WILLIAM JAMES TALKS TO TEACHERS ON PSYCHOLOGY
(highlights)

Psychology and the Teaching Art

"You make a great, very great mistake, if you think that psychology, being the science of the mind's laws, is something from which you can deduce definite programmes and schemes and methods of instruction for immediate schoolroom use. Psychology is a science, and teaching is an art; and sciences never generate arts directly out of themselves" (p. 23).

"To know psychology, therefore, is absolutely no guarantee that we shall be good teachers" (p. 25).

"The amount of [psychology] which is necessary to all teachers need not be very great . . . for the great majority of you a general view is enough, provided it be a true one; and such a general view, one may say, might almost be written on the palm of one's hand" (p. 26).

"Ingenuity in meeting and pursuing the pupil, that tact for the concrete situation, though they are the alpha and omega of the teacher's art, are things to which psychology cannot help us in the least" (p. 24).

But, if the use of psychological principles thus be negative rather than positive, it does not follow that it may not be a great use, all the same. It certainly narrows the path for experiments and trials. We know in advance, if we are psychologists, that certain methods will be wrong, so our psychology saves us from mistakes. It makes us, moreover, more clear as to what we are about. We gain confidence in respect to any method which we are using as soon as we believe that it has theory as well as practice" (p. 25).

"The most general elements and workings of the mind are all that the teacher absolutely needs to be acquainted with for his purposes" (p. 28).

* * * * * * * * * * *

The Stream of Consciousness

The most general fact of psychology is that "in each of us, when awake (and often when asleep), some kind of consciousness is always going on . . . the second general fact is that the concrete fields are always complex" (p. 28).

The Child as a Behaving Organism

"Man, whatever else he may be, is primarily a practical being, whose mind is given him to aid in adapting him to this world's life" (p. 34).

Education and Behavior

"Education is the organization of acquired habits of conduct and tendencies to behavior" (p. 37).

The Necessity of Reactions

"No reception without reaction, no impression without correlative expression, --this is the great maxim which the teacher ought never to forget" (p. 39)

Native Reactions and Acquired Reactions

"Our education means, in short, little more than a mass of possibilities of reaction, acquired at home, at school, or in the training of affairs" (p. 42).

"Every acquired reaction is, as a rule, either a complication grafted on a native reaction, or a substitute for a native reaction which the same object originally tended to provoke. The teacher's art consists in bringing about the substitution or complication; and success in the art presupposes a sympathetic acquaintance with the reactive tendencies natively there" (p. 42).

What the Native Reactions Are

The native reactions are

"The law of transitoriness in instincts--many of our impulsive tendencies ripen at a certain period; and, if the appropriate objects be then and there provided, habits of conduct toward them are acquired which last. But, if the objects be not forthcoming then, the impulse may die out before a habit is formed; and later it may be hard to tech the creature to react appropriately in those directions" (p. 55).

"One can draw no specific rules for all this. It depends on close observation in the particular case" (p. 55).

A teacher "must start with the native tendencies, and enlarge the pupil's entire passive and active experience. He must ply him with new objects and stimuli, and make him taste the fruits of his behavior, so that now that whole context of remembered experience is what shall determine his conduct when he gets the stimulus, and not the bare immediate impression" (p. 56).

The Laws of Habit

"It is very important that teachers should realize the importance of habit, and psychology helps us greatly at this point" (p. 56).

"Since this [habit], under any circumstances, is what we always tend to become, it follows first of all that the teacher's prime concern should be to ingrain into the pupil that assortment of habits that shall be most useful to him throughout life. Education is for behavior, and habits are the stuff of which behavior consists" (p. 58).

"We must make automatic and habitual, as early as possible, as many useful actions as we can, and as carefully guard against the growing into ways that are likely to be disadvantageous" (p. 58).

"The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work" (p. 58)

Practical maxims about habit:

"New habits can be launched, I have expressly said, on condition of there being new stimuli and new excitements" (p. 64).

"Could the young but realize how soon they will become mere walking bundles of habits, they would give more heed to their conduct while in the plastic state" (p. 4).

The Association of Ideas

"It is astonishing how many mental operations we can explain when we have once grasped the principles of association" (p. 68). Pupils are . . . . little pieces of associating machinery" (p. 67).

There are two fundamental laws of association:

"The entire routine of our memorized acquisitions is a consequence of nothing but the Law of Contiguity. The words of a poem, the formulas of trigonometry, the facts of history, the properties of material things, are all known to us as definite systems or groups of objects which cohere in an order fixed by innumerable iterations, and of which any one part reminds us of the others" (p. 67).

Interest

"Any object not interesting in itself may become interesting through becoming associated with an object in which an interest already exists. The two associated objects grow, as it were, together; the interesting portion sheds its quality over the whole; and thus things not interesting in their own right borrow an interest which becomes as real and as strong as that of any natively interesting thing" (p. 74).

"An idea will infect another with its own emotional interest when they have become both associated together into any sort of a mental total" (p. 74).

