Sunday, June 12, 2011

Slow science

"[I]t is quite the rushing through and pointing at.... "
A wise woman's words upon reviewing Newark's 2nd grade science curriculum

If you spend most of your time doing things you like, there is no reason to do things quickly. I like slow. Deep, thoughtful living takes time.

Slow gardening. Slow teaching. Slow clamming. Slow cooking. Slow down.

The Framework For Science Education will be released in the next week or so. It is currently "undergoing a confidential external review by a group of independent experts," but given the track record of Achieve, I doubt much will be changed. And that's a shame.

There's a whole lot of "rushing through and pointing at."

We keep confusing attainment of benchmarks based on science content with learning science. The persistence of the flawed concept of  a STEM (Science/Technology/Engineering/Mathematics) curriculum shows how little science is understood.

Science is making sense of the natural world by telling stories using specific rules. Models, hypotheses, theories, simulations--all stories dependent on observations of the natural world, the world perceived by our senses, the dancing shadows in Plato's cave.

The heart of science, what separates it from other forms of story-telling, is its reliance on observation. Each and every one of us can see the shadows dancing on the cave wall, and each can challenge the stories of another, by pointing to the wall. Even children. Maybe especially children.

We underestimate the power of naming, a real danger in our early grade science curriculum. I hold sophomores spellbound describing the mysterious force savallah. a mysterious force recognized by my ancestors in western Ireland. I might even light a candle as I tell the story. I explicitly describe what gravity does, but call it "savallah." Every particle of matter tugs at every other particle that exists.

Not one student believe savallah exists. Not one. But they all "believe in" gravity.

Young children do not need to "know" gravity--the word should be banned before high school. They do not need to know engineering. They do not need to know algebra.

They need to practice observing until they trust their perceptions enough to challenge the misconceptions of others.


I spent last evening on the ferry jetty. I saw an eel swim languidly by, rising from the depths, as the gray clouds started spitting on the water, an eel perhaps never seen by a human. The world is far larger than we can imagine.

Learning science is not linear--children need not (and, at any rate, cannot) grasp STEM concepts in carefully chunked modules divided by grades. If a child learns how to observe, truly observe, she can tackle most of the standards proposed in the late elementary grades in less than a month in high school.

If she also learns how to think, truly think, she can tackle pretty much anything. Anything. Content in science becomes old news because it will always remain an incomplete story. We teach it anyway, superficially, and we test it anyway, superficially. Efficiently, cheaply, and superficially.

We don't need children who can recite the stories, we need children who can write them.

In the end, technology will not save us, nor will engineering. Seems the height of insanity to trust the methods that got us into this mess.

What will save us is a generation of children who learn how to observe, to tell stories, to know enough about this marvelous world to love it, and to care for it.

Science isn't intuitive--if it were, we'd still be ruled by a slew of false gods.
Because we do not teach it well, we are still, alas, ruled by a slew of false gods.

Photos ours, use as you will--two of Galway Bay, one from Delaware.


Tom G said...

I think this one's really good.

I was wondering if you had any thoughts about whether or how it might be possible to introduce a little of this attitude at higher levels e.g. university?

H. said...

"We underestimate the power of naming ... I hold sophomores spellbound describing the mysterious force savallah."

Sounds a lot like Feynman's rant against a textbook's non-explanatory "energy makes it move!"

H. said...

Here's Feynman:

"I turned the page. The answer was, for the wind-up toy, "Energy makes it go." And for the boy on the bicycle, "Energy makes it go." For everything, "Energy makes it go."

Now that doesn't mean anything. Suppose it's "Wakalixes." That's the general principle: "Wakalixes makes it go." There's no knowledge coming in. The child doesn't learn anything; it's just a word!"