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Errors in Teaching Geography.
No person who is acquainted with the superficial method of elementary instruction common among us, should be surprised to find children, every where, greatly ignorant of geography, even the geography of the United States. It is not merely the oldest pupils of our common schools, those perhaps, who have been through' Woodbridge's or Olney's Geography, that is, have recited lessons from it—who often betray the most profound ignorance on the subject ; there are those who have been through higher schools, who are little wiser, in practice, than they. We met not long ago, with a manufacturer, in the country, who is generally esteemed intelligent and who has been well“ schooled' in human nature at least-who spoke of Virginia as a township merely; and this too, in a way which showed that he was as utterly ignorant of the geography of the Union we are so tenacious of maintaining, as was a boy in Boston whom we once met fresh from one of the public schools, who, on being asked, what lay next north of Boston, could not tell ; and when told it was Charlestown, and asked what lay next to Charlestown, said he believed it was England. A respectable looking lady in a steamboat on Long Island Sound, lately, asked a friend of ours, in great gravity, whether there was any water on the opposite side of the island. And worse-much worse—than all this, we once met with a lady who had been previously employed for some time as an assistant in one of our most popular city schools, who asked a friend whether or not New Jersey was in Elizabethtown.
The truth is, that geography, as well as grammar, arithmetic, and most of the other branches of a common English education, are ómurdered,' rather than studied, in most of our schools. The best which is done is to commit to memory the words of the book, and point to places on the map, without either understanding the one, or getting any real ideas of the location of the other. By far the greater part of our pupils, however, not so much as even this is accomplished. The recitation is so imperfect, and the mapology so blundering, that no one could reasonably expect, in after life, any thing but ignorance. No one could expect a better knowledge of the nature of an island than that possessed by the lady we have mentioned, who was doubtful whether or not, it had water on two sides of it; or that of the teacher, who was uncertain whether New Jersey was in Elizabethtown, or Elizabethtown in New Jersey.
Illustrations of this Error.
Again : where shall we find pupils in our schools, even of those who have recited their geographies through three or four times, who can answer without recurrence to the map, such questions as the following ? If a line were drawn from your native town or village, twentyfour miles south, what townships, rivers, mountains, ponds, or lakes would it cross? If the line was extended one hundred miles, what would it cross? If one hundred miles east, west and north, what towns, counties, rivers, mountains, lakes and cities would be crossed ? What States would be crossed by a line running directly from your home to New Orleans ? About how many miles is it to the city of Mexico ? — What countries on the Eastern continent would be crossed by a line running exactly east from the spot where you stand, to the Ocean eastward of China ?
This state of things in our schools, may be traced to several causes. 1. A want of suitable preparation for the study of geography. 2. An imperfect knowledge on the part of the teacher. 3. A want of skill in communicating what is really known. 4. A supposed want of time to do anything thoroughly in school. 5. A want of interest on the part of the pupils.
Two of these five causes, viz., the want of interest in the pupils, and of knowledge in the teacher, may be traced to the first, -the want of suitable preparation for the study of books and maps. It is of little use to talk to a pupil about feet, and yards, and rods, and miles, or to give him lessons in which these terms are perpetually occurring, while he has not the least conception how much a foot, a yard, or a mile is. And yet how few of the pupils in our schools are possessed of this necessary preliminary knowledge ?
They read perhaps of the rock of Gibraltar ; that it presents a perpendicular front of 440 yards. Now, how many of them are able to form a just estimate, in an instant, of this space? How many are able to reduce the 440 yards to feet, and quick as thought, find the product to be 1:3:20; and then too, quick as thought, and without any pause or break in the reading, or even in the thinking, perceive that the height is just about equal to that of eight churches-such as they may happen to be acquainted with-with their spires, set one upon the top of another? Is there one in a hundred, who is able to do this? Or, suppose they read or hear that James river in Virginia, though not more than five hundred miles long, when near its mouth spreads out to a width of ten miles or more. Now, how many who read this, ever think, instantly, that ten miles is about equal to some distance with which they happen to be acquainted-say the distance from Boston to Dedham--and that 500 miles are equal to
the same space from Boston to Dedham, fifty times repeated ? And yet is it not obvious that until a child can do this leisurely, at least, if not rapidly,-he is not at all prepared to begin the study of geography ?
We put the question, this very day, to an experienced teacher, what is the probable number of pupils of our schools, who, when they commence the study of geography, are possessed of this preliminary knowledge? The reply was, hardly one in a thousand. We believe that even this proportion is too great. We doubt whether there is one in ten thousand, whose knowledge, of this sort, is at all accurate. The only individual we have known—and our experience has not been very limited, -- who had any preparatory knowledge of this kind, when he commenced his geographical studies, worth naming, was exceedingly deficient in accuracy. His foot was the length of the foot of a common adult; and his quarter of a mile was nearly one hundred and twenty rods, and his mile, consequently, was about one third too large. Such imperfect ideas of distance may be a little better than none at all; but of even this, we are by no means certain.
