Monday, February 21, 2011

Elementary education science, Part 1

I am sitting on a committee put together to help redesign our elementary school science curriculum.
I'll be tossing out various posts on the topic. The posts do not reflect the views of anyone except me.

By the end of Grade 4:
Science has unique norms for participation. These include adopting a critical stance, demonstrating a willingness to ask questions and seek help, and developing a sense of trust and skepticism. 
NJ Core Curriculum Content Standards, 5.1.4.D.1, Science

A few of us in the district have a wonderful opportunity to help draft the science curriculum guidelines for early elementary students. We--teachers from various grade levels-- have been given professional time to work together to develop science education at the elementary level.

While I am a high school science teacher, I am leaning heavily on my former life as a pediatrician. You cannot separate science from perception, and perception gets colored by development.

Separating science as a discipline separate from language development does not make sense to me, at least not for the lunchbox crowd. It may be a subset of language, as fairy tales are a subset of story telling, but until children can master mathematics, Boolean logic, and other developmentally challenging tasks, pretending that they are little scientists is, well, ridiculous.

A lot of people are getting paid good money to promote the ridiculous.

What can a child know?

She can know what she observes, of course, but what she observes depends, in large part, on what she knows.  We frame our world more than we might realize.

Many of our children come to high school with what seem to be nonsensical ideas, but which reflect the thoughts of thousands of years of human thought--if  these thoughts are not consistent with the last few hundred years, we tell the children, without offering  much evidence, that they are wrong.

If a child believes she can see in absolute darkness, and many believe as much, telling her that is simply not so is not science education, it's indoctrination.

At the early grade levels, the standard listed above does not hold water. "Adopting a critical stance, demonstrating a willingness to ask questions and seek help, and developing a sense of trust and skepticism" should be the heart of all education, not the box labeled "science."

The photo has nothing to do with the post--I just like it.


Sue VanHattum said...

Even when applied to older folks, the word 'trust' seems out of placed in that bit.

What does one trust as a scientist?

doyle said...

Dear Sue,

At first glance I suspect (but do not know) that it refers to trusting that others will present honest observations, and draw unbiased conclusions.

Looking at it again, though, you raise a great point. Trust is not at the heart of science, skepticism is.

I need to poke around your idea a bit more.

John T. Spencer said...

I see a place for trust in science. I actually see a paradox of trust and skepticism - of admitting what you don't know and trusting that what you observed really happened. There is a reluctance in some learners (especially in my grade) to trust their own perceptions, measurements, observations, etc. when it seems counterintuitive.

I am, however, a bit put off by "Science has unique norms for participation."

I realize that I'm echoing your points:

Those norms are not unique. They should apply to reading, writing, math and especially to social studies. They also belong in art, music, PE and computer class. I can't think of the last time we asked for skepticism in the computer class or in PE.

It's this rigid separation of subjects that gets in the way of students developing that paradoxical sense of skepticism and trust.

doyle said...

Dear John,

That's a huge point--we often contort our own views to fit those of the "experts."

I've told this story before, and I'm sure I'll tell it again, about the biologist who said that the eels my kids discovered (and I confirmed) could not be where I said they were because it was "impossible" given the dams the eels would have to climb.

No one told the eels.