June 2010 Index
Home Page

A Voice from History

Donald G. Perrin quoting James D. Finn and Edward L. Thorndike

Ninety eight years ago, Edward L. Thorndike shared these insights about the future of textbooks. Little did he know the extent to which technology would change global communications, teaching, and learning. To quote James D. Finn:

“Here are the insights of a genius. History can very often teach us a lesson in humility--and it does here. The interesting question is: why couldn't we see it then?

Finn draws attention to these insights from “Education” by Edward L. Thorndike:

"Guidance in habit-formation and reasoning. Text-books often state what habits are to be formed without giving the reader exercises in forming them, but this is not a necessary feature of printed matter. Text-books on geography, history, spelling, English composition, grammar, economics, philosophy or sociology could, by the exercise of enough ingenuity, provide for the actual formation of habits in the way that books of examples to be done in arithmetic, or sentences to be translated in Latin, or experiments to be done in chemistry do.

"Text-books still less often guide the pupil to think out conclusions himself so far as he can. They commonly give the results of reasoning and perhaps problems demanding reasoning, but they do not so manage the latter that the pupil is at each stage helped just enough to lead him to help himself as much as is economically possible. They do not, that is usually get the full value of the questioning, 'developing,' inductive, and experimental methods of teaching. Nor do they usually give work in deductive thinking so arranged as to stimulate the pupil to make and test inferences himself.

"This fact is partly due to conventional customs. But there is also a real difficulty, due to the fact that pupils cannot be trusted to follow directions. Books could be written giving data, directions for experiments and problems with the data, and questions about the inferences. The student could be instructed to read each helping piece of information, suggestive question and the like only after he had spent a certain time in trying to do for himself what he was directed to do. Such books might be more effective than all but the best tenth of personal teaching, if students would faithfully try as directed before reading ahead for the helps given.

But they will usually greedily use up all the helps first. If, by a miracle of mechanical ingenuity, a book could be so arranged that only to him who had done what was directed on page one would page two become visible, and so on, much that now requires personal instruction could be managed by print. Books to be given out in loose sheets, a page or so at a time, and books arranged so that the student only suffers if he misuses them, should be worked out in many subjects. Even under the limitation of the natural tendency of children to get results in the easiest way, a text-book can do much more than be on the one hand a mere statement of the results of reasoning such as an ordinary geography or German grammar is, or on the other hand a mere statement of problems, such as the ordinary arithmetic or German reader is.

"From the point of view of interest in work, personal teaching is usually more sociable, but the difference between it and text-book teaching in this particular could be reduced by skill in organizing the latter.

"The evils of rote-memorizing or merely absorptive study on the part of pupils, and of lack of progress on the part of teachers, which are attributed to text-books, are not at all necessary consequences of their use. It is easy to make it more satisfying to pupils to understand than to memorize, and to think than merely to read. A lazy or stupid teacher will not be cured so well by being deprived of all text-book aids in teaching a subject as by being given a dozen such and required to show that he uses them all well.

"The misuse of text-books. Finally, many of the evils attributed to the overuse of textbooks are really due to misunderstanding and misuse of them. In the case of a good text-book there is a reason for every item and for its position in the whole. Too few teachers know the exact purpose of the text-books they use. Too often a teacher uses a section of a book much as a savage might use a coat to cover his legs; or as a child uses a saw to cut a string, scissors to cut a board, and a padlock as a bracelet.

"On the whole, the improvement of printed directions, statements of facts, exercise books and the like is as important as the improvement of the powers of teachers themselves to diagnose the condition of pupils and to guide their activities by personal means. Great economies are possible by printed aids, and personal comment and question should be saved to do what only it can do. A human being should not be wasted in doing what forty sheets of paper or two phonographs can do. Just because personal teaching is precious and can do what books and apparatus can not, it should be saved for its peculiar work. The best teacher uses books and appliances as well as his own insight, sympathy, and magnetism."


Ninety eight years later we have computers and learning management systems with diagnostic-prescriptive tools to construct custom learning experiences for each student from interactive multimedia learning objects. We have individualized educational programs where students learn different things at different rates according to their needs, experience, learning styles and interests. We have the benefits of a century of research, improved teacher training, and access to educational resources and technology. Teachers collaborate in the design and implementation of learning programs, interact with students, and provide tutoring and individual assistance as needed. Students also collaborate and learn from each other as they solve problems together and share their personal experiences

We also have schools that emulate the traditions of learning in the 19th and early twentieth century. And we continue to argue how to integrate the best features of the old and the new.



1.   James D. Finn and Donald G. Perrin. Teaching Machines and Programed Learning: A Survey of the Industry 1962. OE-34019. United States Government Printing Office, 1962.

2.  Thorndike, Edward L. Education, New York: The Macmillan Company, 1912, pp. 164-167.


go top
June 2010 Index
Home Page