Wednesday, March 14, 2012

A child's critique of modern science education

I got to spend a wonderful few days in Tampa at the NASSP Convention schmoozing with principals and other high falutin' admins, a rare treat. One of the folks I got to meet was Eric Sheninger, one of the winners of the NASSP 2012 Digital Principal Awards.

At the conference, Eric mentioned that he got his digital start with a guest post on a fellow administrator's blog. Two days after I heard that, a fellow teacher wondered if she might guest post on mine. 

Her name is Susan Eckert, an erstwhile genetics counselor.  She has two children--David, who just turned 6, and Julianne, who's not much older.

And here it is:

I woke up late on Monday morning and asked my daughter, Julianne, if she could just have hot lunch today (such a treat to not have to pack a lunch).

“No!” she cried, “We’re going to the planetarium and I want to bring my own lunch!” That’s right! She had been excitedly talking about her upcoming field trip to the planetarium for days. And so when I posed the requisite “How was your day?” question after school, I was a bit surprised to hear her thoughts on the field trip.

She paused, she thought, she seemed a bit deflated. She carefully chose her words and then she slowly told me she didn’t really like the planetarium because she wishes she had “more knowledge” about it.

Hmmm, this needed to be explored. I probed, asked her a few more questions, specifically on whether she had learned anything. And her response was a mixture of words about “adoms” in her pinky exploding and blowing up the whole town.

She had no idea what that meant (not sure I do, either) but that is what stuck with her. The lasting impression, though, is that she is now a little turned off to planetariums, the stars, the moon, and the planets because she was confused much of the time. Jules seemed to almost feel guilty telling her science teacher mommy about this but I truly appreciated her honesty.

My daughter’s homework that night was good, very good. She was asked to be a critic and to review the planetarium trip. I could get on my soapbox about what I think some of the shortcomings of elementary science education are but I think the earnest words of an 8 year-old tell the story perfectly. And so here are some her words:

I didn’t really like the glenfield planetarium. Because I didn’t really know a lot of the words the guy said… I think people who like space movies like star wars would understand. And people who don’t know what rambunctious means wouldn’t understand. Also the guy would be talking about atoms and not explain what atoms are. And he also got me confused about what he said.
[Sidenote: Knowing what the word rambunctious means and how to spell it is some kind of intellectual litmus test for my daughter.]

As educators, we tend to say too much. I have done this and I still do but I am much more aware of it these days. Our intentions are often good but in our eagerness to teach children about the wonders of the natural world, we sometimes do the complete opposite—we kill their curiosity.

When should children learn about atoms? NJCCCS says by grade 8. I don’t really know but I’m pretty sure it’s not during second grade. Before I entered into education, I would tell my own children all kinds of facts and I tried to ignore their eyes glazing over. And now that I know a bit more about teaching science I try to say much less. It’s my new mantra: just be quiet. I’ll have to undo this—I’ve already put the North Jersey Astronomical Group Telescope Night sponsored at Montclair State University on our calendar. And I swear that I’m going to keep my mouth shut and just let my children do the talking.

Addendum: This morning, two days after Julianne went to the planetarium, I signed my son’s permission slip to go on the same field trip. “Oh, you’re so lucky! I love it there!” she said to her brother. 

 Huh? When I questioned her about this considering what she wrote just two days prior, she explained that it’s still really cool to be there and look up at the ceiling. What she saw had a more lasting impression than the confusing words buzzing in her ears. I wondered if this diminishes my message, but after further reflection, I think it just amplifies it: let our words not distract from their wonderment.

Please comment liberally--I want Ms. Eckert and her little one to get hooked on this blogging thing.... 


John T. Spencer said...

Vocabulary words killed my love of science as a kid. I got red slashes for using "dirt" instead of soil and defining energy as "the stuff that makes stuff change." I think another time I tried to sound more scientific with "the process of making stuff move." I really thought I didn't get energy. Now I'm seeing that I was far more correct than the diagrams that we studied.

