Classics in the History of Psychology

An internet resource developed by
Christopher D. Green
York University, Toronto, Ontario
ISSN 1492-3173

(Return to index)

Introduction to Psychology

George Sidney Brett (1929)
Authorized by the Minister of Education
First published in Toronto: Macmillan of Canada

Posted October 2001


Chapter II

The Value of Psychology


Before entering on the material which constitutes the body of facts called psychology, the student should consider what gain is to be expected from this study in the daily work of the teacher. This Chapter is designed to lay emphasis on psychology as part of the equipment of the teacher who wishes not only to know the scientific terms but to apply the principles of psychology in the art of teaching. Because the teacher must be expert in the sympathetic understanding of behaviour, the points which are emphasized in the following pages should be considered no less important than the more abstruse teachings in the purely scientific Chapters.




The name psychology as now used covers a wide range of information so selected as to give a picture of the total behaviour of human beings and less developed organisms. In these Chapters the word "behaviour" will be used to denote all that can be observed when a person studies the life of a human being. The special cases in which animal behaviour is studied, either by observation or experiment, will be described separately. There will, accordingly, be no real difference between saying "behaviour" and "mental behaviour"; for, within the limits of practical education and its interests, the student will be concerned with the behaviour of organisms so highly developed that it is desirable to consider their functions [p. 13] as a whole, and treat body and mind as the unit of action.

When we consider the relations between anatomy, physiology, biology, and psychology, we see that there is a difference in the aims and methods of these different sciences. The growth of knowledge in modern times has made specialization necessary. It has also created a need for those points of view which assemble and unite the work of different specialized sciences. We see this characteristic most clearly in the case of sociology. Society can be regarded as similar to an organism; it is organic in the sense that it is the form in which all manner of activities meet together and are modified by this unity. Psychology is distinct from sociology because it takes the individual as its particular object; but every one knows that this is itself only a device to simplify the problem, for no individual exists apart from social influences, and social psychology is itself a witness to this fact.

A similar parallel might be drawn between psychology and medicine. The medical sciences are a well defined group; but these sciences are learned in order to regulate the practice of medicine and produce health, which then becomes a part of the whole problem of individual and public health, and these again cannot be separated.

Medicine is both a science and an art. Some medical students remain in the laboratories and devote their energy to the advancement of the science. Others, as we say, go into practice. In the case of psychology we can make exactly the same distinction. Some students may choose to devote themselves to special research; the majority will go into practice. Everybody in these days should know enough about medicine to understand what are called the principles of health: they should also be wise enough to know their limitations and consult [p. 14] the doctor at the right time. The old saying, "a sound mind in a sound body", is still the right maxim: and, therefore, everybody may be expected to know enough about human behaviour to understand both mental and physical health, and also to recognize that mental treatment -- the sphere of psychiatry -- is a matter for specialists.

Unfortunately, the mental life is both more comprehensive and more elusive than the physical; it is easier to do harm to the mind than to the body; bad training and bad influences may undermine a character without producing any of the obvious symptoms that wrong feeding or bad physical surroundings would quickly exhibit. A crooked body is more easily recognized than a crooked mind.

The teacher should learn psychology as a science and practise it as an art. It seems very necessary to emphasize this point, because the connection between the science and the art is so frequently overlooked. The true end of the study of psychology is the art of understanding behaviour. There has grown up in recent times a practice of psychology which, like the practice of medicine, is a recognized profession; but what is here meant is something quite different. It is really an attitude of mind, developed by study and regulated by the best available knowledge, which manifests itself in the right kind of interest and in enlightened understanding. If the teacher will approach the study of psychology in this spirit, and will cultivate at the same time the intention to use the acquired knowledge every hour of the day in the countless ways which are possible, it will become a living art with a significance and a charm that are unique. It will explain many cases of peculiar conduct and strange errors, and will guide the teacher in methods of presentation of lessons. [p. 15]




The attitude of mind which a study of psychology should produce cannot be exactly defined, but a few examples will make the meaning clear. When the great scholar Erasmus was writing on the principles of teaching, he remarked that the children should be allowed to scribble or make drawings on the margins of their books. In the time of Erasmus all the emphasis was laid on discipline. The importance of his remark lay in the recognition of natural activity as the most real factor in progress. It is difficult to create activity, but it is very easy to destroy it. The true educator will make all possible efforts to encourage spontaneous activities and to select those which should be developed into more complete forms of behaviour. This is the may of nature, the biological way of expending energy in movements which are partly directed and partly random. From the whole range of these activities some will remain after natural selection and social selection have both done their work.

An obvious example of this process is the development of language. The first efforts at expression are the sounds which the infant makes to express pleasure or pain or to attract attention. The response which adults or older children make to these sounds gives them a practical meaning, and the growing child learns by this experience the relation between the sound and the consequences to which it leads. The primitive use of language is not to express abstract ideas, but to control situations, to attract attention, or to direct action. But at the more developed stages of civilization, with the said of written language, there comes into existence a complex system of communication which is the chief factor in forming and perpetuating modes of behaviour. [p. 16] Thus the primitive physiological act becomes an intelligent and intelligible form of speech, which is understood by speaker and hearer because it has grown to maturity in the medium of social intercourse.

