Friday, July 13, 2012

Clowning around with magnetism

By Dharmuli, under CC

"So I’m not going to be able to give you an an answer to why magnets attract each other except to tell you that they do."
Richard Feynman, around 6:43

Science doesn't take the romance out of the universe.
School does.

I would love to start the school year with Insane Clown Posse's Miracles. [WARNING: Don't click if you're allergic to swearables.] For obvious reasons, I cannot, but it gets to the heart of the matter.

Science education in schools hurts, which is OK, but in the wrong way, which is not.

A child comes to school with a reasonable question--how do magnets work?
The child gets hit with "magnetic fields" and "electrons" but never gets the answer she seeks--because the answer is, for her, unknowable.

Truth is, the answer is unknowable to all of us, at least in the sense that the child asks the question. We do know that the same electrons that cause magnets to push and pull are what keep us from falling through the floor.

Maybe if we just said that, acknowledging that one of the coolest phenomena in any child's universe is, well, essentially unknowable, she'd see science (and the natural world) more for what it is, instead of a collection of words held together by an internal logic not apparent to a 7 year old.

For every teacher out there who teaches that energy is "the capacity of a physical system to perform work" without immediately adding the disclaimer that no one really knows what energy is, kids are going to think that scientists are lying.

But they're (mostly) not. It's not them, it's us, the teachers. 
We need to stop lying to our children, and to ourselves.

Maybe next I'll tackle fire.


William Chamberlain said...

Keep this thought stream going. Since I am now teaching 6th grade, I am thinking through how I want to teach the objectives. I keep reading these posts and I keep trying to think how to reconcile what you are suggesting with what I have done in the past. The dissonance is powerful learning for me.

MartinTeach said...

I agree with Mr. Chamberlain. I am a fifth grade teacher returning to the science curriculum after several years. We follow the 5E method in our curriculum. Does this allow us to get to this level of understanding and learning?

John T. Spencer said...

You have made me more afraid and cautious about teaching science while at the same time making me more excited and confident. I thrive in mystery and nuance. I'm with Will. I need these posts.

doyle said...

Dear William,

Thanks for the encouragement. I learned the hard way.

Dear Martin,

I am unfamiliar with the 5E method (or maybe I know it under a different name).

I think that whatever level of understanding obtained ultimately rests with a child's background. I think the more important thing is to let kids trust their wonder as far as that can take them without steering them wrong.

Dear John,

No worries--science in class works better when a teacher can share and explore uncertainties with his or her students.

We have been taught that basic science is simple, spending minimal time on the biggest and most "obvious" concepts--things like matter, energy, light.

The mystery lies in the obvious.

John T. Spencer said...

I just saw your fine-print point regarding fire.

My son (five) just asked me why fire sweats if it's not alive.

How would you answer that?

doyle said...

Dear John,

There are a lot of ways to go with that, and you know the details that will direct which direction, but a few thoughts.

1) Great question!
2) Maybe ask him how he knows fire is not alive--gets into wonderful discussion about how we know anything is alive. (Fire grows, reproduces, and responds to stimuli, no? And you could argue it has a very basic metabolism.)
3) You can talk about how things are categorized, and how the characteristics of categories cross over.
4) Or if you're feeling brave, dive into the similarities between combustion of charcoal and cellular respiration--they both require oxygen, they both rearrange tiny particles to form new substances, and one of the new substances from the rearranged parts is water--which is a lot more stable than charcoal or living things.

Does that make sense?

Jeffrey Michals-Brown said...

I think you make a bit too much of this "lying." Your answer to a child's question will always depend on your judgement of the child's prior knowledge and level of development. When the child matures further, he or she will not be satisfied with the prior answer and will delve deeper--all perfectly appropriate. The fact that there is no one answer that is appropriate for everyone doesn't make us liars.

I loved that Feynman clip (somehow I'd read him and of him but never heard him speak), but how long did it take him to explain himself? (How long do WE have??) It IS good to be clear about what we (or at least I personally) don't know, and I'm pretty careful to admit ignorance with my students. I also teach them that true "why" questions (those that are not simply "how" questions in disguise) are questions about meaning and beyond the reach of science.

doyle said...

Dear Jeffrey,

"Lying" is too harsh a term, and it requires that a teacher know something well enough to deliberately skew the "truth."

There's a vast difference between presenting a Rutherford picture of an atom, defining the parts, and requiring children to draw them by a teacher who does not know much more than this (which enforces a very unfortunate view of atoms) versus a teacher who shows the Rutherford atom, explains that it is only a model to explain very limited observations, and that it's long lived its usefulness.

It's not what teachers know they don't know that screws up science--it's what teachers don't know that they don't know.

It's when we present models/concepts as concrete pieces of the universe that we get into trouble.

What do you tell your class "energy" is?

(I may go back and edit the "lying" part to make it more palatable.)

You raise a wonderful issue--how approximate can we get away with our standard answers? Would children be better off with an answer like this: "You're too young to reasonably grasp these ideas"?

Amazes me we put off sex education way past the time we introduce atoms.

Jeffrey Michals-Brown said...

Energy is one of the things I don't know enough about to define very well. A prof. once confused me by saying something like, "if you account for everything else in a system, energy is what you have left over." Since I find "the ability to do work" leads me in circles, I usually use a definition from my Tom Hsu book intro physics book: "energy is the ability to cause change."

Whatever the definition "really" is, I dearly love following energy around to see what it does.