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W. S. Furneaux

Nature Lessons

1. Choice of Subjects—Schemes of Work

I N selecting subjects and in making out schemes for a course of nature study it is absolutely essential that we follow the course of the seasons, so that each of the studies may be made direct from the fresh or living material, and the various natural phenomena engage attention at the times of their occurrence.

The work should not consist of a series of set lessons, rigidly defined as to time and character, with no logical connection between them; but of a carefully prepared scheme of observations, drawn up in perfect accordance with the succession of the seasons, and so arranged that each portion naturally evolves itself from that which precedes it.

Such a scheme, while systematic from beginning to end, must not be too rigid. The very seasons on which it is based are themselves so variable that it would be very unwise to fix the date on which each portion of the work is to be done; and it would be equally unwise to attempt to decide how much should be done in a given period. The most experienced teacher is unable to foresee the many difficulties which may arise in the minds of the children—difficulties that should, as far as possible, be cleared away before the next steps are taken in hand; nor can he foresee the occasional disappointments that sometimes occur in connection with the collection of material for his work, and, on the other hand, the unexpected wealth of material that will now and then fall in his way.

Further, whatever may have been the care bestowed on the preparation of a scheme of nature observations, in the hands of a thoughtful teacher, new ideas and developments are sure to present themselves; and, for this reason alone, the teacher should have perfect liberty to adjust the work as it proceeds, rather than feel himself compelled to follow a stereotyped course in which his own initiative and that of the children are more or less restrained.

Again, the work laid out should never be excessive. The value of the work done is not to be gauged by the number and variety of subjects compressed into the scheme, but rather by the thoroughness of that which has been done. And, as regards the nature of the work introduced, it is probable that nothing is more effectual in the training of young minds than the continued observations of a progressive series of events such as those exhibited in the development of seedlings under varying conditions, in the varied aspects of trees at the different seasons of the year, and in the life-history of an insect or other creature traced from the egg to the adult or perfect stage.

Many of the subjects that may well form part of a nature study course are such that they can only be successfully dealt with on certain rare or special occasions. Thus, we take the opportunity of studying the snow-storm while such a storm is in progress; and, similarly, the thunder-storm and other occasional atmospheric disturbances at the times when they occur. We also call attention to the differences between stars and planets during a period when one or more of the latter are conspicuous in the sky. The migrations of birds are studied at those seasons when the movements are taking place; and the hibernations of various animals during the autumn, when they are making preparations for the long winter sleep, and during the winter itself, when they may be observed in their snug hiding-places. In short, as previously laid down, every subject must be taken in its proper season, so that the whole scheme is in perfect harmony with the daily experiences of the children.

It is the writer's experience that most teachers find a greater difficulty in the selection of suitable subjects from the animal than from the vegetable world. This is partly due to the fact that common British animals are not so generally studied as are the common flowers and trees. The lower animals—the invertebrates—are especially neglected on account of the general aversion towards creeping things.

The old-fashioned, so-called nature lesson, illustrated only by a picture and, perhaps, a fragment of skin, hoof or horn, is of very little educational value. The cardinal feature of animal life is motion; and if the children have not the opportunity of observing the interesting habits of the animal in question, and of working out the striking relation that exists between the habits and the structure, the charm and value of the lesson are lost.

Seeing that the object of the nature lesson is not to supply information, but to encourage independent observation and discrimination, it is clear that one animal is practically as useful for the purpose as any other; and, therefore, there is no reason why, as a rule, the lesson should not be based on some form of animal life that can be conveniently studied within the schoolroom, or that may be observed in the neighbourhood of the building.

Of course we do not mean that no information should ever be given on foreign animals and on those British species which can seldom or never be seen alive by the children. Such information may often be extremely useful in connection with the teaching of geography—a subject that is very closely allied to nature study. But the information so given should not constitute a set lesson in itself, for the mere presentation of facts by the teacher is not of sufficient importance to demand much time, and a lesson partaking of the character referred to is entirely foreign to the spirit of nature study.

