails to secure this initial act of the
will. Even though children sit bolt upright and
direct their eyes to the teacher, their minds, like
those of adults in listening to sermons, are often
filled with matters wholly irrelevant to the topic im-
mediately under discussion. Only as the recitation
proceeds is the attention of one child after another
caught and held by the facts presented, and only
during the latter part of the hour is much momentum
of thought attained. It would certainly be a great
gain if closer attention and greater speed in thinking
could be secured earlier, or even at the beginning of
the recitation period. A proper statement of the aim
of the recitation, worded from the children's point
of view, can do much toward the accomplishment of
this purpose. In acquiring knowledge, as in other
occupations, the degree of attention given and the
quantity of effort put forth are much influenced by the
clearness and zest with which the aim is conceived.


It is taken for granted that the teacher has a defi-
nite object in view in each recitation ; the contention
now is that the pupils also shall aim at something
definite. The preparatory step which has been dis-
cussed requires that they select all facts in their pos-
session that bear on a given topic, and reject all else.
They must do most of this work themselves; the
teacher can merely offer them suggestions. But
unless they know in some way what the recitation is
aiming to accomplish, they are ignorant as to what
they should search for out of their past experience ;
of course, then, they are helpless and must be led
along blindly.

A properly stated aim must fulfil several impor- Character-
tant requirements. In the first place, it must be con- l *i\s' aim.
crete and not abstract. Enough has been said about
abstractions or generalizations in previous chapters
to show that they follow rather than precede individ-
ual notions. They are empty and repellent until one
has the concrete data upon which they depend. Con-
sequently, the children should not be told that a
recitation is aiming to explain some general truth.
However, this does not signify by any means that the
teacher shall have no such aim in her own mind.
As has been already stated, instruction culminates in
generalizations, and the teacher must keep these in
mind ; but her purpose is a thing entirely separate
from the aim which should be stated before the


A Sunday-school teacher, in telling about Daniel
in the lions' den, would hope ultimately to impress
upon her pupils the general truth that God protects
those who trust in Him ; but the object of the recita-
tion which she would give to the class might well be
" to find out how it happened that Daniel was thrown
into a den of lions, and what came of it." This is a
concrete statement and would naturally arouse the in-
terest of children. Instead of saying that "we will find
out to-day what per cent one number is of another,"
we could better give this problem, "A camel lives
forty years and an elephant one hundred and ten
years ; the age of the former is what per cent of that
of the latter ? " Also, instead of the question, " What
are pronouns ? " which is abstract, aiming at a defini-
tion, it would be better to set up the following object,
" Let us see what words are used to take the place
of Columbus in the composition you have written
about him." In place of the question, " How do
cities obtain their water ? " it would be better to ask
(if one lived in Chicago), " Where does Chicago get
its water, and how is it brought to the city ? " In
teaching the fable about the Lion and the Mouse, the
teacher may properly aim to show to her pupils that
little things may be of much help ; but her concrete
statement might be, " Let us hear a story about how
a mouse once saved the life of a lion." Thus the
first requirement of a good aim is fulfilled by making
it concrete.


The second important requirement is that the aim
be definite. Little is accomplished by announcing
" a continuation of the same subject." And a teacher
fixes a very imperfect purpose before her class when
she states they will study " About Bunker Hill," or
" About leaves," or " About Spain," or " About the
union of our states." The following aims are much
more desirable : " How the Americans outwitted the
British and drove them out of Boston," " Where
leaves grow ; why they are so thin ; why they fall,"
etc., "Why nearly all the large cities in Spain are
on the coast," " What prevented the union of our colo-
nies from breaking to pieces at the close of the Revo-
lutionary War." The advantages of the latter consist
in the fact that they are definite enough to concen-
trate attention upon a particular point.

As far as possible one should state an object which
can be accomplished within one recitation period, and
consequently some of the aims just stated might need
to be divided somewhat. For example, the one in re-
gard to Bunker Hill might be stated thus : first, " Let
us study the plan that the Americans adopted to out-
wit the British and drive them out of Boston " ; second,
" Let us see how this plan was executed." In each
case the class would be expected to review the situa-
tion in which each army was placed, etc., before the
advance instruction begins : this would constitute the
preparatory step.