" . . .let our words not distract from their wonderment."

I love that line.

Long walks in the sunlight. Curious questions tested. A canvas of black and an array of stars. Recognizing that the real optical illusion isn't the moon off the horizon but the way the city has managed to shrink the moon into nothing.

Somehow I fell in love with science again. I didn't call it that. I called it curiosity. I called it poetry. I called it anything I could call it but science, because the words had simply gotten in the way.

Jenny said...

Your mantra and mine are similar, but your's seems kinder. I find myself saying in my head, "Shut up woman!" quite often with my first graders. Sometimes I can do it and sometimes my mouth gets away from me.

I try so hard not to interfere with their natural learning, both as a teacher and a parent (daughters 8 and 5) but it goes against my, I think, natural tendency to talk and tell.

Susan Eckert said...

Hi John -

Science is such a vocabulary-laden field, it's really such a turn-off to many students, especially when they can barely pronounce the words. I have found it difficult (impossible?) to get around at the high school level but I would think it's much easier in elementary school. Young kids don't think science is hard would be good to keep it that way.

I really like your poetic words about the natural world. They remind me of Richard Dawkins' words: "Science is the poetry of reality." I find it fascinating that once we are no longer forced to learn a subject for a grade we often enjoy exploring it for its own sake.

Jenny -

Funny, but I originally wrote "just shut up!" as my mantra but settled on gentler words instead. Shut up works, too, though... :)
And I'm no saint--I talk quite a bit and tend to correct my daughter's grammar all the time. (No, don't say funner! It's more fun!) But, I have gotten better about the science stuff. One day we were at the lighthouse in Sandy Hook and my 5 yo son asked why there were little vents. When I told him that they used to burn a big candle in there and they needed air to do so, somebody corrected me and started telling him that air is a mixture of gases and really it was oxygen that was needed followed by an explanation of why the lens acted like a prism. Sigh. I was expecting an explanation of the light's wave-particle duality next. I vowed never to sound like that.

Thanks for commenting and a big thank you to Michael for giving my airtime on his blog.

David said...

This highlights a problem in science education. Sites like planetariums are too often repositories of existing scientific knowledge, and all of the work and effort (and the process) that went into creating the discoveries on display in these places is hidden. Unfortunately, many people in the public want demonstrations rather than science. Too often our science education is based on kids "learning" a sequence of scientific facts rather than learning enough about the process.

What I'd like to see is more opportunity for people to actively engage in something more than a carefully arrange scientific demonstration. Science World, here in Vancouver, has many areas which are just demonstrations of science, but they also have a fantastic space where kids can play with materials and come to their own conclusions. Their conclusions may be wrong, but as long as we provide a mechanism for them to continue to refine and revise their experimental results, we'll continue pushing them toward a deeper understanding of the importance of process.

Jack said...

It's worth mentioning for the wider world not necessarily in the know that the Glenfield Planetarium is actually a full-fledged planetarium (albeit not science museum scale) inside Glenfield Middle School in Montclair, NJ. The story goes, a good number of years ago, the school district had money in the budget for a pool to be built near the school, but they reasoned that there were already a few pools in town, but what they didn't have was a planetarium, so why not.

I went to Glenfield 15+ years ago, and paid the place a visit on school trips every year up through early High School.

Faulty or inadequate teaching methods aside, it's making me awfully homesick and just a little bit teary remembering that I spent 6 hours a day for 3 years within spitting distance of a Planetarium; it's also making me a bit mad that I only got to experience it once a year.

Susan Eckert said...

Hi Jack, former Mountie -

I think it's wonderful that MPS has a planetarium--my kids have gone every year since preschool and they love it so. It's nice to hear you have such fond memories of your visits there.

David, I'm with you on the importance of process.

I don't want this post to be about criticizing other people's teaching. Lord knows that if anybody would have observed my class on any given day, they would have found quite a few things I did wrong and more than a few confused faces.

