Saturday, March 16, 2013

Science is for the birds

If you get upset at the idea that birds are truly reptiles, or cringed when Pluto fell off its planetary pedestal, then you practice science the way most Christians practice Christianity--seeking what's true is besides the point.

I tell my lambs I do not give a rat's behind if they remember anything about DNA polymerase after they hit the NJ EOC exam come May (and even then I'm not sure how much they "need" to remember), but I do expect them to think.

And I am failing at this....

A square foot patch of earth anywhere outside our high school carries far more complexity than anything a child can find online. Seeing a patch of earth as anything more than a pixellated version of the digital world requires effort.

Our children are no more lazy than our grandparents were--we are mammals, and when you strip out the frivolities, most of what we do has something to do with getting oxygen, food, and water into us, and getting carbon dioxide, nitrogenous wastes, and undigested food out while avoiding getting killed in the process.

We occasionally a chunk of time out of our day to day survival behaviors to reproduce and rear our young.

The less energy we expend to get the stuff we need in and out of our mammalian forms, the better our chances of surviving. Laziness is not a character flaw, it's a successful part of our evolutionary heritage.

Until a few decades ago.
Steve Paine, under CC

We are visual critters--we react to what we see. All light is real, all images are real, and our brains can hardly be faulted for not grasping that the flashy stuff on our screens is not real. And until a few decades ago, what was real did not change much. When something changed, we reacted quickly--we had to if we wanted to survive.

Science is about challenging what we know to be true based on observations of the natural world. Children spend most of their waking hours connected to a digital world, where the rules of survival are different, dictated by dollars. People make stuff up.

Adults live in this same unreal world, too.
Arne Duncan makes stuff up. Michelle Rhee makes stuff up. Chris Cerf makes stuff up. And it's very difficult to know what's made up when adults no longer care to seek the truth.

Which gets back to the birds. How many school teachers bother to mention that birds are reptiles, not because a naturalist says so, but because of a bird's relationship to a crocodile and a snake?

Such distinctions hardly matter, I suppose, if getting to what's true matters less than restating whatever nonsense is found in some outdated textbook.

In the end it does not matter whether a young child can parrot her teacher's nonsense about where to categorize a parakeet. What does matter is whether a child has the ability (or even desire) to challenge nonsense thrust at her.

 What's my solution?

Before we make birds abstract ideas, reduced to pixels on a screen, let a child observe a real bird, for a long time. Give her a pair of binoculars. Go outside. Watch.

Let her hold a bird in her hands, a live one if possible, but a dead one will do.

This one is alive! Debbie Courson,  used with permission.

Save the abstract until she has had a chance to observe the natural world we abandon when we stare at a screen.

I (perhaps naively) maintain that the truth helps set us free. The more I play this game, though, the more I think we're working hard to free us from the truth.

There are no lies in the virtual world.


John Spencer said...

Joel and Micah caught a moth outside and kept it for about an hour. They watched it from inside a "bug jar," wondering why it didn't eat the leaves they had fed it.

I use the term "it," but they wavered between "him" and "her." I'm guessing they were more accurate.

Finally, they debated whether or not it was right to keep a captured animal. They released it minutes later, only to notice that it seemed to clean itself with its tongue.

It is possible to capture life in a jar. It is impossible to capture life in a photograph. They know this. I often miss this.

Rebecca said...

I couldn't agree more. Nothing like getting out into the world to make you appreciate it.