Friday, July 27, 2012

Guest post by Albert Einstein: What are you doing to the children?


The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education.
Albert Einstein

Ah, a treat today! While London security focused on the Olympics, I snuck into the British Museum and grabbed a slice or two of Albert Einstein's brain tissues--while I couldn't get the whole thing, even half a brain rivals what a whole committee collaborating together produced for New Jersey's science standards..

Alas, Dr. Einstein's eyeballs remain locked up in a bank in NYC (you can't make this stuff up)--any typos and misquotations that follow are on me.

And my justification? Einstein once said a person “experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as… a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness." Well, I figured he'd not object to my li'l brain in a vat experiment if I raised him up for something he cared about dearly--teaching science.

Earlier experiment with a more intact brain

I asked Dr. Einstein to peruse Jersey's standards for the preschool crowd, children no more than a few dozen moons removed from the womb, practically pollywogs--if you look closely, some still have tails.

Excuse my imperfect use of language--your host may have been a physician, but his grasp of brain anatomy needs some work. It's as though he just shuffled my brain slices together like a deck of cards. [EDITOR'S NOTE: confession--I barely passed neurology. I'm colorblind, and all the brain tissue looked the same....]

I have been asked to examine the New Jersey Core Curriculum Science Content Standards, and am amazed a child manages to get to Kindergarten without hating science. The pursuit of truth and beauty is a sphere of activity in which we are permitted to remain children all our lives--and you've managed to create little adult clones

Use basic science terms and topic-related science vocabulary. 

Joy in looking and comprehending is nature's most beautiful gift! The terms, science terms if you will, can come later, much later. All religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree, yet you do not require a child to know a hog from a horse bristle paintbrush before she splashes exuberant colors on a canvas. If you are out to describe the truth, leave elegance to the tailor.

Represent observations and work through drawing, recording data, and “writing.”     

Goodness, why not just let a child scribble thoughts in a notebook? What is this "recording data"?  Most of the fundamental ideas of science are essentially simple, and may, as a rule, be expressed in a language comprehensible to everyone.

When you get down to it, the whole of science is nothing more than a refinement of everyday thinking. We're talking about toddlers, no?
When I was a little boy, maybe 4, I was amazed, amazed, by a compass--there had to be something behind things, something deeply hidden. I developed a lifelong passion looking at the world. Let's see how your education experts cultivate this love of the world.

 Display curiosity about science objects, materials, activities, and longer-term investigations in progress.

Enough, enough! "Display curiosity" is sufficient, and it is innate. A child, or anyone else who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead; his eyes are closed.

Our task must be to free ourselves by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty.  What has happened to the concept of kindergarten, literally the "garden of children"? Few are those who see with their own eyes and feel with their own hearts.

 He who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead; his eyes are closed. Look at the madness of your standards.  It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.

Disconnect me, Doyle! You asked me to read the standards, and now I don't know, I don't care, and it doesn't make any difference what I think, so long as you pay more mind to data than to wisdom. If you want my opinion, go peek at Arthur Sasse's photo of me. Let me go back to my quantum sleep.
Arthur Sasse/AFP-Getty Images via Neatorama

Anybody want a slice or two of the old man's brain? Is anyone listening anymore?

Bold, italicized lines are Einstein's words, obviously lifted out of context, most from here.
Red, bold left-sided quotes taken directly from the NJCCCS here.
The "brain" photo is everywhere, from the movie The Brain That Wouldn't Die.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

What do you care to know about the world?

Teaching matters.
We owe it to our children to get it right.

 What do you care to know about the world?
There's a place for what used to be called boredom, for empty spaces to slide into your mind. It's not particularly unpleasant, but it lacks the dopamine we've programmed our children, ourselves, to crave.

If you sit still long enough outside, you will see things, hear things, smell wondrous things you hardly knew existed. But you need to sit still. Without music, without a screen.  Close your eyes and listen. Sniff. Touch the earth.

We train our children to believe that we have mastered our universe. We teach them how to avert their eyes. We answer their simplest questions ("Why are people poor?") with You're too young to understand...It's complicated...It will make sense when you're older. We actively work to make our children jaded.

Science teachers, like art teachers, have an obligation to teach children how to seek what's true, if we hope to teach them anything at all. We cannot tell them.

Has any young child not been charmed by the edge of a July pond, or by a tray of watercolor paint? Both teem with countless possibilities that cannot be measured or tested. We cede control when we hand a child a paintbrush, a magnifying glass, a few moments of unstructured time.

Before you dare restructure the world of a child--the heart of teaching--dare to ask yourself what do you care to know about this world? If you do not yet know, get out of the classroom until you do.

What do you care to know about the world?
I have stared into the eyes of animals as millions of my triceps muscle cells release calcium ions, triggering almost simultaneous contraction, driving the club between the eyes of the critter I am slaying.

It remains an awful moment for me, that last instant.

Awful comes from agheful, "worthy of respect or fear," full of awe, full of fear, a word now reduced to meaning "very bad." We've long lost our sense of awe, at least those running the show now--if we had it, we'd not destroy the world mindlessly.

