La educación científica en Estados Unidos entre 1890 y 1930: reseña de un libro de Sally Gregory Kohlstedt por Maria Elice Brzezinski Prestes

Sally Gregory Kohlstedt, -ver su curriculum aquí-  es actualmente profesora de la Universidad de Minnesota.


Imágenes de mariposas por María Sybilla Merian (1647-1717), icono elegido por Sally Gregory Kolhstedt para ilustrar su website

En 2010 publicó un importante libro sobre cómo se incorporó la preocupación por la enseñanza de la ciencia, y particularmente de las ciencias de la naturaleza, movimiento que se denominó «nature study», en el curriculum de los escolares norteamericanos en el gozne de los siglos XIX al XX a través de una alianza entre líderes científicos, reformadores educativos y maestros y maestras con interés en introducir innovaciones en las aulas.

Se trata de la obra Teaching Children Science. Hands-on Nature Study in North America, 1890-1930. Un índice de sus contenidos y una selección de las observaciones de algunos de sus lectores se encuentran en la información ofrecida por su editor: la prestigiosa editoral de la Universidad de Chicago. Ver aquí esa información.

Portada libro Kohlstedt  Teaching Children Science

Ahora en el Newsletter de abril-mayo de 2014 -ver aquí– del International History, Philosophy and Science Teaching Group, (IHPST), impulsora de la revista Science and Education, se publica una amplia reseña de esta obra a cargo de Maria Elice Brzezinski Prestes, del Departamento de Genética y Biología Evolutiva del Instituto de Ciencias de la vida y del grupo de investigación Historia, Teoría e Ensino de Ciencias de la Universidad de Sao Paulo. Ver su curriculum aquí.

Reproduzco acá esta interesante reseña

The development of science teaching programs in schools is an important and yet relatively unexplored subject in history of education in general. The intricate ways by which scientific ideas about nature were first organized for presentation to children also arouse interest in the history of science. They reflect the natural sciences community’s growing authority and the recognition that knowing more about nature is fundamentally important for future generations. The approaches used by the anonymous teachers who initiated the implementation of a specific science curriculum for children, in turn, are inspiring to those involved with science education, whether in research or in the classroom practice.

Teaching Children Science: Hands-on Nature Study in North America, 1890-1930 is a vivid and strongly documented narrative that has much to reveal for all these three specific audiences. Each one will find its own focus within the narrative of how American children in that period learned about the natural world, how they were taught, and who taught them. Additionally, the book provides an impressive “institutional account of the circumstances that brought the idea of nature study into prominence” (p. 1-2) in American school systems at the beginning of the twentieth century. Although the nature study movement was well investigated before, with the production of iconic works such as Kevin Connor Armitage’s The Nature Study Movement: The Forgotten Popularizer of American’s Conservation Ethics (2009), Kohlstedt’s exhaustive research sheds new light on this subject.

Sally Gregory Kohlstedt is a professor in The Program of History of Science and Technology at the University of Minnesota. With a long and active role in the History of Science Society, Kohlstedt has a steady production of books and papers in this field of study. Her previous monographs demonstrate an outstanding expertise in the history of scientific institutions, such as The Formation of the American Scientific Community: The American Association for the Advancement of Science (1976) and The Establishment of Science in America (1999), co-authored with Michael Sokal and Bruce Lewenstein. Her approach links the dynamics of science with culture to expose how social, political, and intellectual matters can influence scientists and contrariwise. To do this, the historian of science looks for the intersections “where scientific practitioners cross paths” with another audiences, as she states in her curriculum vitae. This research program is precisely what she delivers in Teaching Children Science. The book brings out the frame of institutions that engendered the connections between leading scientists, educational reformers, and science instructors—particularly women, who were mostly responsible for implementing the new curriculum in schools.

The book has eight chapters that cover different perspectives on a movement that introduced science—“nature study,” as it was named at the time—into public schools in U.S. From the 1880s onwards, as several examples in the book illustrate, the reader learns how the nature study curriculum spread throughout the country after flourishing in the North-East, the upper Midwest, and the Far West. From major urban cities in these regions, such as New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, the program spread into suburbs, small towns, and rural one- and two-room schools in the public, private, and parochial school systems. Kohlstedt briefly mentions the introduction of the nature study in other countries, but only for English-speaking ones such as Canada (Ontario, Guelph, and Montreal), Britain, Scotland, Ireland, and a very quick mention to Australia and New Zealand. So a pertinent criticism can be made to the “North America” of the title of the book, which creates the expectation of a thorough approach to Canada and Mexico, and this last country is not even mentioned.

