Sunday, July 17, 2011

Stuff matters: more thoughts on elementary curriculum

Many children (and quite a few adults) don’t think of air as matter. It’s invisible, seemingly immune to gravity, has no taste, makes no sound. When you light a match, it burns up and disappears into “thin air.”

This is a problem.

The stuff of matter, the stuff of stuff, seems simple--we mostly rush through it in science class, assuming everyone knows whatmatter” is, because, well, it's so simple, and then we expect students to grasp all kinds of nonsense labeled “science.”

The typical school definition of matter is "any substance which has mass and occupies space," a deceptively complex answer. Most students equate matter (or "stuff") with mass, and with it lose any chance of truly appreciating the physical sciences. (Oh, they'll muddle through using algorithms, and such, might even ace an introductory physics course, but they won’t touch the physics again.)

Mass is the quality of stuff that resists change. (More precisely, mass is the measure of inertia in stuff, but I'll leave that be for the moment.) How do we know something has mass? If you push it, it pushes back.*

This is a big deal. Inertia is a huge concept, really the whole shebang of introductory Newtonian physics, and ultimately the basis of the interesting bits of classic chemistry and biology.  Inertia is what makes mass mass, and without mass, we have no physical universe. (The “take up space” part of matter only makes sense if you grasp what mass is—otherwise, it’s superfluous.)

How much time did you spend on this as a student? As a teacher?
Let’s go back to a child—how can a 7 year old grasp what matter means (or whatever word you care to mean for mass)? Forget the word mass for the moment—let’s make it a more interesting question. What makes stuff “stuff”? This becomes child’s play.
The conversation can wander all over the place. Do you have to be able to see it? How small can it be? Is air stuff? What’s not stuff?
Does a class have to arrive at a textbook definition of matter? Of course not, not in 2nd  grade (or any grade, for that matter). The problem with the textbook definition is that the goal becomes learning the definition instead of learning science. 
If a 2nd grade teacher does not feel comfortable discussing matter, then discuss “stuff”—you will wander all over the place, and if done right, learn about looking at the world. Don’t fret so much about not getting to the definition—what we’re doing now leads to the ignorance of certainty that keeps astrology and homeopathy alive. Is air stuff?
Learning science and memorizing definitions are not mutually exclusive. If the goal of a lesson becomes the definition, though, you lose the science. The problem is exacerbated by the concept of “a lesson”—science cannot be broken down into prescribed chunks of time. Traditional lesson plans are deadly to science education.

*Newton’s 3rd law, of course—it’s a big deal.


Sue VanHattum said...

>...what we’re doing now leads to the ignorance of certainty that keeps astrology and homeopathy alive.

I'd like to discuss this with you, Michael. I see a lot of 'science' people assuming homeopathy is nonsense, and I think they're falling into some of the science as religion traps you describe.

One of the problems with the way medicine (and math) uses language to frame things is in the definition of placebo.

Placebo effect is seen as a bad thing (because it gets in the way of measuring the effect of 'treatments'). But perhaps it would be useful to think of placebo effect as the power of a body (or individual) to heal itself when paid attention.

I am not saying that homeopathy is just placebo effect, but I imagine its power is partly related to that.

I do think that many scientists poo poo anything that Science doesn't (yet) have an explanation for. Chicken soup as a remedy for colds used to be "an old wives' tale", but now scientists have figured out why it's useful. Seems arrogant to me.

Sue VanHattum said...

(I used to scorn astrology too, and still can't imagine how it could possibly make sense. But I love Caroline Casey's political commentary, as heard on KPFA. So I try to keep an open mind about it.)

doyle said...

Dear Sue,

You assume that I assumed homeopathy is nonsense. I did not assume this. Many pediatricians started poking around the subject back in 1994 when Pediatrics , a major professional journal, published a study that suggested that homeopathy might have a role in treating diarrhea.

The article itself had some issues, but those of us who perused the available literature came to the same conclusions--beyond the placebo effect, there is no evidence that homeopathy has any effect on the course of an illness.

Having said that, placebo effect is not seen as itself bad by physicians. We like people getting better, however it's done. Placebo effect is a huge problem for researchers, and understandably so, so it's a bad thing for anyone trying to sort out effective therapies.

Homeopathy is particularly appealing for its placebo effect because it's not dangerous. (There's a separate issue about whether pushing homeopathy might lead to withdrawal of an alternate effective therapy.)

If docs poo poo-ed every therapy not understood, they'd have to stop using most of their therapies. I don't know any pediatrician who ever doubted the value of chicken soup.

Homeopathy claims to grasp the underlying reasons for its "successes"--you know numbers better than most, but the levels of dilutions pushed by practitioners defy logic. Lots of things in science and medicine defy logic, though, and I'd still be willing to try it if studies showed any real effectiveness beyond placebo effect. I'd be glad to look at any studies you might know.

Sue VanHattum said...

I wasn't actually assuming that about you, Michael. Hmm, perhaps every science person who scorns homeopathy has convinced themselves by looking at enough data to feel sure.

I'll try to find those (studies on the effectiveness of homeopathy) when I visit my chiropractor friend this summer who uses all sorts of alternative therapies.

Meanwhile, I'll keep using my homeopathic allergy tablets, which sure seem to help me (perhaps by turning on my placebo response), and don't have any of the side effects of the terrible stuff most people use for their allergies.

I'll also keep giving my son arnica when he has small owies. :^)


Also, I really liked your post, and I know this wasn't what it was about.

doyle said...

Dear Sue,

Thanks for replying--I misread the first letter. I apologize for leaping to conclusion, something I do far too often.

To be fair, allopathic medicine has had more than its fair share of disasters--much of it self-inflicted by a combination of arrogance and ignorance, a part of medicine I do not miss.