Yet when I mindfully take a life, so that I may eat, I slide into a rich universe devoid of words, but not of feelings, in the most basic sense of the word--the rhythmic writhing flesh in my hands now quivers chaotically, if the blow is true.

Yet to do so in a classroom would be obscene, an affront to our children, an act of career suicide, and (*gasp*) a deviation from our lesson plans,. with every minute programmed to match a standard designed by folks who long ago lost touch with what matters.

What do you care to know about the world ?
As fundamental as this is, that we are here on a planet, inextricably linked to each other and to everything else alive, and to many things not, many of us live in worlds that are but shells of the fundamental one held up by the ground.

Just like the earthworm, we eat, we breathe, we toss shite from our backside, we entangle together to share genetic memories we pass on to new life, and we die. We're of the earth, and for those who believe that this is but a tiny journey to bide time until another world finds them, may earthy joy find you before your last breath.

And you will draw a last, agonal breath from this world, the only one we can know, the world of art, of science, of writhing life, of decay, of dirt, of us.

The world worth knowing...

Watercolor tray from Officemax site here.
Other photos ours, usual CC applies.

Monday, July 23, 2012

"Why Smart People Believe Dumb Things"


Daniel T. Willingham is not just another pretty face. Robert Marzano, on the other hand, looks like he spends more time on a single eyebrow that Willingham does on his whole head, but to be fair to Marzano, he has a lot more hair to contend with.

I have read both men far more than most teachers (and administrators have), but for different reasons. Dr. Willingham (PhD, Cognitive Psychology, Harvard) and Marzano (PhD, Curriculum and Instruction, University of Washington) are both smart and credentialed, but only one's career depends on peer-reviewed, open research not sponsored by the very same folks paying for his study. Guess which one?

I've talked about Marzano's magic make-up before, but today I'd rather talk about someone who plugs truth.

Dr. Willingham's work will matter long after Marzano's carnival rides on back to Kansas. (Hey, if any souls in Kansas read this, I'll change his destination.) Willingham is not just a scientist, he's a scientist who writes books in a down to earth style that even (*ahem*) we education folk can grasp. (Hey, if you want to see his sciency stuff, go read one of his hundred or so articles in rags like Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience.)

He's not as popular as he might be among the ednoscenti--he has diligently shown that Dr. Howard Gardner's (another man with magnificent eyebrows) "theory" of multiple intelligences has little evidence to support it--but his work will last long after he's dead, one of the habits of truths.

Willingham has just released a new book When Can You Trust the Experts?: How to Tell Good Science from Bad in Education --I can't plug it yet because I have not yet read it (though I will). I can push the first chapter "Why Smart People Believe Dumb Things" though--it's free and well worth reading.

I used to be a doc--we were trained in exactly this kind of thing, early and often, and yet we still fell into traps. That why drug companies gave away schwag. Turns out even physicians are human.

But just because we're human doesn't mean we need to be stupid. No matter how bushy the eyebrows.

One of the most frustrating facets of my ed career has been the herd-like acceptance of any "research" that makes us feel good.
When I screw up, fellow teachers, please speak up. Publicly. Loudly. So we can all learn.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Totally vs. fully human

A big ray washed up on our beach yesterday.

If you had a choice, would you be fully human or totally human? The dichotomy is strikingly simple--do you want to live in an orderly universe defined by human parameters, or do you prefer the dangerously chaotic mess of life we call "nature"? Giving nature a name is as silly as assigning one to a presumed Yahweh.

Names gives us the illusion that we know something about what we're talking about.

But we don't, because we can't, at least not with words like nature, or God, or infinity.

What does this have to do with education? Well, pretty much everything.  The current education reform movement has as many motives as it does players, and money is a huge part of the equation, but it is not the most dangerous part.

What's most dangerous is the belief we have more control than we do, that we spend too much energy debating the means without questioning the ends.


While walking along the edge of the bay yesterday, I stumbled upon a school of small fish tossing themselves up on the beach--as the waves licked the beach higher with the rising tide, the fish would again be submerged, then would again beach themselves just beyond the water's edge.

It made little sense until I saw the two eels working their way through the school, now stampeded together in a ball of writhing flesh, trapped between the beach and the slashing teeth of hungry predators.

I held a few in my hand, pondering how many it would take to make a small fish chowder, and how hard it would be to gut these tiny critters as I marveled at their colors, their strength, their liveliness.

Maybe only humans can appreciate the aesthetics of their prey, maybe not, but most of us aren't even capable of that anymore.

You can go to the mall, with programmed music, piped in aromas, electric light angled to help induce your atavistic gathering impulses, buy something molded by a machine from plastic polymers, and feel pretty good (but not quite good enough) about yourself.

by Kevin Sharkey, Martha Stewart living

Education can be designed for the total human, preparing a child for immersion in a world without limits to growth, a world defined by data and dollars, a world full of human noise and little else, a world nimbly navigated by the "college and career ready" cognoscenti.

