An explanation of the difficulties of the lesson is the first thing to which the teacher must give his attention in commencing his instructions. Unless the language in which the instruction is conveyed be perfectly intelligible, the instruction itself cannot be understood. A teacher must therefore note such peculiarities as are likely to require elucidation, ascertain the amount of his pupil's knowledge in regard to them, and supply whatever is defective. What is to be aimed at is, to give a child a perfect understanding of what he reads and repeats; such an understanding of it as shall enable him to say, Now I know exactly what this passage means. The diction of the Bible and of religion must be made so transparent, that the precious pearl of truth which it contains may be seen with open eye.
The amount of care required in this preliminary branch of instruction is much greater than would at first sight be believed.
1. In the first place, a large portion of the Bible requires to be explained before it can be understood. In the following verse, for example, every clause requires some comment. 1 Kings xiii. 1, "And behold there came a man of God out of Judah by the word of the Lord unto Bethel; and Jeroboam stood by the altar to burn incense." Here the words, a man of God—Judah —the word of the Lord—Bethel—Jeroboam—altar—and incense, demand investigation.
In the dwellings, dress, manner of living, and customs of the Jews, is found abundant room for minute explanation. Thus, when we come to the words, "the month Nizan," we must inform the scholars that this was the first month of the Jewish year, and corresponded with our April. Or, they read that a hook was "written within, and on the backside sealed with seven seals," and must be told that the Jewish books resembled our large school maps. Again, they find that Peter was praying on the house-top, or that Jesus commanded a man to take up his bed and walk. Both of these peculiarities will be understood when they know the manner in which the Jews built their houses; and how different their couches were and are from our beds.
2. There are many current words of divinity in religious works and catechisms which must be explained. We are hazarding nothing in affirming, that one half of those in common use are not understood. A person we once met in a railway carriage, speaking of the freedom of the will, stated, that like all the other gifts of Providence, some had more and some had less. "Bonaparte, for instance," he said, "though an emperor, could not keep his wife from running into debt with her. milliner. Do you call that freedom of the will?"—Nothing could convince this man that freedom of willing and of acting were two different things. Of the meaning of a number of theological terms in common use, many adults, as well as children, are as ignorant as this individual was of the meaning of "the freedom of the will."
3. Children are extremely disposed to adopt interpretations of their own, when a correct account is not furnished to them, and these interpretations are often alike unexpected and ludicrous. Every teacher's experience will supply him with proofs of this observation. Words which we supposed every person must know the meaning of, they have not understood in the least; and their notions about others are very remote from the truth. We found a class of girls unacquainted with the meaning of the simple words hoary head. They were surprised to find they meant a white head. A boy being asked what hardship meant, said, an iron-ship. A child thought that when Moses lay among the flags, he lay among paving-stones. Another, in an infant-school, when asked to mention some articles sold by measure—his teacher meaning such things as milk or beer—called out, "Boots and shoes are sold by measure." "Mamma, I am choking! I am choking!" a little boy cried out one night to his mother, in a very clear loud voice. His mother heard from the tone that he could not be in great danger, but went to see what was the matter. On asking where he was choking, he pointed to his wrist, on which the sleeve was too tight. A boy reading his lesson at school, came to the word cat, which, after deliberately spelling c, a, t, he pronounced puss; and, on another occasion, after spelling dress, d, r, e, s, s, he pronounced it pride.
We do not think sufficient attention has been given to this department of teaching. Rote teaching is far from being uncommon. Often, where professedly discarded, it is, through carelessness, in actual operation. A teacher will allow a child to think Jordan is a town, and Judea a river, without setting him right; and, though he sees by the manner in which his scholars read the Bible, that they attach no ideas to the words they mispronounce, they are suffered to go on uncorrected. Even good teachers are not always careful enough on this point. A boy, in reading the New Testament, came to the words "Scribes and Pharisees," but read, "Scribes and Paraphrases." Some teachers would have stopped him, saying, Pharisees, boy— Pharisees. It was better to pause and explain the difference.
