How We Think

Chapter 15: The Recitation and the Training of Thought

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Importance of the recitation

IN the recitation the teacher comes into his closest contact with the pupil. In the recitation focus the possibilities of guiding children's activities, influencing their language habits, and directing their observations. In discussing the significance of the recitation as an instrumentality of education, we are accordingly bringing to a head the points considered in the last three chapters, rather than introducing a new topic. The method in which the recitation is carried on is a crucial test of a teacher's skill in diagnosing the intellectual state of his pupils and in supplying the conditions that will arouse serviceable mental responses: in short, of his art as a teacher.

Re-citing versus reflecting

The use of the word recitation to designate the period of most intimate intellectual contact of teacher with pupil and pupil with pupil is a fateful fact. To re-cite is to cite again, to repeat, to tell over and over. If we were to call this period reiteration, the designation would hardly bring out more clearly than does the word recitation, the complete domination of instruction by rehearsing of secondhand information, by memorizing for the sake of producing correct replies at the proper time. Everything that is said in this chapter is insignificant in comparison with the primary truth that the recitation is a place and time for stimulating and directing reflection, and that reproducing memorized


(202) matter is only an incident even though a indispensable incident in the process of cultivating a thoughtful attitude.

I. The Formal Steps of Instruction

Herbart's analysis of method of teaching

But few attempts have been made to formulate a method, resting on general principles, of conducting a recitation. One of these is of great importance and has probably had more and better influence upon the "hearing of lessons " than all others put together; namely, the analysis by Herbart of a recitation into five successive steps. The steps are commonly known as " the formal steps of instruction." The underlying notion is that no matter how subjects vary in scope and detail there is one and only one best way of mastering them, since there is a single " general method " uniformly followed by the mind in effective attack upon any subject. Whether it be a first-grade child mastering the rudiments of number, a grammar-school pupil studying history, or a college student dealing with philology, in each case the first step is preparation, the second presentation, followed in turn by comparison and generalization, ending in the application of the generalizations to specific and new instances.

Illustration of method

By preparation is meant asking questions to remind pupils of familiar experiences of their own that will be useful in acquiring the new topic. What one already knows supplies the means with which one apprehends the unknown. Hence the process of learning the new will be made easier if related ideas in the pupil's mind are aroused to activity are brought to the foreground of consciousness. When pupils take up the study of rivers, they are first questioned about streams or brooks


(203)with which they are already acquainted; if they have never seen any, they may be asked about water running in gutters. Somehow "apperceptive masses " are stirred that will assist in getting hold of the new subject. The step of preparation ends with statement of the aim of the lesson. Old knowledge having been made active, new material is then "presented " to the pupils. Pictures and relief models of rivers are shown; vivid oral descriptions are given ; if possible, the children are taken to see an actual river. These two steps terminate the acquisition of particular facts.

The next two steps are directed toward getting a general principle or conception. The local river is compared with, perhaps, the Amazon, the St. Lawrence, the Rhine; by this comparison accidental and unessential features are eliminated and the river concept is formed: the elements involved in the river-meaning are gathered together and formulated. This done, the resulting principle is fixed in mind and is clarified by being applied to other streams, say to the Thames, the Po, the Connecticut.

Comparison with our prior analysis of reflection

If we compare this account of the methods of instruction with our own analysis of a complete operation of thinking, we are struck by obvious resemblances. In our statement (compare Chapter Six) the "steps are the occurrence of a problem or a puzzling phenomenon; then observation, inspection of facts, to locate and clear up the problem ; then the formation of a hypothesis or the suggestion of a possible solution together with its elaboration by reasoning; then the testing of the elaborated idea by using it as a guide to new observations and experimentations. In each account, there is the sequence of (i) specific facts and


(204) events, (ii) ideas and reasonings, and (iii) application of their result to specific facts. In each case, the movement is inductive-deductive. We are struck also by one difference: the Herbartian method makes no reference to a difficulty, a discrepancy requiring explanation, as the origin and stimulus of the whole process. As a consequence, it often seems as if the Herbartian method deals with thought simply as an incident in the process of acquiring information, instead of treating the latter as an incident in the process of developing thought.

