Saturday, May 23, 2015

The Church of Technology, the truth of science

"I rather like this . . . outside all laws except gravitation and germination."
Sue Bridehead, Jude the Obscure

All of us are bound by the laws of physics, entropy, and mortality.

All of us are open systems consuming organic materials, stripping off the energy and stuff we need to live, then tossing off the useless remnants to be put back together again and again and again by the sun, as close to a corporeal god as humans will witness.

This week thousands of children here in NJ will be given the state biology "competency" test, at significant cost in time and money. Turns out you can be competent in biology without knowing anything about life.


Few folks read Hardy's Jude the Obscure anymore, and aside from his rich descriptions of life before electricity and petroleum raised our culture to its current (and temporary) fantasies, I've little reason myself.

Sue and Jude had "escaped" (temporarily) from the culture that molded the roles of men and women of the time.

"You only think you like it; you don't. You are quite a product of civilization."
Jude in response to Sue
Image by Steve Paine, CC

Our children are the product of the lies we share with them. The images and the voices on the screens we give them, knowingly and willingly, help create the fantastic and false universe they live in.

Technology perpetuates fantasies; science, done right, demolishes them. They both grant humans immense power to manipulate the world.

The European Church, the center of power in the western world, supported science early on, until the truths of science shattered deep truths of the Church.

When we confound technology with science, when we insist that engineering hold the same place as science in a classroom, we are perpetuating our fantasies at our peril.

None of us live outside the laws of gravitation, or germination, of life, of entropy, and of, ultimately, death.

If a child "understands" entropy without a nightmare or two, you're teaching tech not science.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Seeds of faith, seeds of fear

"There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places

and desecrated places."

Wendell Berry (from "How to be a Poet")

I planted a few seeds back in late winter, when I had faith that the light would return, though I did not believe it. The light has come back (again), and though I cannot believe it was ever dark, I fear its return.

Faith and fear drive my past and my future. But neither past nor future are sacred places. Only the real is sacred, and only now is real.

What once were seeds now sit in flats,  now growing, now knitting together the stuff of life. The stuff of life is the stuff of biology, the stuff in us, of us. Today I will plant them into the earth, aware again of the only world that matters.

In class we worship the unreal--the heiroglyphics of biochemistry that make class feel modern and scientific, the cycles of Krebs and Calvin. A not so old biology text book, about my age, sits on a lab bench, next to the pond water on the windowsill.  You will not find the structure of DNA in it.

We grow stuff in class. Each morning many of my students, half-child half-adult critters still learning what's real and what's not, head for their seedlings before sitting down. Watering has become a ritual. For a few moments, they are engaged in biology, before we start whatever rites required by the day's lesson.

I turn on the computer to start class, desecrating the space that holds life.

You cannot teach life in desecrated spaces.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Faith in science education

We live in a land of magic and ignorance, where faith trumps the seemingly more mundane business of living--faith in a supernatural world, faith in life-saving technology, faith in a life lived on screens, faith in faith.

The practice of science holds immense power--there's a reason politicians and economists push STEM--but they confound science with faith in science.

Technology is not science.
Learning the vocabulary of mitosis is not science.
Building bridges from toothpicks and marshmallow is not science.
"Knowing" the Earth revolves around the Earth is not science.

The Church of Science Education works much like most churches of western civilization. Wow the faithful with rituals, create awe through virtual stained glass and incense, and have them recite the sacred scrolls "for understanding."

Anything that separates our children from the natural world lessens their chances of knowing science. Much of what we call science in school does just that. Over and over and over again.

Should I have faith in the Next Generation Science Standards?

Saturday, May 9, 2015

As the world turns....

The Next Generation Science Standards needs teachers who know science, and kids who trust their own eyeballs.

The idea seems so simple, so basic, that to challenge it leads to ridicule.

How do you know the Earth revolves around the sun?
What evidence do you have?
What evidence do you need?

 I've got plenty of evidence that the sun revolves around the Earth, evidence easily available to our children. The sun rises from one side of the horizon, and settles a few hours later on the other side.

