The Net Advance of Physics RETRO:

Enquiry-Based Learning, 1920s Style

C. G. MacArthur's Scientific Teaching of Science

2013 October 7

Photo by Charlie Nguyen

This week's featured essay could have been written at almost any time between 1700 and next month, and almost anywhere in the Western world -- such is the frustrating timelessness faced by the would-be reformer of higher education!

As it happens, the author is Charles George MacArthur, a fairly obscure American neuroscientist. Born in 1883, he received his AB and AM in chemistry from Oberlin; spent the obligatory year in Heidelberg; was an assistant at the University of Illinois (presumably the "middle western university" mentioned below) from 1912 to 1915; moved to California. His early papers show various affiliations --- USC, Stanford, Berkeley. In middle age he returned to Buffalo, his native city, and devoted the remainder of his career to teaching pharmacology at the medical school there. His research record tapers off in the 1930s, but he is still listed in the 1944 version of American Men of Science. I assume that he retired in 1948, just before the publication of the next edition.

by C. G. MacArthur
[Science 52, 347 (1920 October 15)]

MacArthur's words are in bold.

Science, with its introduction of the laboratory, was expected to revolutionize teaching. But the ever-recurring distrust of the new has given us a curious combination in our scientific departments of the modern laboratory, the medieval lecture, and a degenerate form of the Socratic quiz. And the student feels them about as far apart in content as in origin. While the head of the department is lecturing to him on chlorine, the second man in the department is directing him in the manufacture of sulfur dioxide, and some assistant, once a week, is extracting from his brain all it contains of hydrogen sulfide. An unsavory mess it is!

If we could accept as the purpose of education the development --- perhaps it is more accurate to say the restoration --- of the right mental attitude in the student, we could bring order out of this chaos. For we should then see that the dogmatic handing on of facts through lecture and text-book inculcates the wrong attitude of mind in the student. A student will much more rapidly develop the right mental attitude by discovering facts for himself, even though they were known before, than by memorizing a multitude of facts discovered by other people.

Men prate a good deal these days about the conservation and development of our natural resources, and are curiously neglectful of our greatest resource, humanity's power of creative thinking. The little child is, of course, the scientist par excellence, curious, experimental, creative. Our education must retain and build on the curiosity and experimental eagerness of the child, and develop his power of creative thought. We can never know what the new generation has to contribute to us till we give it greater opportunity to express itself. We think when we have let a student choose his major subject we have given him all the freedom it is safe to give him.

It is curious how far we are from the idea that a university exists primarily to develop this power of creative thought in its students. If our teaching is to develop this power, we much change the focus of our work.

Heretofore we have had vaguely in mind as our focus a text-book or an instructor. But instead of a tyrannical text-book or the instructor's somewhat egotistical presentation of ideas in his lectures, instead even of his charming and stimulating personality, we must chose as the focus for our teaching the student and his problems.

Every student has all sorts of problems more or less consciously in mind when he comes to a university. The laboratories books and instructors should exist as aids in the solution of those. Before he has gone far in his investigations, if laboratory, library and instructor are adequate, they will have led him out toward several other departments of the university, and a continuously increasing number of other problems will be tempting him on.

The lecture, the quiz, the laboratory manual, the text-book must be tools for the student rather than guides. The logical order underlying the text-book and lecture is that of a person with many years experience in a subject. The student approaches the subject in quite a different way, touching it at only a few, possibly unrelated, points. The logic of another, more experienced mind lacks significance for him. He needs to evolve his own orderly arrangement of the subject. That is all he can, as yet, comprehend. The laboratory manual, with its arbitrarily selected experiments, is similarly objectionable; it starts not with the student's problems, but with imposed problems. No lecture, or text-book, or laboratory manual exactly fits any one's needs. The quiz as at present conducted, instead of being used even as Socrates used it to lead up to some definite idea, or instead of its being, as it ought to be, a frank give and take between coworkers, has become merely insulting.

In place of these must be substituted the laboratory, reference books, private consultation with the instructor, group discussions, and an occasional supplementary lecture. This means merely that the university exists for the student, be he called student or instructor, twenty years old or seventy, modest scientist or titled grandee. It means that the older student is to see that the younger student has what he needs to work with, that he can find the reference books he needs, that he has access to the more complete experience of this elder whenever his problem seems to require experience greater than he has at his own command. It means that instead of memorizing facts for possible future use, the student is already at his life business of solving problems, the business he began, by the way, in the cradle. The group discussion will, of course, be based on the problems that have arisen in the laboratory, will be reports of laboratory work, and will relate the knowledge gained there with other sciences or other aspects of the same science. And now and then, there may be a lecture by a visiting scientist on his specialty.

There is, of course, gain rather than loss in the instructor's reporting from time to time his own research work, or some particular interest, or bibliographic suggestions, just as the other students do. Such reports will give the younger students greater acquaintance with the instructor's point of view than they could get, perhaps, merely through conversations. But in such reports the instructor takes his place as a fellow student, not as a superior.