An enthusiastic student of Nature will soon discover that there is a wonderful wealth of animal forms among British species which are eminently suitable for study by children; for, in addition to our familiar mammals and birds, we have many interesting fishes in our ponds and streams, a few amphibians (frogs, toads and newts) with exceptionally interesting life-histories, harmless reptiles, and many invertebrates, such as insects, spiders, snails, earthworms, etc., the majority of which may be easily kept in captivity for constant observation, or studied in their natural habitats in the neighbourhood of the school.

The scheme of nature study set out on future pages will, we hope, give many useful suggestions to the teacher; and the various hints on the treatment of creatures that may be kept in captivity either in the school garden or in the schoolroom itself will enable him to maintain a wealth of living material for close and systematic observation.

The collection of specimens for the study of Nature need not, and should not, devolve entirely upon the teacher. Let the children once get an insight into the wonders of natural objects around them, and they will always be on the alert for new sources of delight, with the result, especially in the case of schools in the country or on the outskirts of towns, that more than sufficient material will generally be forthcoming for the nature study work.

It is well to encourage this propensity for the collection of natural objects on the part of the children, providing it is properly directed. Care should be taken to secure that the children do not develop into mere collectors of material without discrimination as to the usefulness or otherwise of the specimens acquired. Their labours in this direction should be so controlled that they bring in only such material as is necessary in the working of the nature study scheme of the school, together with those objects concerning which they desire to gain information.

This latter point is one of considerable importance, for it is the duty of the teacher to encourage the natural curiosity of the children under his charge; and it will be well, now and then, to devote a little time to pleasant chats on their observations and specimens, even though they do not fall within the range of the course planned for the school work. Such chats will not only be a source of much delight, but will also be a wonderful stimulus to keen and thoughtful observation in the future.

2. Nature Lessons

Let us now pass on to consider the matters which relate more directly to the regular lessons that make up the nature study course of the school, leaving, for the present, those occasional observations which, though forming an important part of the scheme in operation, do not require set times and periods.

In accordance with the old plan which insisted on some kind of 'introduction' to the lesson, the question is often asked: 'How shall I introduce this lesson?'

A nature lesson requires no formal, spoken introduction by the teacher. Set the object to be studied before the class, and let the observations commence at once. The commonest form of introduction to a lesson is, perhaps, a series of questions put by the teacher with the object of encouraging the children to guess what he is going to talk about. This is, of course, an absolute waste of time; and even where the lesson naturally evolves itself from a preceding one, and it is necessary for the children to see the connection between the present subject and the last, this connection is often best seen after the present lesson has been practically concluded and the relation between the two should be worked out by the children, and not by the teacher.

Certainly one of the best ways in which to start a nature lesson is to place the object of study before the children, and then tell them to observe carefully, the teacher himself being careful to allow ample time for a very thorough inspection of the specimens.

Some would insist that this introductory observation of the specimens should be perfectly silent, the view being entertained that children should not be allowed to talk in school—that the discipline of the school—the power of the teacher over his class—would suffer if such liberties were allowed; but if the tone of the school is what it should be, the dignity and power of the teacher will lose nothing from the permission given to the children to exchange observations and thoughts with one another. It is astonishing, too, to observe how children, left for a time to themselves, can help each other in the discovery of facts and in the solving of little problems, to say nothing of the increased interest in their subject brought about by communication of their discoveries and ideas.

Of course the observations of the children, under these conditions, will be carried on regardless of any definite order; and the ideas framed may often be somewhat confused and incorrect. But the children should have the first opportunity of seeing, and the first opportunity of investigating. Where necessary, the teacher may, by an occasional remark, direct the observations into some desired order, and any confusion of ideas may afterwards be corrected.

After the interest of the class has been thoroughly aroused by a preliminary observation of this kind, the teacher demands the attention of the children and, by a carefully planned series of questions, discovers what observations have been made, and draws attention to other points which should have been seen.

Further questions will be asked with the object of encouraging the children to think out simple problems with regard to the habits and mode of growth of the thing before them, and to work out the uses and functions of its various parts.