Or it can be designed for the fully human, preparing a child for immersion on a place called Earth, a world defined by limits and cycles, a world incomprehensibly complex, a world defined by life and by death, a world we once knew as home.

My home probably looks very much like yours. I am more total human than fully human. I'm working on this. Hundreds of animals breathed their last in my kitchen. Under the counter, millions of yeasts are now churning blueberries and honey into wine. My yard has patches of basil and Brussels sprouts growing on it, started from seed when  the ground was still frozen.

Living can be terrifying, and total humans can spend a lifetime avoiding it.
Life can be mystifying, and total humans share their expertise on how you should live it.

I'm not avoiding living, and I'm not trusting anyone to tell me how to live. Neither should our children. Mr. Duncan thinks I should carve your child into a cog to fit a machine that cannot be sustained. I won't do that.

How can anyone teach anything then? I'm not sure The best I can do is show children how to see things for themselves, things outside of themselves. Hard not to fall in love with the universe when we sit still long enough to see it.

Blue crab claw, recently dead.

What do we get in return for our terror, our uncertainty, our mortality?

We get to dance to our own voices, voices shared by countless critters within the sound of our songs. Our fingers dance on a guitar, clumsily at first, making strings vibrate only as we can. We each have a verse to sing, to add to our universal song.

We get to eat foods exploding with flavor, animals that were alive only hours ago, plants harvested after sunrise, shared by sundown, prepped using our hands, as we share our stories in the kitchen. We can earn our appetite grinding wheat berries, kneading bread, rewarded with warm, filling bread made from wheat alive just hours ago.

We get to drink peach melomel brewed from the work of thousands of bees and millions of yeasts, nectar of the gods for any humans who take the few hours needed to splash together ripe fruit, honey, and water, and feed it to some hungry yeast.

In a word, we get joy.

To be fully human threatens those who live in a totally human universe. It hurts to be reminded what we've lost, and it's terrifying to glimpse Chaos, Yahweh against the Leviathan, death, especially living in a culture that fears toilets more than Teflon.

"Destruction of Leviathan," Gustave Doré, 1865

If you would prefer not to, after seeing the joy and terror found in the depths of the living universe, well, that may be the rational choice in an irrational culture, where living (but not dying) is easy.

To educate a child without letting her see what her culture has ripped away, to keep her mind occupied with monitors and machined music, to program her to fit into an abstract concept of economy that takes precedence over life itself, is criminal.

"Career and college ready" makes for a snazzy slogan, and may even be what the totally human crowd (Arne, Michelle, and their gang of billionaires) crave. Me? I prefer a child in love with the universe. Giver her a choice.

Anything less dehumanizes us.

Glowsticks photo from Kevin Sharkey via Martha Stewart website.
Other photos by me, taken yesterday along our bay.

How many of us have tasted bread made from our hands from freshly milled wheat?

Friday, July 20, 2012

Universal truth

"It’s not that we are better than the universe, we are part of the universe. We are in the universe and the universe is in us.” 

I have never regretted a moment under the sky; I have wasted far too many under fluorescent lights.

We are fascinated by our own noise, by our creations, by our feigned immortality. With all the noise today, with fewer private spaces left, a child has to work hard to see the universe.
( cannot see it through a monitor. You cannot smell it in a mall. You cannot hear it through a speaker. You cannot taste it through Doritos. You cannot feel it through a Logitech Rumblepad 2. You can immerse yourself in the human world, true, with all kinds of action to keep you busy until you die, but you'll miss out on the universe.)

We define progress by income, not happiness. We define knowledge by information, not wisdom. Most damning, we define ourselves in terms of other humans alone, erasing who we are, carved out from the clay, the air, the water, and the teeming life that lives on us, in us, through us, particles of matter dancing to the rhythm of the sun.

Mid-July, the edge of the bay is littered with horseshoe crab molts--thousands of these ancient critters are shedding their shells within a mile or two, pushing their way through a seam in the front, shedding their old skin.
The critters are still alive--these are just the molts.

This morning I collected a few for class, and also stumbled on a plastic toy giraffe, ridiculously bright under a slate gray sky. The giraffe was made in China, or so it says on its belly. I bet every child in our school could identify it. I bet only 1 in 10 could identify the horseshoe crabs.

What, really, can any of us know about a giraffe, a creature as foreign in these parts as a unicorn? Yet children love giraffes, not knowing it's our own images we've fallen in love with, each of us a Narcissus staring at our reflections on our screens.

Which can we know better, the horseshoe crab or the giraffe?

Narcissus could not see the life teeming below the surface of his reflection. Few of us even look today. Not one of us grasps the vastness of life that surrounds us--a spoonful of fertile soil defies our imaginations.

If teaching science matters in high school, it matters for this--we need to show our children that there exists a universe under the pool that shimmers with false beauty.

I love to show others where to find clams, literally beneath their feet, clams creating their hard shells out of seemingly nothing, taking in countless organisms themselves. Once a child has pulled a clam out of the muck, the mudflat becomes larger than the life the child once knew.

