Looking and Learning in the Victorian Classroom
Observation—what to observe and how to observe it—was a frequent topic of discussion in the public discourse around education in nineteenth-century Britain. But in the context of the schoolroom, what did ‘observation’ entail? What, exactly, were students supposed to be looking for? And how was the relationship between looking and learning understood and imagined? To answer these questions, this essay draws on British curricular codes, school inspectors’ reports, schoolbooks, and texts in educational psychology in order to describe three ways that Victorian educators may have approached perception in the classroom. These three approaches to visual pedagogy offer possibilities within a spectrum of approaches to vision and visuals, ranging between: 1) a pedagogical approach that asserts the primacy and power of observation in the learning process; 2) an approach that employs vision and visuals as important accessories to learning; and 3) an approach that employs vision and visuals to secure student attention but does not make use of observation as an integral part of the learning process. Though the printed lessons, inspectors’ reports and curricular codes surveyed here may or may not reveal how individual children were taught, or what they ended up learning, they have potential to tell us a great deal about adult anxieties around vision and visuals, and they offer examples of what some Victorians believed the powers of observation could accomplish. For this reason, Victorian practices of teaching and learning offer a valuable resource for understanding the ideals and anxieties that motivated Victorian aesthetes like John Ruskin and his followers—some of whom were also educationists.