Sunday, April 1, 2012

Approximation to adequacy: why we hate science

The individual concepts of children, and the individual concepts of most persons who live and die in this world, are exceedingly vague, crude, and obscure. That is, they are vague, crude, and obscure in comparison with any approximation to adequacy.
Francis W. Parker, "Observation," Talks on Pedagogics, 1894

Leslie and I startled a black duck-like critter as we stepped over to the other side of a jetty. It scrabbled its way back to the water, its legs flailing against the sand. It had a bright orange-red beak, and it swam a lot better than it ran.

What was it? Not sure. We'll find out eventually by putting together its shape, color, location, season--all things recorded by others, things I can look up. Right now I suspect it was a black scoter. A few minutes on the internet, and I'll figure it out.

Science requires observation, of course, but it also requires a way to record those observations. Humans (and other mammals) when left on their own will see what they need to see. Context matters.

Writing things down matters more than we realize--we give life to words, because words make moments permanent. We can compare a moment we had two years ago with the one we have now. It turns out our words are less fallible malleable than our memories. Before the written word, our stories were certain and true.

Words make our stories more certain, and over time, less true. We trust the book (in whatever form) over our elders now, no small reason we have formalized our warehousing of the old. We no longer need the old folks for their collective memory, and books don't soil their beds.

Science works because the natural world follows consistent rules, and because those who practice science trust their written words over their intuitions. It still upsets me that an American dime (2.3 grams) falls as fast as the  CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics (almost 3500 grams) when I drop both from about 8 feet on the first day of class.

They both hit the floor at the same time, every time.

I know that they will, but I still don't believe it.  Cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance hurts, a lot, and for good reason. A mammal who hesitates, who is confused by competing interpretations of its environment, may soon end up in pieces, torn by the talons and teeth of a critter a bit more focused.

If my students aren't grabbing their brains complaining that all this science stuff hurts, then I'm not teaching science, I'm teaching trivia. I teach a lot of trivia.

Ripping away the comfort of cultural reality creeps people out. On a rare day, I'll see a glimpse of fear in a child's eye as she feels the floor drop under her feet. I won't push this, but I will acknowledge it--"the world is bigger than any of us can know" or maybe "welcome to science."

What I won't do is pretend it's not terrifying, this cognitive dissonance, bucking hundreds of millions of years of evolution that taught us to fear the shadows, fear the dissonance.

I'm sure a English Language Arts teacher sees the same when a child grasps that Gilgamesh shares his fears of death in a poem written almost 3,000 years ago. An art teacher sees the joy on a child's face as she recognizes the power of her hands and her imagination, so rarely expressed in a classroom.

None of us see it during review for the state tests.

Yes, I am working my way to this...
Thanks, Kate Tabor, for the book!


Christina said...

Too often, science class is relegated to being a series of trivia questions. Who wrote the theory of evolution by means of natural selection? What is a mole? How can you calculate the final speed of an object falling for 5.5 seconds if you assume its initial speed was zero?

My favourite class or lessons to teach, is advanced chemistry (grade 12) when I introduce quantum mechanics, and the wave/particle duality. It simply blows my students' minds, and the cognitive dissonance they experience is amazing! Watching them try to grasp how everything they've learned to date, as well as the world around them, isn't quite as it seems... it's part of what makes teaching science such a rewarding profession.

Kevin Cram said...

Your words always ground me. I just got back home from the NSTA conference and my head is swirling with STEM-this and INQUIRY-that. If we don't teach our youth that "cognitive dissonance hurts", what does it all matter? This is my new mantra. Thanks

John T. Spencer said...

I love the line about warehousing the old who soil their beds. Way too true. We are a novelty-based, image-oriented culture.

Mortality terrifies us. It should. But somewhere along the line we went wrong existentially. Instead of death allowing us to enjoy life, we've made death taboo - perhaps as much as the Victorians made sex taboo. On some level, it still is - along with the cleansing of language and the purging of soiled, dirty words.

You can't make sense out of life without thinking well about death and sex and language; all the more difficult with mobile devices.

It's a tragedy to see lips, once designed for lovers, spending their intimate hours pressed up against a screen.

doyle said...

Dear Christina,

Quantum mechanics rocks everyone, but I have children still amazed that you can grow beans in class, that horseshoe crabs exist, that every drop of pond water (we keep a few gallons in class) holds hundreds of critters going about their business.

I love teaching science because of the dissonance, but I worry about what happens when they leave school. Why put up with nagging doubts when television and the internet will tell you what you want to hear.

Dear Kevin,

Thanks back at you--support like that fuels my blog.

Dear John,

As usual, you zoom in on the parts I like best.

I think you're right about the taboo on death. I may run with that.

Before I do, though, I want to continue this, exploring why we fear the same practice that has carved out the convenient life many of us here in the States lead. I may lean on you a bit in the next few weeks--I love what you and Christy are doing with the Micah and Joel. Gives me hope, no small thing.

Malcolm said...

in response to christina:
" a mole is a unit, or have you heard?
its 6 x 10 to the twenty third........."

Kate T said...

I believe that I am approximately adequate.

It will have to be enough.
(Glad you enjoyed the Parker.)

doyle said...

Dear Kate,

Parker's book has become one of my top 20 goto books this past year. It should be mandatory reading for every piker claiming new territory in ed.

(I read Marzano and I just want to cry.)