Sunday, July 10, 2016

#BlackLivesMatter in the classroom

via Odysey, Nicole Gentile

What does biology have to do with #BlackLivesMatter?
What does teaching have to do with race?

I can do what many biology teachers do, and dismiss this whole race thing as a social construct, with little basis in biology. I'm a pale male, after all, I can "rise above" it.

The art of science is making observations, see patterns, describing those patterns, and making predictions based on those patterns.

Science does not seek "truth" as much as it seeks sense in the natural world, but because it's a human endeavor, even the stereotypical staid, data-driven scientist is ruled by his biases.

And maybe that's its value--to let students see that their vision of "reality" is skewed by the world already constructed in their minds.

Crispus Attucks, the first American (or whatever you call a fugitive slave whose homeland is here) killed in the American Revolution, was a person of color.

His killer, Hugh Montgomery, a white man, was defended by John Adams (yes, that John Adams). Adams summed up the soul of white racism, arguing that Attucks' "very looks was enough to terrify any person."

Michael Brown died for the same reason:
[H]e looked up at me and had the most intense aggressive face. The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon."         Officer who shot Michael Brown

It looks like a demon.

What does teaching high school science have to do with any of this?

Well, depends, I suppose, on why science matters to you. Matters to me because I keep clawing at reality, or whatever I perceive to be reality, so science keeps me sane.

We see what we see based on the model we already hold of the universe. The same universe that allows "us" to justify our behaviors over and over and over again is a world of fear, of order imposed by our authority, of a twisted version of a dominant religion that lost its way generations ago.

I used to believe I teach young adults science because I wanted them to share in the love and beauty of the universe I know. Now I am not so sure. (Oh, I'm still sure of my love of nature, just not sure that's reason enough to impose my world view on theirs.)

So why teach biology? The kumbaya answer is to say that deep down inside, we all have the same needs, that race is not biological, then go on to mutter some nonsense about the mitochondria being the powerhouse of the cell.

Here's a better reason--teach children to develop a critical lens when looking at the world.
Claim. Evidence. Reasoning.

What makes #BlackLivesMatter so empowering is that it does just that, a big reason, perhaps the reason, it is so feared. The claim is that black lives matter less in our culture than white lives, the evidence is overwhelming.

You don't need to be a scientist to see that--but if you apply a rational eye to the evidence around us, you will arrive at the same claim.

The first step is to observe, simply observe, and find the patterns.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Staying grounded

Patch of backyard, moments ago

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,  
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,  
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;

I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
T.S. Eliot, from The Waste Land

In the end, of course, it all falls apart, reason enough to take care of each other.

The sun is just starting its journey back to the shadows, and you can smell, again, wafts of the dead and the dying among the exuberance left over from June. By fall, the air smells like rich earth again.

The ground beneath us holds a universe of stories, of critters both unimaginably complex and foreign, spinning life-stuff from the air, nitrogen to ammonia to nitrates. The story of us starts with the dust on our soles, the dust of our souls.

(We are not defined by DNA anymore than a house is defined by its blueprint--protein is what makes me me, and you you. )

Science as taught today no longer grounds us--high school science is an amalgam of abstractions, magic formulas that, if mastered well, help gain entrance to institutions that increase your odds of making a livable wage.

The Gospel of the NGSS tells us so:
"Beyond the needs of the economy, an education grounded in acquiring and applying knowledge positions students to improve their options in a rapidly changing menu of jobs, where few students will stay in the same job throughout their working lives."
My classroom extends out to our school garden, our town's Green, physical extensions of the more important extensions to the earth and life, to the dust and death. In English classes, these themes are metaphorical.

In biology, when done right, a child should have moments of, well, terror, as she realizes that this human world of images and screens and light is as empty as the promises made by the false prophets around us.

Our children need to be grounded, in the literal sense. They need mud between their toes, they need to grow flowers from seed, they need to wile away afternoons staring at the life in a square foot patch of grass, or they will be lost, as so many of the adults around them already are.

Bee by the driveway, a year or two ago.

Science starts with what's real, and nothing less.
So do a few other things that should matter.

Education should start with a clue about what matters.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Hunting tadpoles in an NGSS world

Photo by Jessica Pierce, with permission
I am going tadpole hunting with my aunt and uncle in an hour. We'll creep along the edge of a pond, muck around our ankles and nets in hand, dodging poison ivy and biting bugs, because it brings us joy.

Between the three of us we have over two centuries of living and hours to play on weekends, and this is what we chose to do, even in the 21st century. We have evolved little in the past few thousand years, despite what the futurists would have you believe.

Plants are aware, if not conscious. They are as much alive as you and me, and in many ways far more sophisticated. They communicate to each other, and to animals. They respond subtly, precisely to the world around them, and are more aware of what's happening than most "civilized" humans.

Without a background in natural history, without a childhood immersed in the natural world, a child in our culture has little chance of realizing the lives of the living beings around us. Without this knowledge, all the talk of "interdependent relationships in ecosystems" is like the love song of a twisted psychotic stalker--not just meaningless, but passionately dangerous.