Throughout the whole lesson the teacher should be careful to do nothing for the children which they can do for themselves—to tell them nothing which they themselves can discover, and to offer no explanation where it is possible for them to solve the matter themselves. He should give the required assistance only where the children fail after every possible encouragement has been given, and remember that the inability of the children to observe certain points of structure and to think out the problems involved is often due to more or less impatience on the part of the teacher, resulting from his desire to get on with his subject in order that the lesson may be completed within a given time.

This latter error is a grave one. It is quite right that a teacher should carefully plan out his work, and form some kind of estimate as to what he is likely to do in the time at his disposal, but he should never attempt to adjust the progress of the lesson in order to make it coincide with the time. It matters not whether a lesson is completed according to the plan laid out, but it is most important that the work done is done thoroughly.

For this reason the teacher has a right to demand the fullest liberty in dealing with his subject. He never knows what difficulties will arise during the progress of the lesson. Many unexpected points of interest will frequently present themselves. Occasionally it will happen that a topic, concerning which the teacher anticipates a difficulty, turns out to be less formidable than was supposed. Hence he should have full power to expand or omit any portion of the work previously planned, and even to change the order originally proposed, when he is of opinion that by so doing he can make his work more productive.

We have spoken of the importance of careful questioning on the part of the teacher, but we must note that the children should be allowed and, indeed, strongly encouraged to put questions to their teacher. Such questioning must not be permitted at all times during the lesson, or it will tend to break the continuity of the work. At certain stages, however, and particularly at the end of the lesson, it will be well to give the children every opportunity of satisfying their natural curiosity. Each question asked is, to the teacher, an encouraging proof of the interest taken in the lesson; and the more thoughtful ones give evidence as to the working of the minds of the children, and also serve, to an extent, as a measure of the value of the work done.

Of course it will frequently happen that even a young child will ask a question which the teacher cannot answer, but this is not necessarily a proof that the latter is not properly qualified for his work. Nature is so varied and so full of changes that even after many years of close and constant study of her productions and phenomena one is always finding some object which has not been seen before, or noting some phase which has never before presented itself; and it is always possible for a child to discover what a naturalist has never seen. But even so, a teacher should put himself in the best possible position to deal with the various questions the children may ask by keeping his knowledge as far as possible in advance of that which he desires his children to acquire.

Should it happen, as it sometimes will, that the teacher receives a question he cannot answer, he should not fear any loss of respect on that account. If the relation between the teacher and the class is such as should exist, the latter will never withdraw its confidence and respect because, occasionally, the former is unable to give an honest answer to a question asked.

It is not at all an uncommon thing to hear a teacher say: 'One of my children asked me so and so, and I gave such and such a reply; was that right?' In a case like this the teacher is probably ashamed to admit that he does not know, and so he frames some kind of answer and presents it with a hope that it may possibly turn out to be correct. This should never be done. The teacher's information must be accurate, and he himself must be true.

Again, in order that a teacher may be able to carry out a nature course successfully, he must himself be a student of Nature. If he is to arouse enthusiasm in the children under his care, he must himself be an enthusiast. This same remark also applies, of course, to the other subjects he is called upon to teach; and thus we come to the logical conclusion that every teacher must be an enthusiast in everything he undertakes to teach. This is, as we know, almost impossible in the case of a teacher who has to deal with all the subjects belonging to a modern curriculum, but still there is no reason why the teacher should not do his best to make the nearest possible approach to this ideal condition.

In some schools an attempt is made to increase the quality of the teaching by allotting to each teacher a subject rather than a form or class. Thus each member of the staff is, or becomes, to a greater or lesser extent, a specialist in his particular work.

There is a great deal to be said in favour of this arrangement; for if, as should be the case, each teacher is occupied in dealing with his favourite subject, the energy and enthusiasm naturally put into the work must necessarily be greater.

This system, however, has at least one drawback. The teacher, having no fixed form of his own, but passing continually from one group of children to another, has not an opportunity of acquiring that intimate knowledge of the habits and dispositions of the children which is necessary in order to mould their characters.

