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HINTS ON THE METHOD OF TEACHING HISTORY.
BY A. P. STONE,
SUPERINTENDENT OF SCHOOLS SPRINGFIELD MASS
THE object of studying History in school is not merely the acquisition of a great number of facts, nor the largest possible amount of historical information; for an extensive knowledge of history requires far more time than is devoted to school education. Children need instruction in this branch, that their attention may be specially called to the attractive features of history, and that they may early acquire a fondness for historical reading; thus laying a foundation for a very important element in their future culture. Few young people are competent to decide for themselves what history to read, or how to read it to good advantage; and they should early learn, from teachers or others, that much history is written which is not worth reading; that those who read rapidly, discursively, and without plan, can obtain no available knowledge of the subject; and that persons who are really well read in history are not necessarily persons of extensive, but rather of thorough and judicious, reading. Hence history should be studied, and not simply read; and the teacher who fully recognizes this will not, surely, so far as his influence is concerned, allow the study to be neglected in school, on the fallacious plea, often made by pupils and parents, that history is so well adapted to private reading that it can as well be attended to at home, or after leaving school. If it is necessary to give the youthful student a proper insight into the workings of the human mind, and of human action, and thereby develop his powers by that most important of all studies, the study of mankind, -- if it is important that he shall early learn to view himself in the great and truthful mirror of the past, and to establish his principles and shape his conduct by a careful study of living examples, -- then it must be conceded that history is fairly entitled to a place in the school-room.
As the result of considerable experience and much interest in teaching history, the following subsections are offered for the benefit of the teacher.
1. In the assignment of lessons, it is a mistaken idea to suppose that a uniform number of pages can be profitably given out for a lesson, from day to day. Some portions are vastly more important than others, and whether the text-book is large or small, we should not dwell equally upon all parts of it. To pass rapidly and superficially over the narrative of some events, would be manifestly unwise; and it would be equally so to devote any considerable time to such portions as are of little interest or importance. Hence we may find portions of the text-book where a page or two, with the necessary collateral reading and looking up of topics, will be amply sufficient for a lesson, or, perhaps, for several; while in other parts, less important, there may not be found upon ten pages matter of sufficient consequence to occupy more than a single day. The relative importance of the subject-matter must determine the time to be spent upon any given portion of the text-book; and the teacher must, in the exercise of his good sense, have due regard to the age and capacities of his pupils, the time they propose to devote to the study, the character of the text-book, and the number and nature of the other branches pursued at the same time. It is probable that, its a general thing, teachers err in assigning lessons of too great length, oftener than otherwise.
2. Pupils need suggestions about preparing their lessons from the text-book. They should not be allowed to pursue the method, so often practised (sic), of preparing them solely by the aid of printed questions. By this method, as is well known, the lesson is "marked off" into words and short sentences that seem to answer the printed question, and then committed, parrot-like, each answer being associated almost mechanically with its question, without regard to the connection of those answers in the narrative, and omitting altogether such portions of the text as do not happen to be called out by the printed questions; for it is well known to teachers, that lessons are often thus learned, without even once reading over the text consecutively. Now, such a course is, as a mental exercise, highly injurious, and cannot give the pupil an intelligent understanding of the subject upon which he is occupied for an available knowledge of history does not consist in an ability to repeat a few disconnected answers, which have been learned merely for the purpose of being given in response to a series of set questions. Although pupils often consider the recitation as the end and object for which the lesson is to be learned, the teacher must regard it as a test, principally, of what the pupil has been doing in the way of healthy discipline of mind, and the acquisition of useful knowledge. No thorough, independent teacher will be inclined to make much use of printed questions in the recitation; and the only way in which they can be of service to the pupil, while studying, is, perhaps, in calling his attention to some of the most important points of the lesson. Let the pupil, therefore, be directed first to read over the lesson one or more times, so as to grasp the general scope of it, and to impress the mind with a distinct outline of the narrative; after which, the different portions should be learned so thoroughly that he can give a full and connected account of it, as a whole, or by topic, with but few questions or hints from the teacher. Pupils unaccustomed to this method, will, perhaps, enter upon it reluctantly, and with but partial success at first; but by a little practice, and by judicious encouragement from the teacher, they will not only acquire great readiness in recitation, but will pursue it with satisfaction and success. As it is one of the leading objects in teaching this branch to show pupils how to read and to investigate history, it is quite desirable that they should early form the habit of using, in the preparation of the lesson, other means besides the text-book. Let there be frequent reference to such biographies, classical dictionaries, maps, and other works having a bearing upon the subject, as may be within their reach.
