A Lesson From the Past on Active Learning

March 8, 2012, 8:30 am


I found this quote the other day from a book about electricity. Read it and see if you can guess the source and the year in which it was made:

It would be a dry, dull and uninteresting thing to tell a [child] that electricity can be generated by riveting together two pieces of dissimilar metals, and applying heat to the juncture. But put into his hands the metals, and set him to perform the actual work of riveting the metals together, then wiring up the ends of the metals, heating them, and, with a galvanometer, watching for results, it will at once make him see something in the experiment which never occurred when the abstract theory was propounded.

He will inquire first what metals should be used to get the best results, and finally, he will speculate as to the reasons for the phenomena. When he learns that all metals are positive-negative or negative-positive to each other, he has grasped a new idea in the realm of knowledge, which he unconsciously traces back still further, only to learn that he has entered a field which relates to the constitution of matter itself. As he follows the subject through its various channels he will learn that there is a common source of all things; a manifestation common to all matter, and that all substances in nature are linked together in a most wonderful way.

An impulse must be given to a boy’s training. The time is past for the rule-and-rote method. The rule can be learned better by a manual application than by committing a sentence to memory.

The emphasis in that last sentence is mine. The source is the book Electricity for Boys by J.S. Zerbe. The publication year: 1914.

So, educators, the next time you get criticism for having students learn the abstractions and methods of a subject through hands-on work with professional technological tools — instead of just lecturing to them ala “rule and rote” — just remind people that this isn’t some new-fangled, untested idea cooked up in a university education department. It’s pretty much just teaching the way students from any time period tend to learn best.

Image: Illustration from Electricity for Boys, public domain.


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