Monday, February 10, 2014

Object teaching

This is a Texas woodshop from the 1800s.
The following is from European Schools: Or, What I Saw in the Schools of Germany, France, Austria, and Switzerland, 1888, by Richard Lewis Klemm. It describes the back and forth of things, how education can move from one extreme to the other. In the US, we seem to be on the far extreme when it comes to object teachng, having forgotten the value of learning from real things.
Local School Museums.

The teacher who presides over a school in a small German town or village is a fixture, and naturally the custodian of the school museum. Most German schools have a museum — that is, a book-case or two full of books, and many shelves full of objects necessary for illustrating the instruction in natural history, geography, physics, etc.

There was a time in Germany when the principle of object-teaching electrified every schoolmaster from the Rhine to the Vistula and from the Baltic to the Alps. It was thought that objective teaching was the panacea for all educational diseases. All order and system was abandoned, and objects were brought into the school-room till it looked like a pawnbroker's shop. No broken horseshoe was left lying in the street; old boots were eagerly gathered for the leather they yielded; no ant's hill was safe from the destructive hand that gathered ants' eggs, and the life of every snail innocently creeping across the road was imperiled. Every thing was carried into school — animals, plants, and minerals. There the objects that would keep were neatly labeled, numbered, classified, and stored up.

The children had good times then. The paper boxes, moles' skeletons, minerals, stuffed birds, samples of wood, dried plants, and the like, went from hand to hand, and, to be sure, half a school-day was often passed in contemplating the treasures of the museum; and the teacher quieted his conscience by thinking this to be an object-lesson. The children were also taken to observe the cabinet-maker; they went to the locksmith's shop; watched the shoemaker and tanner at their work; they "studied" all the different kinds of leather, wool, wood, cloth, and metal; they knew the name of every tool — in short, they failed to see the woods on account of the multitude of trees!

Now, this was a craze. Today the fever has abated considerably. A reaction followed, and to-day the school-children in some places have not the remotest idea how a mill or a foundry looks inside, how the weaver works, and the tanner and the furrier, etc. The museum in some schools has been moved to the garret, and all the many objects of interest lead a contemplative existence in closed boxes on shelves and under a cover of dust.

If the teacher needs a mineral, or an air-pump, or the Leyden-jars, he is obliged to give a week's notice to the janitor, so that he may search for the objects and make them presentable. The swallow's nest and the ostrich-egg yawn at each other. The miniature plow rests securely in the lap of a miniature spinning-wheel, and both play the role of The Sleeping Beauty. The spiders have covered the mole's skeleton neatly with their fine threads, and the dust has changed the nets into a gray skin. To be sure, it is a dreary spectacle. As the first wild craze was one extreme, this indifference is the other.

On the whole, it may be said that the pendulum swinging backward and forward is sure to come to rest at the point of a golden mean; and, so long as the teachers are secure in their positions, the moss gathered in the form of museum collections for the benefit of rational objective teaching will accumulate. When I compare the utter absence of any thing like museums or libraries in our schools, I heave a sigh; but, when I recollect the insecurity of position under which our teachers in America are suffering, I can see a complete chain of cause and effect.
When I was in Florida last week, I met the next door neighbor who is retiring after teaching nearly 50 years. She talked about how in her early career, she was trusted more by the administration, and that over the years, all opportunities for creativity have been extracted from her work. She had started out teaching Kindergarten and in recent years has been a reading specialist. One of her supervisors was surprised to discover that she had a piano in her room. "I use it," she insisted to the supervisor's surprise. She mentioned the bulletin boards that at one time made classrooms beautiful, but that teachers are no longer given time for. There appears to be none of the balance that Klemm hoped might arise in American schools. The woodshop photo above is from the Pioneer Museum, Fredericksburg, Texas. Other photos can be found in Sawdust Soup.

Make, fix and create...

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