The third requirement is that the aim be short,


simple, and attractive. Strange words would not be
acceptable. Hence, with children, it would be better
to ask, " How do leaves help the tree ? " than " What
is the function of leaves ? " Also, " What changes
does the caterpillar pass through ? " rather than
" What are the metamorphoses of the caterpillar ? "
Of course the simpler the statement, the more easily
it is understood ; and the shorter it is, the more easily
it is reproduced. It is usually desirable that the chil-
dren reproduce it at least once at the beginning of
the recitation in order to make sure that it is under-
stood. The attractiveness of the aims stated will
depend upon the happy combination of what is famil-
iar and what is new to the child. Here is a great
opportunity for skill on the part of the teacher. The
wording should be such that the class will feel at
least partially acquainted with the topic and still
strangers to such an extent that they will be desirous
of learning more in regard to it. That aim is weak
which does not awaken a feeling of need in the child
for more knowledge.

The several requirements of the aim, therefore,
are as follows : it should be concrete, definite, sim-
ple, short, and attractive. The fact may be well
emphasized once more, that these are the require-
ments of the aim which is to be given to the chil-
dren at the beginning of the recitation. Such a
statement does not mean the giving of the rule first ;
the rule is abstract, while the aim recommended is


concrete. The teacher keeps the rule in mind, since
the instruction should finally arrive at this result;
but it would be unpedagogical for her to say any-
thing about it beforehand to the children. The
form of the statement may vary, being either a dec-
laration or a question or a problem. But whatever
form it assumes, it should not reveal new facts in
iujh a way as to deprive advance instruction of its
interest. One can easily tell too much. For instance,
in regard to the water supply of Chicago, he might
declare it to be his aim, " to see how a tunnel brings
water to the city and an engine pumps it into the
tower;" or, the object might be, "to see how un-
productive the interior of Spain is because most of
the rain falls on the edge of the great plateau," or,
"how we add fractions by making them alike."
These statements contain facts that should be re-
vealed in the later instruction ; if stated at the be-
ginning, they weaken the instruction which is to
follow, just as the inadvertent telling of the point
of a joke weakens the narration of the joke itself.
The advantages of an aim that fulfils these condi-
tions are manifest. It renders a recitation easy to
conduct, because it furnishes a strong motive for
work upon a particular subject. Children become
eager to collect and present their related ideas.

But there is scarcely a more difficult task in all why a prop-
teaching than the preparation of an aim that fulfils puprraimi s
the few requirements named. difficult.


1. The teacher must comprehend clearly the study
that she is teaching; also, in planning each lesson,
she must distinguish the essential facts from those
that are comparatively trivial. The aim that is
stated should direct attention to the central idea in
a concrete way; such an aim cannot be conceived
until the relative value of thoughts is determined
and the real gist of the lesson perceived.

2. The teacher must know the contents of her
pupils' minds, their emotions, and so forth, before
she can frame a statement that will appear to them
definite, short, simple, and attractive.

A good aim becomes a standard both to the chil-
dren and to the teacher for judging the worth of
contributions by the former. Since this first step
is necessarily conversational, there is always danger
that the discussion will degenerate into a conversa-
tion that aims at nothing and accomplishes nothing.
But when all are conscious of a fixed aim, reference
to it by the teacher or pupils will determine whether
or not a certain thought is worth their attention.
For example, if the class sets out to show how
water reaches houses from the lake (in Chicago),
the child who is eager to tell about the bursting of
the water pipes in his home on a certain cold night
may be immediately ruled out. This measuring of
the relevancy of thoughts is an exceedingly valuable
exercise for children; it calls judgment into play.