The formal steps concern the teacher's preparation rather than the recitation itself

Before following up this comparison in more detail, we may raise the question whether the recitation should, in any case, follow a uniform prescribed series of steps even if it be admitted that this series expresses the normal logical order. In reply, it may be said that just because the order is logical, it represents the survey of subject-matter made by one who already understands it, not the path of progress followed by a mind that is learning. The former may describe a uniform straightway course, the latter must be a series of tacks, of zigzag movements back and forth. In short, the formal steps indicate the points that should be covered by the teacher in preparing to conduct a recitation, but should not prescribe the actual course of teaching.

(204) events, (ii) ideas and reasonings, and (iii) application of their result to specific facts. In each case, the movement is inductive-deductive. We are struck also by one difference: the Herbartian method makes no reference to a difficulty, a discrepancy requiring explanation, as the origin and stimulus of the whole process. As a consequence, it often seems as if the Herbartian method deals with thought simply as an incident in the process of acquiring information, instead of treating the latter as an incident in the process of developing thought.

The formal steps concern the teacher's preparation rather than the recitation itself

Before following up this comparison in more detail, we may raise the question whether the recitation should, in any case, follow a uniform prescribed series of steps even if it be admitted that this series expresses the normal logical order. In reply, it may be said that just because the order is logical, it represents the survey of subject-matter made by one who already understands it, not the path of progress followed by a mind that is learning. The former may describe a uniform straightway course, the latter must be a series of tacks, of zigzag movements back and forth. In short, the formal steps indicate the points that should be covered by the teacher in preparing to conduct a recitation, but should not prescribe the actual course of teaching.

The teacher's problem

Lack of any preparation on the part of a teacher leads, of course, to a random, haphazard recitation, its success depending on the inspiration of the moment, which may or may not come. Preparation in simply the subject-matter conduces to a rigid order, the teacher examining pupils on their exact knowledge of their text. But the teacher's problem-as a teacher-does not reside in mastering a subject-matter, but in adjusting a subject-matter to the nurture of thought Now the


(205) formal steps indicate excellently well the questions a teacher should ask in working out the problem of teaching a topic. What preparation have my pupils for attacking this subject ? What familiar experiences of theirs are available ? What have they already learned that will come to their assistance? How shall I present the matter so as to fit economically and effectively into their present equipment ? What pictures shall I show ? To what objects shall I call their attention ? What incidents shall I relate ? What comparisons shall I lead them to draw, what similarities to recognize? What is the general principle toward which the whole discussion should point as its conclusion? By what applications shall I try to fix, to clear up, and to make real their grasp of this general principle ? What activities of their own may bring it home to them as a genuinely significant principle ?

Only flexibility of procedure gives a recitation vitality

No teacher can f ail to teach better if he has considered such questions somewhat systematically. But the more the teacher has reflected upon pupils' probable intellectual response to a topic from the various standpoints indicated by the five formal steps, the more he will be prepared to conduct the recitation in a flexible and free way, and yet not let the subject go to pieces and the pupils' attention drift in all directions; the less necessary will he find it, in order to preserve a semblance of intellectual order, to follow some one uniform scheme. He will be ready to take advantage of any sign of vital response that shows itself from any direction. One pupil may already have some inkling probably erroneous of a general principle. Application may then come at the very beginning in order to show that the principle will not work, and thereby