Nature study seems to be one of those subjects for which a special teacher is more particularly advantageous; for while the majority of teachers possess a satisfactory knowledge of most of those subjects that form part of the ordinary curriculum of nearly all schools, the study of Nature has received but little attention until recently, and thus fewer teachers would consider themselves suitably qualified for dealing with it.

Reverting now to the subject from which we have slightly digressed, we next draw attention to the desirability of always encouraging the children to sketch what they observe, and thus to keep both eye and mind working together. Of course many of the attempts on the part of the children, and especially of the younger ones, to represent what they see will be very crude and inaccurate. That, however, is a matter of but little importance. It is sufficient that they have made a good attempt. The results will gradually, perhaps rapidly, improve as time goes on; and we may be sure that most children at least have observed the object before them much more closely than they would have done had they not been told to give a graphic representation of it.

Again, if the object selected for a nature lesson is to be thus represented by the class, the drawing need not necessarily be part of the lesson itself, but may form an entirely separate lesson in drawing, either on the same or another day. The two subjects, nature study and drawing, should run together; and it is of little importance whether the drawing lesson precedes or follows the corresponding nature lesson. If the former, the nature study will probably progress a little more rapidly because much of the observation has been previously done; if the latter, the drawing will be more accurate, especially in matters of detail, on account of the previous minute examination of the object during the nature lesson.

As regards the teacher's own drawing and illustrations we shall have many remarks to make; but we may set it down as a general rule that a nature lesson, based on specimens which have been distributed to the children for study, or on a large object placed before the class for the observation of all, requires but little blackboard illustration, if any at all. No sketch or picture should be presented that merely 'illustrates' that which may be observed in the object itself, not even if the former displays certain particular features more conspicuously than the latter. Let the children have the full opportunity of searching out the features for themselves. Do not attempt to save them any trouble, for this will deprive them of the pleasure of finding out for themselves. It is close observation that we desire to encourage, and, therefore, we do not tell them what they ought to see, but rather let them have the pleasure of telling, in their own simple language, what they have discovered.

At times, however, pictures are very useful aids. Thus, after it has been made clear that the general form of a certain tree must necessarily depend to a great extent on the arrangement of the buds as seen in the twigs placed before them, a picture of the whole tree may be shown as a means of demonstrating the conclusion; but even this is unnecessary and unadvisable where it is possible for the children to observe the tree itself within a reasonable distance from the school or their homes.

Diagrams are often useful to the teacher himself in assisting him to direct the observations of the children. It is often necessary to call special attention to some particular part of the specimen that is being examined, if only because it is advisable to secure some definite order in the work—to see that all the children are giving their attention to the same part at the same time. It is often somewhat difficult, especially with junior classes which are unacquainted with the names by which the parts of an object are denoted, to specify the particular portion requiring attention; but a diagram, even a very simple one, will enable the teacher to point it out immediately.

The same purpose may also be served by the use of a model instead of a diagram. Thus, in calling attention, in order, to the parts of a flower, a model of the flower, sufficiently large to be distinctly seen by all the class, will prove much more useful than the best of diagrams.

With the aid of such simple materials as plasticine, pieces of paper of various colours, wood splints, pieces of wire, etc., exceedingly useful models of various natural objects may be put together in a very short time.

Both diagrams and models should be used sparingly. They are not to be employed for the observation of the children, but as an aid to the teacher. They should be out of sight except at the short period or periods during which they are actually necessary, or the children's attention, which should be devoted entirely to the natural object before them, will be divided between the two, thus helping to destroy what should be the main aim of the nature lesson.

A thoughtful teacher can often foresee some of the difficulties that are likely to arise during the course of a lesson—difficulties that may require the aid of a blackboard sketch, and will prepare what is necessary beforehand; but even the most experienced teacher cannot foresee all that is required, and therefore he should be able to produce a satisfactory sketch, in the shortest possible time, to satisfy the exigency of the moment. Without such skill the lesson is liable to run slowly at times, and the laboured production of a simple drawing will demand a pair of eyes that should be ever directed to the class and its working.