My clam skeleton graveyard, eventually used in the garden.

Before we plunge into STEM education, before we raise yet another generation unaware of where food comes from or feces go, we all need to take a few walks outside, under the sky, unplugged, away from the human noise we pretend means something.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Wild clams

This is an old post, from September, 2008. I liked it then, and I still like it.

I have no idea why I get so excited by clams--every clam I've caught this year has been released. Very few folks practice a catch and release program with clams. Next week's clams, however, may well taste garlic and butter when they open for the last time.

They are gifts. From Creation. From nature. From God. Gaia. Big Bang. Matsya.

Plenty of cultures, plenty of words. None of them work, true, and there was a time I could be drawn and quartered for saying as much, but most local parishes don't properly worship the clam.

Oh, they try. Singing, praise, lovely noise.

But no clams.

I am looking for a church that recognizes the glory of clams. If you can see the sacred in a clam, you can see.

One of my students wanted to hold Mr. Clam. She was a little nervous, but I assured her that clams are not particularly vicious. Indeed, few things are as calm as a clam.

When she held it, she was impressed by its heft.

Clams are dense with life. They have all kinds of things tucked inside their porcelain universe--siphons, feet, hearts, gills, even a nervous system.

Well, "system" may be an exaggeration. Peter Singer says it's OK to eat clams because they don't have such a sophisticated nervous system. Professor Singer is a sophisticated human teaching sophisticated ethics at the very sophisticated Princeton University. He's also an avid animal rights advocate, accusing humans (um, that's us) of "speciesism."
But he draws the line at clams.

If I were ever to eat dinner with Professor Singer (perhaps at a clambake) I'd ask if scallops, with their eyes and mobility, get a break.

We are talking about energy transfer in biology class--sun to plants to a critter to you. A few thoughtful humans skip the critter. Less taxing on the biomass to skip the middle critter.
I am not a vegetarian. Maybe I could become one if biologists reclassify Mercenaria mercenaria, but until they do, best I can call myself is a clamitarian.

In Richardson Sound just west of Wildwood some little necks are siphoning about a quart or two an hour, trapping plankton that trapped sunlight.They are growing. They are dense. They are good. And tomorrow, a few of them will end up in my bucket.

Teaching biology in public school is a delicate balancing act. I avoid politics. I avoid issues PETA holds dear. I am a timid, untenured teacher.

Until you talk about life. You cannot talk about life without bumping into mystery. I no longer pretend I do not feel the bump.
I do not pretend to know what the bump is all about. No one knows. A lot of folks pretend they do, and they make a lot of money.

But I acknowledge the bump:
Sorry, class, that's a religious question. An important one.
But not for me to answer.

I couldn't answer it if I wanted to. To say even that much, however, might offend those who pretend that they do know the answer.

If I do my job well, though, the kids will figure this out on their own.

Today I showed the stock market's climb since the turn of the century. There's a little downward blip in 1929, but overall it climbs about 11% a year. If you were immortal, you could not lose in the stock market.

I'm not immortal.

I talked about net primary productivity, solar energy, and limits to biomass produced here on Earth. There are limits.Then I show the stock market graph.

I had no idea when I was showing it today that the market was crashing. Even if I had a clue, I would not have mentioned it to class. This is biology class.

Still, there are limits. We are all (yep, even the wealthy among us) dependent on how many photons from the sun collide with Earth. Hydrogen fused with hydrogen creates helium, a little less massive than the hydrogen atoms that fused. What's no longer mass is now energy.

Go tell that to your local priest.

We tamed the Garden of Eden. Darn near killed it, and may yet.

We will never tame the sea. We may kill it, but it will not bend.

Clams and skates and croakers and jellyfish and fluke and toadfish and anything else with gills surrounded by water are all wild.

I want to bring the sea, the wild, to my classroom. The closest I come is the dozen or so horseshoe crab molts tossed around the room.

It's not close enough. Not nearly.

Garden of Eden picture from Our Day in the Light of Prophecy, W.A. Spicer,via the Gutenberg Project; the clams via Wikimedia Commons (anonymous)

Monday, July 16, 2012

Starving for technology

Just because you're going forwards
Doesn't mean I'm going backwards.
Billy Bragg, "To Have and To Have Not"

We keep pushing new technologies, harder than we push for full bellies and safe homes for our children.

An hour or two bouncing around various social sites shows where our priorities lie. We're more likely to survey our students to learn what "devices" they have at home than to learn what they have eaten the past 24 hours.

It's not a fair dichotomy, true, but I bet a "Luddite" teacher who knows the home situation of each and every one of her students gets better results than a Google Certified Teacher, everything else being equal.

And yes, of course, we can have both, and often do--but you wouldn't know it from the electronic conversations. Of the two, though, only one is necessary.

The original Luddites were skilled craftsfolk who objected to the industrialization of what once was a decent way of life. They used tools themselves. They fought their impending loss of autonomy. And now the term "Luddite" carries with it derision.