Any step may come first

(206) induce search for new facts and a new generalization. Or the abrupt presentation of some fact or object may so stimulate the minds of pupils as to render quite superfluous any preliminary preparation. If pupils' minds are at work at all, it is quite impossible that they should wait until the teacher has conscientiously taken them through the steps of preparation, presentation, and comparison before they form at least a working hypothesis or generalization. Moreover, unless comparison of the familiar and the unfamiliar is introduced at the beginning, both preparation and presentation will be aimless and without logical motive, isolated, and in so far meaningless. The student's mind cannot be prepared at large, but only for something in particular, and presentation is usually the best way of evoking associations. The emphasis may fall now on the familiar concept that will help grasp the new, now on the new facts that frame the problem; but in either case it is comparison and contrast with the other term of the pair which gives either its force. In short, to transfer the logical steps from the points that the teacher needs to consider to uniform successive steps in the conduct of a recitation, is to impose the logical review of a mind that already understands the subject, upon the mind that is struggling to comprehend it, and thereby to obstruct the logic of the student's own mind.

2. The Factors in the Recitation

Bearing in mind that the formal steps represent intertwined factors of a student's progress and not mileposts on a beaten highway, we may consider each by itself. In so doing, it will be convenient to follow the example of many of the Herbartians and reduce the steps to


(207) three: first, the apprehension of specific or particular facts; second, rational generalization; third, application and verification.

Preparation is getting the sense of the problem

I. The processes having to do with particular facts are preparation and presentation. The best, indeed the only preparation is arousal to a perception of something that needs explanation, something unexpected, puzzling, peculiar. When the feeling of a genuine perplexity lays hold of any mind (no matter how the feeling arises), that mind is alert and inquiring, because stimulated from within. The shock, the bite, of a question will force the mind to go wherever it is capable of going, better than will the most ingenious pedagogical devices unaccompanied by this mental ardor. It is the sense of a problem that forces the mind to a survey and recall of the past to discover what the question means and how it may be dealt with.

Pitfalls in preparation

The teacher in his more deliberate attempts to call into play the familiar elements in a student's experience, must guard against certain dangers. (i) The step of preparation must not be too long continued or too exhaustive, or it defeats its own end. The pupil loses interest and is bored, when a plunge in medias res might have braced him to his work. The preparation part of the recitation period of some conscientious teachers reminds one of the boy who takes so long a run in order to gain headway for a jump that when he reaches the line, he is too tired to jump far. (ii) The organs by which we apprehend new material are our habits. To insist too minutely upon turning over habitual dispositions into conscious ideas is to interfere with their best workings. Some factors of familiar experience must indeed be brought to conscious recognition, just as trans-


(208)-planting is necessary for the best growth of some plants. But it is fatal to be forever digging up either experiences or plants to see how they are getting along. Constraint, self-consciousness, embarrassment, are the consequence of too much conscious refurbishing of familiar experiences.

Statement of aim of lesson

Strict Herbartians generally lay it down that statement by the teacher of the aim of a lesson is an indispensable part of preparation. This preliminary statement of the aim of the lesson hardly seems more intellectual in character, however, than tapping a bell or giving any other signal for attention and transfer of thoughts from diverting subjects. To the teacher the statement of an end is significant, because he has already been at the end; from a pupil's standpoint the statement of what he is going to learn is something of an Irish bull. If the statement of the aim is taken too seriously by the instructor, as meaning more than a signal to attention, its probable result is forestalling the pupil's own reaction, relieving him of the responsibility of developing a problem and thus arresting his mental initiative.

How much the teacher should tell or show

It is unnecessary to discuss at length presentation as a factor in the recitation, because our last chapter covered the topic under the captions of observation and communication. The function of presentation is to supply materials that force home the nature of a problem and furnish suggestions for dealing with it. The practical problem of the teacher is to preserve a balance between so little showing and telling as to fail to stimulate reflection and to much as to choke thought. Provided the student is genuinely engaged upon a topic, and provided the teacher is willing to give the student a good deal of leeway as to what he assimilates and retains (not requiring rigidly that everything be grasped or repro-


(209)-duced), there is comparatively little danger that one who is himself enthusiastic will communicate too much concerning a topic.

