Teachers in various departments had a rare chance to sit together at a conference at Bloomfield High School this week.
We are diving into "Understanding by Design"--Dr. Grant Wiggins has developed a nice cottage industry for himself called Authentic Education. He's managed to grab the state's ear (and a good chunk of its money), and he put the sexay back into the synthesis/evaluation steps in Bloom's taxonomy. I'm not sure he's created anything spectacularly new, but it's a well-crafted program that gives teachers some control over lesson design, and our district has bought (psychically and fiscally) into the program.
During the workshop, different departments were asked to develop essential questions. The language arts crew came out with a question I misheard as "What makes a story true?"
I don't remember the original question, but I like my mangled version, and I'm running with it.
High schools have fiefdoms called departments--our kids spend 48" a day in each fiefdom. Exactly 48 minutes.
We teach our units in chunks, each fiefdom on a schedule independent of the others.
The kids get that literature requires imagination, but they do not get that truly great fiction is always true. To be fair, there is no way to understand most of what matters when you're just a few years beyond embryohood.
Science also requires imagination, and more importantly, is a special kind of fiction. The kids see science as the Truth. More than once I have heard a high school junior scientist type sniff "I love science because it's real, unlike fiction," often a child with a poor grasp of his native tongue.
"Truth" in science is squirrely--it never quite stays in the same place. A great work of literature remains true for as long as a culture exists (and even beyond); a scientific truth changes over time. Turns out science is a special kind of story-telling.
Scientists (attempt to) explain why things in the natural world behave as they do. "Natural world" is the world we can sense directly or indirectly, and requires the faith that what happens here and now would happen then and there if the conditions are the same. (Miracles are excluded by definition.) Science gives us tremendous power because it allows us to predict and manipulate natural events.
Take the story of the electron. You cannot see an electron. We have indirect evidence for its existence, but any visual image for it falls short. Scientists create sophisticated models helping us to understand why the electron (itself a slippery concept) behaves as it does, but understanding an electron beyond the story makes no sense. It does not exist. (This is not to say something does not exist--clearly something does--but our concept of the electron is just that--a concept, not the electron itself.)
Ask a child to draw an atom--she will draw the Bohr model, the one that looks like planets spinning around the sun. Her parents will draw the same model. Quite a few teachers will also do the same. It's a cultural icon, though it's almost useless now in science.
Electrons exist, but not as "things". Atoms exist but not as particles, at least not in the solid sense. An atom is almost completely empty space.
Electrons have no dimensions. At least that's how we understand them today. How we understand them today is more "true" than how we understood them yesterday; tomorrow we will have a more "true" understanding than we do today.
Most of our culture does not get this--we worship science because it gives us neat stuff; many of us avoid great literature because it gives us pain.
What makes anything true? Not sure I can find it in science. Not sure I can find it in literature, either, but I bet I have a better shot at it there.
I love Robert Frost. Here's a piece of "The Black Cottage"--should souls survive independent of their bodies (and in Genesis it says otherwise), I hope Mr. Frost can forgive me for slicing his work.
- For, dear me, why abandon a belief
- Merely because it ceases to be true.
- Cling to it long enough, and not a doubt
- It will turn true again, for so it goes.
- Most of the change we think we see in life
- Is due to truths being in and out of favour.
- As I sit here, and oftentimes, I wish
- I could be monarch of a desert land
- I could devote and dedicate forever
- To the truths we keep coming back and back to.
(Hey, I love Beethoven, too--I'm a ragged collection of clichéd loves. What do you expect from a science teacher?)