I can do things with a blackboard I simply cannot do with a SMART Board. The SMART Board can do plenty of things a blackboard cannot. I am not convinced we gained more than we lost, at least for science classes, where drawing matters, especially for a left-handed teacher who loves to use dotted fields. (Our computers cannot handle a staccato of dots, though it is amusing to see the dots fill in a field like stars filling a dusk sky--and about as fast.)

But this is not about whether the SMART Boards should replace blackboards--this is about how we decide which technologies to use. No one asked me if I wanted a SMART Board, and just bringing up a discussion like this brings out deep feelings among the pro-tech crowd.

Read the history of Luddites. Learn why they did what they did.

We're in the process of spending billions of dollars on testing and test prep as our House of Representatives works to cut $16 billion from our Federal food assistance programs.

Here's an idea--ask teachers to fast for a day for every new tool they use in class that costs more than, say, $200. Oh, wait, that would be ridiculous!

We'll ask a few kids to fast instead.

Socrates taught well with a stick and some sand.
And I bet he didn't use UbD, either....

Link between Sesame Street and heroin

We are visual critters, bound by a brain molded by countless generations in a very different environment--if something moved, it mattered.

Computers themselves don't move much, other than an occasional trip through a window.  We are, however, captivated by their screens. Our minds see through the monitor, into a world of suspended belief. This world of sudden changes hooks us:
These play to a primitive impulse to respond to immediate opportunities and threats. The stimulation provokes excitement — a dopamine squirt — that researchers say can be addictive. In its absence, people feel bored.
Matt Richtel, "Attached to Technology and Paying a Price," New York Times, 6/6/10

Dopamine surges increase our attentiveness, but it's not saber-toothed tigers that excite us now. I love Sesame Street, even use clips in class at times, but I suspect that it has done almost as much harm as good--dopamine squirts have become de rigeur in education.

And we have paid a steep price.

Sesame Street used the same production tricks that commercial studios used to captivate audiences: the medium becomes the show:
If we are going to attract children to quality children's programming, then it must have the production values (meaning pace, humour, professional performing talent, film inserts, animation and so forth) to which today's young children have become accustomed.
Richard M. Polsky
Author of Getting to Sesame Street: Origins of the Children's Television Workshop

People will go to great lengths for their next pulse of dopamine. Just ask a heroin addict. Or anyone who designs propaganda. Or a television producer.


There's a big movement among the Twitterati to allow kids to chase their own interests--and I strongly agree that a child will not learn much if she is not interested in the topic--but this movement somehow has gotten confounded with the high technology that lets kids find information (not knowledge) on, well, just about everything.

Kids need visual stimulation; kids do not need computer screens.

There was an analogous movement in food choice for children not so long ago, one that continues today. A few folks blamed Dr. Spock (no, not that one), but the original article was by Dr. Clara Davis back in the 1930's.

Her words got bastardized, and many believe a child will "naturally" select healthy foods if left on her own:

"In her studies, children were presented with a variety of foods, both healthy and unhealthy, and allowed to eat whatever they wanted and as much as they wanted. Over time, they naturally and intuitively chose healthy foods in the exact balance of nutrients and amount of calories that they needed for peak function."

Except that's wrong--she never said that. It's just silly.

Here's the original list of foods the children were allowed to choose from:

No Fritos. No Doritos. No Cheetohs.
"The results of the experiment, then, leave the selection of the foods to be made available to young children in the hands of their elders where everyone has always known it belongs."
Dr. Clara Davis
Left to our own devices, we choose behaviors that kept us alive in a very different time.

If a calorie-dense food was around, you ate it--but corn syrup didn't exist. If you saw a sudden movement , you paid attention (eat or be eaten)--but monitors did not exist. Those of us who made the best of the available choices were more likely to reproduce than our less blessed neighbors.

We do not easily buck our atavistic tendencies, and a look around today's neighborhoods show this. Many, perhaps most, children would be quite comfortable eating corn chips blowing up aliens as their collective BMI balloons far faster than their brains .

We're still their elders, we're still supposed to know better.

Looking around, though, I have my doubts.

 Photo of iPad baby from odeedoh here. Not sure who took the photo.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

"Just because..."

One of the first things students notice as they walk into Room B362 is a huge "WHY?" sign on the wall facing them, in bright pink letters, in an odd font designed by the man who cut out the letters. (OK, I was in a rush when I did it...)

It has sparked some debate with the only true professional scientist in the building. He's a large man with a wonderful mane of hair and a leonine voice to go with it:

"Mike...There is no why in science."

So now there's an equally huge sign, also in an original font, in his room, B361: "HOW?"

Dr. Jeff Goldstein is a rock star in science education, the Center Director for our National Center for Earth and Space Science Education, and the guy in this inspirational video:

I know Dr. Goldstein is wild about science and about education--he's one of the good guys.

Twitter is a hard place to exchange ideas, and the blurb above is out of context. Dr. Goldstein took the time to respond to me, and for that I am grateful.

I have a fundamental question about the philosophy of science, one I have been wrestling with ever since the "WHY?" vs. "HOW?" Battle of the Banners at BHS a couple of years ago, one that changed the focus of science education in my classroom.