It is the easiest thing in the world, to inculcate this sort of knowledge, if its necessity is once understood and felt. It may be done best by the parent; but, if neglected by the parent, should be taken up by the teacher. It is wrong-or would be, if the matter was correctly understood—to introduce a child to the simplest geographical work, till these preliminaries are settled. The following illustrations on this subject, were coinmunicated for the Journal of Education in 1829, then edited by Mr Wm. Russell; and inserted in the last number of the volume for that year. As it is probable that few of our present readers were subscribers to that volume, and as we know not that we can render the subject more intelligible now, than we were able to do then, we have ventured to transcribe from that volume, with little variation.
• I think the first lesson in geography should be to give a child a clear and distinct idea of an inch--perhaps it is unnecessary to descend to tenths or barleycorns. When able to judge of this distance pretty well, he should be taught to repeat the distance, until he had an adequate idea of an inch repeated twelve times. Afterwards, he might be told that twelve inches make a foot, six inches half a foot, &c. Then the foot might be doubled and trebled; this being done, he should be told that three feet make a yard. Thus we might proceed gradually, from step to step, till our pupil could understand the extent of a rod, a rood, a mile, a league, &c. The practice of talking to children about 152
Preparatory Lessons continued.
rods or miles, while they have not the most distant conceptions of an inch or a foot, is bad indeed.
"I have amused myself by experiments on little children, who have sometimes called at my room ; while they were ignorant of my object, and only supposed that they made me happy by their prattle. I have usually commenced by exhibiting some little object I had about me, as a pin—something I mean about an inch in length—and after a little familiar conversation which was calculated to arrest their attention, have told them it was an inch long. Now, I would say, you have learned what an inch is, have you not? They usually seemed to be pleased.
• They were then shown other objects of the same length, but differing in breadth, thickness, shape, or color, and made to understand that these too, were an inch in length. Their faculty of judging was next exercised a little, by placing before them objects half an inch in length, and asking them to judge how long they were. By placing two objects, each an inch long, in a line, I would now show them how much two inches was, how much three inches, &c.
. Before I proceeded to repeat the inch oftener than three or four times, I used to show them my penknife, the handle of which was marked into a three inch rule, with other penknives, keys, pencils, crayons, combs, &c., and require them to judge of their various lengths ;—thus proceeding, gradually and carefully, till they became able to judge, almost as accurately as myself, of any length or distance, not above twelve inches. When I had proceeded so far as to exercise their judgments on objects twelve inches long, I would tell them this was a foot. I have repeatedly pursued this course to the length of a yard, at a single conversation, and without finding the child fatigued with the process.'
This a specimen of the course which should be pursued by parents and teachers, in order to secure to their children that preparation which is indispensable, in the study of geography. Or, to speak more correctly, this is one method of illustrating the principle which we would inculcate, and press upon those whom it most concerns. But we have not yet done. There still remains a long process of instruction, much of which consists in making a practical application of the knowledge the child has acquired, to various objects, and to various heights, distances, &c. The following is another extract from the same source with the above, in continuation of the subject.
No child should be permitted to attend to the more direct studies of geography, till he has gone through a set of exercises similar in principle to the above; but much more diversified and extended. He should be taken about to see brooks and rivers, hills
and mountains, shrubs and trees; and be required to judge of the breadth, height, &c., of these and various other objects. At the same time, he should be instructed in the art of drawing maps, beginning with the map of the room in which he is accustomed to dwell, and proceeding gradually to delineate the house, garden, homelot, &c., with which he is familiarly acquainted. Thence he might extend his survey of objects to the neighborhood or village ; and ultimately be able to draw a tolerably correct map of the town where he resides.
"As the travels of very young children must necessarily, at least in the present state of human society, be limited to a very narrow tract of country, it would be impossible to give them accurate ideas of all the numerous divisions of land and water, by ocular demonstration. To supply the want of these, an ingenious parent or instructer constructs continents, seas, islands, and lakes, in miniature, without going out of the school room. Nay, there is scarcely a natural or artificial curiosity in the known world, which might not be ingeniously and naturally represented in accurate and suitable proportions.-I hesitate not to predict that all these objects, in miniature, will ultimately be deemed as necessary, in every school room, as books, slates and pencils. They will not, indeed, supersede the necessity, or at least the utility of travelling : children ought at the same time, to travel in company with their parents or instructers as much as possible.'
If this is sufficient to afford hints on what we have called the study of preparatory geography, and to lead our readers to reflect on its importance, our object is, in part, accomplished. We do not believe we have exaggerated ; on the contrary, we believe our estimate of the value of this form of instruction, as made above, is quite too low. There is as much difference between him who enters upon life with such a knowledge of geography as our principles would secure, and that of him who is a mere parrot, as can well be conceived. A person who thinks, can scarcely read a paragraph in a newspaper, without finding a large demand for this preparatory knowledge. He who has it not, sees with eyes but half open ; and takes in but half the sentiments which words are intended to convey, whether verbal or written. There is a great work to be done at the threshold of life; and which can, as we have already intimated, be best performed by the parent. But if omitted by the parent, -and omitted it usually is, and is likely to be for centuries to come, we fear-let it not be omitted by the teacher. Let him not dare to proceed a step in the usual humdrum manner. Let him begin the work at the right end ; and then, and not till then, will he have the pleasure of seeing prosper, in the highest degree, the work of his hands.