George Boole’s legacy as an educator springs largely from his own unconventional education. He revealed himself from a very young age as a prodigy, and although his family circumstances were limited financially, his father encouraged his son’s thirst for knowledge and he received the best formal education available to him. Boole supplemented his formal instruction through a constant process of self-education.
At a very early stage in his life, George Boole decided that he wanted to share his knowledge and idealistic views on education though teaching. His teaching career developed firstly out of financial necessity; when he opened his first school at Free School Lane in Lincoln, he was not yet twenty years of age.
From the beginning he was highly original in his teaching methods, disregarding tradition and proving himself as an innovator from a pedagogical point of view. For example, he was practical in his approach to teaching arithmetic and mensuration, using a blackboard, along with actual cones, pyramids and spheres.
His early education had been balanced, learning about science and mathematics on one hand and languages, literature and the classics on the other. In the case of languages he favoured learning with a view to speaking a language and reading its literature.
He was critical of teaching methods in vogue at the time. His Essay on Education showed him to be more than an excellent teacher. As a profound thinker he revealed himself primarily as an educator of the first rank, displaying a vision for education that was way beyond his time.
In this essay he states:
"The practice in our schools is to begin with the grammar and to end with the application. We pass from the general formula to the particular instance, not as in the order of Nature’s teaching from the particular to the general rule."
Boole was therefore advocating twenty-first century attitudes to teaching languages as far back as the 1830s.
Teaching pupils correctly from an early age was important to Boole. He started teaching them ‘before they had been spoiled by bad teaching’. Learning by rote was one of the elements of bad teaching in his view. In the prospectus for the Waddington Academy, which he took over in 1838, it says:
‘The pupil is required to commit nothing to memory before it is understood.’
Moral education and personal development were important issues for Boole. The Waddington Academy document also stated:
‘To the important department of Moral Education, increasing attention is paid. To form in the minds and characters of the young, habits of industry, integrity and mutual kindness; to teach them the distinction between right and wrong, and to impress them with a reverence for sacred things are objects to accomplish which no exertion will be considered too great.’
Physical exercise was another part of the educational experience at George Boole’s boarding school at Potter Gate, which he opened after managing the Waddington Academy. He frequently took his young pupils for long rambles in the Lincolnshire countryside, observing nature along the way.
When Boole was appointed as Professor of Mathematics at Queen’s College Cork in 1849 he had some major advantages over many of his academic contemporaries.
Having extended the boundaries of mathematical thought, he was already an accomplished teacher and a research thinker, with a holistic view of education.
At undergraduate level he had the ability to explain ideas simply so that they could be readily understood. Being largely self-taught, he was self-reliant and had formed his own view on matters of importance. From the beginning he fitted in well at Queen’s College Cork.
In 1858, in consultation with John Ryall, Professor of Greek and Vice-President of the college, Boole submitted a scheme to restructure the BA degree course. Once more Boole proved himself to be ahead of his time, proposing along with other recommendations, that all students receive one term of logic.
Although by nature shy and retiring, Boole was an extremely kind and caring individual and always put the welfare of his students first. After his death in 1864, a tribute by a former student summed up the esteem in which Boole was held as an educator;
" . . . Nor did those serried files of students assemble to pay homage to the colossal intellect of the Professor, as much as to lament the kind and sympathising and warm-hearted friend – one who would stoop from the lofty height of his transcendent genius to enter into the little difficulties of his class and who so identified himself with his pupils that the Professor seemed at times lost in the fellow labourer."