I just think it's refreshing to hear a child's perspective on science education, specifically a child that was trying very hard to understand but was woefully confused. (And, I think she's pretty cute and good at expressing herself in writing but I may be a bit biased being her mother and all.)

Anonymous said...

As a mommy of a boy who grew up to play in our local planetarium, I want to say that the words are often not written by the speakers: they are scripted by people with no background in teaching or learning, and probably no children of their own either. Perhaps a memorandum for those who would script teachers?
My lad is lucky enough to make the pictures move. He says it is art, not science. This science mommy decided I didn't care what word he uses. He is still the boy that had to find out how many apples it takes to break the sink disposal (14) and then how to install a new one, and decided it was great to break a window because I made him fix it. To be honest, knowing the names that someone else assigned to subatomic particles seems a bit irrelevant.

M. said...

Great piece, Susan! I loved your advice about keeping quiet and letting our kids find out for themselves. I too have been guilty of massive "oversharing" regarding information that is way over my kids' heads. They are super curious about the world and how it works, and even though it's tough to answer all the questions they ask, I do it and am thankful that they have that great seed of knowledge -- curiosity.

From now on, I'll keep my answers to a minimum and let them fill in the blanks. Who knows? Maybe they'll come up with something way better than I could have told them.

Anonymous said...

I am confused. The solution to a kid not enjoying the planetarium because she doesn't know enough about stars and atoms is to NOT talk about stars and atoms? I had the exact reverse interpretation, help students learn this content earlier so they can enjoy and understand the world around them.

Anonymous said...

Teaching students words that stand for abstract things that their brains are developmentally incapable of understanding is not going to do them any good.

Allowing them to interact with phenomena and build their own understanding in developmentally appropriate ways would spark a love of learning and of science. I teach chemistry at the high school and even some of my sophomores are incapable of the abstract though and reasoning needed for the concepts like electron orbitals. Introducing the vocabulary earlier isn't going to make their understanding any better.

Anonymous said...

I still think this is backwards. My experience is I enjoy things I understand and dislike things I do not understand. (How many of us choose to read about things we are not good at over things we are good at?) I think more kids would love science if we did a better job helping the understand it. Knowledge First, Passion Second. You seem to want to build the argument the other way around. But that is not my experience on how it works.

Susan Eckert said...

Thanks for your kind words, M!

And leave it to a chemistry teacher to so elegantly address Anonymous's solution of simply teaching 2nd graders about atoms and the inner workings of stars...well said.

We can't see atoms and most people have absolutely no sense of scale when it comes to atoms. It's hard enough for high school students to grasp that their cells are made of atoms just like the desk they are writing on. Why muddy a child's brain with concepts they are not even close to being ready to learn? There is plenty of time for them to learn about atomic theory. And I actually think your words say it best: "I enjoy things I understand and dislike things I do not understand." Second graders do not understand atoms. So why try to teach them something that will make them not like science? Science education should pique children's curiosity, prompt them to ask questions, figure things out through simple experimentation and fill them with wonder.

My daughter did learn that she is made of star stuff, which she thought was pretty wonderful. Isn't that good enough? (Rhetorical question.)

Mary Ann Reilly said...

Hi Susan,

All I could think of when I read your post was Whitman's When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer. He was much older than 7 or 8 when wrote it, so I am guessing that the feelings your daughter experienced aren't necessarily limited to age. I sometimes think that we adults behave the way we do out of fear: we seem to think young ones won't learn, when in fact they (like us) are learning all of the time.

Wonder needs to be honored, nurtured.

Here's a link to a picture book version of the poem, just right for a 2nd grade.

Susan Eckert said...

Thanks, Mary Ann! That books sounds lovely, I just purchased it.

Leah said...

Your line, "Let our words not distract from their wonderment" is now written in big green felt-tip pen letters on a Post-It note stuck to my bulletin board. It is a mantra that my head has been ruminating on for quite some time, and your blog entry finally put words to. Thank you for the post! I am a middle school science teacher and was inspired to write my own blog entry about talking less in my classroom thanks to your post. Please keep blogging!

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