Is there a point where we have to accept that the observable universe is what it is "Just because..."?

I am not referring to a lame response to a two-year-old child after the 239th question she asked in a short car ride. The answer then is rude, unsatisfactory, and does its intended job, clams the child up (and is harmful in the long run).

Dr. Goldstein was right to take issue with the question in the staccato nature of Twitter discussion--and I suspect we were talking past each other.

Is there a place in science where the answer "just because" makes sense, where it becomes as important as "we do not know"? Is it scientifically possible to find the root causes of the basic laws of the universe?

Or is it just more turtles standing on turtles?

Friday, July 13, 2012

Clowning around with magnetism

By Dharmuli, under CC

"So I’m not going to be able to give you an an answer to why magnets attract each other except to tell you that they do."
Richard Feynman, around 6:43

Science doesn't take the romance out of the universe.
School does.

I would love to start the school year with Insane Clown Posse's Miracles. [WARNING: Don't click if you're allergic to swearables.] For obvious reasons, I cannot, but it gets to the heart of the matter.

Science education in schools hurts, which is OK, but in the wrong way, which is not.

A child comes to school with a reasonable question--how do magnets work?
The child gets hit with "magnetic fields" and "electrons" but never gets the answer she seeks--because the answer is, for her, unknowable.

Truth is, the answer is unknowable to all of us, at least in the sense that the child asks the question. We do know that the same electrons that cause magnets to push and pull are what keep us from falling through the floor.

Maybe if we just said that, acknowledging that one of the coolest phenomena in any child's universe is, well, essentially unknowable, she'd see science (and the natural world) more for what it is, instead of a collection of words held together by an internal logic not apparent to a 7 year old.

For every teacher out there who teaches that energy is "the capacity of a physical system to perform work" without immediately adding the disclaimer that no one really knows what energy is, kids are going to think that scientists are lying.

But they're (mostly) not. It's not them, it's us, the teachers. 
We need to stop lying to our children, and to ourselves.

Maybe next I'll tackle fire.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Classroom slaughter

Raking for quahogs in February

I'm taking my nieces clamming tomorrow. It's fun catching quahogs, and even more fun eating them. It's their tough luck to be so tasty.

The more you get to know clams, or anything alive for that matter, the more you appreciate just how complex and wonderful they are.

Yes, I eat them. I'm a mammal, and have no chloroplasts. I need to eat.


There's been a video going around that shows a clam "enjoying salt." I'm not sure just how much a quahog knows, but I suspect they're brighter than a governor or two opposed to science They're certainly more evolved.

This is an animal trying to get itself back in the muck. The salt is clearly an irritant.

I do not know how much a clam knows, or feels, or cares, but I do know how much humans are capable of knowing, or feeling, or caring.

And we've fallen a long way from what is possible.

You can dissect a clam in biology class, and learn nothing about it, except that it has parts.
You can eat a clam on the boardwalk, and learn nothing about it, except that it's delicious (at least if served fresh).

What is it about clams that are worth knowing? The question is not as silly as it looks at first blush.

The more you know about clams, the more interesting they become. That's true about pretty much anything.

School kills this.

Well, Mr. Science Teacher, if you're so freaking interested in clams, how can you eat them?

And that's the Great Mystery right there. We can either eat what we eat wholly conscious of the act, which includes killing, because of what we are, or we can pretend food is magic.

We kill in our kitchen. We eat in our kitchen. Animals have bled in our sink, the last few pulses of arterial blood mixing with water as it swirled like wisps of pink clouds.

I chill the clams before slaughter, and occasionally pray for them. Doesn't help the clams much, true, but reminds me of my place.

I dream someday of slaughtering an animal in class, a big animal an animal we can share as a meal. Maybe a white-tailed deer. I want my lambs to see the eyes of the dying beast.

There's no hiding here. Even our vegetables require the deaths of many, many animals.

The lesson goes beyond the Common Core, beyond the Next Generation Science Standards. A few students may, understandably, giggle--it's what we do when we're unsure.

And then we would prepare the beast for a feast.

I said a dream....
The blood washed down my sink goes to the same place we send our urine, our shit, our spit, our mucous. We hide it. We're silent about it. We pretend it does not exist.

The mudflat smells rank at low tide--uncountable critters die with each low tide, to feed those that come after them, that come after us. We are not special, we will die here, too.

I'm teaching a generation of kids the intricacies of DNA polymerase, which they have about as much chance of understanding as they do grasping their own mortality.

But they know this much--we're not telling them the obvious. What they don't know is that many of us have learned to forget the obvious. We've been trained well.

I didn't go into teaching to train people. Pass the venison....

Can you imagine the outcry if I slaughtered a fawn in class?

"Freedom to doubt"

Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.
Richard Feynman
Richard Feynman, boy from Brooklyn.

I recently ranted about what should not be presented as science in school.

We live in an age of the expert, of the specialist. Few folks can even change a tire anymore because they can call someone else whose job is to do just that.

