Thursday, November 25, 2010

Un-teaching "science"

I am a high school un-teacher. I spend more time un-teaching than I do teaching.

I cannot hope to get kids to think if they walk around life believing much of the nonsense they learned during their impressionable years.

The idea of teaching a room full of children who still have reason (at least economic) to trust the tooth fairy makes my eyeballs quiver. Good Lord, somebody has to do it, and I respect anyone possessing the gadolinium gonads needed to teach larval humans. If you're going to dabble in science, though, please put away the textbooks. and get it right.

Children are sent to school earlier and earlier ("please wipe your feet, hang up your coat, and dry your umbilical stump") and expected to perform more and more. A child reciting a list of organelles before he's sprouted an axillary hair is about as learned as an Irish dancing monkey but not nearly as entertaining. My lambs come to high school spewing content without understanding, and have been rewarded for this. How can this be?*

I've complained about this long enough to get myself attached to a committee, and we're looking at science into the early grades, which means perusing the state standards. Uh-oh.


Language matters. I am trying to parse the state standards. The first one below applies to children before they finish second grade. We're talking about 7 years olds. A lot of them will be bored hanging around the old folks weekend. Go chat with one.

The Sun is a star that can only be seen during the day.
True, I suppose, but tautological. It says nothing. A young child never asks why we can see the sun during the day. The interesting question is why can't we see the other stars.

Worry not--we'll jam some science in the young'uns:

Determine a set of general rules describing when the Sun and Moon are visible based on actual sky observations.

Asking second graders to do "actual" sun observations can lead to "actual" blindness.

Part of me loves this idea. Let the kids find patterns. Let them observe periodicity in nature. Don't expect them, however, to come up with a set of general rules. Really. Go talk to one. Even one who does the Irish monkey thing well. (She's the one with the report card on the refrigerator.)

Here's one for the Pre-K crowd:

Experiments and explorations provide opportunities for young learners to use science vocabulary and scientific terms.

No, no, no, no, no, no, no!!!

Children are magical thinkers--words have tremendous power. Telling a child that things "fall" because of gravity is catechism, not science. We have enough of that already.

Instead, focus on the word "fall"--what does it mean to fall? If a child asks why things always fall "down", work on the word down. If you have an ambitiously curious child, tell them that stuff is attracted to other stuff and no one knows why. Do not use a science vocabulary term until the child has a chance to discover what it means.

I'd rather ban the word gravity in elementary school than "provide opportunities for young learners to use science vocabulary." They got plenty of other things to grasp before throwing talismans at them.

I look forward to the committee meetings.

*Turns out our state standards are designed by "educators and experts
recognized for their content area expertise.
[italics mine]" Gulp.

The Einstein acceptance speech wordle was found at Ptak Science Books here.

The cartoon is from, of course, Toothpaste For Dinner....


Jenny said...

I can not wait to talk to you at Educon.

I want to talk about this post specifically. Having moved from the upper elementary grades to a lower elementary grade I have strong feelings about the things we teach young children that screw them up for later. That said, I'm sure there are a lot of things I'm teaching that screw them up for when they get to you. Science has never been a strong area for me, but I do love to do science things with kids. I'd really like to make sure I'm giving them a good foundation.

John T. Spencer said...

Joel has asked why we can't see the sun at night and why we can't see the stars during the day. To him, they're both equally interesting. But more interesting to him is why we can sometimes see the moon in the day and sometimes see the moon at night.

A few of my students seem really interested in the science of cooking. Why does yeast work? Why do you have to add eggs? What's a starch? Why do different things boil at different rates? I'd love to teach "properties of matter" in a kitchen rather than a science lab. You might disagree with me on that one. But I'd also like to teach biology in a garden.

It's a part of the home school movement I resonate with.

One of my students asked me just the other day how a product can be chemical-free if everything is made of a chemical compound. Her question isn't on the standards and I had to brush it aside so that we could "move on." I should have stayed still.

doyle said...

Dear Jenny,

I do not envy elementary school teachers here in New Jersey; I did not realize until very recently the kinds of nonsense our teachers are charged with delivering to their students.

Compounding the problem is that many administrators are not "comfortable" with science, which makes selling pre-packaged units so easy. If a teacher has a decent sense of science but her admins do not, she's not likely to get away with telling those in charge she refuses to use the word "gravity" in class.

Thank you, as always, for the words, and see you at EduCon!

Dear John,

The sun and moon questions are separate issues. He might be asking where they go, which is different than why we can see them when we do. The moon is much more interesting in that sense since we can see it any time of day or night.

I don't even know what "science lab" means anymore. If the children are making observations, drawing conclusions, and making predictions in a kitchen, then the kitchen is where science is happening. Science isn't a lab, it isn't a catechism. Too many people think of science like they do "church," equating place and rituals with what it really means.

As far as the chemical-free question, I'd simply say the product is not chemical-free and let her ruminate about the implications of that. (It says a lot about adults bleating like sheep, about propaganda, about advertising--without directly saying so.)

My wife and I had many discussions on home schooling. While I recognize the incredible social value of public schooling, some of the stuff that passes for learning is sheer idiocy. We need to fix that.

The Dirt on Soil said...

Oh I'd love updates on this committee!

doyle said...

Dear Dirt,

I'll be posting about it as we go along. Looks like we got the grant!