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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 30


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In reply to your circular of June 1st, concerning the syllabus, we beg to offer the following remarks. For the great majority of the children attending the public schools of the Colony, it may safely be said that the chief requirements are that they should be able to read and write well, and be fairly expert in arithmetic.

The necessity imposed upon teachers of small schools, where only one teacher is employed, of having their scholars prepared in all the subjects of a somewhat extensive syllabus, must tend to render the teaching of what may be called the indispensable subjects anything but thorough. The time available for reading and writing in schools of this class is quite insufficient. By reading is not meant the merely mechanical art, but the habit of reading carefully and analytically, so that the full meaning of the passage read is conveyed to the mind. Possibly there is no habit which presents so great a hindrance to mental improvement as that of reading a series of words without a thorough grasp of their meaning, and no habit is more common. The geography and history taught in our schools should not consist so much of an accumulation of facts and dates, for the scholar may safely leave school without the possession of a hoard of particulars, if in the teaching of these subjects the main end and purpose have been to render their study entertaining and interesting. Much more valuable possessions for the young scholar at that stage of his career would be, first, a knowledge of the fact that there is actual enjoyment to be derived from these studies; and secondly, a disposition to continue his researches. This may be to some extent provided for, and the difficulty concerning reading lessened, by the use in our schools of the very attractive Geographical and Historical Readers, as used under the English Code.

With reference to grammar, we are told that the object of teaching it is that boys and girls may learn to speak and write their mother tongue correctly. If a child does learn to speak and write correctly, he does so by example and practice. Plenty of children can be found who have passed through the Sixth Standard, and who could parse and analyse fairly well, and yet would not in everyday intercourse use ten words of the language without speaking ungrammatically. It does not, however, follow from this that the teaching of grammar can be dispensed with. What is really necessary is that the subject be taught as practically as possible. If Abbott is correct in his conclusion that "no child ought to be able to parse a sentence which he does not thoroughly understand," then the practice of giving children a portion of a reading book, out of which to pick certain parts of speech without reference to their function, is strongly to be condemned. For the words in the English language have no outward shape which shows their classification. Function alone decides that, and therefore grammar can only be taught properly by determining that the use of a word shall be stated before its classification is fixed.

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With reading, writing, elementary drawing, and vocal music, arithmetic, and composition, and for girls domestic economy and needlework, as the absolutely essential subjects, and history, geography, and grammar by rule as subsidiary subjects, and treated as such at examination, the schools of the Colony would be doing far more really good work for the bread-winners and housekeepers of the future than is at present being accomplished. It has been proved in England that there was very little reason for the outcry raised some time ago about over-pressure in the primary schools, and that five years after the Education Act came into force the mortality among children between the ages of 5 and 15 had decreased 23 per cent. If overpressure was found to exist at all, it was amongst the poorest and sickliest children, and the Code now permits the withdrawal of such children from examination. It is matter for regret that a regulation which permitted a similar procedure here is cancelled by the new Standard Regulations. The uniformity of treatment required under the Standards, with the endless diversity of temperament, and of physical and mental capacity, existing amongst children, must always be a stumbling-block to the teacher. There is not sufficient evidence of over-pressure as affecting health, in this district, to prove that an alteration of the syllabus is necessary specially on that account. The question of whether the system of education laid down is the best fitted to prepare the children of New Zealand for the after duties of life is quite as deserving of consideration. Still over-pressure under a system such as ours may easily occur, especially if the teacher be not discreet in the matter of home lessons.

Whichever reason may be considered most potent in calling for a modification of the syllabus, there is no doubt that an alteration in the direction of assimilating it to the English Code would be a boon to teachers and scholars alike. It is not easy to find a reason why a Standard under the New Zealand Regulations should be more exacting than a Standard under the Code; and if the educational authorities in England find it desirable to spread the school course over seven standards, the difference in circumstances does not satisfactorily explain why the New Zealand child is to be turned out a finished article in one year less.