3. The practice of requiring or allowing the learner, as a general rule, to commit and recite the language of the author, verbatim, is objectionable. It tasks the memory unduly, and if pursued for any length of time, cannot fail to impair the strength and healthy exercise of that faculty. It also very naturally and necessarily leads the pupil to form the habit of attaching more importance to words than to ideas. Those who commit to memory with even the greatest facility, cannot be expected to remember the exact language of any considerable portion of the text-book much beyond the hour of recitation, or a few days at most. Hence it follows, when undue importance is given to words, that they will fail to retain the ideas of the lesson when the particular phraseology with which they have been associated is lost. It may be true that the language of the author is better than that of the pupil; but that is no good reason why the pupil should adopt it instead of his own. Good language in an author is highly desirable, as it serves to present his ideas in a clear and attractive form to the pupil, thereby aiding him to incorporate those ideas more readily and fully into his own mind; and when he has thus thoroughly imbued his mind with the ideas -- not the words merely -- of the lesson, he has not only added substantially to his mental acquisitions, but he has also strengthened and sharpened his intellect by the process itself; and when, furthermore, he has clothed those ideas in language of his own, and given utterance to them in the recitation, he has advanced another step or great value to himself, in acquiring the power and habit of expressing and communicating his ideas to others -- one of the best fruits of a good education. Let the learner, therefore, be encouraged to break away from the language of the text-book as much as possible, and to grasp at the ideas of the lesson and give them utterance in his own words; the result of which will be, most profitable discipline of his mental powers, and ready available knowledge of his subject.
CONSTITUTION OF THE UNITED STATES.
4. The remark of Dr. Watts, that "Geography and Chronology are the eyes of History," is no exaggeration of the importance of those two features; and the method of teaching them judiciously is a matter of equal importance, requiring good judgment and much tact. There are certain features of geography which are best learned and remembered in connection with history; for they have a mutual relation to each other, and become connected by the laws of association. The topography of a country, its waters, and its climate, modify the founding and growth of its cities and colonies, the development of its resources, its wars and military campaigns, and its social relations and institutions. Hence maps in a text-book for the special illustration of the lesson, are a great auxiliary to a successful pursuit of the study. A good atlas should be the constant companion of the student and reader of history; and the geography of the lesson should be made equally prominent in the recitation. If wall maps are not at hand for that purpose, let maps of the lesson be drawn upon the blackboard -- a most useful exercise for both teacher and pupil.
It is a grave mistake to require pupils, at first, especially, to commit all the dates and statistics of history, with the expectation that they will be retained in the memory; or to suppose that they constitute, in themselves merely, an acquisition of much value. No one remembers long a large number of disconnected dates. It is useless labor, therefore, to burden the memory with them alone. The facility which children often acquire in committing and reciting such matter, not unfrequently leads teachers to attach too much importance to it. The date of an historical event is highly important when taken in connection with a good knowledge of that event itself, in all its relations; but otherwise its value is comparatively insignificant. The pupil who can give the exact date of the battle of Bunker Hill, or of Saratoga, or the amount of capital of the first National Bank organized under our government but who has no further knowledge of those events, of their nature and consequences, has no knowledge of history to boast of. The teacher must carefully guard against the tendency on the part of pupils to be satisfied with short answers and isolated matters of fact, instead of the general scope of the lesson. The habit of mind that aims too much at the former, rather unfits the learner, in a measure, to grasp at the latter. In the matter of dates and statistics, then, a few only, at first, of the most important should be selected and learned in connection with the events to which they belong; but they should be thoroughly learned, with strict accuracy, and ineffaceably stamped upon the memory by frequent reviews. Those of less importance will afterwards easily take their places among the leading landmarks.
