Sunday, June 24, 2012

Counting cats in Zanzibar

It is not worth the while to go round the world
to count the cats in Zanzibar.
Walden, Henry David Thoreau

It's all about the stuff.
Don't call it matter.

It's all about how the stuff changes.
But don't call it energy.

I found this caterpillar on one of our dill plants yesterday. It has spent its entire life on the dill plant, yet looks nothing like it. Its parts are made of the parts of the dill.

Soon it will form a chrysalis, rearranging its parts into a butterfly, unless a wasp gets to it first.

My kids can tell you about the molecular structure of a cell membrane with about as much understanding as they have of the dill and the caterpillar. Most do not feel connected to either.

If we want to get children passionate about the natural world, to guide a few of our tadpoles into fields like biology and physics, we need them to engage them.

Science teachers may not be the best folks to make this happen. Elementary school teachers preaching the Next Generation standards will not fare much better.

Until you get that the caterpillar is made up of the same stuff as the dill, tiny particles rearranged into different patterns but still the same tiny particles, no sense wasting time contemplating cell membranes.


If you stop eating, you lose weight. Obvious and intuitive.

Where does it go? Not so intuitive.

Every few seconds, you lose countless particles of the stuff that makes you you. You are breaking down larger molecules into smaller ones, flinging off CO2, too stable to be of any use, out back into the air.

(Not sure where we'd put this in the curriculum, but what we poo is not part of us, never was except for a trifling amount of bile and bits of bowel sloughing off.)

That  stuff you breathe out is as real as the monitor in front of you. Most of us don't believe this, and even fewer understand it.

Adding complexity to the curriculum misses the point, if the point is about grasping and loving the world.

To be fair, Arne and company say the point is to create a global workforce, and I suppose a child who starts to understand the world, to understand limits, to understand what a happy life requires, would make a lousy serf.

A child wiling away an afternoon watching part of a dill plant become a caterpillar learns everything she ever needs to know in a lifetime about cell membranes, unless she chooses to become a biologist.

And she knows more about biology than many of those who call themselves science teachers.

Dear teacher,

I know you want to proselytize.
I know you want to save the world.
I know you see yourself as guiding an amorphous being into truth and light.

But tell the truth, as we know it.
And we don't know it yet.


Slowplum said...

I always find your journals so inspiring, but rarely have the temerity to say so. But this really resonated with me and I wanted to let you know that. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, always. -graceness

doyle said...

Dear graceness,

Thanks for your words--there are a few folks on this wonderful planet I hope to meet before I die.

You're one of them (and I hope I am one of yours).

Slowplum said...

Of course you are! One day I will have to win that lottery... of course, that means I have to buy tickets...

Kathryn J said...

This is wonderful! Teaching matter and energy (Chemistry) needs to be about these transformations. and less about what is asked on high stakes tests. I also want my students to understand that what we think is solid is mostly empty space.

Abstract yet real. Something for me to ponder this summer.

In late April I drove the length of the Jersey Turnpike. I thought of you as I watched NJ roll by and I suspect at some point that I wasn't far from you. Some day, I may just schedule a brief visit.