A sense for the proper relation between freedom and discipline is one of the most important qualities in teaching. A great many modern theories of education have been built on this basis, as, for example, the Montessori methods. In the reaction from excessive regulations and restrictions there has been in some cases too much emphasis laid on freedom. Repression and restriction are not evils: they are necessary for the conservation of energy, for avoiding nervous exhaustion, and for preparing the child to face the limitations and disappointments which are inevitable in mature life. While nature provides the energy, education must supply the direction. To watch for natural tendencies and know how to direct them is the task of the teacher, and in this work psychology can give invaluable assistance.

The problem of discipline can only be solved by discovering the right way to employ energy. Children have natural tendencies which can be directed to useful ends. The factor of discipline should be introduced by setting the problems to be solved, by requiring the work to be done at a fixed time, and by encouraging carefulness in the detail. "the actual details of the work should be left to the individual.

Almost any activity which is creative will stimulate interest. The instinct of workmanship is widespread and powerful. Any child who has not been repressed and made the slave of a, system will enjoy using his own initiative and be proud of a result in which he takes a real part. The natural tendency to collect, sometimes called the acquisitive instinct, can be called into action either by setting the child to find actual objects (specimens [p. 17] in natural history) or, in the more advanced stages, to find examples to illustrate grammatical, historical, or literary principles. Curiosity should be stimulated and then directed toward the process of searching. research is an impressive word, but the principle is simple; and all teaching should in some degree induce the pupil to make his own discovery of truth.

The problem must be brought within the reach of the pupil by connecting it with simple and obvious facts. The idea of national government, for example, can be developed from the idea of a. club, the election of officers, and the obligation to obey the president. The importance of law and order can be understood from such examples as control of traffic, and the idea of the common good as the object of government can be suggested by showing what would happen if no one enforced the laws which protect life and property. The relation of freedom to discipline is well shown in any organized or co-operative game. A player must show the initiative required by the different opportunities, but his actions must interpret, not violate, the rules which make the game what it is. In this way freedom of action is united with that kind of discipline which is really an intelligent adaptation to the demands of social organization.




The good and the bad elements of conduct grow together, like the wheat and the tares in the parable. It is not enough to have ready-made ideas about what is right and wrong. Science is a knowledge of causes, and the scientific approach to education must be inspired by a combined desire to find satisfactory reasons, which is equivalent to discovering causes. The pupils, especially the youngest, will not be laying deep plans for evildoing, but for finding the easiest way of satisfying [p. 18] some pressing need. It may be the case that the child is restless, inattentive, and slow to learn. The first duty is to consider the possible causes of this behaviour. In many cases the causes may be altogether outside the actual situation: the home is often the real cause of the trouble, as when children are kept up too late or not allowed proper time to prepare for school. The man who experiences an hour of worry and distraction, with a hurried breakfast and an attack of indigestion, is not well fitted for the tasks of the day. The child who has gone through a similar experience is much less fitted for work, and it will be useless to attempt to remedy his condition by punishments.

The teacher may reply that this is no part of his business: but that attitude will not produce any good results, though we may have to admit that these problems are the hardest to solve. It has sometimes been found necessary to feed and warm and clothe children before lessons could begin. Such extreme conditions need not be discussed here, but they show how far modern educationists have been compelled to modify the older and cruder ideas that teaching can be limited to a mixture of lessons and punishments. There is hope, that in the future, broader ideas, including the methods of teaching parents, will result in a solution of these problems.

Difficulties in practical teaching often arise from more ordinary factors in conduct. The senses are the instruments by which the pupil must receive the various influences which constitute education. Absurd and even tragic as it seems when once the fact is noted, it is none the less true that we easily adopt an abstract and careless attitude on the question of communicating ideas. It seems enough to say, "I told you", without discovering whether the child could hear: or to say, "I showed [p. 19] you", without knowing whether the child could see: and most easy of all is it to say, "I explained it", without trying to decide whether the mind was fitted to understand the explanation.

To be successful in teaching it is necessary to be adequately acquainted with any characteristics of the child which will assist or retard progress.

If, for example, a child is brought up in a home where the discipline is harsh and severe, it is not likely that it will be free and unrestrained in its attitude to the teacher, or apt to form independent judgments. The trouble may even go further, and prevent the child from fully understanding the ideas of liberty and freedom.

If a child is totally blind or deaf or mentally defective, special provision is made for his case. But there are many less obvious defects which will be discovered only through failure to perceive or understand ordinary objects and ideas. Slight deafness or weakness of sight may be counteracted simply by giving the child a better position in the classroom. Mistakes in following what is said or written on a blackboard may be due to minor defects of the sense-organs and not to any lack of native ability. But if these conditions are not discovered and corrected, the apparent mental deficiency will increase. The child instinctively avoids strain, either when the action itself requires unusual effort, or when the first efforts have produced fatigue. Inattention and restlessness are the natural consequences of this discomfort, and these symptoms are only increased by the sense of inferiority which comes from failure to keep up with the others.

