Sunday, February 3, 2013

Science is sensuous

Many of my students are unaware they are being watched in class by critters other than teachers.

As a child gets up to sharpen her pencil, a salamander scurries back under a rock, a fish darts to the surface looking for food, a cockroach slides under some lettuce.

As they become aware, and they do over the months, they start to watch. They bang on the glass, overfeed the fish, feign fear of the cockroach.They fail to see how perceptive these critters are, at least for awhile, but over time start to get to know them.

I promise my kids very little at the beginning of the year except that they will know less in June than they do in September, that the natural world is bigger than they know, and that they are not just part of it, they belong to it.

This last part is a big deal.

If you do not know this world, the one that bathes us with oxygen, feeds us with grain and flesh, refreshes our thirst, you cannot love it.

And, for the most part, we don't.

If you hope to teach a child the abstract models needed for science, you best start by cultivating her love of the world instead of the sad task of earning good grades for the love of her parents.

Somewhere along the way, our children lose their way.
Somewhere along the way, we encouraged this.

We threaten our laggards with tales of woe should they fail to earn a diploma, a place on the honor roll, recognition as a National Merit Finalist. Children respond to fear, as we all do--it's what drives our politics and our economy.

Fear might generate enough engineers among us, but it does not create scientists.

You cannot love the natural world in the abstract; the natural world, by definition, is sensuous. We use abstract thought to make sense of the sensuous. That defines science.

If your child sees the beauty in Fibonacci numbers but fails to see the deeper beauty of a pine cone's spiral, you are raising a professional student, and we have more than enough of those.

If your child is "wasting" her time staring at a pine cone instead of logging hours of math homework to please the adults who keep her alive, she just might hold onto her curiosity and love of the world long enough to do something useful as an adult.


I am not saying learning math is useless--quite the contrary.
A child who loves the world develops a fondness for patterns, and will have a use for numbers.


Jenny said...

I started my teaching career in fourth and fifth grades. The kids would often ask, "Is this for a grade?" When I moved to first grade I found that my kiddos don't ever ask that. I don't know what we do to them between first and fourth grades but it is an awful thing we do. My first graders ask genuine questions, they constantly wonder about things. My fourth and fifth graders rarely did so. It is sad.

doyle said...

Dear Jenny,

I do not know what we do, either, but we're doing something. We get them to chase the grades, sad enough, but we also squash the wonder, which is disastrous.

Kate said...

I am in the middle of a conversation with another teacher about the "all class" book - and I am reading Shakespeare with the whole seventh grade, yes - it is an all class book. And some may not want to read it, but we are reading it aloud in class - and they are immersed in words that they may or may not understand but they hear them and they speak them and they are not being graded. The words are sensuous - they wash over us with a rhythm and a magic that I want them to experience - slowly they become aware that they understand it - and they are enjoying it. I know that by now - Act III - they do understand because their questions have changed and they are worried for the children in the play.
Empathy, awareness, awe - all are important.
And yes, that pinecone of which you write is a mathematical marvel.

Elliot S said...

Thank you doyle, you have inspired me to pursue secondary education in college. I love life!