Sunday, August 10, 2008

Why science education matters

Here it is, my statement of educational philosophy, a reminder of why I stay when things "off curriculum" happen*:

Watch a child at play by a creek. As she grasps the patterns of life swirling about her, her world becomes increasingly interesting and useful. The unfolding drama at the edge of the water holds a lifetime’s worth of study.

Our knowledge of science depends as much on human imagination as it does on our senses. Much of our view of the natural world flows from the models developed by science. Not so long ago the Earth was flat, the sun revolved around the Earth, and life arose spontaneously from pond muck. Today physicists challenge our concepts of what is “reality,” questioning the meaning of matter and energy and space.

Science teaches us to question, to make sense of our observations. Children are naturally curious, exploring the world at their feet. Children who grasp science have a powerful tool to help them sift through their empirical world and perhaps even change it.

Teaching the child long names for microscopic critters they see only in textbooks is not science. Learning the plot of Charlotte’s Web is not literature. Memorizing dates is not history. Children need to see, to hear, to touch, to feel both with their hands and with their hearts, pushing their understanding of the world to their limits, putting patterns together so the world makes sense.

At its best, education transforms a child, makes the child an integral part of the world she is just learning to understand. A good education gives a child the tools needed to push her understanding of an infinitely complex universe. A teacher assumes an awesome yoke of responsibility—when a teacher succeeds, a child’s world grows larger.

*I once lost a snake in the science lounge; when trying to figuratively light a fire under my students, one child took this literally and started one under his desk ("It was a laser pointer, I swear..." [stomp, stomp, stomp]); I forgot to use safety latch on rocket launcher, accidentally launching rocket indoors while droning on about safety; I dropped a live fish on the teacher's parking lot--fish only lost a few scales in the ensuing get the idea.


Betty said...

I now see science through the eyes of my grandsons as they explore nature and ask me questions. Science was never my thing. I think that's because my science classes in school were mostly memorization. Yesterday, my older grandson and I checked out my garden, and he had such a great time smelling the oregano, onions, and basil. I agree that learning takes place through exploration.

doyle said...

My kids are older now--my youngest is 22--and like any parent of adult children, I have moments wondering if, in the end, we did OK as parents.

My daughter will still sit by our tiny pond, a pond she dug out by hand years ago, and just watch life.

My son will ask aloud, still, the big questions most of us learned to suppress before we got to the 7th grade.

Both will challenge my assumptions when needed, (usually) politely, but always fairly and thoughtfully.

Not much else a parent can ask for.

I hope your grandsons never lose their desire to explore or to question. I think the exploring stops when questioning ceases to matter (or maybe it's the other way around, hard to know).

I truly believe science (in the sense of exploring and questioning) is everybody's thing; sometimes we as teachers just need to keep out of the way.