Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Computer "science"

 A couple of years 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, has created 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 personal 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. If I describe my Christmas tree, a lovely balsam fir afflicted with minor scoliosis now covered with ornaments, some made by my children's hands years ago, I am talking about something real.

If I tell you that the average balsam fir 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.

When we teach science in high school today, we focus on the abstract--at the exclusion of looking at the bent-over balsam fir sitting in the room.

Using an iPad to help a child grasp the abstract concept of "Christmas tree" passes for education now. Not even an Apple screen lets a child know the real thing.

It might even be detrimental.

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--the ballpoint pen is a technological wonder.

Science requires contact with the physical, with the real--grasping the natural world is the whole point. 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 aquarium pumps...and on and on.

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 computer. .

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