Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The problem with inquiry based science

H. sapiens did not suddenly get smarter the last few hundred years. The major cultural allegiance has shifted from god(s) to technology, but we're still the same beasts we were back when the sun rose on its own accord.

And that's a problem for education that tries to shove modern models into primitive brains.

By the time a child gets to high school, she has learned that paying attention to what she observes will only cause trouble.

She sees the Earth is flat.
No, child, the Earth is round. Here's a globe to show you.

She sees the sun rise, the sun set.
You see, child, the Earth spins, and the moving sun is an illusion....

She does not feel like she's moving--oh, sometimes she'll stare at drifting clouds and it feels like she's moving, but she knows it's just the clouds.
Oh, well, that's because the Earth is so huge and you're so small....

She wonders why she doesn't fly off the Earth.
Gravity, child, gravity.

She wanders over to the playground and plays on the merry-go-round. If she lets go, she flies off its edge. She asks the teacher a question: which spins faster, the Earth of the merry-go-round?
Why, the Earth, of course...

Then why, she wonders, do we not got flung off into space? But she stops asking questions.

When we do inquiry based science in the classroom, we expect the child's reasoning to lead to a culturally acceptable model. (I am not talking about the myriad errors that frustrate every lab exercise--those are problematic, but do not require frameshifts to explain.)

By the time I get students, they have been in school for 10 years--most of that time they were still concrete thinkers. If telling the teacher that the Earth is round, the Earth spins, and that we breathe oxygen gets you through a day with less aggravation, you're going to parrot whatever the teacher wants you to parrot.

Some of the curriculum standards for elementary school are absurd. We "teach" them anyway, because of the standardized testing, as bad a reason as any to mess up a child's mind.

Sophomores should spend most of their time learning how to observe. This won't happen in my lifetime, Achieve, Inc., Bill & Melinda, and the NGA have money and power.

Money trumps sense. Power trumps sense.

But I will try to make it happen in my class.

The first week of class I light a candle.

Tell me what you see
We see, um, fire?
No, that's not what we call it, what do you see?
Um, a candle with a flame?
Again, that's what we call it, but what do you see?

They get frustrated, but by the time the period is over, they see more of the flame than they ever did before. They see it refract light. They see condensation from it. They see more colors.

I don't ask for reasons, I just ask for observations. Anyone with intact senses can participate. Even pre-Renaissance H. sapiens.

And before we get indoctrinated, we're all pre-Renaissance H. sapiens.

Obviously the Geico caveman--I stole it from Belmont University.


John Spencer said...

Joel and Micah spent the morning looking at bugs with their magnifying glasses.

I had this thought (perhaps stolen from you or from someone else)

Science is the art of observing.

Put in those terms, I'm not as scared as I was when I looked at the standards.

Kathryn J said...

My story with this start of school exercise is described here http://colloquieswithkathryn.wordpress.com/2009/09/02/lighting-a-candle/

I agree about concrete thinkers esp. my 7th-grade students. I am definitely going to use your observe a tree all year activity next year. I need to really help them focus on observing next year.