How to teach with John Stuart Mill

Posted on 15-05-2022

This was originally posted on the Lib Dem Teacher blog in 2015.

Let’s imagine you want to teach pupils what a verb is.  You give them a brief definition, and a few examples of verbs being used in sentences.

  • Jack sprinted to the shop.
  • She plays football every day.
  • Trains are a type of transport.

What’s the problem here? The verb is always the second word in the sentence. So a pupil might end up assuming from the examples you’ve presented that this is a defining feature of a verb. Suppose you then give them the following sentence and ask them to find the verb.

  • Every day, she plays football.

If they reply ‘day’, you’ll know they’ve made the wrong inference.

Organising examples, and predicting the inferences that will be made from them, is a key issue in John Stuart Mill’s A System of Logic. Mill mainly thought that the principles he outlined here could be used in science, and didn’t think they could be applied to education. But two American educators, Douglas Carnine and Siegfried Engelmann, think that Mill’s principles are relevant to education. Carnine and Engelmann have spent years developing textbooks where the organization and sequencing of examples is given the utmost care and attention. They realized after years of doing this that their principles were very similar to those of Mill’s in A System of Logic.  The example I opened this blog with is one that I developed after reading a guide by Engelmann to presenting grammatical examples.

In the brilliantly titled Could John Stuart Mill Have Saved Our Schools? Carnine and Engelmann look at how Mill’s logical theories can be applied to education, and at the difference it might have made to history if he had done so.

Many Lib Dems will be familiar with Mill’s political writings on education, and indeed with his own idiosyncratic educational biography. Carnine and Engelmann show that his writings on logic have just as much relevance.