This panorama is constructed from an immense mass of documents selected from two decades of research. The archive list draws from 39 different institutions, including the United States National Archives, museum and academic society archives, many university libraries, and some public libraries in the key regions she inspects. Some special collections of children’s textbooks and popular books, government reports and bulletins, biographical dictionaries, as well as 26 pages of secondary sources indicate the extent of Kohlstedt’s careful research. However, what is so important as the hard work of fishing relevant information from all that material is the subtle narrative that emerges from the lives of the teachers, scientists, and others engaged in nature study education in the USA during the four decades covered by the book.

And what was the nature study movement, and what was the tendency of that curriculum? Finding herself obliged to avoid a simple and comprehensive definition of the nature study movement, the author concludes that it was precisely its rich and varied expressions that helped explain its success. Basically, nature study assembled a curriculum devoted to teaching hands-on and age-specific activities that related to the students’ personal experience. Students should be acquainted to current scientific thinking, they believed, through close observation and face-to-face contact with the natural world, which would furnish them with an appreciation for the processes of living things in their environment. Nature study also had a strong association with themes of civic and moral uplift.

The nature study movement is presented as deeply rooted in the American enthusiasm for natural science and commitment to education for all children. To account for this history the author was guided by some general concerns that cross the whole text, such as connecting “some of the key advocates who framed” the fundamental principles of the nature study program, the “threads of preparation by teachers and supervisors who implemented it,” and the “multiple ways that the concept continued to resound long after the term had receded from school usage” (p. 2).

In the Introduction we learn about the two main theoretical aspects that informed nature study in the USA. One of them was the thought developed in the 1870s by reforming educational philosophers who were trained in German pedagogy and psychology. They had a strong commitment to a child-centered curriculum that took the developmental stage of the child into consideration. And this aspect connects with the second one, which was documented by nature study practices in a great number of urban and rural schools, namely the development of theories and methods concentrated in learning about nature outside with materials close at hand. Not coincidentally, the conception of “Educating with Nature’s Own Book” provides the title for the book’s first chapter. Leading scientists such as Louis Agassiz and educators like Horace Mann are mentioned side by side with the teachers who criticized traditional methods of teaching botanical or zoological terms.

The overview of the meaning and values pursued by the nature study movement at the time gradually appears in Teaching Children Science through the titles of a vast collection of materials mentioned throughout the book. Diverse textbooks, handbooks, pamphlets, leaflets, and journals on the subject were written by naturalists and practicing educators of the time. Outstanding are the thirteen guides for science teaching published under the auspices of the Boston Society of Natural History between 1876 and 1896. One of these guides, A First Lesson in Natural History (1879), written by Elizabeth Cary Agassiz in the form of a familiar conversation with young women, presents the seashore life in eastern Massachusetts. Botany for Young People and Common Schools: How Plants Grow (1858), written by Asa Gray, reached numerous editions. Child’s Book of Nature (1885) by Worthington Hooker was addressed to “the mother and the teacher.” Reading these books and the others mentioned below should not be of interest to historians of science only; taking into account the context in which they were written, they can still provide inspiration for science and biology teachers today.

In the second chapter, “Devising a Curriculum for Nature Study,” readers are acquainted with some of the intricate relationships between researchers at leading universities, from Massachusetts to Chicago, and the US school system. Above all, in this chapter more so than in the others, we can see the extent of the contribution of Kohlstedt’s book, even compared to revisionist historiography that largely concentrated on “governing education and issues of consolidation, standardization, and requirements” (p. 9) by focusing on those who had social or political power or on how parents and teachers discussed and defined programs. Instead, Kohlstedt focuses on how curriculum was negotiated among administrators, teachers, parents, political leaders, community activists, and educational theorists. Illuminating all these different characters, the historian of science reveals “how gender, class, and ethnicity were inevitably woven” (p. 9) in the nature study practices, as she promised in the Introduction.

Chapters three and four illustrate the diversity of the initiatives that introduced nature study in urban and rural areas, both in public and parochial school systems. The spirit of teaching with the world in which the child lives and its natural environment, reinforced by direct observation and cultivation of sympathetic acquaintance with nature, narrowed the relationships or “cross paths” between scientific educators, urban schools, and a variety of institutions, predominantly but not exclusively scientific, such as natural history museums, botanical gardens, zoological parks, and aquariums.

It is striking that the most remote cities across the country were working to find “the one best system” (p. 40) of education in “standardized programs intended to produce moral citizens able to work in their communities” (p. 68). The distinctive ways in which nature study was implemented emerged as opportunities to promote, for instance, community projects for eliminating mosquitoes and thus stem the incidence of malaria or to encouraging gardens with edible and flowering plants in local schools in Worcester, Massachusetts. Here, as throughout the book, the author deeply explores some inspiring examples while simultaneously mentioning many other cases that illustrate the national scope of nature study.