Laboratory, reference books, a more experienced scientist to consult, occasional exchange of ideas with groups of fellow workers, these are all our incipient scientists need.

"... a scientific department of one of our middle western universities ...": Noyes Laboratory, the 1902 chemistry building at UIUC.
[Photo by "Experiment 6", 2009.]

For three years the experiment was made in a scientific department of one of our middle western universities of teaching by the method just suggested, so far as that could be done under the conditions that exist in every university at present. All the courses in the department were so conducted, the students ranging in rank from freshmen to graduates, and numbering usually about twenty to the course.

At the beginning of each course there were conferences with the students, who had registered for the work, to find out why they were there, what contact they had already had with problems in this subject, what points they expected the course to clear up for them. They were asked to prepare a rough outline of the subject, limited though their knowledge was, and from this outline their laboratory work was begun, so that they began with the points of contact previously made with the subject, and were already at work organizing what slight knowledge they had.

Each student's laboratory work was made at all times the center of his activity; it was starting point and unifying element. The questions that arose in the student's mind during his laboratory work were the basis of laboratory conversations and class-room discussions. Most of the conferences on work took place in the laboratory, when problems arose. The class room was used in part for the discussion of problems that could not well be worked out in the laboratory because of lack of time or equipment. This discussion of more general problems and of investigations carried on by other scientists, though usually introduced by the instructor, was brought in when suggested by the laboratory work of the students. Each student presented, also, during this class hour, the results of his own research studies. And though many problems were individual in origin, some of them were, of course, related, and lent themselves well to group discussion. It is true the students were less interested in the discussion of each other's investigations than in their own; still, a problem that a fellow student feels vividly is more interesting than one imposed by an instructor. Nearly all work was done independently of both his fellows and the instructor, in so far as the student was able, unaided, to solve his own difficulties.

Most of the systemization of work was done in laboratory conversations between instructor and student. Such correlation was urged throughout the course. Attempt was made to order data as they accumulated. At the end of the course, this systemization was rounded out in a second outline of the subject the students prepared.

The students almost invariably floundered at first. They had grown so dependent on directions that for a time they could only with difficulty initiate work of their own. Gradually they came to understand what was expected and they became clearer as to what they themselves wanted. And as the course continued the method seemed to them increasingly desirable and successful.

There were difficulties and hindrances in applying the method, of course. Almost all of them came from having to fit it into the regular university system. It couldn't be adopted wholeheartedly because of the regular schedule; and when work was prescribed in all other courses and enforced by examinations, there was a tendency, naturally, to slight a more flexible course.

And it is difficult to persuade a student one is really interested in his opinions when all through his home and school life independent thinking has been discouraged as inconvenient. But probably it is better to save him at the eleventh hour than let his power to think be "dammed" forever!

It certainly seems absurd to dictate all details of work to the undergraduate and expect the graduate student suddenly to manifest originality, initiative and creative power. The method of the little child and the graduate student should not be interrupted by the years of directed mental effort our present school system imposes, should not because it is inefficient, and so fatiguing as to be almost disastrous. It is equally important that the beginnings of a science be taught by the scientific method as that graduate work be so carried on. For the early years in any science should be given largely to discovery and original research, as are the early years of childhood. Thinking and first-hand contact would better come early, else they may never come.

The difficulty of handling many students in this way is more fancied than real. One can not, of course, believe it possible to know and develop individually as many students as one can lecture at. But if lecturer, laboratory assistants, quiz aides combined and divided the entire group in any department, students would develop more power than under the present method. They might not come in contact with as many facts, but they would retain more of those they did become acquainted with, and their power of thought would be much greater. We have probably swung to an extreme anyway in paying large salaries to a few lecturing departmental heads; we should have a better faculty and consequently a more creative generation of scientists developing if we spread our resources more equably over the entire teaching force.

A few other objections to the method one always expects to encounter in any discussion of it: that "students are purposeless and lazy; they must have their work planned for them and be held or driven to it. They are children." Yet an unspoiled child is purposeful. And even if a freshman is somewhat dulled by his previous training, that seems scarcely a good reason for going on with the dulling process.

One hears, too, that the years of preparation are so short and the facts of knowledge so many it is the business of the instructor to organize material into simple form, easy to memorize, and give it to the students in lectures or text-books. Of course if a university chooses to do this inferior sort of work, training accurate automata instead of turning out thinkers, that is, presumably, its privilege. One wishes, though, there were some place students who didn't choose to become automata could go.

So little of life is lived at the conscious level, and it is primarily from that part of life that progress is obtained; it seems a pity to shorten a man's real living and limit his contribution by discouraging living at that higher level.

["Living consciously" was a value much stressed by the radical intelligentsia of the early 1900s; P. D. Ouspensky even elevated it to the status of a religion. Perhaps this was a reaction to the concurrent discovery by Freud and Jung of unconscious forces and their dominance in life and thought.]

