Sunday, May 22, 2016

Lessons on soil, lessons for the NGSS

What's new is just a reminder of what was once old. The Next Generation Science Standards is two words too long--science standards is sufficient.

Each generation of westernized humans thinks its the  pinnacle of evolution, but we're no more "advanced" than the earthworm's (almost) perfect fit with the soil under our feet. We are a dependent on good dirt as the worm, though a lot less appreciative.

E.J. Russell, a soil chemist,  wrote Lessons on Soil in 1911 based on his work with school children in Wye, England, long before any of us were born.
"The book is intended to help children to study nature; there is no attempt to substitute book study for nature study."
The heart of science starts with observing the natural world; the soul of science is our imagination, putting together what we observe into a coherent framework. Without the heart, you are working with groundless souls, and we have plenty of religions to choose from if that is your aim.
"The necessity for finding local illustrations constitutes one of the most fundamental differences between Nature Study subjects and other subjects of the school curriculum. The textbook in some may be necessary and sufficient; in Nature Study it is at most only subsidiary, serving simply as a guide to the thing that is to be studied; unless the thing itself be before the class it is no better than a guide to a cathedral would be without the cathedral...."
"No description or illustration can take the place of direct observation; the simplest thing in Nature is infinitely more wonderful than our best word pictures can ever paint it." 

Dr. Russell sounds prescient, anticipating the complaints of teachers who feel time pressure. Working with nature requires knowing the local, requires hands on activities.
"Of course, this entails a a good deal of work for the teacher, but the results are worth it. Children enjoy experimental and observation lessons in which they take an active part and are not merely passive learners. The value of such lessons in developing their latent powers and in stimulating them to seek for knowledge in the great book of Nature is a sufficient recompense to the enthusiastic teacher for the extra trouble involved."
 Little of the new pedagogy is truly new, though lots of money changes hands with every announcement of the Next Big Thing©.

The book itself has many brief, easy, thoughtful experiments requiring standard school lab-ware and a patch of ground. No computers, no videos, no worksheets, no DCI arrangements.

We are of the earth and of the air, ultimately put together by light. There's a lesson worth teaching.

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