Really good pictures representing natural scenes and phenomena are very valuable both in connection with, and apart from, the nature lessons of the school, especially in populous towns, the children of which seldom have the inclination or opportunity of taking a ramble in the country. Such pictures enable the teacher to broaden the scope of his lessons, and to illustrate those casual, pleasant chats about the ever-changing drama of the seasons, and the general aspect of wood, wayside, meadow, moor, and mountain, that create a desire to stray from the crowded streets to open spaces where the realities of Nature may be enjoyed.

The instrument formerly known as the magic lantern and used for entertaining purposes, but now designated the optical lantern and recognised as a valuable aid to education, is an appliance to be found in almost all well-equipped schools. It is often employed in connection with the subject we are now considering, but its use is decidedly wrong if the pictures exhibited take the place of natural objects or illustrate scenes such as may be observed within a reasonable distance of the school.

However, the remarks made above concerning the use of good pictures apply, of course, to the use of suitable lantern slides. Beautiful photographs illustrating all kinds of natural scenes and phenomena are to be obtained in this form, and the use of the lantern has the distinct advantage that a number of pictures, magnified to suit the size of the school or class, can be exhibited in succession on the screen.

And here we must note the close relationship existing between nature study and geography, the latter being really a branch of the former, so that the rules laid down with regard to the illustration of nature lessons should be observed as closely as possible in the study of geography. Direct observation, carried on as far as may be in the open air, will certainly produce the most beneficial results on the minds of the children; and this may be supplemented by the use of good pictures, including photographs from Nature, exhibited either with or without the aid of the lantern.

The lantern may be made to serve yet another purpose in connection with nature lessons. It not infrequently happens that several diagrams are required for the purpose of aiding the teacher in his directions and explanations during a single lesson. In this case the necessary drawings may be made on small pieces of glass, instead of on the blackboard, and then projected on the screen as required. And it does not appear to be generally known that the classroom need not be darkened for this purpose. If, instead of throwing the light on an opaque screen with the lantern at the back of the class, we have the lantern behind a translucent screen consisting of a sheet of tracing paper or tracing cloth, or even of a sheet of ordinary drawing paper that has been rendered translucent by painting it over with melted paraffin, and project the picture through it from behind, the light of the room need not be reduced any more than it is by letting down the ordinary window-blinds; and thus the teacher can make use of his diagrams while the children are still observing the natural object or objects placed before them.

With such an arrangement in a rather small classroom it will not be possible to throw a large disc on the screen; but then, in such a room a large disc is not at all necessary. The diagrams need not be any larger than the blackboard sketches for which they stand as substitutes, and thus a disc of about two feet in diameter will be ample.

What a stimulus, too, to the children, to encourage them to study and sketch natural objects at their own leisure, and then to allow them to project their drawings on the screen and to tell their mates of their discoveries and experiences! Give each child who desires it a little square of glass, with the few necessary instructions and, when the drawings have been brought in, note the delight with which the children exhibit their handiwork and explain what they saw, and the intense, stimulating interest displayed by the others as they observe what their classmates have discovered and accomplished.

An occasional half-hour spent in this way will do wonders in encouraging keen observation and in promoting accurate representation; and not only will the success of the experiment frequently come as a great surprise to the teacher himself, but he will sometimes find that the researches of his children include some little matters of structure or habit that he himself had not previously noticed, or give rise to some little thought or opinion which he himself can appreciate.

There are certainly a few little difficulties in the preparation of the simple lantern slides we have mentioned, and a few little knacks to be observed; but the latter will be quickly overcome if attention be paid to the hints in the chapter on Nature Lantern Slides.

Before quitting the subject of the uses of the lantern in nature study we would like to give one other illustration. Let us suppose that the children have received a more or less systematic training in nature observations as they passed through the junior classes, and that the course included, among other things, the study of various common plants and animals. As these children reach the higher forms they are in a position, from the knowledge gained, to arrange the various objects they have seen into natural groups—to plan out, with the aid of the teacher, an elementary system of classification. In such a case it would be well to recall the various observations made in the past by means of pictures thrown on the screen, thus aiding them in the useful exercise of classifying and grouping.

