Nature Teaching on the Blackboard, by William Plane Pycraft and Janet Kelman.  London: Caxton Publishing Co., 1910 (STORE 133:55-57)

This three-volume teaching manual, with its decorated cover and 104 lessons on different species of plants and animals, was published at a critical period in both the history of education and the history of science in England.


The Education Acts of the late nineteenth century made school free and mandatory for all children, creating a suddenly enormous population of young students. In response, dozens of teaching manuals were published around the turn of the century. These manuals promoted new teaching techniques for large classes, such as writing lessons on a blackboard as a large and reusable surface that could be seen by a whole room of students at once. Manuals also served as textbooks and training guides for the many new teachers recruited by the overcrowded schools. Manuals about nature study were particularly numerous, as few teachers had training in science when nature study became a requirement in state primary schools in 1900. Nature Teaching on the Blackboard and manuals like it provided teachers with information about nature as well as suggestions for class activities, such as that “a mass of frog-spawn should be kept in a glass bowl and examined daily” to observe the frog’s life cycle (vol 3:51).

Nature study, based on the popular nineteenth century pedagogy of object lessons, emphasized the idea that children should learn through observing and handling an object, such as a frog or a flower, rather than from reading books or memorizing lectures: “The [blackboard] drawings can only be helpful in such lessons when they are used along with, and not apart from, actual specimens…which can be handled, examined, and dissected” (vol 1:v), such as a poppy flower.

Nature Teaching made this new pedagogy easier by explaining it to teachers and by offering information about different species as background for lessons. It also provided practical tips on finding specimens, although “all the animals selected [in the book] are such as can be seen alive even by children in crowded cities, or can be obtained without the slightest trouble, ‘in the flesh’” (vol 1:iv). If these supposedly local species proved difficult to find, the author assures the reader that “teachers in country schools would doubtless, if asked, procure bats for class purposes in town schools” (vol 3:3).

Another aspect of the book that was useful for teachers and now is interesting for historians is Nature Teaching’s 104 full pages of beautiful white-on-black drawings. These images were meant to serve as suggested blackboard drawings that teachers could use to illustrate their nature study lessons. The drawings are “of such a nature that any one may reproduce them without possessing any but a rudimentary knowledge of or aptitude for draughtsmanship” (vol 1:v). These claims of simplicity may seem hard to believe today, but drawing was a typical school subject throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century, so most teachers would have been practicing chalk drawing for years. They were adept at simple shapes, such as the snake’s scales or “breast plates”, as well as more dynamic images, such as a “PYTHON crushing its prey.”

School nature study lessons were part of the rise of popular science in late nineteenth and early twentieth century England, which also included science lectures and demonstrations for adults, the opening of public natural history museums, and the publication of science books for general audiences. An appreciation and knowledge of science could be instilled early by educating students about the wonders of nature through direct observation and handling of natural specimens.

By Caitlin Wylie

For further information please see my article in History of Education