If you sit still in late afternoon, you can see the shadows lengthen. Next time you "teach" a child otherwise, you better have a firm grip on the evidence--otherwise you are teaching science as religion.

Every year a few children passionately challenge evolution in our classroom, often using ideas with them by loving adults infused with (literally) the fear of God.

No one has ever challenged me about the Earth revolving around the sun.

The evidence for evolution is much easier to demonstrate than that for our relationship with the sun, yet not one child questions that.  My faith in teachers took a hit at a young age--I was told that the sun was overhead at noon.

I checked one day. It wasn't.
I checked again and again and again and again. Not once was the sun directly overhead. It never is in these parts, no matter what my teacher said. I could either trust her, the expert, or trust my own eyes. I went with my own eyes.
Science gets down to this: 
Claim. Evidence based on the natural world. Reasoning.

School gets down to this:

No one feels compelled to defend the Ptolemaic view of the universe because no one (in these parts anyway) fears damnation for accepting that the Earth revolves around the sun.

It would be a helluva lot more fun to teach if folks did, though.

I have a leprechaun in class--his existence cannot be dis-proven, and that is the point. 

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Why the Next Generation Science Standards are doomed

I really, really like the idea of teaching science to kids. Maybe one day we'll even try it. But the Next Generation Science Standards, as currently written, won't get us there.

The drive behind the standards is economic, not philosophical. It's about children being prepared "to succeed in a global economy," about "essential preparation for all careers in the modern workforce," for fixing our "high-tech trade deficit."

Even so, I had hope--science is science, and a child immersed in studying the patterns of the natural world, learning how to analyze, mastering the logic needed to pull us out of our culture of magical thinking would make for happier children and a healthier culture.

There are at least three fundamental flaws in the standards:

Fundamental Flaw One:
The obsessive need to stick to a tiered script creates an unnecessary and artificial separation of science disciplines in the early grades. The emphasis should be on science practices, not science disciplines. Children should be able to "do" science at the local level.
I get why NGSS is split into "major science disciplines" (though it all boils down to physics), but in its fetish to maintain order in a coherent, tiered system, the lower grades have multiple performance expectations in different disciplines.

This shouldn't matter in a world of bright teachers with autonomy, it does matter in our world of scripts and Federal oversight (aka "testing"). Teachers will be charged with creating multiple units on simple concepts. A child could spend hours in kindergarten studying plants on a windowsill, and only a plants on a windowsill, and gain as good (or better) appreciation of science practices as she will get through a march of BOE-approved commercial materials aligned with the mish-mash of NGSS expectations

Fundamental Flaw Two:Grades 4 through 6 present concepts that require a nuanced background in science to teach well--and most public schools do not have the staff to do this.
Here's an example. The introduction to the 5th grade standards includes a statement that should make every science teacher cringe:

"Students develop an understanding of the idea that regardless of the type of change that matter undergoes, the total weight of matter is conserved. "

I can hear the apologists already--it's just semantics, and the committee acknowledges that "at this grade level, mass and weight are not distinguished." Well, why not? If "mass" is too much for a fifth grader to grasp, why not just call it "stuff"?

(If you teach a child that matter is something that has mass and takes up space and leave it at that, you're teaching religion, not science.)

The biggest hurdle in teaching high school science is getting kids to unlearn what they know to be true. These standards in the wrong hands supplemented with commercial products that allow administrators to tick off a checklist of standard will worsen our students' grasp of science.

Fundamental Flaw Three:The insistence on placing engineering design as part of the heart of the science curriculum confounds (and dilutes) the standards. Science and engineering are related, true, but are very different disciplines--squeezing the two together highlights the economic nature of the standards.
Lumping science and engineering together is like lumping together physical education and ballet together--while ballet is an extension of physical movement, and could be a fine elective in a phys ed class, giving it the same stature as, say, aerobic exercise would skew gym class towards something (fine arts) that it's not.

I'm not opposed to teaching engineering any more than I am opposed to teaching ballet. Heck, if ballet had economic import, we'd all be wearing tutus. But it wouldn't make me a better dancer.