Please to accept apologies for the delay in writing to you.


As one who has passed through every phase of the teacher's profession, I must own there is nothing, in my opinion, so distasteful to a teacher of strong individuality as the rule requiring him to teach subjects that he knows full well to be next to useless, and to the neglect of subjects which, were he permitted to teach, might become the forerunner of blessings to most of his pupils in their after lives.

Every scheme of national education which has come under my notice fails, so it appears to me, in this all important principle, viz., that the children and teachers, and even the subjects which have to be taught, are made to bend to departmental plans, rules, and regulations, instead of the department being made to adapt its administrative plans and methods to the special needs and individualities of districts. Were such a course adopted as here pointed out, we should not see, as I venture to say is to be seen daily in page 8 this Colony, the instruction and training of children being bent to the whims and wishes of this inspector or of that one, to the neglect of the one prime object of school training: the preparation of children for the due fulfilment of their duties as citizens.

There are in this district, as I suppose in every other in New Zealand, three aspects of social life, represented by town, country, and bush; and the condition and wants of the people differ very greatly in each: the town from the country, the country from the bush; and also the bush aspect of life is farther removed from the town than from the country. As the aspects are different, so are the ways and conceptions of the people. The local surroundings, the wants and the pursuits of bush settlers have little in common with the ways of living and pursuits, of the. people in the towns; and is it not natural to suppose that the education of the children, if it is to be something better than a show, should be arranged upon and adapted to these different modes of living? But as it is now there is no difference in the standard requirements for the children throughout the Colony. They must all pass through the same needle's eye. Chinese uniformity is the recognised order of the day, and even inspectors are not allowed to deviate from the lines laid down by the Government, however necessary the inspectors may deem it desirable to do so. The future bushman, ploughman, mechanic, merchant, schoolmaster, and professor are provided in the Government workshops with exactly the same kinds of tools, to perform entirely different functions in life, with the result that we find words are now an equivalent for ideas, memory for mind, and instruction for education.

I might pursue this very interesting and important subject at much greater length, were it needful to do so, to show that education, in my judgment, to be effective and permanent must be of two sorts: General and Special. After the training of the organs of sensation: sight, feeling, taste, touch, and smell, which, bye the way, ought to be the main aim of our infant schools, there are only two school subjects, both of them mechanical, which are common and needful for all. I refer to Reading and Writing. These are the two modes by which mankind in general communicate their thoughts to one another. They are the pictorial means of conveying thoughts and facts without the use of vocal sounds. As soon as these arts have been well and fully mastered by children, specialisation really begins. It is for this important reason, among others, that I am not in favour of the present standard syllabus of instruction. Whilst we want Government control and Government supervision, we do not want Government uniformity in education. We want centralism and localism harmonised, although the problem may seem a difficult one to solve. To me the duty of the Government is clear. It should insist upon all children being prepared for citizenship, but it should throw the onus of preparation upon the counties and boroughs. At once we should have adaptation and differentiation in education. By means of inspectors the Government should know what districts are doing in the way of advancing education, but it should not insist upon this subject or upon that one being taught to the exclusion of everything else. I am opposed to any limit being put upon what children may learn, so long as there is no age clause in operation when each standard must be passed, and no payment by results. I believe that the powers of children in the acquisition of knowledge are very great, if the subjects they are permitted to learn are adapted to their mental tastes, which, by-the-way, is simply specialisation. I do think, however, that the present Standard subjects are too page 9 numerous to compass thoroughly in the short space of 950 hours, which is the actual school time between one standard examination and another, and that much better work would be done by having a seventh, and even an eighth, standard, and by an examination in special subjects one year, and in general subjects the next year, and so on, in all standards higher than the Second. Examinations would then become more real on the part of the inspectors, and less harassing and detrimental to the children.