The pupil's responsibility for making out a reasonable case

II. The distinctively rational phase of reflective inquiry consists, as we have already seen, in the elaboration of an idea, or working hypothesis, through conjoint comparison and contrast, terminating in definition or formulation. (i) So far as the recitation is concerned, the primary requirement is that the student be held responsible for working out mentally every suggested principle so as to show what he means by it, how it bears upon the facts at hand, and how the facts bear upon it. Unless the pupil is made responsible for developing on his own account the reasonableness of the guess he puts forth, the recitation counts for practically nothing in the training of reasoning power. A clever teacher easily acquires great skill in dropping out the inept and senseless contributions of pupils, and in selecting and emphasizing those in line with the result he wishes to reach. But this method (sometimes called "suggestive questioning ") relieves the pupils of intellectual responsibility, save for acrobatic agility in following the teacher's lead.

How much the teacher should tell or show

It is unnecessary to discuss at length presentation as a factor in the recitation, because our last chapter covered the topic under the captions of observation and communication. The function of presentation is to supply materials that force home the nature of a problem and furnish suggestions for dealing with it. The practical problem of the teacher is to preserve a balance between so little showing and telling as to fail to stimulate reflection and to much as to choke thought. Provided the student is genuinely engaged upon a topic, and provided the teacher is willing to give the student a good deal of leeway as to what he assimilates and retains (not requiring rigidly that everything be grasped or repro-


(209)-duced), there is comparatively little danger that one who is himself enthusiastic will communicate too much concerning a topic.

The pupil's responsibility for making out a reasonable case

II. The distinctively rational phase of reflective inquiry consists, as we have already seen, in the elaboration of an idea, or working hypothesis, through conjoint comparison and contrast, terminating in definition or formulation. (i) So far as the recitation is concerned, the primary requirement is that the student be held responsible for working out mentally every suggested principle so as to show what he means by it, how it bears upon the facts at hand, and how the facts bear upon it. Unless the pupil is made responsible for developing on his own account the reasonableness of the guess he puts forth, the recitation counts for practically nothing in the training of reasoning power. A clever teacher easily acquires great skill in dropping out the inept and senseless contributions of pupils, and in selecting and emphasizing those in line with the result he wishes to reach. But this method (sometimes called "suggestive questioning ") relieves the pupils of intellectual responsibility, save for acrobatic agility in following the teacher's lead.

The necessity for mental leisure

(ii) The working over of a vague and more or less casual idea into coherent and definite form is impossible without a pause, without freedom from distraction. We say "Stop and think "; well, all reflection involves, at some point, stopping external observations and reactions- so that an idea may mature. Meditation, withdrawal or abstraction from clamorous assailants of the senses and from demands for overt action, is as necessary at the reasoning stage, as are observation and experiment at other periods. The metaphors of digestion and


(210) assimilation, that so readily occur to mind in connection with rational elaboration, are highly instructive. A silent, uninterrupted working-over of considerations by comparing and weighing alternative suggestions, is indispensable for the development of coherent and compact conclusions. Reasoning is no more akin to disputing or arguing, or to the abrupt seizing and dropping of suggestions, than digestion is to a noisy champing of the jaws. The teacher must secure opportunity for leisurely mental digestion.

A typical central object necessary

(iii) In the process of comparison, the teacher must avert the distraction that ensues from putting before the mind a number of facts on the same level of importance. Since attention is selective, some one object normally claims thought and furnishes the center of departure and reference. This fact is fatal to the success of the pedagogical methods that endeavor to conduct comparison on the basis of putting before the mind a row of objects of equal importance. In comparing, the mind does not naturally begin with objects a, b, c, d, and try to find the respect in which they agree. It begins with a single object or situation more or less vague and inchoate in meaning, and makes excursions to other objects in order to render understanding of the central object consistent and clear. The mere multiplication of objects of comparison is adverse to successful reasoning. Each fact brought within the field of comparison should clear up some obscure feature or extend some fragmentary trait of the primary object.


