The Psychology of Monitorial Instruction

The manner in which the lessons are said is similar to that in which they are learned. Each boy takes precedence of him whose error he is able to correct; hence as a high place in the class can be obtained only by great attention, so it can be maintained only by uniform vigilance. Each lesson as soon as said, is marked in the monitor's book; and the sum of these daily lessons, and of the other daily tasks, together with the individual proficiency of each scholar, are entered in a register book. Such are the principles which constitute this system, it may be useful to advert a moment to some of its more important effects. In the first place, it is evident that on this system children are better taught than on the old, because from the sympathy they take in each other, they learn every thing communicable by one to the other more easily and perfectly. Whatever a child has been taught, he will communicate to his companions better than a master; because his manner of teaching, and the words he employs, will be suited to the capacity of his pupil; he knows where this difficulty lies, and how to remove it.

By this system the attention is fixed; there is no idleness; the mind must be engaged in the business in hand; a lesson is to be said every ten minutes; the monitor's eye is on every child; the pupil's task is easy, the time allowed for learning it is short. By this single arrangement the great difficulty in the art of education is overcome: a certain method is discovered of fixing the attention, of abstracting the mind, and binding it vigorously and unremittingly to the accomplishment of the particular object in which it is engaged; no matter for how short a period this is done; a few minutes of real continuous, uninterrupted application, if the occasion for the exertion frequently recur, will lead to an unusual development of the most valuable faculty of the human mind — that which even in the most vigorous understandings is always unfolded more slowly, and cultivated less perfectly than any other. — The knowledge which is thus communicated is clear and precise, and is fixed indelibly in the mind by repetition. Should a boy not retain the previous lessons he has learned, it will appear from his answers; and he must sink to the bottom of his class; and if he remain there long he will be degraded, and he knows it, to an inferior class. Of the successful operation of this principle the testimony is uniform, and the evidence irresistible. ...

By this system the greatest possible assistance is given to the slow, and the greatest advantage to the quick. The slow are stimulated and impelled; the quick are never for a moment retarded. As soon as they get to the top of their class, remain there steadily, and thus show that they perfectly understand its business, they are promoted to a higher class. Here then is a free course for genius. The active and the indolent, the stumbling and the sure-footed, though they may be yoked together, are not forced to keep pace with each other; if stupidity be dragged along by the vigour of genius, it is a clear advantage gained: genius cannot be chained down by the weight of stupidity. It has been said by an excellent judge, — "To mark precisely the moment when he is master of the necessary ideas, and consequently the moment when repetition should cease, is, perhaps, the most difficult thing in the art of teaching." [1] By this arrangement of classes, this period is pointed out with perfect exactness and invariable certainty. ... In Joseph Lancaster's school, one master alone educates one thousand boys in reading, writing, and arithmetic, as effectually and with as little trouble as twenty or thirty have ever been instructed by the usual modes of tuition. — By this system the best possible advantage is taken of the stimulus of emulation. It is just sufficient for the purpose, and no more. There is no waste of excitement. It produces no angry, no malignant feelings. By the manner in which it is directed, it becomes a totally different principle from that emulation which is excited occasionally, by the addresses of the tutor to his pupil. It is the result of the fixed laws of the school: it operates silently, uniformly, unceasingly, and with inflexible justice. — By this system misconduct is prevented, and consequently punishment is rendered unnecessary. Every moment of time being occupied under the strict superintendence of the monitors, there is no opportunity for idleness, or for any of the school-boy's besetting sins. The plan of preventing the commission of offences, rather than that of punishing them, is here carried to an extent that is truly edifying; and when offences do come, the mildest remedies are found sufficient to correct them.

Source: Westminster Review, v. 1 (January, 1824), 53-55.

[1] Edgeworth on Practical Education, vol. I, p. 152.