Friday, April 9, 2010

Ghosts in the classroom

Science in a classroom stops the moment you tell an imaginative child she did not see what she thought she just saw. If a child sees a ghost, it is not enough to tell her that ghosts do not exist. She still will fear the ghost she sees.

For children paying attention, with highly tuned senses but little background understanding of how grownups view the world today, just about everything is miraculous--singular events that rock their worlds.

Post-Newtonian physics has closets full of ghosts, spirits in impossible worlds conjured by mathematics. If a 3rd grader spouts off a question a physicist may reasonably ask ("Ms. Santanella, can today happen again?"), that child's question will be dismissed with a cursory "Of course not!"

So what do you say? You can offer alternate explanations that fit the data and a larger worldview (which is what scientists, do, no?). You could ask her to continue her observations. You might even help her set up a way to test her hypothesis that her ghost exists.

What you shouldn't do, though, is just dismiss it. Even if the bell is about to ring and the state-mandated testing is 3 weeks away.

My 1960's public schooling tried to squeeze a mechanistic view of the universe into my skull--I was stubborn enough to know I saw enough at the edge of a pond to dismiss what passed for science in school.

I didn't know enough to challenge my teachers, but I knew enough to know they didn't quite have the whole story.

We never have; we never will. That's what makes science so much fun....

Multiverse drawing from Nature, 443


Jenny said...

If we could look through the eyes of children we would all be in better shape. We'd learn a lot more a lot more quickly too. It's one of the myriad reasons I love teaching first grade.

John Spencer said...

I'll repost it. Looks like it got deleted (not a problem - I've had issues with comments and Blogger this last week)

I am reluctant to share my one "ghost story," because it sounds so hoaky. But it convinced me . . . sort of.

Joel was about three at the time and I went in to use the restroom. I heard him scream and ran out and he held onto me. He was icy cold and kept saying, "Scary girl. I saw a scary girl."

That night, he said he saw scary girl again. He said she was mad and he was scared. This happened a few more nights.

Then one night he told me, "Can we pray?" So, I prayed and he calmed down. Then he said, "Scary girl wants us to pray for her, because no one ever prayed for her."

Then he said, "Dear God, let scary girl know it's not her fault."

He never had a nightmare about her again. But a veteran teacher told me a story about one of her students who had hung herself in that bathroom thirty years earlier.

I also learned that there was some kind of a problem with the air conditioning the weekend of "scary girl" and I know it's perfectly possible that Joel saw a girl who was in trouble at Saturday school.

I know that kids see things that are true, but not real and real, but not true and that scientifically speaking, there sense of mystery and paradox might just be more accurate than a mechanistic worldview.

So, did Joel see a ghost? Yes.

Was the ghost real? To him.

Was the ghost real to anyone else? Who knows?

Does reality exist beyond personal perception?

nashworld said...

Owning the "whole story" would be aesthetically far less beautiful to me.

Speaking of not knowing the whole story... here's something you can use (wait- you aren't phys. sci. any longer?) =>

Man... this is like discovering a heretofore unknown eddy in the Gulf Stream.


doyle said...

Dear Jenny,

I believe we can--it takes practice and imagination and a lot of forgetting dubious ideas we have internalized.

We'd learn quicker and we'd stop doing a lot of the things we do daily, things we rationalized so long ago we've forgotten they were compromises.

Dear John,

Joel saw a real ghost, at least real to him. What you do (as his father) with that information will frame his interpretations of similar events for the rest of his life.

Personal perception and reality are two different sets--we need a frame for the latter to make sense of our day to day meanderings.

As his father, you can probably influence Joel's perception of what he saw, or thought he saw. If it wasn't so personal, I'd ask what you said to him. Will you tell him the story of the suicide?

(This is obviously not the place to answer--Joel will be a young man before you know it, and words on the internet can hang like ghosts for as lifetime. Consider that a rhetorical question.)

Dear Sean,

As we both know, we know nothing. It's fun putting the pieces together, only to have a giant unforeseen hand scramble the pieces again, throw in a few more, then ask us to "solve" the puzzle one more time.

Prometheus, Sisyphus, and the modern scientist share the same story.