In rural areas, courses that were intended for future farmers, which focused on topics like entomology and agriculture, kept the face-to-face approach to nature, the use of natural specimens, and field excursions. The Handbook of Nature Study (1911) by Anna Comstock went through more than twenty editions and translation into eight languages (and remains in print today). It is an outstanding example of that direct approach to nature colored by a clear ecological sensibility and a commitment to the growing conservation movement. Another influential and widely distributed book was The Nature-Study Idea (1909), by Liberty Hyde Bailey, which influenced the implementation of a child-centered curriculum and guided teachers in exploring the intricacies of plant and animal life.

Throughout the book criticism and resistance to the nature study curriculum are also examined. This criticism related to various aspects of the curriculum, such as the extra time and attention required from the teacher in preparation for the new task and the organization of materials for practical classes. In addition to nature study, other educational “fads” that were criticized included music and drawing, because they “distracted students from basic studies and led to failure on standard tests” (p. 64). The press sarcastically criticized schools for “forcing pupils to take to the woods” to become naturalists “of the Robinson Crusoe type” (p. 43). Even inside universities that were engaged with educational research and preparing graduates to become instructors in normal schools, authorities advised to not let it become known that the chief interest was in the primary school because it represented something “beneath the dignity of any university to identify itself with the training for the instruction of young children” (p. 39), such as documented by an educator in University of Illinois in Urbana. The “feminine” face, soft and sentimental, lacking “rigor,” was pointed out by some of the critics as responsible for the nonscientific character of the nature study and as a reason to drag it out of school curricula.

The fifth chapter is in some ways the most exciting one; its departure from the format of the previous chapters means that it could be read separately as a summary of the theoretical trends that the previous chapters explore in more detail. The chapter lists the four aforementioned educational approaches in nature study and explores how each one influenced the implementation of the curriculum, not without some overlapping between the different approaches. The first was that of initial foundations for nature study, established under the instructor Wilbur Jackman and his Chicago colleagues; they combined their own scientific interests with child-centered pedagogy and ideas from some European educational philosophers. The second approach, compatible with the former, was developed by Charles and Frank McMurry based on the educational philosophy of Johann Friedrich Herbart, who, among other things, recommended integrating different subjects, such as pairing discussion of natural objects with painting, clay modeling, and written self- expression. The third approach was that of the Worchester’ schools, where Clifton Hodge’s projects focused on empirical and pragmatic aspects of the everyday life of children and citizens in an industrial context. The fourth outlook, expressed in Bailey and Comstock’s works, assumed that despite the familiarity of rural children with nature, it was necessary to attune them to more aesthetic and scientific ways of understanding both the domesticated and the wild landscapes in which they lived. The syntheses made in this chapter shows that these theoretical engagements gave rise to the multiple facets that characterized the nature study movement.

The rest of the chapter, in a series of smaller sections, resumes and expands new perspectives on nature study applications. Despite the emphasis on “nature, not books” that was advocated everywhere, one section shows how initiatives that enabled elementary teachers to teach the new curriculum resulted in an exponential growth of educational market in the latter decades of the century. Nature study curricula spread as a result of that broadening market for different pedagogical materials, from books and manuals to leaflets, pamphlets, illustrations, hanging wall charts, and even games. Another section resumes the debate over traditional classrooms and shows that nature study incorporated the reforming educators’ emphasis on the importance of the child as the center of the teaching process. They focused on activating children’s inner potential for observation and reason and on linking all the sciences to and through life experiences. Following Herbart’s ideas, the active correlation of subjects like art, literature, and geography, was proposed within an integrated curriculum. A new section discusses how, after the turn of the century, psychological approaches took place that were derived from the psychology of Wilhelm Wundt. These approaches inspired the research of G. Stanley Hall at Clark University as well as Clifton Hodge’s projects on “out-of-door life.” Other sections also resume the aforementioned theoretical debate by focusing on different aspects of it, such as the particular development of illustrations, animal stories, and connection between nature study and civic reform. As the author concludes, the multiple strands of nature study meant that it was never standardized in a single, prescriptive curriculum. And it could not have been different, since the only common point was the use of local materials by a creative and autonomous teacher.

The sixth chapter, “Establishing Professional Identities,” turns its attention to the system of teacher preparation. Describing the specificities of normal schools and college departments, the author shows that these two institutions were progressively defining agenda in public schools, producing materials, and educating the best-trained teachers and future administrators. But only progressively, because up to the first quarter of the twentieth century, normal school students were a privileged minority. Here the book again takes up initiatives mentioned earlier, such as the highly experimental program developed by John Cook and Charles McMurry in the Northern State Normal School in DeKalb, Illinois. The core idea was that of supervised teaching, meaning that normal school should be the place for “observation and experience of actual teaching in a standard classroom” (p. 150). Nature study moved quickly across the country, and the chapter describes the conditions and particularities of teacher preparation in normal schools in the 1880s and 1890s in the West Coast (Los Angeles), in the South (Nashville, expanding out to other cities in the first two decades of the twentieth century), in the upper Midwest, and in the Northwest.