Also, the development of will is intimately involved


in the fixing and attainment of an aim in each reci-
tation. " Without aim, no will," is an important
dictum of the Germans. That is, when one fails to
see clearly what is at issue, he feels little incentive
to exert himself. This thought was in mind in the
assertion that a definite aim furnishes a motive for
effort. But, further than that, if one daily sets up
objects to be accomplished and is successful in
reaching them, he falls into the habit of succeeding.
The energy and perseverance that we show in over-
coming new obstacles are greatly conditioned by
such a habit. If, as we look backward in time, we
recall the fact that it has usually been our lot to
fail, courage evaporates. But if we see our past
efforts crowned with success, self-confidence is great
and energy is increased. Thus the past influences
the anticipations and the results of the future. That
instructor who daily leads her pupils to attain cer-
tain ends agreed upon, is accustoming them to suc-
cess ; she is developing in them a belief in themselves
which will cause their will action to be energetic and

We see the special importance, therefore, of re-
peating the aim until it is clearly fixed as a purpose
in the pupils' minds ; and at the close of the recitation
it is important to compare the work accomplished
with that aim.

Omitting further discussion of the aim in partic-
ular, one merit of this preparatory step deserves


still to be noted ; namely, it affords opportunity for
frequent reviews of the best possible kind. It is
all important that children recall frequently any
knowledge already acquired; otherwise it is likely
to escape them. For this purpose reviews are often
held at the end of a term, occupying one, two, or
three weeks ; or, if not then, they come during the
term whenever any subject is completed. But in
such reviews progress is so rapid that the work is
less thorough than when the topics were studied the
first time; their avowed object is not greater thor-
oughness of knowledge, but merely the refreshing
of the memory in regard to it. Such work is an
injury. Any review that takes place merely for
the sake of review, and that does not require new
thought, tends to check mental life : mere repetition
for repetition's sake has a deadening effect. But
how can this evil be remedied, since reviews are
essential ? This step of preparation is a partial
remedy, for it furnishes abundant opportunity for
incidental reviews. In approaching any new sub-
ject, as England, or the union of our country, or
changes in insect life, or the battle of Bunker Hill,
those familiar facts are recalled that bear upon it.
They are not reviewed merely for the sake of review,
i.e. without a motive on the part of the pupil, but
because they are a valuable preparation for what is
to come. Such work is full of interest. Children
feel their strength when recalling an abundance of


experiences preparatory to later instruction ; their
minds are on the alert. Any ideas that are closely
akin to the subject are at a premium, whether they
come from the study immediately under considera-
tion, or from other branches in school, or from home
experiences, from reading, from travel, etc. This
careful scrutiny of one's stock of ideas with the pur-
pose of selecting only a certain relevant kind means
a review of the old from a new standpoint, with a
new element in it that arouses interest; this is the
only kind of review that should be tolerated ; as it
is the kind that this preparatory step is continually
bringing about, the latter should, for this particular
reason, be highly valued.

Since there is only one way to acquire knowledge,
i.e. since all new facts can be interpreted solely by
those already in our possession, it is evident that,
in insisting upon this preparatory step, we are only
demanding that a universal law of learning be ap-
plied. If it is ignored, children will encounter much
friction and hence will learn slowly and with little
effect; if it is carefully applied, many of the artifi-
cial barriers to their progress are removed, so that
they advance thoroughly and rapidly.

The amount of time that this step requires de- Timere-
pends upon circumstances. In beginning the study
of Spain it might not take more than five minutes ste P-
to recall the facts that Columbus sailed from Palos,
Malaga grapes come from southern Spain, bull-


fighting is the national sport, we were recently at
war with Spain, etc. The time taken is dependent
upon the number of things the pupils know. The
introduction into England might easily occupy thirty
minutes. Sometimes it will take even more time
than that to collect what the class knows and to
mark the limits distinctly between what they are
certain of and what they are doubtful about. As a
rule, the aim for any single recitation will cover
both review and advance work, and the latter will
begin as soon as the former is finished as in the
preceding examples. If a class were to set out to
learn the products of Ireland, it might require fifteen
minutes to collect the few familiar facts, i.e. that
this is called the Emerald Isle, that Irish linens are
famous, etc. ; then a fuller investigation of the rea-
sons why this is so green an island, or why so much
linen is manufactured here, would begin immediately
and constitute the advance work.

Now and then, as in literature, history, and, in
fact, in most studies, the desired related experiences
of the past come so easily and quickly into the con-
sciousness of the children that the advance lesson
may begin immediately. But when we recollect that
they must pass very frequently from one study to
another, and that, in so doing, they are required to

1 2 3 4 5 7 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21

Online LibraryCharles Alexander McMurryThe method of the recitation → online text (page 7 of 21)