Another objection that is subconscious rather than expresed is that the method requires rather more self restraint and mental flexibility than most instructors feel equal to. Whether or not it seems worth while to excavate beneath the crust of indifference formed in self-defense during the preparatory years of prescribed work will depend on the value one places on creative thinking. Perhaps it does not seem to every one our greatest natural resource; but such an one is probably not himself very creative!

It is frequently contended that under such a method of teaching a student will lack system and an orderly grasp on the whole subject. The amount of systemization of knowledge will undoubtedly vary among free students; some orderly arrangement of material there must be. But the creative mind is less intent on classifying data than in gathering more, and in projecting new theories. It cares less to make of itself a card index of the literature on any subject than to "push forward the boundaries of knowledge."

The real rock on which the method is likely to founder, however, is the executive mania for definite classification of mentality. "We must rule out variations from the medium. We must know in just what stage of development each student's mind is --- or rather, at just what point in the assignment of the year's work he is. However could we give degrees? We can not be bothered with all this individualized education. We don't want thinkers anyway; we want followers."

None of these difficulties and hindrances greatly matter, once we are convinced of the need for developing creative thinkers in our scientific courses.

The Boyhood of Lincoln: Reading at Night by Eastman Johnson (1868).

But it will require grace to step down from the lime light of the lecture platform, to cure ourselves of this contagion of text-book writing. We elders are so sure that out of our greater experience we can save our students effort and time. It is a clogging efficiency we seek. The greatest contribution we can make to a developing mind is to "stand out of its sunlight." And in the long run, that is the most efficient method; for individual initiative produces most in the least time, and produces it with a minimum of effort and friction.

The problem we ourselves find is a fascination; the problem some one else sets us is a task. And our memory in the latter case is treacherously unreliable, while the knowledge we worry out for ourselves is seldom forgotten.

-- C. G. MacArthur,
Stanford University

In the same journal where MacArthur's essay first appeared, one may still find similar proposals. For example, in an article called "Increasing Persistence of College Students in STEM" by Mark J. Graham et al. [Science 341, 1455 (2013 September 27)], we find the following advice:

  1. "Faculty and instructional staff should teach undergraduate research courses ... and encourage students to form learning communities;
  2. "Students should be educated about the benefits of learning communities and supported to create their own;
  3. "Departments should examine curricula and reward structures to incentivize effective teaching, and then align them to enable early research and active learning ... "

The 2013 paper, although obviously written in the extremely formal prose style that has replaced the more casual and literary usage of a century ago, is very similar in spirit to MacArthur: "The PCAST [President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology] report recommends implementing research courses for all beginning undergraduates. Research courses provide students with the project ownership and intellectual challenges of empirical pursuit. At the same time, these courses use teaching time and materials efficiently by having student teams work on parallel problems that require similar techniques. In research courses, students engage in authentic research --- they design experiments, collect and analyze data, and sometimes make significant discoveries; thus, undergraduates in research courses experience the same dramatic gains in learning and positive attitudes toward science as those who conduct research in faculty laboratories."

Very similar to MacArthur indeed, but there are subtle differences of tone which perhaps say much about the evolution of Western society in recent years. In particular, like nearly all recent calls for educational reform, Graham et al. put much emphasis on "teams" and group work; this contrasts sharply with MacArthur's "Nearly all work was done independently of both his fellows and the instructor, in so far as the student was able, unaided, to solve his own difficulties." The (imaginary) ideal scientist of the 1920s --- Sinclair Lewis's Martin Arrowsmith, for example --- was a lone genius, a rugged individualist cowboying on the frontiers of knowledge. Today's equivalent is far tamer, and plays well with others.

Attitudes toward the Establishment seem also to have changed. MacArthur wanted to unleash the power of creativity for its own sake, and has harsh words for the bureaucrats who whose apple-carts genius might overturn. Today's reformers undoubtedly hold similar values, but they feel constrained to speak softly to those who hold the purse-strings. They justify their idealistic efforts to increase the number of scientists (and especially the number of scientists from underrepresented groups) on strictly practical grounds: they say they are addressing a "shortfall" of boffins anticipated in the coming decade. "But many academic leaders have not responded aggressively to workforce needs by implementing measures that increase retention. Some of this inaction is likely due to lack of knowledge about proven retention strategies."

Perhaps this is a wise approach; perhaps it is the only way to secure the necessary funds and ensure the survival of a scientific community in these anti-intellectual times. Still, the introduction of new educational measures at the behest of capital and the resultant coöption of reform by the powers that be was something MacArthur's contemporaries feared; the hostile caricature of a false utopia (Rockefeller University, barely disguised) in Arrowsmith illustrates this point.

As it turned out, the Establishments within and beyond academia united in the Twentieth Century to keep university reform within narrow bounds. Today, while things may go differently -- we can hope they will, at least --, it might be wise to remember that the fundamental values of those who demand a "STEM-skilled workforce" and those who care about the advancement of civilisation are not necessarily the same, whatever tactical alliances may be proposed.

Abbott Hall (Health and Sciences Library), University at Buffalo, The State University of New York. [Photo by "Davidhar", 2012]