School corner…from Cuisinaire rods to calculators.

Here in the Wee Museum we have objects donated from all aspects of our lives, from home and work life to technology and toys. Throughout the museum, tucked away in a corner or on a shelf, there will be something, often a small thing, that resonates immediately, and sometimes quite emotionally, with a visitor. All our memories are stored but are not always present in our mind – they seem hidden and not brought out regularly as we rush through the passing years, leaving the twentieth century behind. But then a picture on a box, the feel of a pram as it bounces on its springs, or the sound of the typewriter ping, reminds people of their favourite toy or biscuit, pushing their babies and messages down the street or learning to type at work.

School Corner.

Our school corner is a wee tableau of memory; a snapshot of changing teaching equipment and methods between the 1950s and 1980s. From writing out sums (simple additions and subtractions) in a jotter – pre-decimal – to working out calculations for trigonometry using slide rules. Just at the side of course, the teacher figure stands, well-equipped with gown, mortar board and a tawse or leather belt for the administration of corporal punishment. Physical punishing in schools was made illegal in Scotland in 1987, although it had stopped in most public schools before then. Many leather tawses were manufactured in Lochgelly, Fife, and some visitors refer to the straps as Lochgellies. It is interesting, and not a little disconcerting, to note that quite a few visitors can recount their memories of getting the strap – describing the thwack of the belt on the teacher’s desk, and the pain as they held out their two hands for the required number of strokes. Hands were held out together, palms up, one under the other, which was more painful than a single hand. Another form of punishment was the use of blackboard dusters which were thrown with painful accuracy at the heads of pupils. Experiences of being disciplined, perhaps because it was painful, embarrassing, a bit shocking, deserved or undeserved, have left acute and vivid memories with visitors who often describe them in detail.

On display, and we have more than one set in the collection, is a box of Cuisinaire rods. This was a system of learning to count in decimals using different coloured wooden blocks for each number up to 10. The idea was developed by a Belgium teacher, Georges Cuisinaire, in the 1950s. Cuisinaire felt that some students found traditional methods of teaching arithmetic difficult but using a system that was both visual and physical enabled some pupils to understand how numbers were connected by addition and subtraction. The system was not universally used in Scotland but was used in some schoolds in the 1960s and 70s. Again it is surprising how often visitors will exclaim excitedly ‘Oh I remember using those in primary school! Hadn’t thought about them for years…’. Tactile and colourful, seeing and feeling the rods prompt very immediate and powerful memories. These little blocks of wood can take people back to being aged 5 or so, first year in school, a time of change and new experiences.

Slide rule, jotter and Cuisinaire rods.

Scots mathematician John Napier’s work on logarithms (Napier’s bones) in the seventeenth century provided the basis for Englishman, Reverend William Oughtred to develop the instrument known as the slide rule. A basic slide rule helped solve complex problems as it was ‘relatively’ easy to use and was not expensive. It continued to be used to teach mathematics in schools, and by scientists and engineers, into the 1950s and 1960s as the use of computers was still very limited. An alternative to using the slide rule in school (I would question the use of the term ‘relatively’ as it proved beyond my ability) many people also remember Logarithm tables – probably the four figure version. These slim paper-covered booklets were helpful when required to do calculations involving large numbers, by using the log and then the antilog. It is a strange but little known fact that I can still remember the log for pi or 3.14 is 0.873, which is not been something I use much these days. Both systems of calculating mathematics might seem complicated for today’s generation but school day memories are jogged when visitors see them on display and can prompt an attempted explanation – especially if there are grandparents and grandchildren in the group. Cheap, handheld, calculators contributed to the decline in use of slide rules and log tables in schools and the workplace, although perhaps because they were solidly made we have several examples of slide rules in our collection.

Warwick Set of Mathematical Instruments. slide rule and jotter.

Maths class was something that not everyone enjoyed but it did at least involve extra equipment to help with drawing perfect triangles or circles or part circles. The set square, protractor, and compasses were needed to help show angles in geometry – acute, obtuse or right – or radius, diameter and circumference – that’s of course when 3.14 or pi comes into play – multiply the diameter by 3.14 to get the circumference. The geometry set that we have is The Warwick Set of Mathematical Instruments – A Complete Geometry Set, in a little tin box. Maybe you remember something similar?

If you would like to see our school corner pop in to The Wee Museum of Memory and share your own memories…