As to details in relation to the syllabus of subjects now prescribed for the standards, I think they are well drawn out, but, as explained above, I object to a stereotyped syllabus for a nation of children whose mental likes and dislikes are as various as their bodily ones, and whose life pursuits will be, of necessity, as diversified as their tastes. Were an extended standard syllabus prepared in Botany, Geology, Natural History, Cookery, Needlework, Drawing, Agriculture, Chemistry, Economy, Physical Geography, Mechanics, &c., just as there is in Arithmetic, History, &c.; and were the choice of subjects other than the general ones left optional to the several districts, we should see the law of adaptation being applied to the promotion and advancement of education, as it is seen throughout the animal and vegetable kingdoms, and the results would be infinitely better than they now are in too many cases, where cramming the memories of children with useless rubbish is made to do duty for the expanding of their minds and the development of their intellects.

What we do want is a meeting of educationists to draw up a feasible scheme, not based upon what England does or upon what Victoria would like to do, but upon what we ourselves ought to do tinder the varying conditions of life in New Zealand, so as to produce earnest, intelligent, and industrious citizens, and men who will love and look upon the Colony as their fatherland.


First, as regards present syllabus. That Drawing, Geography, and Grammar be removed from the list of pass subjects and made class subjects.

Second, that the Arithmetic in all standards be considerably lessened, both in extent and in difficulty, so that ability to work purely mechanical sums may be sufficient to secure a pass.

Third, that History be removed entirely from the Third Standard work, and that Science be made an additional subject.

Fourth, that more freedom be allowed to teachers in grouping classes, and that no more than two additional subjects be required (at least, in the case of country schools); and that amongst these additional subjects Mathematics and Latin may be included.

According to these suggestions the Pass Subjects would be four instead of six.

1.Heading and Definition.
2.Spelling and Dictation.
3.Writing (including Composition in four highest standards).
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The Class subjects would be:
1.Geography (II. to VI. Standards).
2.History (IV. to VI. Standards).
4.Grammar (III. to VI. Standards).
Additional subjects (only two to be selected):

Or other suitable subjects, as Mathematics, Latin, or French.


In constructing a syllabus care should be taken to include those subjects the study of which will afford a training fitted to turn out men and women best able to discharge their duties in life. In this view the acquisition of knowledge is not looked upon as everything, and a child's training is not gauged by the number of subjects it has been set to study. On the contrary, only that knowledge is considered valuable which the pupil has assimilated, and which forms a basis for still further acquirements. A syllabus constructed on this principle will discourage all attempts to cultivate children's minds, regardless of their bodies; "for, after all," as Herbert Spencer says, "success in life is far more a matter of energy than information."

I.In a rational syllabus the subjects of each standard ought to be suited to the mental development of children of the age at which the standard is usually passed. Progress, as far as possible, should be from the concrete to the abstract. Those abstract studies which require careful reasoning ought to appear late in the syllabus.
II.The subjects should be such as provide each natural power with suitable exercise.
III.Special attention and prominence ought to be given to such subjects as give a power of acquiring knowledge, to those subjects which, when mastered, become instruments of knowledge. (Heading, for example, may be looked upon as a key fitted to unlock the vast treasures of learning.)

Reading, Writing, Arithmetic, and English Composition will thus form the important subjects in a rational syllabus. The highest importance ought to be attached to intelligent reading, and this might very well be done by lessening the requirements in arithmetic, which appear to be too high in the New Zealand Code. So much stress is laid on the ability to solve problems page 11 in arithmetic, that in a number of schools one and a-half hours per day are devoted to this subject, often, doubtless, with the result that the brain is overworked. Ability to work mechanical examples correctly ought to secure a pass, and ability to solve problems to earn special commendation.

Geography ought to be made a class subject, and should not be taught under the Fourth Standard. The requirements in History for the Third Standard are ridiculously extensive.

Formal Grammar ought to be made a class subject, and greater importance ought to be attached to English Composition. Grammar ought to follow Composition, and not to precede it. This is Nature's method, and ought to be followed in practice.