In examining the work of pupils done by them when alone, the teacher gets a glimpse of the extent to which he is understood and the distance which the student [p. 20] can go without assistance. Freedom in doing work, especially in reporting upon work taught, will enable the pupil to show the teacher his faults, and that, too, without knowing he has done so. Every examination paper read should show the teacher something about the teaching of the subject. A teacher should examine exercises, not only to find out the standing of the writer, but also to estimate the standard of the teaching.

Many investigations have shown that bad behaviour is often due to the opposite causes. Unusual ability means that the child can perform the ordinary tasks with less than the average expenditure of time and energy. There is then a surplus of both time and energy to be expended in devising mischief. The proper cure for this is to put the child in the grade which will necessitate the full use of all available energy to keep up with the work. If this is not possible at the time, some other method must be employed, but at least punishment or discouragement must be avoided, as they will prove a direct inducement to idleness and shirking. Few habits are so easily acquired or so subtle in their effects as the habit of not exerting all the powers to their full capacity, and this vice is very likely to occur when education is carried on with large classes.

With the present facilities for grading and testing, a teacher can promote his own comfort and efficiency by making the group as uniform as possible in quality. The actual number in a group is not so important a matter as the possible variety of the individuals; if the mental level of the individual pupils has a wide range, it becomes impossible to adapt the teaching to all at the same time or to control the attention of the whole group.

The errors which children make are not to be regarded as merely negative. A teacher who has never been instructed how to study the minds of children will [p. 21] naturally classify all results as right or wrong, without further interest in the performance. This is a definite form of inefficiency. Some errors will be due to physical conditions, such as those named above, and will be useful symptoms of such defects. Others will arise from more complex conditions, such as the association of ideas or from intelligent but incorrect interpretations.

There are many books now available on children's sayings. These should be read, not as mere curiosities, but as material for the study of the typical forms of confusion between words and ideas. A child who insisted on writing the line, "Ills have no weight" in the form "Hills have no weight", was found to have a clear idea that this version was a great improvement. A mere rebuke for this "mistake" would produce nothing but resentment, while an explanation of the meaning of "ills" would have all the more effect because the child had already discovered an alternative of which he was unduly proud.

The difference between right and wrong methods of treating children can be well illustrated by considering the problem of truth. The traditional and unscientific way of regarding "children's lies" was to assume that all actual deviations from the truth were proofs of a sinful nature. This attitude was wrong because it employed a number of mistaken ideas. It was due, in fact, to the assumption that the very difficult concepts of truth and accuracy were necessarily in the child's mind, and were also as clear and distinct as they might be in the adult mind. It was also due to the false assumption that the only possible motive was deceit, which was taken to be another perfectly clear idea. In addition to these positive assumptions there was the negative factor, namely, ignorance of the form and stages of mental development. [p. 22]

When psychologists first studied this subject, they quickly discovered all these fallacies, and their work has incidentally thrown light on similar facts discovered in the study of primitive tribes (anthropology) and in the estimation of evidence given by witnesses (legal psychology). The essential points are, briefly, the following: Untruthfulness, as a quality of statements, is often due to lack of power to distinguish between what is perceived and what is given in accompanying imagery. Before life has become a stern reality or the nature of responsibility is understood in individual or racial development, there is no necessity to separate these parts of the mental content. Primitive people tell and believe the most absurd stories, because for them the absurdity does not exist. In the same way children confuse fact and fancy or embroider their narratives, because to a large extent they are playing with the mental contents with no sense for the adult distinction between real and unreal. This kind of "lying" is, therefore, akin to the child's love for fairy stories or for tales in which animals talk and act in a way that the scientific naturalist would regard as hopelessly "untrue".

The psychological or scientific way of approaching the fact of "lying" does not conflict with moral disapproval or discipline. Its function is to relate the moral valuation to the positive study of behaviour. In some cases the intention of deceiving may be the actual reason for untruthfulness: but it is not correct to suppose that all cases are identical.

As a rule children are inclined to be very frank in their statements. They are inclined, when not thwarted, to pervert the truth, in order to satisfy their sense of importance or to obtain an opportunity for the use of newly acquired phrases. If they are made to see that the statements are foolish or contradictory, they will [p. 23] acquire a compensative pride in being critical, and self-criticism is a recognized stage in the development of intelligence. On the other hand, if the tendency to satisfy these random desires for self-expression is unduly repressed, an irrational fear is produced. The child will then frequently shrink from making the most obvious statements, since it acquires a belief that any natural or impulsive assertion will lead to painful consequences. This is an elementary form of that kind of repression which often ends in serious mental trouble.

This is not a suitable occasion to discuss fully the topics suggested in this section. The object of these remarks is rather to show how the life of the pupil should be regarded by the teacher, and the various ways in which the technical parts of psychology may be used to assist in the successful management of children. If the physical, mental, and moral aspects of behaviour are always kept in mind; if the view of individual life as a continuous adjustment to an infinite variety of circumstances is fully comprehended; if, finally, a scientific knowledge of the elements of physical and mental activity are united with a genuine desire to interpret that activity sympathetically, then the psychology of education will be a real factor in making successful teachers.