Saturday, November 15, 2008

The language of high school science ain't math

"I don't eat plants."
Um, you never eat cereal or salad?
"Oh, I eat those--I just don't eat plants."

The disconnect between science and language in school kills science education.

Grasping mathematics may be necessary to understand higher physics (knowing which algorithm to use on a calculator doesn't count), but the does not make math the language of science.

The language of science (in these parts) is English. If you cannot manipulate words coherently, meaning will fail.

That's a high falutin' statement. Some qualifications:

1) Words/language may be oral. Written language allows manipulation oral language does not, but I do think my non-readers can grasp some science.
Reading, though, takes them a lot farther. (Or is it further?)

2) Aha! moments often do not depend on meticulously structured language.
Still, sharing how you got to the Aha! moment does.

3) I am talking about science in a
formal sense, beyond mere empiricism.
If I take a kid clamming on a falling tide, she sees (hears, smells, tastes, touches, too) more in a few hours than she will in a year of 48 minute periods in my classroom. Still, reminding children that they have senses that are spectacularly adapted for the outdoors is not science (though it is the first step).

A few days spent outside is more likely to make you a believer in spirits and magic than a "believer" of science. Reading a science textbook won't change the odds.

4) You can know English without gr
asping all the grammar and spelling nuances.
I'm a heretic. I insist that my students write meaningful answers, yet I do not insist on proper spelling and complete sentences if they can get the meaning across otherwise.

I am a hair-splitter when it comes to meaning--my students quickly learn this. They work hard to convey what they mean. If a child knows grammar inside out, it's one less hurdle to sharing meaning, but if they don't, hesitating over the proper structure of a pluperfect subjunctive will stop their thoughts dead.

(I am not advocating bad English. Still, if we're going to require students to read The Canterbury Tales (ful of wo and deth) in high school, I think it's OK to give them a break with spelling in science.)

We are talking about atoms in freshman physical science. This is not honors. This is not the step below honors. We don't have low level courses anymore, but we only have three steps. Do the math.

The textbook talks of orbitals, spends about 27 words about how the Bohr model has been superseded, then spends the next dozen or so pages using the Bohr model. The kids are, well, bohred.

I hold up a golf ball, calling it a nucleus. We talk about how far apart the electrons are, somewhere in the next town over. We talk about science fiction and force fields. We talk about trying to walk to the nucleus from the other town, hitting the energy wall of electrons. We talk about empty space. The class is amused, the teacher is a nut, it's like Philosophy 101 after drinking a a few cans of Red Bull.

Time to bring it home.

I slap my hand on a desk.
What did I hit?

"Um, the desk?"
Good! What atomic particles did I hit?
I slap the desk again.

Electrons banging against electrons.

Mathematical models get us to the big picture, and Wolfgang Pauli spun us a beautiful web.

(That's a gratuitous math equation lifted from Wikipedia to give this some oomph--in science class we call it learning. In the real world I'd call it a cheap shot.)

Takes English to translate the math back to reality, or as real as language can take us.

A slap on the desk becomes cool. A slap on the desk, done enough times, cues the students back to the space between nuclei and electrons, or the space of "stuff".

The best students in high school can make the analogies, can do the math, can "get" university level science.

For the rest of them, the emphasis on the math without effectively tying it to our native tongue makes science class pointless.

The students put about as much work into doing something pointless as you and I would, just enough to pass, to get the diploma.

New Jersey used to require 2 years of pointlessness, now it requires three.

I bet if you made the first year of science worthwhile, geared to the lives of children not destined for college, you wouldn't have to make the next two mandatory.

The Bohr's atom model is by Sundance Raphael at Wikimedia; the oat picture is from NASA.


Betty said...

As someone who has always been a bit nervous about science, I do enjoy reading your blog. My sister has been talking about your "lesson plan" post for days now. Your blog has become part of some of our sisterly conversations. I agree that science has not been given a fair shake in school. Real life examples are clearly better teachers than textbooks.

doyle said...

Thank you for the kind words--no higher praise than becoming "part of some of our sisterly conversations."

There are a lot of good things about textbooks--the illustrations these days are marvelous. Still, textbooks need to be safe, especially for Texas. Science is a lot of things, but "safe" isn't one of them.

Real life examples are clearly better teachers than textbooks in all fields, not just science, but you know this already.

Always fun to get a comment from one of the big blogstarz! Hope you keep reading.....

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Tēnā korua Betty and Michael.

Ah, the aha moment! Piaget had this idea that having fun is a natural companion to learning.

Perhaps we should revisit that concept.

Ka kite
from Middle-earth

Sean Nash said...

"I bet if you made the first year of science worthwhile, geared to the lives of children not destined for college, you wouldn't have to make the next two mandatory."

I must say, this took a really super post and just nailed it home.

I honestly think it takes someone with a solid grounding in the "bright brained" world to even get what you propose.

You put words publicly here that I have been thinking and discussing with my wife (also a biology instructor) for years.

Well done once again.


doyle said...

@Middle Earth,

You (and Piaget) are right--"having fun is a natural companion to learning." I don't think teachers need to push the fun part--I think the fun arises from the learning.

I'm still new enough at this that I am puzzled by what works, what does not. Still, a common denominator seems to be success at learning. (Good grades certainly help, too, but I think it's the learning more than the grades that drive my students, especially those in the "low level" science classes.) "Success at learning" is tantamount to learning.


Thanks for the words--few comments get me as charged as seeing that similar ideas are discussed elsewhere. That is as good a reason as any to blog.