Elementary Science, as at present taught, is perfectly useless. In the most of cases it is taught like a literary subject, and not experimentally, and therefore degenerates into mere cram.

Drawing ought to be made a class subject, and not as at present a pass subject.


I consider that the powers of memory should not be over-taxed by the necessity of keeping up the dates, names, and special facts of "history"; as also minute details of places, relative positions, and other particulars required by a constant repetition of "geography" in order to pass at the examination. I consider this a serious mistake, and from my experience of about thirty years, I venture to say, such crucial taxation of memory is bordering on a system of "torture." In business life no professional man or clerk in an office would be expected to retain in his memory at the end of the year the details of every case and business transaction so as to pass an examination. It is sufficient if the requisite skill is found for dealing with the cases as they arise. To this end I think all training should lead up. The memory is dissipated by the storing up of special details which can be ascertained from books of reference.

"Geography" being taken out of "pass-subjects"; and "history "in the "class-subjects" not so rigidly taught as heretofore, more time would be left for the explanation and practice of "arithmetic,"—a subject which requires considerable time in order to give facility and accuracy in working out the questions. There would be also more time for "reading" with explanation. I am of opinion that more books should be read during the year than the teacher can find time for under the existing syllabus. Lessons on "moral subjects," especially "obedience, truth, and honesty" would be beneficial in breaking down the tendency to educate the "mere intellectual side," which, pure and simple, I agree with a learned Doctor of Divinity, is "the soul of diabolism." The education of the heart would thus be provided for. And if we are to aim at educating the young to become good and useful citizens, the influence of the teacher must supplement that of the parent and pastor by presenting the straight paths of moral rectitude.

A few subjects only as "pass-subjects," and those subjects progressive in view of the principle "festina lente," (for the old proverb is true, "cito maturum cito putridum,"—soon ripe, soon rotten) should be the rule on which a syllabus ought to be constructed.

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My opinion is that the lines that have been laid down in our educational system in regard to both syllabus and standards have been too much the work of theorists, and that consequently they are tending to make our teachers mere machines and our scholars educated parrots. The system practically says: here are numbers of children, and the teacher's duty is to turn them out according to a prescribed model. Now, children are not like timber or iron or any other inert material, that, given a knowledge of their constituents and the necessary experience and skill, success in reproducing the model can be insured. My study and experience of children has proved to me that there are mental and constitutional differences in them that require to be carefully studied and considered if one desires to see produced in them true educational success. To some the syllabus as prescribed is no overtask; to others quite the contrary. Mental development does not take place in some so early as in others; and in the case of the former to bring them up to the standard, a laborious and at the same time ruinous system of cramming has to be resorted to, the result being more destructive to success in after life than if one-half of the so called education were dispensed with. I could, if necessary, detail cases in point coming within my own knowledge to illustrate this view. Children are in many respects like the lower animals, or like plants in the vegetable kingdom. If you lay down any cast iron rule for their training, in some cases you may succeed, in others, the results will be unsatisfactory. And as with the training of the lower animals or in the growing of plants, the main secret of success lies in the skill and intelligence of the trainer or gardener, so the successful education of children depends mainly I affirm in the skill and intelligence of the teachers. The present system may tend to the development of a phase of skill in cramming that may be destructive to the exercise of that intelligence necessary to be exercised in determining how and in what quantity and form instruction can be best imparted to the young plants, with a view to their success in after life. What I think should be more aimed at than is at present, is to provide our schools with well-trained, intelligent teachers, who are able to discriminate and weigh the capabilities of their scholars, and who should be allowed far more exercise of their own individuality in the management of the schools under their charge, and who, from their daily careful study of the mental and physical constitutions of their scholars, ought to be the best judges of the amount and kind of work most suitable and expedient in each case, and that is likely to prove most successful and useful in after life. This leads me to express my conviction that the system of classification of teachers adopted by the Inspector-General, is not calculated to encourage the production of the best workmen.

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