The present-day curricula in our schools appear to be the outcome
of experience, - experience on the part of generations of teachers as to
the particular subjects, and level of subject, which children at any
given age have been found capable of tackling. Modifications are made
with changing ideas or ideals, but in the main the curriculum is limited
by the scholastic ability of the average child.
If, however, education is to become an undertaking designed to make
possible the proper development of children, and not merely a technique
by which to prepare them for future examinations, the standard to be
expected of the average child must not be based upon an examination
criterion. For the age at which a child can be induced to absorb and
reproduce scholastic material is by no means necessarily the age at
which this same material is fruitful or even healthy for his development
Even the class-room criterion - the opinion of the teacher as to what
the average child can do - is not a psychological one. It is based on
scholastic results; and the question as to whether the production of
these results has been beneficial or otherwise to the child, remains
unanswered. Usually it is not oven asked.
Some criterion of a psychological kind is therefore essential.
enquiry, however, into the ability of children of different ages to
tackle the different school subjects, is one much too wide for the
present undertaking; but the problem, as the writer sees it, can
fruitfully be approached from another and fortunately narrower angle;
and this is the problem of the method of investigation itself. For
unless the approach to the child in making an investigation, or to the
data yielded by one, be without theoretical presupposition, and the
investigation itself be calculated to bring all the relevant factors
to light, it is clear that the psychological conclusions arising from
this will tend to be distorted, with resulting repercussions upon
An attempt, therefore, will first be made to arrive at a valid
me-Ghod of investigation; and thereafter some concrete psychological
results of this method will be given, which will be focused back upon
some of the educational practices at present in use with a view to
showing how far these can be justified, and to illustrate at the same
time the illuminating power of the method used.
Curricula vary from school to school and district to district; but
a general idea of a certain minimum curriculum can be obtained from that
recommended for education Authority schools, and the following is an outline
of that recommended for Primary Schools by Edinburgh Corporation
Education Committee. We shall consider only the more strictly
scholastic subjects, and the ages at which these are begun. These are:
Age 5: Reading, Writing, Arithmetic, Nature-Study.
Age 7: History, Geography.
Age 9: Grammar.
The Arithmetic during the first year involves appreciation and
understanding of numbers up to 10 with the use of concrete material,
addition and subtraction up to that number, counting as far as 30, and
knowledge of value of coins up to 6d.
Nature-study for the first year involves knowledge of the names of
birds and other animals, flowers, etc., and observation of the daily
History at age 7 is confined mainly to stories connected with
historical buildings in the neighbourhood. At age 8 there are stories
about Egypt and the Pyramids, Hannibal, Julius Caesar, Agricola, the
Goths, Huns and Vandals, Alfred, and so on. At age 9, although still in
story form, something more in the nature of a period is dealt with, this
comprising chiefly Scottish history up to 1603.
Geography at age 7 begins with knowledge of north and south poles,
equator, continents and oceans; knowledge of the origin of certain common
articles; stories of children in other lands; and the learning of certain
physical features - island, peninsula, cape, gulf, etc. - by means of a
sand -tray or other medium. At 8 the child passes to a knowledge of
certain Scottish rivers, mountains, towns, etc., together with certain
facts connected with each town, as well as of certain industries such as
Clyde shipbuilding, Dunfermline linen, Kirkcaldy linoleums, a knowledge of
railways, etc.. At age 9 he passes to the geography of England and Wales,
the Irish Free State, and Northern Ireland, with their towns, districts,
products and industries.
Grammar, at age 9, begins with simple sentence - building from subjects
and predicates, word -building, and knowledge of some parts of
speech. Actual analysis of the sentence does not begin until 10.
The upper limits of this curriculum (age 11) are as follows:
Vulgar and Decimal Fractions; Simple Proportion;
Bills of Parcels.
Life-histories of plants and animals; knowledge of
certain minerals; movements of earth and moon in
relation to the sun; seasons, tides, etc..
HISTORY: Period 1714 -1815, treated as before.
GEOGRAPHY: British Empire.
GRAMMAR: Sentence analysis; Parsing.
The above, of course, is a moderate standard of achievement, and
there are schools in which more is expected. In one Edinburgh school
visited by the writer, for example, grammar is begun as early as age 7.
Again, Algebra is not normally begun until after the Primary stage, at
12; but the writer has before him a well -known elementary arithmetic
book into the early pages of which simple algebraical exercises are
introduced along with aritihmetical examples in addition, subtraction,
etc.. Here it is apparently assumed that a child at this stage can
handle letters as readily as pure numbers, and the fact that the two
processes are on different levels of abstraction, is ignored.
This points to one of the problems with which we shall have to deal.
Is it a matter of indifference to the child on what level be is asked to
think, provided that the mental operations are equally simple in degree?
The educated adult can move freely on all levels; and A + B is as simple
an expression to him as 1 + 2, and this, in turn, as 1 apple + 2 apples.
Is the child-mind structurally the same as that of an adult, differing
only in regard to the complexity of the problems which it can tackle? or
is it different also in its nature? In other words, is the child a
little adult, or is he not?
This question is fundamental for a school curriculum. For if the
answer is in the affirmative, there is hardly any limit to the age at
which a subject may be introduced, provided that it is kept sufficiently
simple. If the answer is negative, it is of great importance for the
well-being of the child as to whether a subject is given to him before or
after a given stage in his mental development.
We are thus brought to the threshold of our first problem - the
method of investigating the child's mental structure.