Gonna grab my old slide rule and a pocket protector and pretend I know something about engineering until we come up with something better.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Lessons from Ferdinand the Bull

The blossoms are blooming again--originally posted a year ago.

The Story of Ferdinand

The cherry blossoms are a week late this year--they know better than I do when the bees will be around, so I do not begrudge their timing.

Several cherry trees line Liberty Street here in town, a road I've walked a few thousand times on my way to and from Bloomfield High School. A few have branches low enough for me to bury my nose into their blossoms, so I do, but not before I check for bees. The bees have work to do.

We are (mostly) visual creatures. We analyze light, look for patterns, capture it digitally so we can show others what we think we saw. We have cameras to compare our various abilities to capture light, to hold the world in a frame.

Me and my nose live in a different world, a world of curves not  angles, smudges not sharp borders, a world where time and distances dissolve into layers of fog swirling into each other.

Cameras capture the sensuous, pleasing the cortex, blending thought and analysis and the beauty of order; my nose triggers the sensual, flaring up the olfactory lobe, part of our more primitive brain, visceral, without language.

Branch Brook Park, April, 2010

If you have never slid your nose into an hours old cherry blossom, no words can describe wash of peppery sweetness that takes you to nowhere but here now. Noses are like that.

Yellow pollen sticks to my nose like fairy dust.  I wipe it away, vaguely self-conscious, ignoring the strangers who pause to stare at this madman burying his nose in the flowers.  It takes me a moment to regain my bearings.

In a week the blossoms will be gone, and I will have nothing but a false memory left of what once was.


This cerebral, abstract culture of ours does not deal with noses well. Odors are just so hard to control, the memories they arouse so unpredictably deep, and the sense of smell is, well, too primitive for those of us who dwell in the abstract world of words, numbers, and big data.

We talk about stopping to smell the flowers, but we focus on the stopping, not the wave of sensuous, even sensual, deep aroma of flowers that give us reason to pause. What does it mean to stop and take a break, to get away from it all, when the all can be found in a moment spent on the edge of a city street, face buried in flowers.

One of my favorite books growing up was The Story of Ferdinand,  a bull who would rather spend his days buried in flowers than fighting. The book was banned in many countries.

Things as they are would, of course, fall apart if too many children figured out that what we want them to want is more about success of our economy than about them them. Ferdinand is a dangerous role model.

You can live your life working for the next big thing, dreaming of your next vacation, your next car, your next hazelnut macchiato, You can dwell on the moments you will (or not) eventually have, but the idea of anything worthwhile is still just that--an abstract thought, reduced by the limits of imagination, and ultimately unsatisfying.

If you continue to see the kids in front of you as potential professionals, as potential thieves, as potential laborers or soldiers or teachers, you cannot see the child in front of you now, on a dreary April morning, here, in a room defined by its sharp edges and word salad on the walls.

Kids know if you're present in the classroom.  Passionate teachers are effective not so much for their passion, but for their presence. You can fake passion--teachers are good actors--but you cannot fake presence.

If you need to fake it, you're not doing it right.

Death by dialed up dopamine: a rant

Texting while driving destroys bodies.
Texting while living destroys souls.

If you give a child her own soundtrack, a world where she can alter reality, and a device that feeds a dopamine loop during virtually all her waking hours, you can create the ultimate consumer.

Photo by Steve Paine, CC
One who can no longer question because she has no frame of reference.
One who craves but cannot define her desires, primed for a life of seeking favors from strangers.
One who has no idea, and no desire to learn, how she is connected to the land, to the water, to the air, to the bacteria in the dirt and her gut.

Filling a dopamine void drives much of our behavior--but it does not drive happiness.

If you want to help raise a grounded adult who knows what she wants, not what others would have her buy, and who knows enough to care for this world which we have through grace alone, you need to show her what's real.

Life on a classroom windowsill.
If all you're selling is obeisance, trivia crack, and a sheepskin that can be bought online now, you're not a teacher.

You're an enabler.

If you're doing it right, someone is going to try to stop you.