"The most natively interesting object to a man is his own personal self and its fortunes. We accordingly see that the moment a thing becomes connected with the fortunes of the self, it forthwith becomes an interesting thing" (p. 74)

"From all these facts there emerges a very simple abstract program for the teacher to follow in keeping the attention of the child: Begin with the line of his native interests, and offer him objects that have some immediate connection with these" (p. 75).

"Next, step by step, connect with these first objects and experiences the later objects and ideas which you wish to instill. Associate the new with the old in some natural and telling way, so that the interest, being shed along from point to point, finally suffuses the entire system of objects of thought" (p. 75).

"It is in the fulfilment of the rule that the difficulty lies" (p. 75.)

"The difference between an interesting and a tedious teacher consists in little more than the inventiveness by which the one is able to mediate these associations and connections, and in the dulness in discovering such transitions which the other shows" (p. 75).

"When the geography and English and history and arithmetic simultaneously make cross-references to one another, you get an interesting set of processes all along the line" (p. 76).

"If, then, you wish to insure the interest of your pupils, there is only one way to do it; and that is to make certain that they have something in their minds to attend with, when you begin to talk. That something can consist in nothing but a previous lot of ideas already interesting in themselves, and of such a nature that the incoming novel objects which you present can dovetail into them and form with them some kind of a logically associated or systematic whole" (p. 76).

Attention

"Whoever treats of interest inevitably treats of attention, for to say that an object is interesting is only another way of saying that it excites attention" (p. 77).

"All that we need explicitly to note is that, the more the passive attention is relied on, by keeping the material interesting; and the less the kind of attention requiring effort is appealed to; the more smoothly and pleasantly the classroom work goes on" (p. 78).

"But when all is said and done, the fact remains that some teachers have a naturally inspiring presence and can make their exercises interesting, whilst others simply cannot. And psychology and general pædagogy here confess their failure, and hand things over to the deeper spring of human personality to conduct the task" (pp. 80-81).

"The genius of the interesting teacher consists in sympathetic divination of the sort of material with which the pupil's mind is likely to be already spontaneously engaged, and in the ingenuity which discovers paths of connection from that material to the matters to be newly learned. The principle is easy to grasp, but the accomplishment is difficult in the extreme" (p. 82).

"If the topic be highly abstract, show its nature by concrete examples; if it be unfamiliar, make it figure as part of a story; if it be difficult, couple its acquisition with some prospect of personal gain. Above all things, make sure that it shall run through certain inner changes, since no unvarying object can possibly hold the mental field for long. Let your pupil wander from one aspect to another of your subject, if you do not wish him to wander from it altogether to something else, variety in unity being the secret of all interesting talk and thought" (p. 84)

Memory

"An educated memory depends on an organized system of associations; and its goodness depends on two of their peculiarities: first, on the persistency of the associations; and, second, on their number" (p. 89).

"There can be no improvement of the general or elementary faculty of memory; there can only be improvement of our memory for special systems of associated things; and this latter improvement is due to the way in which the things in question are woven into association with each other in the mind. Intricately or profoundly woven, they are held: disconnected, they tend to drop out just in proportion as the native brain retentiveness is poor" (pp. 90-91).

"Most men have a good memory for facts connected with their own pursuits" (p. 91).

"The best possible sort of system in to which to weave an object, mentally, is a rational system . . . place the thing in its pigeon-hole in a classificatory series; explain it logically by its causes, and deduce from it its necessary effects; find out of what natural law it is an instance,--and you then know it in the best of all possible ways" (p. 92)

"Cramming seeks to stamp things in by intense application immediately before the ordeal. But a thing thus learned can form but few associations. On the other hand, the same thing recurring on different days, in different contexts, read, recited on, referred to again and again, related to other things and reviewed, gets well wrought into the mental structure" (p. 93).

"Man is too complex a being for light to be thrown on his real efficiency by measuring any one mental faculty taken apart from its consensus in the working whole. Such an exercise as this, dealing with incoherent and insipid objects, with no logical connection with each other, or practical significance outside of the 'test,' is an exercise the like of which in real life we are hardly ever called upon to perform. In real life, our memory is always used in the service of some interest: we remember things which we care for or which are associated with things we care for" (p. 96).

"In all primary school work the principle of multiple impressions is well recognized" (p. 99).

"The art of remembering is the art of thinking. When we wish to fix a new thing in either our own mind or a pupil's, our conscious effort should not be so much to impress and retain it as to connect it with something else already there. The connecting is the thinking; and, if we attend clearly to the connection, the connected thing will certainly be likely to remain within recall."

"Be patient and sympathetic with the type of mind that cuts a poor figure in examinations. It may, in the long examination which life sets us, come out in the end in better shape than the glib and ready reproducer, its passions being deeper, its purposes more worthy, its combining power less commonplace, and its total mental output consequently more important" (p. 101).

The Acquisition of Ideas

"The process of education, taken in a large way, may be described as nothing but the process of acquiring ideas or conceptions, the best educated mind being the mind which has the largest stock of them, ready to meet the largest possible variety of the emergencies of life" (p. 103).

"In all this process of acquiring conceptions, a certain instinctive order is followed. There is a native tendency to assimilate certain kinds of conception at one age, and other kinds of conception at a later age" (p. 103).