NGSS promotes the practice of science; it does little to promote natural history. This matters. It's like learning the mechanics of sex by using a mannequin--it can be done, but really, what's the point? If a child doez nort fall in love with the natural world, with its deep nuances and rhythms, with its internal beauty, then pushing her to become a scientist becomes a cruel exercise. Benchwork is a hard, lonely business.

Take a child tadpole hunting--you'll do more good for America than anything I can do within the cinder block walls of my classroom.

Ironically, even corporattions would benefit--you want scientists?
Let children roam in the real world.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

NGSS will not produce a nation of scientists

US Navy judging science fair contestants (public domain)

If you want a child to learn science (as opposed to engineering or technology or the catechism we pretend is science), it will require (for most) a quasi-religious conversion--a search for truth beyond what one knows, or thinks she knows.

Such a child should be taught not to tolerate the conventions that keep her glued to her seat, asking permission to leave the room to pee.

Such a child should be taught not to tolerate statements without evidence, even the obvious ones. How do we know the Earth turns? How do we know the season are related to the Earth's tilt? How do we know atoms exit?

Fastfission via WIkipedia, 

We praise children for drawing the Rutherford model of the atom, a model long ago replaced. We praise them for making oobleck, for making batteries out of lemons, for making elephant toothpaste.

God help the child that truly challenges her second grade teacher on how we know the sun does not "rise"--we ask children to deny their own reality in order for them to succeed in a classroom culture thrust upon them.

Not every child is destined to be a scientist (thank Zeus), but we should encourage every child to think independently, to support claims with evidence, and to have the courage to call bullshit when appropriate.

The Next Generation Science Standards, while not awful, have a misplaced urgency for producing workers as opposed to scientists. A career as a scientist (as opposed to an engineer or a technician) ain't for the weak.

NGSS folk: To say we need to understand science to use technology is a baldfaced lie.

My life koan: What is a hypothesis?

Alice and the Dutchess (Lewis Carrol)

The "scientific method" is neither, but it's convenient for folks who know little of science to press onto children who know even less.

The concept of hypothesis is the heart of science--and yet after decades of trying, I have yet to be able to define what it means to myself, never mind children.

I imagine a Rōshi posing the question to me:

Enso by Yuma , CC

 "What is a hypothesis?"

And no matter what I answer, it is incomplete or wrong or banal or tautologous or incoherent or vapid....I imagine myself locking eyes with the wise elder, hoping he can see the wisp of understanding in my eyes before it all falls apart the moment I open my  mouth.

And maybe that's the point--the concept of hypothesis is more primal than our spoken language.

I can say what it is not, though--it is not a prediction, though it is used to make predictions.

A hypothesis presumes some model of how the natural world works, which requires that one has a relationship with the natural world, and is itself about the relationships within this relationship you have with the natural world.

Or, as the Dutchess said to Alice:
"Never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise."

Applying the Next Generation Science Standards requires knowing "simple" words like matter, energy, and hypothesis. Look at any school textbook and see how space is used to talk about any of these words.

Tattooing a ensō on your forehead does not make you a Buddhist; following the scientific method will not make you a scientist.

OK, zen science teacher masters--What is a hypothesis? I'd love to post your responses.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Coding, NGSS, and cultural madness

“But I don’t want to go among mad people," Alice remarked.
"Oh, you can’t help that," said the Cat: "we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad."
"How do you know I’m mad?" said Alice.
"You must be," said the Cat, "or you wouldn’t have come here.” 

Aside from coding (and more on that in a minute), pretty much everything about computers and their use impedes the spirit of the Next Generation Science Standards.

If the goal of the NGSS standards is to create scientific thinking in a child, then the child must be immersed in the natural world, swimming in the sea of sensations outside of our artificial universe of screens.

Everything on a screen is reduced to pixels and sampling, following algorithms--the foundation of reality in a machine is defined by humans.

The natural world cannot be captured intact by the models we create.

An impossible being that visited me one evening.

Coding for schoolchildren matters. It helps develop a working sense of logic and presents interesting challenges for young brains. I could say the same for solving Sudoku problems or learning to use a slide rule. All of these have value for similar reasons.

What separates coding from other exercises is the potential for a child to see the machine for what it is; to develop a feel the algorithms beneath the life we now impose on humans, to expose its artificiality.

If a child gets that, she just might see the cultural delusions that limit her ability to see the universe around her.

Still, in a world where we have become the gods, where artifice becomes reality, a child may never know what she's missing when she no longer notices the earth around her. And maybe that's the point--a child less distracted by reality will be that much more compliant when she's sitting in her corporate cubicle.

Science starts with the mud between a child's toes.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Thomas Hardy vs. the NGSS

This is a year old, but I like it, and it' my party....

Basil seeds taken from a seed pod.

"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 took 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.