Saturday, January 21, 2012

Open letter to elementary school teachers everywhere

Dear Elementary School Teachers and Principals,

I know you have an impossible job, and I know you're getting hammered from 73 different angles, and I know the last person you need to hear from is another high school teacher sitting on his throne blaming you for every ill that ever afflicted humans.

Your students worship you. Every casual word that slips from your lips influences the variegated connection of neurons that forms a child's view of the world. A child's obvious misconceptions get corrected early and often, and that is great!


You've done a wonderful job convincing them spectacularly difficult things to accept are true. My lambs come to me believing that the Earth is round and that is spins, that we breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide, that humans arrived long after the dinosaurs left.

It's the subtle stuff, though, that slips by:
  • Winter has nothing to do with how close the Earth is to the sun.
  • Oxygen does not get converted into carbon dioxide.
  • Plants do not get most of their mass from dirt.
  • Food is not energy.
  • Energy does not recycle.
Most of you know these things, and most of you are too busy prepping the children for their NCLB-driven tests to spend much time on science, and that's OK.

If you are going to spend time on science, though, please be wary of glib explanations that will confound a child's true understanding just a few years down the line.

Language matters far more than facile explanations of the natural world. Unless you know what energy is, and I got to tell you that I do not, do not pretend a 7 year old can master this. Unless you can explain a concept accurately without using science jargon, do not pretend your lambs will get it.

My students are amazed water comes out of flame, something easily demonstrated at any level of public education, yet accept that the Earth is round at face value, because you, the most powerful person in this child's life outside of family (and sadly occasionally including family), said so.

Your words carry the power of Cassandra, and like her words, can easily be confused, even when you speak the truth. I envy your power. Please don't abuse it.
Your Colleague,

Michael Doyle







6 comments:

Mndy said...

Ok, help me out again. :)

Food isn't energy? I thought food had stored energy in it and when our body breaks down the chemicals, our body uses that for energy.

I would love to read a series of posts where you take these misconceptions that slip by and really explain them for us.

Thanks!

Jeffrey Michals-Brown said...

I looked in here for the first time in weeks, and now see I need to check in more often. As a struggling science teacher, I find you're writing an inspiration, and envy your students.

John T. Spencer said...

I feel like a lousy teacher and dad when it comes to science, but aside from the carbon dioxide mistake (which you corrected a few years back), I've managed to get the other ones right.

Now the extent to which I truly understand the others is still a little weak.

With regards to "Winter has nothing to do with how close the Earth is to the sun," I had an interesting exchange with a 5th grade class and a 5th grade teacher on that subject.

I'll say this much, though: I push for observation, for questioning and for more observation. Much of it becomes social studies, poetry, art and other "humanities." But if biology is truly words on life, I hope we catch a little of the science, too.

doyle said...

Dear Mindy,

I ,m going to tackle that one today, but the short answer is that food is "stuff" arranged one way, and when the same stuff is rearranged into a more stable position, energy is released.

A rock on a table has more potential energy than a rock on the floor, but the rock is still stuff, not energy.

Even NASA gets this mixed up in its teaching materials. It gets down to language again--"food is energy" is a whole lot different than "energy is released when food is broken down" and even that statement can be a tad misleading to the knee-high crowd.


Dear Jeffrey,

I am blessed with a supportive administration and truly wonderful students who trust me to let them trust their senses.

Make "Dare To Be Wrong" your class motto and see where that takes you.

And thank you for the very kind words.


Dear John,

If the kids learn how to see through the eyes of others in the arts, then they can't help but learn how to see better using their own senses. The converse is true as well.

It is might great hope that every teacher teaches as well as he or she can about things they know to be true, and to show public hesitation when talking of things they're not so sure about.

You've done this for years--your kids knew it worked before you did. ;)

KCL said...

My snotty reply: Perhaps if the high school science teachers had done a better job with those future elementary school teachers...just kidding. Really.

My husband's buggaboo is folks believing that a falling star is a star.

But your point is just: we as a society, I fear, are leaning toward magical thinking and ignorance. Any clarification and analysis toward enlightenment is indeed, food for thought. :)

בתי ספר בקריות said...

יפה מאוד!