"Feed the growing human being, feed him with the sort of experience for which from year to year he shows a natural craving, and he will develop in adult life a sounder sort of mental tissue, even though he may seem to be 'wasting' a great deal of his growing time, in the eyes of those for whom the only channels of learning are books and verbally communicated information" (p. 104).

Apperception

Apperception "means nothing more than the act of taking a thing into the mind" (p. 109).

"The gist of the matter is this: Every impression that comes in from without, be it a sentence which we hear, an object of vision, or an effluvium which assails our nose, no sooner enters our consciousness than it is drafted off in some determinate direction or other, making connection with the other materials already there, and finally producing what we call our reaction. The particular connections it strikes into are determined by our past experiences and the 'associations' of the present sort of impression with them" (p. 10).

"The product is a sort of fusion of the new with the old, in which it is often impossible to distinguish the share of the two factors" (p. 110).

The Law of Economy--"in admitting a new body of experience, we instinctively seek to disturb as little as possible our pre-existing stock of ideas." We always try to name a new experience in some way which will assimilate it to what we already know. We hate anything absolutely new, anything without any name, and for which a new name must be forged. So we take the nearest name, even though it be inappropriate" (p. 111).

In later life . . . a new idea or a fact which would entail extensive rearrangement of the previous system of beliefs is always ignored or extruded from the mind in case it cannot be sophistically reinterpreted so as to tally harmoniously with the system" (p. 111).

This economical tendency to leave the old undisturbed leads to what we know as 'old fogyism'" (p. 111) . . . but there are young fogies, too. Old fogyism begins at a younger age than we think. I am almost afraid to say so, but I believe that in the majority of human beings it begins at about twenty-five" (p. 112).

"If an educated man is a group of organized tendencies to conduct, what prompts the conduct is in every case the man's conception of the way in which to name and classify the actual emergency. The more adequate the stock of ideas, the more 'able' is the man, the more uniformly appropriate is his behavior likely to be. The essential preliminary to every decision is the finding of the right names under which to class the proposed alternatives of conduct. He who has few names is in so far forth an incompetent deliberator. The names--and each name stands for a conception or idea--are our instruments for handling our problems and solving our dilemmas" (pp. 114-115).

"The conceptions acquired before thirty remain usually the only ones we ever gain" (p. 115).

The Will

"Volition . . . takes place only when there are a number of conflicting systems of ideas, and depends on our having a complex field of consciousness" (p. 119).

"The interesting thing to note is the extreme delicacy of the inhibitive machinery. A strong and urgent motor idea in the focus may be neutralized and made inoperative by the presence of the very faintest contradictory idea in the margin" (pp. 119-120)

"Voluntary action is at all times a resultant of the compounding of our impulsions with our inhibitions (p. 121).

"You perceive now, my friends, what your general or abstract duty is as teachers. Although you have to generate in your pupils a large stock of ideas, any one of which may be inhibitory, yet you must also see to it that no habitual hesitancy or paralysis of the will ensues, and that the pupil still retains his power of vigorous action" (p. 124).

"Psychology can state your problem in these terms, but you see how impotent she is to furnish the elements of its practical solution. When all is said and done, and your best efforts are made, it will probably remain true that the result will depend more on a certain native tone or temper in the pupil's psychological constitution than on anything else" (p. 124).

"Your task is to build up a character in your pupils; and a character, as I have so often said, consists in an organized set of habits of reaction" (p. 12).

"Our volitional habits depend, then, first, on what the stock of ideas is which we have; and, second, on the habitual coupling of the several ideas with action or inaction respectively" (p. 125).

The search for the "right conception" (p. 125).

In what does a moral act consist? "It consists in the effort of attention by which we hold fast to an idea which but for that effort of attention would be driven out of the mind by the other psychological tendencies that are there. To think, in short, is the secret of will, just as it is the secret of memory" (p. 126).

"Thus are your pupils to be saved: first, by the stock of ideas with which you furnish them; second, by the amount of voluntary attention that they can exert in holding to the right ones, however, unpalatable; and, third, by the several habits of acting definitely on these latter to which they have been successfully trained" (p. 127).

"Our acts of voluntary attention, brief and fitful as they are, are nevertheless momentous and critical, determining us, as they do, to higher or lower destinies" (p. 127).

"The exercise of voluntary attention in the schoolroom must therefore be counted one of the most important points of training that take place there; and the first-rate teacher, by the keenness of the remoter interests which he is able to awaken, will provide abundant opportunities for its occurrence" (pp. 128-129)

"Considering the inner fitness of things, one would rather think that the very first act of a will endowed with freedom should be to sustain the belief in the freedom itself" (p. 129).

"I cannot but think that to apperceive your pupil as a little sensitive, impulsive, associative, and reactive organism, partly fated and partly free, will lead to a better intelligence of all his ways. Understand him, then, as such a subtle little piece of machinery. And if, in addition, you can also see him sub specie boni, and love him as well, you will be in the best possible position for becoming perfect teachers" (p. 131).


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