Wednesday, September 3, 2008

First day of school, physical science (freshmen)

Opening day is usually chaotic, nothing new there. We're implementing a new scheduling system designed by a company that has "years of exerpeince" and, well, it shows. Still, once the kids are in the room, once attendance is taken and the procedures reviewed, good things happen.

I simultaneously dropped a paper clip and my set of keys (like most floats my key ring rivals that of a warden). The kids predict what they think will happen, then note what actually does.

The knot of keys and the paper clip hit the ground at the same time. Really. Try it.

Five minutes later I asked a student which hit the ground first.
The paper clip.

"Why do you think that?"
Cuz that's what you said.

Pretty sure I didn't, but I don't argue the point.
"Which one did you see hit the ground first?"
They both hit at the same time.

In school, you succeed for producing the "correct" answer, which doesn't always coincide with the right one. If the child heard me say the paper clip hit first, that's his answer, even if he observed otherwise.

It's a tough habit to break. In the long run, he might even be better off picking the authoritative "correct" answer even when he can see otherwise.

Why does teaching science matter then?

With science, a child has a framework to challenge dogma. It's not enough to say challenge authority; you need to give the children tools. It's easy to create cranks with tinfoil hats, much harder to create critical thinkers.


Your guide--Ms. Rubens said...

Your writing is beautiful. Most of the time they're expected to give the right answer, which often doesn't make sense to them. So how can we make science class different?

doyle said...

Thanks for the kind words.

Well, science class is different--can't be expected to give the "right" answer if science is about approximately right answers. I announce in class that the "facts" learned may well be different in a few decades--the point is the process.

I realize the frustration of a standardized state test pushing us to push the "facts," though I am not sure what to do about it.

My goal is to produce skeptics (not cynics); my goal is to encourage thinking. High school is all about producing the "right" answer, an answer that often does not make sense. Again, I am not sure what to do about it.

Yesterday we dropped a lab stool (which weighs about 15-20#) at the same time we dropped a wadded ball of paper. They hit the ground at the same time. Before we get all jumpy exploring low velocity air resistance and equations and all kinds of other fun, just let the kids see it. Let them do it. It jars them a bit (heck, it still jars me a bit) seeing what they "know" is simply not so.

At this level anyway, I'll be happy to convince students to unlearn what they think they know, then fill in the gaps with critical thinking. The first part is easier than the second, and the first part isn't easy.