Tuesday, August 11, 2009


Methods of Teaching in Country Schools, by G. Dallas Lind; p. 60.

I started reading old books about teaching a few years ago. By old books, I mean from the 1800's. I was desperately searching for answers. I'd been homeschooling my own children for almost 20 years by this time, at times juggling up to six children's schoolwork in six different grades, and I had always looked back in awe at the old schoolmarm of yesteryear. I was stretched so thin, and I had one burning question, which I was hoping these books could answer for me -- for G-d's sake, how did she DO it? How did a young woman (Little House on the Prairie author, and real-life schoolteacher, Laura Ingalls Wilder, started teaching at 16; this was not an unusually young age to start teaching at that time) -- how did a young woman (or man) educate a room full of up to 60 students at a time (click on the floorplan for a one-room schoolhouse above to enlarge, and take note of item #11 at the bottom) of every grade, with no help, and have them graduate from the eighth grade with a better education than our modern-day high school (dare I say university?) graduates?

I think I found the answer in those old books. It's so simple it's almost a let-down. But in simplicity is genius. Here's what I found.

Apart from these schoolteachers possessing some pretty extraordinary class management skills, which we'll get into later, the real secret to how they got it all done - schedule-wise, at least -, I was surprised to find out, is that they spent no more than 10 to 15 minutes with each class in each subject. I wondered, then, how they were able to teach to the extent needed to produce such qualified scholars upon graduation. I mean, ten minutes per day per subject? Therein lay the second secret I discovered. The more I read, the more I found that if there is one word that differentiates 19th century education from 20th and 21st century education, that word would be MEMORIZATION. This is what made the difference -- the students basically used their time to teach themselves! That's right. Although a reform movement stressing understanding over rote memorization started taking hold in the 1830's, most schools, at least most rural schools, were still relying on strict, word-for-word memorization as the main teaching strategy, well into the latter years of the 19th century.

Rote memorization???? Yes, indeed. In fact, it was quite common for the student to be assigned a certain amount of paragraphs in a particular textbook (said paragraphs often being helpfully numbered in the book for easy reference) to sit quietly and memorize at his seat during a prescribed time scheduled for that particular study, and then be called forward with the others of the same grade (or more accurately, with the others in that same book, since a child might be in a 3rd grade arithmetic book, a 4th grade reader, and a 2nd grade speller) for the time called the Recitation. It was called the Recitation, because that's exactly what the students did -- they recited what they had memorized. Verbatim. They were either simply requested to, "Recite, please", or they were asked questions by the teacher, the answers to which were not to be deduced, or explained, or guessed at, but simply, recited. From memory.

It was sometimes the case, I've read, that the child did not fully understand what whatever it was that he was reciting meant. Although most teachers did try to ascertain how much was understood, and teach/explain that which was not, it was also the case that a lack of understanding on the part of the student was not cause for as great alarm back then as it would be to us today. Not because it didn't matter whether students understood their work, but rather, because although a student might not fully grasp the meaning of what he was reciting now, it was pretty much taken for granted that when the time was right, he would. I like to compare it to teaching a two-year old to recite the ABC's. Why do this, when a two-year old is utterly incapable of understanding what it all means? We do it because when he begins to read, he has the alphabet, all comfortably memorized and filed away, to pull out of his mind's filing cabinet, ready to be used to build his phonics work upon. He most certainly did not understand what he was saying at two, but now at six, he does. And he doesn't have to waste time memorizing it now that he needs it -- that was taken care of earlier, and his time is now freed up to just go ahead and put it all to use. Well, same idea -- memorized history or geography factoid now, useful information later.

Well, that's all I've time for now. I will add a little more in the next few days. I'll leave it for now at that the key to a good pioneer education, was the ability to memorize and recite at will. Till next time!


S.E. said...

I understand what your saying completely. It is the same with math. I remember being drilled daily and spending huge amounts of time memorizing multiplication tables. There is less focus on that now. Many elementary classrooms encourage memorization but do not drill and allow calculators.

Susan said...

Good point, S.E. I think memorization of the math facts by drill is just about the last vestige of the old "learn by rote and drill" way of schooling. It's become fashionable to argue that it's not as important to "know", as it is to "know how/where to find out". There's some truth to that, of course, but I agree with E.D. Hirsch that we need to "know", too. You can't be looking basic information up all the time! Imagine if you didn't know those multiplication tables your teachers drilled you in, by heart. Some kids don't! Maybe they don't simply because the memorization that was encouraged, but not drilled, in the classroom, as you point out, didn't actually take place. That's why I write so much about Recitation -- it's where you proved you really had memorized what you were supposed to have memorized!