Monday, October 6, 2008

I teach ancient Greek philosophers

It finally hit me--high school freshmen think like ancient Greek philosophers.

In Period 1 history class, the students are told that ancient Greece is the birthplace of western civilization; by Period 4 science, they're being told that their Aristotelian views of the universe are silly.

No wonder the kids resist science.

A few nuggets of ancient Greek wisdom:

We can see in absolute dark.

Objects emit particles that are detected even in the dark. Democritus believed objects emitted eidola, replicas of the object an atom thick, that hit the eye.

I suggested to one class that they spend some time in a totally dark closet. One student said he didn't need to, he knew he could see in total darkness. Reason over observation--if Aristotle could reject experimentation over pure thought, well, can hardly blame a child for thinking the same thing.

When was the last time you put yourself in absolute darkness. Are you sure you cannot see in the dark?

The sun is a big, hot rock.

If it's good enough for Anaxagoras, it's good enough for my students. The stars are also rocks, but are so far away you cannot feel their warmth.

So now instead of debating what I once considered a foolish point with Sergio or Briana or Louis as they fumble with their iPods and phones, I pretend I am talking to Anaxagoras.

Try explaining plasma and nuclear fusion to an ancient Greek philosopher, a very bright one at that.

Imagine inviting Anaxagoras to dinner. Most of us would use the finest china, serve filet of mignon and the best wine, and only after some initial small talk even consider questioning his position. We'd give him lots of latitude (for how can we expect him to grasp modern physics) and give him room to stumble. He announces at dinner that the sun is, indeed,"a red, hot stone."

Now imagine a 14 year old child who says the same thing in class--there'd be laughter by students, an eye-roll from the teacher.

Until someone offers evidence otherwise, I think a 14-year-old who thinks the sun is a hot rock has good reasons for believing it. It's not our job to convince him otherwise; it's our job to show him how we came to our current understanding through the available evidence. (This translates into getting the right answer on a multiple choice question, true, but I can dream.)

Reading it in a textbook is not a good reason to believe something.

Heavy objects fall faster than light objects

Imagine Aristotle in your class--he's getting to be a real thorn in your side. He says heavy objects fall faster than lighter objects.
Heavy objects are made of "earth" (one of the 4 basic elements), and the object's natural place is back in the earth. Take a big chunk of earth away from its proper place--it needs to return. Do you have a better idea, Mr. Teacher?

How many of us would retort with "Did you read your assignment last night, Ari?" You have a 24 children in class, you have standardized tests breathing down your neck, why won't Aristotle comply?

Oh, well, that's different--he's from ancient Greece, we're more sophisticated now, everybody knows that gravity is this force that no one understands that causes every object in the universe to be attracted to every other object in the universe.

Imagine a thinking 14-year-old student weighing between a simple Aristotelian version of gravity that says heavy things fall faster because they want to return to their proper place against the teacher version that's telling you that a star millions of light years away exerts a slight pull on you.

The same teacher, by the way, who just told you astrology is nonsense. Even though you had good luck last Friday, just as your horoscope predicted you would.

So I drop my keys and paper clips and lab stools and heavy science books in class--and we all marvel that they hit the ground at the same time. It amazes me every time. I've been dropping things for almost 50 years, and after a few decades I finally accept that at low velocity many objects do in fact drop at the same rate.

I expect my kids to unlearn ancient Greek physics in less than a class period. Took western science about 2000 years to unlearn the same concept (thank you, Galileo).


Teaching my lambs does not get any easier realizing that their reasoning rivals that of historic geniuses. Does make me a little more patient, though.

The drawing is of Anaxagoras--the writing is loosely translated as "A classroom full of Anaxagorases"


Ben said...'s so true! When I taught physics I would have students research Aristotelian, Galilean, & Newtonian beliefs on the motion of objects. I frequently got the comment: "Aristotle's make the most sense."

So many misconceptions students have about the Earth, physics, and the universe do make sense- which can make it a little difficult to convince them otherwise.

doyle said...

I've recently gotten permission to use a class as a pilot program for new social media--I was contemplating setting up wiki groups within the classroom, picking a problem, then letting the students run with it.

Did I mention I happen to be a Luddite?

I love the idea of kids researching the different models of Aristotle, Galileo, and Newton, especially since my kids would gravitate (so to speak) to Aristotle.

I'm not going to convince them otherwise; be interesting to see if kids from the Newtonian and Galilean camps can make a bigger impression than my feeble attempts.