5. A successful recitation depends quite as much upon the teacher as upon the class. The teacher must not, however, do the work of the pupils. The rule should be, that the pupils shall do the work of the recitation, while the teacher shall give direction to that work, and see that it is done properly; and in so doing he will, of course, become equally a worker himself -- but his spirit will give tone to the recitation. If he is confined to the text-book, and to formal questions, the pupils will follow in the same mechanical routine, and the recitation will be as lifeless as it is unprofitable. He should be thoroughly familiar with the lesson in all its particulars, and stand before his class a living teacher; independent, but not discursive; enthusiastic, but not boisterous; and ready to communicate all desired information when needed and properly appreciated. All questions proposed, and topics stated, should be in language easily understood, and so worded as to make the pupil think before an answer is attempted. Leading questions, which suggest their own answers, are, of course, injurious, and to be wholly avoided. As before intimated, the pupil should be required to give, unaided, as far as possible, a full and connected account of the lesson. The teacher's questioning will then more properly have reference to a further illustration of the subject, its practical bearings, and to testing the pupil's thoroughness and his understanding of the lesson. The method of the recitation may vary with the nature of the subject, but the teacher should strive to avoid routine, and to make it fresh and attractive. As all example, let one pupil be required to state the general subject of the lesson; another, to give its lending divisions and topics; and others, still, to give the particulars of those several divisions, and so on. And even this method way be reversed, or greatly varied, according to the ingenuity
and skill of the teacher. The attention of the whole class may be secured by frequently interupting the one reciting, and requiring another to take up the subject at the same point, and to continue it without any break in the narrative.
6. Let the pupil have an occasional model of historical investigation and research. For this purpose select an event, or topic, and dwell upon it for a length of time and with a degree of minuteness that shall allow the subject to be seen in every possible point of view. Collateral aid of every kind must be called in, until the historical picture shall stand out before the mind's eye like a panoramic view, distinct and complete, not only in outline, but in the minutest (sic) particular. These topics maybe various, such as battles, marches, sieges, settlements, discoveries, political measures, historical personages, &c.; but whatever the topic may be, let it be expanded and treated with a thoroughness that will completely exhaust the ingenuity and resources of teacher and pupil. By such a course, repeating, reviewing, dwelling upon particulars, and generalizing, there will be awakened a wonderful degree of interest on the part of the class. Their perception of the whole subject-matter of study will, at every recitation, become clearer, and a life-like picture will be formed that will never fade from their minds. Such a method is, of course, slow; a single topic may occupy several days. But its slowness is its greatest recommendation; for it insures an impression upon the mind that is clear and distinct, and one that will be lasting and valuable. It is not, however, expected that the whole text-book will be dwelt upon In this manner. The exercise is given to show the pupil how to investigate a subject thoroughly and completely, that he may apply to his future reading, as occasion may require, the same method of careful examination and rigid inquiry.
7. Reviews, judiciously conducted, are deserving of special attention; for more is often done in the review to make the contents of the lesson the pupil's own, than in the first learning of the lesson. Topical reviews are preferable to those which are periodical. The principal objection to the latter is, that the review which occurs regularly once a week, or once a mouth, must oftentimes begin or end in the midst of a chapter or subject, and thus prevent the narrative from being impressed upon the mind as a whole; while topical reviews, covering a whole chapter, period, or topic, give the pupil a complete idea of the subject, with all its associations unbroken and in their proper connection. As it is by this principle of association that much of history is retained in the memory which would otherwise be lost, the practice of grouping and generalizing events, in reviews, is one of the utmost importance. If, for example, the American Revolution is the subject of the review, let all its causes and preliminary incidents be reviewed together. Then all the events which occurred in New England may form one group or campaign; those about New York, Long Island, and New Jersey, a second; the expedition of Burgoyne, a third; the campaign of Philadelphia and its neighborhood, a fourth; while the occurrences in the Southern States would constitute a fifth. The same subject may then be varied by reviewing the period chronologically, or by classifying the different battles and expeditions accordingly as they were successful or otherwise to the Americans. Settlements may be reviewed geographically, chronologically, or according to the nationality of those engaging in them. The success of such reviews will depend much upon their being made frequent, thorough, and so varied as to keep up a lively and fresh interest in the class. There must be some philosophical method observed, that only those events may be brought together which have some kind of connection; and care should be exercised that the several topics and groups are distinct and independent of each other.
The aim of the teacher, ever to be kept in view in this branch, should be to inspire the learner with a love for the study, to give all reasonable assistance needed, and to draw out before the mind such a view of history as shall make it a real panorama of the past. If we can thus furnish the minds of pupils with a few vivid historical pictures, that shall allure them on in this attractive study, -- if we can teach them how to read, and how to study, in the most profitable manner, the annals of the past, -- we shall accomplish a good work.
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