Importance of types

In short, pains should be taken to see that the object on which thought centers is typical: material being typical when, although individual or specific, it is such as readily and fruitfully suggests the principles of an en-


(211) -tire class of facts. No sane person begins to think about rivers wholesale or at large. He begins with the one river that has presented some puzzling trait. Then he studies other rivers to get light upon the baffling features of this one, and at the same time he employs the characteristic traits of his original object to reduce to order the multifarious details that appear in connection with other rivers. This working back and forth pre. serves unity of meaning, while protecting it from monotony and narrowness. Contrast, unlikeness, throws significant features into relief, and these become instruments for binding together into an organized or coherent meaning dissimilar characters. The mind is de. fended against the deadening influence of many isolated particulars and also against the barrenness of a merely formal principle. Particular cases and properties supply emphasis and concreteness; general principles convert the particulars into a single system.

All insight into meaning effects generalization

(iv) Hence generalization is not a separate and single act; it is rather a constant tendency and function of the entire discussion or recitation. Every step forward toward an idea that comprehends, that explains, that unites what was isolated and therefore puzzling, generalizes. The little child generalizes as truly as the adolescent or adult, even though he does not arrive at the same generalities. If he is studying a river basin, his knowledge is generalized in so far as the various details that he apprehends are found to be the effects of a single force, as that of water pushing downward from gravity, or are seen to be successive stages of a single history of formation. Even if there were acquaintance with only one river, knowledge of it under such conditions would be generalized knowledge.


(212)

Insight into meaning requires formulation

The factor of formulation, of conscious stating, involved in generalization, should also be a constant function, not a single formal act. Definition means essentially the growth of a meaning out of vagueness into definiteness. Such final verbal definition as takes place should be only the culmination of a steady growth in distinctness. In the reaction against ready-made verbal definitions and rules, the pendulum should never swing to the opposite extreme, that of neglecting to summarize the net meaning that emerges from dealing with particular facts. Only as general summaries are made from time to time does the mind reach a conclusion or a resting place; and only as conclusions are reached is there an intellectual deposit available in future understanding.

Generalization means capacity for application to the new

III. As the last words indicate, application and generalization lie close together. Mechanical skill for further use may be achieved without any explicit recognition of a principle; nay, in routine and narrow technical matters, conscious formulation may be a hindrance. But without recognition of a principle, without generalization, the power gained cannot be transferred to new and dissimilar matters. The inherent significance of generalization is that it frees a meaning from local restrictions; rather, generalization is meaning so freed; it is meaning emancipated from accidental features so as to be available in new cases. The surest test for detecting a spurious generalization (a statement general in verbal form but not accompanied by discernment of meaning), i's the failure of the so-called principle spontaneously to extend itself. The essence of the general is application. (Ante, p. 29.)

Fossilized versus flexibible principles

The true purpose of exercises that apply rules and principles is, then, not so much to drive or drill them


(213) in as to give adequate insight into an idea or principle. To treat application as a separate final step is disastrous. In every judgment some meaning is employed as a basis for estimating and interpreting some fact; by this application the meaning is itself enlarged and tested. When the general meaning is regarded as .complete in itself, application is treated as an external, non-intellectual use to which, for practical purposes alone, it is advisable to put the meaning. The principle is one self-contained thing; its use is another and independent thing. When this divorce occurs, principles become fossilized and rigid; they lose their inherent vitality, their self-impelling power.

Self-application a mark of genuine principles

A true conception is a moving idea, and it seeks outlet, or application to the interpretation of particulars and the guidance of action, as naturally as water runs downhill. In fine, just as reflective thought requires particular facts of observation and events of action for its origination, so it also requires particular facts and deeds for its own consummation. " Glittering generalities " are inert because they are spurious. Application is as much an intrinsic part of genuine reflective inquiry as is alert observation or reasoning itself. Truly general principles tend to apply themselves. The teacher needs, indeed, to supply conditions favorable to use and exercise; but something is wrong when artificial tasks have arbitrarily to be invented in order to secure application for principles.

Notes

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