Alexander Graham Bell, Educator

You know him as the inventor of the telephone. You may have recently heard his voice. But before he became known the world over as an inventor and an entrepreneur, Alexander Graham Bell pursued another career. To mark Teacher Appreciation Week, we’d like to take a look at the work of Alexander Graham Bell, educator.

Teachers and students at a Boston school for the deaf, 1871. Bell is on the top step.

Education ran in Bell’s family. His father lectured on elocution and developed communication tools for deaf and hard of hearing students. Following in his father’s footsteps, Bell taught at schools for the deaf in London, Boston, and Hartford, Connecticut.

Bell had a lifelong interest in the mechanics of speech and hearing, and throughout his time in the classroom conducted experiments with new speech systems and with communication devices like the phonoautograph. Even when he left formal teaching, though, he continued to tutor individual students, including Helen Keller.

After Bell developed the telephone in 1876, his identity as an educator was eclipsed by his fame as an inventor. But his technical innovations were in large part fueled by his passion for teaching, and for helping his students communicate. Although today the validity of his deaf education efforts have come into question, to the end of his life Bell was sought out as an educator and provided advice and guidance to students and teachers.

Letter to Alexander Graham Bell from Lars Larson, the New Mexico Institute for the Deaf and the Blind, 1896

Alexander Graham Bell wrote thousands of letters on many different topics and filled countless notebooks with his ideas. Examining Bell’s papers provides many opportunities to explore his scientific ideas and the personal interests behind them.

Students can:

  • Analyze the diagrams and notes in this early letter to his father. What concepts can you see that might have been influenced by his family’s interest in hearing and speech? Are there any ideas that might be connected to his later invention of the telephone?
  • Bell had a wide range of interests in addition to science and education. Sample a selection of his letters on different topics, from aeronautics to photography to farming and beyond. What common threads can you find to connect these diverse subjects? Is there anything that surprises you?

What other sides of Alexander Graham Bell can your students discover?

One Comment

  1. James Hayes-Bohanan
    May 9, 2013 at 7:42 pm

    And of course he started a little thing called the National Geographic Society. Geography education remains a critical concern for global culture, climate change, national security, and economic development. His vision in establishing the NGS is a lasting legacy, one that is too little understood.

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