Saturday, March 27, 2010

Science teacher?

I love teaching, and love science. I especially love teaching science. Science education is not, however, quite the same thing.

I can "teach" Alex the law of gravity:

I can tell her that the moon is held in orbit by the Earth's mass, that the moon's pull influences the tides, and that Newton gets credit for this, and she will do fine on a state-sanctioned end of course exam, punching numbers into a calculator without once realizing that that same moon tugs on her as it does the ocean.

Until she is no longer surprised that a penny and the CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics fall at the same rate in my classroom (really!), she hasn't learned a thing.


Compulsory science education yoked with a mandated curriculum, statewide standards, and an arbitrary "school year" will not make scientists, no more than requiring every child in New Jersey to master the quadratic equation makes mathematicians.

Oh, you can push kids to perform for awhile--elementary school has smiling children jumping through hoops for the pleasure of adults--but some point beyond the larval stage, pleasing adults is no longer enough to keep a child motivated.

There are a lot of reasons for compulsory "education," but not many good ones. If you're going to make science education compulsory, though, at least make it worthwhile.

Let me teach science.

I have heard over and over again that our children lack curiosity. Their behavior in school supports the hypothesis.

Let me teach science.

I have heard over and over again that something happens to children between elementary school and high school, that they lose interest, that they don't care. Their behavior in school supports that hypothesis as well.

Let me teach science.

What did your child learn today that was useful beyond meeting a regionally mandated curriculum?

If I took my lambs outside to a tiny pool for a day, armed with magnifying glasses and worksheets and assignments to complete, they'd rush through assignments, write down what their best friends are writing down, and we'd all feel like we accomplished something.

If I took them back the next day, they'd be confused, and many would not see anything more than they did the day before.

If I did this every day for 2 weeks, a few would start to glimpse how rich life is at the edge of a pond. Many would not, true, but they'd know no less than they would have had they spent the time studying the ecology unit in a textbook.

Science starts with seeing. Until my children can see, and I can help them learn this, the rest of science


Children (and teachers) are mortal. We all have limited time here. If we are going to force children to spend a good chunk of their conscious childhood hours in school, we'd better make it worthwhile.

If school were not mandatory, how many children would go?
If school were not mandatory and school cost, say, just $10 a day, how many parents would pay for their children to sit in your classroom?

School has costs, tremendous costs beyond the cash needed to sustain a local school district. Children give up time, time spent with families and real responsibilities not so long ago.

Is your classroom worth the exchange?

The parents of Bloomfield trust me with their children, trust me to teach them science. If after a few months in my classroom, they can see a little better, reason a little better, most of the parents I know would feel I kept up my end of the bargain.

They do not want to hear "We are flying through the material mandated by the state in order to prepare them for a state test given more than a full month before the school year ends."

I need to do more for Bloomfield, and less for Trenton and Washington, D.C.

Cartoon is by Kirk Anderson.


John Spencer said...

I'm still trying to make sense out of the term "useful." So much of what my sons are learning right now does not feel useful. Not useful to the future. Maybe not even useful to the now. But they pursue it with passion.

I'm not sure Joel will need much of what he knows about dinosaurs, aside from perhaps the notion that time is immense, creatures that once existed are immense and that the universe is immense.

I doubt that Micah will grow up to be a mechanic, but he is obsessed with cars and with making his own home-made ramps and with taking the tops off of cars and trying to place them into the other cars.

Perhaps the only thing useful about what they are learning is that they are learning how to learn and they are still loving learning in the process.

doyle said...

Dear John,

Exactly! Kids learn About things that excite them. Learning how to learn is the most useful thing we can teach them as children. We have too many adults who do not know (and have little interest) in learning, adults who prefer to have others do things for them.

(I just lost my neighbor--we just got back from the hospital an hour or so ago. He knew what "useful" meant, and lived a fine, useful life. Seems trivial when I phrase it like that, but he was the kind of man others point to as an example of how to live well.)

Sean Nash said...

"What did your child learn today that was useful beyond meeting a regionally mandated curriculum?"

Are those your words? If so, that needs to be on billboards with no other supporting text. Big, fat... yet subtle reminders to lodge in the subconscious of passersby on the freeway. Does that sound like Bush & Co.? I hope so in this case. They are masters of marketing to the dipshit demographic. I think many of us failed to see the breadth of that demographic in the last 12 years. If I didn't learn at least a smidgen from them... then I'M the idiot. I'm really not kidding here. Too tired to help me find someone who cares enough to do it? Just say so. I'm pissed and just young enough.

Are you?

doyle said...

Dear Sean,

My words as much as words can belong to anyone-a few Saxons may have helped develop them a long time ago.

louise said...

As a scientist and a teacher and a mom and an engineer, I hope I never lose the thrill when I see that the CRC and the penny fall at the same rate. It is truly amazing.That we have this thing, described by an equation, but nobody really knows what it is, they gave it a name as if to tame it, but it's no more within our control than anything else.

The probligo said...

It goes a lot further than science. Despite my 60-odd (some very odd) years I can still remember sitting in Calculus thinking "Just what, flaming, use is this going to be once I walk out the door?"

Forty-odd years later I know.

Stick with it doyle, you are teaching America's future leaders. They should romp in because you teach them to think