Comstock’s Nature Study and the Value of ‘I Do Not Know.’


No science professor in any university, if he be a man of high attainment, hesitates to say to his pupils, ” I do not know/’ if they ask for information beyond his knowledge. The greater his scientific reputation and erudition, the more readily, simply, and without apology he says this.
He, better than others, comprehends how vast is the region that lies beyond man’s present knowledge. It is only “the teacher in the elementary schools who has never received enough scientific training to re- veal to her how little she does know, who feels that she must appear to know everything or her pupils will lose confidence in her. But how useless is this pretense, in
nature-study! The pupils, whose younger eyes are much keener for details than hers, will soon discover her limitations and then
their distrust of her will be real.

In nature-study any teacher can with honor say, ” I do not know “; for perhaps the question asked is as yet unanswered by the great scientists. But she should not let lack of knowledge be a wet blanket
thrown over her pupils’ interest. She should say frankly, ” I do not know; let us see if we cannot together find out this mysterious thing. Maybe no one knows it as yet, and I wonder if you will discover
it before I do.”

She thus conveys the right impression, that only a little about the intricate life of plants and animals is yet known; and at the same time she makes pupils feel the thrill and zest of investigation. Nor will she lose their respect by doing this, if she does it in the right fashion.

The old teacher is too likely to become didactic, dogmatic, and “bossy” if she does not constantly strive with herself. Why? She has to be thus five days in the week and, therefore, she is likely to be so seven. She knows arithmetic, grammar, and geography to their uttermost, she is never allowed to forget that she knows them, and finally her interests become limited to what she knows.

After all, what is the chief sign of growing old? Is it not the feeling that we know all there is to be known? It is not years which make people old; it is ruts, and a limitation of interests. When we no longer care about anything except our own interests, we are then old, it matters not whether our years be twenty or eighty. It is rejuvenation for the teacher, thus growing old, to stand ignorant as a child in the presence of one of the simplest of nature’s miracles — the formation of a crystal, the evolution of the butterfly from the caterpillar, the exquisite adjustment of the silken lines in the spider’s orb web. I know how to “make magic” for the teacher who is growing old. Let her go out with her youngest pupil and reverently watch with him the miracle of the blossoming violet and say: “Dear Nature, I know naught of the wondrous life of these, your smallest creatures. Teach me!” and she will suddenly find herself young.

For three years I had for comrades in my walks afield two little children and they kept me busy saying, ” I do not know.” But they never lost confidence in me or in my knowledge; they simply gained respect for the vastness of the unknown.

The chief charm of nature-study would be taken away if it did not lead us through the border-land of knowledge into the realm of the undiscovered. Moreover, the teacher, in confessing her ignorance and at the same time her interest in a subject, establishes between herself and her pupils a sense of companionship which relieves the strain of discipline, and gives her a new and intimate relation with her pupils which will surely prove a potent
element in her success. The best teacher is always one who is the good comrade of her pupils.”

For Nature Journals, you will also want:

You’ll want some other resources.

Comstock’s nature guide, of course, if for no other reason but the preface (if your volume has it), especially the first 27 pages, and then skim over a few of the sections on some specific topic or species and get an idea about what sort of things to help your students notice, how to draw their attention to closer details.  This is NOT a book to take with you out on the field.  You could use it for specific nature study at your kitchen table- bring home a violet or grow a marigold in a pot, set out a fish bowl with a tree frog, turtle or a toad to examine, bring in a baby chick or a twig of oak and acorn- get out the Comstock, open it to that page and *only* read aloud the questions, one by one, and then collectively attempt to answer them through first hand observation.

A field guide to your area.

blank journals and pencils or paints

Some drawing instruction- this is the single issue for most people who give up on nature study.  You want some very basic drawing instruction which will help you learn how to draw what you actually see, not what you think is there, and will help you see what is really there instead of what you assume is there.  If this sounds confusing or overwhelming, you really want one of these books (there may be others as good or better, but this is what I have found most helpful to me):

The Drawing Lesson, a graphic novel that teaches you how to draw, by Mark Crilley- this is an instruction book in story form, using a graphic novel format. It’s excellent.  It is ostensibly written for children, but personally, when I want to learn something new, I always start with children’s books.

You Can Draw in 30 Days, by Mark Kistler (I have found Kistler extremely helpful, not just this book, but videos and other books as well). The style is cartoon, but you can apply the same principles to drawing other things, and frankly, if you’re as hopeless at this as I am, it’s quite a confidence booster to be able to draw even something as simple as asmall stack of cans successfully, looking 3 dimensional.

Drawing : the only drawing book you’ll ever need to be the artist you’ve always wanted to be, by Kathryn Temple  I do not find this the *only* book I ever needed, but it’s useful.  Often I find in a subject like drawing, or picking up a second language, using at least two different resources really helps.
Did these books turn me into an artist?  Not really.  Partly I didn’t use them diligently.  Partly, when I draw I give up too soon.  What they did do for me was make me FAR LESS frustrated with what I draw.  They are also short enough, laid out simply enough, and enjoyable enough that I don’t mind returning to them and trying again.  They are also laid out easily enough that all I have to do is pick up my pencil and any blank paper and start.  If I am going to have flip around from page to page and create my own lesson plans and fuss and bother, I’m not going to do it.  These books pretty much are open and go, although you probably want to read the introdcutions.

My drawings today still look lopsided and childish, but they don’t make me want to scream in frustration. They don’t make me feel stupid and worthless.  I feel like improvement is possible, which other books have not done for me.

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