The following are the principal points requiring attention in the explanation of a lesson :—
1. The explanation must be suited to the knowledge the children possess. No principle is more frequently violated than this. Sometimes the explanation is as obscure as the difficulty. Thus, we have seen Saviour explained by Redeemer. A child who did not know what the first meant, was not likely to understand the second. If the steps of a ladder were too wide, it were as well away. In Mr Dunn's Principles of Teaching, we have the following anecdote:—"'Will you please to tell me why I carry one for every ten?' said a child to her instructor. 'Yes,' replied he, kindly. 'It is because numbers increase from right to left in a decimal ratio!'"
At other times, the explanation, in itself good, is not carried far enough back. We have seen, in inquiring our way through a large town, that while the person asked would direct us to every street through, which we had to pass, he omitted the way to the first one. We should always go back till we find a link in the child's mind to which we can attach the new information. It does little good, for example, to acquaint a child who had never heard of Judea, that Jerusalem was the capital of Judea. We must inform him first, that there was such a country, tell him where it was, and then name its chief city. So also, to tell him that a priest was a person who offered sacrifices, would be unintelligible, unless he knew what a sacrifice was. Or were we to say that the publican "stood afar off," because of his humility; the sentence would be no clearer unless the child knew where he stood, and in what way his position and posture were indicative of humility.
2. The scholars should always be examined upon the explanation. They will pay more attention to it when they know that an examination upon it is to follow. By this means, also, the teacher will find an opportunity of correcting what has not been properly comprehended.
3. Abstract terms and difficult sentences are best explained by a paraphrase. Thus, instead of formally explaining the word sanctification by giving an equivalent term, it would be easier to say, "When a person learns to hate sin, and to love God and everything that is good, he is then sanctified."
4. The quality of the explanation must keep pace with the acquirements of the scholar. It is well enough for a young child to be told that a synagogue was a sort of church; but, as he grows older, he must be taught the origin of the synagogue, its general appearance, the order of its services, and so on. That an altar was a small erection on which sacrifices were offered, may be enough for a young child to know; but as he advances, we must teach him that altars were used both for sacrifice and incense ; that they were not to be made of hewn, stone, lest idolatrous images should be carved on them, &c.
5. Never wander from a passage in explaining its terms. This practice is carried to a great length by some teachers, and, indeed, is sanctioned by high names. The word faith, for example, occurs in a lesson, and the teacher, instead of making a simple statement of what the word or doctrine means, enters into a discussion of it. Examples of faith are required. It is asked, What is the opposite of faith? Give examples of unbelief. What is the reward of faith? What is the punishment of unbelief? Or the word may be Jerusalem, to which are attached a string of questions, about its first capture by David, its destruction by Nebuchadnezzar, its rebuilding by Ezra and Nehemiah, and its final ruin by Titus. By this method, the mind is fretted with incessant interruptions, and the unity of the lesson is entirely destroyed. It is as if in travelling, not contented with inquiring to what places the numerous cross-roads led, we followed them up to their termination, and then resumed our original route.
The principle by which an explanation is to be regulated is, to give as much and no more explanation than is necessary to the understanding of the particular lesson. Thus, if the lesson were on Luke i. 5-22, and we were explaining the 9th verse, "His lot was to burn incense when he went into the temple;" since our subject is the vision of the angel, and not a history either of sacrifice or of the temple, we briefly tell what offering incense was, and where it was offered, and pass on. We are not to make a separate lesson on the word "temple." In the parable of the Pharisee and publican (Luke xviii. 10), the same word "temple" occurs ; here its uses as a place of prayer might be briefly noticed. But if Matthew xxiv. 1 were the lesson, ! "His disciples came to him, for to shew him the buildings of the temple," we would naturally enter upon an account of the past history and present condition of the temple. Let us never diverge from the lesson without a special reason.
The explanation finished, we must next proceed to the illustration of the lesson. It may be necessary to remark here, that we do not mean that all the explanation shall be finished before commencing the illustration, or that the illustration shall be completed before proceeding to anything else. The different parts of teaching must, on the contrary, be commingled as suits the teacher's purpose. The terms first and second, imply only the order in which the subjects are considered. This remark may be borne in mind throughout the work.