Sunday, December 23, 2012

Technology encourages scientific illiteracy

 A year old, but still waiting for a plausible counterargument.

A Crooke's radiometer measures sunlight intensity, which sounds all scary and scientificy, until you see one in action. It's simpler than a Talking Elmo.

The more intense the light, the faster the radiometer's vanes spin inside its glass bulb. It looks like a toy.

I keep one on the windowsill in our classroom. On sunny days in September, it spun so hard it rattled. In December's dying light, it moves like an elderly statesman--steadily, slowly, with a hint of what once was.

Sunlight is not abstract. The spinning radiometer is not abstract. Telling my lambs that the sun barely rose 25 degrees above the horizon is abstract. I can show them fancy solar data charts on the internet, teach them algorithms for interpreting the data, and get them to bark like trained seals.

We need the abstract. I get that. Focusing on the imaginary before children grasp the real, however, will create a generation of idiot savants.


Our children live in an abstract world. They bop along life with personalized song sets, immerse themselves in virtual worlds with personalized avatars.

We used to worry when kids held on to imaginary friends a bit too long. A toddler talking to a giant imaginary squid is cute; a 13 year old doing the same thing is disturbing.

Constructing the abstract is a special kind of imaginary thinking, but the abstract is still imaginary. If I describe my Christmas tree, a lovely balsam afflicted with minor scoliosis now covered with ornaments, some made by hand by my children years ago, I am talking about something real.

If I tell you that the average balsam sold in Bloomfield this year is 2.11 meters tall, weighs 20.3 kg, and has 533.7 branches, you might be able to imagine it in your head, but it does not exist. Anywhere.

Yet when we teach science, we focus on the imaginary average, often at the exclusion of looking at the bent-over balsam sitting in the room.

Using a machine that helps a child grasp the abstract version of a Christmas tree may improve test scores (though there's evidence that it won't); it cannot, however, help a child see the real tree.

There is a huge push to use "technology" in classrooms. By technology, I am assuming most folks mean the digitized high-tech expensive stuff, or else the discussion is just silly. All of us use some sort of technology in class, even if it's just paper and pencil.

The Innovative Educator blog is a fun read, with lots of good ideas. It has almost 1800 followers. It carries clout. A few days ago, Lisa Nielsen, The Innovative Educator, headlined her post:

Tech Doesn’t Make Us Illiterate.
Not Embedding it Into Instruction Does.

In it, she discusses reactions to The New York Times article discussing the failure of 1:1 computing in some schools, then reconstructs the false dichotomy tossed about in the ed tech world: tried-and-true old skool ("readin', ritin', rithmetic") vs. the visionary new big thing.

What gave me pause, however, is her suggestion that we turn classrooms into video games:
What would happen if rather than lament what our kids loved to do, we re-envisioned school. They love games. What if we stopped fighting it and the adults changed and started looking at School as Video Game?

Ms. Nielsen does not stand alone. I read similar words every few days, hers just happened to be the latest I stumbled upon.

What would happen?
Science in the classroom would die. Science requires contact with the physical, with the real. Until children know the ground under their feet, they cannot hope to grasp models.

I use plenty of technology in class: our Crooke's radiometer, our Drinky Bird, our Newton's Cradle, our classroom garden (hey, we even use fluorescent lights!), our prism, our aquaria filters...and on and on.

I agree with Ms. Nielsen that tech doesn't make us illiterate. Embedding digital technology into science too early, before our children get a decent handle on the physical world, does make our children scientifically illiterate.

It's why my class has an analog clock. It's why I threaten to smash calculators in class.

Do I use a computer? Yep. Sometimes I sip a good Oirish whiskey as I do so. Neither belongs in the hands of a child.

Radiometer pic by Nevit Dilmen, used under CC.

The cost of one laptop buys a lot of tangible science gadgets.
Bet a young student learns more science from a bag of magnets than from a puter. .


Jenny said...

I got a radiometer for my classroom last year and put it in our 'wonder window'. It does nothing. I need to take it elsewhere and test it. I would actually feel better if it were defective and I just needed a new one. I want the kids to see it go.

Magnets are one of the choices during our 'play time' (20 minutes or so at the end of the day). Other choices include blocks, legos, puppets, etc. Magnets are one of the favorites of my students. I love watching them test where the magnets will and won't stick, using them to move things around, and feeling them push and pull. Their excitement about what they notice is beautiful.

doyle said...

Dear Jenny,

A working radiometer spins so crazily in sunlight you'd think it was possessed. You got a dud. =(

Your kids are lucky to have you!

Lee said...

I've got one of those angel-spinning brass thingys that are propelled by the heat of four candles place underneath the propeller. Only mine won't work anymore. The thing is ancient...I can remember seeing it at my Grandmother's house so you know already it has to be at least half a century in age! Last year I didn't have candles that would fit the holders so I put it on a radiator. And Lo! and Behold! it actually spun a little bit...until it heated up (I guess?) and then it stopped. This year I bought candles for it and it just wouldn't go. Finally it gave a half-hearted little turn, once, and that was it. Any ideas, Dr. D?

@educatoral said...

I use Vernier probeware to test the water quality of our creek. I used to use chemical testing kits and although they are great to use for reasons you mention in your post, I switched to the technical for speed. I can take a class of 24 to 30 kids down the creek more often and in less than a full class period with the probes. I also have the kids use iPads and Netbooks for reading, text is text and I don't have textbooks with water quality information, and for yes, calculating and graphing. I don't do math in my head and I use a calculator so I offer the same tools to my students. We manipulate things with our hands but we also use tech for researching and for sharing and for connecting (blogging to reflect and write, as well as a class social network for discussing).

doyle said...

Dear @educatoral,

That you are still taking kids to the creek speaks volumes about your class.

Text is indeed text--no arguments there, and there is a lot to be said for using the live data available from the USGS and other sources.

A lot of children never leave their classrooms, never mind their buildings.

I do worry about calculators and computerized graphing. Too many children simply do not grasp how or why graphing works, and the beautiful images derived from database programs does little to help our kids get graphing.

OTOH, they'll be a step ahead of others if they work as technicians in a field office involved with environmental work.

doyle said...

Dear Lee,

Remove the propeller part and clean the rod sticking up--maybe even file it with a nail file. Check to make sure the "wings" on the prop are angled just so.

The rest is just Newtonian physics. =)

Lee said...

It worked :)

doyle said...

Dear Lee,


Thanks for sharing the video--made my heart warm up.

Jeffrey Michals-Brown said...

I'm usually with you on technology, but I was introduced to a site my school subscribes to called Their interactives allow exploring real-world concepts in ways much too difficult or time-consuming to do with hands-on tinfoil & coathangers. Yes I know it isnt "real," but it has some advantages over "real" in some classroom contexts. (You can fool with these things for free for 5 minutes at a time.) There are also several good natural selection interactives out there that drive home the point that evolution is really differential reproduction with heritable variation.