A clear sign of the new curriculum’s prominence was the establishment of a distinct “supervisor” position for nature study in a significant number of schools by the turn of the twentieth century. The supervisor’s function was to visit schools to advise on curricula, train teachers, and provide local materials. Here, as in other parts of the book, the methodological choice for a kind of narrative related to “history of life” positions the reader as an eyewitness of particular and thought- provoking experiences. Additionally, the author supplies an appendix with a partial but undoubtedly meaningful list of individuals “noted in a wide range of ephemeral sources” (p. 239) that contains 42 nature study supervisors in schools, 16 in museums, and 38 in normal schools, training, or practice schools in different regions of the country between the 1890s and 1930s.

Nature study reflects the gendered division of labor in teaching. Despite being dominated by women, statistical analysis reveals that men, on average, taught older rather than younger students (more on college or normal schools faculties), taught more boys than girls, taught “harder” subjects, were more encouraged to teach about ideas, and to organize the profession. Men also published more articles on the definition of nature study, while women wrote more reports on classroom practices. That bias was not only a social construction; it was also rooted in the work of leading psychologists such as Edward Thorndike, who thought women were not suited for the rigors of science but were appropriate for teaching young children. Nature study critics even blamed women for the failure of nature study. As Kohlstedt summarizes, such gendered and hostile rhetoric was “widely used in educational journals and contributed to the attack on the so-called feminization of education in the early twentieth century” (p. 172). Despite the prejudices, among all members of the Nature Study Society, women represented about a quarter of the teachers who taught at normal schools and colleges of education. Despite the resistance of editors, women continued publishing textbooks, readers, manuals, and leaflets. In fact, commitment and creativity were present in nature study teachers in general, both female and male.

Chapters seven and eight deal with the historical accounts of Nature-Study Review, launched in 1905, and the still-existing American Nature Study Society, created in 1907. The first editor of Nature-Study Review was Maurice A. Bigelow, a faculty member at Teachers College in New York. Aiming to present education as an emerging academic discipline, with sound research practices and theory, he invited well-known contributors to nature study with academic credentials to join its advisory board. The first three volumes were clearly more theoretical and intended to clarify what had become “controversial among academics and remained a challenge to teachers” (p. 177). The articles were mainly devoted to discussing the theory and pedagogy of nature study, as well as discussions about its relation to natural science itself. The editor was looking for common principles of nature study, even given the diverse views and definitions of it. At the same time, while the Review was initially conceived to address the concerns of teachers, administrators, educational psychologists, and educational philosophers and to provide a forum for discussion that balanced theory and practice, it gradually expanded to include space for teachers to present their own experiences. The journal passed through the hands of several editors, including Anna Comstock, but the efforts to maintain it were not sufficient. After merging with a new journal in 1923, it tried to restart under the name Nature and Science Education Review; however, both sunk and the nature study movement eventually lost its official communication channel. Around the same time, supporters of nature study connected to the Society had turned their “attention toward the broadening inclusion of nature study in other venues” (p. 214). In its place, gradually and definitively, concern shifted to elementary science, the new science project for schools.

All of this rich material makes reading Teaching Children Science inspiring and profitable. Not only because the author redeems nature study from its former naïve appearance and displaces the marginal position assigned to it in the curriculum by previous analyses, which directly concerns historians of education and historians of science. The book is also valuable because science education (still) has to face strong students’ unawareness about the natural beings in the place where they live. Today disinterest of the young in science studies in school and in scientific careers is frightening to the community of educators. Maybe some of the ideas espoused by educators and teachers of the nature study movement, recontextualized by current educational knowledge and redirected to the current goals of science teaching in primary school, may provide some fruitful clues. At least, Sally Gregory Kohlstedt fulfilled her part of that bigger challenge.

We are delighted to announce that over 100 000 high-resolution images, including images of manuscripts, paintings, etchings, early photography and advertisements, are now freely available through Wellcome Images.Drawn from our vast historical holdings, the images are being released under the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) licence.This means that they can be used for commercial or personal purposes so long as the original source is acknowledged (Wellcome Library, London). All of the images from our historical collections can be used free of charge.The holdings offer a rich body of historical images, ranging from ancient medical manuscripts to etchings by artists such as Vincent van Gogh and Francisco Goya.


Acerca de Leoncio López-Ocón
Historiador. Investigador del Instituto de Historia del Centro de Ciencias Humanas y Sociales del CSIC. Madrid.

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