Sunday, November 2, 2008

Why do things fall down?

Nothing in science turns them on.
They have no curiosity.
--Philosopher Kings of the teachers' lounge

The science teacher's lounge is a wonderful place--coffee, computers, we often have a wonderful breakfast spread set out by our supervisor (we're spoiled, I know).

Then someone does the blame the student routine, and the room deadens.

Human pups are curious, at times, annoyingly so.
They can't help ourselves, curiosity is innate.
What happened?

If a child asks you why things fall down, how do you answer?
Most of us would simply say gravity.

If a child told us things fall by magic, how would you correct her?
Most of us would say, no, not magic, gravity.

The child has learned nothing new, except that adults use peculiar (and particular) words to explain magic, and that if you use the wrong word, you will be corrected. If you use the wrong words too many times in the classroom, adults get upset until you start using the right word.

If a child asks you why things fall down, not up, how do you answer?
Many (and I hope no
t most) would again say gravity.

It's a great question. You have to know a little bit about what "gravity" means to know what "down" means.

Does a child need to know the general formula for the force of gravity to know what "down" means? Not at all

How might yo
u answer?
"Down" means being pulled towards something that's a whole lot bigger than you--the closer that thing is, the more it pulls. (I know this is incomplete in several ways, but it's a start.)

The child may likely wander away at this point (which is fine). The child may think she has learned nothing, and that this particular adult is a dope, and that's OK, too.

She still has the question brewing in her head (instead of a vacuous word), and now she might, just might, be wondering what the biggest, closest thing is.

If she asks that, ask her to go outside and look down.

I really don't like boxes. I wrestle with boxes every time I come up against a "concept" in the curriculum that cannot be easily explained. This week's box was the word "solutions".

This attractive force between every object in our universe forces us into boxes in the classroom. How can a child leave elementary school not knowing what "gravity" is?

Our state c
urriculum standards take a shot at gravity. Here's Science Standard 5. 7 A3 for 5th and 6th graders:

Recognize that everything on or near the earth is pulled toward
the earth's center by gravitational force.

That's it. No mention of other objects in the universe--a concept trapped in a box.

The standard true as far as it goes. It allows for a fundamentally flawed view of gravity most kids (and even more adults) have, that gravity is the force that holds things down, because most people don't know what "down" means in science.

No one knows why gravity happens. No sense pretending to a child you know something no one knows. Unless you're not pretending.


I'm going to leave you with a quote from Albert Einstein. Yes, a cheap stunt, I know, but it resonates.

The pursuit of truth and beauty is a sphere of activity in
which we are permitted to remain children all our lives.

Albert Einstein

A child spewing off a series of science words like a parrot is not science, no matter how formal or pedantic the words. Rewarding the parrots with crackers and grades works for a few years for most, and rarely past high school.

If kids have no curiosity, we're doing something wrong.

Photo from the National Archive, a physics lesson back in 1915. Some things haven't changed much.


Elona Hartjes said...

I'd have to say that I've been in some teachers' work rooms where there's little curiosity. No time for it I'm told. I don't find the same thing in a room full of little kids.

Thanks for putting a link to my blog-

Kate Tabor said...

Good morning!

This is the sort of post that always gets an Englsih teacher excited and thinking (as truth is of course often stranger than fiction)! When I taught seventh grade we read Salman Rushdie's Haroun and the Sea of Stories a marvelous allegory about censorship, but also a fun fantasy adventure (for the seventh graders not quite ready to climb that abstract idea).

In the book the fate of all stories and that of the hero rests on whether or not Haroun can set his will against the Process Too Complicated To Explain (the P2C2E). Whenever Haroun asks why something happens, he is told that it's a Process Too Complicated to Explain. Eventually he discovers that the P2C2E has been given control of the rotation of the earth and its moon, Kahani. No spoilers here, though; so don't expect me to tell you what happens to the Cultmaster and the Eggheads!

We would spend at least one class thinking of all the P2C2Es that exist in our world - things that feel like magic. Electricity, gravity, sunshine, osmosis... the list was always long, but it reminded me that when we tell students that something is too complicated, they may just believe us.

doyle said...


You're quite welcome--I love reading your posts.


Some P2C2E (which I love--I may use it in class now) are, of course, inexplicable, not because they're complicated, but because they're unknowable.

Osmosis is fun. If kids know molecules are always moving, then osmosis might start to make sense.

Take a tiny drop of milk, mix with water on a glass slide. Look at about 400X. The particles are in motion. Water molecules keep bumping up against the fat droplets.

Now why molecules are always in motion, that's a different story, perhaps a P2C2E.

ertzeid said...

ooh, how about this exercise:

Show a picture of the moon landing. Ask a student, or a few, to point to where "down" is in the picture.

Show a picture of both the Earth and the Moon (like this one from here) and ask a student to point to where "down" is in the picture.

Possibly precede this be showing a few other pictures, maybe even at askew angles, and asking which way is "down" to warm the kids up.

doyle said...


Great ideas, and I'm going to use them. I especially like the pictures--at what point does "down" become "up".

(Your name came up at Kerry's birthday dinner last night--she's writing on her blog again because you mentioned mine to her.)

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Michael

"If kids have no curiosity we're doing something wrong."

Kids always have curiosity. That's what makes them learn from the moment they're born.

It is the fostering of that through the years of education to adulthood that may not be so successful. The educated adult with no curiosity will not learn much during the rest of a lifetime.

Curious adults make the critical thinkers that are looked on so disdainfully by co-workers.

Curious adults ask questions that are often ridiculed by others.

Curious adults ask awkward questions that management don't want to hear.

Occasionally, curious adults find a niche and may be recognised for their gift of curiosity.

Ka kite
from Middle-earth

Anonymous said...

So why do things go towards the center of large, close objects? It sounds like non-sense, to be honest; it suggests objects have minds of their own, that is to say, that they know which objects are largest and closest to themselves and move towards them. (Or that larger objects know the size and distance of other objects and pull them in)