We also live in an age of magical thinking--we accept what we are told out of ignorance, out of fear, but (sadly) mostly out of comfort.

Science class is the one place in school where a the discipline requires that a child be taught to question, well, everything, at least everything that forms our ideas about the natural world.

Our freedom to doubt was born out of a struggle against authority in the early days of science. It was a very deep and strong struggle: permit us to question — to doubt — to not be sure. I think that it is important that we do not forget this struggle and thus perhaps lose what we have gained.
Richard Feynman 

The Republican state platform in Texas wants critical thinking skills banned in classrooms if it leads to "challenging the student’s fixed beliefs ...." There goes science.

We chuckle, but we take this lightly at our peril.
Science requires questioning authority.
That's how science works!

xkcd, of course--Randall Munroe may be the best science teacher ever!

Galileo, arguably the father of modern science, spent his final years under house arrest for pushing heliocentrism. We have come close to seeing the major tenet of biology pushed aside in Kansas, in Pennsylvania, and (naturally) Texas.

If kids in class get what science means, learn how to do it, and most important, become in charge of their own thinking (which means questioning their own assumptions as well), we'll still see the rabble bearing pitchforks at board of ed meetings.

But the rabble will be rooting for truth, not dogma, and this Great Experiment started by Tom, John, and George back in the 1770's will have a chance to right itself.

Feynman photo from idea where they got it, I'd guess Cal Tech.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Teach science

The Next Generation Science Standards are not going to save the day. But we can.
Let's try this--let's teach science.
Not vocabulary.
Not outdated models presented as "fact." 
Not "experiments" with pre-determined outcomes.
Not trips to museums.
Not multimedia textbooks with fancy photos of things a child will never see, either because they're exotic or made up.
Not pre-packaged glitzy propaganda made for teachers who fear theor own ignorance.
Not common assessments to assure all our children share the same confused mythologies.

You give a child a real dose of science, the kind that recognizes but will not bow to experts, the kind that shows the universe is far greater than our collective imagination, the kind that rips our sense of reality inside out, well, then, you got a child with a real chance to be a trouble-maker.

If you want a functioning republic, the thinking rabble-rouser beats the corporate-ready clone in any century.

Well, you wanted me to teach science, no?

Monday, July 9, 2012

The original God particle: the Rutherford atom

This is a bit long-winded.
I hope at least one elementary school teacher reds this through.
Science education lives and dies by those who teach before children before they can shave.

Learning science here in Jersey is a bit like learning in catechism class--the parts all nest together neatly in strange-sounding phrases that were once attached to miraculous things, but to get through CCD (or science class), it's more than enough just to learn how the various strange-sounding phrases fit together.

YouTube teems with videos that help children learn "science."

This video has been viewed well over a million times--and I bet most times happened in schools.

Our state standards don't help much. By 8th grade, students should be able to "explain that all matter is made of atoms."

Well, what is an atom?  Turns out you really don't need to know. Oh, by 12th grade you need to know a few basic parts, but you still don't know what an atom is.

Ask someone, anyone, to draw an atom. Most will draw something, probably something like this:

If I were to draw a picture of an atom to a similar scale, say 6 inches across, on a piece of paper, this is what it would look like:

Space. Empty space.Few high school kids know this, and even fewer know why we think this. The situation is even worse among grown-ups.

My grandfather was 12 years old in 1910, old enough to read, just a few years shy of running away from home to go fight in the Great War. Electrons had been postulated just a few years earlier.

Around the same time, one of the great experiments of our time, and one that is fairly easy to grasp, was conducted by Ernest Rutherford. Remember, the concept of atoms having more than one part was still new, and atoms were viewed as a tiny blob of positive mass with electrons studded throughout (another story for another time).

Rutherford wanted to get to know a little bit more about atoms, so he (well, his underlings, anyway) shot tiny particles (the catechism says "alpha particles") through exceedingly  thin pieces of gold foil, fully expecting them to pass through slight deflections by the gold atoms. He could see where each particle ended up by using a screen that lit up when hit by particles, the same way older televisions worked.

Now what's the point?
To understand how this works, imagine shooting a rifle at a mound of loose snow: one expects some bullets to emerge from the opposite side with a slight deflection and a bit of energy loss depending on how regularly the pile is packed. One can deduce something about the internal structure of the mound if we know the difference between the initial (before it hits the pile) and final (after it emerges from the pile) trajectories of the bullet. If the mound were made of loose, powdery snow, the bullets would be deflected very little; if the bullets were deflected wildly, we might guess that there was a brick of hard material inside.
from Medium Energy Ion Scattering laboratory, Rutgers University

So what happened?

Just about every particle went right through the foil like it wasn't there. About 1 in 8000 got deflected like it hit a proverbial brick wall.

"It was almost as if you fired a fifteen-inch shell at a piece of tissue paper and it bounced back and hit you."

Ernest Rutherford
No one's seen an atom--we only see the effects of particles bent this way or that. The classic atom pictured above never existed. It's not real, it's a story. A special story, molded to fit what we know of our natural world, but still a story.