Returning again, for a moment, to the ordinary nature lesson of the school curriculum, we desire to say a few words concerning blackboard notes and recapitulations.

As regards the former, it should be definitely decided whether the notes are intended for the aid of the teacher himself, or for the observation of the children. If they are intended to be a guide to the teacher, and to consist of the headings and main points of the lesson, they are entirely out of place. In this case they should not be necessary, for the teacher should have so carefully planned his work as to require no such aid. And again, they distract the attention of the children from the object they should be closely examining, especially if they are written before the class and during the lesson.

If, on the other hand, the blackboard notes are intended for the sole use of the children, it is still difficult to see their value or of what they should consist. It may be said that all hard and unfamiliar words used should be written on the board. Not so. Hard and unfamiliar words should not find a place in a nature lesson. The descriptions and other statements are given by the children, in their own simple language, and technical terms should never be substituted by the teacher for the corresponding names or phrases of the child. Questions which turn upon words rather than upon things should always be carefully avoided. It does not matter much what a child calls any particular thing or part, providing the name given is fairly appropriate. Our aim is to get the children practically acquainted with things, not names. Many a child has developed a great distaste for such a study as botany because the work set him was to learn the names of the parts of flowers and to learn to give descriptions in the technical expressions of certain text-books. The effect would have been very different had he been taught to look upon flowers as living things with beautiful forms, lovely colours, and interesting habits.

It is usual to set apart a portion of the time allotted to a lesson for purposes of recapitulation, and this practice is often so rigidly observed that the notes demanded from young teachers are regarded as incomplete unless some provision for recapitulation has been arranged. This is quite unnecessary, and even inadvisable as far as our present subject is concerned.

Ordinary lessons of information require more or less repetition. The teacher's chief aim in such lessons is to impart to the children some of the knowledge he himself possesses, and a recapitulation serves to drive home the facts that have been given. But, as we have already pointed out, the purpose of nature study is not to give information on natural objects and phenomena, but to encourage careful observation and independent thought. Our aim is, or should be, to assist the children in making discoveries for themselves, and it is for this reason that we are careful to tell them nothing which they can be made to find out for themselves. Let the whole of the lesson be spent in these observations and discoveries, and you will find that the children do not readily forget what they have found out by their own efforts.

Should the teacher desire to ascertain how the minds of the children are working, he can do so by means of suitable questioning as the study proceeds; in fact, such questioning should form an important part of the lesson. And here we may note how closely nature study comes in touch with the teaching of English; for not only do the descriptions and thoughts of the children, expressed in their own words, form valuable exercises in oral composition, but nature study provides a wonderful wealth of material for the children's essays.

Nature reading books are sometimes used as a substitute for nature lessons. This is undoubtedly a very great mistake, for while there is no reason why descriptions of natural objects should not be read as much as descriptions of anything else for the general purposes of the reading lesson, it must be noted that the aims of the reading lesson are quite foreign to those of nature study. Considered apart from the mere mechanical functions of the reading, the matter of the lesson simply tells the children what they may see, or what somebody has previously seen, while in the nature lesson they see for themselves; and the former explains those problems which, in the latter, are worked out in the minds of the children.

If a nature reading lesson is accompanied by the observation of the natural object which it describes, and if time is allowed both for the examination of this object and for questions and remarks on the part of teacher and children, it will still constitute a very feeble substitute for the real nature study lesson, for it will still possess the defects we have just mentioned.

Where nature study forms part of the school curriculum, however, it will be well to encourage the children to read, in their own time, any good books of travel, and the popular works of eminent naturalists; and such books may also be used to advantage in the ordinary reading lessons of the school. The teacher, too, may do much to increase the general interest in Nature by telling of his own experiences and discoveries, by imparting some of his book-lore, and by giving occasional Nature stories and biographies, especially to the junior classes.