That is the nature of science, not catechism. There is no Temple of Science (despite our culture's deep religious belief that that Temple exists). We don't get to vote on it, we don't to pick and choose our results.

We do get to create better stories as we learn more about what we don't know.

I know a lot of folks got pretty excited about the God particle last week--it was like Holy Communion for the science news fetishists, no understanding required.

 The Rutherford model has long been surpassed by better models, of course--if you're looking for a permanent reality, you won't find it in science. Maybe Father Kelly can help you, though....

Sunday, July 8, 2012

"Certainty is absurd"

"NSTA’s most serious and profound concern with the NGSS first public draft is the explicit omission of nature of science."
National Science Teachers Association's comments on NGSS draft

"Trapped," xkcd, of course!

My grasp of the world is as tenuous as anyone else's, but I enjoy not knowing things, especially not knowing things that may be knowable, maybe for the same reason I like digging holes.

I may be about to dig myself into a deep one.

High school science teachers complain about the magical thinking that permeates our schools and our culture, and we like to blame everybody that has had a hand in a child's life before they walk into our classrooms.

This is, of course, far easier (not to mention more satisfying) than recognizing that all of us are hanging onto reality by skin of our teeth (or rather by the fields of electrons--vast empty space--that we perceive as the surface of tartar).

The Next Generation Science Standards are careening towards implementation. The National Science Teachers Association, which I thought had a primary role in developing the standards, has woken up:

The appropriate grade level for students to learn a particular science concept in the NGSS should not differ from the recommendations in the National Science Education Standards and Benchmarks for Science Literacy unless there is published research that provides evidence in favor of the move.

That Achieve, Inc.,  even needs to be told that more than once highlights the core issue here. This is not about teaching science, or learning, or about children beyond preparing them for the "21st-century workplace."

If we can ignore the profiteers for the moment, we still have a problem. We all love the idea of science (like we like the idea of truth, justice, and the American Way), but we can't be much bothered to practice it.

I've talked about gravity, and I'd like to talk about it some more. Everyone sees its effects, it seems blindingly obvious, and yet we manage to screw it up in school in unacceptable ways.

(It's perfectly fine to screw up concepts in acceptable ways--science does this routinely.)

From Shorpy, 1942

When we're young, before we're so comfortable enough lying to ourselves that we believe "reality" is real, we start to put things together through language.

We tell children that gravity pulls object together.We call it the Law of Gravity. When we say this, gravity becomes as real as the objects it pulls. And maybe that's OK.

When we say this, though, we also teach children that gravity is something independent of objects, and this is confusing, because it's not true.

It would make more sense (at the elementary school level) to call it the Law of Objects. Material objects "pull" on all other material objects. [Yes, of course, this is Newtonian and simplistic--we're talking about 8 years olds.]
Doubt is not a pleasant condition,
but certainty is absurd.

That objects behave this way makes no sense. Kids (and their teachers) could have a lot of fun pondering that together. It flips the idea of school science on its head--the more we learn, the less we know. We bend kids to see the world with certainty, and something breaks.

This may be a trivial concept to memorize, but it's an amazingly difficult concept to internalize. Everything made of stuff is attracted to everything else made of stuff.  And the teacher has no good idea why.

Too many folks are certain they can "fix" American education (and about a whole lot of other things). A lot of folks know they know more than I do, and I'm not going to argue the point. That would be absurd.

In the meantime, I'm going to go teach science while I still can.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The suits don't own us: Independence Day

Last year's post revisited. I liked it then, and I like it now.

"...[A]t the length truth will out."

I love the Fourth of July. Today we feasted on the first local tomatoes, a completely different beast than the imposters sitting on your grocery shelves. I ate a peach that grew less than two miles from here, its impossibly sweet juice leaving a puddle at my feet. The basil grows like weeds in July. In July, the grasshopper makes more sense than the ant.

America is a great place to be if you have a patch of land and love to eat. Jefferson said each of us should have a patch of land if democracy was to flourish. That we mostly don't, and that democracy mostly doesn't, is no accident.

This American experiment has withstood greedy yahoos in the past, and if we keep our wits about us, will withstand the current nonsense the people in suits.

America never was about the people in suits. The powerful know this, but hoi polloi occasionally forget, which is how we get into messes like the current nonsense with NCLB, a child of doublespeak and magical thinking.


Science tolerates neither.

When a child learns how to think rationally, how to discern what's real from what's not, and even more important, learns to treasure truth, demagoguery dies.

Teaching matters for a lot of reasons. Preserving the thin thread of democracy in its agonal breaths here in a land bought and paid for by Arne and Eli and Bill matters.

History matters. Science matters. Art matters. Language matters. Vocational arts matter. (Really, Arne, when was the last time you fixed anything?)

For all the labels that divide us, promoted by a class that feeds our divisions to enhance their power, we're most of us are still united by our belief in the land and our Constitution.

Crispus Attucks
gave up his life in 1770--read his history. This country was not founded by the suits. The land belongs to us.

Yes, I know that's George, not Tom.... 
Pictures by Leslie. North Cape May rocks.